“Eddie and Jean met and fell in love. Eddie and Jean got married and bought a house. Eddie and Jean were gonna have a kid but didn’t. So, every morning, Eddie kisses Jean, Eddie leaves the house, and Jean’s alone.”
There’s quite a dazzling moment in Julia Hart’s “I’m Your Woman” (2020) that will go down as one of my favorite cinematic ones of 2020. Jean – our main character – is forced to hide in a phone booth as chaos ensues inside a disco. The camera will show us her point of view – we see the back of her and what she sees from her confinement. We hear shots – and claustrophobically watch the crowds running for shelter. Jean is stuck – trapped – in the middle of the action – observing. For someone who’s been sheltered from what’s happening, she’s now in the eye of the storm.
Jean is a fascinating character to follow – and hers has been a long time coming. She’s the type we only hear and see peripherally in other crime movies – especially the famous ones from the 70s. She’s the one who is kept on the fringes – think of the wife on the phone during the bank heist gone wrong in “Dog Day Afternoon.” Director and writer Hart (working on a co-written script with her husband and producer Jordan Horowitz) focuses on that character who’s been left out of the account. The title alludes to that fact — Jean is demanding your attention: “I’m Your Woman.” This story is about her. We follow the pulses of the familiar crime genre but from her vantage point – and it feels modern and fresh. Hart – whose previous effort “Fast Color” I wrote about earlier this year – has now catapulted onto the list of directors I most eagerly look forward to seeing what they do next.
We meet Jean in her backyard. She’s bored, waiting. She’s got on sunglasses and a garish fuchsia bathrobe that seems to be wearing her. She notices that the price tags are still on it, and she gets up to look for scissors to clip them off. It’s as if those tags are weighing her down, and she needs to free herself. Look out for details like this, for there are plenty, and they become quite meaningful. There’s not a lot being told verbally, but there’s a lot of information that will be coming to you – fast and furiously. On a second viewing this is all very rich.
Her husband – Eddie – walks in unexpectedly with a baby and hands it to her. “It’s your baby,” he says. She awkwardly takes it. No questions are asked. No background is given. Eddie is visited by cohorts, and he will close the door on her – reminiscent of the ending from “The Godfather” when Diane Keaton is kept out of the conversation. He leaves, and later in the evening, Jimmy – who works for her husband – shows up and tells her to grab the baby, take a bag of money and get out. Something’s happened, and she has to run.
She’s entrusted to Cal – an African American – who takes her to a safe house where she has to wait. The least you know the better. Worth noting is that she will undergo a dangerous journey in which she is awakened in every sense of the word. At one point, Jean exclaims “I didn’t know that I could lie like that.” There are a few other things that she will learn how to do – including developing maternal instincts and learning how to be resourceful without a man’s help. She develops a fascinating kinship with Teri – a Black woman who crosses her path. Marsha Stephanie Blake makes quite an impression in this role. Both women take control of the narrative.
Hart creates tension by keeping Jean isolated – and parsing information to her and to the audience. The action is happening outside of view – but the consequences are apparent. There’s a lot of waiting and sorting that both she and we have to do. Until we’re thrusted into a big shootout at the aforementioned discotheque – and a chase sequence that is as frightening as it is thrilling. The movie has quite a style to it — playing out the 70s vibe. Hart has a commanding sense of atmosphere and composition. It has a terrific usage of songs – recalling the way that Scorsese and Tarantino use music in their crime movies – but it’s done her way with Aretha Franklin and Richie Havens among others.
The film and central performance reminded me of John Cassavettes’ “Gloria” (1980). Rachel Brosnahan is fantastic as Jean – in a role that is miles from her Midge in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” She’s at first unrecognizable. There’s a lot that is communicated physically – in small gestures and responses. She imbues Jean with a nervous energy that is controlled as the movie progresses.
Jean: “You make me feel like a natural woman.”
