Cameras flashed in the lobby of the MoMA on Monday evening as stars of The Chaperone walked across the red carpet laid out for the premiere screening event. PBS Distribution and Masterpiece films hosted the event just ahead of the film’s opening in New York on March 29th.
The Chaperone, a period film based on Laura Moriarty’s best-selling novel of the same name, follows 1920s silent film star Louise Brooks (Haley Lu Richardson) before her fame. She journeys from Wichita, Kansas to New York City as a rebellious 15-year-old to study with a prestigious dance troupe. Local housewife and strict adherent to convention Norma Carlisle (Elizabeth McGovern) decide on a whim to accompany Louise as her chaperone. Though the two could not be more different, both come away from the trip forever changed by the other.
The film set squarely in the “Roaring Twenties” era of women’s empowerment and social change, feels surprisingly timely. A cast loaded with talented female leads hits this sentiment home. We got the chance to speak with The Chaperone’s director, screenwriter, and select stars about their involvement with the film.
The Knockturnal: What drew you to this film? I understand it in the works for a bit with you and Julian and Elizabeth.
Michael Engler (director): It was Julian and Elizabeth that brought me into it and I would automatically be interested in anything they asked me to look at. And then the script was beautiful and the story is just, I think an incredibly modern story to tell. I feel in the film world, there is almost nothing that really takes the complexity of women’s sexuality at different ages and portrays it seriously and in a complex way and I thought that was a really interesting thing to look at for these two actresses.
The Knockturnal: The main story is about women and empowerment but there’s a lot going on in the background. What did you find particularly resonant about the story? What was something you connected with personally?
Michael Engler: I think it was a time of real change in the world and I think those are the times when people’s character really rises or falls in terms of how they are affected by it, how they get on board, how they reveal themselves in the context of social change.
The Knockturnal: What was it about this story that drew you?
Julian Fellowes (screenwriter): Yes, well [Elizabeth McGovern] found the book and she and Simon bought the book and then we really all took a punt on it actually. It was a very interesting febrile period in the 20s and things were changing, particularly for women, they were changing. In this story, the young woman essentially releases the older woman from the kind of Victorian mores she’s grown up with and allows her to claim her own life. At the same time, the older woman gives the younger woman confidence and releases her. So it’s quite collaborative and rather moving to me anyway. I liked the balance of it very much and I like strong women. I always write strong women, and this seemed to suit me.
The Knockturnal: This story feels very timely. We’re in a time change and it’s a big moment for women as it was then. Was that intentional with the timing of this film?
Julian Fellowes: This generation of women owes a lot to that first generation after the first world war. They were the first ones to work, the first ones to get the vote, the first ones to really start pushing the boundaries. And we’d sort of forgotten about them, but we shouldn’t forget about them because they were very inspiring. And even though getting work as a secretary doesn’t seem like so much now, when it was coming after a time when you couldn’t get any job respectably, or do anything, it was a pretty major achievement and I think we need to remember that.
The Knockturnal: The film has a lot of really strong, inspirational women. Since International Women’s Day just passed, do you have any women role models that you look up to?
Blythe Danner (cast, Mary O’Dell): Oh golly, well years ago when I had a house here in New York, we had some extraordinary women to speak of. Who was the woman who always wore the hats? Bella Abzug and Carolyn Maloney…all of those women are inspirational to me. They were so strong. And Gloria Steinem of course.
The Knockturnal: Did you have a role in choreographing some of the dances you did in the film?
Haley Lu Richardson (cast, Louise Brooks): I didn’t do any choreography myself. We had a choregrapher John Karaffa, who’s a pretty cool thing. I worked closely with John and if there were things I wanted to incorporate, he was really open to that. But I did all my own dancing, so that’s cool.
The Knockturnal: Tell me a little bit about the prep for this role. How do you get in the head of someone like Louise Brooks?
Haley Lu Richardson (cast, Louise Brooks): Well, unfortunately, I came in really last minute so had less than a month to get into Louise Brooks mode, which was really intimidating because I’ve never played a real person before. And playing someone that’s an icon in a way was really intimidating, and that I’d barely had any time was really hard. The things that I focused on were reading quotes and the things that were her core values, and then getting her voice and becoming her physically with all of the hair and makeup stuff. I wish I’d had more time with it. If I ever play a real person again, I’d want a lot more time because it was intimidating as shit.
The Knockturnal: Do you think you’d ever go for Louise’s hairstyle?
Haley Lu Richardson (cast, Louise Brooks): In real life? I don’t know if I really pulled it off. My boyfriend told me I looked like a toe with the wig on. So I don’t know, maybe one day. I’ve always wanted a pixie cut. Those are cool.
In attendance at the red carpet screening: Cast members Elizabeth McGovern, Haley Lu Richardson, Victoria Hill, Géza Röhrig, Blythe Danner, Matt McGrath, Becky Ann Baker, and Bill Hoag. Writer Julian Fellowes, Director Michael Engler, Author Laura Moriarty, and Rebecca Eaton of Masterpiece Films.