William Oldroyd has a fondness for dangerous (fictional) women, as evidenced by his 2016 directorial debut Lady Macbeth (which launched Florence Pugh into the Hollywood stratosphere) and, now, by his follow-up Eileen. In both films, marginalized young female protagonists suffer in quiet, patient solitude until they’re afforded opportunities to reverse their fortunes, which often necessitate more than a bit of violence. Though the two movies couldn’t be more different in terms of style, setting, and tone, they’re bound by a dark and devious brand of feminism in which equality and liberation are prizes to be sought vigorously, and to be won through deadly force.
Debuting in theaters on Dec. 1, Eileen is an assured sophomore gem from the London-born director, who transitioned to film after an early career in opera and the theater. Starring Last Night in Soho’s Thomasin McKenzie as an unassuming employee at a 1960s Massachusetts juvenile prison and Anne Hathaway as the striking blonde physician who shakes up her workplace and world, it’s a period piece that’s equal parts throwback noir and florid melodrama. Moreover, though it initially seems to be akin to a dark riff on Todd Haynes’ Carol, Oldroyd’s latest—adapted by Ottessa Moshfegh and Luke Goebel from the former’s novel of the same name—has a whiplash-inducing twist lying in wait, and it transforms the proceedings into something far more devious and desperate than its early going suggests.
For Oldroyd, it’s confirmation that Lady Macbeth wasn’t a fluke, demonstrating his knack for evoking the social, emotional, and sexual chains that bind women, and the focus and ferocity required to break them. Also featuring standout supporting turns from Shea Whigham and Marin Ireland, the latter of whom nearly steals the show from her illustrious leads, Eileen is a superior genre film that knows its stuff and yet has a caustic and sensual attitude all its own. In advance of its theatrical debut, we spoke with the director about femme fatales, making the transition from England to America, and working with Oscar-winners.
Eileen is your second film about women who don’t take their undesirable circumstances lying down. What draws you to that specific material?
Like anybody, I’m drawn to compelling characters in works of fiction—in literature, in a play, in a movie. It’s almost coincidental that they happen to be two young women who are acting out in that sense. What drew me to Eileen first, as a character, is who she was and the things she did. Not everyone would do those things, and I find that very interesting on a psychological level. As a director, that’s great, because it gives you a lot of material to work with, with an actor, to bring this character to life.
On the page, she was so complex, so funny, so peculiar. If you’re going to spend a couple of years making a movie, you want a character with great depth to explore, and we have that with Eileen.
Both films aren’t just about women who won’t take no for an answer—they’re also about female desire as a powerful (and potentially lethal) force.
Yes, absolutely. They’re both films about obsessed love on some level. After Lady Macbeth, the last thing I wanted to do was make another movie about a young woman and obsessive love [laughs]. Believe me, I was sent a lot of scripts and material which were exactly about that, usually set in the middle of the 19th century in some bleak manor house. Of course, I’d just done that, so I wasn’t looking for it. Yet here we are, in a wintery wonderland, somewhere just outside Boston in the early-1960s, with another young character who sees in somebody all the things that she lacks, and finds a role model that she hasn’t had up until now, because her mother passed away and her sister left and the only two women in her life—the secretaries at the prison—bitch about her to her face. She doesn’t have any friends, let alone a lover.
I find stories where you have a character in a situation where the stakes are very high and desperate something that I love personally and as a filmmaker. Because I know there’s a lot to play with.
What were you looking for in a Lady Macbeth follow-up?
Character comes first. If I can find a good character, I know I can find a good actor, and then half the job’s done, because after that, we can get the thing set up and running. Then, I suppose, it depends on what sort of story we’re telling. Thankfully with this, a large part of the attraction for me was this inner life that Eileen has, which I thought would lend itself beautifully to cinema. Because if you have an unreliable narrator, and then you remove the narrator, all you have is an unreliable film, essentially [laughs]. I liked the playfulness that we developed, which is that we see Eileen’s inner life play out in these scenarios.
Also, I’m drawn to films that not only have a great idea, but find a form that somehow matches the idea. For Lady Macbeth, it was a situation where we kept the camera very rigid because this woman was trapped in a vacuum—essentially an airless house—until she opens the window and lets air inside and then all hell breaks loose. With Eileen, it was being a little freer. The next step for me was figuring out how to move the camera and how to get into her mind, and we did that with these slow zooms which, used in the right way, did that exact job. But I wasn’t looking for a film set in the ’60s in order to employ some ’60s aesthetic. It just happened that it did have a strong time and place, and I love those stories.
Regarding Eileen’s inner life, was it important to use those sequences to interject some humor into a story that otherwise is not comedic?
Absolutely. When I read the book, I found it very, very funny. When I read Ottessa and Luke’s script, I found it very funny. I’m learning about Americans and I think probably the Boston sense of humor is quite similar to an English sense of humor. Quite dry, quite dark, and that appeals to me. It was on the page, and we had to make sure it was in the film. With any great work, you want contrast. That’s something I always try to find—the lights and the darks to keep you engaged.
