LOS ANGELES (AP) — Actress Brit Marling had never read anything like "The Keeping Room." It's not often that wartime films focus on the women left behind, and not the men saving them.
The script by first-time screenwriter Julia Hart tells the story of three Southerners — two sisters and a slave — who are forced to defend their homestead when a pair of malevolent Union soldiers descend on the property near the end of the Civil War. It's both a thriller and a meditative reflection on the plight of women during wartime, and it landed Hart a spot on the 2012 Black List — a prestigious industry roundup of the year's best unproduced screenplays.
A former schoolteacher, Hart was inspired when visiting friends in the South and heard a story about two Civil War-era skeletons that were buried in their yard. She worked backward to craft a story about how those bodies got there.
"I read it twice in one sitting," said Marling in a recent interview. "Then I went chasing after it."
Under Daniel Barber's ("Harry Brown") direction, Marling would take on the role of Augusta, the de facto head of the household, with Hailee Steinfeld playing her younger sister Louise and newcomer Muna Otaru as their slave Mad.
At the beginning of the film, now playing in limited release and expanding nationwide throughout October, the girls are struggling to just keep themselves fed as supplies on the farm dwindle. Then Augusta unwittingly incites ire in two rogue Union soldiers (Sam Worthington, Kyle Soller) she encounters who follow her home intent on raping, pillaging and killing.
"(The women) have to defend themselves and do it in a way that's plausible," said Marling, who's also a writer, director and producer. "Nobody is being asked to be impenetrable.
"There are no karate kicks in stilettos. The girls cry, they break down, they get hurt and they're scared," she continued. "Being brave doesn't mean not being scared. It means being scared and moving through it anyway. They're all very vulnerable in it. They fall apart and put themselves back together."
The story is told with a 21st century savvy, combining a revisionist feminist bent and a reverence to the past. It doesn't hold back on distressing language or imagery in depicting their harrowing battle to survive. The relationships are complicated by the reality of slavery and racism in the period.
"The stuff that my character goes through and the brutality of some of the language was not easy for me to get through," Steinfeld acknowledged. "It's very tastefully done. It's very real to what happened then."
Marling thinks the film is honest about the dark origins of America.
"It's an incredibly prescient movie in that this country is in some ways hopefully waking up to racism," she said.
In this contained story, the bond between the three women is only strengthened.
"They reach a really beautiful place trying to survive with each other. The institution of racism falls away and they become family to each other. They become three sisters," Marling said. "They would defend each other to the ends of the earth."
"The Keeping Room" debuted at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival, and it took a bit of time before the independently produced feature found a distributor in Drafthouse Films.
Beyond the story itself, Marling thinks the film is part of a larger trend in the industry where women are taking the initiative to write roles for other women and the movies are actually getting made. She's done this a few times already with "Sound of My Voice" and "Another Earth," in which she also acted.
"I don't think it's any accident that stories have mostly been about white heterosexual men because they have been the ones who've had the position and power and influence to tell stories. You can't begrudge any of that. Now women are finding a room of their own and writing their own scripts and making their own movies" said Marling.
She added that successful films with big female casts like "Pitch Perfect" and "Bridesmaids" show that "men and women are interested in watching stories about women. I think we're in a really exciting time."
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr