Lost Girls was the main event for me at Sundance, as I’ve been tweeting about the movie for more than six years, having read Robert Kolker‘s harrowing book. The film didn’t premiere until Tuesday night in Park City, and I had to leave the festival that morning, but thankfully the streamer was kind enough to screen it for me prior to Sundance. I sat in a theater, all by my lonesome, and came away quite impressed with Liz Garbus‘ adaptation, which not only did justice to Kolker’s book, but to the Gilgo Beach victims and their families.
Garbus stopped by the Kia Telluride Supper Suite in Park City with four of her stars — Amy Ryan, Lola Kirke, Oona Laurence and Miriam Shor — and before I get into what we discussed, I have to thank these five women for comforting me during a tough time, as they came in for their interview shortly after the news broke that Kobe and Gianna Bryant‘s deaths had been confirmed, which threw me for a loop. We all do our best to smile and maintain our professionalism in the video above, but I think everyone was hurting a little, and this group was intimately familiar with that kind of loss, given the nature of Lost Girls.
For those who don’t know, Lost Girls concerns the investigation into a string of murders along Gilgo Beach in Long Island. The media framed the victims as merely prostitutes, rather than the mothers, daughters and sisters they actually were, and as such, the police didn’t seem particularly motivated to solve the case — which remains open. It was up to the victims’ families to fight for justice and force the media to treat their missing girls like human beings, with respect and dignity, rather than tawdry innuendo.
Lost Girls serves as Garbus’ narrative filmmaking debut, having come from the documentary world, though she did both in school. Lost Girls is a narrative film, but based on a true story and Kolker’s thoroughly-researched book, so it was the perfect opportunity for Garbus to draw upon her background while doing something new.
There were “scripted projects I tried to mount, and they were always on very tough subjects, and I wasn’t successful back then. But when I got this script, I was like, ‘this is it. I’m not gonna give up or get distracted.’ Because when you’re mounting an independent film, it’s [all] you. You just have to carry that boulder up the hill, and if you get distracted, it’s very easy for a film to get derailed. And [this one] was a journey, but Im glad to be here,” said Garbus, who directed from a script by Michael Werwie, who wrote Netflix’s Ted Bundy movie starring Zac Efron.
“The book tells the stories of five families who have lost a daughter and their various struggles over the course of about 10 years as they try to get the authorities to help locate these girls, to no avail. What Michael Werwie did with the script was to find the story of Mari Gilbert, and make it the spine of our narrative. Her daughter, Shannan Gilbert, went missing one night, and she was the last girl to go missing as far as we know, in terms of this string of crimes. And she raised some hell, and got the police to start looking, but of course, it was too late. And in doing so, a group of women came together to get justice for their loved ones. It’s also the story of Mari Gilbert forgiving herself as a mother.”
When the role of Mari opened up, Garbus sent the script to Amy Ryan, and the two women met for coffee in their shared Brooklyn neighborhood. “We hit it off really quickly,” said Ryan, who was quite candid about the fact that for her, Lost Girls offered her a rare opportunity — to play the protagonist in a film. “I don’t get to do that often, and not only that, but it was so well written, and [Mari] was such a powerful character. When she was ignored, she just got louder. She used her voice, they didn’t hear it, and she got louder. It was very moving.”
Ryan continued talking about Gilbert later in the interview, and she clearly felt a kinship with the woman even though they never had the chance to meet. “Mari had an extremely hard life. She was a single parent who worked a few jobs, and she made really hard decisions with some of her parenting choices, which I’m sure, at the time, she believed were her best choices. What I love about the film is, she’s trying to forgive herself and make things right. She believes she was a horrible mother, but every day, there are so many opportunities to fail. You try to raise these young human beings into stellar people, and it’s hard, and Mari was doing her best. Having not met her, but understanding her circumstance and the obstacles she faced, she was doing her best,” said an empathetic Ryan.
Laurence plays Ryan’s youngest daughter, while Kirke and Shor play women whose loved ones are among the missing.
“It’s really difficult when you’re portraying someone who’s real. You so want to honor who they are,” said Shor. “I didn’t get to meet Lorraine, but I’m a mom, and understanding the difficulties she faced in just living her life, and being a person in the world, is hard enough, and then to be so summarily dismissed and ignored as someone who’s trying to find their daughter… that journey was so painful and vivid to me that I can only hope I honored her memory in some way by going with what I had. That’s what actors have to do — take a leap and hope you get it right.”
