Kate Lyn Sheil and Zachary Treitz (Men Go to Battle) Talk Thomas Vinterberg’s Far From the Madding Crowd

The filmmakers behind a recent award-winning indie period drama discuss this new sweeping literary adaptation of Thomas Hardy's classic novel.

Kate Lyn Sheil: Hi Zach.

Zachary Treitz: Hi Kate. I thought we could structure this like a Q&A, and I would ask you questions since we’re in different places and saw it at two different times.


ZT: Where did you see the movie?

KLS: The Angelika. It was the earliest show, at 11:45. There were about five people in the audience, all of whom were older men.

ZT: Shouldn’t the crowd be mostly teenage girls?

KLS: Because of all the hot guys?

ZT: Because it seems like a movie that would play to the sentiments of teenage girls. Is that sexist?

KLS: I don’t know. I’m not going to tell you what is and is not sexist. It seems like people tend to think it’s a pretty feminist movie. Bathsheba doesn’t want to get married, she wants to run her own farm, etc. Those are fine ideas. Also, don’t underestimate teenage girls.

ZT: Well, there were four teenage girls sitting next to me in the theater. But two-thirds of the way through the movie, they walked out. Who knows why? It just seems to me it’s disguised as a female empowerment movie, but it’s made by two guys named Thomas. And the premise of the movie is that her life is completely structured around men.

KLS: No, her life isn’t structured around men, the story is structured around men’s fixation upon her.

ZT: Right, but the only thing that’s feminist is that she says she wants to be independent. The movie is about her long process of finding out she wants to be a housewife. It’s like the plot of Fifty Shades of Gray, or rather the whole trilogy, when we looked it up on Wikipedia.

KLS: That’s not true, though. She’s been in love with that guy for years. Also she offers him partnership in the farm.

ZT: But I don’t understand how that’s feminist.

KLS: I don’t know. This conversation is annoying me.

ZT: OK. Let me try to create some questions from my notes.

KLS: You took notes? Nerd.

ZT: I was afraid I would forget something. My first note is: “Far From the Madding Crowd”… except I wrote “Maddening” at first and crossed it out and put “Madding.” What’s a “madding crowd”?

KLS: I assume that a madding crowd refers to either the city, like London, or to other people in general. It seems like Bathsheba and Oak both demur from being surrounded by other people.

ZT: OK, so why do you think we were asked to write about this movie?

KLS: Because we made a period piece. And this begins in 1870, right?

ZT: Yes, so it’s different continents but English-speaking and a similar time period. 10 years apart. I just feel like our movie is so different that it is almost impossible to compare, because of the style and content and ethos of how we made our movie. You can tell that this has a production value that is very mainstream.

KLS: Yeah, it’s a large sweeping story.

ZT: And we always talked about how we wanted to avoid anything that was “sweeping” or bucolic or…

KLS: Sure.

ZT: I mean, I don’t really feel like I could critique the guy who made The Celebration. That movie is so incredibly intense and vitriolic and I can’t imagine how it was created. It’s amazing. But I do feel like I could critique the guy who made The Hunt. And this movie is hard for me to attach myself to.

KLS: I always find it difficult when books are translated to the screen and they try to fit everything in. Like in East of Eden, Kazan chooses a specific part of that book. Now, I’ve never read Far From the Madding Crowd so I can’t speak to how well it was interpreted but it seems like they chose to be pretty comprehensive.

ZT: The scope of the story is the same.

KLS: Right, they kept bits and pieces from every part of the book and it made it difficult for me to care about any one part very much.

ZT: Do you think that’s because the plot moves along quickly?

KLS: Yeah, like the older guy, Boldwood. Michael Sheen’s a wonderful actor. He falls in love with her and is devastated by her, and he does such an excellent job, but it’s like, why do you care about her? You haven’t spent any time with her.

ZT: Right. But that makes sense for the time, when people were forced into those kinds of relationships. That’s where people laughed in the audience, with these juxtapositions of how well people know each other versus what they’re asking each other to do.

KLS: The audience was laughing?

ZT: There were a lot of laughs. Like when Gabriel Oak first asks her to marry him.

KLS: Yeah, that moment is played for laughs. And I didn’t have any trouble connecting to that. That made total sense because he understood when she said no it was because they hardly knew each other.

ZT: But that becomes her relationship to all three suitors. The only people proposing to her don’t know her.

KLS: And I liked that about it.

ZT: Yes, but it seems like any time these three guys are in the same room together, it’s to advance the plot and you feel the hand of the author. That storytelling style feels like these characters exist inside a plot… that the characters don’t move the plot along, the plot moves the characters. Which you see in the first 10 minutes, when she goes from a poor farm hand with a smudge of dirt on her face to a rich heiress and landowner with the brightest red velvet… it doesn’t even make sense that she could find that outfit in time to drive to the estate.

KLS: So, she had one nice dress. No big deal. I mean, that’s what makes it characteristic of the time. Shifting fortunes were a huge part of Victorian literature.

ZT: And that’s what makes this kind of thing perfect for Hollywood.

KLS: It looks better than most Hollywood movies.

ZT: Right, but it’s put together with no more care and attention to detail than most prestige pictures. And the characters don’t feel very alive to me, more like they represent some class or type of person.

KLS: I think all of the actors do an excellent job and I think Carey Mulligan is a very good actor.

ZT: Yeah, everyone plays their part well. So, what is the difference between an adaptation like this and one that we liked a lot, Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights? There are a lot of similarities in how time is passing. Similar ideas for shots, like nature details to convey the passage of time… close-ups of snails or whatever… but Andrea Arnold’s way of looking at it was a lot more interesting. This way just feels like a romantic comedy or dramedy. I guess the moment in Madding Crowd where I noticed my brain turning off was when he gave her a knife-sharpening lesson.

KLS: That was like the scene from Ghost. Or that scene in Tin Cup.

ZT: Yeah, that’s when I thought, “I’ve seen this movie before.” Which is fine, but…

KLS: It’s like so many stories of this kind. It’s a frustrated romantic relationship where, because of pride or social standing or whatever, the protagonists can’t communicate their feelings to one another.

ZT: Who do you think would like this movie?

KLS: People who like Nora Ephron movies, which is to say: me.

ZT: So you liked it?

KLS: Yes. Like I said, I found it a little bit impenetrable but I liked it.

ZT: I guess that’s all I needed to ask.

Kate Lyn Sheil and Zachary Treitz together wrote Men Go to Battle, which Sheil co-produced and acted in and Treitz directed, winning the Best New Narrative Director award at Tribeca 2015. Sheil is best known for acting in such indie films as Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel and Amy Seimetz’s Sun Don’t Shine, as well as Netflix’s House of Cards. Treitz previously wrote and directed the Sundance 2011 short We’re Leaving and has worked as a producer for the Safdie brothers.