Since setting out with her feature debut, Happy, Happy, Anne Sewitsky has noticed a pattern in the kinds of notes her scripts get, as a female director crafting complex, flawed female characters. “I think through all the films that we’ve made, the first comment has been, ‘We don’t like this woman,’” the director reflected recently, sitting down at Deadline’s Sundance Studio. “Well, what will make you like her?”
A favorite in Park City, Sewitsky won the festival’s World Cinema Dramatic Jury Prize for that first outing, and is back this year with Sonja: The White Swan. Produced by Synnøve Hørsdal, the biopic tells the story of Sonja Henie (Ine Marie Wilmann), a pioneer in modern figure skating in the 1930s, who left her sport and her native Norway behind, to chase her Hollywood dream. Living through an age of rampant sexism, Sonja is transformed, becoming cruel and untrusting, as manifest in her relationship with assistant Connie (Valene Kane).
For Kane—who stopped by Deadline’s studio with Sewitsky and Hørsdal—the project at hand was instantly compelling, the rare film being produced that she wanted most to see. “In the script, we saw Sonja through the eyes of Connie, and it was very rare that I’d read a script that looked at two females’ dynamic with each other, rather than around a man, or some kind of event,” the actress explained. “It was fascinating to me, the story of how these two women grew, and the development of Connie in the shadow, living vicariously through this other woman.”
Biopics are often challenging to hone, given choices that must be made as to how the story will be framed. That was the case with Sonja, the development of which proved once again that Hollywood has a ways to go, in its attitudes regarding gender. “She’s quite an exceptional character, Sonja,” Hørsdal noted. “She’s a quite unusual character, and especially for female characters, they can sometimes be difficult for the audience to accept.”
Sewitsky and her producer agree that progress has been made, along these lines. “Certainly, something has happened in the world,” Hørsdal says. “I don’t think we’re all there as yet, but at least there is a will to let females be humans, rather than a gender.”
To take a look at our conversation with the Sonja team, click above.