"While we have a lot of films that exist with mothers in them," Katherine Dieckmann told me earlier this month at the Woodstock Film Festival, "I felt frustrated that I wasn't seeing any depiction of a woman that I could relate to." So, the multi-tasking mother of two -- Caroline, 12, and Nathaniel, 7 -- wrote and directed Motherhood, a tragicomic day in the life of Eliza (Uma Thurman) as she plans her daughter's sixth birthday party and navigates an identity crisis worthy of Joan Didion. And, so that Dieckmann (Diggers) would be home in time to put her kids to bed and do laundry between camera set-ups, she shot in her own neighborhood, Greenwich Village.
TA: What inspired you to write this story?
KD: I was frustrated by the absence of movies where a mother is the lead and her issues are the film's main focus, where she is a significant character expressing her soul and existence through this universal activity called motherhood.
TA: Your movie revolves around a warts-and-all character study, without becoming a Mildred Pierce melodrama.
KD: Yes. Being a mother forces you to look at some of the worst aspects of your personality. You're inevitably going to cause some damage; it's just what kind of damage? As they say in the clichés, it'll be what you didn't see. You'll try to correct all the things you didn't correct as a child and meanwhile there will be a whole new laundry list of issues.
TA: As a mother, I'm trying to avoid my own mother's mistakes and therefore I'm a pendulum. By compensating for certain things, I'm neglecting other things that she did so well.
KD: That's the great thing about motherhood is that you're more forgiving toward your own mother. My relationship with my mother changed for the better when I had kids. We fought before that and didn't understand each other. Now we're very close and I think that has to do with my ability to track back and understand more of what her life was like.
TA: Our generation had more freedom than our mothers' generation. Many of us were college-focused and ambitious. We didn't want to do the drudge work. Then we had children and it blew us sideways
KD: You're forced to deal with the logistics in a very different way. There's no preparation for it. And that's consciously in the script. What is that toll taken on your well-being when you're mired in endless organizing and domesticity? And that is, unfortunately, a woman's job in most partnerships. Not always, but often. And what's the kind of psychological, spiritual toll that takes on somebody, to pick up a sock, to bend and stoop?
TA: Some critics have responded to your movie by saying it's not enough just to be about a mother.
KD: I think it's enough. But it's not going to be enough for every body. And that's ok. But I tend to like Ramin Bahrani's films. I like character studies, and I like to sit there with the character.
TA: Like Happy-Go-Lucky?
KD: I love Happy-Go-Lucky. I love Mike Leigh. Leigh was a conscious choice. In terms of Motherhood, there's a big scene that didn't end up in the movie. I thought about it through the eyes of Mike Leigh. It's now the credit sequence. It was a seven-page dialog scene. It took a long time to shoot. It took forever to light. We had kids in it. It's the one thing if I had a bigger budget I would have gone back and reshot. And the scene just didn't work. I cut it all different ways, so finally I let it go. So, that was my Mike Leigh moment, like Vera Drake, through doorways, I had it all figured out in terms of how it should all work out, but it didn't work.
TA: A scene that works beautifully is the one where Eliza dances in her apartment with the deliveryman while her husband is at work.
KD: For a minute she's just in her body and she's forgotten all that other stuff and she's with a great looking man who's very sweet and he's not going to jump her.
TA: I appreciated that it didn't end in a clinch.
KD: People really want it to, and I'm glad it doesn't. She's suddenly in that moment, pogo-ing so close, dancing right up in his face, wondering: "Who am I? Where am I? What am I doing?" Because it's such a great thing to get lost in a moment like that; it's hard when you have children and you're caring for a two- or three-year-old most of the day.
TA: And yet that time in your life when the kids are little and dependent passes so quickly. It hurts the first day you walk your kids to preschool. You worry that they're going to cry but you know that you're going to be the one weeping. It's the most luxurious sadness because that's the first step on the long road to independence.
KD: It's funny because that's also what the script of Motherhood was about, that horrible feeling of the sand going through the hourglass. Like last night, I went into my daughter's room. She still sleeps with her stuffed rabbit even though she's 5 foot 8. And the bunny was on the floor. I picked it up, put it in her arms and covered her up. It was amazing because she looks like she should be in college, but she's still a little girl. It's very intense when you let yourself tap into it. You can't be tapped into it all the time.