Love Thy Neighbor

With her nineteenth-century American romance, The World to Come—starring Katherine Waterston and Vanessa Kirby—screening now, director Mona Fastvold talks to Ella Kemp about the need to create images, striving for ASMR storytelling, and just how much we owe Terrence Malick.

We’ve seen a lot of movies during this time period in America about what the husbands were out doing… but they had wives who are at home, living their completely separate lives. What were they up to?” —⁠Mona Fastvold

In the American Northeast in the nineteenth century, life for farmers’ wives is physical, lonely, subject to both the extremes of weather and their husbands’ moods. When Abigail (Katherine Waterston) and Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) become neighbors in The World To Come, their lives become infinitely more bearable.

What unfolds is a careful study of the ways affection and understanding can bloom in the most unlikely places. Based on Jim Shepard’s short story of the same name, Mona Fastvold’s desperately romantic film starts where Abigail’s diary also begins: with a new year, and new neighbors. Through lyrical voice-over and closely drawn scenes, Abigail tells of how, in the wake of unimaginable loss, her life is cracked wide open by the arrival of effervescent, free-spirited Tallie. She speaks of grief and exhaustion, but also of astonishment and joy.

Katherine Waterston as Abigail and Vanessa Kirby as Tallie in The World to Come. — Photographer… Vlad Cioplea
Katherine Waterston as Abigail and Vanessa Kirby as Tallie in The World to Come. Photographer… Vlad Cioplea

It’s a story felt through whispers as much as kisses, framed by the blustery winds of the East-Coast frontier—and by the spectre of their husbands (Casey Affleck as the downcast Dyer, Christopher Abbott as the jealous, disturbing Finney) finding out about their new love. Fastvold gives each character just enough attention to let the relationships that matter most rise up all on their own. She does so with words, poetry that somehow feels alive, and with music—specifically, a stunningly passionate clarinet soundtrack.

The World to Come won the Queer Lion at Venice last August (where it miraculously had an in-person premiere), and won many more hearts at Sundance in January. It’s Fastvold’s second film as director, after 2014’s The Sleepwalker, which also starred Christopher Abbott, and was co-written by Fastvold’s partner (and Vox Lux director) Brady Corbet.

What did you feel when reading Jim’s story for the first time?
Mona Fastvold: It was a home I wanted to move into. It was this feeling of thinking, ‘This belongs in my universe, and I belong in this universe.’ And I all of a sudden had a few images that I felt a very strong need to create. The first thing that I felt really compelled to do was creating this physical expression of joy after the first kiss. I had this image of Katherine in this wide shot, completely open and just exposed. And I was really compelled to shoot her in the snow by the grave as well.

I also wanted to frame her being tied to the house with a rope, working her way through the snowstorm. There was a lot of amazing text and maybe fewer images in the script, because it’s written by these two really wonderful writers and authors of novels, not so much screenplays. So it’s not a very technical screenplay, and there were a lot of things left to me to work out, which I enjoyed. But the foundation was this really good text.

Mona Fastvold on the set of The World to Come. — Photographer… Toni Salabasev
Mona Fastvold on the set of The World to Come. Photographer… Toni Salabasev

The text is so striking, in the way it’s so verbose but never feels stiff. How did you keep the words intact while bringing these emotions to life?
I cast some really good actors, so that helps! Then when you’re working with this kind of text, it’s not really a text that you can improvise or play around as much, you really just need to honor it. For me it’s really about finding the movement that will support the beats of the text. I like the edit to be motivated by a gesture, something that says, “I want you to look at this”. I’m trying to make the rhythm more exciting. Ping-ponging back and forth is less exciting to me.

When rehearsing, we’d create movement either physically, or find changes through long pauses already in the text, and then upon finding those organic beats I’d figure out with my DP how we can stay in one take for as long as possible, until we find that moment which motivates a change. I never like there to be a camera movement just for there to be something cool visually. And there’s all this subtext in the text, all these messages Abigail and Tallie are trying to send to each other. When are you being direct? When are you being understood? When are you not?

Particularly in recent years, we’ve been fortunate to have a number of films that reframe period pieces about forbidden lesbian romances. Why do you think we keep coming back to this kind of story?
A lot of people feel compelled to say these stories have always been there, and to claim that part of history. It’s not modern, it’s not a new thing, but it’s just that these stories have not been told much. Especially a love story that takes place among farmers. We know a little bit about upper-class stories from some literature, but not that much from that time period. So part of the appeal for me was to say: this is a part of history. Even though it’s not a story about Napoleon, this story about these two quiet, introverted women is still worth exploring. And we’ve seen a lot of movies during this time period in America about what the husbands were out doing. I’ve grown up watching these movies, but they had wives who are at home, living their completely separate lives. What were they up to?

