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“Television is more suited to tell women’s stories”: A conversation with Frances McDormand

Publié par Marion Coste le 23/03/2020

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Frances McDormand, an American actress and producer, was invited to the Festival Lumière in Lyon in 2019. She gave a Masterclass in which she talked about being an actress in Hollywood, gender representation and the inclusion rider.

Ecoutez la masterclass dans son intégralité

Didier Allouche: When preparing for this type of interview, I try to zoom in on one particular trait, something that is recurrent in the actor’s work. It’s not easy for you because there are a lot of things coming back: the strength of the character, her determination, feminism, the subtlety in your acting… But I chose one: independence. Something always drives your characters toward independence.

Frances McDormand: […] I never thought of it that way, but I think that may have to do with the first half of my professional life, when I was playing supporting roles to male protagonists. I’m wondering if part of what you feel about independence in my work has to do with my striving towards making [the male characters] fuller; I was maybe making them too interesting, especially at the beginning of my professional life.

[…] Since Olive Kitteridge, since my child left home, and after a certain number of years making sure that I was in New York doing theater while he was in school and then doing roles in the summer, I have decided that I wanted to play the protagonist. I starting developing Olive Kitteridge two years before my son left home, knowing that I would be bereft and needing something to do, and boy did I get it.

Didier Allouche: Do you think this is when your career started changing?

Frances McDormand: I want to say that my most defining roles were with Joel and Ethan but they were only some of them. What is always really gratifying for me, even though on my tombstone, it will say “Marge Gunderson“, is that I have done other things with a lot of other people. I do feel like I have the opportunity now, and it is deeply gratifying that it began in my mid-50s, as a woman in my profession, and that I was actually able to take on larger roles in films, carry them and develop them, and I am not going to stop.

Didier Allouche: What made me interested in the idea of independence in your filmography is the fact that you mostly played in independent films.

Frances McDormand: We like to call it independent. In reality, now that we are old enough to look back on it, what was happening – and what is still happening, because I have worked with a few young filmmakers recently – was that there was this group of extraordinary filmmakers who were making films outside “the studio system”, and they were successful and making money. Large studios started making their “specialty departments” to make sure they would get some of those profits. Now, the new generation of independent filmmakers are being hired for Marvel films. I remember when we went to Sundance with Blood Simple (1985): no one went to see the movies, they were skiing. They sent their assistants to the screenings, and since there were no cellphones at the time, nobody made deals.

At that time, there were independent film theaters: people actually owned and programmed the theaters. The cinemas that we go to now and love are the ones that have real programmers and program all-year events with films you actually want to see. I wonder if it might come full circle in a way, because we know what this feels like: there is nothing like being in a room with 5,000 people watching a movie. It is like the Roman Coliseum, it has that kind of weight and grandeur. I think the “evil overlords” of Netflix, Amazon and Apple will start buying theaters and start showing their films because it cannot be denied.

Didier Allouche: What is like being an actress in the age of Netflix?

Frances McDormand: It’s probably more pertinent to my life as a producer than my life as an actress. I was very fortunate to work with HBO when they were still making the kinds of work that Olive Kitteridge became. They had – and I am hoping they still have – the ethos of taking literature to film. We were held by that idea when we developed Olive Kitteridge over three years. What I learned was that they have their huge projects, and that every three years, there would be a little leftover in the underwear drawer, which they would throw that at a smaller project, such as Olive Kitteridge. When they ask me in the room, what they want me to say is that I only need 5 million dollars. Now, I want a lot more. I don’t mean as an actor, but for the whole project. I want a lot more.

There was a confluence of events when I first read the novel of Olive Kitteridge; I had just seen The Wire, and it was an extraordinary event for me because it was the first time I saw the power of long-format television. I have a theory, which I think has foundation: a 90-minute film is not capable of telling a female story. Most film genres are male-driven: they are very linear, they have the same structure, the same tropes. But long-format television is, I believe, the way that women’s lives are lived, which is not linear: they are much more circular, we go off-piste, we come back around, we go down the road a little and then back up, maybe we take a little here, maybe a little there, we take a few people on, drop a few people off… It’s never that linear. For Olive Kitteridge, we took our time telling her story over thirty years: how do you tell that story in 90 minutes?

