Maggie Gyllenhaal Only Dreamed of Directing. Two Israeli Women Made It Possible for Her

Producers Osnat Handelsman-Keren and Talia Kleinhendler recall the encounter that led to the film adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s ‘The Lost Daughter’

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Director and actress Maggie Gyllenhaal. She was born to a Dutch father and Russian-Polish-Jewish immigrant family on her mother’s side.
Director and actress Maggie Gyllenhaal. 'When we asked her what she would like to direct, she straightaway said a book by Elena Ferrante.'
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman

Who would have thought that of all the people in the world, we would have to thank Donald Trump for one of the most successful movies of 2021? And for one of the most blissful professional metamorphoses that we have seen recently in Hollywood.

In an interview published earlier this month in the magazine Elle ahead of the release of the movie “The Lost Daughter,” actress Maggie Gyllenhaal – who was directing a movie for the first time – said that when she was younger, she could never have imagined being able to direct.

Directing seemed to her a craft suitable only for the most courageous and extraordinary of women, and that was not how she perceived herself. So, like many women who desired to be part of the movie industry, she chose acting as a path that would allow her to tell stories to the masses.

But then came the 2016 presidential race and Gyllenhaal was shocked by what she saw. “I do think that Donald Trump being elected had something to do with me becoming a director,” she told Elle. “In that, two weeks before the election, he could say whatever disgusting thing he said about ‘grabbing women’s pussies’ and have there be absolutely no consequences to it. Not only that, but he’s then elected president? It radicalized me politically, but also emotionally… things started to shake up inside me and I began thinking, ‘what do I really want?’ And then I started to write.”

"The Lost Daughter" director Maggie Gyllenhaal, left, and producers Osnat Handelsman-Keren and Talia Kleinhendler at an award ceremony.

But Trump wasn’t just a catalyst. Gyllenhaal has always been a thinking actress, one who brings her own ideas to the set, and influences what the final product looks like. In recent years, she has begun to dare to seek even greater influence on the projects she has been involved with.

She no longer makes do just with the role of an actress but has become a producer as well. That’s what happened with the television series “The Deuce,” where she starred alongside James Franco (who recently admitted that he had slept with students at his acting school – this, four years after five women who had studied there claimed he had acted inappropriately with them) and in the 2018 American remake of “The Kindergarten Teacher,” where she played the lead role. The supportive female atmosphere that enveloped her during that period helped her take the next professional step.

A pair of Israeli producers Talia Kleinhendler and Osnat Handelsman-Keren watched Gyllenhaal’s transformation from close up. They were the ones to suggest to Gyllenhaal that she star in the remake of “The Kindergarten Teacher” and they were the ones to offer to produce her dream project, “The Lost Daughter” which she would write and direct. (Kleinhendler and Handelsman-Keren produced the original Hebrew film, "The Kindergarten Teacher," by Nadav Lapid in 2014.)

Last week, Kleinhendler and Handelsman-Keren told Haaretz about their first meeting with Gyllenhaal which took place in New York after the actress had read the script for the remake of “The Kindergarten Teacher” and agreed to appear in the movie.

“We took her for lunch at a great Italian restaurant that she picked, and we hit it off straight away because we are all girls of around the same age and our kids are around the same age. Lunch just went on and on, and as soon as we left the restaurant, she took us to a bookshop in the Village and bought us a book by Elena Ferrante as a gift,” says Handelsman-Keren.

“The truth is that at that lunch we asked her at some point whether she had ever thought of directing, and that tied in with thoughts that she had been having in that direction. Later, when we asked her what she would like to direct, she straightaway said a book by Elena Ferrante,” adds Kleinhendler.

Good chemistry

At that point in time, the two Israeli producers weren’t familiar with the writings of the famous Italian author whose identity is a secret. Gyllenhaal said they should start by reading the book “The Days of Abandonment.” She told them that for her what is touching about Ferrante’s writing is the way she relates powerfully and honestly to aspects of motherhood and femininity that aren’t always spoken about out loud and which often remain taboo.

Actress Maggie Gyllenhaal arrives with her brother Jake Gyllenhaal at the Academy Awards ceremony in 2005.

The good chemistry between the three continued throughout the work on “The Kindergarten Teacher,” say Kleinhendler and Handelsman-Keren, and it wasn’t long before Gyllenhaal joined forces with them as a producer.

When they saw up close her talents as both an actress and a producer, the way she approached things left them with no doubt that she could also direct. “We saw that she is a cinematographer and an artist. She has a vision. She has something to say, and she has her own style. It was clear to us that she was going to be the kind of director that left her own unique signature on every movie she produced,” says Handelsman-Keren.

While filming “The Kindergarten Teacher” they already began to look at how they could buy the rights to the cinematic adaptation of “The Lost Daughter,” the book that Gyllenhaal wanted to direct. By the time they finished editing “The Kindergarten Teacher” they had already got their hands on the rights to “The Lost Daughter.”

