When Sebastián Lelio signed on to direct Disobedience, he certainly had his work cut out for him: aside from it being his first film in the English language, he's about as far removed from the story as one can be: he's not an Orthodox Jew, he's not from North London, he's not a lesbian—or even a woman, for that matter.
Yet the Chilean Oscar-winning director of A Fantastic Woman is no stranger to telling stories different from his own, and he handles his latest film with the delicate and decisive touch that's come to be expected from his movies. With a team of consultants and his co-writer, British playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Lelio was able to bring a daunting tale to life with rich authenticity and emotional depth.
Disobedience is the startling tale of two lesbian women torn apart by the stiff gender roles of the Orthodox Jewish community. It tells the story of Ronit (Rachel Weisz), the daughter of a rabbi who escapes the Orthodox Jewish faith by fleeing her community in North London to pursue photography in New York City, much to the chagrin of her family. When she returns for her father's funeral, old relationships are tested—in particular with her childhood lover, Esti (Rachel McAdams).
To prepare for the formidable task of adapting Disobedience from Naomi Alderman's novel (Alderman being a former member of the British Orthodox Jewish community), Lelio thought of the story as if it were a fairytale. Read on to find out why that helped him laser in on the emotional arcs of his characters, as well as how he handled the material sensitively and worked with his cast and team to create a fulfilling filming process for everyone involved.
OUT: What was your initial impression upon reading the novel, and how’d the initial script morph into the final product?
Lelio: Actually, before reading the novel one of the producers of the film, Frida Torresblanco, she explained to me what the story was about, and it sounded so good. The dynamics between the characters, the environment where everything takes place, it’s like time travel. They’re living in a different era. Even thought Ronit’s character is modern, and closer to us. I just love that paradox.
Then I read the novel, and of course I knew Rachel Weisz was attached, which was a big thing that made me say yes, because I love her. She’s really nice and a great actress. I was more or less paralyzed at the beginning. I’m not British, it was my first film in English, I’m not Jewish… so I’m trying to write and I couldn’t even touch the keyboard.
Then I thought of it more as a mythical tale, so… it’s the story of a princess living in exile. That comes back to the realm from where she was expelled because the king died. And now the throne is empty, and the successor is her friend, who is now married to her first love, Esti. And that was my way in. I could relax about the cultural nuances that I was never going to be able to get it right at that stage. I went into the characters’ arc and the architecture of the entire script, and after that I started to have consultants and advisors so I could give life to that, and bring the cultural texture into the script.
Then Rebecca Lenkiewicz, the co-writer, came on board, and she was absolutely essential. She’s from London, lives not too far from that neighborhood. She really brought life to the script.
Did you bring on any Orthodox Jewish consultants?
We had 3 or 4 during the writing process. Including Naomi Alderman, the author of the novel. She wrote the book while she was part of the community. In a certain way she wrote her way out of it. And then later on I became really obsessed about it and had more consultants for the team. We wanted to get it right, in terms of costumes, behaviors, what’s hanging on the walls… everything. And then in order to forget about it, and focus on what I cared about most, which was the characters. The three of them.
Have any Orthodox people seen the film?
Not yet—it’s just coming out, so we’ll know soon. If they see it.
Do you feel like there’s a thesis you have with what the film is saying about organized religion, and specifically this community?
I would say that this specific cultural environment is North London Orthodox… it has it’s own set of rules and traditions and ancestry. It’s very sophisticated. And there’s that. But then I think what’s behind the story is the eternal tension between duty and desire. Between moral law and our desire. I think that can be expressed in Orthodox Jewish communities, or in the military, or in Chilé, for example… I hope it’s universal. Because it’s a vehicle to talk about something deeper. I’m saying this with respect to the culture, because I learned to respect it and I learned so much about them.
Were you intimidated at all to tackle this kind of female-centric story as a man?
I’ve never been afraid of approaching worlds that are not mine. I think that’s probably why I make films—it’s an opportunity to create a bridge, or a time travel channel to explore unknown territories. I made a film about a 58-year-old woman. Then I made a film about a transgender woman. And I’m not either of those things. But I learned so much from them. Here it’s the same case.
Do you feel like there’s a big lesson you learned about yourself from doing this?
I’ll never forget this film—I really love it for a lot of reasons, but it’s my first film in English. Of course I suffered, because you suffer when you make a film. It’s like going to war. That’s what making a film is. But it’s a sacred war. But going to war with this team was such a luxury. It was a good experience.
Is it just a coincidence that two films in a row now have been queer-centric? Even though A Fantastic Woman is a very different film—are you specifically drawn to queer storylines?
You know, I think what I’m attracted to is the fact that these characters are somehow on the fringes of narrative. Or you can say society. Which are maybe the same thing. I feel very connected to the idea of paying attention to them and bringing them to the absolute center. And to create stories around them and say ‘You deserve a film.’ I like to try to make these complex portraits, where I can see them from every possible angle, and go through the emotional spectrum, and fall and stand up again.
How did you handle the sex scene, and make it feel consensual, and safe?
It was a long, natural organic conversation we had with the actresses, during the entire process of getting to know each other. I always said I thought that scene was the heart of the film. Probably that scene and the climax, in the synagogue. But when it comes to the lovers, that’s the heart. I always knew it had to be long. And it had to be very specific. I didn’t want to make it about nudity, but about being specific. So we can see what they do. When you have a lover, and you know the other person, you find ways of expressing your love and pleasure that are absolutely unique. I was really obsessed with trying to find their specificity. I storyboarded the entire sequence. They knew, the two Rachels, that the scene was going to have these stations: leaning against the table, then on the floor, then by the window. So it seems like they are lost in pleasure, but everything was very designed and controlled. They were so generous and daring.
Did Rachel McAdams immediately come to mind for you in terms of casting?
She was always one of the actresses I was fantasizing about. There wasn’t anyone else I was considering at the same level for this role. Something about the combination of the two Rachels—they are very alike and different at the same time. Their characters are like the same person, but also like the inverse. One escaped, and lost her origins, and one stayed, and repressed who she is.
Do you feel like there’s an element of this story that’s personal for you?
I believe in the power of disobedience. Having disobeyed several times in my life has made me who I am.