In the past few years, there have been a lot of theatrical events that are six to nine hours long, and for me it’s heaven: you have a little coffee, you go in for three hours; you have a little lunch, then you go back for three hours; then you have a little dinner and you go back for three hours. You get to experience the entire world that has been created for you. I always wished they would give Olive Kitteridge a theatrical release, because I believe that’s the way we watch things now. I can stay at home and watch two seasons of Fleabag – with pee and coffee breaks – and it’s heaven.

Didier Allouche: Do you consider yourself a champion of independent cinema?

Frances McDormand: I am forever grateful for so many things, but I am especially grateful for having begun my career with Joel and Ethan Cohen – my second job out of school was Blood Simple, and it was almost everyone’s first film. I mean, I had more experience than Joel and Ethan did, which wasn’t saying much. Their world was, and continues to be, a very collaborative process: they are the collective brain and the leadership, but we were all part of the generation of the project. It was like being in a drama school, in film school.

Didier Allouche: You often say you were hoping that all the projects you would be doing after Blood Simple were going to be like this. In the end, was one of them like this?

Frances McDormand: I went to drama school – I have a Masters from the Yale School of Drama – but we had no classes in films or video and I was going to be a classical stage actress. But then I got a role in Blood Simple. They are the only people who cast me in a film until Mississippi Burning; but I only got cast in Mississippi Burning because I was doing Stella in A Tramway Named Desire on Broadway and the producer of that recommended me for the auditions. It helped me understand acting, because I had no training in acting in film. On Blood Simple, I was very concerned about overacting. For instance, a friend of mine from college saw the film and said “I love the choice you made of just standing there with your mouth open”. I said that it wasn’t a choice, I was just afraid of overusing my face. The great gift with Mississippi Burning was that I had been using the larger muscles of acting; being able to use my body from head to toe on stage, and then dialing that down to a subtler version of the character for film.

Another thing that is interesting on Mississippi Burning is that because I had worked with Joel and Ethan Cohen and because I have done theater work consistently throughout my professional life, I always assume that I am a part of the process. I have a great picture that Alan Parker, the director, gave me of me sitting next to him on an apple box with my mouth open because I was babbling about the creative process of the film. […] It’s basically a cowboy story: two white guys riding in town, there are faceless victims being tortured and killed, there is an informant and I get involved helping solving the case for these two FBI guys. In the script that I read, my character has sex with the FBI guy and then tells him the identity of one of the murderers. When asked, I said that it would take away the credibility of the main character because he takes advantage of an abused young woman. In the next version of the script I got, she told him, and then they had sex. I said to them “Great try, but how about we try it this way, with no sex?” There was a stolen kiss filmed in the back, in the dark: it was a compromise, but at least, I felt very good about the credibility of the characters. […]

When I saw the film again, I was looking at that scene of the stolen kiss: it reminded me about the conversation that we have now about young people in different professions who felt they have been put into compromising situations and in some cases, it is clear in retrospect that there has been abuse and it is criminal. In other cases, there are these very grey areas: “Was I being taken advantage of? Or wasn’t I?” I looked at that scene and I thought: “No, I wasn’t being taken advantage of, I knew exactly what I was doing”. But I also know that I was young enough to be my co-actor’s daughter and that he kind of looked like my father. It was very difficult to have that stolen kiss. At the time, I thought I couldn’t compromise his masculinity by allowing him to know that I found this uncomfortable.

Trailer for Mississippi Burning, 1988
Source: Youtube, Movieclips Classic Trailers)

Didier Allouche: You have done eight or nine movies with the Cohen brothers now; how can such a close and long-lasting collaboration evolve and change? 

Frances McDormand: I have to say, I have learned so much about marriage from them. Joel and I are working on a project together, without Ethan: it will be the first time Joel will be making a film without Ethan. For the first time, I am privy to the early parts of the development and the design of the project. The other day, after a meeting, Joel sat me down and said: “1) sometimes, it’s better to listen than to talk. 2) If I’m not talking, it means I’m thinking.. 3) You have to understand that I’ve had a very close relationship with Ethan, we understand each other, sometimes to the point that nothing has to be said”. And I said: “Trust me, I know”. It’s like watching friends who have been a couple for so long, as Joel and I have for 36 years: you see them in the kitchen, and nobody bumps into each other, nobody spills anything, nobody cuts themselves with a knife, etc… That happens with Joel and I on a set – not in a kitchen! The best way to understand Joel and Ethan is to in fact know that there are so many different processes and that they have two different brains that combine into one outside of themselves. And at each step of the process – the writing process, pre-production process, production, editing, distributing and marketing – there is a dance and they have a very collaborated, calculated, choreographed dance that is collective.

