PARK CITY, Utah — Partway through “Eileen,” a bracing film that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival late last month, the title character tours a new colleague around the dingy prison where they both work. “Everyone’s pretty angry here. It’s Massachusetts,” Eileen explains.
She’s got a point. The film, which is set in a coastal Massachusetts town around Christmastime in 1964, masterfully captures how the mustiness of New England winters can seep into your bones and cast a pall over your mood.
The story follows a drab, depressed young woman, Eileen (played by Thomasin McKenzie) who spends days toiling as a secretary at a local boys’ prison and evenings enduring the cruel jeers of her alcoholic father, Jim (Shea Whigham). Enter Rebecca (Anne Hathaway), the chic Harvard-educated prison psychologist who, in striking up a friendship with Eileen, imbues her life with purpose.
Directed by William Oldroyd (“Lady Macbeth”), “Eileen” is based on the 2015 debut novel by Ottessa Moshfegh, a native of Newton and the best-selling author of books including “My Year of Rest and Relaxation.” She adapted “Eileen” for the screen alongside her husband, the author Luke Goebel.
“I don’t always think it’s true that two heads are better than one, but in this case, it was absolutely true,” Moshfegh said over coffee at a restaurant in Park City a couple days after the film’s Jan. 21 premiere. “I was fixed in my vision of Eileen’s story as the author. I needed Luke, who knows me better than anyone, but who could also see it from the outside.”
The pair wrote the script during the fall of 2020, after they drove up to Oregon from their home in Pasadena to escape the forest fires in California. Though the blaze was encroaching, they treated the decampment as a screenwriters’ retreat of sorts. Taking turns at the keyboard, they debated line after line for up to 16 hours a day.
It was a “deep, intimate, passionate collaboration,” Goebel said, adding that “to be thinking of nothing else, doing nothing else, secluded in a world on fire, just working” proved fruitful for them. Sometimes, it would take two hours of discussion to come up with a single passage.
Goebel turned to his wife. “Did we have four dogs at that point?” he asked.
“No, two,” Moshfegh replied.
Goebel, who received an MFA in English from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, met Moshfegh in 2016 while he was interviewing her for an article. “I never left. We’ve just been on this interview for almost seven years,” he joked.
In 2018, Goebel told The New Yorker that he had only read the beginning of “Eileen.” Now, he says that he sees the book as a window into Moshfegh’s sensibility. “When you’re reading ‘Eileen,’ you’re so aware of Ottessa,” he said, noting its “clever, sardonic, unforgettable humor.”
Goebel also drew elements from his own experiences while working on the screenplay for “Eileen.” “I relate deeply to Eileen in a lot of ways, as someone who deals with generational trauma,” Goebel said. “My father’s father was in World War II, in the Battle of the Bulge as an 18-year-old, and he brought all of that violence and trauma home.”
Since Moshfegh wrote the novel from Eileen’s point of view, the author’s understanding of certain characters was filtered through her protagonist’s subjectivity. It was Goebel who brought the distance necessary to develop Jim, a retired cop and war veteran, into a character with needs and burdens all his own. During one scene, Jim even utters a line of dialogue that Goebel borrowed from his grandfather.
Embodied by McKenzie, Eileen is as gloomy, depraved, and self-pitying a creature as the book paints her to be. But different moments are punctuated. For instance, although the film portrays Eileen’s sexual pathologies — at one point, she stuffs a wad of snow down her pants and masturbates while watching a couple necking — there is less emphasis on her preoccupations with beauty, weight, and bodily functions.
The film actually omits one of the book’s most talked-about sequences: Eileen swallowing a handful of laxatives and enjoying a case of explosive diarrhea. “That was a budget issue. The scene was there in the script,” Goebel said of the bathroom episode, which included Eileen “going to church, eating a bunch of laxatives, coming home,” and voiding her bowels. “Just didn’t have the money” to shoot it, he said.
Watching the film now, neither of the screenwriters minds the dropped scene. To Goebel, the story invites an “expectation for these antic behaviors, and not having them actually deepened some of the feeling and the seriousness of what’s happening with this character who’s so alone and so hungry for love.”
In the book, that hunger for love manifests in Eileen’s infatuation with Rebecca, whose glamour, confidence, and trans-Atlantic accent inspire in Eileen an obsessive — but not quite erotic — longing. Yet onscreen, the pair’s connection takes on a new level of amorousness; the chemistry between McKenzie and Hathaway is so electric that early viewers of “Eileen,” which is currently seeking distribution, have likened it to the lesbian romance “Carol.”
“When you’re seeing something onscreen with two beings corresponding and relating and getting closer, and you can see how one is being manipulated and you can see how one is putting on airs, it’s going to seem romantic-slash-sexual in some way,” Moshfegh said, before expressing her delight in the various interpretations of Eileen and Rebecca’s relationship. “I’ve definitely had the experience of making a new friend and being completely infatuated,” she continued. Gesturing to Goebel, she added, “He experiences that with every new friend.”
Though Oldroyd shot the film in New Jersey, the team was adamant about maintaining a Massachusetts atmosphere. Moshfegh said that she, Goebel, and Oldroyd sent photos and Google Earth screenshots back and forth, noting, “this is the way I think the street would turn, here’s a house, here’s the church that she might drive by,” and so on. The specificity of the setting extends to Eileen and Jim’s Boston accents, which clash amusingly with Rebecca’s affected Ivy League patois.
Goebel recalled a moment during the premiere screening after Rebecca made a snide remark about Cambridge. He said he leaned over in his chair toward Moshfegh’s best friend, who lives in Cambridge, and whispered, “What do you think of that?”