Unexpected support for the inexperienced director soon came from Ferrante herself. Gyllenhaal wrote her a letter in which she explained why she wanted to adapt the book into a movie. She noted that she wanted to film in English and to switch the setting to somewhere else entirely.

She asked Ferrante for artistic freedom for her cinematic adaptation. The Italian author responded nobly. Not only did she agree to place the rights to the book in Gyllenhaal’s hands, she also conditioned it on Gyllenhaal herself directing the movie. In October 2018 she even wrote a column in The Guardian in which she explained why it was important to her to allow the Hollywood actress artistic license in her adaptation.

A scene from "The Lost Daughter," an adaptation of the book by pseudonymous Italian writer Elena Ferrante.

Ferrante explained in her column that when an actress like Gyllenhaal approaches you there is something “more important at stake than this instinct to protect my own inventions. Another woman has found in that text good reason to test her creative capacities.

“It’s important for me – for her, for all women – that her work be hers and turn out well,” wrote the Italian author. “Mine already exists, with its strengths and defects. In the great warehouse of the arts, set up mainly by men, women have for a relatively short time been seeking the means and opportunities to give a form of their own to what they have learned from life. So, I don’t want to say: You have to stay inside the cage that I constructed. We’ve been inside the male cage for too long – and now that that cage is collapsing, a woman artist has to be absolutely autonomous. Her search shouldn’t encounter obstacles, especially when it’s inspired by the work, by the thought, of other women.”

At the last Venice Film Festival, Gyllenhaal proved that the faith put in her by all these women was justified. “The Lost Daughter” premiered at the festival where it received the praise of the critics and won the director the award for Best Screenplay, prompting Netflix to buy the distribution rights in the United States. (The film was released in cinemas in Israel last weekend.)

Since then, “The Lost Daughter” has continued to receive enthusiastic critical praise, and expectations are high ahead of the Hollywood prize season, which will be upon us shortly. Last month, the movie was the big winner at the Gotham Awards (a New York-based ceremony for independent cinema) where it won awards for best feature, best breakthrough director and best screenplay.

Maggie Gyllenhaal starring in a scene from the 2018 remake of "The Kindergarten Teacher."

Olivia Colman in the lead role won the award for best actress and many are already wagering that her wonderful performance will make her a candidate for the Oscar. Gyllenhaal couldn’t have asked for better reactions to her professional metamorphosis.

Culturally Jewish

Gyllenhaal was born in 1977 in New York, a descendant of Dutch nobility on her father’s side and a Russian-Polish-Jewish immigrant family on her mother’s side. It was only a few years ago that she discovered that the name that appears on her birth certificate is Margalit (her full name is Margalit Ruth Gyllenhaal, to be precise). For years, in interviews with the press, she has said that she grew up culturally Jewish.

But what shaped her childhood even more was that she grew up in a creative hothouse. Her father is the director Stephen Gyllenhaal, and her mother is the screenwriter and director Naomi Foner. The two divorced when Maggie was eight. Her younger brother is Jake Gyllenhaal, who in recent years has played a number of lead Hollywood roles in films that include “Brokeback Mountain,” “Zodiac,” and “Spider-Man: No Way Home”).

Maggie and Jake grew up in Los Angeles and began acting and appearing in their father’s movies while they were still children. Maggie was 15 when she first appeared on film in “Waterland,” directed by her father. Nine years later she starred alongside her brother in “Donnie Darko,” a science fiction thriller directed by Richard Kelly, about a troubled teenager in psychiatric treatment who is experiencing delusions, in which Jake plays her on-screen brother. A year later, Gyllenhaal appeared in the 2002 Spike Jonze film “Adaptation.”

Her breakout role came in “The Secretary,” an erotic black comedy about a sadomasochistic relationship between a lawyer and his secretary. Gyllenhaal starred alongside James Spader and didn’t hesitate to crawl on all fours to give him a letter she held in her mouth, a role for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe for the first time. In an interview with the Independent in 2014, she denied rumors that she regretted participating in the movie because of its problematic message from a feminist perspective, telling the British daily that she really liked the movie and the director Steven Shainberg, and that it had been a special experience that she learned a lot from.

Olivia Colman in a scene from "The Lost Daughter."

She then appeared in a series of commercial movies among them “Mona Lisa Smile”; “World Trade Center”; a sequel to “Nanny McPhee”; and Christopher Nolan’s highly praised 2008 Batman movie, “The Dark Knight.” Her most impressive appearances, however, have been in more modest indie films, which both presented her with a challenge and allowed her to show the world a captivating actress who may not be a classic Hollywood beauty, but stands out because of her talent.

Gyllenhaal has managed time after time to transmit something intelligent and complex and to create fascinating, multi-layered characters difficult to take one’s eyes off. She was like that playing the character of the young woman addicted to drugs in “Sherrybaby” in 2006, and as the journalist deeply involved with a country singer (Jeff Bridges) in the 2009 movie “Crazy Heart” – which brought her her only Oscar nomination so far, for Best Supporting Actress.

In between movies, she did a degree in literature and Eastern religions at Columbia University. For years, Gyllenhaal described the home she grew up in as a very left-wing household – her parent’s politics were “left of Trotsky,” as she puts it – and she was never afraid to express her political views in public.

