At age 34, screenwriter and first-time director Massy Tadjedin is garnering praise—and sparking debate—with her gentle, evocative movie, Last Night. Starring four of today’s most in-demand stars, it examines 48 hours in the lives of a married couple, Joanna and Sam (Keira Knightley and Avatar’s Sam Worthington), and the sexy singles (Eva Mendes and Guillaume Canet) who may or may not lure them away from their vows. On the eve of the film’s May 6 opening, Tadjedin talked to More about her script and directing debut.
MORE: Infidelity is a favorite Hollywood theme, but so many of these movies are really cheesy, with over the top, bunny-killing scenes, melodramatic music, and the “manipulative/evil/loveless wife who won’t divorce him.” The last was big in the 1940s.
Massy Tadjedin: It’s gone through a lot of transitions, treatments over the decades. I certainly noticed it when I was preparing to direct. I didn’t think about other films with infidelity when I was writing. I just went to write and this was what came out. It’s a universal subject matter, which is why they’re so many novels and films about it. A lot of those are message films, so they easily identify one party as the wrongdoer. A lot of movies about relationship struggles are trying to teach you something, to pass judgment. We were trying not to pass judgment.
More: Are you married?
MT: For seven years. I got married relatively young, and I sure hope we stay married. I don’t think this film is about marriage, but about relationships and commitment. You don’t have to be inside a marriage to relate to these issues.
More: How did your husband react to the movie?
MT: He read the script. He judged it like my others, on the strength of the story. Then when he saw the first cut of the film, he saw little details in Joanna and Michael’s marriage, to make it feel lived in, like getting ready for a party, things shared by a lot of couples. My husband saw similarities in opening scenes. He said, “Is this us?” It’s personal, but not autobiographical. I’d have to be a total idiot.
More: Was he threatened?
MT: He thought it was very honest. We have the conversation a lot of couples have after they see the movie, how the infidelities are different, what each character is struggling with. We’ve had similar conversations about friends. This is the stuff life is made of.
More: There’s no real villain in this story, but there is a predatory character, Laura, who goes after Michael.
MT: I thought she was in a weird way the most morally unambiguous of the four. We wanted to fasten her character as less the stereotypical vixen. She’s not motivated to disrupt his marriage, but thinks these moments are to be snatched when they can. Laura has a very day to day view of life, our obligation to be living it. She seems very forthcoming. She’s not trying to seduce him to disrupt the marriage; she just desires him.
More: In the end, you do have some sympathy for her.
MT: I was sympathetic toward all four.
More: How long did it take to film?
MT: It was a low budget, so we only had 28 days, and a lot of nights. We hit the ground running. In the end, it was good, because I had no time for second guessing. If I had 40 days, I would have screwed up.
More: Were you nervous?
MT: Of course! By the second scene, I was not nervous, because there was no time. You just have to get it done. You have to balance and address so many things. By the end of the first week, I had it under control.
More: It’s a great cast.
MT: Not even because they’re well-known. They’re really good actors, very talented, professional, experienced. That’s part of the reason I could do it in 28 days.
More: And they’re all so attractive!
MT: I picked every one for their talent, but yes, they’re a good looking bunch.
More: I loved Tell No One, the movie Guillaume Canet directed.
MT: That’s how I met him, at a screening of the film. He made a big impression; I knew he was the one.
More: Actually, Last Night seems like a foreign movie to me, in its sort of languid style, its attention to nuance.
MT: It’s hard to tell what the influence was. I’ve always been drawn to foreign films. Eric Rohmer, in college, that leaked into it. Goddard—his editing informed our editing. Truffaut, Antonioni. La Notte was definitely an inspiration.
I also like Mike Nichols, David Lane, Steven Soderbergh, Woody Allen. Those are the Americans I reference or try to watch.
More: And all of them are men! I had high hopes this year, because there seem to be many more movies directed by women than, say, 10 years ago. But when we checked into it, statistically, that’s just not so.
