Sundance 2021: “The World to Come” Is an Extraordinary Lesbian Romance Ruined By Casey Affleck

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Content warning: discussions of sexual harassment and assault

In December 2008, Casey Affleck allegedly entered the bedroom where cinematographer Magdalena Gorka was sleeping. He allegedly wore only underwear and a t-shirt. He allegedly got in the bed, put his arm around her, and caressed her back until she woke up after an indeterminate amount of time. She allegedly told him to leave and he allegedly asked why. “Because you are married and you are my boss,” she allegedly said. He allegedly argued with her before leaving in anger. Gorka quit their film.

At the time of this alleged incident, Gorka was the only woman working on Affleck’s mockumentary I’m Still Here about the supposed rap career of his at-the-time brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix. From the beginning of production, Gorka claims the harassment was endless — Affleck and other members of the crew frequently talking about having sex with her among other inappropriate comments. After she left the production, producer Amanda White was hired. White alleges similar experiences including being shown a crew member’s penis and being physically threatened when she refused to share a hotel room with Affleck.

White was instructed to try and rehire Gorka. Unable to find other work — and hoping the presence of another woman would change the environment — Gorka returned. The environment did not change. And Gorka quit once again.

White filed a $2 million lawsuit against Affleck in Los Angeles Superior Court on July 23, 2010. Gorka filed a $2.25 million lawsuit one week later. They both settled out of court.

I’m Still Here is the last feature film White produced. She is now the co-owner of iam8bit, a production company that crafts “unique and memorable experiences for a wide spectrum of brands.” They are currently working on developing IPs for feature films and television projects, but none have been produced yet. Gorka has continued to work as a cinematographer. Paranormal Activity 3 and a low-budget horror film titled The Levenger Tapes were her only feature credits in the four years following her work on I’m Still Here.

Affleck, on the other hand, appeared in big-budget comedy Tower Heist and received raves for acclaimed indies Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Out of the Furnace. He was cast as the lead in Kenneth Lonnergan’s Manchester by the Sea and immediately received Oscar buzz when the film premiered at Sundance five years ago. Mention of Affleck’s harassment suits were brief until Amy Zimmerman covered them for The Daily Beast. Affleck denied the allegations and the internet began the type of conversation that would become all too familiar less than a year later when a movement was sparked by allegations about Harvey Weinstein, a producer who often used women-led and queer-led projects to cover his abuse.

But conversation is not action, and on February 26, 2017, Casey Affleck won an Academy Award. Less than a year later he was back at Sundance in the acclaimed film A Ghost Story. Two years later he was at the Berlin International Film Festival with his narrative directorial debut Light of My Life, the first film released under his production company Sea Change Media. And now he’s back at Sundance, as an actor and producer, with Sea Change Media’s second film, The World to Come directed by Mona Fastvold.

This will likely be the first time many people are learning about Mona Fastvold, but I’ve been a fan of hers for years. I stumbled into a mid-day screening of her debut The Sleepwalker in 2014 and became obsessed. This quiet chamber drama about two sisters and their volatile male partners captured my attention with its total formal control and unnerving performances. It was a relationship drama, a family drama, and a horror movie all at once. And yet it was so much more — it was uncategorizable. It showed the promise of a true talent who had only just begun.

After graduating from film school in 2016, I realized my job prospects were limited by my total lack of industry connections. My first job was working for an abusive male theatre director and I decided if I was going to work in this industry it had to be on my own terms. The only solution I could think of was to start randomly messaging artists I admired — mostly women. I messaged and emailed dozens of theatre and film artists telling them what their work meant to me and saying I was looking for a job. I only heard back from two people — one was Mona.

Her life and creative partner, Brady Corbet, had just released his own debut feature, co-written with Mona. I messaged her to tell her how much I appreciated it and to gush about The Sleepwalker. Not only did she respond, but she asked to watch my last short film. Not only did she ask to watch my last short film, she suggested we get coffee so she could talk to me about it. She was incredibly generous with her time and her wisdom and provided me a much needed boost to my spirits in that post-grad trudge.

As the years passed, I kept waiting to hear word of her next project, as someone who wanted to work for her and as a fan. But I heard nothing. Corbet, however, released his second film — also written with Mona — the Natalie Portman-starring Vox Lux in 2018. Once I transitioned I stopped talking to most of my former professional contacts, so I’m not sure what the last five years have been like for Mona. I can’t say how many projects she hoped to direct that were never made. I can’t say how many pitch meetings she had or how she was received. But what I do know is that by the time Casey Affleck’s Sea Change Media approached her with the script for The World to Come it had been years since her last directorial feature.

