A hushed minimalism and ethereal beauty contrasts with the characters’ rising fear and conflicts both within themselves and between one another.
Amid the rising suspense of three Southern women defending their besieged home, director Daniel Barber finds both grit and a deeply moving grace in the actions the women must take to stay alive in the face of desolate circumstances in The Keeping Room.
Based on Julia Hart’s revered 2012 Black List screenplay, and directed by Academy Award Nominated Daniel Barber (Harry Brown), The Keeping Room is a tense and uncompromising tale of survival that also shatters both gender and genre conventions.
In this radically reimagined American Western set towards the end of the Civil War, Southerner Augusta (Brit Marling, Arbitrage, The East) encounters two renegade, drunken soldiers (Sam Worthington, Avatar and Kyle Soller, BBC’s “Poldark”) who are on a mission of pillage and violence. After escaping an attempted assault, Augusta races back to the isolated farmhouse that she shares with her sister Louise (Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit, Pitch Perfect 2) and their female slave Mad (newcomer Muna Otaru.) When the pair of soldiers track Augusta down intent on exacting revenge, the trio of women are forced to take up arms to fend off their assailants, finding ways to resourcefully defend their home––and themselves––as the escalating attacks become more unpredictable and relentless.
This tense drama rife with jeopardy, is at its core an uncommon depiction of women boldly countering the impact of war on their lives; Augusta, Louise and Mad turn the very source of their vulnerability into a fierce drive to unite and survive.
Civilian women have had their worlds turned upside down by war for as long as it has existed. Often left behind by men to stitch together tattered social structures, they have been isolated, tormented and all too often targeted. The Civil War was no exception, with women facing hardship on both sides.
But the story of The Keeping Room is exceptional in making its focus three women who, for their own individual reasons and for each other, choose to stand their ground. Presaging a changing country, they unify around the very hope of moving forward together.
“I fell in love with the idea of this film,” says Barber.
“I loved the fact that it is about three equally strong but extremely different women— two sisters and a slave—who have to come together in order to stay alive. It’s a rarity to have a story about a single woman, let alone three, fighting back with real intelligence and emotion, and I was drawn to making a film in which men are very much the secondary characters. It’s a film where there is extreme conflict, but conflict seen through a uniquely feminine point of view. I was really proud to have a chance to do that, because there simply aren’t enough stories told about amazing women—and there should be more.”
Barber crafted the film to balance on the razor’s edge between the mounting anxiety of the situation and the intimate psychosocial drama that unfolds between the women.
”I knew it would be an intense story,” he notes. “But what has always interested me most is human relationships, human conflict. I hope people are drawn into The Keeping Room’s suspense, but that the characters also touch them and spark conversations about women, race and war.”
The journey of The Keeping Room began with a screenplay that could have only come from a female imagination. As the film’s lead actress, Brit Marling, puts it: “You don’t realize how much storytelling has been shaped by men writing about women until you read a woman writing about women—and that’s what was so exciting about Julia Hart’s screenplay. Her story was not about women aping masculine qualities. It was about women acting like women—using empathy and intuition, taking care of one another—to get through what seems like an impossible situation.” Marling continues: “For me, the screenplay was a rebellion, a revolt against how we typically tell stories about women. As I read it I thought, ‘please let me be part of this.’ It was such a fresh perspective.”
Perspective was something very much on the mind of screenwriter Julia Hart when she set out to write a different kind of thriller, one that would subvert common conventions. A former schoolteacher and lover of history, she was lured to the momentous, untidy final months of the Civil War—but chose to look at them through a lens rarely used, that of women left alone and trapped with seemingly few options other than to surrender to fate.
“I’ve always been fascinated by Civil War history, especially by the history of women in the Civil War, and I’ve always wanted to tell a story about them,” Hart explains. “Even more so, I’ve always wanted to see a thriller where woman are the heroes and take control of their own destinies. I didn’t want to see yet another story where men save the women. These three women in The Keeping Room set out to save themselves and each other and, to me, that was really exciting. You can literally list the number of movies where that happens on two hands.”
The Keeping Room was initially inspired when Hart was visiting friends living on a pre-Civil War farm in the South and heard the myth that came with the house on the property: two Civil War skeletons were found buried in the backyard. From that mystery, she was lured back into the past, and from her subsequent investigations and imaginings emerged Augusta, Louise and Mad—a willful tomboy, a sheltered teenager and a woman born into slavery—who are pushed to form an unlikely band of heroines.
Diving into the scarce available research, Hart read about Southern women who remained on their farms when their fathers, brothers and/or husbands left for Civil War battlefields, who became the de facto heads of their households. She also explored how, as the war drew to its bloody close and as General Sherman began his March to The Sea, those same women faced increasing hazards.
Controversy surrounds this period of history even today, especially because precise data on civilian casualties are hard to come by. Hoping for a lasting peace, Sherman’s March pooled approximately 60,000 Union soldiers to convince the populace from Atlanta to Savannah to give up the Confederate cause. Sherman himself said the intent was to “make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war.” But as so often happens in the confusion of ending war, some war-weary soldiers went off on their own, becoming so-called “bummers,” and incidents of theft, wanton destruction and sexual violence were documented.
