INTERVIEW: Sebastián Lelio, Director of Gloria Bell

Chilean director Sebastián Lelio spoke with Andrew Bloomenthal of Script magazine about directing Gloria Bell and putting a fresh spin on his cherished original.
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Chilean director Sebastián Lelio spoke with Andrew Bloomenthal of Script magazine about directing Gloria Bell and putting a fresh spin on his cherished original.

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 Julianne Moore, courtesy of A24

Julianne Moore, courtesy of A24

Some films make us smile—just because. Such is the case with Gloria Bell, which richly observes a fifty-something divorcée, as she celebrates middle-aged singledom with an infectious zeal we could all use a good dose of. Sure, her grown kids don’t call her enough. And yes, Los Angeles can be a lonely city in which to fly solo. But the titular Gloria, played with quirky irresistibility by the always-disarming Julianne Moore, does just fine on her own, as she crushes it nightly on the dance floor, inhales too many martinis, and generally lives comfortably in her own skin.

And then she meets the freshly-divorced Arnold, played to goofy perfection by John Turturro. At first glance, the pair seems cautiously compatible. After all, Arnold holds his own with Gloria on the dance floor, he demonstrates the requisite emotional vulnerability, and he even seduces Gloria with poetry. So far, so good. But their budding relationship takes a sudden left turn at Gloria’s son’s birthday party, when Arnold excuses himself to use the bathroom, only to disappear, without a word. He later chalks up his vanishing act to the discomfort he felt watching Gloria innocently interact with her ex-husband Dustin (Brad Garrett). But Arnold is really just an insecure weasel–hardly in a position to lecture anyone about boundaries, given how wrapped up he still is with his ex.

Gloria wisely sends Arnold packing, before reluctantly taking him back, only to be burned yet again, in a way too upsetting to spoil here. Then again, in a movie comprising small moments, even micro gestures stand out in stark relief. Like when Gloria clumsily fumbles through her first yoga class. Or how she constantly evicts the hairless stray alley cat that somehow keeps infiltrating her modest apartment.

And then there are the infectious scenes of Gloria cruising in her car, belting along with her favorite tunes, whether it's Paul McCartney’s “No More Lonely Nights,” Olivia Newton-John’s “A Little More Love,” or Laura Branagan’s anthemic “Gloria.” Sure, we all engage in such alone-time activity, but Gloria’s unhinged adorability seems to occupy its own lane.

 Sebastián Lelio

Sebastián Lelio

Gloria Bell was directed by Chilean director Sebastián Lelio, who adapted the screenplay from his own 2013 gem Gloria—a favorite of Moore, who recalls: “When I first saw Gloria, I just flipped out for her, because she reminds us that we are all the heroes of our own lives.”

“Julianne truly understood both Gloria’s struggle and her positivity, and she fully committed to every moment,” notes Lelio, who spoke with Script magazine about putting a fresh spin on his cherished original.

Was adapting Gloria into Gloria Bell a difficult or easy exercise?

The writing process of adapting Gloria into Gloria Bell was quite organic. The first approach was to do a very quick version in English, based on the original script, which allowed me to understand what worked and what had to be modified to adapt to the cultural context of Los Angeles. I had the help of [co-writer] Alice Johnson Boher, who is L.A. based, who drove me around and showed me different parts of the city. Of course, I’ve been to L.A. many times, but when Julianne originally suggested it for the setting of the story, it made sense, because with all of its differences from Santiago, there is something that could be considered Latin about L.A. There’s a certain mess, that’s rare in other American cities. And then there’s the factor of Gloria driving and singing, which was true to the first version but somehow became even more relevant in Gloria Bell, so I tried to get a better understanding of the city’s dynamics and learn what each neighborhood implies.

Can you discuss the process of choosing the songs Gloria sang?

Well, in many ways, Gloria Bell is like a hidden musical. The many songs she sings reveal aspects to the character’s journey, so they have importance. And it can’t be just any song. The music had to transmit the right feeling, and the lyrics had to resonate with the moment where the music is placed in the story. Then we had to factor in that we didn’t have the budget for the rights to use all the songs we wanted, so we had find alternative solutions. It’s all about striking a balance, so if you have an expensive Paul McCartney song, you have to follow that up with a less-known song. There’s a constant tension between what you dreamt, and what is possible.

Were there any songs that you really wanted that you couldn’t get?

Yeah, I really wanted “I Feel Love,” by Donna Summer (Lelio sings): I feel looooo-ooooo-ooooo-ove! I was drawn to that amazing classical foundational piece of disco music. But it was unaffordable and would have killed our budget.

And when you filmed these car singing scenes, do you have music playing over the radio speaker for Julianne to sing along with?

Technically, we had Julianne wear wireless Bluetooth headphones in her ear, and I held an iPad, with all the segments of the songs she was going to sing while driving, so I was pressing ‘play’ and ‘pause’ and ‘rewind’ myself, and I would say, “Okay Julianne, we’re going again!” And because the music was only coming through her earbuds, we could register her voice in a clean way, without it being contaminated by the speakers. Then you add the music later on, and it really works.

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Are there things you discussed with Julianne Moore about backstory, to aid her acting process?

To be honest? No. I mean, it’s funny, because we’ve never discussed backstory. I know Julianne built her own version, but I think that’s her construction that she needed to create the character. But that wasn’t my territory.

Chilean director Sebastián Lelio spoke with Andrew Bloomenthal of Script magazine about directing Gloria Bell and putting a fresh spin on his cherished original.

In the production notes, you described the character of Arnold as “Someone who is doing his best, so even when he’s hiding the truth or driving Gloria crazy, you’re on his side because you can feel him trying.” But don’t you think his behavior in Las Vegas was an unforgivable capital crime?

But you just mentioned the worst moment in his arc. In the beginning, when Gloria’s just getting to know him, we don’t know that he will do that. So I see a guy who’s trying to work through his own flaws and his own limitations. But the thing is, Gloria is too much of a woman for him. But he really tries, and that’s the connection I can use to defend him, although of course I’m with Gloria in the end.

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Finally, sometimes you showed the faces of people Gloria interacts with, like the woman giving her a Brazilian wax. But then you don’t show the faces of others, like a waiter or the hotel concierge. Did you film the reverse angles of these actors, and then simply opt not to use them?

No. Everything was all planned.

So how did you determine which small character required reverse angles, and which ones didn’t?

It was an intuitive approach. The game of this film is to turn a secondary character into an absolute protagonist. That’s Gloria. So sometimes the camera is only on her, and we don’t even need so see the reverse angle of the other person, because it’s not necessary. Sometimes it’s all about Gloria.

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