“With Colette I feel like there’s an inspiration in it that’s very much in tune with today’s #metoo movement. It’s about a woman overcoming oppression and claiming her voice – the parallels are obvious.”
Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette has been a source of inspiration and fascination for countless readers ever since she first rose to fame — and infamy — in early 20th century France, and is now realised on the big screen.
Although Colette’s semi-autobiographical Claudine novels were ghost-written for her exploitative husband, Henry Gauthier-Villars (or ‘Willy’), she broke free of the relationship and became a sensation on her own terms. Chéri (1920) and Gigi (1944) were written under her own name and went on to become beloved novels, the latter of which was adapted into a now iconic musical by MGM in 1958. Unafraid to expose elements of her sometimes-scandalous personal life through thinly veiled fiction, Colette was, says writer/director Wash Westmoreland, “well ahead of the curve.”
Unconventional country girl Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley) has married charismatic egomaniacal man of letters, fourteen years her senior, known by the single name, ‘Willy.’ (Dominic West).
Through his auspices, Colette is introduced into the fecund world of the artistic demimonde in Paris where her creative appetite is sparked. Ever quick to capitalise on talent, Willy permits Colette to write her novels only if she does so in his name.
The phenomenal success of her Claudine series makes Willy a famous writer and Colette and Willy the first modern celebrity couple. Although they are the toast of the town, lack of recognition for her work begins to gnaw on Colette.
Their marriage starts to internally combust, fueled by Willy’s infidelities and Colette’s growing interest in women – particularly her relationship with the non-conforming Marquise de Belbeuf (Denise Gough) – but emotionally and artistically, she cannot break free of him.
On a downward slide, Willy resorts to increasingly desperate measures to pay his debts and sabotage his wife but Colette is developing resources of her own!
For almost two decades now, Colette has fascinated and inspired the Yorkshire-born Westmoreland.
“For many years I worked with my partner Richard Glatzer, developing scripts and directing together,” he says. “We were co-writers, co-directors and life partners. It was around 1999, Richard started reading a lot of Colette – both her fiction and various biographies – and he got me reading her too. We realized there was a great movie in there, especially if you focus on her first marriage: It was a really pivotal time, the beginning of the modern age – a tectonic shift was happening in gender roles; women were demanding more power in all areas of life and men were resisting, with all their might. All that seemed to be represented through this marriage of two tremendous characters: Colette and Willy.”
Eighteen years later, after achieving critical praise for bold and affecting dramas like Quinceañera (2006) and Still Alice (2014), Westmoreland has finally brought Colette’s story to the big screen with his most ambitious movie yet, though it is also his first solo directing credit on a feature. Sadly, his partner Richard passed away due to complications from ALS on 10 March, 2015, just two weeks after he saw his Still Alice star Julianne Moore win an Oscar for her brilliant performance as a woman suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s disease.
“Colette is a fantastic story that I thought was so relevant,” says Pamela Koffler of Killer Films, which produced Westmoreland and Glatzer’s previous two movies, as well as Colette. “I also felt it was about a very well-known artist whose real story I don’t think a lot of people truly know.”
For producer Elizabeth Karlsen of Number 9 Films, the story’s biggest appeal was that “it is a female-driven narrative, about a woman who was incredibly important in terms of the history of women’s literature and politics. She questioned social mores, sexuality, gender. She was a game-changer.” But, Karlsen adds, “it is funny as well, with a lot of wit and warmth.”
It is certainly a subject that Westmoreland holds close to his heart, having developed it for so long in partnership with Glatzer. For Keira Knightley, the Oscar-nominated actor Westmoreland chose to embody Colette, his passion for the project was nothing less than inspiring.
“Wash’s attachment to Colette is huge,” she says. “Huge, huge, huge. His love of her is absolute. I think he has a personal connection with her, and that level of passion is rare in a director — or in anyone really. Just the fact that he’d stuck with this project and he had this history with it… You couldn’t help but be impressed by that.”
Westmoreland and Glatzer travelled to France in the summer of 2001 to start writing the first draft of a script originally titled, “Colette and Willy”. The plan was to work in a Parisian apartment they’d borrowed from a friend, but when the pair arrived they found it had actually been rented out.
“We didn’t have anywhere to stay, and then this other friend of ours said, ‘Oh, I have a little place in the country. It’s very isolated. You can go there if you want,’ Westmoreland relates. “It turned out to be a dilapidated 15th century manor house with a big mill pond and a bell tower – with bats in it! It was amazing. No internet, no TV. It was really cut off from technology. And so, in that silence we managed to write the first draft in 10 days. It came out very fast and very focused.”
Westmoreland and Glatzer were careful not to announce they were working on a film about Colette. “Because, you know: who are these two outsiders coming into France, claiming this French national heroine?” laughs Westmoreland. But they did tell the friend who’d lent them the manor house, who then mentioned what they were doing to her aunt, who turned out to be close friends with Anne De Jouvenel — none other than Colette’s grand-daughter. “So the one person we mentioned it to in the whole of France led us to the controller of the Colette estate in one move,” Westmoreland marvels. “Next thing we know, we’re in Paris having a cup of tea with the Baroness De Jouvenel. We became friends with her and she’s blessed the project with the estate’s approval and given us the use of all the Colette writings that appear in the script. Which was obviously a huge gift.”
