Romantic frontier drama “The World to Come” opens the June instalment of International Film Festival Rotterdam 2021 and its director, New York and Oslo based writer-director Mona Fastvold is also set to give one of three Big Talks at the festival this week.
Since the director’s second feature made its debut last September at the Venice International Film Festival, the mid-19th century-set tale of two isolated farmers’ wives in rural upstate New York who fall in love, with the threat of disease never far away, appears to have struck a chord with people.
She says: “I would be having these conversations at festivals – before the second wave of the pandemic hit – and they would tell me about their own love stories, or a person that this film made them think of.
“I think that when we are forced to take a break and we pause and have time to reflect – we can relate more to the unexpected connection that these two women have. And then, of course, there’s the strain of being with just one person while working – that’s all something we can relate to,” she adds.
While the film was shot in Romania and the edit was locked in before COVID hit, Fastvold wound up quarantining in a Long Island sound studio with her family, some of the key actors for ADR and the sound designer.
“Being in quarantine made me view the film in a totally different way. I remember thinking while we were shooting how fragile life must have been for these people, and then here we were, right back there again,” she says.
Starring Katherine Waterston and Vanessa Kirby – whom Waterson recommended and was keen to work with – the film joins a slew of Sapphic festival pleasers in recent years that have included “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” “Ammonite” and “Disobedience.”
Speaking on a trend that is fast becoming its own genre, she adds: “I think it comes from this need for filmmakers to reclaim our past, and to say that these stories have always happened and serve a place in history even when they’re not documented.”
“There was very little written diaries from 1856 for farmers about their love life and definitely not about their queer love stories, but of course there were plenty. And we’ve seen a lot about men in that time period in that place, so why not focus on these women?”
Fastvold counters that there are “too few queer films being made.” She adds: “It’s not reflective of the society we live in and it’s even harder to get a movie financed that stars two women – it’s much easier to get films made with male protagonists.”
The struggle to find the required financial backing for female-driven stories is in part, Fastvold says, the reason why it’s taken six years for her to make her sophomore feature, following the success she enjoyed with her debut, “The Sleepwalker,” which premiered at Sundance in 2014.
“Usually people just want to keep you at a certain budget level when you’re a female director. But even for my partner [“Vox Lux” director Brady Corbet] who mostly writes female protagonists – financing these types of projects is still tricky despite talk that things are changing,” she says.
For a long time Fastvold worked on a project based on the Norwegian novel “The Bleaching Yard,” which, despite having various cast attached to it, kept falling apart, which she attributes to financing.
In the interim period, she has spent her time producing, writing and co-writing in collaboration with other directors, including Corbet (on his second feature, “Vox Lux”) and Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s “The Mustang.”
After financing on “The Bleaching Yard” project fell through for the third time, Jim Shepard and Ron Hansen’s script for “The World to Come” (based on Shepard’s short story) was directed her way by Whitaker Lader – a producer at Sea Change Media, which she co-owns with Casey Affleck (who also stars in the film with Christopher Abbott).
“This wonderful piece of writing fell in my lap, and I thought, this sounds great to not write right now. But it was not an easy film to make either – it was very hard to find partners who believed in the project and finance it,” she says.
It was mainly female financiers, she notes, who “took a chance on the project” – investors including Margarethe Baillou and her partners at Myra; Carole Baraton at French sales outfit Charades; and Lakshmi Iyengar, vice president of Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions.
“Fortunately their backing allowed me to stretch the scope of the film as much as possible because I knew that it couldn’t just be four people in a living room. They needed to be with nature, we needed to see time pass and seasons change and for it to feel lush and big and have that scope of a drama from a bygone era.”
“The World to Come” is produced by Sea Change Media and executive produced by Killer Films and Sailor Bear. Sony acquired international rights from Charades while Bleecker Street has the U.S. rights
The film is released in Poland this month, the Netherlands next month and will hit Norway in August. A theatrical date for the U.K. has yet to be announced.