In The Wife, the battle of the sexes is front and center. It follows a married couple through chronic infidelity and explores male power (and the abuse of it) in all its forms. But behind the scenes, life was imitating art in an almost uncanny way.
The film, which stars Glenn Close in a role that is already generating award season buzz, took a decade-and-a-half to make. Screenwriter Jane Anderson optioned Meg Wolitzer’s novel of the same name shortly after its release in 2003 and took it to a studio — which shall remain nameless — that quickly bought the rights for her to write the screenplay. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, they developed some very interesting opinions about the project.
“The male executives decided that they didn’t want to make a film called The Wife, with a female protagonist,” Anderson tells EW in a joint interview alongside Wolitzer. “At one point they even called my script ‘man-hating.'”
Anderson then spent time working with other producers, all of whom were unable to find financing for the film. The two women thought the project was dead in the water — a fate which begs the inevitable question of why.
“I’ve had pangs about what it means if your material is considered ‘domestic’ in some way — a word I don’t love,” Wolitzer admits. “Why do we prioritize what happens in a boardroom over what happens in a marriage?”
Much of the prolific author’s work centers around that exact topic: relationships, children, sex, and families. The Wife follows Joan and Joe Castleman as the latter is accepting a prestigious literary award after a lifelong career as a successful writer. As they travel to Helsinki, Finland, Joan (the narrator) begins to slowly reveal the cracks in their union and the façade they’ve been presenting to the world, both personally and professionally.
When Wolitzer set out to write the book in the early aughts, at roughly the mid-point of her career as it stands currently, she was looking to tell a story about the power dynamics not only in a marriage but within the professional setting she found herself in.
“I noticed a certain kind of celebration around male writers, and I wanted to have a little fun with the idea of a male writer who is very full of himself,” she says. “This is not a political treatise, but since childhood I’ve looked around and saw the way we look to men for authority — not just in writing, but take Walter Cronkite or the news — and I filed it away.”
Wolitzer’s mother was a novelist as well, and much of the treatment she received (as a housewive-turned-author) decades ago informed the gender politics and the often frustrating injustices that Joan Castleman experiences in The Wife. When Jane Anderson first read the book in 2003 she was attracted because of the similarities she was feeling as both a screenwriter and a director, and set to work channeling that as she created the script.
The film that audiences will see come Aug. 17 is roughly 25 drafts from what she first wrote in 2003 and hits theaters thanks to the persistence of producer Rosalie Swedlin, who sought out Scandinavian money after American companies continued to see issues with the film’s…let’s just say optics. (At one point, a male agent told Anderson that if he showed the script to his male client he would “never forgive him.”)
Of course, the saga of The Wife has a happy ending (we can’t say one way or another whether the same applies to the plot). The money came in, a director (Björn Runge, who didn’t want to dull the female perspective) came on board, and they cast Glenn Close to play the lead — a billing that’s serendipitous for both her sheer star power and the uncanny hold she has on the character (see: any review of The Wife, ever).
“People always ask writers who they want to be in their movie but I don’t think that way,” says Wolitzer. “But when Glenn became part of this, immediately it was like, of course — there she was, waiting for us.”
Now Wolitzer and Anderson are cooling their heels, at least in respect to feeling the relief of seeing a 15-year-long passion project not only come to life, but be fully celebrated. They first brought the film to audiences at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where the two writers witnessed the “tremendous” reaction at the gala premiere.
“We’re having such a good time because we earned this sucker,” says Anderson pointedly.
But despite all the hardship that befell the production of The Wife, Anderson and Wolitzer are thankful for the experience because, after all, struggle feeds the artistic process. They’re also aware that this isn’t the first or last time that an injustice will happen in Hollywood.
“I learned very early on not to show anger and that if I was being openly dissed on my set I should just zen it out,” said Anderson. “A male director can scream and dish it back; if you’re a woman you cannot do that. I think that’s why the movie’s scenes with Joan are so deeply satisfying — everything we do as good professional women to maintain our career and our art, there is that underlying fury.”
The two are also honest about the fact that timing is everything. The original screenplay was written back in 2004, a time during which they believe the movie would have been buried. In 2018, with the #MeToo movement and all of its connotations in Hollywood, the gender issues in the film are even more prescient.
“Sometimes as artists you have to believe there are art gods out there controlling when your work will be realized,” muses Anderson. “And I think they tortured me for 14 years but knowing that now, in 2018, the industry would embrace it.”
The Wife, also starring Jonathan Pryce, Christian Slater, and Max Irons, opens Friday.