The Queerty Interview

‘Colette’ director Wash Westmoreland: ‘Fight homophobia with Truth’

Denise Gough stars as Missy and Keira Knightley as Colette in Colette, a Bleecker Street release.

When director Wash Westmoreland and his husband Richard Glatzer discovered the real-life story of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette – the bisexual French novelist who revolutionized gender and sexuality for women in the 1900’s with works such as Gigi and the Claudine stories – they knew it was a tale they wanted to bring to the big screen.

However, when the couple finished their first draft in 2001 and began shopping it around, they had a difficult time finding a studio that believed the female pioneer’s life would make an appealing film. They were told it was “too strong, too much” and ultimately, too queer.

That same year, Glatzer developed a lisp and was soon diagnosed with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), a disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.

Rather than sink into depression and allow the disease to sideline his career, Glatzer was determined to continue making movies. The couple moved on to other projects but continued to refine the script for Colette, hoping they’d eventually find a way to get the film made.

By 2015, Glatzer’s condition had deteriorated and he was hospitalized.

Still Alice, the last film Westmoreland and Glatzer worked on together, was a bittersweet achievement. The couple watched the 2015 Academy Awards from the ICU at Cedars-Sinai as Julianne Moore won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance in their film.

A few days later, Westmoreland asked which project his husband wanted to work on next. Though Glatzer had lost the use of his hands and most of his body from the disease, he still managed to type “Colette” on an iPad with his toe.

Nearly three weeks later, Glatzer passed away.

Westmoreland was determined to fulfill his husband’s dying wish and bring the story of the trailblazer to theaters.

This time, he found Hollywood more welcoming. The entertainment landscape for women and diversity representation had significantly evolved since 2001. The story of a Colette – a woman who had to fight for her legacy after her husband took credit for writing her novels, had affairs with both sexes, and had a long-term relationship with a woman who didn’t adhere to traditional gender norms – had found new resonance with the current times.

Colette was finally greenlit in 2016 with Academy Award nominee Keira Knightley stepping into the titular role.

Queerty recently sat down with Westmoreland to talk about his heartbreaking 17-year journey to bring Colette to the big screen, and why telling our stories is more important than ever.

Actor Keira Knightley and Director Wash Westmoreland on the set of Colette.
Credit: Robert Viglasky / Bleecker Street

Getting any film made is a monumental accomplishment, but your personal journey to get this film made is extraordinary. Were there moments along the way when you thought, I can’t do this?
Oh, yes! Richard – my co-director, co-writer, and husband – we wrote the screenplay together in 2001 and it’s taken 17 years to get to this moment. Throughout those years there were so many times when we wondered why people couldn’t see what we saw in this story. There were many moments of frustration, but we’d always return to Colette. We knew hers was an amazing story and it simply had to find its time.

What kept you from giving up?
Making this film has been a way for me to keep Richard’s legacy alive and keep very close to the process that we built together with how we wanted to make films.

When you started shooting, you’d already gone through so much just to get to that point. What were your thoughts on the day you began?
I did have this feeling of, Oh, my God, I’m dealing with this stuff on my own now, at first. As a matter of fact, the first day was a bit of a disaster. We started off with a shot of Keira in bed and there was a cat on the bed who was meant to be lying there sleeping. Then when Keira wakes up the cat was meant to walk up to Colette. I was expecting some dopey old cat that just went to sleep all day, but they brought in a four-year-old cat that was full of energy. We probably spent an hour and a half just trying to get this cat to sit on the bed.

So, there we were on the first day of the shoot, doing the first scene of the movie, with Keira Knightley under the sheets, probably rolling her eyes and wondering what she’d signed up for because we couldn’t even get this cat to do what it was supposed to do. That’s when I thought, “What the fuck would Richard do?”

And what did you do?
We shot the plate clean without the cat and then we put the cat in afterward using a blue screen. (Laughs) But [that’s when] I realized I was still co-directing and I always will be because he’ll always be in my mind. Richard was so influential to the way I think of film and the way I work as a filmmaker. He’ll always be there for me.

So often, we are erased from history, or our sexuality is left out of our stories. Getting the chance to make Colette with her sexuality an integral part of the film, not having to water it down, must have meant a lot.
That was what attracted us to the story in the first place told. Colette had this claim to what she felt was natural and it overrode what was considered permissible or normal in society at that time. She started to explore her bisexuality. She had affairs with women and she had a very long-lasting affair with Missy, the Marquise de Belbeuf, who was a woman who really embraced masculinity and dressed as a man, and smoked cigars and could be seen as a forerunner in both today’s butch lesbian community and the transgender community before those words were ever used. So, Colette’s story is almost like a Trojan Horse.

Actors Eleanor Tomlinson (left) and Keira Knightley (center) with director Wash Westmoreland (right) on the set of Colette

There are many people who claim LGBTQ history is unimportant, that it shouldn’t be taught in schools or included in history books. How do you think we can most effectively fight such ignorance?
I think you fight ignorance and homophobia with truth and through great storytelling. I think if you tell a story and it goes out and people connect to it and it becomes an emotional template, then you can affect a broader change in society. I feel the rapidity with which the marriage equality movement spread in the 21stcentury was largely due to so many stories being put out into the public space in the eighties and nineties.

You mean stories in the entertainment industry?
Yes, especially by queer people in the entertainment industry – whether it be art films like My Beautiful Laundrette or popular sitcoms like Will and Grace – those stories percolate through society and then the new generation comes up having thought about these issues in a more open and liberated way. Then when the change happens, the ground is ready for the change to happen. So, I think to combat people who want to deny LGBTQ history, we have to use the truth that we have existed throughout history and use our creativity to tell our stories.

Though we are beginning to see more change, films, where queer characters are the primary focus, are often ignored by mainstream Hollywood. What do you think the real Colette would say about that today if she were still with us?
Colette was a radical. She was very individual in the way she expressed her sexuality. She wasn’t a political activist in the way that she’d go out in the streets and march with the suffragettes. So, in a way, Colette’s expression was very much about individuality and I believe that social change comes from individuals expressing themselves freely, but also from social movements that build collectively. So, it’s interesting to think about what Colette would make of today because if people told her she couldn’t be a certain way, she was very dismissive of that and I think she’d apply that same approach to today as well. If someone told her she couldn’t do something, she’d probably say, “To hell with you, I’m going to do it anyway.”

What do you think her advice would be to LGBTQ creators today?
I think she wrote her truth. She wrote about what was really happening to her in an honest way and in a very skillful way. That got her words into the world and got her thoughts into other people’s minds. She wouldn’t let anything stop her. If she came to a barrier she would break through it like a bull. I think that’s an inspiration for anyone who has come up against a barrier in their lives.

Through the process of making this film, getting to know Colette and her story so well, how has she inspired you?
I think Colette will always inspire me. If I face a problem in my own life, such as wondering how I’ll make a movie or what people will say about it, I think of Colette’s attitude, which was, you go with the art. You go with the creativity and you go with your sense of what the truth of it is. Don’t worry about what people will say or if something is going to be a hit. I think for any artist, that’s the place where you need to go, inside into your own experience of life and how you can creatively express that in what you’re making.

Colette opens Friday, September 21. Check out the trailer below: