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The Gut-Wrenching Story Behind 'Colette,' The New Keira Knightley Movie

Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland were in a Los Angeles hospital on Feb. 22, 2015, the night Julianne Moore won a Best Actress Oscar for her performance as a woman with early-onset Alzheimer’s in their independent film “Still Alice.”

Surrounded by five or six friends in the intensive care unit, they toasted with champagne, wishing they could be at the Dolby Theatre to celebrate. But the married couple was used to missing out by then. Glatzer and Westmoreland had been watching awards season roll by from the sidelines for weeks. 

“It felt like this dream that the film was really connecting to an audience and that her performance was being so celebrated. But at the same time, we were dealing with the reality of Richard’s health, and I being a caregiver and looking after someone who could no longer look after themselves,” Westmoreland told me during an emotional call in August. “It was the best of times and the worst of times.”

Glatzer was diagnosed with ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis ― a neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord ― in 2011, after developing a slight lisp. Within a year, he lost his ability to speak altogether, and began using an iPad to communicate. Westmoreland urged his husband to take it easy as his physical health declined, but Glatzer had other plans. 

“He would type, ‘No. I want to make movies,’” Westmoreland said. “He was just determined.” 

By that point, Glatzer had written and directed two films with Westmoreland ― “The Fluffer” and “Quinceañera,” the latter a Sundance hit that won the 2006 festival’s grand jury prize, audience award and enough buzz to land a distribution deal with Sony Pictures Classics. From there, they made the heavily derided 2013 film “The Last of Robin Hood” about actor Errol Flynn, starring Kevin Kline and Dakota Fanning. “Still Alice” was their shot at redemption, even if Glatzer’s condition was tightening its grip on his body. 

“He started losing the use of his hands, so by the end of the shoot in 2014, he was just typing with one finger,” Westmoreland recounted, audibly upset. “We went into post and edited over that summer and, at the time, we just knew we were on the race against time to get this out into the world.”

The film, co-starring Alec Baldwin and Kristen Stewart, premiered at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics snatched it up from there, releasing “Alice” in December of that same year so it could contend for the 2015 Academy Awards. The accolades came and went, and Glatzer was on to the next project. 

“A few days after [Julianne’s win], it was back to what film we were going to do next. He had his iPad, and by then he was typing with one toe, and he just typed ‘C-O-L-E-T-T-E.’ And I said, ‘Yeah,’” Westmoreland recalled, crying over the phone,“‘We’re going to do “Colette.”’”

Wash Westmoreland (left) and Richard Glatzer in Paris. 

Courtesy of Wash Westmoreland

Wash Westmoreland (left) and Richard Glatzer in Paris. 

“Colette” is Westmoreland’s first feature directorial effort since Glatzer’s death. The film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and is set for release this month, stars Keira Knightley as the real-life French writer whose husband, Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West), took credit for her acclaimed Claudine novels in the early 1900s.

Featuring a queer lead character ― Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, best known for her novel Gigi ― the film is an unexpected period piece. It begins like many early 20th-century husband-and-wife novels do: she’s a seemingly naive, economically disadvantaged young woman, while he’s a man of means, education, celebrity and scandal. But unlike your run-of-the-mill redemption narrative, “Colette” veers confidently into a complex tussling of sexuality and gender norms inside and outside the construct of marriage.

Westmoreland and Glatzer started considering telling Colette’s story around 1999. They were enamored by her history. How Henry recruited Colette to ghost-write under his nom de plume, Willy. How the novels she wrote became a surprise hit among young female readers in Paris. How he refused to publicly acknowledge her authorship, going as far as to lock her in a room until she produced the pages he needed to keep his charade afloat ― a gruesome inversion of Virginia Woolf’s concept of a room of one’s own.

By 2001, Glatzer had written the first draft of the film. 

“We worked as if we were playing tennis with the ideas,” Westmoreland said of he and Glatzer’s collaboration, which took place during a summer vacation in Paris. “During the writing process, we managed to have it out in terms of what the story should be, what the characters should be thinking, what the juice was that propelled it forward ― and we’d just do it through a dialogue.”

“I’m more a throw-the-spaghetti-against-the-wall guy,” he laughed, “and Richard’s more discerning, had a Ph.D. in literature and a better hand on the architecture of the whole piece. That was the yin and yang for us.” 

Grieving is a long and complicated process and when I came out of the darkest times and wanted to work again, there was no other choice than to push forward with ‘Colette.’

After a few rounds of back and forth, Westmoreland and Glatzer finished the script in 2002 and began pitching it to producers.

They were shocked by the feedback. 

“People were like, ‘Oh, it’s very interesting,’ but there was this sense that it was almost too radical to fit into the conventional period-piece mold,” Westmoreland told me. “Certainly it’s set at the beginning of the modern age, but what this film really focuses on is the developments in gender identity and sexuality that were happening around that time and a lot of people just found it a little too strong, a little too much. So it took a long journey to get it to the big screen.” 

It took 18 years, 30 drafts and an Oscar, to be exact.

Because of the success of “Still Alice,” and Hollywood’s current infatuation with female-driven stories, “Colette” was greenlit in early 2016, nearly a year after Glatzer’s death ― thanks in part to support from “Carol” producers Pam Koffler, Christine Vachon, Liz Karlsen and Stephen Woolley.

Westmoreland was thrilled. The project had Glatzer’s fingerprints all over it. 

“Grieving is a long and complicated process and when I came out of the darkest times and wanted to work again, there was no other choice than to push forward with ‘Colette,’” Westmoreland said. “There was just a sense of this was a way of celebrating Richard, keeping his legacy alive and putting his name up there again. It was a way of me staying close to him ― to make this film that he loved and hear the words that he wrote being animated by such brilliant actors.” 

Westmoreland believes that Glatzer would be proud that the movie ― centered around a woman fighting for her worth in a male-dominated industry ― is hitting theaters now, during the swell of the Time’s Up and Me Too movements. 

“Throughout history we’ve felt the story of a man keeping a woman down, a man suppressing a woman’s voice, a man claiming credit for a woman’s work,” Westmoreland said. “But it’s just become more and more the focus of conversations about modern feminism ― this inequality in the sense of work and sexual abuse in the workplace, both of which feel very much in tune with the story of ‘Colette.’ It’s about claiming a voice that you were unable to liberate.”

“Colette” officially hits theaters on Sept. 21. Whether or not the accolades arrive this time, Westmoreland is as anxious as ever to move on to new films ― to make a name for himself while still protecting his late husband’s legacy. 

“We didn’t talk much about death, but one day he did say to me, ‘I want you to keep making films after I’m gone,’” he recalled, holding back tears once again. “Whatever I do, I think I’ll always be co-directing in my mind because Richard was so seminal to the formation of my whole view of film, and literature and art, as well. He’s just always been part of me so that will continue in anything I ever make.”

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