Yet that didn’t make fine-tuning the script any less challenging for Glatzer and Westmoreland, a process that would take another 16 years and 20 drafts. “Every year we’d keep trying to hone down the story, because there was so much information, and often life doesn’t fall naturally into a nice, three-act structure. Figuring out how to tell the story in a way that worked as a feature film was a monumental task.”
They took inspiration, Westmoreland says, from Colette herself. Namely the way she was unafraid to tweak, reorder and whittle the messy details of real life for the benefit of good drama.
“Everything in the story is based on a true event, but sometimes you have to change some details in order for the story to work.” For example, they created more of an overlap between Colette’s break-up with Willy and the development of her relationship with Mathilde de Morny, Marquise de Belbeuf — known as Missy — a lesbian who adopted male dress and attitudes. “It worked narratively and conceptually for these two characters, Willy and Missy, to impact one another more directly.”
As the script gradually evolved, Westmoreland and Glatzer wrote and directed three other films but, says Westmoreland, “Colette was always on our minds.” After Julianne Moore’s triumph at the Academy Awards, Westmoreland wondered what they should do next. Glatzer, whose condition was so advanced by now that he was hospitalised and could only communicate by using an iPad text-to-voice app with one of his toes, was certain of the answer: “C-O-L-E-T-T-E,” he slowly typed. “‘Okay’ I said, ‘This is what we’re doing next.’”
Glatzer died just a couple of weeks later. “It was a very difficult, very dark time and I was in deep grief but the movie gave me something to focus on,” says Westmoreland. “I decided: ‘I want to make Colette to extend his legacy, and I want to use the connection I had developed with him to creatively and artistically shape this film in the present tense.” Naturally, Westmoreland felt the absence of his partner keenly, in the writing process as much as anything else. “I was just struggling on my own,” he admits.
Producer Elizabeth Karlsen suggested to Westmoreland and Koffler that he consider taking on a new co-writer to help him reach the final draft. “I knew we had to tread very carefully, because it was so sensitive for him,” she says. “I know he was very nervous, because obviously that relationship with Richard had spanned two decades.”
Westmoreland’s initial reaction was, “No, no, never. Not in a million years!” But Karlsen and Koffler gently persisted and asked him simply to look at a list of potential collaborators.
“First person on the list was Rebecca Lenkiewicz,” recalls Westmoreland. As the screenwriter of Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida, he was well aware of her work – the movie had been awarded the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar the same night as Moore’s win for Still Alice. “I loved Ida so much, so I was like, ‘Oh let’s meet’. I was in L.A and Rebecca was in London, so we really had a Skype relationship for quite a few months. But we immediately started vibing on each other’s ideas. She brought so much to it, just untold inspiration, freshness, insights… a much-needed woman’s perspective. She was a tremendous collaborator. And still is.”
The completion of Colette represents the conclusion of a long, emotional and personal journey for Wash Westmoreland. He’s held no other film project so close, for so long. Over the years, he and Glatzer even came to identify with their subjects, he admits. “I think whenever you write someone in a screenplay you find a way of relating to them. And for us as a pair of co-writers it was interesting to look at Colette and Willy as a writing relationship… Of course there was a squabble about who was Colette and who was Willy!” he laughs. “That one never got resolved…”
There is no doubt that Westmoreland finds much to admire in Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, and confirms she’s a source of inspiration in his own life. “She was a survivor. She just kept going. She broke through and stayed true to her artistic voice. Those are things I try to do. So I’d say I’ve learned a tremendous amount from Colette during this whole process.”
He hopes the audience for his and Glatzer’s film will also find something to learn from. “Colette’s life is just a very inspiring story,” he says. “And I think stories can change the world. With Colette I feel like there’s an inspiration in it that’s very much in tune with today’s #metoo movement. It’s about a woman overcoming oppression and claiming her voice – the parallels are obvious.”
“The struggle of the under-represented and the disempowered being heard is a big theme,” says Pamela Koffler. “Women have started to seize some power, and the story of who holds the power, and how that power causes the story to be written in a certain way, is what’s happening right now. I think our story is just another example of exactly that, but from a hundred years ago. And I think that will resonate.”
“It’s a film about a woman finding a voice, and using that voice, and having an impact, and that does definitely feed into that discussion,” says Elizabeth Karlsen. In Colette’s case, the ownership of that voice was taken by her husband. With ‘Me Too’, women finally have a platform and are being listened to, and are being believed. So the two are definitely related. Plus, I think women are just starved of seeing themselves in all their brilliance and all their flaws on-screen.”
Denise Gough agrees, “There are so many women in history who we know nothing about,” she says, “because their stories are not really seen as things that can sell movies. I’m seeing signs that sort of thing is starting to change.”