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Mona Fastvold’s 'The World to Come' Explores Forbidden Love in 1850s Rural America

February 19, 2021
3 min read time

Mona Fastvold has several writing credits under her belt as well as a film titled The Sleepwalker that she both wrote and directed. She never planned on directing a film she hadn’t written though.

When Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard handed her The World to Come, she was compelled to make this her next project.

Set in 1850s upstate New York, two wives struggle with the psychologically tedious rural landscape and their estranged husbands, finding comfort both physically and emotionally in each other’s company. Starring Katherine Waterston, Vanessa Kirby, Casey Affleck and Christopher Abbott, The World to Come premiered at the 77th Venice International Film Festival and won the Queer Lion Award for best LGBTQ-themed film.

Working with writers

Fastvold knew the duo had been working on this script for years with a creative producer and Casey Affleck; Hansen had previously written the novel The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. They had seen Fastvold’s previous work and sent her the project for consideration and, soon after, she was on board. No actors were attached but Affleck was interested if she wanted him and she said yes.

“I loved the characters and the language and it was rich in historical details,” Fastvold said of the screenplay.

As much as she loved the script, there were a lot of things she wanted to explore. Using her experience as a writer who wrote for a lot of directors, she knew what it was like to be on the other side of things.

“I reached out and talked with the guys and had some notes. I wanted to share some important things and it was a nice collaborative process,” Fastvold said.

As the team waited for Katherine Waterston to become available, she had both remote sessions and in-person meetings with the writers fine-tuning the script to reflect certain aspects of Shepard’s short story.

“When you’re a writer-director you’re the master of the universe. You have the liberty to change on the fly while on set, although I have a specific plan usually,” Fastvold said.

But she knew there was a process of having the project handed over and having to make it your own even if it’s not written by you.

As a director, “You have to take the time to really understand what you want to do with every scene. When you write it, you don’t have to think that way because you’ve already done that work,” Fastvold said.

She had to find how to capture the same poetry she wanted to convey in the story. On top of discovering her vision, she also found a few more things in the editing of the script you don't write yourself.

“It’s a luxury working with someone who writes really well.”

Researching the story

This was Fastvold’s first historical feature as director but she is well versed in what it takes to write a period piece. Without having researched the original material, she had to rely on Hansen and Shepard’s recommendations, which included diving into lots of books, poring over images and digging into archives.

“I brought on collaborators early on,” Fastvold said.

“I wanted to do this film and do it in a specific way so I needed specific people like composer Daniel Blumberg and production designer Jean-Vincent Puzos (who designed The Childhood of a Leader, written by Fastvold). He’s an incredible production designer with both historical experience and could work with a limited budget.”

Fastvold went back and forth quite a bit with her crew when it came to research. She explored where the settlers in this area came from, such as where in Europe their lineage immigrated from and how it impacted the building styles of the time and how the culture of America inspired the look as well.

The takeaway

It’s often hard for a writer and/or director to define what they want the viewer to take away from a film. It’s not that they don’t have a clear idea what they want to say, but it’s hard to explain the intent because it might take away from the experience of seeing it; it’s not something they want to put onto the audience.

Fastvold hopes that The World to Come is a moving experience and sparks a conversation. She hopes it’s a welcome time-travel experience that makes the viewer feel something.

“If you can be transported for a little piece of time, then that’s the experience.”

Although she admits that this film isn’t exactly escapist, what was most important to Fastvold was trying to find ways of making it like the short story, with its beautiful text. That’s why she aimed to paint her canvas with a rich texture and paid attention to costumes, production design and art direction.

The World to Come became available in limited theatrical release on Feb. 12 and will hit streaming services on March 2.

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