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Director Craig William Macneill on 'Lizzie,' Rethought for the #MeToo Era

by Frank J. Avella
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Wednesday Sep 12, 2018

The notorious Lizzie Borden continues to beguile and fascinate audiences over a century after she may or may not have taken an axe and chopped up her biological father and stepmother. A legion of books, films, TV shows, docs and stage plays have chronicled the grisly tale, most of them leaning into the (widely held) belief that Lizzie was indeed guilty, even though she was exonerated for the crimes, following a 6-month trial that became a media sensation. She was the O.J. of her time.

It was believed that the jury found Lizzie innocent because they could not fathom that such an upstanding young lady could commit such heinous acts.

Craig William Macneill's new indie, "Lizzie," explores areas of the story that have heretofore gone unexamined. Bryce Kass's screenplay takes quite a number of liberties with the Borden story (including a theory about the father that has no factual basis), creating a Lizzie for the #metoo/Times Up gen (although the screenplay was written before the movement began). This Lizzie is a heroine who not only stands up to the patriarchy, but also literally hacks it into pieces.

In addition, the film examines the protagonist's sexuality in a new and compelling manner. Many accounts show that Lizzie had relationships with women later in life. "Lizzie" wonders if her sexual life may have started in that infamous house, before the murder.

Chloë Sevigny is a most potent Lizzie and Kristen Stewart is quite effective as her long-suffering housemaid. Rounding out the cast is Jamey Sheridan as Lizzie's stern and unyielding father, Fiona Shaw as her stepmom and Denis O'Hare, playing a menacing uncle.

"Lizzie" is Sevigny's long-gestating passion project. Macneill, helming his second feature (after "The Boy"), handles the tale with great care. It's an exquisite film to watch.

EDGE recently had a chance to e-chat with the filmmaker.

A media sensation

EDGE: Can you tell us how you got involved in the project and how your interest in Lizzie Borden came about?

Craig William Macneill: I grew up close to Fall River and was terrified by tales of Lizzie Borden throughout my childhood. She was this dark spark of inspiration in me and my older brothers' attempts to terrify one another. I came across the project when my reps sent me the screenplay. I remember them asking me if I had ever heard of the legend of Lizzie Borden. Of course, I immediately jumped at the opportunity. I then met with producer, Naomi Despres, Chloë, and writer Bryce Kass. Shortly after that, we attached producer Liz Destro and locked in the financing.

EDGE: Have you seen any of the previous films - "The Legend of Lizzie Borden," the Elizabeth Montgomery TV film comes immediately to mind) or the numerous docs?

Craig William Macneill: I've seen bits and pieces from the Elizabeth Montgomery film and some docs here and there over the years.

EDGE: Why do you think Lizzie continues to beguile people?

Craig William Macneill: It's one of our country's most popular unsolved murder mysteries. And I think because it's unsolved - and never will be solved - it continues to captivate us. Also her trial was one of the first in American history to be covered nationwide by newspapers and magazines, She was a media sensation.

Working with Chloë Sevigny and Kristen Stewart

EDGE: Was the focus of the feature always going to zero in on Lizzie's relationship with Bridget?

Craig William Macneill: Yeah, we wanted to explore the events that surround the killings while taking a close look at the relationship she formed with Bridget.

EDGE: Tell us a bit about Chloë's involvement and working with her and Kristen on the film.

Craig William Macneill: Chloë developed (the film) and had been attached to play Lizzie for years. I loved working with her. She's magnetic and has this great sense of uncertainty to her - which makes her extremely exciting to watch... Kristen was attached before I came on board. I believe she was Chloë's first choice for Bridget.

EDGE: Can you speak to casting Shaw, Sheridan and O'Hare?

Craig William Macneill: Andrew was a very villainous one-sided character on page, so I thought it was important to cast an actor who has a warmth to him. I first saw Jamie in "The Ice Storm" back in the late 90s and was really moved by his performance. Fiona was the lead in a show ("Channel Zero: Candle Cove") that I directed in 2016. We loved working with one another and quickly became great friends... She brought so much to the character. She's the best. Our casting directors, Jessica Kelly and Kate Geller, suggested Dennis. We all loved his work and were lucky to have him come on board.