Available to stream on Amazon Prime
Written by Julia Hart and Jordan Horowitz
Directed by Julia Hart
Starring Rachel Brosnahan, Arinzé Kene, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Bill Heck, Frankie Faison, Marceline Hugot and James McMenamin
Bringing “I’m Your Woman” to the Screen
One of their earliest collaborations, the couple began writing it years ago when they first became parents — even before Hart’s film career started taking off and Horowitz was nominated for an Academy Award for producing 2016’s “La La Land. At the time, Hart had recently made her own leap to the director’s chair, and Horowitz was realizing he was a writer too. Fast-forward to 2020 and the duo have made and co-written four pictures, each directed by Hart and produced by Horowitz: high school dramedy “Miss Stevens,” superheroine drama “Fast Color,” young adult musical romance “Stargirl” and now “I’m Your Woman.” Movies have always been part of their life together. Horowitz is still producing other projects, including an Apple series with director Damien Chazelle and an Ike Barinholtz election comedy for Amazon. But he and Hart vow they’ll never write with anyone else — why would they, when creating together is so fun? In the Hart-Horowitz household, brainstorming and talking through ideas just naturally happens over dinner, or while watching films together, or while caring for their sons. If you follow them on Letterboxd, Horowitz jokes, you might even guess what kind of project they’re working on next. Through this pandemic, the couple have kept busy writing and developing material for their own Original Headquarters banner, although they’ve had no desire to write our current COVID-19 reality into their films. “I don’t really want to watch that. I’m living it,” Hart said with the kind of clear-eyed, radical optimism that’s present throughout her work. “I’d rather watch the world as it can be and hopefully, will be soon enough again.”
How Hart and Horowitz ended up making the movie with Amazon Studios actually had a lot to do with “Fast Color.” Although underseen upon release, the film garnered fans among critics and industry folks, including Amazon Studios exec Scott Foundas and former co-chief Ted Hope, who brought it to their TV arm. The company bought rights to the movie, which is now being developed as a series with Viola Davis’ JuVee Productions and LD Entertainment. Then, the studio asked: “What do you guys want to do next?” The answer was “I’m Your Woman.” When Brosnahan came aboard to star and produce, she pitched Blake to play Teri, with whom Jean develops a crucial relationship. “I loved her strength and her silence,” said Blake. “She’s a still-waters-run-deep kind of woman.” To play Cal, who has his own walls up around his family and their past, Hart cast a wide net and stopped searching when she met British actor Kene over Skype: “It was the version of Cal that was in my heart, in front of me.” With Amazon’s backing, filming began last fall in the Pittsburgh area, where the filmmakers found industrial locations in the onetime Rust Belt manufacturing hub of McKeesport, Pa., and built an outdoor cabin set. Hart and Horowitz brought in crew from their previous movies, including production designer Gae S. Buckley, set decorator Patrick Cassidy, costume designer Natalie O’Brien and cinematographer Bryce Fortner, to make the 1970s setting feel present, and hired composer Aska Matsumiya, who wrote the picture’s evocative theme song within 24 hours of reading the script. There were car stunts, which Blake in particular loved shooting, and a carefully choreographed nightclub shootout sequence tracking a chaotic scene with 300 background actors. Even so, Hart laughed, the hardest shots were moments of her youngest cast members simply sleeping. “Babies don’t know their role; they haven’t read the script,” said Brosnahan. Hart’s set had a special energy, she said. “She’s incredibly generous with her time and her spirit and her talent, and she’s so unapologetically all of the things she is, all at once,” Brosnahan said. “It brings that out in other people. It brings out sides to them you might not ordinarily get to see on a film set, and ultimately, it makes everyone’s art better.”
