January 24, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

How Amazon’s ‘I’m Your Woman’ flips ’70s crime thrillers

Five years ago, while she watched and rewatched 1970s and ’80s crime genre classics, certain scenes lingered with filmmaker Julia Hart: the moment the study doors close on Diane Keaton’s Kay in “The Godfather,” shutting her out of her husband’s inner circle; how Tuesday Weld’s Jessie is abruptly shuffled into a car in the dead of night and sent away from the action, an infant in her arms, in “Thief.”

Female characters in movies like these often exist in service to a male protagonist’s story — when they aren’t pushed out of the narrative completely. (Or rendered mostly silent, as in Martin Scorsese’s more recent “The Irishman.”) Devouring these films with her husband, cowriter and producer Jordan Horowitz, shortly after the birth of their first child, Hart wondered about the women left to the margins of the stories on-screen.

“In ‘Thief,’ there’s a moment when Tuesday Weld’s character goes one way and the movie goes another,” said Hart, who’s built her career upending genres with female-driven stories. “But I couldn’t stop thinking about her character, about Jessie and her baby and what happened to her. How was she going to survive? How was she going to figure out what was next for her?”

Her response is now streaming on Amazon Prime (with a limited theatrical run where venues are open). “I’m Your Woman,” directed by Hart, produced by Horowitz and written by the couple, follows a 1970s gangster’s wife whose husband’s dirty deeds catapult her into a journey of self-discovery. “I wanted to tell the story of all of those women in those movies who are relegated to the sidelines,” said Hart. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to make a ’70s crime drama … but about the wife and mother, instead of the thief himself?’”

Rachel Brosnahan stars in “I’m Your Woman” as Jean, a woman on the brink of self-discovery. She also served as producer on the film: “I was so deeply honored that [Hart and Horowitz] would let me inside their beautiful partnership, to be a part of helping shape this film.”

(Amazon Studios)

It’s a brisk November afternoon and Hart and Horowitz are sitting in the garden of the Los Angeles home they share with their sons, ages 2 and 6, looking back on “I’m Your Woman,” their latest movie together. One of their earliest collaborations, the couple began writing it years ago when they first became parents — even before Hart’s film career started taking off and Horowitz was nominated for an Academy Award for producing 2016’s “La La Land.”

At the time, Hart had recently made her own leap to the director’s chair, and Horowitz was realizing he was a writer too. Fast-forward to 2020 and the duo have made and cowritten four pictures, each directed by Hart and produced by Horowitz: high school dramedy “Miss Stevens,” superheroine drama “Fast Color,” young adult musical romance “Stargirl” and now “I’m Your Woman.”

Movies have always been part of their life together. Horowitz is still producing other projects, including an Apple series with director Damien Chazelle and an Ike Barinholtz election comedy for Amazon. But he and Hart vow they’ll never write with anyone else — why would they, when creating together is so fun? In the Hart-Horowitz household, brainstorming and talking through ideas just naturally happens over dinner, or while watching films together, or while caring for their sons. If you follow them on Letterboxd, Horowitz jokes, you might even guess what kind of project they’re working on next.

Through this pandemic, the couple have kept busy writing and developing material for their own Original Headquarters banner, although they’ve had no desire to write our current COVID-19 reality into their films. “I don’t really want to watch that. I’m living it,” Hart said with the kind of clear-eyed, radical optimism that’s present throughout her work. “I’d rather watch the world as it can be and hopefully, will be soon enough again.”

I’d rather watch the world as it can be and hopefully, will be soon enough again.

Filmmaker Julia Hart

“I’m Your Woman” was filmed in fall 2019, before the health crisis began devastating lives and industries and shuttered the theatrical exhibition landscape. It isn’t the first movie the duo have released to streaming during this time: “Stargirl,” their musical YA adaptation about an effervescent teen, premiered on Disney+ in March, the week widespread shutdowns began across the country. Soon after, the pandemic exploded and the pair had to complete post-production on “I’m Your Woman” before world premiering it virtually at AFI Fest.

Like everyone, they’ve adapted. But for the most part, life during the pandemic hasn’t greatly changed how the two work, other than spending family time together 24-7, which isn’t much different from how they worked before.

