Filmmaker David Frankel has an ear for what women say — to each other, to their men and to themselves, though the last is not necessarily made audible to others.
That’s certainly the case with Kay (Meryl Streep) in “Hope Springs”: A woman in her 60s with two grown-up children, Kay is clearly unused to giving vent to her emotions and has probably been brought up to think that inhibitions are good things. In one scene, she asks her colleague in an offhand way, “Do you think married people can change?” And that’s the only clue the people around her get that she’s unhappy in her marriage.
Instead, Kay’s heartache is voiced through the small spaces of silence in her conversations with husband Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) and the twinges of pain she lets surface on an otherwise placid countenance.
“I don’t claim to be an expert on women — far from it,” says Frankel, 54, in an interview with The Japan Times. “But I’ve always been fascinated by their wide range of emotions and the way they understand life’s little mysteries and nuances.”
The screenplay for “Hope Springs” (released in Japan as “31 Nenme no Fufu-genka”) screenplay was penned by Vanessa Taylor, a writer on the hit TV series “Alias” and “Game of Thrones,” whom Frankel describes as “such a privilege” to work with.
“She has the greatest insight about women and how they behave in relationships,” he says. “I don’t know if she herself has ever been in a lasting relationship, but in any case she seems to know everything there is to know. All I had to do was be a good audience and not interrupt her. One thing I discovered: Life is really quotable.”
On our own shores, this is how it’s done: Unhappy wives keep quiet, bide their time until their husbands retire, and then demand their share of the pension funds and savings and take off to start afresh. In 1975, the number of divorces among couples who had been married for 20 years or more was less than 7,000, according to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. In 2007, that number had exploded to more than 40,000. Rumor and hearsay suggests that the majority of these splits are instigated by wives.
Indeed, the prevalent feeling among Japanese couples of long standing seems to be: Why try to fix a thing that’s already ruined? Frankel gives a hearty laugh.
“In the U.S. it’s probably worse, because people are giving up a lot earlier and getting divorced a lot sooner than retirement age,” he says. “That’s because Americans set such store on happiness happening right now. They’re constantly asking themselves, ‘Am I happy right this minute?’ And if the answer is no, then something’s wrong. But that’s an impossibly high standard to match when it comes to marriage.”
Frankel’s own take on marriage is that “it’s a sharing process. And by that I mean you have to share the bad and the good. Some years are better or worse than others, but the point is to be together through the journey. And for Kay, what upset her most was that she didn’t feel ‘together’ with Arnold at all. She felt totally alone. And she honestly felt that drastic measures were called for, which meant marriage counseling. Personally, I think she was fighting for her life.”
Still, Frankel isn’t sure if “communication and baring all” is the best solution. “I have a feeling Arnold is right about therapy (he resists it at first). I don’t know if talking about your most private thoughts to a doctor is always the answer. I met a marriage counselor years ago who said that by the time a couple gets to her, it’s over. I think that happens more often than not. This movie shows a better version: Kay and Arnold got help in the nick of time. And they were finally able to face each other.”
But if not for Kay taking the initiative, Arnold would have parked himself in front of the Golf Channel without even noticing what was going through her mind.
“Yes, well I have to remind myself not to watch too much Golf Channel,” Frankel laughs. “Men and women, well, they’re different. They take a different approach to things. When there’s a problem, men decide not to fix it, but just bury it. It’s not just the Japanese men, you know! Arnold buried his feelings, then he built a wall around himself, and Kay takes a sledgehammer to that wall. Imagine his inner resistance. Imagine his … fear!”
Frankel adds that he finds it hard to envision Kay and Arnold being performed by anyone other than Streep and Jones.
“It’s not just that they’re wonderful actors; they’re so giving, each in their ways,” he says. “I’ve worked with Meryl on ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ and she could reach in herself and pull out that haughty, domineering but vulnerable woman. And she could also be Kay. In some ways, Kay is much stronger. She knows what she wants and she’s willing to fight to get it. She’s not ashamed or embarrassed about it either. She’s just too unhappy to let mere embarrassment get in the way.”
At the same time, Frankel appreciates how hard it must be to maintain a marriage for three-plus decades. “You get older, you get into patterns. You start out with the best intentions and then life intrudes. People get a shock when they realize you have to keep making the effort, after the courting and the wedding, and the first few months or years. A marriage needs constant work. Shocking, isn’t it?”