I sat down for tea with Christine Jeffs, director of the new Focus Features motion picture Sylvia. The film, which stars Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig, is, with a few dramatic inventions, a passionate yet accurate chronicle of the last six years of Sylvia Plath’s life. I brought along the tattered copy of Plath's Collected Poems from the Academy library, and, in the lobby of the Mercer Hotel, asked Jeffs a few questions.
How did you become involved with this film?
Well, I didn't develop the project. Alison Owen sent me the script, which she developed with another director and a writer, John Brownlow. I'd read Sylvia Plath in my late teens, so I already knew her work, though I hadn't read Ted Hughes' poetry. So when I was sent the script it brought back many memories and seemed like a fantastic film to be involved with. The script dropped out of the sky, which had its blessings and its curses, because it's such a different kettle of fish to become involved with a project at such a late stage—rather than one you sat with and dreamed with and worked on for years. It's a much different process.
For those in the poetry world, it's a very exciting occurrence—something that doesn't happen very often—that a poet is the subject of a major motion picture. How do you think the art of poetry lends itself to film?
One of the first things I noticed in going back to Sylvia's work was how visual it is. The eye for detail that she has. There is such a rich landscape of emotion, which is good for movies, and I felt the core and heart of it made it really exciting and strong material for making a movie around.
The film is quite beautifully shot. Tell me a bit about how you shot the scene in which Ted and Sylvia spend the afternoon in the rowboat.
That was an interesting scene, one in which the physical matches the emotional. If you remember, as Ted rows them further and further into the bay, the water gets choppier and choppier. As the water gets choppier, the camera begins to follow and mimic the rising and falling waves. As Sylvia comes in and out of frame, her emotional instability surfaces more and more.
I wondered what methods you and Gwyneth Paltrow used to develop the depth of character you achieved.
The first thing is that Gwyneth is very close to her instincts. She's very instinctual and open. The second thing is that she is very focused and had done her research. She was able to make that transformation into character, I felt, pretty easily. Then we shared Sylvia's poetry and Sylvia's journals as a way of undoing the emotions within the scenes. So I cut out stanzas and stuck them all over my script, and though they weren't related to the scenes specifically, they were triggers for me in terms of where I felt Sylvia was coming from at specific moments in her life. So sometimes I would arrive at Gwyneth's caravan with a bit of photocopy and would say, "Have a look at this." It was really important for me to be able to do that in order to hit what I felt was a real tone.
Do you have a few favorite poems?
Ariel, really, is the key collection. The later poems, "Edge," "Getting There," "Lady Lazarus," "The Moon and the Yew Tree," is it? "Wintering." Oh, this book is falling apart! It opened at "Daddy." How weird. "The Arrival of the Bee Box;" we used a bit of that in the film:
The Box is locked, it is dangerous.
I have to live with it overnight
And I can't keep away from it.
There are no windows, so I can't see what is in there.
There is only a little grid, no exit.
And that plays over the end of the film, when she's shutting the door. Obviously the poem is not about that, but it evokes that kind of feeling of shutting down and being locked inside this emotional space that you can't get out of.
I thought the subject of depression was handled very well in the film—without the usual over-dramatics or typical "crazy" scenes. Do have any thoughts on the relationship between mental illness and the arts?
Well, one thing is that we know a lot more now about it than we did then. It's possible that Sylvia would have had a more accurate diagnosis if she had been born later. It's even possible that she would still be alive.
It seems that in making a film about a poet there will always be a lot of staring into the distance, or depictions of the frustrations of not being able to write. It's a very solitary, stationary exercise.
Or "boring," almost.
So how did you deal with that?
That's a good question. It's like anything: whether it's a writing scene, or a sex scene, or a walking-down-the-street scene. If the scene is invested with the emotion of the characters, and you're connecting with that as an audience, then you are on the journey with them. So I felt that the writing scenes were interesting because they're not about writing, they're about Sylvia's turmoil.
I felt that the movie was well researched. Were there people in the poetry world that helped or guided you?
John Brownlow worked with a team of researchers and spoke with a huge variety of people, including people who knew Sylvia, like A. Alvarez, who's depicted in the movie.
Were any of the locations actual locations from Ted or Sylvia's lives?
Well, Cambridge University. But the houses have all been modernized. One of the first things I asked the location scouts was, "Where did they really live?" And they showed me these chi-chi, primrose hill, multimillion-dollar mansions.
You're from New Zealand. Do you have, from that vantage point, any notions about Sylvia and Ted's relationships as an American and a Briton—their poetries and personalities?
Do you know "The Rabbit Catcher?" In it Sylvia writes about an episode in which she and Ted were out walking and came upon some rabbit traps. And she, in a fit of anger, tossed them into the bushes. And if you look in Hughes' Birthday Letters, there's a poem by the same name. They give you a pretty good idea of how they saw each other. He writes:
You were weeping with a rage
That cared nothing for rabbits. You were locked
Into some chamber gasping for oxygen
Where I could not find you, or really hear you.
Let alone understand you.
And in her version it sounds like this:
How they awaited him, those little deaths!
They waited like sweethearts. They excited him.
And we, too, had a relationship--
Tight wires between us,
Pegs too deep to uproot, and a mind like a ring
Sliding shut on some quick thing,
The constriction killing me also.
That tension, I would say, is what we tried to capture in the film.
Sylvia was released on Friday, October 17, 2003.