Just as Hart and Horowitz had written bits of their life into the film, those moments took on new dimension as cast members found their own magic on set. In one scene, among the few sublime needle drops marrying music with a moment, Jean and Cal stop at a highway diner and bond over the Aretha Franklin classic “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” “I literally sing that song to our kids that way,” said Hart, who’d written it into the script. “It was a song that, for me, when I became a mother, suddenly was about motherhood, and it wasn’t about a romantic partner. I just loved the idea of a mother singing that song to her child and it becoming something else completely.” In another scene, an improvised line from Faison resonated so profoundly, Hart and Horowitz knew it had to stay in. Art, knowing the trouble that lies ahead, teaches an apprehensive Jean how to handle a gun by gently placing a pistol in her hand with a bit of advice: “Get used to the weight.” “Get used to the way this weapon feels, that you’re going to have to control — but also, you’re going to have to get used to the weight of this new trauma in your life and what your life really is,” Hart mused of the line. Faison didn’t know at the time that Hart had always dreamed of closing out the film with another Franklin tune: Her soul cover of the Band’s “The Weight.” After wrapping the movie last year, the words lingered with Hart. She got them tattooed below her wrist, inscribed in Horowitz’s handwriting. “Now, it feels even more appropriate, given what the world has gone through,” said Hart. “It’s a reminder of the weight. I’ve been through my own stuff, we’ve all been through our own stuff, but there’s no walking away from it. There’s no walking around it. You just have to get used to it and live with it. You have to get used to the weight.” (latimes.com)
Julia Hart on Rachel Brosnahan and “I’m Your Woman”
“I am a big believer in listening to other people’s thoughts but always knowing ultimately which ones to take and which ones to throw away,” says writer-director Julia Hart. “I’m definitely not a filmmaker who’s like, it’s my way or the highway. I love listening to other people’s ideas and working together to make the best movie possible.” Having never tackled the realm of crime drama, Hart was especially open to collaboration; she already had her husband and career-long writing partner, Jordan Horowitz, onboard as a co-writer and producer. She also enlisted a historian for research on everything from broad ideas down to which the bottle of wine belonged in a given scene. And then there was Rachel Brosnahan. The Emmy Award-winning “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” star had as much experience with a role like Jean as Hart had with making crime thrillers—which is to say, none, really. But to Hart, that rendered Brosnahan the perfect choice as both actor and collaborator. Brosnahan additionally signed on as a lead producer, which made her collaboration with Hart even more in-depth. “We had gotten to spend so much time together by the time we were actually filming stuff on the day that I felt like we had really locked everything in in such an exciting and and inspiring way,” Hart says. But that didn’t mean there wasn’t room for improvisation: “She’s playing most of these scenes… with a baby as a scene partner. And so what she had to do every day on set that was so extraordinary to me was take that work that we had done and sometimes completely throw it out because the scene had been scripted for the baby to be crying, but the baby’s asleep… She had to do this extraordinary improvisation.”
Jean’s journey of motherhood was one of the first foundations of Hart and Horowitz’s script. “I like telling stories about women, I like telling stories about mothers,” she says of her work; “I’m Your Woman” began to take shape five years ago, during the duo’s own then-new parenthood. That period also happened to correlate with the couple’s binge-watching of crime thrillers including Michael Mann’s “Thief.” “I couldn’t stop thinking about Tuesday Weld’s character and wondering what happened to her, where she went, was she OK, how did she manage on her own?” Hart remembers. “That happens a lot, that there’s this amazing actress playing a supporting character who’s really interesting, but at one point she gets kicked out of the movie. You think about Diane Keaton in ‘The Godfather’ and Theresa [Russell] in ‘Straight Time,’ and of course Tuesday Weld in ‘Thief.’ And so we started to wonder what it would be like to actually write her story.” And she did. But ultimately, some of Hart’s favorite moments in “I’m Your Woman” happened when she let the actors—and moreso, their characters—take the wheel. “One of my favorite stories from ‘I’m Your Woman’ was during a rehearsal with Frankie Faison and Rachel Brosnahan. Frankie came up with my favorite line in the movie, which is when Art [Faison’s character] is teaching Jean how to use a gun. He hands it to her and says, ‘Here, get used to the weight,’ ” she says. “It doesn’t have to be exactly as scripted. It just has to be good.” (backstage.com)
