Directed by Berlin Silver Bear-winner Björn Runge, THE WIFE is adapted by Jane Anderson from the Meg Wolitzer novel of the same name.
After nearly forty years of marriage, JOAN and JOE CASTLEMAN (Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce) are complements: Where Joe is brash, Joan is shy. Where Joe is casual, Joan is elegant. Where Joe is vain, Joan is self-effacing. And where Joe enjoys his very public role as Great American Novelist, Joan pours her considerable intellect, grace, charm, and diplomacy into the private role of Great Man’s Wife, keeping the household running smoothly, the adult children in close contact, and Joe’s pills dispensed on schedule. At times, a restless discontentment can be glimpsed beneath Joan’s smoothly decorous surface, but her natural dignity and keen sense of humor carry her through the rough spots.
It’s 1992, and Joe is about to be awarded the Nobel Prize for his acclaimed and prolific body of work. Joe’s literary star has blazed since he and Joan first met in the late 1950s, when she was a demure Smith student and he, her (married) creative writing teacher. THE WIFE interweaves the midcentury story of the couple’s youthful passion and ambition with a portrait of a marriage, thirty-plus years later—a lifetime’s shared compromises, secrets, betrayals, and genuine, mutual love. From 1958 to 1992 to our present vantage point of 2018, we observe Joan and Joe Castleman in the context of their times, and ours.
En route to Stockholm for the Nobel Prize ceremonies (aboard the Concorde, still the transatlantic vessel of choice in 1992), Joan and Joe are accompanied by their son DAVID (Max Irons), an aspiring writer in his twenties who feels that Joe belittles his work. Sulky and resentful, David wears his wounded heart on his sleeve. There’s another man on board who also wants something from Joe: NATHANIEL BONE (Christian Slater), a journalist who plans to write the definitive biography of Joseph Castleman, authorized or not. To crusty, arrogant Joe, Nathaniel’s just a pest to be brushed off, but to Joan, making an enemy of Nathaniel is a risky matter. As always, she’s the conciliator between Joe and David, Joe and Nathaniel.
Amid the nonstop round of ceremonial festivities in Stockholm, Joan and Joe are swept into familiar, long-worn roles: Joe is flattered and schmoozed, while Joan stands by his side wearing her quiet smile.
As we see in flashback to Joan and Joe’s early days in the late ‘50s, Joan not only had her own writing aspirations, she had the talent (and the looks) to capture the attention of her teacher, Joe. A caustic encounter with an embittered novelist (Elizabeth McGovern) gives Joan a warning preview, however, of the obscurity awaiting the “lady writer,” no matter how talented. As Joan and Joe embark on a love affair, it fits a certain literary template of the time: she’s the well-bred WASP-y daughter of bland privilege, he’s the scrappy Jewish striver with the Brooklyn accent and the edgy stories to tell. With Joe’s first marriage busted up, they live the bohemian life in a Greenwich Village walk-up. Joan gets a job at a publishing house, encountering enough casual sexism to squelch her own ambitions but spotting a chance to forward Joe’s career as the next hot young discovery. Thus is established the self-sacrificing partnership that continues right up to the Nobel gathering decades later.
Another familiar, long-worn dynamic plays out in Stockholm as Joe is trailed by an attractive young woman photographer assigned to document Joe’s every public moment. Joan recognizes the predictable progression of flirtation and indiscretion that she has stoically overlooked through so many years of Joe’s serial infidelities. This time, Joan’s had enough. Serving Joe notice that she wants no place on a pedestal as his passive muse; matching wits with a prying Nathaniel Bone; letting her own grievances flare, for once, instead of smoothing over everyone else’s problems—Joan finally reaches for self-determination. The Castleman marriage and literary legend will never be the same.
About The Production
Great acting breathes life into great characters. In THE WIFE, the story of a long, complicated marriage affords great actors the chance to reflect all the knots and nuances of their brainy, funny, perplexing, deeply compromised, but deeply compelling characters.
“This film is like music; two instruments playing a duet,” says Director Björn Runge. “Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce are like two great soloists playing together, uniting the story through their art. My ambition as a director is to let the actors be free, to find the music of the script, to let it swing, so the audience will share that swing during the golden moments of the film.”
Adapted by screenwriter Jane Anderson (The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio; Olive Kitteridge) from Meg Wolitzer’s witty and acclaimed novel of the same name, THE WIFE examines forty years of give and take (and take and give some more) between literary lion Joe Castleman, played by Jonathan Pryce, and the person who knows him best, supports him steadfastly, resents him deeply, and possibly loves him anyway: his wife Joan, played by Glenn Close. Through different times and different mores—from the 1950s and ‘60s of the Castlemans’ youth, to the 1990s of their mature relationship and its high-profile crisis moment at the Nobel Prize award ceremony, and up to our current-day perspective—we observe two talented and ambitious lifelong partners reckoning with power dynamics between men and women that continue to bedevil us today. It’s a timeless but also very timely subject.
