Film - The Unforgivable


Ahead of the film coming to Netflix tomorrow, read a conversation with Sandra Bullock, producer Graham King and director Nora Fingscheidt about The Unforgivable...


Press Release

Released from prison after serving a sentence for a violent crime, Ruth Slater (Academy Award-winner Sandra Bullock) re-enters a society that refuses to forgive her past. Although she feels a pull to the place she once called home, only harsh judgment awaits her there. Ruth’s only hope for redemption is in finding her estranged younger sister Katie (Aisling Franciosi), who she was forced to leave behind. In her quest to reunite with Katie and adjust to life on the outside, Ruth encounters obstacles she expects and those she never saw coming from those whose lives are disrupted by her release. 

Sandra Bullock produces, along with Academy Award winner Graham King and Veronica Ferres, and stars alongside Vincent D’Onofrio, Jon Bernthal, Richard Thomas, Linda Emond, Aisling Franciosi, Rob Morgan, Emma Nelson, Will Pullen, Thomas Guiry and Viola Davis.



ON THE ORIGINS OF THE UNFORGIVABLE

KING: An executive of mine gave me a DVD of the miniseries. I remember watching on a plane and basically, as soon as I landed, I called the rights holders and said “I want to make a movie version” because I loved what it was. I loved the DNA of the piece, and I found it very, very compelling and very accessible. We did the same thing years ago on a film called Traffic that was taken from a miniseries in the U.K. so it was along those same lines. 

Two years ago, I got a call from Sandra’s agent saying that she had read the script and she was really taken by it. And I was a little surprised because I wasn’t focused on this project at all at the time. I was just making Bohemian Rhapsody.

Sandra and I had a meeting and she was really passionate about playing Ruth Slater, which was a little surprise for me from the get-go because it wasn’t really a genre that I would figure she would gravitate to. I thought it was something that we could show an audience a different side of Sandra Bullock.

BULLOCK: I’m obsessed with every true crime show on TV. I will watch to the depths of the evening, the darkest of dark stories— a man that has killed his spouse, a woman who has snapped and killed her husband— and how they got away with it. I don’t like the shows that don’t have a resolution and they didn’t catch them. But I will watch all of these things. I’m obsessed with the psyche of that: What makes someone snap? And so is the rest of the country. 

That element of The Unforgivable was really intriguing to me and I’m always in search of a project where you have a viewability, an accessibility, where it draws an audience to an experience. I like that aspect of it and the puzzle pieces that have to come together to explain it. But why does that have to exclude something where you get extraordinary actors all in one room to tell a story where it’s a story of substance?

I read the script and I said to Graham King “I will do it, only if you allow me to be your partner in this.” And he doesn’t take on partners but he agreed. He had no idea what he was getting into. [Laughs]


ON FINDING THEIR DIRECTOR


KING: Veronica Ferres, who’s a producer on the movie, introduced me to Nora’s film System Crasher. It had just won an award at the Berlin Film Festival. Sandra and I watched the movie, and I said to Sandra, “I’m going to go meet with her.” I wanted to find out who Nora was. Veronica had slipped her our screenplay, which she very much got excited about. So Nora and I met in London. We had a two and a half hour meeting. We were just talking about the movie, the elements of the movie, the DNA of the movie, the tone of the movie and we were exactly on the same page. I remember calling Sandra and just saying, “I think we found our director.”

BULLOCK: We were trying to find a storyteller who understood the pain of navigating the system and then we saw Nora’s film and, I don’t know if it’s because she’s German and I’m half-German but I was like, this is cool, she’s the one.

FINGSCHEIDT: I got sent the script through Veronica and loved it immediately. It was so very moving and it also was an incredible, almost surreal opportunity to work with such experienced people.

I was really moved by the contradiction of Ruth. She has done something horrible. However, we root for her. And this contradiction about how far can we take it to love an ex-con but at the same time, to find ourselves in the position that we want to stop her from what she’s doing and say, “Do the right thing!” It’s complicated. With Ruth there are no easy answers. And that is what I loved. That’s what I was always curious about: what’s she going to do next?

Even with our first meeting Sandra was so passionate, but also respectful and extremely creative. She is really approachable and collaborative, and she invited me into a creative role, on an eye to eye level from the very beginning.