Finney (Christopher Abbott) reads Tallie’s mail. — Photographer… Vlad Cioplea
Finney (Christopher Abbott) reads Tallie’s mail. Photographer… Vlad Cioplea

You mention the husbands—I felt watching this film that it was set in a very different world to the likes of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which a lot of people loved precisely because of how few men were in the film. But here the husbands play a really important part within the story about these two women, helping to convey their frustration and limitations, without taking over.
All characters in a story deserve equal counts of love and attention from the writers, directors and actors. It was incredibly important to portray the men with as much nuance as Abigail and Tallie. It makes for a more interesting story for them, that their relationships with their partners are complex—they’re not just these male archetypes who are terrible and awful. Dyer was an interesting character, in that he’s striving to understand even though he doesn’t quite. And he had different ambitions as well, but this is the situation he’s in, and he’s chosen a practical partner who he respects, and I guess loves and cares for. But they’re running a farm together, they’re business partners as well and depend on each other for survival. When he says “I’ll die without you” it’s quite literal, in a way. I wanted to break these characters open and make them more difficult to deal with, for themselves and for the women as well.

Your picture includes a beautiful, and really unexpected score by Daniel Blumberg—particularly in the use of the clarinet, which feels like its own kind of narrative. Can you talk me through the process of weaving that into the story?
I brought in Daniel even when I was developing the script and working on casting early on. I kept listening to ‘Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet’ by Igor Stravinsky, and somehow the instrument felt really connected to Katherine’s voice-over. It was important that the voice-over was not slammed on top at the end. It’s there, I hope, to have a bit of an ASMR effect where you feel it draws you really close to Abigail in a hypnotic way. That you feel like you get this intimate experience of that character by having access to her life even if it doesn’t explain things too much.

So we wanted to have the score speaking to the voice-over, which we recorded long before we started shooting as well. We would play it on set and Daniel would come in and play music there. So constantly being in dialogue between the text being read and the music being played was an important part of the process.

It’s time for some Life in Film questions. What is your favorite ‘forbidden love’ story?
A film I really love, which inspired The World to Come, is Olivia. It’s from 1951 and it’s directed by Jacqueline Audry, and it was one of the first lesbian on-screen kisses ever captured. It’s a great movie directed by a female director when that wasn’t so much of a thing. It was an important trailblazer for this film.

Marie-Claire Olivia and Simone Simon in Jacqueline Audry’s Olivia (1951).
Marie-Claire Olivia and Simone Simon in Jacqueline Audry’s Olivia (1951).

What’s your favourite “Dear Diary” movie, the one that best uses a confessional voice-over?
Terrence Malick pretty much cornered that market with some beautiful, beautiful attempts at that. We definitely have to pay our respects! Particularly Days of Heaven is pretty amazing. The voice-over work there is extraordinary.

What is your go-to comfort movie?
It’s funny because I was asked that a while ago and normally I would just be like, “Anything Nancy Meyers makes is just so lovely”. She makes these films that are just like candy. But during the pandemic, it’s just too hard to watch these cozy movies, because it just makes you feel depressed. So right now, the film I’ve watched the most in my lifetime is Eyes Wide Shut. I also find it to be a Christmas movie… If it’s on anywhere, I’ll always leave it on, or just watch a little piece of it.

What should Letterboxd members watch after The World to Come?
First of all they should watch Olivia if they haven’t seen it, and then the other day I watched Martin Eden—it’s an incredible movie. So beautifully made.

What is the one film that first made you want to be a filmmaker?
I grew up watching a lot of movies. My family are cinephiles and I’ve always loved films. I grew up on a steady diet of Ingmar Bergman’s films during my teenage years, and Tarkovsky too. Seeing those films made a really big impression me. But what really inspired me in many ways was seeing Claire Denis’ films. The way she approaches storytelling is so intuitive. It’s so exciting. That resonated with me, and later on I recognized some of that in Lucrecia Martel as well. I just love how she handles time and logic and character.

The World to Come’ is currently in select US theaters, and will be available on demand from March 2, via Bleecker Street.

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