Ottessa Moshfegh and Luke Goebel Want to Make a Movie About Rats
About midway through the movie Eileen, a beautiful woman compliments a younger girl’s dreams. “I bet you dream of other worlds,” the woman new to town tells the girl who grew up dreaming of getting out. Eileen, which arrives in theaters today, is an adaptation of Ottessa Moshfegh‘s award-winning 2015 novel of the same name, a noirish psychological thrill ride that won Moshfegh the PEN Award for debut fiction. Eileen, like so many of Moshfegh’s characters, is a cynical wreck angling for an escape route, searching for salvation in dark bars and cars as close to breaking down as the girls driving them. Her stories star alcoholics, addicts, anorexics, bulimics, and other messy outsiders, people with disturbing habits and delusions of grandeur. All of Moshfegh’s women–the beautiful ones and the bland ones, the confident ones and those crushed by insecurity–harbor violent impulses, vast appetites, and fatalistic convictions: that the world is a callous place, and society a rigged game. But as pessimistic as they appear, these are no nihilists; her characters are devoted daydreamers who keep ragged scraps of hope close to their chests, spending much of their lives in quiet, blistered yearning.
Back in 2016, after the release of Eileen the novel, a writer named Luke Goebel e-mailed Moshfegh asking to interview her. She agreed, and their conversation ended up lasting weeks—or maybe it hasn’t ended—and concluding in declarations of love. Talking about their history, the two are alternately wry and utterly romantic, earnestly marveling at fate as often as they make fun of themselves. The pair wed in 2018, which is also around the time Goebel finally read Eileen, after Moshfegh playfully outed him for not having done so during a New Yorker profile. Reading it when he did was a “premonition or a gift,” Goebel told me, and soon after they began adapting it for the screen. These days, they run a production company, Omniscient Productions, together, and are currently collaborating on multiple forthcoming films. A couple weeks ago, I met Moshfegh and Goebel over Zoom to talk fate, vanity, naïveté, sobriety, and rats.
EMMELINE CLEIN: Where are you guys zooming in from?
OTtESSA MOSHFEGH: We’re home in Pasadena.
CLEIN: Eileen is set in New England, which is where you grew up, right?
MOSHFEGH: Yes, I grew up outside of Boston.
CLEIN: So what drew each of you to California as both people and writers?
MOSHFEGH: Well, I moved to California after grad school, 12 years ago or something. I went to grad school in Providence, Rhode Island and it had been one of the worst winters on record. I almost died in 17,000 car wrecks sliding on snow and ice, and I was like, “I don’t want to stay here.” I knew I didn’t want to move back to New York and I had only visited L.A. once before. I just decided I was going to go take this leap and follow what felt like a terrifying intuition that I was supposed to be here. I thought that it would be healthier for me to live. And writing Eileen, which is set in frosty New England, I think I needed to be away from New England in order to write about it.
CLEIN: What about you?
LUKE GOEBEL: I guess I was first drawn to California by the faded technicolor of photographs of my parents’ explorations out west. I grew up in a small rural community in Ohio until I was 12, and then I grew up in Portland, Oregon, so it wasn’t much of a stretch to come down to California at times. But originally, in my imagination, I knew California from these photographs of my parents, from art, pop, painting, film, television, and of course music. But I went to graduate school in Massachusetts, which is similar in some ways to coastal Massachusetts. It was cold. The people were kind of off-putting and insular—
MOSHFEGH: How could you say that?
GOEBEL: I mean, charming.
MOSHFEGH: Everybody’s off-putting and insular in New England, but they’re also charming
CLEIN: The film and the book both really get at that off-putting and insular but somehow, strangely charming thing, sort of an unexpected tenderness. In that spirit, I’m going to swerve here and ask about your own unexpected romance. You guys fell in love in an interview, right?
MOSHFEGH: Yeah. But I don’t even know if we needed the interview. It was really love at first sight. I don’t really even believe in that term. But I think I was probably in love with Luke before he showed up. And then he did and it dawned on me. It seemed really fated.
GOEBEL: I was stunned at first. It was like, “Oh my god, this is it.” That’s exactly how it was.
CLEIN: How soon into the relationship did you guys get the idea to work on something creative together?
MOSHFEGH: Immediately. What ended up getting printed is only just a side effect of what happened, but the conversation went on over what, three or four weeks?
GOEBEL: Eight years so far.
MOSHFEGH: I feel like even when we’re talking about what time we should walk the dogs or whatever, Luke and I are collaborating creatively. So when we were ready to sit down and actually work together, we had this years-long history of learning about how one another thinks, our different strengths and peculiarities. And I think that the thing we create together is about figuring out what we don’t know that the other one might know.
GOEBEL: We started talking at the beginning about writing a movie. In the first weeks, we were playing with some pretty strange film ideas that—
CLEIN: Like what?
