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About The Production
Making a film that offers a fresh take on the story of Lizzie Borden has been Chloe Sevigny's passion project for almost a decade. The actor and filmmaker, who grew up in New England, has been intrigued by the tale of the famed murderess ever since she visited the Borden family home in Fall River, Massachusetts. Her curiosity about Borden - and the events that may have driven her to violence - has inspired a tense psychological thriller that also provides a piercing glimpse of the life of an unmarried woman in 19th -century America.

"I had heard little tidbits about her all my life, but I didn't really know her story," says Sevigny, who commissioned the script and produced the film. "When I visited the house, I learned about her history and all the different theories about the murders. I began to feel a lot of empathy for her. Yes, she was possibly a killer, but she was also a prisoner of her circumstances. The legend is that she was an outcast and a loner, which made me really feel for her as a woman."

At 32 years old, Lizzie was already an old maid in the eyes of her family and their community. She and her older sister Emma were living with their father, Andrew, and his second wife, Abby, at the time of the murders, and according to the repressive mores of the time, were expected to spend the rest of their lives there. Andrew was a wealthy man, with a fortune estimated to equal several million dollars today. But he was so careful with money that the Borden house had neither electricity, central heat nor indoor plumbing, although those amenities were commonplace for a family of their means.

Andrew was a protective, perhaps even controlling parent, who kept both his daughters on a short leash. With no job or assets of her own, Lizzie was looking at a lifetime under his thumb. "When you read about women at the time, many were virtual prisoners in their homes," observes Sevigny. "They were under the patriarchal rule. The only way to get out of that house was marriage or death."

Lizzie lived in an era where male domination was not just the unquestioned rule, it was the law. But more than a century before modern day movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp, she was not afraid to fight back in extreme ways. "She had no other choices," says Sevigny. "She became an early pioneer for the idea of female autonomy."

It is believed by some that Lizzie also suffered from epilepsy in an age when the condition was not well understood. "I think she was very damaged after losing her mother and living with her condition," Sevigny says. "I don't think that she was innately a crazy person. She's driven to the brink, and when a sympathetic person comes into the house - their maid, Bridget - she finds escape in their relationship."

A Complicated Woman

Sevigny contacted her old friend, screenwriter Bryce Kass, to see if he would be interested in scripting a film about Borden. "I've known Bryce since about 1996, right after I made Kids," she says. "He had written a screenplay and offered me a part in the movie. That never happened, but we continued the relationship. I really admire him as a writer, so I just called him and asked if he would write it, and we could make it together."

The concept of doing a project inspired by Borden's story had already been percolating with Sevigny for years, according to Kass. "She was kind of obsessed with the idea," says the screenwriter. "I was writing something dark at the time and was looking for something...not so dark, but she kept giving me books and more books about Lizzie."

Like Sevigny, Kass found himself seduced by the elusive Miss Borden. "I had only known what everyone knows - the rhyme," he admits. "But I got a much more nuanced picture of a complicated woman. She was trapped on all sides. She did what she had to do to escape that situation."

The often-rumored intimate relationship between Lizzie and the Borden's young housemaid Bridget became central to Kass' tale. For him it is the most important element in the film. "Two women who meet under brutal circumstances transcend that through their love for each other," he observes. "Their romance makes the film not just about a murder, but also a great love story about two women who come together briefly in a powerful friendship that changes them both forever."

From opposite ends of the social spectrum, the two develop an unexpectedly deep connection. "Lizzie opens up to Bridget in a way that she probably hasn't had a chance to before," observes Sevigny. "There had certainly been other servants in the house, but they likely stuck to their own quarters. The attraction between them is something real and I think Lizzie finds an escape she's always looked for through this relationship."

Sevigny returned to Fall River accompanied by Kass and the pair stayed at the Borden house, now a bed and breakfast that is also open to the public for murder-themed tours. They visited the local courthouse, went to Lizzie's gravesite and dropped in at the town's historical society. "We did the full experience," she says. "Bryce totally took the bait."

Kass tackled the script, sharing his drafts with Sevigny, who provided input as he went. "We didn't sit down to write or edit together," he explains. "But she always had a lot of great comments. Chloe is so smart; she loves the story and she knows the details well. Our working relationship carried through to the set, where she might have an inspiration and I would sprint to incorporate it."

