Natural Woman

Filmmaking power-couple Julia Hart and Jordan Horowitz talk to Jack Moulton about exploring untouched female perspectives in genre films, a fateful viewing of Michael Mann’s Thief, the humbling magic of babies on set, and Letterboxd’s small role in their filmmaking process.

It was really important for me to explore a side of motherhood that isn’t talked about as much and make sure that mothers know that they are seen and heard.” —⁠Julia Hart

I’m Your Woman puts the gangster’s moll, a classically underwritten character, at the heart of the action. We barely meet the gangster himself in this taut, 1970s-set crime thriller from director Julia Hart and her co-writer and producer husband Jordan Horowitz. Rachel Brosnahan occupies a tense and unusual space as Jean, wife of Eddie, a no-good chap who turns up one day with a very young baby then abruptly disappears, leaving her to raise this unnamed child.

In other versions of the story, we’d follow Eddie to a guns-blazing conclusion, but this is a Hart-Horowitz jam, so we’re quickly on the run with Jean and the baby, and we stay with her. I’m Your Woman is a compelling, unsettling twist on the genre. “What impressed me most … was how well it keeps its cards close to the vest,” writes Mikey on Letterboxd. It’s also an empathetic portrayal of new-motherhood in all its exhausting confusion, where getting a baby clean, fed and sleeping is as much a priority as finding the next safe house. “Despite valuing tension quite highly, Julia Hart still has the wherewithal to let it sit in its more tender and thoughtful moments,” writes Paul. “The ending really sneaks up on you in terms of the specific feeling it elicits.”

Marsha Stephanie Blake and Rachel Brosnahan in I’m Your Woman.
Marsha Stephanie Blake and Rachel Brosnahan in I’m Your Woman.

Hart and Horowitz have children, aged two and six, who have grown up around film sets. Before becoming a filmmaker, Hart spent her days with other people’s kids as a teacher; her 2016 debut, Miss Stevens, stars Lily Rabe as a high-school educator, but her follow-up films have been wider-ranging, from Fast Color to this year’s Stargirl. Hart credits this genre-jumping to her absolute love of movies. “I don’t have a favorite genre. I love musicals, Westerns, crime dramas, coming-of-age movies, superhero movies. It was so fun getting to learn about how to create musical numbers in Stargirl and how to direct a car chase in I’m Your Woman.”

Horowitz, meanwhile, is known for producing The Kids Are All Right and La La Land. Yes, he’s the “Guys, guys, I’m sorry, no, there’s a mistake” guy. Horowitz is also a Letterboxd member, and a hunt back through his diary reveals the date he first watched Moonlight, along with his wholesome reviews of Julia’s films. “I always tried to remember to log my movies in so many different ways,” Horowitz explains, “and then once Letterboxd came out it was a very easy solution.”

Jordan Horowitz corrects that famous Oscar mix-up.
Jordan Horowitz corrects that famous Oscar mix-up.

Horowitz keeps diligent lists of references for his upcoming films, years before they’re even announced. It’s here that the roots of I’m Your Woman are found, if you’re looking closely: a fateful viewing of Michael Mann’s Thief nearly seven years ago was the primary influence on I’m Your Woman, “especially Tuesday Weld’s character, and the moment where she is basically asked to leave the movie before James Caan burns everything to the ground,” he tells me. “Our hope with this movie was to follow some of the women in those movies that don’t necessarily get the spotlight and shift the gaze of the camera to follow this car as it drives away with her in it, instead of staying with the criminal of this movie.”

Hart picks up the thread, naming Diane Keaton in The Godfather, Ali MacGraw in The Getaway, Theresa Russell in Straight Time. “Those were interesting characters played by incredible actresses but they only have a handful of scenes so I loved the idea of exploring a woman in that world and time but telling the story through her perspective.”

Horowitz defines master filmmakers Sidney Lumet, Martin Ritt and Jonathan Demme as Hart’s “spirit animals”, for their humanist takes in multiple genres. A particular recommendation of a Lumet classic from an Amazon executive changed the way they looked at their writing. “Running on Empty has this great scene where they all sing [James Taylor’s] ‘Fire and Rain’ together. Originally in our script, the ‘Natural Woman’ scene was just [Jean] singing. After watching that movie it inspired us to consider what if the Cal character joins in with her? What happens to the moment if it becomes a bit more of a community moment?”