MOSHFEGH: What was it called? “Tray of Candles.”
CLEIN: What’s the conceit?
MOSHFEGH: Oh, it was just about…
GOEBEL: No comment.
MOSHFEGH: God, I don’t even remember. Then there was the rat emoji.
GOEBEL: When The Emoji Movie came out, we were like, “Oh, we’re doomed.”
MOSHFEGH: We can’t do that anymore.
GOEBEL: But it really wasn’t about an emoji. It was just about rats.
MOSHFEGH: My sister had a lot of rats and we got into an argument about them.
GOEBEL: No, we didn’t. We love rats.
MOSHFEGH: Rats are amazing and how much people hate them is also amazing. But when it was about Eileen, it was good for us to learn how to collaborate and write a screenplay based on a preexisting story because it was less, “Let’s spiral out into what could be” and more, “Let’s imagine the best way possible to tell this specific story.” And because we were working with [William] Oldroyd, we were working on the project from the beginning and working toward a common goal.
CLEIN: Were there ever any disputes between you guys? Or was it all smooth sailing?
GOEBEL: If you’re not in the world of the movie and the characters, you’re not really doing it right. And because we have a safe relationship, because we’re in love and we’re married and have all the time in the world together, we can embody the characters. The characters are intense and the world is intense, so there was conflict, for sure. You get into character.
CLEIN: Speaking of these characters, there is a more overtly romantic and erotic connection between Rebecca and Eileen in the film that remains shrouded in mystery in the book. It’s obviously queer in the book, in the way that so many female friendships can be, especially when you’re young and moldable. I wondered what it was like to return to something you wrote over a decade ago, at a time that was very solitary, and talk about it with a partner.
MOSHFEGH: The separation between Eileen and me became way more apparent. Not only because I was writing for an Eileen that would appear embodied by a whole new human on screen, but also because I was working with Luke and with William to come up with an idea for this other person. I had to be me, Ottessa, instead of me, Eileen, as the narrator. In the novel, we had a lot of access to Eileen’s own thoughts and feelings. She talks about her attraction to Rebecca in very uncertain terms. The irony is that it actually got more romantic, I’d say, and more intimate seeing these two characters interact. What I didn’t know until we started doing press for the film was that the first scene that Eileen and Rebecca filmed was the scene in the bar. They shot the first two weeks of filming with Eileen and Dad. And then Anne Hathaway came in for the next part and they did all the Eileen and Rebecca scenes.
GOEBEL: You don’t know what’s going to happen until they come together, but they came poised and prepared for this encounter, where Anne was in her Rebecca and Thomasin [McKenzie] was in her Eileen. Thomasin talks about being so captivated by Anne all of her life as an influence. I think that they brought this rapport and dynamic and developed it together in a way that you just can’t predict what happens when two people, especially two people that are that talented and passionate, come together. There’s a chemistry and an attraction and an energy beyond the page.
MOSHFEGH: There’s a kiss in the movie that doesn’t even feel like a sexual kiss at all, but I don’t remember writing that kiss. I think it was just an improvised moment between the actors.
GOEBEL: I thought it was in there.
MOSHFEGH: It may have been, but I don’t remember it.
CLEIN: On the topic of their relationship, it’s really predicated on this unstable, entrapping matrix of beauty, something I think much of your fiction renders way more honestly and rigorously than a lot of other contemporary fiction. Could you talk a bit about conveying the cruelly optimistic and competitive vibe regarding their beauty on screen, given how much of that is conveyed via interior monologue in the book itself?
MOSHFEGH: I don’t know if we felt like we needed to impose anything in certain terms. We described Eileen at the beginning and we get to know her. Then we watch her change and we watch her start to look at herself in the mirror in new ways. I think that a lot comes across visually just in a few scenes when we watch Eileen select what she’s going to wear in the film. She starts to dress more like a “lady.”
GOEBEL: She shaves her toes.
MOSHFEGH: Yeah, she shaves her toes in the bathtub.
CLEIN: You’ve spoken really incisively before about the misogyny that was encoded in so many reviewers’ reactions to Eileen’s physicality and her un-likeability, even though I don’t find her that unlikeable in the book. Did that experience of feeling like your character was misunderstood influence the way you wrote it for the screen?
MOSHFEGH: I think the cool thing about collaborating with Will and Luke was that I didn’t really feel attached to—I say this, but I’m not sure it’s 100% true. But I felt like I could detach and enter a new zone of the Eileen world. I had an experience, and it was an experience explicitly about my own authorship. It was a debut novel, I was so fucking lucky that people were even talking about the book. And then also feeling amazed by how weird it was to see how my character was being judged, and that was somehow part of the literary experience. I was very, very, very naive. We did write in some of the “grosser” moments from the book that inevitably didn’t really make it to the script. There was a laxative scene, and I think it was something that had to exist, but only as a part of the process in the film adaptation. We needed to know that it could happen. But then, making the movie, we didn’t actually need it, nor could we afford it.
