Director Mona Fastvold examines charged relationships among settlers in 18th-century upstate New York.
Back in 2014, Scandinavian-born filmmaker Mona Fastvold made a splash at the Sundance Film Festival with her debut feature, The Sleepwalker, a slow-burn thriller about the edgy reunion of two estranged sisters in and around their secluded Massachusetts estate. This week, Fastvold is represented at the largely “virtual” Sundance Fest with the U.S. premiere of The World to Come, her compelling period drama featuring Katharine Waterston (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), Vanessa Kirby (Pieces of a Woman), Oscar-winner Casey Affleck — the subject of a cover-story profile in our upcoming April issue — and Christopher Abbott (HBO’s Girls, USA Network’s The Sinner) as settlers in a rural area of 19th-century upstate New York.
The new film — which opens Feb. 12 in limited theatrical release and March 2 on streaming platforms — begins by detailing the day-to-day drudgery of Dyer (Affleck), a taciturn farmer, and Abigail (Waterston), his stoically forlorn wife, as they cope with the demands of working their land and the tragic loss of their young daughter. But the focus shifts dramatically with the arrival of Tallie (Kirby), a vibrant newcomer to their isolated community. Tallie is such a bold, brazen life force that Abigail cannot help being drawn — slowly, awkwardly — out of her workaday misery. It takes little time for a close friendship to blossom, and just a little while longer for that friendship to evolve into something more intimate. Unfortunately, this emotional and physical bonding does not go unnoticed by Finney (Abbott), Tallie’s brutish and controlling husband.
We were fortunate to speak with Mona Fastvold before the first Sundance screening of The World to Come. Here are some highlights from our conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.
Cowboys & Indians: OK, Mona, here’s another emotionally charged drama involving characters under pressure in remote circumstances. Are you trying to establish yourself as a specialist in such stories?
Mona Fastvold: [Laughs] Isn't that what all Scandinavians do? Yeah, I do think I am drawn to such stories. At least, I really do love shooting in nature and in remote locations. To me, cinematically, it’s just very exciting. I don’t quite know how to create cinematic images of cities — they've been shot too many times before — or technology. And sometimes you can perhaps get a more pure, a more distilled way of looking at a relationship, or how two people interact, when they’re isolated. It’s definitely something that visually I’m drawn to as well.
C&I: Speaking of visual storytelling: The World to Come unfolds over the course of a year, and the seasonal changes are quite persuasive. But we’ve been told you actually had a limited shooting schedule on location in Romania.
Fastvold: It was a split shoot. So we shot one section of the film during summer and early fall. And then the beginning of the film, we shot later during early winter. So we did have quite a bit of a break where I got to edit in between. But, yeah, the film was shot in only 24 days. It was a very tough and challenging shoot for my crew and my actors and myself. It’s always ambitious when you’re trying to achieve multiple seasons. So we had to create spring, and create more fall, and then amplify the winter.
C&I: Is it true that Vanessa Kirby filmed Pieces of a Woman during the production break for The World to Come?
Fastvold: She was going back and forth between the two productions. She shot with us first, and then she went and shot with [director Kornél Mundruczó], who’s a dear friend of ours. And then she came and shot with me again. And then she went back to Kornél again, because they also had more to do. So that was interesting for her, to kind of oscillate between the two projects.
C&I: Wow. Quite a juggling act.
Fastvold: I think many actors do have periods where they are looking and searching. But if you’re lucky enough to find a part that truly speaks to you, you’ve got to jump on it because they’re few and far apart. Especially for female actors — it’s even harder to find really interesting and juicy roles. And luckily, we could work it out between the two productions.
C&I: When did you decide that Tallie should have flaming red hair?
Fastvold: Immediately after casting Vanessa. I wanted to change her appearance from how we had seen her before in other films. Gemma Hoff, the makeup and hair artist on the film, worked closely with us. Early on, she started talking about giving Tallie red hair, and giving her freckles. And I was interested in doing that, because I envisioned the first part of the film to have less color in it. Because we are in winter, and it’s freezing cold, and it’s bleak and dark. And I thought it was exciting that the first time we see Tallie, she’s just this burst of color as well.