ON DOING RESEARCH WITH INCARCERATED WOMEN


FINGSCHEIDT: We talked a lot about how prison affects you. Sandra and I visited a prison for research. And we spoke with women currently incarcerated and women who were formerly incarcerated. And we spoke about the difference between the inside and the outside and how you have to change to survive inside, but then you’re basically thrown out to the outside world and you are pretty much left alone. The system expects a lot from people to be able to adapt out there. And not everybody can handle that. Freedom can be quite daunting.

BULLOCK: When we started making this film I thought of it as a love letter to my daughter who came to me through the foster care system. It gave me an insight and an understanding of all of the layers of a system that affects not just women but particularly women of color. And then I started looking at all the women within that system who have come from various early struggles and poverty. Every woman that I interviewed in prison all had the same beginning story and I thought, why are we not making stories about that? About this system that doesn’t want people to succeed.

How you perceive that system is based on your life experience or your privilege or your upbringing. To some people the system is prevalent and always looming. To other people, the system will never touch them and that spectrum is represented in the film.

When we started researching this I knew I needed to go speak to the women in prison and women who had been just released from prison or who were out of the system for a year and into the new system of this world that doesn’t want them to succeed. They knew what the system was about and how it treats women who come from poverty.

There were three women that I met in prison: one was being released immediately, one had a year left inside, and the third was just not getting out but she had hopes of getting out. You could see on their faces, the fear and the trauma, and the armor they had built to protect themselves. They were guarded but I said “This is not about me. Whatever it is you want me to share and show truthfully in this film, I want you to tell me.” So everything you see in my performance was a reflection of what they asked me to show truthfully.


ON REVEALING A NEW SIDE OF SANDRA BULLOCK TO THE AUDIENCE


FINGSCHEIDT: It’s the great adventure of all this and what is so exciting, to see Sandra in a role that is so different. For me it’s just a gift to work with an actress who can do so much with just her eyes because that is what this character needs. Ruth isn’t a talker. She has to play everything within and she has this ability to fascinate the audience. You just have to watch her and you can’t take your eyes off her, no matter how little she says and there is a tension to her. And I think she also brings something which is great for the part. You root for her. You just can’t help it. And that is such an amazing contradiction, to have such a likable actress playing such a tough part and then combining that into something so grounded and believable.

KING: I’m really excited about Sandra, in the way she plays a character to where it’s so believable. Sandra brought a vulnerability and a groundedness to her role in Gravity that made you believe her character might not make it back and that quality led into this project, and I said, “She’s going to make us believe she’s Ruth Slater.” And how fun would it be for the audience to discover Sandra Bullock playing a character who comes out of prison after 20 years for killing a cop and selling it, believing it? And for her to play that kind of role and be tough in her way. Because I was always concerned about “Can we sell this to the audience? Are they going to believe that Sandra’s tough?” I remember saying to her, “The minute you open your mouth, you tend to take tension out of a scene because your voice is so calming and soothing. You’ve built your career on that. And now, we need the other way around.”

When we first set out for this, it really mattered that we protect Ruth’s story. Then when we started seeing cuts, I remember saying to Sandra, “I am rooting for Ruth and I don’t care what she did in the past. So even though, from the audience’s perspective, you did the damage 20 years ago, I’m forgiving you on that because I cannot help but root for you when you’re on-screen and you’re struggling.” That was a big shift of point of view we had in the edit room, to not be so paranoid and say, “It’s okay if they’re rooting for Ruth Slater.” Because she has paid her dues.

BULLOCK: There’s nothing attractive or sexy about my character. I know people are going to say, “But this is not the Sandra Bullock that we know and love.” But, it is. There’s nothing about me that is false in this. I’m just giving myself permission to show it and I’m showing it on behalf of people that I love and adore, that are not getting the movies made about them. I had to do it because I feel this story. I see it. I am in it to a certain degree and it’s real. And I am so lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky. It’s nothing else but luck that Netflix gave us the money to be able to do it.


ON BALANCING THE DARKER TONE WITH GLIMMERS OF WARMTH


FINGSCHEIDT: It was always important for us that, despite the darkness of the story, there is always light and love and warmth to it. And it starts at the core of the story because Ruth is driven by the need to find Katie. So she’s basically driven by love. There’s already something in there that is deeply human and we try to find little sparks of lightness or little points of humor within each story strand.