Was there a relationship?

EDGE: You had a very short shooting schedule, what was that challenge like?

Craig William Macneill: It was challenging to pull off a period film on a tight budget and schedule. The story takes place in New England, but for financial reasons we shot in Savannah, Georgia. Savannah doesn't really look much like 1890s New England so we had to suggest rather than show the outside world. As a result, we had to carefully design our shots in advance in order to avoid things like modern fixtures of nearby homes that might be visible through windows, etc. Basically everything had to be avoided.

EDGE: The idea that both women were involved with one another is an interesting hypothesis, but was there any real evidence to back it up, besides Lizzie's later relationships with women?

Craig William Macneill: One interesting thing about this story is that you can visit the murder site, read the police reports, the court transcripts, but then you reach a void. We'll never know what happened that house on that day and we never will. So, creatively, it's exciting to fill in those gaps. Of course we don't know if Lizzie and Bridget were involved and planned this together. However, I can say that I spent the night in that house and I found the walls and floors to be very thin. If you're downstairs, you can hear a glass fall from upstairs. The only people in that house on the day of the murders (that we know of) were Bridget and Lizzie. I think it's pretty unlikely that both of them did not hear those brutal murders take place. Abby was struck 17 times in the head. And Andrew, about 9 or 10. I would think that would make some noise.

'Trial of the Century'

EDGE: Can you speak a bit about how you handled the intimate scenes between the two women? Was there apprehension on how far to take these moments?

Craig William Macneill: I thought it was important to keep Lizzie and Bridget clothed for the love scene to separate it from the murder sequences - and not glamorize it in anyway. We shot the sequence handheld, which gave the scene an energy that helped ground the moment while also allowing the two women to move around and take the scene in any direction they felt like going. We lit the space and Chloë, Kristen, Noah, and I loosely blocked out some of the actions. But that was it. There wasn't any real apprehension on how far to take it knowing that they'd remain clothed -and that we had very little time to shoot the scene.

EDGE: The trial was seen as the "trial of the century" at the time, yet the film shows us little of the actual testimony, can you discuss that decision as well as the choice not to show us any of Lizzie or Bridget's lives post-trial.

Craig William Macneill: We had cuts that included some of that material, but the film was running long so we all collectively put our heads together and explored different ways to present the story. Ultimately we found, through many small test screenings and internal discussions, that the current structure proved to be the most captivating and clear.

EDGE: Many people, including myself, have visited the Lizzie Borden House in Fall River. I'm assuming you have. Do you have a story to share about it?

Craig William Macneill: Yea, Chloë, Elizabeth (production designer), Noah (DP), and I spent the night a week before we began pre-production. I woke up in the middle of the night, a bit terrified. It just felt really unsettling being in there at night. I spent the next hour or so wandering around the house thinking about the film. At some point I sat down in the room where Andrew Borden was murdered and just hung out in there for a while in the dark. And while I was sitting there I had a flash of inspiration and immediately realized how I wanted to film and stage the murder sequence. What you see in the film is almost exactly how I had envisioned the scenario that night.

"Lizzie" opens in limited release on September 14th. To find out when it comes to a theater near you, visit the film's website.

Watch the trailer to "Lizzie."

Frank J. Avella is a film and theatre journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He is also a proud Dramatists Guild member and a recipient of a 2018 Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship. He was awarded a 2015 Fellowship Award from the NJ State Council on the Arts, the 2016 Helene Wurlitzer Residency Grant and the Chesley/Bumbalo Foundation Playwright Award for his play Consent, which was also a 2012 semifinalist for the O'Neill. His play, Vatican Falls, took part in the 2017 Planet Connections Festivity and Frank was nominated for Outstanding Playwriting. Lured was a semifinalist for the 2018 O'Neill and received a 2018 Arch and Bruce Brown Foundation Grant. Lured will premiere in 2018 in NYC and 2019 in Rome, Italy. LuredThePlay.com


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