TENET – It was about time

Prologue
Just on the border of your waking mind. There lies another time

Tenet is, without doubt, one of the most anticipated films of the year. I’m not a big Nolan fan, except for Memento (2000). I did feel, however, that Dunkirk (2017) showed some growth and deviated from the Nolan formula. The trailers for Tenet seemed to indicate that it would be a step backwards. (No pun intended) So when I sat down in front of Stockholm’s sole IMAX screen, my expectations were rather low.

Twilight

The IMDB storyline goes like this. “Armed with only one word, Tenet, and fighting for the survival of the entire world, a Protagonist journeys through a twilight world of international espionage on a mission that will unfold in something beyond real-time.” We are told numerous times that “We live in a Twilight world”, and it’s not the only thing we are told during the film’s 150- minute duration. If Inception (2010) was littered with expository interchanges, here it’s dialled up to eleven. 11 might be a fitting number for this palindromic work.

Tenet

TENET Backwards

About 11 minutes into the film, the protagonist (John David Washington) is tied to a chair between train tracks while trains are going in opposing directions around him. It’s one of the most intriguing scenes in the whole film, strictly from a mise en scène point of view. I have to disregard the fact that it’s also intended as a visual metaphor for the time inversion that we will witness later. Soon afterwards he will be given his assignment which is a huge, albeit a vague one. It’s like an ironic MacGuffin. Nolan’s love for James Bond films is well-known. It’s been said that the dreams in Inception played like generic Bond set pieces.

The feeling is similar in Tenet that lumps around the planet. India, Norway, Italy and Estonia are just a few of the locations where the film places its, hopefully non-carbon, footprints. They rarely become more than exotic backdrops. The Mumbai sequence feels particularly redundant. If that attribute makes Tenet sound like a 007 adventure, the dialogue tells another story. The protagonist will encounter several exposition dumps on his route. 1As Truffaut observes in his book on Hitchcock “The James Bond series, which is nothing else than a rough caricature of all Hitchcock’s work, and of North by Northwest in particular”.

Verbose films and their possible virtues

In the preface of FrancoisTruffaut’s interview book with Alfred Hitchcock, he points out the following.”To those who question whether clarity is all that important, I can only say that it is the most important quality in the making of a film. Here is a typical example: “At this point, Balachov, understanding that he had been cheated by Canadine, went to see Benson, proposing that they contact Tolmachef and share the loot between them.” In hundreds of films this dialogue, or a variant thereof, has left you bewildered, or worse, indifferent to the proceedings on the screen. Since Hitchcock chooses to express everything by purely visual means, he has no use whatever for Messrs. Balachov, Canadine, Benson, and Tolmachef.”

That might be a slightly idealized view on Hitchcock, but when it comes to scripts that leave the viewer baffled and above all, indifferent, the observation is spot on. When it comes to Tenet, Nolan seems to think that the mechanics of the plot, as well as the concepts of the film, has to be talked about ad nauseam. Ironically, critics and other viewers have still expressed that they didn’t understand what was going on, or how the time inversion worked. Others have testified of boredom and indifference. It’s easy to understand why when the dialogue seems to go back and forth in an endless loop. (pun might be intended.)

Pattinson Tenet
Robert Pattinson and John David Washington in Tenet.

Time passing in Malmkrog

Malmkrog (2020) by Cristi Puiu is almost one hour longer than Tenet. Almost exclusively set in one building, the characters constantly engages in conversation. Unlike Nolan’s writing, the discussions in Malmkrog are not in service of the plot, but rather building blocks in themselves, not unlike the films of Manoel de Oliveria.2 “It is not possible to establish a cinematic equivalent to a literary text. But, just as one can film a landscape, one can film a text. Film it or film the voice that reads it. If I show a page from a book so that the spectator can read it on the screen, I am making cinema.” Manoel de Oliveira.

Puiu’s film elicited harsh reactions after the opening at Berlinale. “People talking in rooms in period finery clearly can’t be anyone’s idea of cutting-edge cinema.” was just one reaction. Another reviewer stated, “That Malmkrog has too much about it to explain is part of its problem.” He later added, “It’s too richly complex for the medium of film.” More about this in my piece on Malmkrog.

Trailer for Tenet.

True Defective

Even when the dialogue digresses from the exposition, it’s still far from fluid. Instead, we are treated to some of the worst lines, this side of True Detective Season 2. Kenneth Branagh as Sator (or was it Rotas?) is cursed with some of the most egregious ones. When he meets the protagonist, he gives a long speech about how he kills people. It’s needlessly, cruel and time-consuming. The protagonist looks at him and replies “Complex”. That answer could serve as an ironic description of the film, as well. Fighting with his wife later, Sator shouts “You don’t negotiate with a tiger. You admire the tiger until he dives on you and you feel his true fucking nature.” It’s truly beyond parody.

Kennet Branagh in Tenet
Kenneth Branagh as Sator in Tenet.
21st Century Man

In a scene where the protagonist gets the opportunity to fire inverted bullets, he is told: “Don’t try to understand it, feel it.” Some viewers have interpreted that phrase as a manual for the film. One argument being that in such an exposition-laden story, the dialogue is not always audible. This has led some reviewers to dismiss the sound mix as bad when it’s obviously a choice on Nolan’s part. If it’s sometimes difficult to discern what is being said while Ludwig Göranssons’s score is pounding, it’s clearly no gaffe on the filmmaker’s part.