The World to Come has a premise readymade for lesbian film nerd eye-rolls. It’s a period piece set in mid-19th century New York with an all-white, all-cis cast including two ostensibly heterosexual actresses who play characters in unhappy heterosexual marriages. But what the film lacks in originality of story, it makes up for in Mona’s direction. All the promise of The Sleepwalker is on full display with this more ambitious palette. The cinematography, the sound design, the direction of the actors — it all culminates in a remarkable cinematic experience. And yet every time Affleck was on-screen, I felt chilled.

This is a film about the suffocation of women. Katherine Waterston’s Abigail is bursting with intellectual curiosity and Vanessa Kirby’s Tallie matches her interiority with a vibrant spirit. Watching them connect amidst their harsh landscape and harsher husbands feels like the ultimate relief. The film’s repeated tragedy is meant to show just how limited options were for women during this time and it’s felt with a sting.

“Thinking about these women and the options that they had,” Mona said in the Q&A. “Thinking about how we stand on their shoulders and here I am today and I get to direct this film and be the boss of all these people. That is connected and that is a beautiful thing.”

It is a beautiful thing. And our progress should be celebrated. And Mona should be celebrated for her work on this film. But I wonder what she could’ve done with a different story. I wonder what she could’ve done with a script in her own words. I wonder what she could’ve done if she didn’t need the financial support of someone with a famous last name and a history of alleged abuse.

“As is the case with any period movie there’s some comfort in — look how it was then and we made it through that too,” Affleck said in the Q&A wearing a pink beanie. “Look how hard these women’s lives were. And now here we are and things are better.” I will give him that — things are better. But as I stared at him through my computer screen, thinking about Magdalena Gorka and Amanda White, thinking about my own experiences on set with abusive men, thinking about every woman and person with a marginalized identity whose talents have been kept from us or dulled by an industry still made for men like Affleck, the word “better” turned my stomach. Fuck better. I’m tired of waiting for the world to come. We’re all so tired of waiting. We’re all so tired of fighting. We’re all so tired.

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Drew is an LA-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. Her writing can be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Thrillist, I Heart Female Directors, and, of course, Autostraddle. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about trans lesbians. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @draw_gregory.

Drew has written 191 articles for us.

14 Comments

  1. this was really well written and i appreciate how Drew contextualized the crew and their history. I’m a filmmaker who’s also experienced abuse as crew (as have most women in the industry,) and I feel similarly when I watch works with a dicey sort of politics. there is a weight the pressure we face to dismiss this knowledge (“focus on the work and not the artist!”) but it all feeds into everything that shows up on screen. I can’t unsee what I know.

    Like Fastvold, I anticipate having to decide which compromises to make, and which values to sacrifice in order to sustain my career. I can’t know what my answer will be, but I know that I too, am already tired.

  2. It sucks that Casey Affleck had to be involved. I wonder if it would have been possible for Fastvold to wrestle the script from him as I believe it was a story worth telling. That being said, Katherine Waterston’s performance was exquisite, heartbreaking, as was the writing of her character, Abigail. And Daniel Blumberg’s totally unconventional score–! And the ever-present character of the landscape.

    • The allegations made against Casey Affleck were a result of an ongoing pay dispute Casey was having with the 2 female film crew on the movie I’m Still Here. These 2 women used these allegations to try and get more money then what they had agreed to before starting their work on the I’m Still Here movie. When Casey threatened to counter sue these 2 women and provided evidence that the alleged sexual harassment never happened. The 2 women quickly went on the back foot and took the money they initially rejected in an out of court settlement. None of the media outlets want to report the full story, as it stops them been able to portray Casey in a bad light. Casey Affleck and his production Sea Change Media are doing heaps of of work trying to get women’s stories told. Casey’s production company were responsible in this film The World to Come getting made. So next time you want to write article that is critical of a particular person. Make sure you get all your facts right first

  3. Drew, as always, your commentary is fantastic. I watched the trailer for this a few weeks back and thought, “Damn, this looks like my jam, but fuckin Casey Affleck.” Seeing these POS abusers repeatedly propped up and given endless opportunities often feels like continual gaslighting; in contrast, reading this was so affirming.

    • The allegations against Casey Affleck made by Amanda White and Magdalena Gorka were a result of a pay dispute they were having with Casey Affleck for their work on I’m Still Here. Amanda White and Magdalena Gorka were wanting more money for their work then had been agreed upon before the start of their work on the I’m Still Here movie. Amanda White and Magdalena Gorka used the allegations of sexual harassment as a last ditch attempt to try and get more money for their work on the film. Amanda White had tried other extortion attempts like withholding footage of the I’m Still Here movie which threatened to halt production of the movie. Casey Affleck produced evidence that disputed the allegations made by White and Gorka and threatened to counter sue them. When White and Gorka realised that their allegations had been proven incorrect and they had no more avenues to use to try and get more money for their work on the I’m Still Here film they both accepted the money they had agreed to initially in an out of court settlement. The media never reports the full story of the allegations made against Casey Affleck, as they want Affleck to be portrayed in a bad light. Casey Affleck and his production company Sea Change Media do lots of work in trying to get women’s stories told and made into films. The World to Come is a perfect example of the good work Casey Aflleck and his production company have done by getting this film made. Drew Gregory before you write articles in the future that a critical of a person you need to make sure you get your facts right and know the full story about certain events or incidents

      • I’m not sure why you copy and pasted your comment to multiple people, but what I wish I’d included in my original post is: Why are we once again focusing on a shitty man at the expense of women’s work?

        • Sorry for the 2 replies. I thought my first comment didn’t load properly. I think you are wrong in assuming Casey Affleck is a shitty man. He does a lot of work for charities like Peta, Academy of United States Veterans and etc. And as I mentioned work with his production company getting women’s stories told also. I don’t think there is that much focus on Casey Afflecks work in The World to Come as he isn’t even a lead. The focus is mainly on Waterson, Kirby and Fastvold. The writer of this article has chosen to focus on Casey Affleck and portray him negatively without knowing all the facts

  4. Thanks for this review, Drew, particularly for the context. If the film sounded like I’d enjoy it, then maybe I’d grit my teeth about the history and see it to support Mona. But “a film about the suffocation of women”? Ugh. Plenty of current real-world sources if I want that. Nothing about seeing two women “bursting with intellectual curiosity” and “vibrant spirit,” with whom I’m supposed to identify, deal with “limited options” and “harsher husbands” is going to make my life better right now! I think instead I’ll see if my daughter wants her daily tickle party. :)

  5. This headline and article are very misleading. Casey Affleck is not the only disturbing thing about the film. The community deserves to know about all possible triggers associated with this film, and not just Casey Affleck’s presence in it.

    *SPOILERS BELOW*

    I really wish that someone at Autostraddle had given us sufficient warning that this film fulfills the #BuryYourGays trope in a horrible ending that I hope no queer person ever has to see. Despite it otherwise being beautiful in its cinematography and direction, that ending was completely unacceptable for 2021.

    In the future, I hope Autostraddle writers will be more careful about applying descriptors like “Extraordinary” and use more accurate phrasing like “Tragic” and “Traumatic”. Viewers should be given fair warning about trauma/abuse on screen, and not just the abuser behind it.

  6. Long time reader, first time commenter. Drew I love your work.

    The points you bring up towards the end of what could have been if Mona did not have to compromise and create this work in her full vision, is indicative of a larger issue.

    First, I have to agree with my dear friend Aphrodykee about the need for the bury your gays trope being present here. I keep thinking, did any of the cast and crew involved think about the bury your gays trope? How did they decide this story is worth telling? Yet again, a lesbian love story written by a cisman, adapted by two cismen. The only queer involvement I could find on preliminary research at executive level is Killer Films being a producer.

    Do we need to see hope shattered and another woman become a statistic of domestic violence? Was that the intent of the film beyond showing the suffocation of women? Queer people have always been here and so has the murder of domestic partners at the hands of their husband?

    It troubles me that straight people (publicly – i don’t know if they identify as queer in their personal lives) continue to be the gatekeepers to our narratives at executive levels. When we recently have shows and films like Veneno, Work in Progress, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, it is definitive proof the works made by queer people, unapologetically, are better, more emotive, and evocative for a queer viewer. They hit my soul differently.

    What the documentary “Disclosure” showed me is, we tell our stories authentically, with respect, and better. What hurt the most with this film was how tragically beautiful it was but for all of its cinematic achievements, it does not outweigh the death of Tallie.

    • I’ve been trying to grapple with the Bury Your Gays trope in the context of this film and I don’t know. Haven’t tragedy and romance always been entwined? I’m thinking Shakespeare, Romanticism–and Jeanette Winterson (queer author), who opened up her novel Written on the Body with “Why is the measure of love loss?” There’s a larger trope at work that I think we’re forgetting. And, straight stories have kind of abandoned it for romantic comedy.

  7. I’ve been trying to grapple with the Bury Your Gays trope in the context of this film and I don’t know. Haven’t tragedy and romance always been entwined? I’m thinking Shakespeare, Romanticism–and Jeanette Winterson (queer author), who opened up her novel Written on the Body with “Why is the measure of love loss?” There’s a larger trope at work that I think we’re forgetting. And, straight stories have kind of abandoned it for romantic comedy.

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