Where have you been, Joyce?
Blond tumbles across the screen, blond hair catching the lights of the mall, refracting in the glimmer of the sun, as gold as the gold-painted convertible jalopy that stalks her. This is Connie, she is 15, a little taller, a little more mature-looking, but still very much a child, trying on the identity of adult femininity like trying on a new lipstick at the retail counter. “Everything about her had two sides to it, one for home and one for anywhere that was not home: her walk, which could be childlike and bobbing, or languid enough to make anyone think she was hearing music in her head; her mouth, which was pale and smirking most of the time, but bright and pink on these evenings out,” wrote Joyce Carol Oates in her short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” First published in Epoch Magazine in 1966, it's an eerie ode to the serial killers of the Sixties and the youth folk ballads of Bob Dylan. It’s that wild innocence that attracts Arnold Friend to Connie’s door one afternoon when she’s home alone; an older man who lures and threatens her with a ride in his car. In the 1985 film “Smooth Talk,” Joyce Chopra directed Treat Williams and Laura Dern as Connie, based on a script by Chopra’s husband, Tom Cole. Previously, Chopra had been a documentary filmmaker, whose work included a notable self-reflective video essay on new motherhood and career goals with a confessional but matter-of-fact sensibility called “Joyce at 34.” Later, she would adapt another of Oates’ works, “Blonde,” a fictional account of the life of Marilyn Monroe. Now a resident of Charlottesville, Va., Chopra previously lived in Kent and Roxbury, Conn. Her new book, “Lady Director” takes a look back at her multi-decade career — Joyce at 86.
Alexander Wilburn: Your film “Smooth Talk” was recently inducted into The Criterion Collection, how did they approach you?
Joyce Chopra: It was all through the producer of the film, and Criterion was very happy to have it, and they took other films of mine as well, all the others are documentaries. I’m so honored to be in The Criterion Collection, it’s wonderful.
It must feel like a real moment as a director. I would imagine there’s a thrill getting the Criterion copy.
Absolutely. Yes, you understand, I was thrilled.
I think it really means you’ve created lasting art, which doesn’t always end up being true for every director.
I have two films I feel that way about. I did a documentary called “Joyce at 34” which is in the permanent collection in the Museum of Modern Art, and when that happened — my god, I have a film in the Museum of Modern Art. Criterion was wonderful to deal with, they went through the negatives and color-corrected and cleaned them up, they did a great job.
You’re there with a fairly small number of female directors in Criterion, Claire Denis, Agnès Varda, Sofia Coppola… not a ton.
There can’t be, because there aren’t that many prominent women directors. I haven’t looked to see what the percentage is, but when you think of how few feature films were made by women it’s not surprising.
What was the landscape for you like when you were starting your career?
In 1958 I couldn’t think of any women directors, I thought I was crazy to even think of something like that. There weren’t any film schools and there weren’t any history books about women who made movies all through the 1920s and 30s. There were quite a few. Dorothy Arzner… that all disappeared in the 1940s. It was not easy to do something like that. But I did. I just kept trying to get a way in, some way or the other. It’s still not great for women as film directors, but it’s gotten a lot better for women as television directors.
It really does feel like our present television industry has opened a landscape for women that has been closed off in film.
I think it’s changed in the years, particularly after the MeToo movement. I did an episode of “Law & Order: SVU” in the early 2000s, they were going into their fourth season, and there are… I don’t know, 20 episodes a season? They had only hired two women in those four years. When they hired me, the producer who ran the show was constantly over my shoulder, found fault with everything I did, and made me so nervous. He was really horrid to deal with and I was never, quote end quote, “asked back.” It really was like that up until three or four years ago, and now about 40% of episodic television is being directed by women. Not features… but that’ll come, that’ll come.
How did you first encounter the Joyce Carol Oates story “Smooth Talk” is based on?
I found it in the O. Henry Prize short story collection. Joyce Carol Oates and my husband, Tom were both selected for prizes that year. I could never forget the story, it just terrified me.
It’s a very unnerving story about youth, even if the end is quite interpretative.
What do you mean by interpretive?
Open to interpretation I should have said. It’s not conclusive, you imagine with some horror what happens to Connie in the end once she gets in Arnold's car.
It’s allegorical. We changed the ending because we couldn’t possibly film that ending. My husband wrote the script and we couldn’t bear to kill our character. We wrote the ending while we were filming, we just learned so much through the filming process based on how Laura Dern was playing Connie.
Another big change from story to the screen was the time period.
We tried to be vague about it, but on the other hand, we made it in 1985, but there are no computers, no cell phones. So it’s hard to… when did you think the film was set?