“When I write a film,” says Jane Anderson, “I always ask myself, what is the audience going to talk about when the lights come up and they walk out together? And I think what they're going to talk about is, what are the compromises that we make in a marriage and a great partnership? Are there secrets that we keep as a couple that are legitimate? As a husband, how do you respect and love your wife? Could we possibly sustain the kind of bargain that Joe and Joan Castleman sustained for forty years?”
Whatever our contemporary take may be on the sexual politics at work in the Castleman marriage, it’s all about the grey areas. “This isn’t an easy black-and-white story,” says Glenn Close. “Ultimately, it’s about power, the power that Joan gives up and finally reclaims. I think it's hard for us to imagine what it was like to be in that world where women weren't expected to achieve high things the way men were.” Joan may be part of the generation of our mothers and grandmothers, but her struggles with creativity, motherhood, and fulfillment ring out clearly to us today. “She has the soul of an artist,” says Close, “the curiosity, the focus, the wildly fertile imagination. But her lack of confidence was part of the cultural climate. In working out Joan’s emotional journey with Jane and Björn, we were very, very clear that Joan is not a passive victim and doesn’t see herself as one. It’s much more complicated and subtle.”
As novelist Meg Wolitzer, the Castlemans’ original creator, says, “I suspect that all writers hope (at least secretly) for a little bit of timelessness. That said, I did publish the novel in 2003, and the film is coming out at an unusual and highly charged moment, one in which we are squarely facing some of the issues between men and women that have been around forever. Joan’s rage feels particularly pointed and relevant right now.”
Jane Anderson agrees. “Oh yes, it’s incredibly timely. Meg’s novel tells a story that is so subversive about what it means to be a female writer. I was thrilled that she was willing to entrust me with her wonderful book, but when I first wrote the screen adaptation fifteen years ago, no male star wanted to be in a film called THE WIFE instead of THE HUSBAND. The culture in Hollywood has changed since then. Our industry is now willing to embrace films that are driven by a female protagonist; a brilliant actress such as Glenn can now drive the box office. I always saw Joe as a marvelous character—a kick for any great actor to play. Jonathan Pryce does a masterful job of navigating Joe’s character. He’s one of the greats. And great actors delight in sharing the screen with great actresses, yes?”
For Anderson, the casting of Glenn Close was a huge coup for the production and added a sense of grace and levity to the portrayal of a fascinating woman. “The character of Joan Castleman is a deeply contained, elegant and shy woman who has taken the back seat to her brilliant husband,” she says. “Who better to play that kind of role and to give it all the texture and all the subtext that you need than someone like Glenn Close, who is just very naturally an elegant, wickedly smart actress?”
Bringing the film adaptation to fruition took dedication and patience on the part of a determined production team. Producer Rosalie Swedlin of Anonymous Content recaps a project nearly ten years in the making: “I knew Jane had written an adaptation of THE WIFE for another production company, where it had stalled for years. When I read it, I thought—this is too good not to be made. How am I going to do this?”
It took a leap of faith. Swedlin recalls, “As a producer, sometimes you have to take a risk, even when you’re not certain you can fully accomplish something. In this case, we knew eventually we’d have to buy out the other production company that had originally commissioned Jane’s work; we went very far down the road before we actually owned the underlying script rights.”
Reports Anderson, “Rosalie is the reason this film got made. She took an orphaned script that for years no one wanted to touch and she never, ever gave up on it.”
While Swedlin worked with Anderson on honing the script and began to piece together the production puzzle, “It suddenly struck me that because the film was largely set in Stockholm where the Nobel Prize is awarded, maybe I could partner with a Scandinavian producer.”
Not long after, producer Meta Louise Foldager Sørensen of Meta Film boarded the project after reading and loving the script. “This was perfect for a Scandinavian co-production because it’s set in Stockholm” (though most of the film, apart from Stockholm exteriors, was shot in Glasgow, Scotland). On the long road to a finished film, other production and financing companies also shouldered some of the heavy lifting, including sales reps Embankment Films, who drummed up interest on the festival circuit; Silver Reel’s Claudia Bluemhuber, who carried off eleventh-hour financial packaging magic; and Piers Tempest of Tempo Productions, who became the day-by-day on-set producer.
Early on, Glenn Close had committed enthusiastically to the production. With Close attached, producer Sørensen nailed down another key contributor: “I brought on board a Swedish director, Björn Runge,” whose Swedish films, including DAYBREAK and MOUTH TO MOUTH, have won international acclaim and who has an equally distinguished career in theater. “He’s a great director, an actor’s director. I thought he had the right sensitivity for this project.”
