‘I’d be crazy not to cast my wife’

Bart Freundlich's new film, After the Wedding, stars his wife, the Hollywood star Julianne Moore. It was inevitable, he tells Stephen Applebaum


Bart Freundlich’s latest film, After the Wedding, marks the writer-director’s fourth with his wife, the Oscar-winning actress Julianne Moore. It is a sensitive, powerfully-acted remake of the Danish-Jewish filmmaker Susanne Bier’s Oscar-nominated drama of the same name, which manages to be simultaneously different and faithful to the original. Freundlich admits, though, that when a producer approached him to do it, one of his first thoughts was: why?

“There’s some simple reasons why people remake movies,” he says. “Usually it’s because you think you can make money off them, or you’re introducing them to an English-speaking audience who didn’t want to go and see the first film. But for me, as a filmmaker, a creative person, that wasn’t enough of a reason.”

Freundlich is talking to me from a street in New York, the city where he was born to a Jewish father, Larry, a writer and publisher, and non-Jewish mother, Debbie, a marketing consultant, in 1970, and traffic noise is cascading loudly down the phone line. “I’ll try and find a quiet spot,” he optimistically offers as a passing fire engine’s siren almost drowns him out completely.

The sound slightly improved, Freundlich says he loved Bier’s film, because it suited his “taste for things that are more complicated when it comes to characters and emotions. But,” he adds, “my concern was how I would possibly remake this movie and add anything to it.”

In the Danish version, from 2006, Mads Mikkelsen played Jacob, the manager of a Calcutta orphanage who returns to Copenhagen to meet a wealthy businessman, Jorgen, who’s considering making a substantial donation to the struggling project. While there, Jacob is invited to Jorgen’s daughter’s wedding, and finds himself unexpectedly reunited with someone from his past, setting in train a plot rife with twists and surprising revelations.

When Moore watched the film, she was “totally taken” with the Jorgen character, Freundlich remembers, because of the “explosiveness of the emotion and because he was totally like a regular human being who’s likeable when they’re likeable and unlikeable when they’re not likeable. She loved that but didn’t have designs on playing the role. However, it was enough to start to spin my wheels on imagining what it would be like if she did play it.”

One of the producers suggested he give changing the gender a go, “because as a producer you’d have to be crazy to know that someone of Julianne’s calibre was interested and not give it a try,” the director laughs. So, Freundlich transformed Jorgen into Theresa, Jacob into Isabel (played by Michelle Williams), and Jorgen’s wife into Oscar (Billy Crudup), and the “deeper reason” they’d been looking for to do the film fell into place.

Moore doesn’t generally consider roles until there is a script she can read. But the fun of writing with her in mind, enthuses her husband of 16 years, was taking “advantage of being married to someone who is such a chameleon as an actor.”

The couple met when Freundlich directed Moore in his 1997 directorial debut, The Myth of Fingerprints. They have two children together, Liv and Caleb.

“Because I live with her, we’re both very influenced by each others takes on art and life and artists, and existential philosophy. So that influenced me in writing the film. But I was more interested in seeing what she was going to do with something that was further away from who she was.

“And also, I felt like I could swing wildly and that she would find a way to infuse it with reality. . . It’s like having a great athlete who you give a challenge to.”

Part of the beauty of his After the Wedding, and something that I suggest makes it feel of the moment, is that it is a non-judgemental film about people trying to overcome judgement, and really listen to each other — something that people appear to be finding increasingly difficult to do as divisions in politics and society grow wider, and social media fragments into echo chambers.

“I’m fascinated by this topic,” says Freundlich, “and how we listen to one another and how we can really hear one another without having to feel like one is the winner and one is the loser. I mean it really is tough.

“Obviously [the film] doesn’t speak to anything political, really,” he continues, “but it can feel modern partly because it is about people being forced to listen to the reality of someone else’s perspective and figure out a way to live with that.”

His childhood exposure to two religions, Judaism and Quaker, may have informed his interest here. The former came through his father and, mainly, his grandmother — a Pole who’d arrived in America with her four sisters as a young girl.

“It was a piece of my life but it wasn’t the most important piece of my life. But I felt something important around it. I felt held by it.”

His family didn’t attend synagogue, “but we’d fast and we’d go break the fast with my grandmother,” Freundlich recalls.

“What I got from it was a feeling of community and closeness, and that was really through her and some of her friends.

“She would speak some Yiddish around me and I felt very warm about it. But what I loved most was it didn’t feel at all punitive. And what I got from it was tradition and the beginning of an understanding of the spirituality of religion. So I felt like I got the best of it.”

Brooklyn, where his grandmother settled and his father was born, has been the site of numerous antisemitic attacks recently, and Freundlich is concerned about the rising Jew-hate in America. He doesn’t see antisemitism as a stand-alone issue, though, but as part of a bigger lack of compassion and tolerance that has “permeated all of our lives, the political landscape, everywhere, but certainly the UK and the US,” and is “embodied in all kinds of racism.”

Antisemitism is one form of that, he says, “and being half-Jewish, and someone who has a connection to that community, it’s personal.”

Although he doesn’t put all the blame on Trump — “I kind of believe that this was here before our current leadership” — he thinks “it’s now been given permission to be normalised and it’s like we’ve dug up the worst of society.

“But I’m an optimist, and I believe that bringing this into the light gives us an opportunity to ferret it out on a deeper level than we have done. It’s just a matter of how we deal with this stuff, and I’m not sure.”

He pauses for moment, and all I hear is the rush of NYC.

“I’m ultimately a non-violent human being,” he says, having gathered his thoughts, “so I don’t believe, necessarily, that you can meet violence with violence and be effective.

“But when one needs to protect themselves and their communities, I think we need to be really active in protesting and pointing out what’s wrong.”

After the Wedding is on general release from November 1

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