EXCLUSIVE: Tonight’s Sundance kickoff film, After The Wedding, fits a festival emphasis on inclusion and diversity. Even though director Bart Freundlich didn’t set out to do that when he made a film inspired by the 2006 Danish film by Susanne Bier, his decision to swap the gender of the two principal characters opened a wealth of creative complexities for the characters.
The principal characters in Bier’s Oscar-nominated film were male. Here, the leads are Michelle Williams and Julianne Moore, the latter of whom is the wife and a fixture of Freundlich’s films. Williams plays a woman who fled New York and has devoted her life to running an orphanage in the slums of Calcutta. She’s lured back to Gotham by an offer from a media mogul and philanthropist – played by Moore – to donate millions of dollars. Soon, the mogul has her accompanying her opulent Oyster Bay estate, where she is introduced to her husband (Billy Crudup) and 21-year old daughter (Abby Quinn), who’s about to get married. The mogul wants the orphanage worker to attend her daughter’s wedding, and things get complicated, with revelations that upend the lives of each woman the people who love them.
Freundlich certainly didn’t make the gender swap to suit the whims of a festival; it was basically the only way he could see to make a remake of Bier’s film worthwhile.
“I am a big fan of Susanne, and she had already made a great movie,” Freundlich told Deadline. “So what other reason was there to make this, other than doing it in a different language? I loved the emotional complexity that was there, and the fact it was primarily about these relationships among people, within this big splashy melodrama narrative.”
It was Freundlich’s Oscar winning wife who first put him on the gender swap track.
“It was first brought up to me by Julianne, as we were watching the movie. She just said, “now that’s the role I would want to play in this movie.” It was one of the guys. Of course, it went in one ear and out the other. Then one of the producers [Silvio Muraglia] brought up the idea.”
Said producer Joel Michaels: “Bart immediately understood the intention of the film, and spoke to me about the story in the way I always envisioned it. I found he tapped right into the complex psyche and psychology of all the characters. And with Julie on board, she’s an actor magnet and it easier to bring Michelle and Billy into the film.”
Freundlich took a crack at the story that way over a month, and was delighted by the results.
“It fundamentally changed so many things about the film,” he said. “So much of the movie is about being a parent. It is different, being a father, and the big surprises in the movie that got enhanced, through changing genders. I thought some of those revelations might work against me, but it added layers of complexity. The character Michelle plays was originated by Mads Mikkelsen, and the psychology made it deeper and appealing on a writing level.”
It is likely that Hollywood will be making more movies built around female protagonists and antagonists, and Freundlich found it an education to break down how much did and didn’t require alteration just because of the gender of the characters.
“I had to make certain qualities specific to being a woman, but what I didn’t have to change were the human attributes and that was rich for me to discover,” he said. “This is very much about power dynamics. My wife plays a multimillionaire business woman, and a lot of this was an exploration about what it means to be a parent, a mother, an independent person. It happened it was a really good time to remake this film, with everything that is going on in the world. But what it mostly gave me was room to discover, because Susanne had done such a good job on the original. We didn’t have to explain why this was a woman worth tens of millions of dollars, who’s also a mother and philanthropist. And that felt really positive in a way.”
Sundance has been something of a good luck charm for Freundlich, who is introducing his third film at this festival.
“It was 22 years ago that I brought my directorial debut, The Myth of Fingerprints to Sundance, and during that trip I met my wife,” he said. Well actually, she’s in that film but the festival is where they became a couple. “I came back later and showed World Traveler, which had my wife and Billy Crudup in it, this after we premiered the film in Toronto. It doesn’t seem that long ago, but our kids are 21 and 17. It is nice to be back.”