Director Tom Dolby on capturing love and loss

A man and a woman sitting down and laughing

The Artist’s Wife director and West Hollywood member shares the inspiration behind the making of his recent film ahead of our virtual screenings

By Charlotte Steinway    Above image: Bruce Dern and Lena Olin in The Artist's Wife    Monday 28 September, 2020    Short read

‘I’ve heard a lot of creative people say that the pandemic has led us to reassess our goals, values and what we want to do with our lives,’ says LA-based writer and director Tom Dolby. A similar notion of having to put the creative process on hold is explored in his latest film, The Artist’s Wife, which follows the wife (played by Lena Olin) of an estranged artist (played by Bruce Dern) battling with dementia. 

To mark the virtual screenings around the North American Houses last Friday, the writer and director tells us how the story was inspired by his own experience, and what it was like to plan a film release in the middle of a pandemic.   

You started out as a writer and novelist. What prompted you to make your way into filmmaking?

‘What I thought was going to be my fifth novel actually turned into a screenplay that became my first film, called Last Weekend. That came out in 2014, and I had always had this idea kicking around in my head about an artist — and more specifically, his wife – and their relationship. That developed over the years into The Artist’s Wife.’

In relation to the plot of The Artist’s Wife, what inspired that story for you?

‘I was really interested in the idea of a marriage between two creative people and what happens when one person has to slow down their career in favour of supporting their partner. I had noticed historically that it was almost always the woman, and I was interested in that dynamic. The dementia aspect of it came in because I was experiencing that with my own father. I saw what my mother was going through as his primary caregiver and spouse, and I hadn’t seen that reflected on screen before, so that was something I wanted to explore.’
A woman standing back from an easel to look at her work
A man leaning over to flick a lightswitch

What were some of your favourite parts about the filmmaking process, from writing the script to directing to casting?

‘I think casting is always fun, because you begin to create a family as you start populating this world for these fictional characters. We started with Claire, and we cast Lena Olin, who we were so thrilled to have involved. Then we went out to Bruce Dern – I had a feeling that the two of them would have great chemistry together, and they did. Next, we cast his daughter from a previous marriage, Angela, who’s played by Juliet Rylance. They also turned out to have a really natural dynamic that made a lot of sense for the story and helped us just keep building it out from there.’

Who were you making this film for?

‘I think the film is for everyone, but people who have been through a similar experience of having a family member with dementia will relate a lot to it. I also think that anyone who has had artistic ambitions and dreams, and has had to perhaps put them on hold at any moment in their life, will also relate to it. It’s really about how you can pick up a creative passion that you left behind and start again.’

Speaking of having to put processes on hold, did the pandemic affect the making and/ or release of the film? 

‘It didn’t affect the making, but it did affect the release. It was actually supposed to come out at the beginning of April, and about three weeks before release we decided to postpone. You know, in a weird way, even though it has taken so long for it to come out, it feels like it’s being released at the right time. I’ve had this feeling that when the pandemic ends, I want to look back on whatever I do as having been important. It feels like life is too precious and fragile to waste time on things that don’t matter. So, it felt like this film shows you that art is important and we have to stick with it, particularly in times like this.’
A man talking to another man in a kitchen

You’ve been producing incredible movies through your production agency, specifically Call Me By Your Name. How do you find moving between the perspective of a producer to that of a writer/ director of your own work?

‘I enjoy wearing the different hats. When I’m a producer, I’m able to collaborate more and I’m a little more removed from the process. But I really like being able to support other artists, other writers and other directors in the work that they’re doing. And with something like Call Me By Your Name, it turned out to be incredibly meaningful.’

What are you working on next?

‘My company has optioned a novel by Frances Mayes called Women In Sunlight. She was the author of Under The Tuscan Sun, which was made into a movie a while back. And kind of by chance, it’s a story about three women in their sixties. Instead of joining a retirement community, they decide to rent a villa in Tuscany and explore new passions. It’s funny, it came to us right around when Call Me By Your Name had just come out, and we were just about to go into post-production on The Artist’s Wife. It sort of felt like this perfect alchemy of the romance of Italy with some of the challenges of ageing.’

What is it about a protagonist being a woman in her sixties that’s so appealing to you? 

‘I think characters of that age just have so much to offer in terms of experience, wisdom and humour. They’re so underrepresented on screen, or often poorly represented, in that they are sort of reduced to stereotypes. So, I just like seeing them portrayed realistically. I think that’s really refreshing.’
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