by director/co-writer Wash Westmoreland
In the summer of 2001, I set off for France with my partner Richard Glatzer with the grand plan of writing a screenplay about Colette. We had been reading her novels and biographies for over a year and were inspired by much of what we found out about this brilliant, brazen, trail-blazing woman. It seemed to us, the story of her first marriage—to a pompous but entertaining entrepreneur known as Willy who took credit for her work—was a natural, fresh narrative for a feature film.
The story takes place around the turn of the twentieth century when many new technologies were being developed, from automobiles, to telephones, to movie projectors. It was the new developments in perceptions of gender and sexuality that held more interest for us. So much of this seemed to be refracted through the prism of this marriage between these two unlikely characters.
We didn’t have much money and were relying to the large extent on the fact that it was August and we’d be able to crash in the empty apartments of absent Parisian friends. The first few weeks were spent visiting the haunts of the Belle Epoque, often with disappointing results. “L”Assommoir,” the absinthe bar made known by Zola, was now a post office; the famous bohemian enclave “Le Chat Noir” was a brightly-lit gift shop; and the Moulin Rouge had somehow become a Vegas-style night club with barely a can-can in sight. There was still a plaque outside marking the fact that here in 1907 a riot took place when Colette performed a scandalous play. But occasionally, unexpectedly, on a street corner in Montmartre or an alleyway in Pigalle, a doorway to the past would open up and we’d catch a momentary glimpse or a particular smell of the city where Colette and Willy once walked.
There was a certain secrecy to our mission: we didn’t want to advertise that two foreigners were crashing into France to make a film about their beloved literary heroine. The one friend we did confide in proved to be a great ally. Knowing the tenancy in our Paris apartment was about to expire, she told us of a semi-abandoned family home called “La Roche,” two hundred miles South of Paris in a lesser-visited region called the Allier.
We rented a car and set off. La Roche turned out to be completely isolated; a sixteenth century manor house that had a bell tower with a large colony of bats in it. Inside, the stone walls were adorned with dusty portraits and cobweb ridden hunting trophies. Day to day life there was pretty rudimentary, but it was a gift to any writer; no phone, no TV, no internet!
I look back on it now as a golden time. We slept and ate and worked. We had no company but each other. Together we fell into the script. The first draft was done in 10 days. A lot of the writing was done in school notebooks—very similar, we imagined, to the ones Colette used writing her Claudine novels—then typed into a small, unreliable laptop. Just as we finished, our friend visited from Paris. “I hope you don’t mind, she said, “I mentioned it to my aunt—she is very good friends with someone called Baroness de Jouvenel.” We were astonished. Anne de Jouvenel is not only the step-granddaughter of Colette but the controller of the entire Colette estate.
A week later we were in Paris talking to the Baroness. We’d splashed out on expensive wine and cheeses, but she only wanted to drink water. She listened to our shaky French entreaties with a Gallic aloofness. But then, at the end of the interview she gave us her blessing to move forward with the project. We were elated, and amazed. The one person we had mentioned the project to in the whole of France had led us here.
That was sixteen years ago.
In the intervening time, Colette has gone through over twenty drafts, a couple of title changes, and a few false starts. We always held on to our dream project and the feeling we had at the time we wrote it.
In 2011, Richard developed a lisp in his speech that on further investigation, turned out to be ALS. Rather than retreating into self-pity and depression, he spent the last few years of his life hell-bent on making movies. The last one of which was Still Alice. We actually watched the 2015 Oscars from the ICU at Cedars-Sinai. It did not stop us from celebrating. And afterwards, I asked him what he wanted to do next. He was almost completely paralyzed at that time and managed to type on a special device with one toe: C-O-L-E-T-T-E. A few days later he passed. It was clear what I had to do.
Some scripts, when you’ve had them for a few years, can gather dust and start to feel they are no longer in touch with the times. It’s a sad thing for a writer to come to terms with. With Colette, it was the opposite. Her characteristically fearless approach to the gender barriers she faced has made this story more current with every passing year. With the recent #metoo and #timesup movement, it has found extraordinary historical parallels.
When writing a piece like this for the Landmark audience, I feel somewhat ashamed that my prose style is so much lower than Colette’s. As anyone who has read her novels knows, she is a formidable writer. But I assuage these feelings of inadequacy with the hope that some of the feeling of the time we spent in France in 2001, and some of the feeling of the time of Colette one hundred years before, somehow wound up in this film.
Los Angeles 2018