“There have been a lot of horrible things that have happened, and obviously, the pandemic is very tragic,” said Hart, “but families getting to spend more time together is never a bad thing.”

Horowitz nodded. “You’ve got to find the small blessings where you can.”

Rachel Brosnahan as Jean and Arinzé Kene as Cal in "I'm Your Woman"

Rachel Brosnahan as Jean and Arinzé Kene as Cal, an associate of Eddie’s tasked with taking her into hiding. “We tried to stay true to who those women are in those movies,” said Hart. “What kind of a woman would end up in that position in the ‘70s in America?”

(Wilson Webb)

Emmy and two-time Golden Globe winner Rachel Brosnahan (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”) stars in “I’m Your Woman” as Jean, a sheltered suburban housewife married to Eddie (Bill Heck), a career criminal as charming as he is secretive. One day, Eddie brings home an infant for Jean to raise; soon, his latest job goes south. Then comes a knock on the door in the middle of the night. A panicked associate sends Jean packing with the baby, a bag of cash and a protector named Cal (Arinzé Kene), but no answers as to Eddie’s whereabouts or what, exactly, she’s supposed to do now.

From there, the similarities to Michael Mann’s 1981 neo-noir “Thief” diverge, and the two films fall into intriguing conversation with each other, decades apart. (“I’m Your Woman” is titled after a line spoken by Weld’s character to James Caan in “Thief,” and Mann is thanked in the credits.) Rather than tracking Eddie, “I’m Your Woman” stays with Jean as she grapples with sudden motherhood and the uncertainty of her new life on the lam — aided by Cal and his wife, Teri (Marsha Stephanie Blake), who reluctantly takes Jean under her wing.

The characters and story captivated Brosnahan, who makes her first foray into producing with the project. Re-centering the genre on Jean, a departure from the 1950s stand-up comedian the actress plays on her Amazon series, leads to rich interactions with Cal and Teri’s family, including their son, Paul (De’Mauri Parks), and Cal’s kindly father, Art (Frankie Faison), as well as her own baby, Harry (played by Justin and Jameson Charles) — with no shortage of danger and action.

“There have been so many dynamic and fascinating women who are the side pieces in some of these beloved films,” said Brosnahan, who was instrumental in bringing Blake on to play Teri and produced the film alongside Horowitz (she will next executive produce Amazon’s Dec. 31 all-female comedy special “Yearly Departed”). “I think it’s important that we are able to swing the lens on characters who often live in the fringes of these familiar stories.”

As they did with the superhero tale in “Fast Color,” which starred Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a woman with superpowers who was on the run, Hart and Horowitz here take a genre they love and “break” it, widening its scope. Despite writing the film years ago, it took time for the right pieces to fall into place.

“I’m Your Woman” was ambitious, with set pieces, car chases and atmospheric period detail. It would require a certain budget and the right home, particularly after what the filmmakers went through with “Fast Color,” a “heartbreaker” of an experience in which they struggled to find a distributor for the indie sci-fi darling starring Mbatha-Raw, Lorraine Toussaint and Saniyya Sidney, only to see it released onto just 25 screens and given the barest of promotion.

Unlike “Fast Color,” whose multigenerational Black heroines were not written with any background in mind before the casting stage, race and gender in “I’m Your Woman” were specific to the characters from the start. “I was interested in telling the story of a white woman coming to learn about intersectionality,” said Hart. “Understanding your oppression as a woman, but your privilege as a white one — it’s the reason our country is in the state it’s in, thanks to the ignorance of so many white women.”

She was also acutely conscious of the lens through which the story would be told. To write the protective Teri, played with nuance by “When They See Us” Emmy nominee Blake, Hart turned to the works of Angela Davis, Audre Lorde and Toni Morrison, among others, to inform her understanding of what Teri’s reality might have been at that place and time in history. “I will never take on a historic figure of another race in my work,” said Hart, who is white. “But I don’t think that that means as white creators that we shouldn’t tell inclusive, representative, diverse stories.”

Marsha Stephanie Blake as Teri in "I'm Your Woman"

“Teri is a woman who is at a point in her life where she doesn’t let people in easily,” said Marsha Stephanie Blake. “There’s a wall, and there’s a reason there’s a wall — it’s for protection, it’s for her family and it’s for survival.”

(Wilson Webb/Amazon Studios)

How Hart and Horowitz ended up making the movie with Amazon Studios actually had a lot to do with “Fast Color.” Although underseen upon release, the film garnered fans among critics and industry folks, including Amazon Studios exec Scott Foundas and former co-chief Ted Hope, who brought it to their TV arm. The company bought rights to the movie, which is now being developed as a series with Viola Davis’ JuVee Productions and LD Entertainment. Then, the studio asked: “What do you guys want to do next?”

The answer was “I’m Your Woman.” When Brosnahan came aboard to star and produce, she pitched Blake to play Teri, with whom Jean develops a crucial relationship. “I loved her strength and her silence,” said Blake. “She’s a still-waters-run-deep kind of woman.”

To play Cal, who has his own walls up around his family and their past, Hart cast a wide net and stopped searching when she met British actor Kene over Skype: “It was the version of Cal that was in my heart, in front of me.”

With Amazon’s backing, filming began last fall in the Pittsburgh area, where the filmmakers found industrial locations in the onetime Rust Belt manufacturing hub of McKeesport, Pa., and built an outdoor cabin set. Hart and Horowitz brought in crew from their previous movies, including production designer Gae S. Buckley, set decorator Patrick Cassidy, costume designer Natalie O’Brien and cinematographer Bryce Fortner, to make the 1970s setting feel present, and hired composer Aska Matsumiya, who wrote the picture’s evocative theme song within 24 hours of reading the script.

There were car stunts, which Blake in particular loved shooting, and a carefully choreographed nightclub shootout sequence tracking a chaotic scene with 300 background actors. Even so, Hart laughed, the hardest shots were moments of her youngest cast members simply sleeping. “Babies don’t know their role; they haven’t read the script,” said Brosnahan.

Hart’s set had a special energy, she said. “She’s incredibly generous with her time and her spirit and her talent, and she’s so unapologetically all of the things she is, all at once,” Brosnahan said. “It brings that out in other people. It brings out sides to them you might not ordinarily get to see on a film set, and ultimately, it makes everyone’s art better.”

Just as Hart and Horowitz had written bits of their life into the film, those moments took on new dimension as cast members found their own magic on set. In one scene, among the few sublime needle drops marrying music with a moment, Jean and Cal stop at a highway diner and bond over the Aretha Franklin classic “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”

“I literally sing that song to our kids that way,” said Hart, who’d written it into the script. “It was a song that, for me, when I became a mother, suddenly was about motherhood, and it wasn’t about a romantic partner. I just loved the idea of a mother singing that song to her child and it becoming something else completely.”

"I'm Your Woman" writer-director Julia Hart

“It’s interesting how many aspects of the film have risen up and been a part of this year, completely unintentionally,” said Hart. “Even if something isn’t literally a response to what’s happening, it can’t help but be emotionally and psychologically a response to it… because you’re living in the world as it is.”

(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

In another scene, an improvised line from Faison resonated so profoundly, Hart and Horowitz knew it had to stay in. Art, knowing the trouble that lies ahead, teaches an apprehensive Jean how to handle a gun by gently placing a pistol in her hand with a bit of advice: “Get used to the weight.”

“Get used to the way this weapon feels, that you’re going to have to control — but also, you’re going to have to get used to the weight of this new trauma in your life and what your life really is,” Hart mused of the line. Faison didn’t know at the time that Hart had always dreamed of closing out the film with another Franklin tune: Her soul cover of the Band’s “The Weight.”

After wrapping the movie last year, the words lingered with Hart. She got them tattooed below her wrist, inscribed in Horowitz’s handwriting.

“Now, it feels even more appropriate, given what the world has gone through,” said Hart. “It’s a reminder of the weight. I’ve been through my own stuff, we’ve all been through our own stuff, but there’s no walking away from it. There’s no walking around it. You just have to get used to it and live with it. You have to get used to the weight.”