I did feel like there was the shadow of Reagan over the film. But maybe that’s my interpretation of it, looking back at it as someone who wasn’t alive then.
Possibly. In the story there aren’t many details, there’s no father, there’s no town, and there’s a lot for the reader to fill in, so in a way, it was an easy story to adapt. Joyce Carol Oates suggests with a sentence here and there what would become whole scenes in the film. Most of the story is Connie’s confrontation with Arnold Friend, which we changed very little of, although Treat [Williams] changed some of it. He didn’t want to say what Arnold says in the story, “If you don’t come out I’ll burn your house down.” He changed it to “What if I burned your house down?” It fits in more with the way he was playing Arnold. Do you know how I found Treat Williams? He went to The Kent School. He was roommates with the man who became head of the school, Father [Richardson] Dick Schell. I was talking to Dick, we were rather friendly, and when he mentioned his former roommate Treat Williams I said, “Oh I’d love to cast him as this character.” So hurray for Litchfield County!
I read Laura Dern was discovered on the beach in California.
Yes, my producer was on the phone with a woman who lived on Malibu Colony Beach, complaining about how we hadn’t found anyone to play Connie. And this woman said, “I know her.” She was acting as if Connie the character was a real person. She said, “She’s walking by my window right now.” It was very odd. But the girl was Laura Dern. So I called Laura to set up an audition, and on her answering machine was playing the song that’s in the script, “Handy Man” by James Taylor. There’s another coincidence. James at that time was living in Kent. This was a Kent production. That’s why I’m happy to come back and talk there. James Taylor was a neighbor, he came by our house one night for dinner. He knew Tom and I were writing a script and were excited about it. He asked to read it and he came back the next night and said, “I want to be part of this, I want to write music for it.” I was very fortunate with all these connections, and then Laura was perfect.
She’s a great reactor on screen, you can read so much into her face during that very long scene she does with Treat Williams.
I have no idea how she does it, but she’s very in the moment. Treat was very active at that point, he was booking a lot of film jobs, so he could only give us one week of his time. We ran out of time and we still had to film the close-ups of Laura behind the screen door. Treat had left, so I read off-camera for Laura. She could have performed with a lamppost.
You would never know that watching.
You could never tell in a million years.
You had a screening of "Smooth Talk" recently and another coming up on Nov. 20 at Film Forum in New York.
There’s a film festival where I live in Charlottesville called The Virginia Film Festival and they showed it the other night. For me, it was a big night, and it was a big audience. I think the reaction was bigger than ever. People were, I can’t say awestruck, that’s so ridiculous, but I felt the audience was really knocked out about it.
There have been other adaptations of Joyce Carol Oates' work since "Smooth Talk," including some French films like "The Double Lover" by François Ozon, but you were one of the first.
And now there’s "Blonde" that’s just come out on Netflix.
I was going to ask you about that.
Have you seen it?
I have. You had your own adaptation of the book.
CBS did a miniseries of "Blonde" in 2001. I wasn’t involved with the script writing, but I directed and we did have a terrific cast. It’s strange now that the new “Blonde” has come out, and I’ve been doing interviews. People want to know what I thought of it, and I’m not very eager to say. I was told it would be really good publicity because Hollywood Reporter wanted to interview me, but I said I don’t want to say negative things about it and I didn't want to see it. [Andrew Dominik] has been trying to make “Blonde” for 10 years, and I sympathize with that. I finally… got talked into it. So I watched the new “Blonde” the night before the Hollywood Reporter interview, but I managed to avoid saying what I really thought. I don’t like saying negative things about another director. I wouldn’t want anyone to do it to me.
Dominik's film has been controversial with critics, some have written it feels exploitative of its female character When it came to your adaptations of Joyce Carol Oates' work, do you think there was something about having a female director adapt a female author’s fiction?
My husband Tom, who unfortunately died a while back — we shared in conceiving the scenes, but he did the actual dialogue writing. He would always surprise me, with things I never would have thought of. When Tom died The New York Times did an obit, and they called Laura to ask what it was like working with him. I’ll misquote her, but she said something like, “Here was this 50-year-old male MIT professor telling me what it was like to be a teenage girl... And he was so wonderful and so able to help me with this role.” That was the biggest compliment Tom could have gotten. I don’t feel my being a woman had to do with anything, it was working with Tom, that was the world we wanted to create.
Joyce Chopra will discuss her book “Lady Director: Adventures in Hollywood, Television and Beyond” on Nov. 18 at House of Books in Kent, Conn.