How Maggie Gyllenhaal Tackled Maternal Emotion in ‘Lost Daughter’

Hollywood has given us a wide range of mothers, including the hard-working and devoted (“Claudine”), the self-sacrificing (“Bambi”) and the monstrous (“The Manchurian Candidate”).

It’s hard to come up with anything new on the subject, but first-time writer-director Maggie Gyllenhaal, adapting Elena Ferrante’s novel, constantly surprises us by depicting several mothers who are complex, original and have the ring of truth in “The Lost Daughter.”

“The book and, I hope, the film articulate a lot of the experience about being a woman that we don’t often talk about,” Gyllenhaal tells Leak Herald. “Not just in terms of mothering and how complicated it is — it brings you to your knees. It’s also very difficult for us to hold in our minds the idea that a mother will have elements that are good and bad. There’s a very childish part of ourselves that needs to separate these things.

“Being a parent includes a huge spectrum of things that we don’t usually talk about. And it’s not just mothering, but also sexuality, also what it’s like to be a woman who’s a thinker in the world. There hasn’t been a lot expressed about that, especially in film.”

“Daughter” has engendered a lot of (deserved) Oscar buzz, for Gyllenhaal’s work and the performances, particularly for Olivia Colman. She plays a professor on holiday in Greece who is fascinated by Nina (Dakota Johnson), also on the island with a young daughter and an army of in-laws.

“It’s a very grownup thing that we’re asking an audience to consider: Can you reconcile a woman who is both a ‘bad mother’ and a ‘good mother’?

“I’ve been asked about making a film about ‘an unlikable woman,’” says Gyllenhaal. “There are aspects of me that are unlikable. And aspects that are not. Leda is a challenge. She does some things that cause pain. Can you still find compassion and relate to her? The goal is to be curious and learn about these people.”

It’s no surprise that Gyllenhaal, an Oscar-nominated actress, would know how to get the best from her actors. Colman, for example, is innately likable and can present multiple emotions simultaneously.

“I knew every actor would need something different,” says Gyllenhaal. “The idea is to hire people you have respect for, and then you provide space for them. You hope that in this particular role, they will grow and learn. Not that I necessarily know what they have to learn, but I can see a space between what they’ve done before and this.

“Much of my job is to take the time to see every 16th-note of what they’re offering — and figure out what warms them up, what frees them, what makes them open. It’s different for everybody, but I didn’t know in what way; I had to learn that on my feet because we made the movie in 28 days.

“But that was exciting. Jessie [Buckley, who plays the young Leda] sometimes liked to talk through stuff. Olivia doesn’t want to get verbal and analyze things. That’s not her vibe. She and I had a kind of subterranean conversation going on all the time.”

The filmmaker got an endorsement from author Ferrante, who wasn’t involved in the Netflix film. The novelist said Gyllenhaal “picks up every impulse of the writing and finds a way of changing it into an image. Gyllenhaal makes true cinema: She trusts the images … It’s a great job.”