Working with Julianne Nicholson last year on indie drama From Nowhere, Australian writer-director Matthew Newton seems to have found a kind of muse in the actress, casting her as the lead in his Toronto Film Festival-premiering Who We Are Now.
Like Outside In—another TIFF title—the film focuses on an individual getting out of prison after a long period away, but in this case, the protagonist is, of course, female. Out of jail after 10 years, Beth seeks the help of young, passionate attorney Jess (Emma Roberts) in trying to get her son back.
“I wanted to tell a story with a strong female protagonist, and then I started thinking about identity, and I guess the way we individually can shore each other up,” Newton says, sitting down at Deadline’s TIFF studio with Nicholson, Roberts and Zachary Quinto. “Quentin Tarantino has this great thing he calls ‘hang-out films,’ where you get to know these people. I wanted to make a hang-out film where you get to meet these people, see really who they are, and slowly unveil these two women.”
Speaking of his attraction to the project, Quinto recalled seeing From Nowhere, and his experience with a “really engaging script,” as well as his first interaction with Nicholson—on the set of his first Hollywood job. “My very first job in Hollywood was like a three-line co-star on a show called The Others, which she was the star of, and my very first scene was with her,” Quinto remembers.”She was so nice, so I knew her and her work, so knowing that I’d get to work with her was a real incentive, and when I met with Matt and found out how he works, that was also a huge part of what drew me to the project.”
Like a number of other directors at the festival, including Hostiles‘ Scott Cooper, Newton has a background as an actor which informs his approach to the directing process. “Matt really understands what it is to bring characters to life, and so he brings that sensibility to the process of filmmaking in a great way. For example, we’re not always aware when the cameras are rolling, and I like that because it keeps us engaged and immersed and connected in a way that’s different than if it’s just traditional, ‘Action, cut,’” Quinto explains. “Everything is game, and Matt looks for the flaws in a performance and encourages them because they’re human. I think he really gets to the humanity of the characters that he writes in a unique and beautiful way.”
In his conversation with Deadline, Newton expanded on the importance of seeing strong, complex female characters on screen, something that also resonated strongly with his actors. “I love writing for women, I love working with two fabulous, intelligent, wonderful actresses and I’m not just saying that because they’re here—they are, and I really enjoy actually telling female stories,” he says. “I think there is a dearth—I’m a male writer-director, but we have a 95 percent female crew. I tried to write great roles for women in this movie, and I do think that it’s a really important thing to do. It’s a long time coming.”
“If I’m going to write and direct something,” the director continues, “I’m going to want to surround myself with as many strong, intelligent women as I can.”
Also at the festival with I, Tonya and Novitiate, Nicholson then took a moment to reflect on progress in the industry when it comes to the representation of women on screen. “I think there’s still a long way to go, but changes are in process, and I think there’s definitely more opportunities now for women in general, and women over the age of 30, so that feels exciting to me,” she says.
To view Deadline’s TIFF conversation with Who We Are Now director Matthew and his stars—including Julianne Nicholson, Emma Roberts and Zachary Quinto—click above.
Deadline Studio at TIFF 2017 is presented by Calii Love, Watford Group, Philosophy Canada, and Equinox. Special thanks to Dan Gunam at Calii Love for location and production assistance; and Ontario Camera for equipment assistance. Video producer: Meaghan Gable; lighting and camera: Neil Hansen; design: Dialla Kawar; sound recording: Ida Jokinen.