Based on the novel The Grandmothers by Doris Lessing
Naomi WATTS Robin WRIGHT Xavier SAMUEL James FRECHEVILLE
Sophie LOWE Jessica TOVEY Gary SWEET and
ONE LINER A beautiful, heart-wrenching and timeless story of two lifelong friends who fall in love with each other’s teenaged sons.
Nobel Prize for Literature winner Doris Lessing’s beautiful and heart-wrenching story of two lifelong friends who fall in love with each other’s teenaged sons. Two Mothers is an erotic tale of misguided love and a celebration of the enduring nature of female friendship.
Roz and Lil are the best of friends, and have been since childhood growing up as neighbours in an idyllic beach town. As adults, their teenaged sons have developed a friendship as strong as that which binds their mothers. One perfect summer the boys, along with their mothers, are confronted by the simmering emotions that have been mounting between them. Deeply emotional, Two Mothers is a story of family, sensuality, compassion, morality and above all love.
The English-speaking directorial debut from distinguished filmmaker Anne Fontaine (Coco Avant Chanel) and adapted for the screen by Academy Award®-winning writer Christopher Hampton, Two Mothers is based on Nobel Prize for Literature winner Doris Lessing’s The Grandmothers - the beautiful and heart-wrenching story of two lifelong friends who fall in love with each other’s teenaged sons.
Roz and Lil are the best of friends. They share a friendship born during childhood innocence and strengthened in the many years that follow. Growing up as neighbours in an idyllic beachside town the girls are inseparable and although sometimes feeling remote and sheltered from the outside world they find solace in sharing their dreams and fears and more than anything promising to be by one another’s side…always.
Some years on, the girls have both grown into distinctively beautiful women, they are married and each has a young son, who have subsequently become inseparable themselves. Their families’ parallel lives have only served to drive them all closer - often dining and living as one family.
When Lil’s husband Theo is unexpectedly killed in a car accident, Roz (Wright) and her son Tom (Frecheville) blanket Lil (Watts) and her son Ian (Samuel) in the support that one can only expect from lifelong family friends. It’s a heartbreaking time both for the women who in the face of loss reflect on the fragility of life and for the boys whose friendship helps Ian deal with the pain. Harold (Mendelsohn), Roz’ husband, long ago accepted the strength of the women’s bond so tries to take a back seat role in most things, including dealing with Theo’s passing.
Years pass, and as the boys finish high school and approach adulthood the complexities of their life in an isolated beach paradise begin to surface. When Harold takes a new job at a distant drama faculty, the four are left alone across one perfect summer.
Ian finally decides to reveal his true feelings for Roz, who has always played a close and compassionate guide for the sensitive young man.
While Tom witnesses the relationship between his mother and friend evolving, he faces an internal battle of his own regarding his feelings for Ian’s mother, Lil. And although the women are conflicted by their primary roles as mothers, their respective attraction for each other’s sons paired with their isolation and vulnerability sees them act on their mutual desires and succumb to a highly sensual and emotional relationship under the veil of shared secrecy.
While the relationships grow in the remote beachside town, their commitment and morality is tested as at least one of the boys inevitably seeks a life beyond the shores (and roofs) where they have been sheltered for so long. Will the distance between the young men and their lovers prove that they were all victims to relationships of convenience, or is it feasible that true love can be found from an early age and from within the circles into which we are born?
Although Doris Lessing’s novella was penned in 2003 with characters of no specific national identity, she confirms the origins of the story are in fact Australian. Director Anne Fontaine recalls Lessing saying during their first meeting that,“it was a young Australian man who one day told her the story and this young man was a friend of one of the sons. He’d told Doris he felt jealous not to live the story from inside”. Fontaine felt that was an interesting way to approach the movie.
The story is intimate, which is reflected in the tight group of characters. The overarching narrative is between the two young men and the two women, who combined are strong yet independently complex and vulnerable. Naomi Watts (Lil) points out that it’s “rare that you get two great female characters in one screenplay, particularly women rich with depth and human flaws - so right away I was compelled by this story. The audience is put in a position of having to judge these women and then make this terrific shift into actually forgiving them and willing them to embrace what’s going on.”
Whether it’s realistic, or acceptable, for two young men to fall in love with each other’s mothers is part of the inherent beauty of the script and a question that will certainly divide audiences. Xavier Samuel (Ian) feels “it is a perfectly foreseeable situation. There is something slightly dangerous about it because people have preconceptions of age and relationships but I think in this particular situation age isn’t really a factor for any of them; they’re in love and it doesn’t get much simpler than that.”
In the hands of others, perhaps the controversial nature of the material could overwhelm the human drama, but the producers point to Christopher Hampton’s writing, saying that he delivered a heartfelt script with a sensitive and light touch. And to Anne Fontaine direction, managing to avoid being judgemental while allowing viewers to feel for these flawed but ultimately very human characters.
