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'Pippa Lee' autobiographical? Not so, says its writer-director

Though audiences might be tempted to think otherwise, it's 'a work of imagination,' says Rebecca Miller, who also wrote the book it's based on.

November 22, 2009|By Mark Olsen

In "The Private Lives of Pippa Lee," opening Friday, the title character finds herself at a crossroads, bristling at the rather staid, low-impact life she has fashioned for herself as the wife of a prominent publisher after her more trauma- and drama-filled younger years. The film, written and directed by Rebecca Miller, cycles back and forth between Pippa's older and younger selves (played by Robin Wright and Blake Lively, respectively), creating an intimately detailed portrait of how events from the past form the foundations of who one becomes.

Miller adapted the script from her own novel. She began working on the screenplay at a point when she thought she was finished with the book, only to return later to the source material to make additions and changes.

"Mostly, with a novel, by the time you're done, that's the end," Miller said of the adaptation process during a recent interview in Los Angeles. "But for some reason, I just felt like I wasn't done. I wanted to go into that next dimension and walk through that magic door and see the sets for real and see real people cry and speak and have feelings.

"With 'Pippa,' though a lot of it is interior and you're in her head, a lot happens. I was interested in the idea of transitions from past to present and how to make something that's really cinematic, not a filmed play, but really a film."

The way in which the film gently glides between the Lively and Wright sections to create a full portrait of Pippa's progression -- the phases of a life -- is brought into sharp relief when the two actresses begin an interview lying side by side on a bed in a West Los Angeles hotel room.

Though they may seem familiar with one another now, the two were on-set together for only a day or so, and before the shoot, they'd met only in passing, spending a few moments together during a day of pre-production camera and costume tests. Miller nevertheless wanted the two actresses to study each other, melding their behavior as much as possible into one performance. Watching Lively on a video monitor, Wright picked up on a specific facial expression, an enigmatic and quizzical set of raised eyebrows.

"She did do something with her forehead," Wright said, raising her eyebrows high to wrinkle her brow, "this furrowed thing, just like a little doe. And it was the sweetest, it was so innocent. And that was sort of the inception of what we wanted Pippa to be throughout her life, whether she was 20 or 50. Everything that came her way she absorbed with the same innocence, no matter how toxic her life was in the past."

Miller cast Wright first and was able to build the film's remarkable supporting cast (including Alan Arkin, Julianne Moore, Maria Bello, Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Monica Belluci and Zoe Kazan) around her. The younger Pippa was cast late in the process, and the first actress Miller saw was Lively. She then saw countless others before calling Lively back.

Miller didn't quite realize she had a starlet in her midst. "To the end, I thought I was casting an unknown," she said. "I live in Ireland, rural Ireland, had not yet seen 'Gossip Girl.' "

Lively actually considers Miller's lack of awareness of her current television stardom and tabloid heat a plus.

"It was better for me," Lively said, "because so many people know me from 'Gossip Girl,' and that's not acting, it's more memorizing and producing a product. [With Rebecca] I was able to come in without her expecting not to like me or feeling she was doing someone a favor for seeing me."

The temptation to attach what one thinks one knows about the personal lives of a film's creator and stars is very close to the surface with "The Private Lives of Pippa Lee." Regarding Miller -- whose father is playwright Arthur Miller and husband is actor Daniel Day-Lewis -- it is easy, likely too easy, to read the film as the story of finding a space for oneself while living near someone else's greatness.

"I borrowed from a lot of worlds in this film that I've seen inside of," said Miller, cautioning against over-reading the connections between their real selves and their on-screen counterparts. "But I think to really go down the road of biography with it is a dead end. It's really, ultimately, a work of imagination. I'm so different from Pippa personally. But I do understand, have seen many powerful men in my life, great men. And I've also been to seedy places in New York City."

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