Rebecca Miller and Writing the Private Lives of Pippa Lee
Rebecca Miller is an American author, film director, screenwriter and actress, most known for her films Personal Velocity: Three Portraits (winner of the Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award), The Ballad of Jack and Rose and Angela, all of which she wrote and directed. She is the daughter of playwright Arthur Miller and Austrian photographer Inge Morath. She studied art at Yale University and initially pursued an acting career, landing parts in the TV-movie The Murder of Mary Phagan (starring Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey, and William H. Macy; 1988) and the feature films Regarding Henry (starring Harrison Ford and Annette Bening; 1991), and Consenting Adults (opposite Kevin Kline and Kevin Spacey; 1992). Miller is married to actor Daniel Day-Lewis and and has two sons, Ronan and Cashel.
Question: How did you come to write the story of Pippa Lee?
Rebecca Miller: Well, I met a woman that I had known for a long time but hadn’t seen in ages and she had changed a lot over the years and she had sort of, in a way, become [either] more placid and she’d been a very wild person, and basically had just become a mom, you know, and with kids and seems to have a change in a deep way. And I started thinking like, “How do you do that? How do you change that way?” And then, I realized that I knew a lot of people who had, in some way, deeply change through their lives. That they had almost, you know, had layers of self. And I started thinking about what the self is, you know, and how consistent is it, and is it one thing or are we constantly shifting kind of prisms in a way that shine different color light through ourselves depending on who we’re in contact with. And, you know, are we reactive beings really. And so, it’s like, you know, I wanted to ask these kinds of abstract questions but find a way of talking about it that was very kind of basic and human. You know, a story that everybody can relate to in a way.
Question: What was your creative process for this book?
Rebecca Miller: Well I knew that there were two, in a way, two streams, you know, the stream of the past and the stream of the present. I knew that they were really distinct. It was a question of how to make them really different while at the same time making you understand that this is and believe that this is still the same person. And at first, I tried something that I had seen quite a lot before which is going more like a chapter in one chapter and another, a chapter and one a chapter and another, maybe one of them is in italics, you know. So, and that’s something that I, you know, it’s kind of a more comfortable form. But I found that, in a way, I felt like I was actually cutting in to the flesh of the story every time I did that. It almost needed to build, it needed to build for a long time so that you feel like you know Pippa and kind of judge her for quite a number of pages. And then suddenly, the bottom is just dropped out and then you’re falling. And for a while, you’re [now] like, “Where am I? Who is this?” It’s suddenly first person and you’re in her younger self and you’re inside her head which is not quite the head that you would’ve expected it to be. And you begin to sort of re-see her and re-experience, you know, the world through her eyes and then come back to her. And come back to her changed, like, seeing her in a different way so that you, you know, having sort of judged her and maybe even somewhat dismissed her. I think you see… I was hoping that you would see her in a different way.
Question: How do you keep yourself and your character separate?
Rebecca Miller: I definitely start with character. I mean, character is the seed for me pretty much. I have an idea, yes, but an idea with no characters, has no body, it’s like a ghost floating around, you know. So the characters, I’ve tried to make every character, you know, pretty detailed in my own mind even if they have a short time to be there. And I don’t know, it’s like you layer it on, you find, you start with a little knob like maybe it’s based on somebody that you met in a loose way. Because, I mean, Pippa certainly isn’t the woman that I… She sort of gave me the idea. But then I started thinking about other people that I had known and then inventing Pippa from the inside of myself like, in a way, maybe even opposition to myself but gave her some of my characteristics and gave, you know, and that would be true of, you know, [Herb] as well. Each character has things that are borrowed from people I’ve known, things from myself, and then invented things. And it’s very hard to unravel it once you’ve done it. It’s very hard to say, oh, yeah, it was two parts, this to one part that to, like, you know, a dash of this. It’s very hard to kind of do that afterwards, I find. Almost like you forget the recipe.
Question: Why do you hope people read this book?
Rebecca Miller: I think Pippa has a kind of… I think it’s really Pippa that people, when a lot of people have sort of fallen in love with her, women in particular and I suppose men too, she’s both who you are and also somebody that you’d like to talk to or ask advice of. There’s something of the essence of being, in a way, she has the kind of goodness about her but she’s also done some very bad things, you know? And I think it’s a kind of book that I hope that when you read it and you finish it, there’s a kind of relief or release that you feel, that a weight is taken off you in some way. And that this woman, it’s really a woman’s entire life that you’re experiencing and that you understand the weight that’s been on top of her and gradually the weight is sort of removed, you know. And I think that, that it’s kind of also a permission for a woman of a certain moment in her life to really begin her life again. That she gets to choose her life again even though it’s kind of, you know, we could think it’s sort of time to pack it in and sort of stay who you are and keep your life the way it is and keep safe. She does something very [unsafe] and I think that’s liberating about that. I hope that liber… I mean, I guess… Yeah, I hope.
Recorded on: 10/16/2008
Rebecca Miller talks about the woman who inspired Pippa, keeping character and self separate and why she hopes people read this book.
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