Since publishing her debut novel “Eileen” in 2015, Ottessa Moshfegh has become one of the most successful provocateurs of contemporary American fiction. Like the younger Irish writer Sally Rooney, her prose is lean and engaging; her characters flawed and often shockingly cold. Unlike Rooney, Moshfegh adds a layer of mysterious timelessness to her work, her novels lying somewhere between period piece and slight-dystopian genre.
It’s a style that “Eileen” director William Oldroyd said lends itself uniquely to film. Oldroyd leads a dynamic cast of Thomasin Mckenzie, Anne Hathaway, and Shea Wigham in the first screen adaptation of Moshfegh’s work, which premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. The creative team, alongside Moshfegh and co-writer Luke Goebel, stopped by the IndieWire Studio at Sundance, presented by Dropbox, to speak to IndieWire’s Christian Blauvelt about the film’s noir origins
Moshfegh cites Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” adaptation, not the Daphne DuMaurier novel on which it is based, as inspiration for the novel.
“It ironically was an adaptation that inspired a lot of the noir elements of my novel, which we then went on and adapted to a screenplay,” said the writer. “And I think from the beginning that sort of suspense, noir, thriller — the look of it, this very classically beautiful film — combined with this really contemporary element of a character at her core being someone that we can really relate to, not just idealize. That was interesting combination to bring to the script.”
“When it comes to the characters, the characters are really mysterious,” added Goebel, who co-wrote the screenplay with Moshfegh. “Rebecca is an absolute mystery, Eileen is a mystery unto herself somewhat, but then both characters unveil themselves slowly and then they start to intersect and it’s really surprising and juicy.”
As the enigmatic city woman who shakes small town Eileen (McKenzie) out of her dreary routine, Hathaway delivers a career-best performance. According to IndieWire’s Ryan Lattanzio in his A- review: “Hathaway has never been better in a role that feels as tailor-made for her as Olga Mill’s elegant period costumes.”
For her part, Hathaway seems to have relished the opportunity to dig into the meaty role, even (or because because of) the smaller indie budget than she’s typically used to.
“I’m a really lucky actor, I work at a lot of different budget levels, but there’s something specific to independent film where there’s different levels of no money, so it really requires everybody to be as generous as they can be and fill in the gaps with whatever they have,” she said. “Something that you find on independent film a lot of the times is that level of camaraderie, ’cause we really had to look after each other. There just wasn’t quite enough to go around, so everybody had to put into the communal pot that we all then collectively shared. And when that breaks beautiful, it breaks soulful, and beautiful, and deep, and you’re very grateful for it.”