CLEIN: You famously have a post-it note in your home that reads, “VANITY IS THE ENEMY.” How does that attitude affect your experience now, being in Hollywood, attending red carpets and film festivals?
MOSHFEGH: The question is its own answer. I think what happens is I end up dividing myself and I’m like, “There’s the me that I have for me,” and that’s the creative one that works. And then there’s the me who decides what shoes to wear and how to stand when we’re doing the step-and-repeat. I don’t know. Vanity is the enemy. But that doesn’t mean that I need to look like shit.
CLEIN: It’s all about moderation, which brings me to my next question. You both have had different sobriety journeys and the book obviously deals a lot with addiction. Could you speak to that?
MOSHFEGH: I’d love to. I think it’s one thing that Luke and I have, we really deeply understand the nature of addiction and it’s a big part of our relationship in our emotional lives that we can communicate about really openly, and without judgment.
GOEBEL: And it’s beyond just personal addiction. It’s also the horrific loss of loved ones and wrestling with what you can and can’t do to save people. That’s a theme all throughout Eileen. Getting people to be honest, cutting through vanity, and also literally, “Can you save the lives of your family members or the people that you encounter or love?” You talk about the unlikeable character conversation, or the way in which people respond to the film now, and people choose to respond to one thing instead of another because they can’t deal with the thing that’s the most difficult. They skirt over it.
GOEBEL: There’s so much heart in this film and people are swept away by so many other things. They don’t always talk about the swerve as more than just the swerve. They talk about it as a device, but they don’t know how to talk about what it means. The same is true of Dad or Eileen. They talk about how it changes the effect, but they don’t necessarily talk about what’s deep in the heart.
MOSHFEGH: And I think that’s fair, too, because some things are ineffable. And that’s what I love about art. It’s not an essay about addiction. It’s just something that we felt really deeply for in these characters. And I think it comes across.
GOEBEL: Yeah, I’m not trying to lecture.
CLEIN: Luke, I know you hadn’t yet read Eileen when you first went to interview Ottessa. Then, by 2016, when she was being profiled in the New Yorker, you still hadn’t read it. When did you finally read it and did you immediately think, “We have to make this movie”?
GOEBEL: I read it shortly after being slightly ribbed by the New Yorker article, or at least I felt a little bit exposed. I had read everything else that Ottessa had written. And sometimes I think that there’s a way in which you’re supposed to come to a book at the time that you do. It was like a premonition or a gift that happened, that I came to the book at the same time that things started to develop in terms of our film writing. Otessa had always imagined it as a film, and the opportunity was there, and the time was right, and we met Will. So, yeah…
MOSHFEGH: But what did you think about the book?
GOEBEL: I was amazed by the book, of course. I was totally captivated and in love with Eileen and also could see how cinematic it could be, especially reading it again alongside the conversations we had with Will about it being this twisty noir in this Hitchcockian, classic gilded age of cinema. It all just crystallized.
MOSHFEGH: It felt really organic, which is why it’s hard to remember what we had said about the book before we started talking about it as a film. It just felt so immediately like, “Let’s do this.”
CLEIN: Are you guys working on adapting any of your other novels? I’m personally begging for McGlue.
MOSHFEGH: I’m adapting McGlue and the incredible, incredible Andrew Haigh is attached to direct. Have you seen his new movie All of Us Strangers?
CLEIN: I haven’t yet.
GOEBEL: It’s incredible.
MOSHFEGH: He is one of my favorite filmmakers in the world. I really hope we can get that movie made. And Luke and I are working on multiple new projects, but none of them are adaptations of anything I wrote. The stories are based on true stories, but they’re our creative take on those characters.
CLEIN: I have one last question about a much less distressing form of addiction, which is nicotine. In the book, Rebecca smokes Pall Mall’s and Eileen gets all moved and entranced by the motto “through the THorns to the stars,” which could also the logline for the movie. My question is, do you guys still smoke?
MOSHFEGH: Oh, fuck no. We do not smoke.
CLEIN: You’re so healthy.
GOEBEL: Cigarettes suck.
MOSHFEGH: I quit almost a year ago and I cannot believe I smoked as long as I smoked for. I mean, it still stuns me that I smoked for that long. I smoked for 30 years. How’s that possible?
GOEBEL: It doesn’t even show.
MOSHFEGH: It does. Luke was better at quitting, and then there was a very brief period where we were smoking together and it was horrible.
GOEBEL: I smoked a pack a day for a long time.
MOSHFEGH: When you were in high school?
GOEBEL: High school and college.
MOSHFEGH: I couldn’t smoke that much.