Adapted from Elena Ferrante’s novel, this auspicious first feature marks a major moment for the Oscar nominee: “I have never felt more alive.”
Vanity Fair– Maggie Gyllenhaal really wanted to play a filmmaker. Deep into working on The Deuce, HBO’s drama series set in ’70s New York, the producer-star paved a new path forward for her character, Eileen, a sex worker introduced to the world of pornography. Instead of the business-minded mogul that had been originally envisioned, Gyllenhaal lobbied for her to emerge as a director. She proved persuasive. During filming on the show’s third and final season, which aired in 2019, Gyllenhaal acted in scenes that asserted Eileen’s artistic ambitions—and all the while, whenever the cameras stopped rolling, was conceiving the script for what would become her own directorial debut. One led to the other, Gyllenhaal tells me over Zoom: “Often, I explore things in my work before I’m brave enough to explore them in my life.” Anyone who’s followed Gyllenhaal’s career can understand the connection. This is an actor known for complex roles taken on with uncommonly bold intuition, from early breakouts in Secretary and Sherrybaby to recent highlights like The Honourable Woman and The Kindergarten Teacher. She tells stories by going far off the page, in intricate expressions and subtle gestures. “She is one of the artists in the world I most admire,” says Emma Thompson, a friend of Gyllenhaal’s. “She is serious about her work but more serious about being properly human, which is a great deal harder to get to grips with.”
Gyllenhaal has long had the qualities, in other words, of a great filmmaker. “I grew up in a time where there were some really interesting women making movies, but there weren’t very many,” she says. “I just, without thinking about it, was like, Oh, I’m an actress. I didn’t give myself the opportunity to think about director.” As the climate in Hollywood (slowly) shifted and Gyllenhaal started realizing her off-camera potential—2018’s The Kindergarten Teacher marked her film-producing debut—this desire to make a movie, “brewing in me for a long time,” suddenly appeared crystal clear. And she knew where she wanted to begin.
After a production meeting for The Kindergarten Teacher, Gyllenhaal took her fellow producers to a bookstore and bought them Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment. She’d just read the novel and felt eager to adapt it. They reached out to Ferrante’s team, only to learn the rights were stuck in development and were instead turned onto another, less-known Ferrante title: the slim, brutal The Lost Daughter. Reading the book, Gyllenhaal says, she felt that “some secret piece of my experience as a mother, as a lover, as a woman in the world was being spoken out loud for the first time.”
Gyllenhaal wrote to Ferrante that she wanted to script and direct a Lost Daughter film. It took her maybe a month to do so. Why so long? Her feeling amounted to “don’t fuck this up.” Gyllenhaal knew she didn’t want to set the book in Italy, as Ferrante did; she didn’t know how faithful she’d stay to the text otherwise. “What I had to say was, ‘I don’t know exactly how I will adapt this, but I know there are things inside it that are fundamentally interesting to me,’” she explains. Ferrante replied with her seal of approval—and a condition: Gyllenhaal had to direct the movie, “no question.” (The pseudonymous Ferrante explained why in a 2018 Guardian essay.)
“That scared me a little bit,” Gyllenhaal admits. There was no backing out now.
Recently acquired by Netflix for a December release, The Lost Daughter tells the kind of story that has characterized much of Gyllenhaal’s filmography: psychologically thorny, deeply internal, erotic, and human. It follows Leda, a literature professor and mother of two grown daughters, on an extended summer vacation. She encounters a rambunctious family, and particularly a young mother who reminds Leda of her own fraught experiences in parenthood. A sense of menace creeps in as the narrative jumps between the present day and Leda’s memories, unfurling a rigorous exploration of identity, lust, and regret.
“The scripts that appeal to me are the ones that allow space for expression,” Gyllenhaal says. “The process of taking a text as an actor, analyzing it, distilling it to, ‘Why is this scene in this movie? Why do I think it’s important?’…is, in an emotional and intellectual way, very similar to the way I worked on adapting the book.” She initially constructed it bit by bit. She’d think about a given section for weeks without putting pen to paper; once she got some extended time alone—a plane ride, say—she’d write for hours and hours straight through.
With Ferrante’s endorsement, The Lost Daughter was a go, complete with an exciting cast led by Olivia Colman as Leda, Jessie Buckley as younger Leda, and Dakota Johnson as Nina, the object of Leda’s fascination. “A big bonus for me was that Maggie was directing…but I loved the part because she’s not entirely likeable, which I’ve always found appealing,” Colman says. “All the stars aligned.”
Production was planned in New Jersey for an early 2020 launch. “New Jersey had a great tax incentive, but it never felt quite right,” Gyllenhaal says. “It was meant to be like Maine.” In any case, the pandemic hit. The U.S. Northeast seemed increasingly off the table for a COVID-safe bubble shoot, and Gyllenhaal thought of an exotic replacement location in Greece, with Leda rewritten as a tourist from abroad. “As soon as we even considered shifting to Greece—which was really just a fantasy whim I had—it took off,” Gyllenhaal says.