Bill Heck in I’m Your Woman.
Bill Heck in I’m Your Woman.

When talking about their writing process, Horowitz admits that he always has his producer hat handy: “I’m never thinking about writing for the sake of writing. I’m always keeping how we make this thing in mind. Do we have too many extras? Is this location gettable? That can help me when we get into production because I’ve already considered some of those things, but I do wish sometimes that I could just sit down as Julia does and just write.” Once the duo makes it into production, Horowitz admits “[I] definitely put writer mode behind me, to the point where we’ll be on set and someone will ask me something about the script and I’ll be like ‘I don’t know, ask Julia’ and they’ll say ‘didn’t you write it too?!’”

However, Horowitz credits Hart as the “idea generator” of the two. The premise to have Jean struggling to connect with her adoptive baby was always part of the conception of the character, largely based on conversations Hart had with mothers, pre-lockdown. “It sometimes feels like Hollywood sees mothers as a monolith where there isn’t much nuance and subtlety, especially when it comes to negative feelings about motherhood, so they’re often shamed into not talking about them,” Julia laments. “It was really important for me to explore a side of motherhood that isn’t talked about as much and make sure that mothers know that they are seen and heard.”

The decision to have a baby (performed by brothers Justin and Jameson Charles) in almost every scene was a big risk, and not one Hart took lightly. “Movie people can think what they’re doing is very important, but there’s nothing more humbling than when you’re on a whole set with hundreds of people [and] you’re waiting for a baby’s dirty diaper to be changed. It made everything feel so real and immediate, so everyone on set really had to live in the moment and adapt. You prepare, and prepare, and prepare, but you have to throw out so much if the baby is sleeping instead of crying, or crying instead of smiling. I think it’s important to portray babies as real people, because as a society we often forget that.”

Lead actress Rachel Brosnahan came on as a producer many years after the script was already in Hart and Horowitz’s heads, but Hart explains that Brosnahan brought a history and interior life, “more in the wordless moments of acting than in dialogue itself.” Along the way, Jean meets Cal and Teri, who guide her to refuge. They’re the heart of the film, and Hart elaborates on their importance to the narrative: “they have been through the hell that Jean is currently going through and her circumstances force them to go through it again, but this time they have honesty, truth and love on their side. In watching Teri and Cal, Jean starts to understand what real love, family and support are.”

Rachel Brosnahan with director and co-writer Julia Hart.
Rachel Brosnahan with director and co-writer Julia Hart.

When you examine Hart’s filmography, it’s impressive how productive she’s been in such a short time, releasing four films within five years, with those pre-schoolers under foot. Horowitz makes a comparison to a prolific filmmaker like Steven Soderbergh, who advises to “fail as fast as you can”. Horowitz acknowledges that “I don’t think we set out like, ‘we’re gonna have two children and we’re gonna make four films in five years.’ If we knew that we were gonna do that we would’ve said, ‘wow, that’s a little bit insane, maybe we shouldn’t do that!’” But they did, and the film world is richer for it.

We always like to ask about the film that made filmmakers want to become filmmakers, and Hart lands on All That Jazz. “I’ve always been a fan of Bob Fosse since his [early] work. How he turned moving your body in a way that people haven’t really moved their bodies before into an empire is very inspiring. [Roy Scheider] is also my favorite actor, which doesn’t hurt. He’s so good.” Horowitz, meanwhile, is a huge fan of Back to the Future. “That was the movie when I was a kid that just opened my eyes to the power of movies, to make you obsess and dream about what other movies could be.”

“I remember going with my parents to see Back to the Future Part II on the Friday night it opened and when we got there it was sold out. We saw some other movie, but I was so upset so all I was thinking about was Back to the Future Part II. As we were leaving the movie theater, I saw through the back little window of the screen where Back to the Future Part II was playing and watched the end scene where Marty is standing in the rain and someone comes and gives him a letter. I did not sleep the entire night. That feeling of anticipation and imagination defines the way I like to look at movies and the way they can make me feel.” A subsequent look at Horowitz’s Letterboxd diary reveals that this conversation perhaps inspired him to take a trip back in time the following day.

I’m Your Woman’ is on Amazon Prime Video now.

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