Neil Jordan was hooked immediately upon reading the screenplay of The Widow, written by Ray Wright, who had previously re-worked George A. Romero’s classic The Crazies. The story had the qualities of a stylish Hollywood thriller for which Jordan is known, and thus inspired, Jordan began work reshaping the screenplay into what eventually became their collaboration Greta.
“There was something intriguing about it because it was almost entirely amongst three women,” recalls Jordan. “It’s the story of the relationship between a younger woman who has lost her mother and an older woman she befriends. It was written in that spare Hollywood style. I began to work with Ray and the script, adding different elements to it. I began to write my own drafts and it became more intriguing as it went on.”
Ray Wright is a graduate of the University of Maine at Orono. As an undergraduate, he won a student fiction award for his short stories and was mentored by novelist Elaine Ford. He began writing screenplays during a brief career as a psychiatric disability claims adjuster, selling his first completed script to Warner Bros after a chance meeting with screenwriter Michael Miner at the Maine Photography & Film Workshops in Rockport. Wright is a former Fellow of the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin, a multidisciplinary graduate writing program to which he will always owe a debt of gratitude. Among his screenwriting credits is a remake of George Romero’s small town horror classic The Crazies.
Greta tells the story of Frances McCullen (Chloë Grace Moretz), a young woman struggling to fit into New York life. She has a job as a waitress in an upscale Manhattan restaurant, misses her deceased mother, and feels estranged from her newly married father. Her only true friend is Erica Penn (Maika Monroe), a boisterous 20-something from a wealthy family with whom she shares an apartment. When Frances discovers a missing handbag on the New York subway, she forms a friendship with its owner, an older woman by the name of Greta Hideg (Isabelle Huppert). They make a close connection, which causes Erica some concern since she feels that her friend has abandoned her.
“The film at its core deals with loss, grief, and loneliness,” explains James Flynn, the producer who optioned the script in September 2016. “It’s about a young contemporary woman, who is modern and forwardlooking, and an older woman who is trapped in time.”
Seamus McGarvey, cinematographer, continues: “It has all these things which make you think, ‘what a sweet story it’s going to be.’ Then, gradually, the unsettling tributaries of unease arrive. It’s done very subtly. These little harbingers of doom start appearing.”
Jordan saw Greta as a story about obsession. Every friendship begins with a promise of sorts, he believes: “‘I’ll be your friend if you’ll be mine. We’ll share things. I’ll tell you about my life, if you tell me about yours.’ If those little gestures are used in a malevolent way it becomes kind of terrifying. There was something at the base of the story which was familiar to a lot of relationships. You could touch on a lot of different aspects. That’s what good thrillers are often about. There’s often a very simple spine that you can layer and turn into an interesting movie.”
Traditionally, such narratives are normally between a man and a woman. “It’s a story about possession: an almost romantic obsession that refuses to let go. The fact that the obsessional and rather perverse elements of the story are motivated by a woman appealed to me. The fact that no males played a significant part in the story was intriguing.”
Isabelle Huppert, who was nominated for an Academy Award and won a Golden Globe for her performance in the 2016 movie Elle, interpreted the script as an ambiguous love story.
“Greta is attracted to Frances for her beauty, her youth, her innocence,” said Huppert. “You can read it as a mother-daughter relationship, which fits the situation of Chloë Grace’s character. Frances is perfect prey because she seeks a mother figure at this moment of her life. But it’s not only a mother-daughter relationship – it’s something more strange. In this film, it was important to leave a feeling of ambiguity. Something you can never really nail precisely. Is it love, attraction, a mother-daughter relationship? Nothing is defined.”
Chloë Grace Moretz also read the story as a strange romantic thriller: “It’s not a sexual thriller, but there are provocative moments. I think the relationship between Greta and Francis is obsessive.”
The filmmakers drew inspiration from masters of suspense such as Alfred Hitchcock. Simultaneously, Greta is a contemporary thriller in the vein of films such as Fatal Attraction and Misery, with various twists and turns that the audience might not see coming.
“One of the reasons I love making movies is to make people feel something,” says Maika Monroe, who plays Frances’s friend and roommate, Erica. “I feel this movie hits all the different parts of film-making that I love. Thrillers are such fun. I think we’re going to get people on the edge of their seats with this film.”
Greta dishes up moments of horror, continues Moretz: “I think it’s going to be scary. I hope people find the tangible performances in it. Each woman’s performance is really important. It’s not cheesy or heightened. It’s realistic, naturalistic. You get taken on a ride, which you don’t expect to happen.”
She laughs: “You get sucker punched, when you just went in for a hug.”
Producer James Flynn has had a long working relationship with Neil Jordan; they previously collaborated on the film Ondine and three seasons of The Borgias.
From the outset Flynn formed a collaboration with producer Lawrence Bender, known for his many collaborations with Quentin Tarantino, from Pulp Fiction to Inglorious Basterds to Kill Bill.
Bender was smitten by the story, which he describes as a unique take on a thriller: “I’m always interested in material with really good characters. I really liked the characters in this, in addition to the genre itself. One of the things I liked about this project was that the “bad guy” was a woman. It’s not that original to have a woman in jeopardy. But to have all the main characters in a thriller as women adds to the style of the movie. It elevates the genre. I like genre movies when they are more elevated.”