Weekly Director Profile: Robin Swicord
Born in Columbia, South Carolina, Robin Swicord is an American screenwriter and director known for her work on literary adaptations. She is married to screenwriter Nicholas Kazan (Frances, Patty Hearst) and they have two daughters, actresses Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks, The Big Sick) and Maya Kazan (Frances Ha, The Knick). While her trade in the industry has been screenwriting, Swicord’s work as a director suggests a very strong and unique directorial voice.
Swicord’s first major project was writing the screenplay for 1993’s Little Women, starring 1990s “It Girl” stars Winona Ryder (Heathers, Reality Bites), Claire Danes (My So-Called Life, Romeo + Juliet), Kirsten Dunst (Interview with the Vampire, The Virgin Suicides) and a young, dreamy Christian Bale (Empire of the Sun, The Dark Knight). This version of the American classic, written by Louisa May Alcott, is a very enjoyable and heartwarming adaptation that hits major story beats of the novel and is anchored by strong performances by an excellent ensemble cast. Personally I never understood why everyone kept pleading for Jo to forgive Amy for burning her manuscript. If my looks-obsessed little sister destroyed my life’s work, I would have gotten even by cutting off her hair while she slept.
The Perez Family
Her following project was the 1995 comedy, The Perez Family, adapted from Christine Bell’s novel and directed by Mira Nair (Moonsoon Wedding, Vanity Fair). Starring Marisa Tomei (My Cousin Vinny, The Wrestler), Alfred Molina (Maverick, Boogie Nights) and Anjelica Huston (The Grifters, The Addams Family), the film was about a group of unrelated Cuban refugees sharing the last name “Perez,” who realize they could stay more easily in America if they pretend to be a family. So basically a comedic, Cuban predecessor to Dheepan?
Swicord and her husband Nicolas Kazan co-wrote the screenplay of the Roald Dahl children’s book Matilda, directed by Danny DeVito (War of the Roses, Death to Smoochy), in 1996. The film follows the adventures of the titular Matilda (Mara Wilson, prolific 1990s child actress who smartly got out of the business early), who uses her keen intellect and special abilities to handle her parents and principal (Pam Farris). I remember seeing the film in theatres when I was five; some kids can handle a dose of terror with their entertainment but I wasn’t one of them. The film scared the BEJEESUS out of me, in particular the Chokey.
The 1998 cult classic Practical Magic, adapted from Alice Hoffman’s novel, starred a young Sandra Bullock (Speed, The Blind Side) and Nicole Kidman (Moulin Rouge!, Lion) as Sally and Gillian Owens, two sisters descended a long line of witches. In the face of small town prejudice and a family curse, in which the men the Owens’ women fall in love with are doomed to early death, the sisters must reckon with supernatural forces that threaten to destroy them. Swicord’s script perfectly captures the complicated relationship shared by sisters, fueled by a mixture of love and frustration, while promoting a message of female solidarity and sisterhood.
Memoirs of a Geisha
Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago, Into the Woods) was adapted from Arthur Golden’s historical novel about the life of a geisha working in Kyoto, Japan before and after World War Two. The film received six nominations at the 78th Academy Awards, and won Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design. Although her screenplay wasn’t nominated, it was Swicord’s first brush with awards prestige; her screenplay won the Satellite Award for Best Screenplay - Adapted. It is….problematic to say the least that Memoirs was directed by a white man and there wasn’t a more pronounced Asian (specifically Japanese) involvement in its production, but the performances of the cast, consisting of Asian powerhouses from Zhang Ziyi (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Grandmaster) to Gong Li (The Story of Qiu Ju, Farewell My Concubine) to Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai, Letters from Iwo Jima), were uniformly superb.
The Jane Austen Book Club
Jane Austen’s Book Club (2007) was Swicord’s directorial debut, and she also adapted the screenplay from Karen Joy Fowler’s novel about five women and one man (Maria Bello, Emily Blunt, Kathy Baker, Maggie Grace, Amy Brenneman and Hugh Dancy who form a book club to discuss Austen’s works. The film is very “AFFLUENT WHITE PEOPLE PROBLEMS” and is a biiiiit too Cali-twee and on the nose, with each member of the book club just happening to deal with life experiences that reflect the themes of the Austen book they are reading, but it is charming nonetheless. The only directorial decision I found questionable was Emily Blunt’s truly heinous black bob wig.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The overall cinephile opinion regarding David Fincher’s (Se7en, Gone Girl) The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, is polarized but Swicord rightfully deserves major praise for wrangling F. Scott Fitzgerald’s titular short story in to a relatively comprehensible narrative. Starring A-list stars Brad Pitt (12 Monkeys, Fight Club) and Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth, Notes on a Scandal), the life of Benjamin Button, a man who ages in reverse, and the woman he loves throughout his unique life is captured across decades. Swicord was nominated alongside Eric Roth (The Insider, Munich) for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 81st Academy Awards.
After taking a bit of a break for eight years, she got back in the game writing the screenplay for Terry George’s (Hotel Rwanda, Reservation Road) The Promise. The film is follows a love triangle (Oscar Isaac, Christian Bale, Charlotte Le Bon) set in the late 1910s and early 1920s during the final days of the Ottoman Empire during World War One and throughout the Armenian Massacre. The Promise is a noble film created with the best intentions to examine and bring attention to such a despicable time of human history, but it contains a very heavy undercurrent of “white savior complex.” It also doesn’t help that the film is one of 2017’s big flops, having currently made $8.2 million in the box office against an estimated budget of $90-100 million.
Swicord’s sophomore directorial film Wakefield, which she adapted from the E.L. Doctorow short story, is an intense, uncomfortable examination of identity and surveillance. Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad, Trumbo) plays successful New York lawyer and average suburban dweller Howard Wakefield, who suddenly decides to hide in the attic of his carriage house garage. He disappears from his life and secretly observes the lives of his wife (Jennifer Garner, in yet another wife role), children and neighbors, as he slowly loses his grip on his sanity. Its seems as though once again Cranston is “breaking bad” (I know, I know, bad pun). Wakefield received strong reviews when it debuted at the Telluride Film Festival in 2016, and Cranston has been singled out in particular for his tour de force performance. Wakefield opens on May 19th, 2017.
Overall Swicord’s filmography reflects an experienced industry veteran who can skillfully balance ensembles and complex narratives, and can craft and coax out incredible performances from actors. I look forward to hearing news about her next directorial project.
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