Taking on Therese Raquin: Q&A with 'In Secret' Director Charlie Stratton

Oscar Isaac and Elizabeth Olsen in ‘In Secret’/Image © Roadside Attractions

French literature legend Emile Zola gained his first major success, both with critics and readers, with the publication of his 1867 novel Thérèse Raquin. Considered an early milestone in the naturalism movement, the novel is about a young woman, forced into a dissatisfying marriage to her first cousin, who finds passion in an affair, and plots with her lover to murder her husband.

“In Secret,” a film adaptation of both the novel and a stage play by Neal Bell based on the book, is now in theaters. The movie, which stars Elizabeth Olsen as Thérèse, is the feature film directorial debut of stage and television actor/director Charlie Stratton. Signature recently caught up with Stratton and talked with the director about creating something different from all the other adaptations that have come before, putting together the film’s supporting cast, and how one of Zola’s original intentions for the novel doesn’t really translate to cinema.      

Signature: How did you first encounter the material? Was it the novel or was it the play? Or was it kind of both?

Charlie Stratton: It was definitely the novel. It was not the first novel by Zola I had read. I think Germinal was the first one. And I was completely fascinated by who this guy was and I didn't know a lot about him. I think I was in college when I read the first book and then I started reading more of his material. And I read Thérèse Raquin and I was really fascinated because it was sort of his first success.

Then years later the play came to me, Neal Bells’ play, which I then went on to direct. And again it stuck with me, like the novel, and again what attracted me was this unfiltered violence; not just the violence of the murder but also the violence of the relationship. There was something that just didn't seem "drawing room" about it; it seemed that there was something much more raw. Of course it focused on the working class, the average person, which was far more interesting to me than yet another book about the "Duke or Duchess of blah blah blah," which was what I was more used to with French and European literature.

SIG: So did you see this as a movie when you directed the play?

CS: The idea for the movie did not come from that particular moment. It wasn't until several years later that I was looking at scripts to direct and I just wasn't finding anything that I really loved, and this was just kind of in the back of my head. And around 2000 I was talking to Mickey Liddell, who was one of the producers of the film, and he said, “I always thought that you should make that into a film.” And I thought, “Well, you know, it’s a period piece” and all the reasons I shouldn’t do it. But it stuck in my head and I just thought, "Why the hell not?”

SIG: Thérèse Raquin has been adapted a lot. There are plays, musicals, operas, movies, and television miniseries. The 1953 French adaptation starring Simone Signoret is considered something of a classic. Then there’s the whole other category of inspired-by stories like “Thirst,” which is a Korean vampire film, and James M. Cain’s classic crime novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. How did that affect your approach to it?

CS: I looked at it from different angles and I thought, “Do I want to do a modern adaptation of this?” There have been a few of those. There hadn't been an adaptation that was truer to the book in a very long time … I really wanted to go back to the period in which the story was originally conceived and that's what hadn't been done in a while. So I wanted to focus on that and it would prove to be the harder option in the sense that if you did a modern-day adaptation, at least a twentieth-century production, it would be easier to get made; but I was really drawn to that world and why that world and why that time.

Unless you're a massive cinephile, you don't really know the Simone Signoret version. And the thing with “Thirst,” I really felt like I separated myself from all of that because with all of those there was a different hook to them ... but I wanted to sort of go back. Zola got there first with all of this. Before all of these obvious twentieth-century adaptations, but then also before Postman and Cain – before he wrote that. Zola did it first and I wanted to go back to what that was. So, like I said, I just decided to not go down that road of “how can I give this a different feel?” Every hook had been explored, but again no one had really done for quite some time an adaptation that was true to the novel.

SIG: Zola wrote in the introduction to the novel that he intended for the book to be a study in temperament more than in characters. How did that affect the adaptation process?

CS: You know, that presents all sorts of issues and challenges, because obviously in a film your characters are important and you want to be able to lock into the characters, and you want to be drawn by that. So what I chose to focus on more was the idea … you're not really told on page one or two that you're going to root for Thérèse and stay on that path. The idea is that you start to root for her and who you root for changes and evolves … and I like that. In movies that are financed in America, that's not commonly the case. I mean, you're on page two and you're told who you root for and that's it … Because I thought the aspect of temperament is really kind of good and Zola sort of frames that idea in almost a scientific approach, which in itself I don't know is inherently cinematic. So I wanted to find other ways and the thing is that the last third of the book is not cinematic at all. It's extremely internal and I needed a whole new third act basically to kind of open this up.

SIG: It also seems like there was a thriller element to it.

CS: Yeah, and I also just wanted it to be a better ride in that sense. The book and the play are fantastic rides, but they’re deeply psychological and deeply internal. I wanted to find a way to do that, to give the audience a better ride, but go on in a way that gives it a more a thriller aspect in terms of how we navigated the third act.

SIG: You have these strong leads with Elizabeth Olsen, Oscar Isaac, Tom Felton, and Jessica Lange, but the supporting cast is really fantastic too. There’s Shirley Hendserson, Matt Lucas, Mackenzie Crook, and John Kavanaugh. Did you set out from the beginning to put all those people together?

CS: These were all people that I wanted to work with. These are all people I've been tracking their careers … I’d never thought I'd be able to get Mackenzie and Shirley and Matt and John Kavanaugh all in one place, all at one time. It almost didn't happen many, many times, but with extraordinary luck we were able to pull them all together; and not even pull them all together. We weren't shooting in England, we were shooting in Serbia and Hungary, so I had to pull them together and then convince them then to come be in Serbia with us, leave their families and do this little movie. And they were phenomenal and I feel very, very lucky that we were able to pull that aspect of this off via getting those eight people together. It was no easy trick.