Stars and Director Discuss the Thriller
This Friday obsession turns to madness in the dramatic thriller Unforgettable. Recently the film's stars—Katherine Heigl, Rosario Dawson, Geoff Stults and Cheryl Ladd—got together with longtime producer/first-time director Denise Di Novi and producer Alison Greenspan to meet with members of the media where the conversation touched on everything from the origins of the film and plot-driven sex scenes to insanity and online catfishing. Like the movie itself, this freewheeling press conference was never dull, and here are just a few highlights.
The Seeds of Unforgettable
Denise Di Novi: It was an original idea. We had been hearing a lot of stories about the dynamic between first wives and second wives, and how it can go wrong. So we developed this script and we were excited about doing a “two-women thriller.”
Alison Greenspan: I think we were also excited about the idea of showing that the ex-wife is not always the “good guy” and that the new wife is not always the “bad guy.” So the idea of turning that on its head felt really fresh and exciting to us.
Producer Turns Director
Denise Di Novi: We had prepared a list of other women directors for the studio and the studio executives had the idea for me to direct the film. I have been at Warner Bros. for over 20 years, so they know me very well and I’ve produced a lot of different kinds of movies for them (including Batman Returns, Practical Magic, Message in a Bottle, A Walk to Remember, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Nights in Rodanthe, Life As We Know It and Crazy, Stupid, Love.), and they said, “You know what? We think that you should direct this.” And I literally did not have one second of hesitation. It just felt like the right thing to do at the right time, and an incredible opportunity.
Alison Greenspan: Just to add to that, because Denise has had the breadth of experience she has working with great filmmakers, when she stepped on the set there was the utmost respect from the crew and the cast. She is a natural and now I look at her with that scope and only that scope. It was a very seamless transition. Also, Denise and I and our company have a reputation for really understanding and exposing the psychology of women and the dynamics that go on between them.
Denise Di Novi: As terrifying as it was to think about making the transition [from producer to director], it was really a thrilling opportunity. It was great to work with Alison, who I’ve been working with for more than 15 years, so it was a great situation and very comfortable for me. And it was a story that I really connected with very deeply. The themes in the movie really spoke to me about a lot of female conditioning in our culture; kind of this tyranny of perfectionism where we feel like we have to be perfect and do everything right, and we can’t share our weaknesses. On the other hand, I felt like it was a really fun ride. It was a classic thriller and I’ve always been a fan of this genre. Adrian Lyne (Fatal Attraction, 9 ½ Weeks) is one of my favorite directors, so it looked like a great combination for me.
Meet Tessa Connover
Katherine Heigl: I actually approach every character from the wardrobe; I don’t know why [laughs]. Maybe that’s super shallow, but Denise and I really worked together on that and it set the tone for me as to how [Tessa] would hold herself. And the hair…well, that was a mistake [laughs]. It works great for the film, it just didn’t really work for my head [laughs]. All of that is how I started to dive into Tessa’s personality, because there’s something about all of that—the clothing, the shoes, the hair, the make-up. It changes the way you hold yourself. It changes the way you express yourself.
And then I just really wanted there to be some sympathy for Tessa; I know that sounds strange. I felt compassion for her and I wanted to have moments where we could do that. So she wasn’t just maniacal and insane. She was heartbroken and insecure and afraid and aging, and not knowing how to deal with any of it. I think she’s in huge denial and she’s repressing so much. She doesn’t even allow any emotion to come out when her mother hurts her feelings or makes her feel small. Nothing, she contains it all. I’ve done that on occasion where I sort of stuff it down and stuff it down and then you have a…well, I usually don’t try to kill people…but [laughs].
Meet Julia Banks
Rosario Dawson: I think that [Julia] almost has the benefit of having experienced very distinct trauma that she can isolate. My character has had some very distinct moments: a father who was an alcoholic and a boyfriend who was very physically abusive to her, so she got psychological help for it. So she’s actually braced with tools in a different way [than Tessa]. So you’re seeing a woman who was a victim, who was a survivor, and now she’s really putting those tools to work to become someone who’s thriving. It’s really beautiful to see that you can feel a similarity [between these two women], but there’s a missed opportunity for these two women to relate very closely to each other. Instead what’s different about them has made it a competition as opposed to a commonality, which is unfortunate.
Meet Helen (Tessa's Mom)
Cheryl Ladd: I felt that [Helen] came from a long line of perfectionist women and that expectations were very high, and emotions were really kept low and stuffed. I think that she thinks she’s the greatest mother on the planet because she loves her daughter, but that constant demand for perfection and her inability to hide her disappointment just crushes her daughter. I have no sense that I’m hurting her. I think I’m trying to help her because that’s what you do, you help your daughter and I want her to be happy…
Katherine Heigl: Yes, I could sense that…[laughs].
Cheryl Ladd: I loved her in the sense that the character had a “true north,” and I think that’s what you see; there’s not much wavering and yet she was full of hidden emotion herself and you could kind of see that behind the eyes.
