Rachel Cusk and 'Nights of Cabiria': Maggie Gyllenhaal's Inspirations for 'The Lost Daughter'

Maggie Gyllenhaal's had some very literary influences while she was directing her first film.

the lost daughter

Like many readers in the United States, Maggie Gyllenhaal's first introduction to the work of Italian author Elena Ferrante was the collection of books known as The Neapolitan Novels, the series about the intimate friendship of two women spanning decades. She then moved onto Ferrante's Days of Abandonment, which in her words "slayed" her, and realized she wanted to direct a film based on the elusive writer's work. Unfortunately the rights to Days of Abandonment were tangled up, and Ferrante's publisher suggested she adapt The Lost Daughter.

Gyllenhaal's already award-winning film, on Netflix December 31, is a striking and stressful portrait of motherhood that dares you to turn away from realities that too often are not depicted on screen. Olivia Colman plays Leda, a professor on a Greek vacation. The first parts of the film are nearly silent as Leda studies her texts and the people around her, especially a gorgeous young woman Nina (Dakota Johnson), who carries a toddler that enchants and exasperates on her hip. As Leda and Nina's experiences in the present become intertwined, Leda starts to recall her frustrations as a young parent, and Gyllenhaal flashes back to those moments with the protagonist now being portrayed by Jessie Buckley.

Gyllenhaal immediately establishes her own cinematic voice, but she's also a voracious consumer, who took some time to walk Thrillist through the works that served as touchstones for her as she made The Lost Daughter.

The plays of Caryl Churchill

Gyllenhaal cites the British playwright Caryl Churchill, best known for her work like Top Girls and Cloud Nine, as one of her favorites, along with Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner. When working on The Lost Daughter, she kept returning to a story about a rehearsal for one of Churchill's plays.

I remember thinking about this thing I heard about Caryl Churchill, the playwright. I had a meeting once with a director who directs a lot of her work. I'm a huge fan of hers, and she's probably one of my favorite playwrights. But he told me the story that they were working on this play and they were working on a scene. They could not figure it out. She was there at the theater. And she said, "All right, give me a minute." And she sort of wrote in all these extra lines between the lines that were in the play. They did the scene, and it made sense. And they were so thrilled, and they said, "Oh, my god, great. Thank you so much. I love this rewrite." And she said, "Oh, no, no, no, this is not a rewrite. All those lines in between the ones that are written down are coming out." She was like, "Those are all the extra pebbles that you don't need to get from one place to another. You need to fill those in yourself."

The kind of work that I like, the kind of movies I like to see, movies I like to act in and, it turns out, movies I like to direct are ones where the purpose of the scene, the point of the scene is never articulated in the scene and is actually probably impossible to articulate. You could write an essay about it, but it's more the vibration between people, the 40,000 things that could be happening under the lines that contain the meaning and the purpose of the scene.

the deuce, maggie gyllenhaal
Maggie Gyllenhaal in 'The Deuce.' | HBO

HBO's The Deuce

When Gyllenhaal was working on the screenplay for The Lost Daughter, she was finishing up her run as an actor on The Deuce, David Simon's HBO drama about sex work in 1970s New York.

I was making The Deuce when I was writing. I was thinking about what it means to put a frame around something. I was very influenced by the work I was doing on that while I was writing. I remember thinking about my character on The Deuce. She starts as a street prostitute, and she becomes a filmmaker. I think she's actually kind of a born filmmaker. And the fact that it's porn, which is the only thing she has access to, is beside the point. She has a kind of like "birth of an artist" scene, the first time she goes to make a porn, and the sex is totally beside the point.

nights of cabiria
'Nights of Cabiria' | Dino de Laurentiis Cinematografica

Nights of Cabiria, Inland Empire, Don't Look Now, and many more classic films

Ask Gyllenhaal about the films that influenced her and she'll give you an impressive watchlist that she kept expanding all the way through editing.

Well, before I started shooting, there were a few films that were in my mind. Nights of Cabiria, the Fellini movie, was really inspiring to me. Inland Empire, the David Lynch movie, partially because both of those films are about going down to the darkest, deepest, most painful, most perverse parts of yourself. And from being brave enough to go there, finding a little seed sprout of life. And so, I was interested in that, in terms of my film.