C&I: It’s like she literally brings spring with her.
Fastvold: Yeah. I thought the idea would be that you’re in this like blue, gray, black and brown palette at the beginning, and you’re really looking forward to spring. And then there’s the awakening within Abigail that comes when Tallie arrives. And all of this is conveyed within the visual language of the film.
C&I: What drew you to this project in the first place?
Fastvold: Well, I really loved the beautiful writing by [Ron Hansen] and [Jim Shepard]. And I thought it was so rich and specific in historic detail, which is something I enjoy tremendously myself. So that was something that I just was attracted to. And then I also instinctively knew how I wanted to tell the story. And if you are fortunate enough to be given a story like this, and you just see the key and the path under it, then you’ve got to jump on it. It wasn’t so much about discovering sexuality or anything like that. It was really also about this incredible intellectual and emotional and eventually physical connection between these two women.
We’ve seen films from this time period many times before. And they’ve all been perhaps similar in some ways, especially in theme and what they're about. Isn't it exciting to see another side of this time period, a different story from this universe, which is inherently very cinematic and an exciting part of American history? It’s just sort of exciting to see it through Abigail’s and Tallie’s experiences, instead of their husbands’ experiences, which we probably have seen many times before.
C&I: On the other hand, while you make it fairly clear that Tallie and her husband Finney are extremely, even dangerously mismatched, there is an undeniable bond between Abigail and Dyer.
Fastvold: They are partners. They respect each other. There is some love there. There’s some passion there. At the time, women didn’t have the luxury of choosing someone for love or for true intellectual companionship. But still, that doesn’t make Dyer this, like, angry and jealous character. I think that I wanted to approach the character — and Casey agreed with me — in a way where we made him a little bit more modern, I guess. Because we were looking at a man who is trying to understand, really trying to understand, what’s going on. And he’s trying to help his wife out of her grief as well, although it’s hard for him to do so. But even though he doesn't have the words or the tools to do so, he is somehow trying. And there is a healing element in his actions towards the end of the film as well, which I thought was very important.
C&I: When you came on board, Affleck was already on board as a producer, right?
Fastvold: Casey was obviously a part of the package, but he left it completely up to me, even to whether or not to cast him as Dyer. He was actually a little bit on the fence, and was like, “Oh, maybe you should cast someone who seems more like a farmer.” But I thought that Casey’s sort of natural vulnerability would bring a very interesting layer to the character. And so he agreed to play the part as well as serve as producer.
C&I: You had previously worked with Christopher Abbott on The Sleepwalker, so you had a good idea what he could bring to the part of Finney. What convinced you to cast Katharine Waterston as Abigail?
Fastvold: I’ve always been an admirer of her work. I always felt that she possessed the strengths, depth, and subtleties I felt were necessary for this character. She really makes you lean in, and I love that about Katherine. Like, when she says something, she seems like she has a secret, something curious about her. She doesn’t project too much, she’s very subtle in her performance. And I thought that was important. So after she read the script, she was almost immediately in. She felt very connected to the role right away, and sort of knew what to do with it.
And then I set out to find Tallie, to find the correct pairing, because I wanted to really find someone who would have the chemistry, and kind of an opposite energy. And Vanessa came to mind really early on as well. She has this playfulness that I felt would be so wonderful for the character. And she’s got great comedic timing. And she can gain command of the room, which is really great, too.
I felt that both these two women needed to seem very strong, very capable. They’re each running a farm with their husband, and they’re hard workers. They are equal to their male partners because they work as hard, and they run these farms together with them. I thought that was a very important aspect of their characters. Sometimes in period pieces, some women can be portrayed as so dainty with their corsets and the big skirts and the curls and all that. And I thought, well, in this case, you’re completely isolated. You hardly see anyone else. And you’re working from the crack of dawn until late at night. So that’s not how you look. You roll your sleeves up, and your fingernails are dirty, and you’re strong. Just like Vanessa and Katharine.