Independent film director Wash Westmoreland continues to take on new endeavors that push the mainstream idea of cinema, such as The Fluffer and the doc Gay Republicans.
He paid his dues as a camera assistant on the movie Hustler White, then worked his way up to co-writing and co-directing Quinceanera with his husband Richard Glatzer, making it a hit at Sundance in 2006.
With Still Alice he broke into mainstream thanks to Julianne Moore winning an Oscar for Best Actress. Glatzer was fighting amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in the hospital at the time of the win, then later died in 2015.
Westmoreland's latest project, Colette, is based on the life of Gabrielle Sidonie Colette, and stars Keira Knightley. The film tells the story of a husband-and-wife writing team, wherein the wife, Colette, is determined to break free of her husband Willy's hold, at any cost.
Windy City Times: How was working with Keira Knightley for Colette?
Wash Westmoreland: I really enjoyed working with her, and she's an incredible actress. She's also a lovely person. We got along very well straight away.
I heard she was interested in the film. I was at the Shanghai International Film Festival. We were Facetiming and I only had two percent left on my battery. I told her, "No one else can do this role but you." She said, "Let's do it then," and my phone died! I was just left looking at my phone.
Keira has a lot of things in common with Colette. She has a spark, intelligence, sensuality and a wry sense of humor. She has it all. She really invested in researching the character, reading a lot of books and immersing herself in the world of Colette.
WCT: I had heard she was a diva. Were there moments like this?
WW: No. She was completely down to earth and really nice. She has an assistant who was lovely. She had a child with her and is a working mom. She balances being an actress during the day and taking care of her daughter very well. She's very committed to both.
WCT: What attracted you to Colette in the first place?
WW: The initial attraction was the character of Colette herself. She has a very dynamic personality and a brilliant writer.
My co-writer, co-director and late husband Richard Glatzer was an avid reader and started reading a lot about Colette. He felt there was a movie there and that being the ideal marriage to show in a feature film. It's the story of a heterosexual marriage with an unexpected queer explosion in it.
WCT: That reminded me of another movie called Professor Marston and the Wonder Women about a polyamorous relationship also.
WW: Colette and Willy had an open relationship too, so it is interesting to see from that perspective. He laid down the rules of it. He felt Colette could have affairs as long as they were women, feeling that was not threatening.
This was a time when the feminist underground was rising with some radical thinking lesbians that altered her world view. They were very instrumental to the path for her liberation.
WCT: How was casting the movie to make sure everyone had the right chemistry with Keira?
WW: The most crucial role, of course, was the role of Willy. I thought Dominic West had the right approach to it, because he takes characters that behave badly and uses charm to get away with it. He and Keira knew of each other's work, but had never met. The first time they read together, it was like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing together. It was magical!
They had a rapport and it was a filmmaker's dream come true. We had a long shot where they were just talking to each other and it was fascinating because it was like playing tennis with their minds.
The other people were either incredible actors or discoveries that we auditioned for the roles. We put together a very inclusive and diverse cast, including trans actors that were playing cisgender roles, lesbians that were playing straight roles and straight people that were playing lesbian roles. Actors of color who were playing characters in history who were white. It was about letting actors explore different lives, but including everybody within the casting process.
WCT: Isn't that something you have done throughout your career, by showing things not usually depicted on screen?
WW: Yes. Richard and I always approached films by seeing the genre rules and breaking them. We want to see something new so in all of our films we have tried to do that.
With Colette, we tried to do something that wasn't a typical period piece. In many period pieces you wait two hours for a couple to be engaged. In Colette, she's in the barn with Willy within the first five minutes having sex. There's no consequence for a woman being sexual, which is something else revolutionary in this genre.
WCT: I noticed you dedicated Colette to Richard at the end.
WW: It was really his baby and his idea. He wrote the first draft in 2001. He passed away about three and a half years ago, but before that, he said he wanted Colette to be our next film. It was part of the grieving process to make this creatively connected to him.
WCT: Talk about the androgyny of the costuming.
WW: When you see old sepia tone photos, people are buttoned down. Colette is the opposite. You can't believe how far she goes by using clothes to express herself. Rather than going frilly and over adorned, she goes for simple lines. It is very striking and [utilizes] looks that would work now. When Keira wears them they look really astonishing.
Our costume designer, Andrea Flesch, had a theory that everyone in the background should have multicolors, feathers and beads. Colette should have a simplicity and be the modern one. As Colette progresses, she should move away from feminine clothes to more masculine signaling.
WCT: I almost didn't recognize Keira at the beginning of Colette.
WW: She is amazingly convincing as a teenager at the beginning of the film. She goes from 19 to 34. We worked on her body language being freer as a young person. Her voice was higher and less confident. You see as she progresses, all of these things change.
WCT: What does Colette say to women in current times?
WW: One thing that caught me by surprise was the extraordinary relevance to this film to the discussions that are happening around the #MeToo movement, Time's Up and LGBT issues.
The story is essentially about a man who takes credit for a woman's work. That is happening a thousand times a day all over the world. I think the Colette story finds resonance with a lot of women who are kept down by male power structures in the workplace.
As far as LGBT issues [go], it shows that queer characters are part of history. There were a lot of secret histories of queer people in the past, but Colette was actually public about it. I think it is astonishing that she kissed her girlfriend at the Moulin Rouge, causing a riot. She went with what felt natural above and beyond what society allowed. I feel she is inspiring for anyone facing barriers in their lives. They should just charge through them like Colette did!
Colette challenges the norm at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema, 2828 N. Clark St. on Friday, Sept. 28, with showtimes at LandmarkTheatres.com/Chicago .