While the notion of the relationships in Two Mothers may be taboo for some, for Fontaine it is an “optimistic love story - even if it’s not traditional situations - because these characters are honest about their feelings and although afraid sometimes, they don’t stop and say, no, it’s not possible.”
ABOUT THE CHARACTERS
LIL – NAOMI WATTS Watts plays Lil, who is “a bit of a dreamer” as Watts describes her. “She’s a beautiful character and she’s grown up and done the right thing thus far by her family. She has a fantastic friend in Roz and when her husband dies at the outset of the movie things begin to shift.”
Lil has always relied on Roz for strength. Although physically fit and good at sports as a child, Lil was always more vulnerable than Roz. As the boys begin to grow up and threaten to flee the nest “there’s this loneliness that is about to come upon us and the fact that we’re both in the same place - our age and what we’re going through emotionally – these relationships become a way to stay connected. There is something wrong with it, but yet you understand it” describes Watts.
It was an easy decision for Watts to become involved with the production, having longed to work on home soil again for many years. Finding material she believed in provided the immediate incentive to return to Australia. After years of working overseas, Watts explains “one of the greatest things about being in this film is doing it with my own accent. Robin has done an incredible job with her voice, she’s really, really amazing. I see her walking around with her iPod … an accent is something that you really have to be thinking about all the time. Although it’s fun working with other accents, I’ve now learned that it’s really fun working with my own.”
On working with Wright for the first time, Watts is excited: “Robin is an actress that I’ve admired for a very long time and it’s just amazing watching her work, there’s never a false moment with her. “
ROZ – ROBIN WRIGHT Wright plays Roz, the mother of Tom (Frecheville), and best friend to Lil (Watts). Roz and Lil remain in the small beach community they grew up in as kids, and now take pride in watching their young boys enjoy many of the beachside adventures they too shared.
Roz is the stronger of the two women, “the practical one”. Being a little bit taller when kids, and maturing earlier than Lil, Roz “is the ringleader and she knows that”, says Wright. Her role within the foursome is to question what is right, and to take full accountability for their actions. And “what one does when you’re accountable – you right the wrongs”.
Roz is the first in the film to question the appropriateness of their respective relationships. But like the other characters she struggles with the love she feels for Ian. In describing her role Wright tells us “this feels like an innocent love in that when you have that first puppy love nothing else exists, there’s nothing comparable. So without it, it’s death. And because as adults they have never had this, it almost sneaks up and surprises them.”
Even the love between the women is unique explains Wright - “It’s very perverse, if you think of it by the book. The conservative handbook I mean of love and what’s proper and what’s ethical. But the love that these two women have for each other is … they are each other’s skin. And to have that kind of unspoken bond - that’s forever.”
IAN – XAVIER SAMUEL Samuel plays Ian, the son of Lil (Watts). “He’s the fragile one”….
….“I think primarily he’s quite an introspective character. Of the main four characters, Lil, Roz, Tom and Ian, I think he’s probably the most emotional as well, and he finds it the hardest to move on from his relationship with Roz”, Samuel explains.
Early in the film Ian loses his father in a tragic accident, which weighs heavy on the young man. While his best friend Tom is emotionally stronger and more stable, Ian wears his heart on his sleeve and feeds off the emotional support offered by those close to him. It’s not hard then to understand why he falls in love with Roz, who like his best friend is much stronger than he and provides him the support and comfort he so desperately needs.
TOM – JAMES FRECHVILLE Tom on the other hand is lead by his head, which explains how the two complement each other and share an unshakeable relationship. “The relationship between Tom and Ian is strong because they’ve shared many rites of passage. Like most boys, they’re competitive in some ways, but are also of immense support to one another” says Frecheville.
Frecheville plays Tom, the son of Roz (Wright) and Harold (Mendelsohn). “Tom is the rock.
Tom’s a very lackadaisical and laid back sort of fellow. Appearing strong he compartmentalises his emotions. So while he has a more defined opinion of what is right and wrong, Ian’s relationship with Roz is validation of his own rousing feelings for Lil”, describes Frecheville. Like Ian, he shares an undeniable love for his friend’s mother, and allows himself to act on this.
Tom is an aspiring theatre director, and with the support and encouragement from Harold, Tom moves away from his hometown to pursue a career in theatre. Despite his attempts to move on from Lil, and start a family of his own he struggles to sever the deeply formed ties to his friend’s mother.
Although it’s his first time working with Watts and Wright, The Mothers provided the opportunity for Frecheville to work alongside his Animal Kingdom co-star Ben Mendelsohn once again. An opportunity he jumped at given the strong bond the duo formed whilst filming Animal Kingdom. “We already have somewhat of a paternal relationship (given he played my uncle in Animal Kingdom) so there is a proximity and a familiarity with each other. I’ve a huge amount of love and respect for Ben and so it was a great opportunity to work with him again”, comments Frecheville.