For us it was great to cast Jon Bernthal in something so different because usually he plays characters who are a bit tougher. But I think he has this incredible vivid energy to him and something very warm and we wanted to use that for the character of Blake because he is the first person Ruth ever opens up to. It takes half the movie until she even puts half a smile on her face. And there is something then— and that’s again Sandra’s quality— that when she starts smiling, it’s like the sun rises.

We also tried to give warmth to the memory flashbacks that Ruth and Katie share, they are not just dark or gray or washed out, but they are warmer in color.


ON THE UNIVERSALITY AND LIMITS OF THE POINTS OF VIEW IN THE FILM


The different characters in the film see Ruth through their own personal lenses which are informed by their socioeconomic status as well as how they interface with Ruth.

FINGSCHEIDT: One of the great challenges of adapting a series into a film is: How do you tell a story with so many characters when you have less time? And one important aspect is to make the characters as distinct and different from each other as possible and make the worlds that they represent as different as possible. So the Ingram family is the wealthiest family. The Malcolm family, who adopted Katie, is the most suburban, secure, intellectual middle class family. And the Whelan brothers, whose father was killed, are the ones who are struggling the most financially and emotionally and having the least easy life of all of them. And you can see those distinctions pretty clearly and each reflects on how they have to navigate everyday life.

For us it was important that each character has both sides to them. The brothers do have a side to them where you go, “This isn’t right,” but they have another side where you think, “They’re in so much pain that I feel for them and in a weird way, I can understand it.” They’re not just evil. They are all connected by trauma. The question is how can we overcome that together and what’s necessary in a society to attain redemption? Is redemption even possible?

BULLOCK: There’s two parts to the film for me. I feel like we have the mystery of why would someone do something like this? Putting those pieces together will keep you invested. And on the other hand, to me, it’s a roadmap for us to understand that our birthright puts us on a path. It’s not our fault or even our choice, but there are several different birthright paths that are being represented and you will identify with a path and you will not understand another path.

As an adoptive parent, at first, I identified with the Malcolm parents who see Ruth as a threat to taking Katie away from them. And then I thought, wait a minute, I am so protective over my kids, I would do anything for them and my perspective shifted as I started talking to women who were in prison for protecting themselves and their children from abuse. And even though in this instance Ruth is protecting her sister, their age difference makes it feel like her child and that understanding helped me so much to see a different point of view. I know a lot of people are going to be watching this from where they come from, whatever their level of privilege is, not understanding someone else’s path. But I hope that by the end, they understand a different journey.


ON WHAT THEY HOPE AUDIENCES TAKE AWAY FROM THE UNFORGIVABLE


BULLOCK: I want the viewer to have an understanding of how hard it is to just get through the day and do the right thing for millions of people who very few people are writing stories or making films about. Some people who know the story have said, “It feels like you’re showing sacrifice.” But I say, “This is just called surviving for some people.” So in the end, what do you have? You just have love. What does that love look like? Sometimes love is not a biopic of some extraordinary person who you can paint a beautiful picture of through the tragedy they have endured. Sometimes love is a real life story of an ordinary person trying to survive. Sometimes it looks like this.

KING: It’s about families and it’s about how you handle certain situations, whether it’s protecting your sibling like Katie or protecting your family like the Malcolms or dealing with grief like the Whelan brothers, no matter what it is.

I think the movie has a certain level of accessibility because it’s so down-to-earth and it has a real story where people can say, “If that were to happen, how would we deal with it?” And I love films where you come out asking a lot of questions. I remember saying to Sandra from day one, “I just don’t like films where you spell out the whole plot, and you wrap everything neatly in a bow.” This will get a conversation started.

And Sandra is so strong in this. You may have had glimpses of it before, but you haven’t seen her like this. She doesn’t feel like a movie star in this role, and that’s so critical. It really feels natural for her to play this part. And that’s key for us to win. I think audiences that watched Bird Box will watch this and love it.

FINGSCHEIDT: I hope that they really believe in unconditional love and human connections, but that they also think about the people who don’t have it so easy and see that there is a second side to anybody and that it’s sometimes really easy to judge somebody by their resume or by their past or by something that they have done, but it’s really worth taking a closer look.



Images & info - KIMBERLEY FRENCH/Netflix