Given Lady Macbeth’s acclaim and Pugh’s breakthrough, why did it take so long to get a second film made?
Lady Macbeth was very well-received in a way that I think none of us expected. As a result, a lot of ideas and stories and scripts and pitches were made. It takes a little while for that noise to die down, because that noise can be very misleading, when you start to go down a particular path and then think, this is not where I want to go at all. You’re being swept along, and the momentum is so propulsive that before you know it, you’re saying yes to things that you have no idea how to direct or make.
In a strange way, the pandemic provided everyone with a moment to stop what they’re doing, and it gave me the opportunity to do some reading. No one was at work, more or less! [laughs] So I could read for pleasure, and lo and behold, I found Eileen in that moment; it was the first book I read during my lockdown year of rest and relaxation. I absolutely loved it and Ottessa’s style, and so I approached her.
A rare upside of the pandemic.
Also, we shot the film two years ago, which is still a long time between it and Lady Macbeth, but I was determined to find the right story. The one that would captivate me as much as Lady Macbeth had in the first place. I was joking with a friend—it took me 36 years to make Lady Macbeth, so five years in-between doesn’t seem like such a long time.
Ottessa not only wrote the book but also the script. Is that a unique dynamic, to have the author directly involved in an adaptation that you might want to make in your own way?
It’s a huge benefit, and Ottessa and Luke were not just the co-screenwriters; they were also key collaborators in the sense that they produced the movie with me, they helped me cast the movie, every decision we did together, they helped me decide the look of the movie, they watched edits, and they sent back notes. Their collaboration was total. I think that is probably a little unique. It’s not unique for novelists to adapt their own work for screen, but the freedom with which Ottessa approached this was remarkable. Because she was not afraid. The book, in her mind, existed in its own right, so this was an opportunity to make something different in a new medium.
Eileen is cast as a 1950s/1960s noir crossed with a romantic melodrama. How do you stay faithful to those roots while preventing the film from devolving into pastiche?
We really wanted to avoid falling into the trap of pastiche, and every head of department, every collaborator, was very mindful of that. We were watching out for each other, and they were helping me, in that the clothes had to feel real; they didn’t want to feel like the swinging ’60s of London or Austin Powers or anything like that. They had to be real clothes. We also proceeded from the position that maybe this small coastal town outside Boston in 1963 would actually be like being in the late 1950s. Nothing would be up to date; even the music on the jukebox wouldn’t be from 1963, so the Beatles hadn’t arrived. It was music from the late 1950s.
The film hinges on Thomasin and Anne’s dynamic. When casting, how do you make sure that chemistry exists?
I spent a long time meeting them, and we talked for hours before we decided to jump into this all together. I knew in meeting Thomasin over a couple of hours of Zoom, and Anne the same, that they were broadly aligned in their interpretation. I could also see and started to understand the people they were, and how they listened and how attentive they were, and those are crucial qualities. I could see them coming together and working very well.
Furthermore, I knew from talking to Thomasin that she’s a huge fan of Anne’s, so I thought that could be useful in the sense that that’s the dynamic we see on screen. In fact, the first scene they shot together was their first date, so all the natural nerves that existed between Thomasin and Anne were there between Eileen and Rebecca. That was very useful.
The movie relocates you from your native England to Massachusetts. Was there anything you had to do to acclimate yourself to that environment?
We had a great dialect coach, and the accent we were looking for was very specific, just like Lady Macbeth is in the northeast of England, but if you go to the northeast of England, there are three to four different accents for that area. People think it’s just a Geordie accent, which is actually specific to Newcastle. But we were doing it in Northumberland, which is a very different accent to the Geordie accent, and it’s very different from the Sunderland and Durham accents. These are all in close proximity.
We found the same thing here. We didn’t want the Southie accent, which is what everybody associates, especially in England, with Boston. The Matt Damon and Ben Affleck one. Ottessa’s from Newton, just outside Boston, so she already understood the accent, even though we were looking at a coastal town. We just made it very specific to that region. Then Anne had her own ideas for Rebecca. There’s a line that she loved from the book: “If Rebecca seemed larger than life, she was.” The hair, the outfits, the way she moves, the affected smoking. The accent was part of that character she created, but that was specifically not Boston. We’re not entirely sure where she’s come from. There’s a whole conversation about whether she has a Kennedy-type English accent, like Katherine Hepburn.
She’s cosmopolitan in an unidentifiable way.
I think she’s playing on that. She says she grew up in the Midwest and she can’t stand the cold, so she’s drifted across the country and brought this accent with her. It’s a character that she’s playing to acclimatize.
Following these two films, do you feel like you have to make a guy’s-guy movie?
Actually, I think I maybe have to complete the trilogy [laughs]. But no, as long as there are strong feelings at the center of it. That’s why I was drawn to Eileen, because of this obsessive love—when it’s challenged, it can be really explosive. Whatever’s next will have a strong feeling at the center of it. Whether it’s a movie led by a man or woman, I can’t tell. But there will be some trigger in it which explodes, I’m sure of it.