HANNAH – SOPHIE LOWE Lowe plays the counter love interest to Samuel’s Ian. She is “very sweet and innocent and falls in love with Ian long before he acknowledges her” details Lowe.
For many years its been an unrequited love, but once Tom leaves town and the couples decide to attempt to move on, Hannah becomes visible to Ian – which understandably excites the young lady.
She’s so blinded by her love for Ian that she does not pick up on the many signs that his heart perhaps belongs elsewhere. So when she learns the truth it’s almost unbelievable to her. She has invested all her energy into being the good wife and fulfilling her picture perfect marriage that she’s completely blindsided by the revelations which follow.
MARY – JESSICA TOVEY Mary plays a fairly poignant role, albeit it a smaller one, in the film. “Mary comes into the film halfway through and is the counter love interest to Tom (Frecheville). She’s the first thread that unravels this beautiful relationship that’s been created between the four main characters” explains Tovey.
“The more that I spoke to Anne about the role, the more I realised how similar I was to Mary. I actually found that more challenging than playing someone completely different to myself - it’s quite difficult to find the subtle things that make you different ” says Tovey.
For Mary the story is about betrayal: “it’s not about the women being older or the boys younger or whether they have known each other forever, it’s the betrayal: you’ve lied to me and have lied through five years of marriage together” says Tovey. Tovey points out the film is less concerned with taboos and more with universal themes of honesty, loyalty and betrayal.
SAUL – GARY SWEET
Saul is played by Sweet, and is a local man in the beach town who has strong feelings for Lil. “I think Saul has been smitten with Naomi’s character forever. Even during the time that she was married. One of the first lines I have is that I ‘never really got the point of her husband’. I think Saul feels he can provide her with much more stability and love and security than she ever had with her husband” describes Sweet.
Saul is eternally optimistic that sooner or later Lil will realise that he’s a good option for her. He’s anxious to look after her following the death of her husband, but is intimidated by Lil’s all consuming relationship with Roz and their young boys. He’s also not so smart, suggests Sweet “because he suspects that the reason Lil isn’t interested in him is because, he thinks, she’s probably a lesbian.”
HAROLD – BEN MENDELSOHN Mendelsohn plays the role of Harold. “He’s the husband of Roz, played by Robin Wright, and the father of James Frecheville’s character, Tom. He’s a fairly stable, benign part of their family and he has ideas about where the family should be going and what they should be doing, which are crowded out by the strength of the relationship between the two women” shares Mendelsohn.
Harold is an academic. He teaches drama at the local high school. When offered a much more interesting job at Sydney University, he naturally expects his family to follow his move – and will be more than shocked to learn that Roz wants to stay in their nest by the beach. This will be the first step to a reasonably amicable separation...
But a few years later, Harold finds – more or less willingly - a way to retaliate, by pushing his son Tom to go after his occupational dreams, and come work with him in Sydney. In doing so, Harold starts a chain of events, eventually leading to the end of the secret affairs.
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
Headed by Anne Fontaine’s long time producing partner, Philippe Carcassonne, and Hopscotch Productions’ Andrew Mason, Two Mothers is a Hopscotch Features, Ciné-@, Mon Voisin Productions, Gaumont and France 2 Cinéma production.
With Gaumont distributing in France and handling International Sales, the film is part financed by Screen Australia and Screen NSW. Two Mothers was shot on film over an eight-week period in and around Sydney, Australia, with the first six-and-a-half weeks on location in the small beachside community of Seal Rocks, north of Sydney, and the final week and a half in Sydney and its coastal suburbs.
Initial development of the film began when French co-producers, Dominique Besnehard and Michel Feller optioned the rights for Doris Lessing’s novella. Soon after, they took the project to Anne Fontaine and Philippe Carcassonne and the initial plan was for a French language film. However it became clear that the characters who drive this story, and their specific behaviour, required an Anglo-Saxon setting. Although initially considering South Africa as a filming location, it was after Doris Lessing confirmed the Australian origin of the story that the focus shifted to Australian shores. The relationship then developed with Hopscotch Productions’ Andrew Mason, and the production was soon underway.
Describing the process of settling on Seal Rocks as the first shoot location, Producer Andrew Mason explains, “In doing location scouting, the team surveyed beach environments all over Australia. Seal Rocks was finally selected because it provided the two houses needed as central locations quite close to each other, and the beach environment on the doorsteps. That made it possible to be based there for six weeks and then be able use the best location for the weather that we had on each day.” Producer Philippe Carcassonne further praises the Seal Rocks location saying that “at the same time it was so varied and rich that we managed to have all the moods that are at play in the script without changing location, and I can’t think of any other country or spot where we would have that paradoxical quality of being in the same place and yet having an ever changing landscape everyday.”
