Believe what you hear about Glenn Close’s performance in The Wife. Her portrayal is a revelation and she is extraordinary. Close plays Joan Castleman, devoted and supportive wife of Joe Castleman played by Jonathan Pryce. Joe has just been awarded the Nobel Prize and at the heart of the film are layers of conflict and resentment as the story of their forty-year relationship reaches a precarious juncture. Joan is the long-suffering wife and Joe is the narcissist husband obsessed with his career, but what’s the hidden tale behind his success? Adapted from the Meg Wolitzer book, Swedish director Bjorn Runge makes his English feature debut.
I caught up with Runge in Beverly Hills recently to talk about shooting the film and working on the project.
This is your first English film.
It is. When I read the script, I understood it. I’ve also been working in the theatre a lot back in Sweden staging American classics such as Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Death of a Salesman. When I read this piece, it was in a tradition that I was familiar with so to do this with American and English actors it was like a homecoming because I’d been in this ambiance of drama my entire adult life.
I loved filming it, in Glasgow and to work with both a British and American team was such a blessing for me.
It wasn’t a swift journey. When did you get involved with this?
I got attached in 2014. When Glenn Close said yes to me, after that I was involved in all the creative decisions and where we were going. For me, I can’t work on a project unless I have a passion for the script. I had a passion for this script and with that, you can survive anything where nothing happens and you don’t know if anything or nothing is going to happen. It was close to being nothing. I even got an email from Jane Anderson, the screenwriter who apologized for it not coming to life. She wrote, “Maybe we’ll collaborate in the future.” I replied, “It’s not over yet, it’s too good to not be a film.” Three or four weeks later we secured an English company to the production and it’s so strange when you think something is going to die, from the minute I read it to now, I thought it was too good to let die.
It’s thoroughly captivating from that first scene. I like how you open the film in the bedroom and what is says, or how very little it says about Joe at that point.
It’s so different from the book. I always loved that scene. He can’t sleep and you don’t know anything about those two characters. They try to make love, they have fun and cut to the phone ringing. It’s a beautiful opening. You can’t really tell much about them at that point.
Then you get to that scene where Joan comes home at 4.30 in the afternoon with Joe berating her. It’s a completely different but important moment right.
He’s coming back from the rehearsal. He’s close to being intimate with the photographer. They meet in this suite and it’s so obvious that something is odd in their relationship and we don’t understand what it is. They’re having this fight over the walnut and it’s an old habit and in the middle of it all, this phone call comes where their daughter has given birth and it’s a beautiful moment. You’re in the middle of everything and from that point on, something strong is going to happen and there’s that emotional force that takes us to the end that starts with that scene.
Was it a long shoot?
It was 32 days, two days of exterior shooting in Stockholm and the rest were interiors in Glasgow. A great team and there was a great sense of trust. It was a focused set. My ambition is to create a focus and concentration and a trusted set so the actors know we are there to take care of their acting energy in the best way.
We worked with two cameras on set. The shooting styles allowed us to capture so many emotions for when we were editing.
You talk about the actors, Glenn, Christian, and Jonathan. Like you, all have a theatrical background. How did that help your relationship?
When you work on stage, you know what it takes to do long shoots. Many scenes were two, three or four pages. There were many scenes we played with and they did many of those in one take, but we’d do additional takes and we’d track them from here in the living room to the bedroom, from the top to the bottom and that means they’d be in that scene the whole time and they wouldn’t know where we are and they’re just playing the scene over and over, changing details, trying to surprise each other.
Glenn and Jonathan wanted to challenge each other, they surprised each other and things would happen that we never planned and from there, you’d take it to the next level. We were so effective even after many takes, we often wrapped the shoot hours earlier.
Was there a scene that was particularly interesting to shoot in that sense?
The one with young David, it’s the heart of everything. He had this sense that something was wrong with his parent’s marriage. He comes to the suite and I remember that scene was really interesting to shoot. In the beginning, he was going with the violent angle. It worked with Jonathan’s character, but it didn’t work with Glenn’s character. After lunch, I told him (Max Irons), “You can do whatever you want, but when you ask your mother, “Do you ghostwrite dad’s books?” And she says, “No, David, I don’t.” There your heart needs to be broken because she’s lying to you. I want to see your heartbreak.” I didn’t tell Glenn and Jonathan about that and so when Max does that scene and says, “I don’t believe you” he starts crying.
Glenn is a great actress and she reacts in a totally different way than all the takes we had done before, so I told the cameraman to do all the retakes with Glenn and her expression. We did that and you get that sense of how fragile it was between the three of them and the price the son was paying. From there, there was no going back.
The use of flashbacks like the book was great because that’s the revelation where we learn about who Joe really is and what happened.
They give the key to Joan and the keys to the marriage, but also the key to how they are. It’s in the best world with this big secret eating them from the inside. I loved that scene in the flashback when she says, “Our characters are slightly stilted” and he replies, “Our relationship is doomed.” Suddenly, they’re sitting on the bed smoking the cigarette and they have that scene. It was such a beautiful moment, it’s another heart of the movie.
Your cinematographer captures such great shots with those close-ups.
Ulf and I have worked together on many projects together so we know each other. This film is inspired by the relationship between Ingmar Bergman and Sven Vilhem Nykvist, they worked with close-ups and shadeless lights. I’ve met Glenn many times before and I couldn’t recognize her face and the difference between seeing her in person and in some recent films. I realized it was to do with the lighting. I spoke to Ulf about lighting her softly and suddenly you could see everything that was going through her mind and I recognized her emotions and that was the key to how we worked with Glenn, Christian, and Jonathan.
It was important to see that with Glenn. I’m used to working with close-ups, I love showing the face because when you capture it in the best way, it’s the most beautiful you can see. Ulf did a remarkable job and she loved having him in front of her.