“One would think that you would need a female director to bring out all of the subtleties,” says Anderson. “Björn Runge is the most feminist of male directors! We have had a lovely collaboration. For three years, we exchanged thoughts on the script through e-mails and Facetime chats—me in sun-blanched L.A. and him in wintery, twilit Sweden. His love for this project has always buoyed me.”
For Runge, one of the big draws of the story was the intense relationships among the various characters. “I could see the chamber drama within the story, the small private character drama about a mother and a father and a son within the broader scale. How do you make chamber drama cinematic? Casting is the key. Finding actors who have an “emotional ticket” to the universe of the script, and then trusting the actors’ instincts. Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce were not only perfect in their roles—they were a good match for each other. Actors always need support from each other. As a director with such great actors to work with, it's my job to take care of their "acting-energy" in the best way, to create an atmosphere where they are free to be free.”
Close, the six-time Academy Award-nominated actress who has had a stellar career spanning four decades, says of Runge: “I love the way he works. I think it’s a kind of perfect melding of his theater and film knowledge. He has a wonderful understanding of the acting process, and gives you time, especially if it’s a difficult scene. The way he sets up shots, and the wonderful way he makes sure there’s lots of coverage for editing. I feel like we've almost been a little theater company on this movie.”
For Pryce, the shoot supported great work from all the actors. “Glenn was in first so I joined knowing I’d be working with her. I’ve always liked her as an actor; we’re both the same age and we can both draw on very similar life experiences, long relationships, and there’s not a lot that has to be said between us. We both understand the needs of the characters and the film, and it’s really good to work with someone who is that dedicated and intense about their work.”
Using the example of the climactic argument between Joan and Joe in their Stockholm hotel room, Pryce describes the alchemy among actors, script, director, and camera: “It’s an intimate scene in a closed space, but it doesn’t feel static because the hand-held camera is always moving. The camera was the third actor in the scene. Apart from a little general blocking, there was nothing staged about our performances; it was exciting because you just did it, and you knew the cameraman would find you. You didn’t accommodate the camera.
I think I actually surprised Glenn with my anger in that scene. As Joe, I was very frustrated by her attack, and she wasn’t expecting that degree of rage. It was a pivotal moment—his realization that he absolutely did need her. He did love her. He couldn’t do without her.”
“One of my favorite moments,” recalls Close, “was when Joan let him have it, and she then she says, “I just want to get out of this dress.” And he starts helping her unzip her dress. That says everything. Little tiny observations—I love that.”
“We didn’t really rehearse the emotional life of that scene until we did it, so it was very fresh,” says Pryce. “Björn, like all the best directors, lets you do what you want to do. And then he adjusts it. It’s very collaborative. He doesn’t impose anything on you. And when he has an idea, he allows you to think that you possibly had it first.”
As Close explains: “Björn knows how to use a close up. If you’ve got actors who can fill a close up, it’s gold, especially in a complex movie like this. Close ups are there to keep an audience emotionally engaged because they can look into someone’s eyes, feel what they are feeling and what they are or are not saying. If you cut in or out at the wrong time, a close up is worthless. It’s a fine dance, a very sensitive, intuitive dance, that Björn understands. He respects actors and it was thrilling to work with him. Very fulfilling.”
Runge has a strong precedent from fellow Swedes for lingering on powerful close ups: “We were inspired by Ingmar Bergman´s and his photographer Sven Nykvist´s way of working with close-ups: not just to jump in and out, but to dare to be in the close-up.”
Runge has worked with cinematographer Ulf Brantås for over thirty years. “We have a workflow we’ve developed that helps create a mood of trust and confidence. I am more and more interested in simplicity, in the acting, the shoot, the editing room. I’ve worked with my editor, Lena Runge” (who happens to be his wife) “for nearly thirty years as well. We’ve developed an editing method that takes care of the storytelling without losing the emotional sincerity of the scene.”
The week prior to filming in Glasgow, in the same hotel where the film’s onscreen drama plays out, Runge holed up with his principal actors, his DP Ulf Brantås, and Jane Anderson to walk and talk through the settings and dialogue. “I was more in the background,” relates Runge, “listening to the readings and trying to understand how the camera could capture the drama. The script is our map, our gravity. It was an inspiring and exciting week for us all.”
That week was crucial. As Anderson recalls, “There’s no such thing as a final draft of a script until the final edit is locked and delivered. I love working with actors, and I was so grateful that Björn invited me to be there for the rehearsals so we could all work through the script together. I did a lot of rewriting during those ten days and it was a real adrenaline rush. It was a thrill to work with Glenn. She’s fierce in the rehearsal room and has exquisite instincts. Every time I work with actors of her and Jonathan’s caliber, it makes me a better writer.”