Knowing Sevigny so well for so long gave Kass a head start in creating the Lizzie of his screenplay. "Her voice is so ingrained in my mind," he says. "Chloe has an unmistakable sense of self, as well as a vulnerability that in fascinating ways seems to parallel Lizzie's. In the trial testimony, Lizzie comes off as dignified, strong, forthcoming and witty, even if the men she was speaking to didn't always get her humor. Her dry self-awareness was unusual for a woman in Victorian America. Lizzie Borden was a little punk rock, really forward and determined. She was quite a feminist figure in her time."

90 Minutes and an Axe

Truth can be much stranger than fiction, as Sevigny points out, and the research for this film uncovered some unusual details. For example, on the morning of the murders, the entire police department of Fall River was on a group fishing expedition. Every law enforcement officer was out of town. "There were so many weird facts to be found in the lore surrounding the killings," she says. "If we had tried to include it all, it would have had to be a 10-part miniseries - which we considered. Instead we imagined it as Lizzie and her life in the house, what her emotional state was and what was going on inside."

Despite all the fascinating details that have emerged, Kass discovered that the events leading up to the murders are not well known. "Most of what we know for sure about the murders is the aftermath," he says. "We do know that the two murders took place 90 minutes apart. We know who was in the house - Lizzie, her parents, and Bridget, their maid. Her uncle had stayed there the night before, but he had an alibi for the time of the killings. Lizzie's sister, Emma, was visiting friends out of town. There had been reports that there were threatening letters; Andrew was not well liked for many reasons. He made onerous loans to local farmers and foreclosed on them, which earned him enemies in the community. There's not a lot beyond that."

To paint a picture of Lizzie's life, the screenwriter researched not just her and her family, but the time and place in which they lived. The lack of hard facts was exciting for him, because it allowed him to imagine the unknown details. "I read every nonfiction book about Lizzie I could get my hands on," he says. "When Chloe and I went to Fall River, I spent a night in the murder room. It had a very scary feeling."

Kass even interviewed the people who now live in the house she bought after she was acquitted. Located on The Hill, Fall River's most exclusive neighborhood, the home boasts epic views and grand rooms, unlike the house in which she grew up. "She always wanted to live on The Hill and when she inherited her father's money, she bought a house there," he says. "It felt important to know as much as I could, even if what I discovered didn't end up on the screen."

Many questions remain about Lizzie and the crime, says Kass. "How did she get to a state where she could kill her parents? For an educated society woman to commit such a brutal act was unthinkable. When women did kill, it was likely to be a quieter method like smothering or poison. The axe was so brutal that it got an enormous amount of attention in the press. It captivated people and not just in America. It became a global story."

With a solid draft in hand, Sevigny and Kass approached producer Naomi Despres, who immediately loved the script. "It is beautifully written and absolutely haunting," she says. "Bryce wrote a very complicated story that is sympathetic and compelling, even though it is about an accused murderer. I knew a period piece about a killer could be hard to get made, but I couldn't resist."

Obtaining financing took about six months, according to Liz Destro, another of the film's producers. Destro had just completed the 2017 period comedy The Little Hours when she received the script for Lizzie. "I had wanted to make a female-driven film about women's lives," she says. "Most of the producers are women, much of the financing came though women. It was exciting to see women supporting other women."

Destro says she fell in love with both the story and the two leading actors. "The whole package was magical," she says. "I had no idea how outspoken Lizzie was for that time period. She was actually a pioneer for feminism. The script brilliantly captures the loneliness of being an educated and ambitious woman at the time."

Calibrating Dread

Despres suggested the production team meet with director Craig William Macneill. His 2015 thriller, The Boy, had impressed her with its ambiguity and moody, tension-filled ambiance. "About 15 minutes into our first meeting, I knew he was right," she says. "His ideas about calibrating suspense and dread are very well developed. When he signed on, we rolled into production." Growing up in Winchester, Massachusetts, about 50 miles due north of Fall River, Macneill had heard stories of the savage Borden murders throughout his childhood. "It haunted and terrified me," says the director. "Her story was deep in my imagination. My brother and I used to make up tales of murders staged in our house and how the ghosts of the victims still haunted our halls. Lizzie Borden was a dark spark of inspiration in our attempts to terrify each other."

As Macneill grew older, the brutality of the crimes became less compelling and the psychology behind them more interesting. If she had committed the murders, what was Lizzie's motivation? Was she a complete sociopath or just a broken soul who saw no other options?

"I wanted to understand her in both the psychological and historic contexts," he explains. "This is one of our country's most notorious unsolved crimes, with all the elements of a great tale: love, deceit, history and wrath. It has inspired horror movies, mysteries, poetry, operas, TV series. Because the case remains unsolved, it still fascinates."