But I know for a fact that you can separate them: if there is a strength, it’s just who they are. Ethan has a literary mind, he writes novels, poems, plays – four of his plays are on stage right now in Los Angeles – he has the world of literature. And Joel is visionary: he makes optical boxes inside which there is a diorama and it’s his artwork. If you had to separate the two real strengths, I would say Ethan is from the literary world and Joel the visual world.

Didier Allouche: Where are you in the middle of that?

Frances McDormand: I said to Joel, a couple of wedding anniversaries ago and after a couple martinis: “Am I your muse?” And he said “No”. Personally, I’d rather be his producer. […].

Didier Allouche: But they gave you great roles.

Frances McDormand: So many great roles! For better or worse, I’ve been watching their films and I saw Fargo the other day, for the first time in a long time, and I presented it to the audience as our “family film”. I was not pregnant when I played Marge Gunderson, but we were expecting: we were in an adoption process, and we knew that in two months, we would meet our son. The time we spent on the film was full of the expectation of meeting him and our lives changing. The last scene in Fargo is when Marge and Norm are in bed and he says: “Two more months, Margie, two more months”. And it was indeed two more months for us; there was not a dry eye on the set.

It’s not that Joel and Ethan don’t love sentiment – what filmmaker wouldn’t? They love sentiment – but they hate sentimentality, and they attempted something at the end of Raising Arizona, which was similar to what they did in Fargo: there’s this future, and this future involves children and our nurturing of children. It worked in Fargo, because it was full of this real expectation […].

Didier Allouche: How do you work with other filmmakers? What can you tell us about Darkman by Sam Raimi, for instance?

Frances McDormand: A little side story first: Joel and Ethan were living with Sam Raimi in Los Angeles; they had gone to Los Angeles to sell Blood Simple. We filmed it in ’82, finished it in ’83 and in ’84 they went out to try and sell it. They were living in a one-bedroom apartment; I had been driving from New York to Minneapolis, where I was doing Three Sisters at the Guthrie Theatre, and then drove to meet Joel in L.A. I moved in to the one-bedroom apartment: Joel and I got the bedroom because we were a couple, the other two were sleeping on the floor. For me that lasted two weeks, and I hit the road looking for a larger place to live. I found it and we moved into this great house – I lived with Sam for six months, and we all lived together for maybe four months. There was one point where we couldn’t pay the phone bill and Sam – this was before Darkman – did a small film and put all three of us on it so that we would make the money to pay for the phone bill.

Joel and Sam had met because Joel was working for a commercial editor whom I paid homage to in Hail Caesar! Edna was her name, and Joel met Sam because she was editing Evil Dead.

Sam had gotten a lot of criticism for his first films, the Evil Dead films, because of its treatment of women. We had a lot of talks about it and I showed him no sympathy, saying that he should do something about that. It was a huge thing for Sam to get the money to make Darkman. That was quite a coup. I auditioned, I met Liam and the studio agreed to cast me. But I felt it was part of my job to help Sam with that criticism he had gotten. Even though the character that I played was the girlfriend of the superhero and ended up handcuffed to a girder with tape over her mouth, waiting to be rescued, I tried to make my muffled screams as confident as possible. But that was not the job – the job was to be the damsel in distress and it would have been so much better if I had thought more about that.

Darkman was made before CGI, it was still very cinematic, it was done live – literally to the point where Sam would want us to try things and I would say: “Sam, it’s not a comic book: I can’t fall, go flat, and then pop back up”. I would go home and say to Joel: “He thinks I’m a puppet”, and Joel would say: “Yeah, you are: in these kind of films, that’s what it is”. That was a very good lesson for me to learn.

Being in Wes Anderson’s world is very similar, in the way that there is a world to enter and there are rules to this world and you play by them. And I’m not that suited to it. It’s almost like I get actor’s dyslexia: I lead with something a little bit more organic, not with all the technical aspects. It’s harder for me to fill the role organically afterwards.

Didier Allouche: Let’s talk about Hidden Agenda by Ken Loach. Why did you say yes to this film?

