For director Jake Scott, coming this year for the first time to the Toronto International Film Festival was especially meaningful, He brought with him the drama American Woman starring Sienna Miller who portrays Deb, a 32-year-old mom in the throes of a parent’s worst nightmare, the disappearance of a child.
Set in a blue-collar Pennsylvania town, Scott’s film delves into the horror and impact of a teen daughter going missing. Deb is left to raise her infant grandson alone in a story that spans some 11 years--from the time her daughter vanishes to a stretch of varied trials and tribulations centered on Deb’s relationships as well as her quest for closure, with her ultimately discovering the truth about what happened.
For Scott, gaining exposure for American Woman at the Toronto fest--long known for generating Oscar buzz--was important not for any personal gain but rather the chance to spotlight Miller’s performance. “I’ve always thought she had proven herself as a major actress but I think it will become evident to many more people when they see her in this film. It’s the role we’ve been waiting for her to get. I think it’s very deserving of a nomination of some kind.”
Scott was drawn to American Woman when he read the first draft of the script by Brad Ingelsby back in 2015. Scott remembered Ingelsby’s insightful, character-driven work on Out of the Furnace (which he wrote with that film’s director, Scott Cooper). Jake Scott had been at the successful pitch meeting when Out of the Furnace was presented to his family’s production company, Scott Free.
“The quality of the writing for American Woman caught me--it was about a woman’s struggles and resilience,” related Scott. “The character was very compelling. I was drawn to the drama, the character, the stories involved. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and A Woman Under the Influence were in the back of my mind when I read Brad’s work. It was a great character study that I really wanted to get my teeth into.”
Still, the film had its challenges. “The film takes place over more than a decade which means there are certain things you had to pay attention to in order to properly depict the passage of time--particularly since we shot for just 27 days,” related Scott. “We got lucky with the weather in terms of seasonal changes.”
Another prime challenge was “to tell the story of a woman with a perspective detached from the male gaze,” continued Scott who defined his responsibility as “being true to the characters and to honor them, to be as truthful as you can possibly be about this woman’s mistakes and struggles. With Sienna, Christina Hendricks (as Deb’s sister) and Amy Madigan (Deb’s mother), we had great actresses to make sure things didn’t go the wrong way.”
Scott also made sure he had the professional colleagues to steer the ship in the right direction, including two-time Best Cinematography Oscar nominee (Gladiator in 2001, The Phantom of the Opera in 2005) John Mathieson, BSC. whom he collaborated with on his first feature, Plunkett & Macleane, as well as numerous spots and music videos; and editor Joi McMillon, ACE, the first African-American female to earn a Best Film Editing Oscar nomination (for Moonlight , shared with Nat Sanders, in 2017). American Woman marked Scott’s first collaboration with McMillon.
Scott described Mathieson as “very methodical and analytical, someone who understands scene blocking, We didn’t want actors to have to hit marks. We wanted them to run over each other with their lines, interrupt each other. John’s planning and experience allowed us to do that. He was very helpful in terms of maintaining a visual style without compromising coverage. He’s just a great cameraman with a lovely feel and who shows that a sense of realism doesn’t have to be mundane or bland.”
Seeing McMillon’s work on Moonlight was enough for Scott to seek her out. “She comes at things from the right place, with an emotional logic. If I get the chance, I would work with her on every film I do. She is a gift.”
American Woman adds to a Scott feature filmography which also includes Plunkett & Macleane and Welcome to the Rileys. The latter made its way to the Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals in 2010.
Scott has directed music videos for such artists as Radiohead, R.E.M., Oasis, U2, and George Michael. Scott’s commercialmaking exploits as of late includes work for Kia, Kohler’s Budweiser and the New York Lottery.
Scott is also a partner in the Ridley Scott Creative Group, born out of a recent restructuring of all RSA Films-affiliated companies designed to take advantage of emerging opportunities across all entertainment genres with ongoing work in film, TV, branded entertainment, commercials, VR, short films, documentaries, music videos, design and animation, and photography. Jake Scott said the Creative Group is “moving into the future as the industry changes; we’re opening up the windows and doors to let fresh air in.”
American Woman also was a breath of fresh air for Scott himself. “I can still learn and this movie taught me about trusting my actors more than maybe I had before,” he assessed. “With this cast and Sienna’s performance, I realized fully that good actors can be like magical beings. If you encourage and support them, they can do amazing things. Directing is about connecting with your actors, letting them know they will be supported when they take risks and extend themselves.”