Last Word, The (2017): Mark Pellington Directs Shirley MacLaine and Amanda Seyfried

In Mark Pellington’s The Last Word, Shirley MacLaine plays Harriet Lauler, a once successful businesswoman in tight control of every aspect of her life.

Reflecting upon her accomplishments, she’s suddenly inspired to engage a young local writer, Anne Sherman (Amanda Seyfried), to pen her life’s story.

When the initial result doesn’t meet Harriet’s high expectations, she sets out to reshape the way she is remembered, with Anne dragged along as an unwilling accomplice.

As the journey unfolds, the two women develop a unique bond which alters not only Harriet’s legacy, but also Anne’s future.

When Mark Pellington was approached by longtime friend and colleague Stuart Ross Fink with an idea for a movie, he saw it as a welcome opportunity to explore themes he had long wanted to bring to the screen. “I was very interested in the subjects Stuart’s idea touched upon — mortality, family, legacy, identity,” says Pellington. “Six months later he handed me a first draft of the script. It was a great combination of drama and comedy, and I was looking to do something with that tone.

Stuart, producer Anne-Marie Mackay and I spent about a year and a half developing it before we were ready to film.” The Last Word is the story of Harriet Lauler, played by the Oscar winner Shirley MacLaine. A tightly wound control freak now in her 80s, Harriet realizes her compulsion has driven away everyone she cares about.

“It occurs to her there’s only one thing left to control,” says Fink, who makes his screenwriting debut with The Last Word. “So she hires Anne Sherman (Amanda Seyfried) to write her obituary. When the first draft fails to meet her lofty expectations, Harriet sets out to rewrite her life story before it’s too late, with Anne and a young girl named Brenda reluctantly tagging along.” Fink was initially inspired by the pre-written obituaries of prominent people that many media outlets keep on file. He began to wonder what kind of person makes a living writing them. “But I quickly became more interested in the kind of a person who would commission their own obituary,” he says. “The character of Harriet Lauler was born from that.” In fact, the screenwriter had inadvertently tapped into a real-life trend with his idea. More and more often, people from all walks of life are taking control of their own memorials. A flurry of books, articles, classes and online tutorials offer help in crafting a suitable self-tribute.

Called the “ultimate selfie” and the “autobituary,” the trend has doubled in the last five years, according to the website, which compiles obituaries. One notable recent example is the late actor James Rebhorn, whose “His Life, According to Jim” became an internet phenomenon. Some people do it to ensure accuracy, some to comfort loved ones with humor, and others, like Harriet, simply want a posthumous final say.  For most of her life, Harriet has made sure she gets her own way. “That has not necessarily served her well,” observes Fink. “It ruined her marriage. It alienated her daughter. It lost her the business she built from the ground up. When you see this woman exert her will, it’s terrifying.”

Harriet’s quest for perfectionism has left her alone and lonely. “On the outside, her life appears to be pristine,” says Pellington. “But it is actually pretty hollow. There’s a conflict between the exterior versus the interior. In the film, she has to define what a meaningful life is. What is the accumulation of our life’s events and how do we leave that behind?” That question, believes the director, is a universal one. “You never really know what a person is like until you see how they affect the people around them,” says Pellington. “We don’t talk about the impact of somebody’s life until they’re gone. We don’t realize how much we admire someone like Prince until he’s not here. We can’t talk about great novelists until we can we look back at the totality of what they’ve created.”

In Harriet’s case, she finds Anne’s final assessment of her life lacking. “The finished obituary is short and small in scope because nobody has anything good to say about her,” says Pellington. “But during the course of the film, Anne and the audience will get a more complete picture of what Harriet’s life was like.”  When Anne’s first draft fails to meet her employer’s expectations, Harriet sets out to rewrite her life story. She identifies four characteristics of what she believes makes a memorable life, at least on paper. “You have to be loved by family and friends,” says Fink. “You have to be admired by your co-workers. You have to have touched someone else’s life in an unexpected and profound way. And you have to have a wild card: a unique skill or experience that sets you apart. Fulfilling these requirements will add up to your legacy. Unfortunately, Harriet has fulfilled none of them.”   Perceptive, practical and deeply insecure, Anne is stuck in a dead-end job that she cares little about. She keeps her own writing closely guarded, afraid that failure is inevitable. As she follows along on Harriet’s mission to remake her image, Anne begins to see the world — and her employer — in a whole new light. “She becomes the engine leading us through the film,” says Pellington. “We share her point of view. When she discovers what happened to Harriet’s advertising career, she changes the way she thinks about her. And so do we. It’s the beginning of her transformation, as well as Harriet’s.” Having actors of the caliber of MacLaine and Seyfried attached to the project attracted the right kind of attention in Hollywood, says Pellington. “Amanda and Shirley both gravitated toward the script, which gave it traction. The first time they were in my office we just read it straight, and the chemistry was magic. I knew at that point that there was something very special about the piece.”

The road ahead of Harriet and Anne is not without obstacles, mostly of the comedic variety. “People love to see characters who are forced together by circumstances,” says Pellington. “These women are at odds a lot of the time. They bicker until they are able to find respect and admiration for each other, almost falling in love in a way. It’s a classic story arc because it’s about change.”

In Pellington’s opinion, people like to see characters evolve on screen because it reassures them of their own potential to improve. “We want to believe in our better selves. Maybe if I were a little more confident. Maybe if I were a little more open-minded. Maybe if I took a few more risks. All those very human things are implied in the film, without ever being preachy. It all comes from the relationship between Harriet and Anne, as a woman of one generation gives some life lessons to a woman of the next, slowly forging a beautiful friendship.”  Through her actions and words, Harriet begins teaching Anne what a life well lived looks like, says the director. “She’s showing Anne and Brenda — and herself — what kind of life that she wants to lead. She is encouraging them to figure that out for themselves. Be active. Open yourself up. Don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t be afraid to jump into the water. Don’t be afraid to say what you believe. She takes what could be sentimental, greeting card life lessons and makes them completely human and grounded.”

After 20 years as friends and colleagues, Pellington and Fink hope they have built a legacy of their own with this film. “Mark is a true artist,” says Fink. “His sensibility and my sensibility are different, but when we came together, it created something unique and original. I believe this movie has great cross-generational appeal, because it’s a movie about how each generation can influence the next. It’s funny. It’s emotional. It is about the lives we lead and the legacies we hope to leave behind, which people of all ages, both women and men, can relate to. It’s small in scope, but the themes are global. I think it can touch a lot of people’s lives in a truly meaningful way.”