MT: It’s dismal, something like 7 percent. If you measure our progress against other industries, we have the lowest rate of growth in leadership positions. Why shouldn’t women direct? We are 50 percent of the movie-going public.
Kathryn Bigelow [the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar, in 2010, for The Hurt Locker] changed the game. Women may not want the action films. One interesting theory that was posed by a reporter, Anne Thompson, was that a lot of female stories are execution dependent. There’s no shoot ’em up, no big sellable premise. Mine is on the surface a very simple story. Also, directing is 20 hours a day. More women with children are doing it. But it’s got to be hard.
The best thing for me was starting out as a writer. A lot of women have written their own stuff. My first scripts [Leo, The Jacket] had male protagonists, and I didn’t feel a bias, because you turn in a script, you are what you have written. Because of my name, I don’t even know if people knew I was a boy or girl.
More: You are Iranian-American, but it sounds like you had a pretty American upbringing.
MT: I’ve been here since age two. Farsi was my first language, but people always tell me I have a California accent. I hope I don’t sound like a Valley Girl!
More: Has that background influenced your movies?
MT: Not this film, but I think in future films, I will address that. I had immigrant parents, and having immigrant parents, I’ve always felt like an outsider. That’s a good thing for an artist. You feel a little to the side, and it’s helpful to identify as one watching.
But my love of film came from my dad. I watched a lot of movies growing up with him. I had strict parents, we weren’t allowed to go out much, but when we were home, we could pretty much watch what we wanted.
More: How did your parents react to the subject of your movie?
MT: They really like the film. My parents didn’t ask, ‘Why would you write this?’ They’re very objective in that regard. And they were more attuned to the directing style. They didn’t address the subject matter.
But it’s interesting—ever since I made it, people will tell me their relatable stories, and they’re usually something really private and surprising. I can’t tell you how many confessions I’ve heard, descriptions of affairs from people I wouldn’t think capable of them. It’s sometimes uncomfortable, but it’s interesting.
More: The only thing I found surprising in the movie was that Keira Knightly and Sam Worthington, who are like two of the hottest people on earth, would think about having affairs with other people.
MT: I think no matter how attractive a couple is, how perfect they seem, the dailyness of life, the sharing of space, makes things seem ordinary. It dulls the sheen. People don’t stray just because they don’t find their partner attractive; it’s much more emotional and mental. There’s a large physical component, but it’s multilayered.
The beginning of anything is more exciting. That sense of discovery. The beginning of a relationship, a connection, is very addictive and satisfying, and one of the most exhilarating things we can experience. “To crave the newness,“ as Joanna says. Her old boyfriend is somebody she knows, but she was with him for less than 100 days, so they were not burdened by the dailyness.
More: Along that line, in the movie, Griffin Dunne, who plays Alex’s friend, is sort of like the Greek chorus.
MT: Except he’s so much more fun!
More: Eva’s character, Laura, reminded me of the Black Swan.
MT: We tried to make her understated. But no matter how we made her up, she’s beautiful. Her physicality is very different from Keira’s, by design, to complicate the story—Michael’s not going for a different version of his wife, a younger version.
More: What do you think is tempting Keira’s character?
MT: She’s longing for someone from her past. With Alex, she could visualize a different life. She was living in Paris with an artist, which is so different from her life today, like her night with Alex’s friends is so different from her night with her husband’s friends.
More: Which movies about relationships, do you admire?
MT: Mike Nichol’s Closer. And I love Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, Stanley Donan’s Two for the Road. It grapples with the business of marriage. David Lean’s Brief Encounter is always very emotional to watch. Husband and Wives, Woody Allen’s movie.
More: What’s your next project?
MT: I’m writing it now. It’s a suspense story. I can’t wait to do it again, to direct. You have to really love it.
More: I gather your husband is very supportive of your work.
MT: My husband is a retina surgeon. He’s very supportive and like my reality check.
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