NEW YORK — It’s a regular afternoon in the lobby of the Mercer Hotel: Simon Le Bon and the rest of Duran Duran are discussing business by the library stacks; Benicio Del Toro is eating lunch, and Christine Jeffs, who has suddenly found herself mixing with this celebrity in-crowd due to her second feature, “Sylvia,” starring Gwyneth Paltrow and already garnering Oscar buzz, is nursing a pot of English breakfast tea.
The scene is a little bit jarring for the New Zealand-born Jeffs, who, in the last few weeks, has been to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston, London and back to New Zealand, all for the movie, which is released this week. “Everyone in New York talks so much,” she says. “In New Zealand, I live on a farm so I’m quiet all the time. I’m finding it hard to keep up — I feel like I have to go to talking school.”
“Sylvia,” which explores the tumultuous relationship between the poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, came to Jeffs in a somewhat roundabout way. The Russian director, Paul Pavlikovsky, was attached to the project, but dropped out 10 weeks before filming began. Paltrow had seen Jeffs’ first feature, “Rain,” a coming-of-age drama set in New Zealand, and asked the 40-year-old director to take over.
“Developing something like ‘Sylvia’ can take a very long time and it can be very disheartening,” Jeffs explains about coming onto the project late in the game. “So it’s just fantastic to be given this gift of a movie with a screenplay and a big star attached.”
Still, a movie about Plath wasn’t exactly a natural choice for Jeffs. “I had read ‘The Bell Jar’ when I was a teenager, like any other teenage girl,” she says. “But I had no idea of the monster between her and Ted. They were very passionate and very ambitious, but they couldn’t exist in a smooth, easy way.”
Like any other artist and her biographical subject, though, Jeffs developed something of an obsession through filming. “I carried lines of her poetry around in my pocket. I’d nag Gwyneth and go out to her trailer and say, ‘Hey, have a look at this.’”
Since Plath’s suicide in 1963, literary critics have tried to blame Hughes for her death, but this “Sylvia” is evenhanded and democratic about the relationship, portraying a more complex Plath. “I think it’s about a woman who was creative and wrote poetry, but it’s also about a woman who wanted to be a great mother and a lovely wife and bake cakes,” Jeffs adds. “She stuck out from the crowd. She didn’t like to blend in.”
Though this is only Jeffs’ second film — she studied sociology and geography before working as a film editor and then making commercials in New Zealand — she has already developed a distinct, visual style. Her films are filled with stark images of landscapes and objects — large vistas of water; stationary shots of lightbulbs; images of juiced oranges.
“Sylvia’s poetry was very visual,” Jeffs offers. “I felt it was important to make the film not just about what Ted and Sylvia said to each other, but also about what they didn’t say. You can do that through images. It gives it all a very modern feel, even though it’s a period piece.”
Though Jeffs would like to make an epic film like her country mate, Peter Jackson, she is currently at work on adapting Richard Ford’s novel, “Wildlife,” another coming-of-age story she hopes to shoot in Montana. It would fit in with the newfound global nature of her life.
“You’re kind of a person of the world when you’re a filmmaker,” Jeffs says. “But sometimes you don’t know where you live. You just live where your suitcase lives.”