Sylvia : The Genesis of the Film

Four decades after her death, Sylvia Plath’s unique voice continues to reach and inspire new readers. What they hear often changes their perceptions of themselves and those closest to them.

Among the many who count Sylvia as both influence and inspiration are the creative principals behind Sylvia: Academy Award-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow, Academy Award-nominated producer Alison Owen, director Christine Jeffs, and screenwriter John Brownlow.

After years of envisioning the project, Owen commenced active development on Sylvia in early 1998 through her production company Ruby Films. She explains, “I’ve always been interested in Sylvia Plath; like lots of girls, I’ve been a fan since I was a teenager. I had always thought that Sylvia and Ted were a great love story. Ted published Birthday Letters just before his death; he’d been notoriously private in his life until then. But these last poems were wonderful works of art, very beautiful…and they opened up the subject of his relationship with Sylvia. It felt that there was somehow a tacit granting of permission to look at the subject.

“Sylvia did not really get acknowledged for her poetry until after her death, and this is the irony of the couple’s story. She wanted two things out of her life: one was lasting acclaim and fame for her work and the other was the great love of a man. Ultimately, she was only able to get one by losing the other – which is her great tragedy.”

Owen’s first concern was to find a screenwriter who would treat the real-life subjects with respect and care. She had already been collaborating with John Brownlow on another project. The mere mention of Sylvia sparked Brownlow’s interest instantly. He reflects, “It was Sylvia Plath’s poetry that had led me to my decision, when at Oxford University, to switch from a Mathematics degree to an English degree.”

Brownlow originally comes from a documentary background, and as a result, comments Owen, “was meticulous in terms of the research. John employed a researcher who interviewed many of Sylvia and Ted’s friends and acquaintances. Therefore, we had our own body of information in addition to all the source material that existed.

“He did an enormous amount of research, then he sat down and wrote, at which point he said that he felt the muse was sitting on his shoulder. The story unfolded in front of him, and I think that fluidity shows in John’s screenwriting.”

Brownlow confides, “I was initially cautious, not because of the potentially fraught nature of the project – I was formerly an investigative documentary filmmaker and therefore used to tackling controversial subjects – but because I did not know how I was going to put words into the mouths of two literary giants. I also wanted to be sure that we were telling a story with universal appeal, rather than only speaking to poetry fans.”

After his months of research, Brownlow “finally found the story that I had been looking for, which was to focus entirely on the relationship between Sylvia and Ted, more or less from the moment they met until the moment she died. It had to be romantic. This seemed to me to be the universal story, because here were two people who did what we all dream of – they met the person they were destined to be with. The problem was, they also had the capacity to destroy each other; you could even argue that that was what they found most attractive in each other. You don’t have to have heard of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes to find theirs a compelling story, or to want to know how it will turn out.”

In the summer of 2002, now well-nurtured by its producer and screenwriter, Sylvia still needed a director. Owen and Brownlow screened Christine Jeffs’ debut feature Rain. The producer quickly sensed that Jeffs might be the one she was looking for: “More than anything we wanted a director who can move an audience, because that’s ultimately what the film is going to succeed or fail on. When I saw Rain, I could not speak afterwards. It’s an extraordinary film. We got in touch and, as it happened, Christine already knew a lot about Sylvia Plath and was a fan of hers.”

Jeffs remembers, “I was on my farm in New Zealand and got a call from my agent, who said ‘You’ve got to read this script.’ When I realized that it was a movie about Sylvia Plath, it was a dream come true. The next step was to meet with Gwyneth and the financiers – one day I was on my farm with my horses and the next day I was flying to New York.

“Sylvia is very much a love story – and Sylvia’s story, as she tries to be both a creative person and a mother. I was interested not only in the love story but also in the implications of two powerful creative forces being brought together and how that made their lives so difficult for each other.“

In late October 2002, just weeks after Jeffs got the call at her farm, 10 weeks of location filming started. The shoot took the filmmakers to London (at Shepperton Studios), Cambridge’s Trinity College, Cornwall and, later, New Zealand (at Otago University; near Dunedin; on South Island). In and around these evocative locales, Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig became the long-awaited screen incarnations of an unforgettable couple as years of work came to full fruition.