Meet David Connover
Geoff Stults: All I know is that two really beautiful women were fighting over me, so I was happy [laughs]. This was really an interesting experience, because, as you can see, I’m really outnumbered and my opinion didn’t really matter a lot. So I learned to just be quiet [laughs]. No, I actually talked a lot with Denise about this in the beginning and the phrase that got used a lot about the character of David is that he is sort of like "the perfect man," who is between two very powerful women who are very different. It was really about David trying to navigate it all. The first thing is that David and Tessa are parents and they’re trying to raise their child peacefully, and then you add in David falling in love with someone else, and in a town small enough where everybody knows each other. So it was about trying to figure out how that dynamic would realistically play out, although you add in some psychosis, too.
Denise Di Novi: Geoff made it look easy, but if I did not have a guy who would make you believe that both of these women would go this far then the movie would not have worked. With his true masculinity and strength and there’s also a goodness to him so you believe that David wants to do the right thing. He wants to be a good ex-husband, he wants to be a good co-parent and a good new husband. He’s trying really hard and he has a lot of integrity there.
Katherine Heigl: I think for me it starts with the compassion. I had compassion for Tessa and I felt sorry for her and I kind of identified with her fear, really. Her crazy is really borne out of insecurity and fear. She is terrified of not being perfect, of not achieving perfection in her life, in her marriage and with her child and in herself. I guess she has some idea that if she doesn’t [achieve perfection], her whole world will fall apart. The desperation to hold on to it and maintain it is what drives her to make choices that any sane person would not make, but you want it to feel honest. That there’s a reason for each one of these choices and why things keep going further and further, because she’s not getting the results she wants.
The hardest thing I had to do was make Isabella cry. Even now I feel so terrible about it. And that’s where I started to lose a little bit of my compassion for Tessa and I had to find a way to understand why she was doing it. And, again, she truly believes she’s doing the right thing for her child. She’s teaching her a very valuable lesson: You only have one mother and don’t alienate me. All of it was coming from a place of sincerity. It wasn’t just to be outrageous or just to be crazy.
Sex Scenes on Film
Geoff Stults: If you think about it, [having a female director] is a very different perspective than if it would have been a dude behind the camera [for the sex scenes]. There’s nothing gratuitous about them and they served a purpose. I shouldn’t disparage a male director, but I think with Denise there everything that we did with any initimacy or sexiness was done for a very specific reason. There was so much care and thought that went into them and we talked about them quite a bit.
There was very sweet loving stuff [between Julia and David] and then as Tessa was manipulating things and pulling some strings, we were unraveling a bit. Like the bathroom scene is a very desperate act. This is the first time that this perfect love story between David and Julia has like its first fight. It’s the first time that the way David touched her and looked at her changed. It wasn’t as loving, and that was terrifying for her, so the sex was very desperate and out of control. It was the first time when our relationship was out of control.
Denise Di Novi: As a producer I have been on set for a lot of sex scenes, so I really knew what I didn’t want to do. They are very difficult to shoot, they’re very uncomfortable for people, no matter what they say, and I really wanted it to be a real story point and to really have emotional impact. I think [Rosario and David's] performances are really vivid in that bathroom scene. I think you really feel what’s going on, it’s not just about watching them have sex.
I also didn’t want my actresses to have no clothes on. I didn’t think there was any reason for that. I knew that both of these women could be incredibly sexy and still have enough clothes on to be comfortable. I think that most sex scenes in movies are not sexy at all. Rarely do I think a sex scene is sexy, so I really had the ambition to make a sexy scene where they weren’t naked and it wasn’t just a montage. That it was related to the story and that it deepened the movie.
Denise Di Novi: I think that we would all have to admit that we Google people before we meet them, but what’s the step after that? When Tessa is Googling Julia, you can see why she would do it and it seemed kind of normal. But this happens all the time, I think they call it “catfishing.” I wasn’t even aware when we started this movie, how common this is. When we were shooting it, people started saying, “Oh, that happened to me” and “This happens all the time.”
I think it is terrifying because it’s a violation and it’s dangerous. It can really hit you where you live emotionally. I think there’s some value in seeing how when you’re alone at home on your computer with a glass of wine, like in the movie, you may go further than you ever would if this didn’t exist. There has to be some consciousness about the boundaries that we should try to keep.
Rosario Dawson: What I loved about this was the opportunity to work with a bunch of remarkable women and tell a very multi-faceted story about women that didn’t have to have them be perfect. I think what was interesting was watching these different women struggle with the idea of perfection. And how in this striving for perfection how much gets lost along the way for each of them with miscommunications and missed opportunities and possibilities because you’re so caught up in the knee-jerk reactions or the heat of the moment and the distraction of anger. I felt like a part of every single one of those women. There was no “she’s bad” and “she’s the good person.” I’ve definitely not handled “upset” well [in my own life] and I’ve gone a little crazy. So I think this is an interesting thing to explore. To see these different women within the full spectrum of what it means to be passionate. I thought it was really beautiful to see such a full range.
Unforgettable arrives in theaters this Friday. Tickets are on sale now.