Hart acknowledges that her screenplay has a modern, revisionist edge, but she was equally intent on bringing to life the oft-hidden experiences of women in the 1860s. “What was especially interesting to me was the chance to pare away all the noise and distraction of our contemporary lives and to hone in on what is universally human,” she says. “Today, women have many more opportunities, but in those times, when the men left, they had to learn to do everything. They had to learn to hunt, to maintain the farm. They often didn’t know how to use the guns that were left behind to help them defend themselves. In the isolation of their lives, you can really feel the source of the women’s fear.”
That said, Augusta, Louise and Mad were sculpted in part through Hart’s own 21st Century perspective. “It was important that the women have a contemporary appeal,” she explains.
“I wanted to create heroes that women would really be able to connect with.” The complex, evolving relationship between Augusta and Mad—who struggle with the era’s conceptions of race and the dehumanization of slavery on an intimate, largely unspoken level—was especially intriguing to Hart. “It was very important to me to show that a love could develop at that time between a black woman and a white woman, that these women were able to unite in being surrogate parents to Louise, that love overpowered circumstance.”
Once director Daniel Barber came on board, Hart was thrilled to find herself continuously involved at every level, remaining on set throughout the production. “Daniel was so respectful of the script, and that meant the world to me,” she says. For Barber, Hart’s script demanded that respect. “For me, story is king,” he says. “And though Julia’s script changed over time, it was always the heart of what made me so passionate.”
Hart originally developed the screenplay for The Keeping Room with her husband, Jordan Horowitz, a producer with Gilbert Films, whose previous credits include the Golden Globe winning and Academy Award® nominated contemporary drama The Kids Are All Right.
From the start, Horowitz believed the script was making its own stand, showing that female-centered stories can be as dynamically cinematic as any. “Every year, there is this conversation about whether or not women are funny, and there are a lot of movies that have proven the case. But we so rarely have the conversation of whether women can be heroic,” Horowitz points out.
The finished script seemed to spark that conversation everywhere it went and was soon named to the 2012 Black List of best unproduced screenplays. Horowitz was determined to not let it remain unproduced. He brought aboard Gary Gilbert and then Michael Sugar of Anonymous Content as executive producers. Soon after, the team at leading indie company Wind Dancer Films—Judd Payne, Matt Williams, David McFadzean and Dete Meserve along with Patrick Newall—joined as producers.
For Judd Payne, the screenplay did something uncommon: it gripped the reader while operating on multiple levels. “Julia’s voice felt as fresh as it gets,” he says. “She wrote a very smart thriller, one that has more to it than just the thrills. It can be seen as a story of female empowerment, but it’s also scary and suspenseful. To have three women turning the tables is something very unique, and we were excited to help put this movie together.”
That process started with finding a director. Unexpectedly for a film that is written by a woman, features a female leading cast and explores the experiences of women in the American Civil War, the ultimate choice for a director turned out to break the mold as a British man. Early on, Daniel Barber expressed interest. His previous film, Harry Brown, starring Michael Caine in a tour de force performance, marked Barber as a rising talent with a distinctive cinematic voice— one that had brought strong emotions and social insights to a vigilante drama. “When we saw Harry Brown and Daniel’s short The Tonto Woman, it was done,” recalls Horowitz. “We knew instantly Daniel was the right director. While this might be the story of three women in a house, Daniel—and all of us—saw it as something much bigger than that.”
Barber was elated to take on the project, and also to collaborate with a female-dominated cast in some of the most powerful roles for women he’d encountered. “I come from a matriarch- dominated family, so I’ve always been very comfortable with women,” he notes.
“My mother is a very strong woman who has chosen to continue working in her 60s, my sister is incredibly strong, and my wife is very strong-minded and talented as well. I’ve seen from them how women can have a resolve and a work ethic that is remarkable, yet comes with a very feminine point of view. I always felt that The Keeping Room was a tough story. It needed that toughness, but it also needed to allow the women space to bring a feminine touch to it.”
Though he had encountered the basics of the Civil War at school in the U.K., Barber immediately dove into more specific research, reading historical accounts, watching major documentaries and accessing the archives at the Library of Congress. “It was fascinating research,” says the director.
“I was especially interested in how many women were left to fend for themselves with next to nothing and in the trials that families went through.” At the same time, he was struck by the glaring lack of diverse voices in accounts of Civil War times. “There was actually very little written about women at home and there was almost nothing at all written about women slaves, because no one really gave a damn about them. There was no one who was thinking about their situations,” Barber notes. “So I especially loved that Mad has such a strong voice in the film. She is someone who would have been seen as nothing and no one, but in the course of the story, she becomes vital and is valued by the other women as such.”
As with Harry Brown, Barber brought a potent visual aesthetic, but one quite different from his first film—more lyrical and flowing, even amidst the stark action. A hushed minimalism and ethereal beauty contrasts with the characters’ rising fear and conflicts both within themselves and between one another. “I’m interested in challenging genre,” the director comments, “and in looking for meaning and feeling within it. I like moments of silence where the audience has the time and space to think. And I like the fact that this film is so pared back because I like dealing in situations where there is nowhere to hide and everything is exposed. I hope this story is an exciting ride, but not necessarily an easy one.”