Financing came together fast; the logistics of transporting everyone there proved doable. Gyllenhaal even got a kind of trial run, with the chance to make a short film for Netflix’s quarantine-themed Homemade collection, months before filming started on The Lost Daughter. (It starred her husband, Peter Sarsgaard, who also features in The Lost Daughter.)
“There was a moment where I went, ‘Hold on a second, is this insane?’” Gyllenhaal recalls. “‘Can I really lead this group of people into Greece?’” She felt like Werner Herzog pulling a boat over a waterfall. “I spoke to a few epidemiologists; a part of me was almost wishing that they’d say, ‘No, no, definitely no,’” Gyllenhaal says. “But they didn’t.”
This flicker of self-doubt all but vanished once Gyllenhaal arrived in Greece: “I have never felt more alive and in the current of my life than I felt as a director.”
Gyllenhaal’s tendency to feel out a scene spontaneously went unchanged in the transition to director. “I couldn’t believe it—how I would just articulate what it was that I wanted and I saw and I felt,” she says. Having collaborated with dozens of noted filmmakers, Gyllenhaal had an epiphany while making The Lost Daughter: “When I’d felt loved on set, the work I did was exponentially more daring, more interesting, more revealing to myself about myself. And when I didn’t feel loved, I learned ways of working anyway—that’s part of our job—but it was much harder.”
The Lost Daughter taught Gyllenhaal “about being loving.” She remembers her first day of shooting on the Spetses beach in Greece—a crucial location in the film—and a specific moment in the middle of the frenzy. A million things were going on when the crew approached her to present Dagmara Domińczyk (who steals scenes as a mercurial woman around Leda’s age) in her bathing suit costume. The ritual was familiar to Gyllenhaal. (“I have been brought out in all sorts of outfits to show off my costume to the director.”) She prepared to address Domińczyk in front of the whole set. Then she paused and took the actor aside.
“In the five seconds it took me to walk over to the corner to speak with her privately,” Gyllenhaal says, “I realized the only thing to say to any actress in their bathing suit right before they shoot is, ‘You look fucking great. Now let’s work.’”
The mother of two herself, Gyllenhaal vividly captures the provocations of Ferrante’s novel, her vision attuned to Leda’s internal journey of reckoning with the stark choices made in her past. Chunks of narration are replaced with careful, unsettling close-ups; music enhances the story’s hypnotic spell, from composer Dickon Hinchliffe’s immersive opening theme to Colman’s unforgettable third-act performance of “Livin’ on a Prayer.” It’s what an adaptation should feel like: respectful of the source material, but wholly original.
Gyllenhaal showed an early cut to Emma Thompson. “I was so blown away by the film,” Thompson says now. “The slow winding of suspense and the brave plunging into the horrors of motherhood—about which no one speaks, for fear of being blamed and stigmatized forever. Trust Maggie to take it on.”
Ferrante and Gyllenhaal also exchanged letters a handful of times, over the course of production. One note from Ferrante that the director held sacred: Leda could not be depicted as “mad” or “crazy,” but at least somewhat universal. “If she’s crazy, then she lets every other person off the hook who has any kind of ambivalent feelings about their own mother, about being a mother, about being a daughter or a child,” Gyllenhaal says. “If she’s crazy, then why make this movie?” (Another Ferrante suggestion she took, albeit more reluctantly: “Take a sex scene out.”)
She committed to the ambivalent, at times vague nature of the character, imbuing her arc with a cinematic logic that borders on dreamlike. And in perhaps her richest big-screen role to date, Oscar-winner Colman felt in sync with her director: “[Leda] could be easy to write off…. She’s definitely made some mistakes, but that’s what’s intriguing! She’s clearly not mad.”
This is the first film in over 15 years to adapt Ferrante, a best-selling author whose fiction has been beloved by readers around the world for decades. (In the interim, there’s been HBO’s acclaimed Italian My Brilliant Friend series, soon returning for a third season.) It’s also the first-ever English-language adaptation of her books. Gyllenhaal sees it as no coincidence that her film is profoundly, even radically alert to the experiences of womanhood. “There are many interesting women who don’t agree with me on this, but I do think that there is such a thing as women’s filmmaking—and I’m compelled by what that means,” she says. “And I don’t think we’ve had an opportunity to really explore what that means.”
She turns to one of her greatest film inspirations, Jane Campion’s 1993 masterpiece The Piano, as the first example of when she encountered it. She saw the movie as a teenager. “I had never seen anything expressed in that way,” Gyllenhaal says. “When we’re honest with ourselves and working from our unconscious, I think the work looks like that.”
As it happens, in its bracing honesty and emotional charge, The Lost Daughter looks a lot like that too.