Chloë Sevigny Held a Séance in Lizzie Borden's House
Fresh off the Sundance premiere of 'Lizzie,' we catch up with the incomparable indie stalwart.
Chloë Sevigny’s first close-up in Lizzie reveals only the back of her head, but there’s no doubt who we’re looking at—the purpose of her movement and the deliberateness of her gait is unmistakable. Lizzie, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last weekend, features Sevigny as Lizzie Borden, the young woman who famously, allegedly murdered her father and stepmother with a hatchet in 1892.
Written by Bryce Kaas and directed by Craig William Macneill, the film saves the murders for the end of the film, elsewhere exploring both their aftermath and what came before them. A key component is Bridget (Kristen Stewart), who comes in to the Borden household as a servant but becomes a friend—and, perhaps, more—to the headstrong Lizzie.
Sevigny is an indie stalwart; her very first film, the notorious 1995 cause célèbr e Kids, was also her first film to play at Sundance. Since then, she’s appeared in such modern classics as The Last Days of Disco, American Psycho, Zodiac, and Boys Don’t Cry (for which she was nominated for an Academy Award), in addition to her work as a series regular on Big Love. She's also a producer on Lizzie, so when she sat down with VICE during Sundance, we discussed not only how she developed her character, but the project itself.
VICE: In Lizzie , you’re playing a real person surrounded by over a century of iconography, legend, and folklore. How do you engage with that to create a real human being? Or do you?Chloë Sevigny: I read so many books, watched so many things, and went and stayed in the house on three separate occasions—it's a bed and breakfast. They give you a tour, and tell you the whole story. You can have a séance, which we did. How could you not? I went to the courthouse in New Bedford, the cemetery where she's buried, and the Fall River Historical Society to look at documents and old objects that were in the house. I really immersed myself in the world.
Once [screenwriter Bryce Kass] and I decided the story that we wanted to tell and how we wanted to tell it, I had to stay true to that. There are so many aficionados that will say, "Well, that’s not how that happened"—this is our interpretation of the myth, and the myth keeps growing. It's an unsolved mystery. When I first started developing it, I thought it be interesting to do it as a game of Clue, where you played out all the different scenarios. That didn't happen, but I thought that would've been an interesting concept.
How was the séance?
[or Laughs] The frigid air came in. There was some communicating with [Lizzie Borden's father, Andrew Jennings]. It was terrifying. The first night, I was there with an ex-boyfriend who's a pretty practical guy, and he got really terrified in the middle of the night. He felt a presence pushing down on him. On all three occasions I’ve been there, it's been unnerving.
They get a lot of business—on the nights of the murders, those rooms are auctioned off because it's such a hot commodity. They say that guests will come and sleep on the floor where Abby's body was found. People are fanatical! And that's part of the reason we wanted to develop it—there's already a built-in audience. I'm not an idiot! I wanna make a movie that people want to see!
She's a brand!
Yeah, and so am I! I felt a kinship, in a misfit kind of way. Young people that feel possibly misunderstood or gravitate to my films and the kind of work that I've put out—I wanted to honor a woman who was an icon of that type.
The film is surrounded by all of that iconography, but it feels so grounded and naturalistic. The house and the cell felt like you actually lived in those places. Was there anything in particular that the crew did to create that space for you?
We emptied a hoarder's house in Savannah and rebuilt it—reset all the wallpaper and painting, repaired things, made the kitchen period. It was our interpretation of the Borden house, because the bed and breakfast is their version—but we wanted it to be more austere. [The production designer, Elizabeth J. Jones,] and Craig had an idea of the elegance they wanted to bring to the film, because it can so easily go camp. We wanted there to be real restraint—a real groundedness—and not having to go from one location to the next helps you immerse yourself in the world.
I want to talk about working with Kristen Stewart, because I love the way your characters and your performances counteract each other. Much of the film is about Lizzie's strength and how that balances Bridget's vulnerability, but there are key points where those roles are reversed and they need to be the other thing for each other. How did the two of you develop that dynamic?
She's very aware of filmmaking—the camera, lighting, everything. She's a very self-aware person, and she's also very free. She wants to try stuff, and it's very immersive and emotional. She brought this real energy. Any day she was on the set, it was like, "Alright! Now shit's gonna happen." [Laughs] She's such a present force.
Kristen said it was her first time doing period, and an accent, so I think that she struggled with that at a bit. The costumes were really hard for her [Laughs]. She would, like, take off her skirt, and she'd be in her Vans and her jeans, and smoking cigarettes and being all disgruntled [Laughs]. She's a cool lady, and that's part of the reason we wanted to cast her: We really believe in her as a person—what she puts out there, the kind of films she chooses to do, and the kind of work that she wants to represent her.
You're at a point where you take a more active role in the kind of work you want to do. I'm really interested in what kind of work you see yourself doing in the future.
I'm still seeking directors that I admire. I'm in Andrew Haigh's Lean on Pete, and I'd like to maintain working with accomplished directors who I can put my trust in. I'd like to be thought of even more as a character actor, because that's what I think I am—and people never recognize me as that, recognize women as that.
I'd like to play someone like a gun moll—that's something I've never done before! [Laughs] Someone glamorous, bossy, and ballsy, a Mae West kind of character. Which there aren't a lot of anymore!
There's been more conversation over the past couple of years about female representation in film—including behind the camera. Do you think that talk will translate into a discernible difference in how we see women treated on and off the screen?
Only when women are put into positions of power—running studios. I don't really follow the trades, but it feels like women are getting more opportunities. Megan Ellison is such a heavy hitter. I'm doing my third short film in April, I've done female-driven projects, and on this movie I had two female producers. Of course, [we have] male director, male DP, male writer—we went out to some women, they were developing their own stories. But I'm hopeful.
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