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Filmmaker Letter

Filmmaker Letter

Greta

by co-screenwriter/director Neil Jordan

I was sent a script a few years ago by Ray Wright that had a beautifully simple premise. A young woman finds a handbag on a subway and returns it to its owner. She meets and befriends her, an older East European immigrant, then finds out the bag was planted deliberately. Too late, of course, since phone numbers have been exchanged, attachments and promises made….

I have always found it infuriatingly difficult to be that simple. It’s probably a genetic fault, this Irish need to complicate things (like the simple exit of Britain from the European Union). Always envied Cornell Woolrich, James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, the masters of the hook, unadorned and shameless, who sat in what I imagined were sweaty hotel rooms, banging them out on Remington typewriters.

Anyway, I was hooked by Ray’s script, but being Irish, felt the need to complicate it. Frances, the central character (and victim) was authentically drawn, lonely in a big city, missing her recently deceased mother. Greta, her evil witch and nemesis, was open to all sorts of possible shadings, and I happily dived in. I placed her just outside of the city, in Brooklyn, in a small carriage-cum-gingerbread house. I gave her a piano to play, to seduce her new friend with, having always wanted a beautiful and rather too familiar piece of classical music to turn nauseous in a story. In this instance it would be Franz Liszt’s Liebesraum. Hungarian, of course, as was Greta, in Ray’s original script.

The best way to define a character, though, is to cast it and when Isabelle Huppert agreed to play Greta, the complications (and the variations) continued. It was like being given a Steinway, after finger-picking a melody on an old upright piano. So I turned her into someone who presents herself as French, with all of the elegance and civility that that would imply. With an imagined daughter, who studies at the conservatoire in Paris. Another background which she has hidden, some dark wood beyond the Danube with all sorts of buried secrets. The Liszt and Chopin that she plays at such high volumes is to hide the strangled cries from her past (or present).

Chloë Grace Moretz agreed to play Frances, and set the stage for a love/hate affair between European guile and American innocence. I have loved Chloë’s work since Kick-Ass. Her eyes, her face, her spirit is like a splash of pure spring water.

But innocence, as any fairytale will tell you, can be more lethal than guile. In the end.

I can’t imagine anyone other than Chloë who could so guilelessly whack off a finger with a rolling-pin. And a “petit-doigt,” at that. Or, to use Greta’s native tongue, a “kisujj.”

Or anyone other than Isabelle, who when asked to turn an assassination into a ballet to the music of Chopin, would happily do it. And make you believe it.

It’s generally a man, in these kinds of thrillers. Lonely, mother-obsessed, with some deep childhood wound, fussing around a basement with duct tape and box-cutters. But, how much more fun for it to be a woman. It might not take a chainsaw to the patriarchy, but the clothes will be so much better. Chanel suits, instead of track pants and hoodies. Not to mention the Jimmy Choos.

Only the basements stay the same.

Thank you, Ray.

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