Dee Rees is no stranger to adapting books for the screen — look merely to her last film, Mudbound — but diving into the mind of Joan Didion took the experience to a new level.
The Oscar nominee’s long-awaited follow-up to Mudbound, The Last Thing He Wanted assembles an all-star cast in its innovative take on Didion’s ’80s-set novel of the same name. It’s a short albeit mightily complex book, featuring ambiguous narration from an unknown figure. The story centers on journalist Elena McMahon (Anne Hathaway), whose interest in Contra activity in Central America and tenuous relationship with her arms-dealer father (Willem Dafoe) jointly land her in a region — and a plot — with which she is dangerously unfamiliar. Ben Affleck and Rosie Perez costar in major roles.
Rees sought the book out for adaptation. “Didion’s prose is so internal, and this is such a character deep-dive,” she teases of the film to EW. “[With] Mudbound, I was starting from a script. The book itself wasn’t one I would’ve chosen. This was a book of choice: It’s small but dense. It had that density where it felt like there was more to blow out.” She enlisted writer Marco Villalobos to take the lead on the script and found his choices immediately compelling. “It’s almost unadaptable!” she says. “I don’t know how Marco even did it.”
Rees gave EW an exclusive sneak peek into her process, sharing a few script pages (she’s credited as co-writer with Villalobos) as well as her (rather obsessively) tabbed-up copy of The Last Thing He Wanted. She first read the book seven or so years ago, and then, well, “lots of times” once she got into making the movie. Villalobos, meanwhile, came into the narrative fresh. “Didion is an American giant, but I feel like Dee is too, so there was a parallel track,” he says. “I was trying to close this gap between two cultural icons.”
Villalobos’ initial choices were to center Elena’s perspective, allowing the audience to get lost in her own maze right along with her, and enhancing the roles for the characters of color around her, particularly as she lands in Central America. “I really needed to feel like I was in the ground of those places at the time I was writing,” he says. “These are places I’ve been to before and I’ve spent a lot of time in the communities in Latin America. I’ve seen the lingering effects of the drug war in the ’80s and Iran-Contra is the start of that.”
Rees tells EW the initial element of the book that grabbed her was the dynamic between Elena and her father, Dick, thorny as it is among expressions of love, abandonment, and resentment. In the script pages shared below, she outlines her “favorite scene,” when we first meet Dick. “We’re meeting Dick in full swagger: The absence of her father has almost mythologized him in Elena’s mind,” she explains. “When we meet him, he’s exactly that — flicking nuts around, ripping off insults a mile a second. But he loves his daughter. We instantly get that familiarity: This is a conversation they’ve had a thousand times.”
In the scene, we get hints of Dick battling dementia, a fact that bristles against his confident persona. And Rees contrasts this later with a scene of Dick, now debilitated, as Elena decides to embark on a mission planned for him. “She’s going to do this for the wrong reasons, to make her dad better — but this is not the thing that’s going to make her dad better,” Rees says. “That arc of her getting on that plane — the dad, once with swagger, is actually very vulnerable and weak.” We won’t spoil where Rees and Villalobos take the story from there, but safe to say they view these two key scenes between Elena and Dick as crucial to their character study.
You see in Dick’s dialogue how he can weave a tale — making both Elena and the audience wonder just what she’s getting herself into. “We don’t know if what he’s saying is true, if it’s a delusion,” Rees says. “Is this an Alzheimer’s thing? Is this the past? Is this actually happening? Dick’s the great character who gives us that tension, in terms of what Elena’s looking for.”
The Last Thing He Wanted premieres on Monday night at the Sundance Film Festival.