The new film “The Keeping Room” opens with a quotation from Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, who declares, “War is cruelty ... the crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.” The story confirms the idea by opening with violent, disturbing depictions of humans acting inhumanely to other humans, but then proceeds to defy it by showing its main characters rising to the challenges of extraordinary situations to show their best selves.
As the Civil War nears its end, Augusta (Brit Marling in another fine performance), her younger sister Louise (Oscar nominee Hailee Steinfeld) and their family slave Mad (discovery Muna Otaru) are on a remote farm in the Carolinas trying to just wait things out, having already survived living on their own for some time. A pair of drifting soldiers (Sam Worthington, Kyle Soller) possibly in advance of many more men, suddenly put the three women under siege, pushing them to their limits to find newfound inner strengths.
“The Keeping Room,” directed by Daniel Barber, has its world premiere Monday as part of the Toronto International Film Festival and comes into the festival looking for distribution.
At a time when the lack of both female stories onscreen and female writers and directors to put them there has become an increasingly talked-about issue, “The Keeping Room” feels most of all like an announcement of debut screenwriter Julia Hart as a name worth scanning the credits for.
Though her father is screenwriter Jim Hart, who worked on the scripts for such films as “Hook,” “Contact” and “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” and her brother Jake Hart is a screenwriter as well, Julia Hart first went into teaching high school English for some eight years before finally turning to the family business.
Hart was visiting at a friend’s old farmhouse in the South and after hearing of some Civil War-era human skeletons discovered buried on the property and the legend of how they got there, her imagination immediately started turning.
“I just worked backward from there,” Hart, 32, said during a recent interview in Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband, producer Jordan Horowitz, and their infant son.
“It was so crazy, because Mad, Augusta and Louisa all just popped into my head at once,” she added. “It wasn’t like here’s the central woman and then finding the other two. It was all three as a unit the moment I started thinking about the story.”
As Hart began to do some research into women in the South during the Civil War she was surprised by how little information she found, how few accountings of the lives of the women left behind she came across. While frustrating on the one hand, it gave her a great sense of freedom on the other.
“I felt like because I was going to have to do a good amount of imagining, why not invent in a way that allows women and girls in our culture in our time to commit to and relate to these women and their experiences?” Hart said. “So I like to think that allows me to get away with that imagining. Also the fact there is a hole in our history as women, I feel like there is an invitation to go there as a woman.
“I so rarely see women talking to women in film,” Hart said. “It started from a place of race and gender, but also just wanting to see women talking to each other. It couldn’t just be one woman defending herself against the men. I wanted it to be a group of women together. Because that relationship, to me, is the center of the film.”
One popular recent standard for judging a film’s portrayal of women is the so-called Bechdel test — does a film have two female speaking parts and do they talk to each other about something other than men — and Hart joked, “I can’t think of another movie that passes the Bechdel test more than our movie.” One thing the Bechdel test is useful for is pointing out how infrequently women talk to each other on camera, which in part is a byproduct of how relatively few women are in positions as writers and directors to create those scenes.
“The women and film in the industry thing, I feel like we’re in a really exciting moment right now when people are waking up to this not being OK and trying to do something about it,” Hart said. “It feels like there is something brewing and it’s really exciting to be a part of that.”
The script landed on the 2012 Black List of best unproduced screenplays and attracted representation for Hart. Horowitz, whose credits include “The Kids Are All Right,” helped get the script to prospective talent and investors. Soon director Daniel Barber, who previously made the Michael Caine revenge thriller “Harry Brown” as well as the Western short “The Tonto Woman,” was attached, casting was moving forward and the film moved into production.
While “The Keeping Room” may be the first sample of Hart’s work that audiences see, it probably won’t be the last. She is currently finishing scripts with the production company Scott Free for director Jordan Scott and with Fox Searchlight for directors John Requa and Glenn Ficarra.
With its mix of genres — social drama, the invasion thriller, even psychological horror — “The Keeping Room” is a period piece that isn’t entirely hung up on period accuracy.
“I like that it is inappropriate for its time,” said Hart. “There is a very important place for films that explore the realities of their time and place, but I think there is also room for a little ‘what if.’ What if circumstances could bring these women together? I always imagine there are people who could be different given different circumstances, and there are human souls capable of doing better.”
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