Frances McDormand: It’s a perfect segue because I was working on Darkman when I met Ken. He was raising money for Hidden Agenda with a now very dear old friend, Eric Fellner, who is one of the partners at Working Title. They were told that they would have to get “a name”. I was not a name, but because of Darkman, there was this feeling that perhaps they were going to be able to say that I was soon going to be a name and that they could negotiate with that. I did not become a name, people still couldn’t spell it. They sent Ken to L.A. to meet me; I picked him up in my rental car because he didn’t spend the money on a rental car. When he got in the car – this was when the seatbelts had just started to automatically go up for you when you close the door –he completely freaked out and said: “That’s so fascist!”. So we got on very well. What began for me then, and still continues to this day, is that although I love Sam and it was important to work on Darkman, I have to redeem myself in some way.  That’s what working with Ken did: it was the exact opposite, except for the fact that they are both auteur filmmakers. It was very different, and I followed him into Northern Ireland with complete trust. I still tend to do a larger project, which I may be doing because of the money or the location, and the next thing I do is a play off-off-off Broadway play or I meet a young Production Assistant on a movie and I do a little short film for them.

The redemption thing has nothing to do with me as an actor – when I said I followed Ken with total trust in Northern Belfast, that was probably a mistake, and a very naïve one on my part.  It was a film about Northern Ireland, and what I understood in retrospect is that he cast us very well: he cast myself, Brad Dourif and two other actors and we were to be a kind of United Nations group who went to interview people about their civil rights. We were actually in Belfast, in the middle of the Troubles, and the first assignment was to interview actual people who had safe houses, had already been incarcerated or had been involved in some kind of warfare. The first thing we filmed was back in London, and he set up a press meeting with actual journalists who had been covering the Troubles in Northern Ireland. We had to represent the interviews we had just done to actual journalists. Basically, I was very innocent of the intricacies of what was happening politically in Northern Ireland: it was perfect for him because he could mold me in the way that he needed to for the film.

It’s part of the structure of the way he tells stories: he often casts non-professionals, he doesn’t give them the script, he likes to have the spontaneity of live interaction. He cast some actors in the film – myself and Brian Cox – but also non-professional actors. He did give us the script, I told him he could trust me and still make him believe I don’t know what is going to happen even though I did. I adore him. I think there is a wide range of his films and there are many young filmmakers that are very interested in that kind of film. They are not interested in working with actors, they want to work with non-professionals. Chloé Zhao, for instance, who made The Rider last year, is working in that world. Ken is able to do a hybrid film, where he casts professionals and non-professionals: I’m not sure it always works, but he has developed a way of making that successful.

Didier Allouche: Some of your characters resonated with audiences all over the world, such as Marge in Fargo, the mother in Almost Famous, Mildred in Three Billboards, Olive Kitteridge… Kelly Reichardt, who directed Certain Women, said it is incredibly difficult to tell women’s stories that are not the usual ones. Do you agree with that, and do you think things are changing?

Frances McDormand: […] Long format television has changed that. It was evident ten years ago that there were really interesting female characters whose stories were being told on television, not in films. It’s about money and a lack of imagination. I’ve been trying to work this out for a long time […] I think part of the problem is about failure and success: women storytellers are not given the opportunity to fail. They can succeed, but they can only fail once. Male storytellers can fail three times at least and still be given money to make another film. And it’s not just women, it’s people of color: they have rich and authentic stories but they have to have people in power who are interested and who allow them to fail more than once.

I was just reading an article about women gaining power in the workplace. The advice that we are often given is to be more assertive, not to make apologies for ourselves, and to try to win in a competitive situation by whatever means possible; this woman [in the article] was positing the possibility that we use what we are better at, which is that an apology is power, that assertiveness can be assaultive and that competition can be collective, and not singular. Instead of trying to adopt more standard male roles of business, we should teach them ours.


Didier Allouche: Your speech at the Oscars, when you won for Three Billboards, is unforgettable. You asked the other women nominated to stand up and there were only ten of them…

Frances McDormand: No, there was one representative in every category except in special effects.

Didier Allouche: You finished your speech with the “inclusion rider” ((The Washington Post defines the inclusion rider as “a stipulation that the cast and/or the crew in a film reflect real demographics, including a proportionate number of women, minorities, LGBTQ individuals and people with disabilities. Big-name actors who have leverage in negotiations could put this stipulation into their contracts and drastically change representation in film”. ))It is too politically correct to be applied but the principle of it seems right.