Not only was the location important from the aesthetic viewpoint for the film but the natural environment is an uncredited character in the film. Director Anne Fontaine acknowledges the wild and untamed environment as a catalyst for the unconventional love that evolves. “While I think it’s because they are so sensual, I think that it’s the sea, it’s the incredible beaches, the surf and all the nature around them as a kind of character that makes everything possible. It would be not possible to set this story in a city where everybody constantly looks at everybody”.
While the location shoot was in hindsight a relatively easy process, the development and preparation process was “longer than when you do a film in France because we had to wait for the right season in order to do the right surveys. And at one point we were grounded by the famous volcanic cloud that stopped all air traffic for around a month. So we’ve been at it, but doing other things at the same time, for a couple of years. I must have made three films since we started developing this one. Anne has made one”, explains producer Philippe Carcassonne.
While the great majority of films are now shot digitally, there was a conscious decision to shoot Two Mothers on film, and to use anamorphic lenses to give the film a classic, softer look. Director of Photography Christophe Beaucarne explains that “with the highlights of the landscape, and the sea with its reflections, to shoot in HD is tricky. Also we wanted the film definition; when shooting with anamorphic it’s like you’re shooting in 8k, and the definition is amazing. Digital shooting is also not really the best for the skin tone when going for this more classic feel.” Beaucarne is credited not only as DOP on Two Mothers but also as camera operator – perhaps an unusual choice these days but one that Beaucarne says he not only prefers but was necessary for the bi-lingual shoot, “…because it’s too long to explain to a separate camera operator (in English) what Anne wanted to do. Also I create in a way when I’m framing, I’m constantly changing and having new ideas as I frame. I need to operate also, to be in the reality of the story.” Beaucarne saw his role, both as DOP and camera operator, to be an extension of Fontaine’s direction and to capture exactly what was desired visually.
Not wanting to be identifiably French nor uniquely Australian, the objective was the make a film that has universal appeal and although shot in Australia could take place anywhere. The film needed to be timeless, classic and all encompassing.
The combination of European and Australian filmmakers provided a unique platform in achieving this. Foreigner’s views and outlook on the country vary greatly from the perception of someone who grew up in Australia. “Having a French director and DOP provided the added advantage of a different perspective on Australian society. They see the light and react to the natural environment differently, in a way that shapes the film to be more universal - something beyond purely Australian productions” notes Mason.
While Mason has worked with a variety of directors, he says that Anne’s process differs to some of his previous experiences in that “she spends time in preparation making sure that she knows where the camera will go and how the cast should be choreographed on every individual location. She likes to spend as much of the shooting time as she can working with the actors to elicit the best performance.” With a mostly Australian (English speaking) cast, however language did not thwart communication efforts on the production. Although initially anticipating her English-speaking directorial debut to be a challenge, Fontaine came to realise “it’s the same feelings that you are looking for. If you have the contact with the story and if you feel the story from inside, you know how to help the actors. And they are such great actors that it’s very subtle things I have to do with them.” Many of the actors noted the directness of Fontaine’s communication (due to English being her second language), which Naomi Watts described as a blessing - “having been acting for20 years now, I don’t need the sugar coating, it’s great to just call it like it is and say it out loud.”
While Australians consider it normal to do considerable post-sync recording of dialogue, Anne prefers to keep as much of the original dialogue as possible, says Andrew Mason. “But one of the difficulties of filming in a beachside location, and that includes the interiors of the houses and many other shots, is that you constantly have the surf in the background and that became quite an issue, quite a difficult thing to deal with after while, that pressure of never being able to really have clean sound”, Mason recollects. “An heroic effort from the Sound Recordist (Brigitte Taillandier) and extensive work in Post Production from Supervising Sound Editor Francis Wargnier and Sound Designer Peter Miller resulted in a truly honest recoding of these wonderful performances”.
The first four weeks of the shoot in particular faced some quite extreme weather conditions in Australia. Shot over summer, traditionally one could expect fairly stable, warm weather – ideal for outdoor locations. Yet, upon arriving in Seal Rocks production was hit with unprecedented rain and windy weather conditions. As Carcassonne recalls, “The shooting could have been a nightmare with regards to the weather. But (a) we’ve been very privileged compared to the rest of Australia this summer I believe, and (b) the spot where we shot most of our exteriors was somewhat protected most of the time. And at the end of the day it was more about fearing the rain or the storm or the flood than actually experiencing all these ordeals, and I think that when you look at the film you’ll have a hard time telling that the entire country seemed to be under water for most of that summer.”