Jane Anderson on “Olive Kitteridge” and the continued relevance of “If These Walls Could Talk 2”

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Out writer/producer/director Jane Anderson was behind the an award-winning adaptation of The Prizewinner of Defiance, Ohio, so her new HBO mini-series based on the novel Olive Kitteridge is also poised for critical acclaim. Written by Jane and directed by Lisa Cholodenko (High Art, The Kids Are All Right), the two-parter stars Frances McDormand as a seemingly harsh woman living in a small New England town. What might sound banal is actually quite intriguing.

Jane is masterful at pulling on the heartstrings, as she did in her previous work with Normal and the “1961” segment from the lesbian-themed film If These Walls Could Talk 2. Olive is her fourth project with HBO (including her 1993 film The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom), which she says is largely due to the network’s willingness to go “outside the box.”

“They give you a lot of creative leeway,” Jane said. “They’re so interested in breaking the usual mold. That’s what every writer needs.”

Adapting a book that Jane says is “quiet and small” proved somewhat challenging, so she ended up moving some of the scenes around to make it more cinematic.

"Olive Kitteridge" New York Premiere - Arrivals

“I wanted to give it a little bit of edge just to get everyone’s attention,” Jane said, “so starting out the first two minutes with Olive having a picnic and bringing out a revolver—whenever you bring something like that out, I knew the audience could sit up and pay attention then I can just sit back and relax, go back and just tell the damn story.”

Jane said she had a feeling of “absolute awe” when she first read Olive Kitteridge, and she wondered, “Please God, how can I do justice to this?” But she also commends author Elizabeth Strout on giving her full permission to create her world on screen.

“She’s lovely and basically said ‘It’s yours now, do what you have to do,'” Jane said. “For a screenwriter to have a healthy relationship [with the author, is so great]. And then I handed it over to Lisa.”

Jane worked to develop Olive with star Frances McDormand for two years before Lisa Cholodenko was brought in to direct.

“By the time I got the scripts together and finished them all, they were in really good shape. So then Lisa came on,” Jane said. “We met in pre-production and she went over the scripts with me and just asked lots of questions—what was I envisioning here, why were characters doing this—just all of the really important sub-texty things that a director needs to ask before they start shooting a script and digging in and casting. Then from then on I just handed it over into Lisa’s incredibly capable hands.”

Jane with “Olive” stars Richard Jenkins, Frances McDormand and director Lisa Cholodenko
'Olive Kitteridge' - Photocall - 71st Venice Film Festival
Having directed herself, Jane said she knows how important it is to let directors direct without writer’s input on set.

“My philosophy about the screenwriter/director relationship is that once a director is on the set, it’s their baby,” Jane said. “And I stay completely out of the way because filmmaking is a series of collaborations. So it starts with the script and then the script is handed over to the director to direct the material. I’ve visited the set a couple of times to rewrite but the script was pretty much set and my job was done. As a director, I know on set, looking at what you’re doing and making suggestions—it became a collaboration between her and Fran, director and actor. It was time for me to step back.”

Olive airs 14 years after If These Walls Could Talk 2 premiered on HBO, and the segment Jane wrote, starring Vanessa Redgrave as a grieving widow after her longtime partner sides, is still a tearjerker. However, times have changed a little since then, as the story focused on Edie (Redgrave) not being able to see her partner in the hospital and having no rights to her body, possessions or even their shared house after her passing. Although we now have the ability to file as domestic partners, civil unions and marriages in some states, there are several places where we do not have full the kind of access to our life partners that male-female couples do.

Jane, who is married to her partner of almost 30 years, Tess Ayers, says the kinds of progress that has been made in marriage equality has been mind-blowing.

“I can’t tell you how far we’ve come. I’m so impressed with our community. It’s breathtaking,” Jane said. “What happened with the supreme court last summer that was one of the greatest days of our lives. [If These Walls Could Talk 2] is still quite relevant. We need to be reminded of these things. The lack of validity and the sense of shame back then was overwhelming.”

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Jane praises shows like Transparent for continuing the kind of conversations on visibility we need to be having, and is working on a new film that has similar themes to If These Walls… that is set in the 1950s. Jane thinks it’s “still really important” that our stories our shared and told so that the new gay millennials are aware of the work that has been done for the progress made.

“Even to admit you were a gay girl was almost unheard of,” Jane said of her college years. “I went a year to Emerson in Boston, dropped out and went straight to New York City to be an actor. There were a couple of really horrible [gay] bars.”

Although Jane wouldn’t say much else about her upcoming project (it hasn’t been greenlit yet), it sounds like her work on important LGBT-themed projects will not stop anytime soon. Everything Jane does have a hand in, though, is from a queer feminist perspective, which is why Olive Kitteridge is worth tuning in for this Sunday, November 2nd on HBO.

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