Composer Aska Matsumiya on Creating the Theme for “I’m Your Woman”
Sometimes when inspiration strikes, you just gotta write it down — or in Aska Matsumiya’s case, record it. The composer was on the phone with director Julia Hart discussing the possibility of her scoring “I’m Your Woman” when a melody just popped into her head. “I heard a melody and I actually paused to record a voice memo of the melody while I was speaking to Julia because I just felt so synchronized with her and the ideas that she had and what she was seeing,”…“I was like, ‘Let me get the voice memo!’ And I recorded it on my phone and then I put it together and then I shared it with Julia and then I got the job.” The piano-based melody wound up becoming the main theme of the Amazon drama, which stars Rachel Brosnahan, who’s also a producer, as Jean, a 1970s housewife and new mom who must go on the run after her criminal husband betrays his cohorts. As the story progresses, the piano score evolves into stronger and sometimes ominous cues as Jean finds herself in increasingly dangerous situations while learning to be resourceful on her own. “I also felt like [the piano] really matched the main character, the instrumentation,” Matsumiya explains. “She was going through a transformation of the environment and I kind of wanted to mix more of a masculine tone, and that’s where more of the masculine electronic stuff [comes in]. I kind of wanted to find a balance of a very feminine and very masculine score.” Matsumiya, who also scores HBO’s “Betty,” also turned to strings to mold the new sound that had to reflect Jean’s journey by the end. “I also varied the speed. I would bounce it and used lots of weird processing to find a really dark tone but that still has depth,” she shares. “Being a mother myself, the main character transforms from a very different kind of woman to a mother. I was really drawn to the script and the aesthetic of the film.” (goldderby.com)
About Producer and Co-Writer Jordan Horowitz
Jordan Horowitz is an Academy Award-nominated producer and the co-founder (with his wife, writer/director Julia Hart) of the film & television production company Original Headquarters. Jordan was a producer on “La La Land,” written and directed by Damien Chazelle and starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. At the 2017 Academy Awards, “La La Land” was nominated for a record 14 Oscars and won 6, including Best Director for Damien Chazelle and Best Actress for Emma Stone. La La Land was also awarded Best Picture at the Golden Globes, BAFTAs, PGA, and Critics Choice Awards and has grossed over $425 million worldwide. Early in his career, Jordan was a producer on Lisa Cholodenko’s “The Kids Are All Right,” starring Julianne Moore, Annette Benning and Marc Ruffalo. The film received four Academy Award nominations and won the Golden Globe for Best Picture. Most recently, Jordan completed production on “Stargirl” for Disney, directed by Julia Hart and starring Grace Vanderwall. Other recent feature credits include “Counterpart” for MRC and Starz, created by Justin Marks (“The Jungle Book”) and starring JK Simmons; “Fast Color,” directed by Julia Hart and starring Gugu-Mbatha Raw, Lorraine Toussaint and David Strathairn; “Miss Stevens”; “The Master Cleanse”; “The Keeping Room”; “Are You Here”; and “Save the Date.” Jordan is a graduate of Northwestern University…(filmindependent.org) His most recent film is “I’m Your Woman” which he co-wrote with his wife, Julia Hart and also produced.
About Director and Co-Writer Julia Hart
Julia Hart is the co-founder (with her husband, producer & writer Jordan Horowitz) of the film and television production company Original Headquarters. Her feature directorial debut MISS STEVENS premiered in competition at SXSW in 2016, where it won a Special Jury Prize for Best Actress for star Lily Rabe and was picked up for distribution by The Orchard. “Fast Color,” her second feature, stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Lorraine Toussaint and David Strathairn…Her debut script “The Keeping Room” landed on the 2012 Black List and was made into a feature directed by Daniel Barber (“Harry Brown”) and starring Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld and Sam Worthington. The film premiered at TIFF in 2014 and was subsequently released by Drafthouse Films. (beconferences.com) Her most recent films include “Fast Color” (2018), “Stargirl” and “I’m Your Woman” in 2020.