Kirke agreed with Shor’s thoughtful approach. “I did not get to talk to any of the actual characters or the real people that are depicted in the movie, but I thought Robert Kolker‘s book was so vivid, and those characters were so rich, that between [the book] and the script and whatever videos were available online, I was able to craft some hybrid character of who I thought Kimberly was.”
“I obviously couldn’t meet up with Sarah because she’s in jail, but I think I really had to place myself in the character,” said Laurence. “She’s more of an observer throughout this entire thing. She’s very young, and she’s in the dark with most of the information about her sister. She doesn’t know where her sister is, or what her sister does, so it was difficult to portray her, but I could also imagine the kind of thought process she had to go through,” said the young actress, who possesses a maturity well beyond her years.
Being a reporter, albeit one who is spared the stress of having to report on grisly crimes and other real-life tragedies, I told Garbus I was particularly interested in how the media is one of the villains of this story. “It was an insult upon injury. When your loved one goes missing, they’re so much more than just a prostitute. They’re human beings with lives and loves, and brothers and sisters, and to have them reduced to this one thing, which is something that a lot of people will think of as diminishing them as a human being, it’s salt on a very, very open wound. Mari was really furious about that, and I think over time, those newspaper reports did get better in how they were referring to these young women. But just recently, I saw an article about the case that said ’10 dead prostitutes’ instead of ’10 dead human beings,’ and it’s just a way of making them not important to look for,” the director lamented.
Ryan said she appreciated the feminine perspective of Lost Girls, not just in working with Garbus, but a whole ensemble of talented female co-stars.
“In 32 years of working, I’ve only worked with seven female directors, and my last three films were three women back-to-back,” said Ryan, who recently appeared in Nisha Ganatra‘s Late Night, and will soon be seen in Sara Colangelo‘s drama Worth, which also premiered at Sundance. “It’s not only [about] having a female director and a female perspective, but it was that there were many female parts in the film. There are so many dynamic, complex female roles in this, and it felt like something brand new, like we were reinventing cinema. And it was wonderful. We also have men, and they’re wonderful, but we have ladies, and it’s nice to be represented. Women can do it. It’s no surprise.”
Speaking of those men, Gabriel Byrne co-stars in Lost Girls as the local police chief, and he previously worked with Ryan on HBO’s In Treatment, so they already had a strong rapport. “He was fantastic. I was so happy when he joined the team, because he infuses the character with so much humanity and complexity,” said Garbus. “He plays the police commissioner who bungles this case — whether because of negligence or corruption, we really don’t know — and what Gabriel did so brilliantly was walk the line for different interpretations to arise from it. He and Amy have worked together, so that was a nice base to work from, and he’s so thoughtful about the scrip. He’d analyze every line, and helped make the movie better,” explained the director.
As for what’s next, Laurence will soon be seen in Big Time Adolescence, the Pete Davidson comedy that premiered last year at Sundance, and will be released by Hulu later this year. This was the actress’ first festival, as finals forced her to skip Sundance last year. Meanwhile, Kirke will be rooting for her friends Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach at the Oscars this weekend, having worked with the Little Women and Marriage Story filmmakers several years ago on Mistress America.
“I love both of their movies. I think they’re both incredible, and I think that they both make movies with incredible reference to the films of the past, so I’m happy that they’re keeping real cinema alive,” said Kirke.
As for Shor, she’s still filming George Clooney‘s Netflix movie Good Morning, Midnight, in which she plays a woman who finds herself in very emotional circumstances when her husband is away and she’s forced to protect her kids from the worst thing imaginable.
“There’s a line [in Lost Girls] where Gabriel’s character tells Mari, ‘don’t take this on yourself,’ and she says, “I’m her mother! It’s all on me.” And I feel like that’s how you feel as a mother, and how society feels. It is put on the mother, all of the failures. They find the mother, and put it on her, and this movie really deals with that in such a personal way.” I know my own mother would’ve gone to the ends of the earth to find me if I ever went missing. Fortunately, you won’t have to go to the end of the earth to find Lost Girls, as it hits Netflix on March 13.
Watch the interview above, and stay tuned to Collider for our Sundance supercut, in which dozens of artists offer their theories on the death of Cliff Booth’s wife in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and which categories they’d like to see added to the Oscars, as well as the TV shows they most recently binged, and the ones they’d love to guest star on. To watch the trailer for Lost Girls, click here.
Finally, we have to thank our presenting partner, the Kia Telluride SUV, which was recently named the 2020 North American Utility Vehicle of the Year. Additional thanks to support sponsors Glenfiddich Scotch, Peroni Beer, Marbl Toronto, mou footwear, ic! Berlin sunglasses and clothing lines, Laundry by Sheli Segal and Orginal Penguin.