About Last Night…
Published May 6, 2011
KEIRA KNIGHTLEY AND SAM WORTHINGTON IN LAST NIGHT. FILM STILL COURTESY OF JOJO WHILDEN
Massy Tadjedin’s directorial debut, Last Night, tells the story of a married couple who, in a 36-hour spell, wander and test the dynamic effects of temptation. Keira Knightley, whose hallmark pout has never benefited her more, stars as Joanna, a British ex-pat and onetime novelist (now a weary magazine writer) living in New York. Her long face, rascal smile, and pursed lips—at once petulant and kind—wonderfully evince the gambling thrill and gravity that skirt a night of possible infidelity.
From the film’s outset, Joanna’s marriage to her college sweetheart, Michael (Sam Worthington), is in a funk. Smiling blithely at a party as he introduces her to his friends as “My Joanna,” she later scowls and drinks “one too many” as he flirts with his co-worker, Laura (Eva Mendes). While the young couple cap their rocky night with a forgive-and-forget marital midnight breakfast, her oversized hoodie and mopey grin, his scrambled eggs and jokes about quotidian life, imply just that: the usual.
The next morning, while Michael has gone to Philadelphia for the day on business (with Laura), Joanna runs into her ex, Alex (Guillaume Canet), who immediately suggests a physical change in Joanna: Knightley’s taut jawline loosens, she lets her hair down, she girlishly bites her bottom lip as she agrees to drinks and dinner, she sits on countertops, pauses in doorways, takes deep breaths, and sneaks smiles in between sips of wine. Is she more natural and playful with Alex? Or is it pretense?
Furnished with gestures like these, Tadjedin’s sensitivity to all four characters, not just Joanna—their disquiet, their insecurities and bait—depicts those seesawing and often precarious moments of closeness with someone else. We spoke to Tadjedin about her first film, about clothes as an extension of ourselves, and about the inevitable conversation that arose with her cast and crew: physical infidelity versus emotional infidelity.
DURGA CHEW-BOSE: You did one of my favorite things in Last Night, which is using gestures to articulate feelings. Can you speak to that?
MASSY TADJEDIN: I’m so glad you picked up on that, because I think even though it’s a talky film, relatively, so much of what happens or doesn’t happen over the course of the night is about what’s not spoken. These characters begin the night not knowing where the night will go, so there’s a lot of nervousness and anxiety, and I feel like the performances are really carrying that within the body. It was really an early decision, for me to shoot very wide so that you could really see that Joanna, Keira’s character, has a certain body movement, she has a certain comfort within her physical motions with her husband that she shifts the night she goes out with Alex. Like at the Soho House, when they’re sitting on the couch, we’re in a wide, and you can see that she’s starting off so far away from him and every time she’s having some hesitation about what she’s doing or not doing, she’s twirling her wedding ring. That was something Keira and I had spoken about even before we started filming; she started to wear her wedding ring so that she could get used to the gestures. Basically, we all take solace in the things on our body and we all say so much without words all the time.CHEW-BOSE: I was going to say, I found Keira’s side-glances, and pouty jaw, and hands to be as much a character in this film as Joanna. Like that scene when she’s sitting on the counter, avoiding Alex’s stare and playing with a pile of almonds, or when she’s getting ready in front of the mirror.
TADJEDIN: Yeah—in that scene and also at the dinner table, she has hesitation in articulating what she wants to articulate. Not trouble articulating, she’s just hesitant to say what she wants to say. She traveled a lot of that discomfort to her hands and let that be natural, like it is in life. I also feel like with Eva’s character, she’s wearing a wrap dress, and that’s a very… I keep calling it a “participatory” piece of clothing. You know if you’ve ever worn a wrap dress, you sort of have to be conscious of when it’s opening when you’re walking, when the cleavage is getting too low, when the belt needs to be tightened—you’re always engaged with it. And also for a lot of women, like me, it requires a slip under it, and if you’re worried about too much of the space between your legs being evident, if the sun hits it at the wrong angle… That was always a choice for us, because we thought if she has that sort of area to take refuge in when she’s uncertain about how forward she’s being with this man, then that can be more interesting than just having her try to seduce him. I’m so relieved and happy that you picked up on the physicality of it, because a lot of that is hopefully what gives the film a real feeling.
CHEW-BOSE: It does, and even though you picked for “the other woman” and “the other man” two somewhat traditional choices—he’s foreign and she, in comparison to Keira, her body could be seen as the classic seductress—and yet it doesn’t go that expected route, the characters fight and surprise the stereotypes. Was that something you were really conscious of?
TADJEDIN: I cast based on acting ability and chemistry alone, but I was also looking for a contrast in both of the respective temptations. Like Guillaume is a very different energy than Sam and his character, Alex, is a very different energy than Michael. And that for me, for Joanna, not just being attracted to another man but almost like envisioning another life.
CHEW-BOSE: Yeah, Michael and Alex’s friends are total opposites. Michael’s friend asks Joanna to walk his Labrador when he’s out of town; and Alex’s friends are, well, Griffin Dunne—who is persuasive and daring, and definitely does not own a Labrador.
TADJEDIN: Only when we were shooting was I like, “Oh, I get it. Alex is the French lover.” Because it seems like there was reference made to it to which I can only honestly say, I didn’t plan it that way. And with Eva, I knew that she had played the other women before in films but I guess, to be honest with you, I know Laura is ostensibly on the page “the other woman,” but for me, she’s very different from the other three characters because she’s morally, arguably, more clear and less hypocritical than the other three and she might be the most vulnerable of the three. So she was never in my head “the temptress” who’s seducing the husband. I always saw her as a woman who is most tempting in her worldview, which is that life is not about these alignments that you make and these marriages and relationships; life is about what you can snatch, and if you can snatch a moment with someone you’re attracted to, then snatch it. And also, Eva herself, I believe every actor has a couple a qualities that you can’t ever take out of any performance so you should also embrace that for how it’s working, and she’s very warm and non judgmental.
CHEW-BOSE: On set, despite it not being important to the film’s heart, what was the conversation like with cast and crew about which type of infidelity is more damaging: emotionally cheating versus physically cheating?
TADJEDIN: It was so divided.
CHEW-BOSE: Between men and women?
TADJEDIN: No, well, our crew was predominantly men. What was so weird was that the crew and everyone we spoke to while filming, they weren’t divided on male/female lines, they were divided by whatever someone’s personal experience was. I genuinely don’t believe it’s divided across the male/female line, but what I do think is interesting, and this is still a generalization because I think all this stuff is just different based on your own experience, but it’s possible that men are less likely to recognize emotional infidelity because the relationship has remained platonic and a line hasn’t been exactly crossed. They’re less likely to necessarily flag it. Right now we’re so in this age of communication where everyone from your past is an email address or Facebook message away, that every chapter of your life is still potentially available, and we’re also in an age where email and texting is private—there’s a lot of contact. There is more opportunity for these connections to be categorized as emotional infidelity.
CHEW-BOSE: Off camera, did personal issues of infidelity come up? What I mean is, did it ever feel “too close” for anyone?
TADJEDIN: All four of them have lived, and all four of them have been in relationships, and I think anyone who’s ever been in a relationship will feel close to one if not all of these characters. The tone of the script was always honest, so it felt like a very compassionate portrait—hopefully, no one is vilified in this film. So there was an openness on set. Those performances had to have come from a place of really understanding, you know, that life can take these really circuitous turns.
CHEW-BOSE: Yeah, it’s a very long and dicey night…
TADJEDIN: Yes. And those are the nights we remember for a very long time.
LAST NIGHT IS OUT TODAY IN LIMITED RELEASE.