Frances McDormand: I want to take as many public opportunities as I can to say this: I am not a politician, I am an actor. To preface the story: I had the opportunity to go through the entire award season with Three Billboards and my character, and be invited to the stage, to the microphone, at every single event. I traveled through the award season – we call it the Convention in our family – with the same group of women in my category and in other categories […]. Every time, whatever the expectations the other women had about going to that stage, I never felt anything but support when I went there. But by the time I got – thankfully – to the last stage and microphone, I knew they had to be incorporated, because we had all done it. A couple of weeks before that last event, I was having drinks with Greta Gerwig at yet again another party after yet again another ceremony and I said: “If I get up there again, what if I tried this? Do you think it would work?” She said it would, absolutely, and we worked it out how it might go. Two nights before the Academy Awards, I was at a dinner, and the person sitting next to me said: “Have you ever heard of the inclusion rider?” She explained that you could actually contractually push the hand of a production company to consider giving equal parity to the choices that we made in casting and crewing on a film.

So I’m on that stage [at the Academy Awards], and the plan worked: we rose together and the thrill of that was extraordinary, I was levitating looking out at these women. I forgot what I had planned to say at the end.

The next day, I had a call from Dr [Stacy] Smith, who is one of the collaborators from the Annenberg [Inclusion Initative] and she said that I had basically outed her research: they had been studying it for fifteen years and they had gotten to a certain point with the concept but it could not be a final document because it is all evolutionary. It pushed a conversation that was already happening, and that will continue to happen, but it can never be formed into a solid thing.

Soon after that, I worked with a young filmmaker: when she was crewing her film, she very organically chose people she had worked with, and who were her age. They were one half female, one third Asian – it was already, organically, that much further ahead, because that’s the world young people live in.

There is something that has just been developed that is called the “Gender Spell Check”. It was announced by Geena Davis, who has an organization about gender parity in Hollywood. It is a software that writers can have when they are writing a script to check the percentage of male to female characters. It’s absurd, but it’s also just like checking the weather – why not just see where your imagination has gone? I live with an old white male writer, so I know! We have had a lot of conversations about this. It’s not about saying that you are now going to make this character a woman, or disabled, or a person of color; it is about challenging your imagination and the way you see things. […]

Didier Allouche: You said that you wanted to be an actor not to have your photo taken, but to be part of the human exchange. How does that work?

Frances McDormand: Earlier in my professional life, I didn’t often have an exchange on the street with people who had enjoyed my work. But it was often enough that it would disrupt my life. It became especially disruptive when I was out with my son when he was quite small. We would be in the grocery store and someone would stop me and I would say: “I cannot do a Minnesota accent right now, my son is running down the aisle”. I wrestled with it, because I said “No” and then I would get a “BITCH”. I wondered about what part of that exchange had gotten out of control: it’s the cult of celebrity. There are people who think I have asked for that by being an actor: by being in a movie, I have also asked to be a celebrity, which I have not. I believed that if I subtracted the marketing part of the job, if I didn’t sell my image, if I didn’t promote myself, then I had the right to protect my personal self. My decision was that I would not do press and publicity: I would do the job, but told the people who hired me that if they expected my to do publicity, they should pay me less now, because I didn’t want them to tell me later on that they had paid me to do that.

The deal was that I would go to one premiere of the film that I was in, and I would take a picture with the rest of the cast, and that was my only obligation. For the first year of the ten years I did that, it gave me my power and my life back because I could say no. I could even be rude and say “get away from me”. But my son would ask why I was being so mean. Then I developed what I feel comfortable with, which is: “No, thank you very much, I don’t want to have my picture taken, I don’t want to sign an autograph. But I will shake your hand and I would like to know your name”. Because that is what the human exchange is. Some people say: “But my boyfriend won’t believe that I’ve met you” to which I reply, “Then get another boyfriend”!

I haven’t worked for about a year and there is a reason that actors do what we do: we like attention. When Thierry [Frémaux] asked me to come to the Lyon Festival as a participant, and not just as a guest, I knew there would be a certain amount of work to do that would be interfacing with the public. I knew six months ago that I wouldn’t be working for a year, and I knew I would need some attention, and that has been very gratifying.


Pour citer cette ressource :

"“Television is more suited to tell women’s stories”: A conversation with Frances McDormand", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), mars 2020. Consulté le 19/05/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/arts/cinema/a-conversation-with-frances-mcdormand