“Colette” Director Wash Westmoreland on Bringing His Late Partner’s Dream Project About a Queer French Icon to Life

“She had lesbian relationships, she had gay friends, and was definitely bisexual and attracted to men and women.”

Before he passed away from ALS complications in 2015, filmmaker Richard Glatzer asked his partner in life and art, Wash Westmoreland, to finally bring his longtime passion project to the screen: Colette.

Co-written by Westmoreland, Glatzer, and Rebecca Lenkiewicz (Ida), this lushly mounted, thoroughly entertaining biopic about the dysfunctional, yet fruitful, artistic collaboration and marriage between French author Sidonie Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley) and her husband Henri “Willy” Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West) also examines the early 1900’s queer milieu and Colette’s scandalized lesbian relationship with a masculine-identified woman, Missy (Denise Gough).

Westmoreland, who also co-wrote and co-directed Still Alice (which won Julianne Moore a Best Actress Oscar), The Last of Robin Hood, and The Fluffer (inspired by Westmoreland’s early career directing gay porn films) spoke with NewNowNext about Colette, directing solo, and whether Knightley dished about Johnny Depp’s cray cray Pirates antics.

Was it ironic to make a film about a dysfunctional creative relationship, since this came out of a healthy one? Willy would literally lock Colette in rooms to force her to write, and when the books became a cultural sensation like Harry Potter, took the credit.

Hopefully [ours] wasn’t dysfunctional! Richard and I had a really good time working together. There was no locking in rooms, but he was born on the same day as Colette so he sometimes claimed that as his Colette-ness. We would collaborate in an honest, gloves-off way, we would say exactly what we thought, but we were equal. That’s what I loved and miss tremendously.

These people were all French in real life. Why did you have the actors speak with British accents?

This story is really well known in France, and there was a French adaptation of Colette about ten years ago. So to do an English language version would break some original ground, and there is a whole genre of films that portray French stories in the English language, looking back to Gigi, Dangerous Liaisons, and it’s always different from how the French would do the story. And there’s a two-word explanation of why it wouldn’t work with a French accent—Inspector Clouseau. There’s something weirdly comic about hearing actors do French accents, and it takes the gravity away from the story.

In the film, Colette has affairs with two women. Did Colette have even more female lovers in real life?

She did. Natalie Barney was an American lesbian writer living in Paris at the time and there is a story they had an affair, also. The character of Jeanne De Caillavet, who we meet in the salon with her husband, Gaston, played respectively by Janine Harouni and transgender actor Jake Graf, Colette was very obsessed with.

Robert Viglasky / Bleecker Street

Would you define her as queer, bisexual, or lesbian?

None of those words existed or were in common use at the time. She had lesbian relationships, she had gay friends, and was definitely bisexual and attracted to men and women. In Missy, we see someone who was reaching towards masculinity and could be perceived as a forerunner of today’s butch lesbian or transgender community. Missy was definitely a groundbreaking pioneer in terms of what they did to live as a man—it was illegal to wear pants, as she did, then.

How was working with Keira, and did she share any juicy Johnny Depp anecdotes?

(laughs) She’s very charming and candid, but obviously I am not going to repeat anything. People ask, ’did you think of her right away for Colette?’ Richard wrote the first draft in 2001, and she was 14! She wasn’t on our radar. But when we saw Pride and Prejudice, she was 21, and it’s astonishing to see the complexity and depth she brings. When she rips Mr. Darcy a new asshole, we thought she could take Willy apart—she has that laser beam coming out of her eyes.

Robert Viglasky / Bleecker Street

You made Willy charming, witty, and even open-minded about sexuality, despite his more loathsome habits. Do you think bears and chasers are going to dig Dominic late in the film when he’s wearing a fat suit?

I think Dominic looks great in those fat suits! There were three different ones, because he was living on high appetites, constantly eating, drinking and shagging. Dominic got the fun of Willy, but also doesn’t try and justify who he is. You have to understand why he was awful and how he got away with it. It’s part of the conversation today about when you see these powerful men behaving badly. They’re not just raging around, yelling and screaming. They are often completely charming and wonderful.

How was working solo?

Tough. My whole way of thinking about film evolved with Richard, and we were together and worked on so many things and this movie for so long. When I was directing it, I felt very close to him, and I dreamed about him all the time. If I was stuck with something on set I would ask, ’Richard, what do I do?’ Part of my brain still knows what he would do, so I still considered it as co-directing even though I was on my own. I like seeing his words coming out of the mouths of great actors, and it’s nice to see his name up there again. It won’t be the last time, either. I’ve got a few more scripts that we wrote together, and when the time is right there will be more.

Colette opens September 21.

Lawrence is a New York-based travel and entertainment writer whose work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Time Out New York and The New York Post.