"Craig came in extremely prepared," says Despres. "He saw the whole movie in his head. He knew the shots and the look he wanted. He was extremely collaborative and open to letting actors have a strong say in characters, which brought a lot of joy to the process."

Macneill's calm confidence convinced Sevigny that he was the right director for the film. "I knew shooting so many scenes in so few days meant we'd need someone like him at the helm. I trusted him to get the job done. He understood what we wanted to say and the aesthetic in which we wanted to tell the story, and then he hired a beautiful team."

Sevigny was deeply involved in the production process, says Macneill. Even though she was in practically every scene in the film, she rarely retired to her trailer between scenes, choosing instead to stay active on set throughout.

"There's a responsibility that goes along with being number one on the call sheet," she says. "Craig was immersed in all of his shot lists and everything he had to get done in a day. So I tried to set a tone. I tried to keep everything super positive and help push the movie along. We had 30 days before we would lose Kristen Stewart. My days were pretty full."

A Once-in-a Lifetime Partnership

Both Sevigny and Stewart were committed to the film by the time Macneill signed on. "That was a gift," says the director. "Chloe is perfectly cast for Lizzie. She is such a magnetic onscreen presence. Lizzie is largely defined by what she leaves unsaid and Chloe has the ability to keep powerful emotions just under the surface with strength and subtlety."

As imagined by Kass and Sevigny, Lizzie is a victim and frail in many ways. But if she were just those things, says the writer, the film would lose the tension and drama it needs. "Chloe has a strength, intelligence and cunning about her that is always present in performances, and that part of her was really allowed to shine as Lizzie. That duality makes her so interesting to watch. Lizzie was slightly eccentric and Chloe can tap into that. In a lot of ways, it is the role she was born to play - a sympathetic monster."

Still, it was an extremely demanding role both emotionally and physically, notes Destro. "I don't know another actress with the confidence to have pulled this off," says the producer. "By the end, you are engulfed by her pain."

Sevigny and Kristen Stewart, who plays Bridget Sullivan, have an uncommon chemistry, according to Kass. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime partnership between two gifted performers at the height of their power. They committed to these characters to portray an unconventional and very moving bond."

Stewart was the very first person considered for the role of Bridget. The character is silent much of the time, but Stewart's expressive physicality says everything needed. "She has the ability to play depth and complexity without a lot of words, which was essential since the character doesn't speak much," says Despres. "Kristen gives her a rich inner life. She connected with the character and committed almost immediately."

Stewart's preparation for the role was meticulous. "Kristen brought so much that was not on the page," says Macneill. "She is extremely passionate and dedicated, which allows her to work off instinct. It's fascinating to watch. Her technique is so ingrained that she can improv in character quite easily. I am so grateful for what she brought to the film."

Sevigny says her co-star is one of the most passionate actors she has ever met. "She wants to find the truth in every scene. She can be very hard on herself because she demands such a high level of authenticity and excellence."

Macneill filled out the supporting cast with respected and experienced actors including Jamey Sheridan, Denis O'Hare, Fiona Shaw and Kim Dickens. Sheridan's work in Ang Lee's 1997 drama The Ice Storm had made a strong impression on the director. "He was able to convey such vulnerability," he says. "Andrew is so villainous on the page. We wanted to take advantage of Jamey's natural warmth."

It was the most sensitive part in terms of casting, according to Sevigny. "It was essential that character did not become one note. I also remember watching him in Ice Storm and being really taken by him and wondering why I don't see him more often. He is the villain of the piece, but he has an innate kindness that makes it more complicated and interesting to watch."

Macneill had become friends with Irish actress Shaw while working on the Syfy series "Channel Zero." "She has a great deal of respect for Craig," says Sevigny. "So she agreed to do this little part for us because she responded to the material and because of her relationship with him. She is such a powerhouse. To have someone of her caliber play Abby meant so much to the movie. She really elevated a small role with her enthusiasm."

Veteran actor O'Hare, who plays Lizzie's duplicitous uncle, had previously worked with Sevigny on "American Horror Story." "I knew he was going to be approached and I ran into him at an airport," recalls Sevigny. "I just pleaded to him in person. He's not afraid of playing the villain. In fact, he relishes it and has fun with that devilish quality. You can see it on the screen. He is one of my favorite characters in the movie."

The Camera Lingers

With an average of 11 scenes to shoot per day, Macneill and director of photography Noah Greenberg spent hours before production started walking through the house planning their shots. A former film editor, Macneill was able to envision what he wanted the movie to look like as well as how scenes should flow into one another. By the time shooting began, he had a detailed blueprint for it in his head.