I was so inspired by Nights of Cabiria, that I even thought at one point of drawing a black tear on Olivia Colman's face, like Giulietta Masina has at the end of the movie. I was thinking about Antonioni and Monica Vitti and Godard and all of his incredibly compelling women. I was thinking about the sort of classic way that women are shot and observed and adored, not in the stupid way that I don't think anyone actually finds hot if they're honest, but in an actually compelling way, where as a woman, I want to be near Monica Vitti or Anna Karina, and I want to wear their sweater. I want to cut my hair like them. And what that looks like cinematically and what that means. And then I was interested in what happens to that adored, beautiful, compelling woman? Like Dakota Johnson is in my film. What if she bursts into the frame, like she does about a third of the way through my film, and has big, massive needs and hunger and dissatisfaction and confusion? Then what happens? Then what does it look like filmic-ly? So I was thinking of that.

I was also really inspired by Lucrecia Martel, who I think is an exquisite filmmaker. And she is rarely literal. You have to use your own mind, your own heart, your own feelings to figure out where you stand and what you feel about the film. Matteo Garrone also and his film Gomorrah. He gives you so little information, and yet he keeps you compelled. And I love that feeling, where you're like, "Wait, who is that? And how is that person connected to this one?" And no one's spelling it out for me and yet. Sometimes that can lose an audience. But sometimes I can draw an audience in even deeper because I can't look away for a minute, or I'm going to miss something. And I need to know it in order to understand where I am. I love that.

Then afterward, when I was cutting, I started watching a ton of movies. My editor [Affonso Gonçalves] is very, very knowledgeable about film. And my husband, [Peter Sarsgaard], was away. He was shooting Dopesick. And so, I would go to the editing room all day. And my editor and assistant editor would sometimes chat about something, "Oh, this tone of this film kind of reminds me of The Tenant or Don't Look Now or something." And I would go, "What's The Tenant?" I'd never seen it, and then go home and watch it that night and get super inspired. Someone had given me a note that, I don't know, I needed to make it clearer who my antagonist is or something like that. And I would think, "Well, there's no antagonist, like a bad guy in [Abbas Kiarostami's] Where Is the Friend's Home?" And yet you can't take your eyes off it. I was very inspired by the films I was watching when I was cutting. And in fact, you know that scene between Ed Harris and Olivia Colman where they're eating octopus and cooking octopus at the same time? That was definitely inspired the sex scene in Don't Look Now.

Pianist Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou

Dickon Hinchcliffe's strikingly melodic score drives The Lost Daughter, but there are also some killer music cues from the likes of the Talking Heads and Bon Jovi. In the process of working on the film, Gyllenhaal was diving into a Greek band produced by Guy Picciotto of Fugazi, as well as the Ethiopian nun Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou.

I was listening to this Greek group called Xylouris White. I was listening to this album called Éthiopiques, which has this pianist on it: Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou. She was all over my temp score, and they used her in Passing. And then also if you listen to C'mon, C'mon. I don't know if they use her, or if they were just inspired by her, but it sounds so much like her. I was just thinking how interesting it is that all these people around this time had her on their mind. I used her in some of the flashbacks scenes, where young Leda is doing things that it would be easy to indict her for. And, in fact, my editor, who's got a great sense of music. He early on put like this kind of Nick Cave, Warren Ellis, really brooding, dark, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful piece of music over some of that stuff. And it just made it seem like she was Mommie Dearest. And so, I was looking for something that was soulful, but also friendly and said to the audience, "It's okay. It's scary to relate to her, but we do. Don't we? Come on. It's all right." And that worked very well for me for a while. It also felt very feminine. My editor would send me music, just kind of his inspiration. I sent him Xylouris White. We were talking about other Greek music.

Jessie Buckley loves music, and she was always sending me good music. And then Peter was basically my music supervisor. Peter and our friend, Evan, who are great friends, were always sending me great music. In fact, when I was looking for a composer and I wasn't sure I'd found one, there was a moment where I was like, "Forget it. I'm just going to have all found music. And it's all going to be found by Peter and Evan." But thank god, I found Dickon because that is such a beautiful, such an important part of the piece.

Rachel Cusk

While constructing a deeply female story, Gyllenhaal referenced an essay by the novelist Rachel Cusk where the author investigates the idea of "women's writing," examining it through the work of Simone de Beauvoir, Virginia Woolf, Chekhov, and Doris Lessing. 

There's this Rachel Cusk essay in her book called Coventry. And it's called "Shakespeare's Sisters," and it's about women's writing. It came back to it when I was cutting. She talks about women's work being about repetition in the same way that our bodies repeat. And I realized when I read it, that my film basically ends where it begins. I was very inspired by that. But just this idea that women do make work that's different than men. And what's that mean? And what does it look like?

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.