For Close, the process was invaluable. “I had to be able to believe in Joan’s emotional journey, and that was literally sitting down and page by page saying, “I get this, I don't get this. I need that. Don't need that.” I really poured a lot of thought into it, and still there are scenes that I found difficult. It was a truthful search and journey to make her believable to myself. Because if I could believe her then the audience would believe her. Not all characters elicit that kind of deep and probing analysis before you begin.”
Close also discussed her character’s trajectory with the actor who played Joan as a young woman in the 1950s and 60s, Annie Starke, who pairs with Harry Lloyd as young Joe. Because the film is set in two different time periods, the production needed two strong actors to successfully realize the hopes, ambitions and dynamics of the younger Castlemans’ marriage, helping the audience come to know them and their story and setting the foundation for the revelations that follow.
As Close recalls, “I said to Annie, “You're the one who lays down the character. I follow what you've established.” We talked through Joan’s shyness and insecurities, her feeling that she'd have no life without him because she didn't think she was worthy.”
“We really put Joan through a microscope,” says Starke, who is the daughter of Glenn Close. “We’re both sticklers for detail and character development and, also, it helps knowing each other quite well so we could nail each other’s mannerisms and ways of speaking. We’re certainly very proud of the character that resulted from our efforts.”
Harry Lloyd embraced the opportunity to play a younger Joe with all his nuances. “Björn said something at the beginning which was really interesting: “In a way the older Joe is more of a baby than the younger Joe.””
Pryce concurs. “Joe’s anger and narcissism and infidelities are driven by inadequacy and insecurity and feeling emasculated. Harry understood that and brought the roots of that to the young Joe.”
Two more vivid characters play a part in the Castlemans’ story: their resentful adult son, David, played by Max Irons, and Nathaniel Bone, played by Christian Slater, the would-be biographer who hopes to score a coup with a tell-all book about the great Joseph Castleman.
“Joe is a little bit afraid for his son, David,” explains Runge. “It was important to find someone, an actor, with that combination of different emotions. The poetic side and the brutal side. And for me Max Irons is right there.”
Irons, for his part, enjoyed a strong collaborative relationship with the director. “He’s so precise. He’s so relaxed. He talks in a language that we all understand. We finished early every day, which is unheard of! He’s economical with the way he shoots and the way he directs, and he’s got so much heart. Such a good emotional intelligence, which is precisely what you need for a film like this.”
Christian Slater brings a wry mix of scheming calculation and desperation to his dogged reporter, matching wits with Close’s savvy, self-possessed Joan in one of THE WIFE’s funniest scenes.
“We play sort of an interesting chess game, metaphorically, a very cat and mouse kind of situation between the two of us,” says Slater. “I’m trying to get her to tell me the truth and she keeps me at bay. It’s definitely a nice push and pull sort of relationship.”
Slater also brought some extra levity to the shoot by hosting an American-style Thanksgiving dinner in Glasgow, a city universally enjoyed and acclaimed by THE WIFE cast and crew. “It’s the fourth film we have done in Glasgow,” says producer Claudia Bluemhuber. “Our experience there is really, really good. The crews, the support we get, we really love it there.”
“When one is shooting these movies, you look for where can yield the best production values,” adds producer Piers Tempest, “and actually Glasgow has it all. It has two massive venues which double for the Nobel Prize ceremony venues, and it’s got a Concorde, which is great, because the Concorde was iconic within that mid-90s time period.”
According to production designer Mark Leese, shooting time periods authentically was another vital element of the production. The story unfolds in various timelines, often in flashback, and in three different locales, making for a busy production. “That’s been an exciting challenge to be honest. We’ve had to recreate New York in the 1950s, Connecticut in the 1990s and 1960s, and Stockholm in the 1990s.
“I think one of the challenges was trying to recreate the Nobel ceremonies and banquet, which are massive and expensive in the real world, with a budget and with time constraints. How do we recreate that? I think we’ve done really well, but it was a challenge to get our teeth into. It’s about authenticity. You have a puzzle to solve: how much are you influenced by reality and the recreation of a period, and how much can you explore it, and then make it your own. At times we’ve tried to absolutely replicate certain things, and other times we’ve just taken it as a guide, then we've gone off and done what we want.”
So much talent marshalled to tell a story about so much talent has yielded a film to admire, according to the Castlemans’ creator, Meg Wolitzer: “I’m very excited for people to see this film. Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce do such a superb job at not only conveying the dance of marriage, the compromises made, the agonies lived through, and the familiarity of two people who have known each other intimately for a very long time, but they also address some fundamental, pressing questions about men, women and power.”