"We had 23 days and 200-plus scenes, so I had to find the most efficient way of shooting with the fewest setups while keeping it dynamic," says the director. "It helps tremendously when you know what coverage you need. Time was so tight. Even things like the time it takes to get in and out of the Victorian outfits had to be considered. Some days were scheduled around wardrobe changes."

Greenberg and Macneill designed slow, creeping zooms that create a sense of claustrophobia and even voyeurism as the camera follows Lizzie through the house. "I wanted to put the audience in the room with her, so I placed an emphasis on Lizzie's everyday routine, on the stillness and oppressiveness of her home, allowing then arrative to unfold with restraint and an escalating sense of dread," says Macneill. "There's an uncomfortable feeling that you're invading her privacy. The camera lingers in uninterrupted takes, which allows the viewers' eyes to wander within the frame, observing details that might other wise go unnoticed. I also often put characters on the edge of the frame, which makes them seem vulnerable to whatever might be just outside the frame."

Greenberg shot with a mixture of lenses including rehoused vintage Cooke Speed Panchros. "The vintage lenses have a softer character that give the film a painterly look," Macneill says. "We shot on Alexa, but the lenses keep it from becoming too sharp or crisp. The effect is a soft immersive quality that complements the quiet performances, the unspoken urges and feelings of the characters."

Fall River, Georgia

Finding a stand-in for the Borden house sent the filmmakers far afield before they landed unexpectedly in Savannah, Georgia. The oldest city in the state, Savannah features historic architecture that would not seem unfamiliar in late-19th -century Massachusetts, as well as period perfect cobblestone streets. Of course, much of Savannah has been updated and the city's signature palm trees would be out of place in New England, so sets had to be meticulously dressed and shots carefully framed.

Adding to the challenge of finding the right location was the fact that the filmmakers felt it was important to maintain the layout of the original home. Perhaps to save money on lighting and heating, the Borden house was built without hallways. One room opens into another, so even if the action takes place all in one room, there is sometimes a view of three other rooms in the frame.

"Originally, we had very little luck finding anything that resembled the Bordens' house," says Macneill. "At the last minute we found a house with interconnected rooms. With little time and no other options, we latched onto it. It had significant differences with the Borden house, but that sparked our creativity. We had to abandon our preconceptions."

The house was overhauled to eliminate any historical anachronisms, such as electrical outlets and fixtures, and the original gaslights were restored. Wallpaper and woodwork were made to emulate 1892. However, it was impossible to get rid of many of the 21st -century elements just outside the home. "Given the time and budget, we decided to imply the outside world," says Despres. "We built the backyard and the barn, brought in the pear tree and tried to create a universe of our own."

Since the real Borden house had no electricity, the filmmakers used an array of practical lighting sources to replicate the original ambiance. Production designer Elizabeth J. Jones placed sconces, lamps and candlesticks throughout the house, supplemented by hidden LED strips.

"One of the pleasures of the house, if you allow it, is to be transported to a time when the world moved more slowly," says Macneill. "It's relatively quiet in the absence of technology. People are alone with themselves a great deal, and that detail permeates the film. There's a formality in a home like that so there's not a lot of casual conversation. The silence is a heavy cloak that these people had to live under – especially Bridget, who communicates with no one but Lizzie."

Viewing Lizzie through a Contemporary Lens

Even after completing the film, Macneill still has questions about what happened in the Borden house both on and prior to that fateful day in 1892. "How could these dangerous impulses come about?" he wonders. "I don't say that this is the exact way it happened. It may be, but what I find more interesting is trying to bring the audience close to Lizzie and her life. And as you watch, I want you to care for her, but also be a little afraid of her. It's still a mystery. We will likely never know exactly what happened."

The film's central theme of patriarchal oppression mirrors one of today's most discussed social issues, but the convergence with the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements was a happy accident rather than a calculated move, says Destro. "We find ourselves in a ripe moment to bring this forth, but we set out to do it well before this period in popular culture. We always knew it was an important story to tell regardless of the politics at the time. That said, it will definitely resonate with the ongoing conversation."

Sevigny notes that the sense of powerlessness and desperation that might have driven Lizzie Borden to commit a heinous crime is, unfortunately, something many women still regularly encounter to this day. "I think a lot of women find themselves in circumstances where they're under a man's rule - husband, father, whoever it may be - and have no one to turn to, no escape route, and no way to change those circumstances."


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