Screenwriter Philippa Goslett on Mary Magdalene, Neil Gaiman and the ‘Viewpoint of the Outsider’

Philippa Goslett is the screenwriter of “Mary Magdalene,” the movie that looks at the life of Jesus from the perspective of his most famous contemporary female follower. The film stars Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Tahar Rahim and is being released by IFC Films in the U.S. on Friday. Goslett’s previous work includes “Little Ashes,” with Robert Pattinson as Salvador Dali, and Neil Gaiman adaptation “How to Talk to Girls at Parties.” With severalnfilm and TV projects in the works, Goslett tells Variety about world-building and finding the viewpoint of the outsider.

How did the “Mary Magdalene” film come about?

The project originated with Katherine Bridle, head of development at See-Saw, who very much wanted to tell stories about characters in history who have been marginalized or forgotten or, in Mary’s case, massively misrepresented over the years. There was a very beautiful script by Helen Edmundson and from there I started work – first of all with the producers, Iain [Canning] and Katherine and Liz Watts, and then with Garth [Davis], the director, and eventually with the cast.

What attracted you to the project?

The opportunity to tell the Jesus story from a point of view we have never seen before and to follow that through, [and] if you are telling that story from a female point of view, to ask rigorously would it therefore feel different, what might be different about that story? Might Jesus’ whole message seem different if it is experienced by a woman?

Were you very familiar with Mary’s story?

I’m in the unusual position of not being brought up in any religion, and as such I longed to go to church or synagogue like all the other kids. I did a lot of reading of the Bible when I was growing up and have always been fascinated by Jesus’ message and this figure of Mary Magdalene. In the Gospels, she is presented as an important part of the Jesus story and a spiritual figure, and somehow that has become twisted and misrepresented over time.

Did you speak to religious figures and scholars?

We had a really lengthy process of consultation, with Church of England and Catholic priests, with several rabbis, Jewish and Christian historians, archaeologist, birth advisors…everyone under the sun. Everyone had a slightly different view of the Jesus story and movement, but all of them agreed Mary should be considered a disciple and an apostle, and that hasn’t always trickled down to public consciousness, or not until quite recently.

The film is different from many big-screen representations of the story.

A lot of the Jesus films go through the greatest hits, as it were, and I think our film takes a slightly different path to that.

We didn’t set out to make a religious film. We wanted to tell this story from a viewpoint which had never experienced it before. We didn’t set you to make a safe film in that respect. Having said that, I don’t think there is anything that is particularly controversial or would offend – unless telling this story from a female point of view is in itself controversial.

What response have you received thus far?

I have been overwhelmed at the reaction from many, many, many Christian women who have said it was the first time that they felt their faith and their place in their religion had been represented on screen, and that was wonderful to hear. Other people who are without religion found the film resonated on a spiritual level and they weren’t excluded.

Is the through-line in your films looking at the world from new perspectives?

The kind of stories I’m attracted to tend to have rich canvases: historic or mythic or dystopian. I suppose they are about experiencing the world from an unexpected point of view, whether the Jesus story from a woman’s perspective, or 1977 punk London through the eyes of an alien teenager in “How to Talk to Girls at Parties.” I love the viewpoint of the outsider.

What advice did Neil Gaiman give you when you adapted his “How to Talk to Girls at Parties”?

I co-wrote “How to Talk to Girls” with director John Cameron Mitchell, which was an utter delight, as you can imagine. John, Neil, producer Howard [Gertler] and I all poured our most awkward teenage memories into the script.

We had an original iteration of it that was more conventionally structured in the Hollywood style. He just said: “Don’t do that. Go one step at a time and into the dark and keep asking what happens next, what happens next, what happens next?” And that turned out to be rather wonderful advice and definitely changed the way that I write in the long run.

Tell us about “Himalaya,” which you are doing with Pulse Films.

It’s the story of the 1958 women’s overland Himalayan expedition. These three extraordinary women bought a Land Rover and took it overland from France to the Tibetan plateau and then did their own trek into the mountains.

As well as incredible access to all the women’s diaries, Antonia Deacock’s book [“No Purdah In Padam”] and the expedition logs, I had the enormous privilege of meeting [expedition member] Eve Sims and going through her private photographs and memories of the trip.

What new possibilities does TV open up?

In the work I’m doing in film and television at the moment, developing series with the BBC and with FX, there is also a big emphasis on world-building. I love the way television is opening us up to the possibilities of these huge worlds.

I don’t know any writers who aren’t developing in TV at the moment. The landscape is shifting as the film industry becomes more of a global box office; things are changing. And many of the canvases I love – historical, dystopian or mythic – are naturally moving towards television now. The long form of television is very exiting in terms of telling stories for writers.

Goslett is represented by Casarotto Ramsay & Associates and UTA.

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