At the 2003 Independent Spirit Awards, she came out against the war in Iraq, saying that the United States had gone to war because of “oil and imperialism.” Two years later, she said that the 9/11 terror attacks were an opportunity for America to rethink its role in the world. For years she publicly supported Democratic candidates for the presidency, but a few years ago, she expressed her disappointment at the presidency of Barack Obama (“I really believed in him, and I’m not sure what he believes in anymore,” she told Time Magazine in 2014).

In recent years her internal seismograph has led her to an arena that has become no less important and influential than cinema. Gyllenhaal has played a lead role in two big television projects. In the 2014 BBC miniseries, “The Honorable Woman,” she put on a British accent that Emma Thompson helped her polish during her work on “Nanny McPhee.”

She played a Jewish woman from a rich family whose father had been murdered during her childhood by a Palestinian. When she grows up she uses the family wealth to promote peace programs between Israelis and Palestinians. The political-detective thriller gained Gyllenhaal much critical appraise and many prizes, and she was smart enough not to publicly come out in favor of either side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Between 2017 and 2019, she starred in the series “The Deuce,” where she plays an independent, intelligent, and strong New York street prostitute, who takes advantage of the emerging and legal porn industry to upgrade her career. Here as well, Gyllenhaal gave an appearance that was impressive and powerful.

“She is a super intelligent actress who always wants to understand what drives the scene. She analyzes it very intelligently and looks at what she can bring to it beyond what appears in the script. That is also what led us to believe she should direct,” says Kleinhendler. Handelsman-Keren adds that “she is an actress full of daring in her choices, and in the risks she takes. She never stops to look where the lighting is, but she gets up and gives everything she has. With her, it’s never technical; she always wears her heart on her sleeve. When we sat by the monitor on “The Kindergarten Teacher,” we would laugh that in every take she could bring something completely different and she doesn’t have takes that aren’t good.”

Kleinhendler and Handelsman-Keren say that the condition Ferrante dictated when she sold the rights to “The Lost Daughter” – that only Gyllenhaal and no one else direct the movie – really gave her a boost in her work on the project. The column Ferrante published in The Guardian in which she explained why it was important to her to allow Gyllenhaal artistic freedom in her adaptation also played a part. I

t was the first time that Gyllenhaal had sat down to write a screenplay and getting that support was important for her. In interviews over the past few months, she has said that during the writing process she consulted many times with her brother and with her mother, who would both comment on the script. But the most intimidating reader was obviously Ferrante herself.

The producers say that when Gyllenhaal sent Ferrante the completed screenplay, she felt a great sense of relief when Ferrante told her she liked the finished product. “Ferrante made only one comment: She said that it was very important that Leda [the heroine of the film, N.A.] be portrayed as sane so that people don’t feel that she is crazy. So that we will all be able to identify with her,” says Kleinhendler.

A complex story

“The Lost Daughter” brings to the screen a different female image from the one we are used to in Hollywood. It seeks to rebel against the image of the perfect, total, and all-encompassing mother. It reminds us that motherhood is a complex story that isn’t always good, or at least it isn’t always good enough, and there are women who collapse under the social expectations of them.

Olivia Colman plays Leda, a 48-year-old English woman, a professor of literature, who travels to a beach in Greece to spend the holiday on her own. But a young American woman of Italian origin (Dakota Jackson), a mother to a small child who comes to take a vacation there with her family attracts Leda’s attention. As a result, Leda’s life, and her relationship with her girls come under the microscope. Flashbacks to the days when she was a young mother begin to rise to the surface (Jessie Buckley plays the young Leda) and the abyss that appeared before her in that period when she felt suffocated in the prison of motherhood returns to rock her core. The vacation quickly loses the serenity it could have offered her.

“The Lost Daughter” digs into the dark side of the conflict that every mother is familiar with. It doesn’t try to beautify anything; it doesn’t try to skip over the obstacles. On the contrary, Gyllenhaal, Ferrante, Colman and Buckley jump, eyes wide open, into the places where that denied and repressed reality of motherhood lurks, the reality that collapses under the burden, that refuses to make the sacrifice that Western society demands of women. They present the painful and long-lasting ramifications of this demand and the scars that it leaves for everyone in that environment.

In her first project as a writer and director, Gyllenhaal makes no compromises. She doesn’t seek to caress; she doesn’t make an effort to smile or be nice. She prefers to rock the boat, to stuff the unpleasant truth in her audience’s face. And she does so with impressive cinematic talent. The script is wonderful, the directing is precise, and the guidance to the actors is excellent – what more can one ask for? It is without a doubt one of the most impressive transitions of an actor or actress to the director’s chair that we have seen in cinema in recent years. Gyllenhaal’s Israeli producers aren’t willing to reveal what their next joint project will be, but from what they do say, it appears that something is brewing. “We will be happy to do 100 movies with her as a director, anything she wants,” they say. “Even if she decides to sell lemonade on the street, we’ll be there with her.”

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