Author Ottessa Moshfegh on adapting Eileen for the screen
Ottessa Moshfegh and her husband and cowriter Luke Goebel open up about working on the film adaptation of Moshfegh's novel Eileen, starring Anne Hathaway and Thomasin McKenzie
Desire and obsession overflow from Ottessa Moshfegh’s debut novel, Eileen. In a new iteration of the same story, Moshfegh, with co-writer and husband Luke Goebel, excavated this dark, pulpy drama from the page and onto the screen for William Oldroyd’s compelling psychological thriller.
"Desire and obsession overflow from Ottessa Moshfegh’s debut novel, Eileen"
The film follows the titular Eileen (Thomasin McKenzie), a prison secretary, who becomes enraptured with sapphic desire with the arrival of captivating psychologist Rebecca (Anne Hathaway). Admiration and obsession clash in snowy, 1960s Massachusetts as both women wrestle with their status and relationship in this male prison.
Speaking to Reader’s Digest, Moshfegh and Goebel share details about their collaborative process, casting Anne Hathaway, and the challenges of translating a character’s imagination to the screen.
Reader's Digest: You’ve collaborated previously with Causeway, but was the experience different this time around as the film’s based on Ottessa’s novel?
Moshfegh: A hundred per cent different! Not only was it based on one of my books but it was the first project that Luke and I developed from the ground up. It started with William Oldroyd from the very beginning, the three of us collaborating. We’d have conversations with Will, then Luke and I would go to our cave and wrestle out a script, and then we’d all talk again. Being the originator of the project was very different from being hired to rewrite a project, though our work on Causeway helped us build the muscles for Eileen.
Goebel: In Eileen, we were writing into an unknown in terms of the star but in Causeway, we were writing for Jennifer Lawrence as the lead. Personally, I couldn’t see Eileen in my mind, even with the book—something wasn’t clicking. Then when I saw Thomasin and her audition tape everything magically crystalised and made perfect sense. It was like she had arrived.
Hathaway and McKenzie both deliver stunning performances, did they resemble the versions of Eileen and Rebecca in your mind?
Goebel: In hindsight, it’s so hard to remember if I could see these characters because there’s no way I wouldn’t see Anne Hathaway as Rebecca and Thomasin McKenzie as Eileen. These women are indelibly burned into the fabric of these characters.
Moshfegh: We’d have a lot of phone calls with our other producers and our casting director, Jeanne McCarthy, where we’d be talking about what we thought about every single audition.
How did you negotiate the idea of control when it comes to scripting your story and then handing it to a director?
Moshfegh: We were all really interested in designing this film as something that no one’s seen before. We were excited about the edgy, oddness of Eileen as a character, the larger-than-life Rebecca, and the bizarre, dark corners of this story. We shared a vision, both stylistically and what we wanted the movie to do to the viewer. I didn’t feel as though we were making sacrifices and I was happy to widen my understanding of Eileen.
In adapting Eileen for the screen, did your understanding of the story or these characters change at all?
Moshfegh: I don’t feel like they’re necessarily different people but when you read a book the character is a projection of the reader as they’re conjuring this other person in their mind, filling in unknowns with their associations. In a movie, looking at an actual person, there’s a separation and objectivity that was helpful.
"Thomasin McKenzie’s performance was way more vulnerable and adorable than I expected"
Also, Thomasin McKenzie’s performance was way more vulnerable and adorable than I expected. Towards the end, something big happens and over many drafts, we realised what we thought was an accident was something deliberate—a choice like that gave agency to a character rather than just a reaction.
Goebel: Also, we’re centred on Eileen’s character and so her father is a character who has a function in the book but in the movie, becomes a full person. He can no longer just be part of her experience alone.
Moshfegh: We talked about going from what’s a first-person narration [in the book] to shifting to present tense third-person perspective watching the story play out. It was a big adjustment.
There are still moments where the first-person perspective of Eileen’s imagination bleeds into the film. Was that an ode to the book?
Moshfegh: I think so. We had to be very selective and thoughtful about how we demonstrated Eileen’s interior and how her devilish, dark imagination might show up in the movie in moments when she was angry or hurt.
What we didn’t realise is that we’d established what I think is a literary thing: when you’re watching someone’s fantasy play out on screen you might at first take it for reality but by the end, the last sequence of the film, we don’t know what is real or not.
I have to ask about My Year of Rest and Relaxation. How far along are you in the adaptation process?
Moshfegh: I can’t say too much, it’s an ongoing process and it has been a very, very different process. It’s an adaptation I started writing alone, I’m working closely now with a team. I’m excited to see what happens.
Eileen is now showing in cinemas
Cover image: Eileen, directed by William Oldroyd. Image © Jeong Park.
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