The makers of ‘Eileen’ discuss film adaptation

Star literary fiction author Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel comes to the big screen.

Ottessa Moshfegh’s “Eileen” is a thrilling adaptation set in 1960s Massachusetts, centered around a secretary with a dark secret. (Jeong Park / NEON)

Based on the eponymous first novel from star author Ottessa Moshfegh, indie darling NEON’s latest offering “Eileen” is a twisty and thrilling drama set in a brutally wintery 1960s Massachusetts.

Adapted and co-produced for the big screen by Moshfegh and husband Luke Goebel and directed by William Oldroyd, “Eileen” premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival to glowing praise earlier this year. The film is scheduled for limited release Friday before going into wide release Dec. 8.

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Moshfegh, Goebel and Oldroyd sat down for a Q&A over Zoom to discuss their filmmaking journeys and their newest release.

“When I read the book, it stuck out because of this central character of Eileen,” Oldroyd said. “That was the reason that I wanted to contact [Moshfegh] in the first place to work with her and Luke on developing the screenplay and bringing the film to life, because I felt like I hadn’t met such an original and interesting, complex, complicated character in all the reading I’ve done.”

Oldroyd’s last film, “Lady Macbeth,” premiered in 2016 at the Toronto International Film Festival. Outside of film, he directs theater in the United Kingdom.

“When I make something, 50% of it is the idea and 50% of it is the infrastructure around the making of it,” Oldroyd said. “I knew that when I met Ottessa and Luke, these were people I could make a good piece of work with. That was very important. Not only that I had found a fantastic character to help bring to life, but I’d also found great collaborators.”

Moshfegh’s novel “Eileen” was first published by Penguin Press in 2015. Since then, she has published four more works, including “My Year of Rest and Relaxation,” “Death in Her Hands” and “Lapvona,” which were all The New York Times bestsellers.

“I’m so honored that a younger generation of readers is finding my work and finding it valuable enough to talk about over the internet. That’s fantastic,” Moshfegh said. “As someone born in 1981, [the internet] is just this vast and daunting thing. I hope that my work has something positive to add to that strange universe.”

“Eileen” is the first of several adaptations of Moshfegh’s works currently in the works. The film stars Thomasin McKenzie as Eileen and Anne Hathaway as Rebecca, with supporting turns from Shea Whigham and Marin Ireland.

“The moment we saw Thomasin’s audition tape, there was no doubt in our mind that she was perfect,” Oldroyd said. “She was the Eileen that we had always been thinking of. And then with Anne, of course, we were so lucky that she should read the script and get to us immediately and say, ‘I want to play Rebecca.’ That was just a dream.”

Oldroyd emphasized the generational difference between McKenzie and Hathaway, which parallels the relationship between the characters Eileen and Rebecca.

Adding to the discussion surrounding the chemistry and relationship between the leads, Moshfegh said, “We were all very interested in the gray area between platonic and romantic, between real and imaginary. Discomfort was something we really wanted to highlight through how we built up the tension, which we wanted to use to make the twist really exciting.”

The film pulls from the classic romance and psychological thriller genres, with inspiration from older Hitchcockian films. In adapting the novel for the big screen, Goebel made the decision to stray away from the original work.

“It’s like working with fine marble. You have to cut away a lot to get to the new form, and it’s all really valuable,” Goebel said. “Nonetheless, if you were to just make a carbon copy, or somehow try to imitate the book on screen, I think it would be a disappointment. It’s not a lithograph; it’s a new thing.”

As the conversation drew to an end, Oldroyd recounted an old college memory from his time as part of Durham University’s theater company, one of the first times he spearheaded a theatrical production.

“The [university] newspaper said it was so bad that I should be ashamed to call myself a student of that university,” Oldroyd said, laughing. “It’s so nice to be here 20 years later with a film that I’m actually very proud of.”

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