Sound advice

Supervising sound editor, Richard King said this about Nolan in 2018. “Chris is trying to create a visceral emotional experience for the audience, beyond merely an intellectual one…and dialogue is only one facet of the sonic palette.” It requires the spectators to be open-minded instead of lamenting the fact that the dialogue is at the bottom of the mix. I had more problems when I heard the hideous lines being spoken. The soundtrack is the least of the film’s problems. More serious is the fact that the concept feels half-baked and overcooked at the same time. The 150- minute runtime is a chore to sit through, but at the same time, it’s not sufficient to present a cohesive experience.

If Roy Andersson’s latest felt like an eternity at a mere 78 minutes, here we have a work that is bloated and turgid but at the same time feels weirdly incomplete. While watching Tenet, I found myself thinking about ELO and their album Time (1981) where the unnamed protagonist drifts into a state of twilight (We live in a Twilight world) and is transported to 2095. One thing the two works have in common is that the lyrics were not Jeff Lynne’s forte. On the other hand, passages like “Twilight, I gave you time to steal my mind away from me” is more comfortably digested when they are being sung. A major difference is that nobody ever complained about the sound mix.

epilogue Though you ride on the wheels of tomorrow

There are rumours that a sequel to Tenet is in the works. I rather look forward to Tenet: The Musical where half of the songs will be inverted, and the spectacle won’t depend on the lyrics. A sentence such as “Time isn’t a problem. Getting out alive is a problem.” will undoubtedly sound better in a song.

A song not included on the soundtrack of Tenet.

The weird case of Shirley Jackson

The first time I went to the Nowe Horyzonty festival was in 2014. The very first film I saw there was Butter On The Latch (2014) by Josephine Decker. I was unexpectedly blown away by the film — one of those rare instances when cinema felt reborn to me. The same thing would happen with Bait five years later. Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (2014) and Madeline’s Madeline (2018) confirmed that Decker is one of the most exciting directors working today. When the new project, Shirley, was announced, with big names like Elisabeth Moss and Michael Stuhlbarg, it felt apparent that it would be less bold than Decker’s earlier films. Would it also necessarily mean it would be less intriguing?

The script by Sarah Gubbins, tells the story of the fictive couple Fred and Rose Nemser ( Logan Lerman and Odessa Young), who spends the summer of 1948 with the author Shirley Jackson (Moss) and her husband Stanley (Stuhlbarg). 1The Berlinale programme, inexplicably, sets the story in 1964. Once there, they get caught up in the turmoil that is their relationship, while Fred is working as Stanley’s assistant. On the train heading towards their destination, Rose reads Jackson’s short story, The Lottery and seems to get a visceral reaction from it.

– They stoned her Fred. The whole town.

– That’s creepy.

– It’s terrific!

Then she touches his crotch, and moments later they make love on the train. When Rose meets Shirley Jackson, she says that the story made her feel “thrillingly horrible”. Shirley immediately notices that Rose is pregnant, even though she hasn’t told anyone. Thus a bond is established between the two women. She runs errands for Shirley and tries to cover for her behaviour. Meanwhile, the writer is stuck at home, working on what would become Hangsaman. Rose seems to be the inspiration for the story. We watch it play out with Odessa Young embodying Paula. The way it’s outlined in the film bears little resemblance to the novel that would be published in 1951. A fact that Decker also acknowledges.

“Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? We meet a Denver teacher with a very unusual phobia.

This quote from the hilarious series Newsreaders came to my mind during the first half of the film. Most of it is dedicated to the endless quarrelling between Shirley and Stanley. It feels like something we’ve seen numerous times before, not only in Edward Albee’s play. It wears thin, pretty quickly. It’s not until nearly halfway through the film, in an outdoors scene when the relationship between the two women really blossoms in a sequence that involves death cap mushrooms The scene is not only expertly performed by Moss and Young but is also one of the best showcases for Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s cinematography. In other sequences, I often miss Ashley Connor’s lensing from the earlier films.

Shirley
Elisabeth Moss and Odessa Young and a bunch of mushrooms in Shirley.

Fred asks Stanley to read his dissertation, hoping that the approval would bolster his academic career. The reaction is not what Fred had hoped for. During dinner, with a visibly amused Shirley, Stanley labels his work derivative. After Fred leaves, Shirley asks if it was really that bad. The answer is “You know how insulted I am by mediocrity. If it was awful, that would have been exciting, but terrifically competent. There’s no excuse for that.” During this scene, It came to me that it was precisely the feeling I had about the film I was watching. It would be easy to use “terrifically competent” as a snappy last line in a review. I will abstain from doing so.

Surely you can’t be serious? I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley!

The main problem with the film lies in the way the story is written. Based on the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, the script by first-time writer Sarah Gubbins is probably the most cohesive that Decker has worked with so far. However, it works like a corset which stops the director from entering her unpredictable, exhilarating cinematic universe. It has been pointed out that the story takes liberties with Jackson’s life. Her children do not appear at all even though she frequently wrote about motherhood.

That kind of poetic license doesn’t worry me. Worse is the fact that the script takes itself very seriously. The dialogue too often deteriorates into talking points. The attempt to reduce Hangsaman to a story about “girls who can not make the world see them” doesn’t ring true, and worse, make Jackson’s works feel more one-dimensional than they are. Reducing them to statements about women, in general, is ironic in a story about a woman who was the primary bread-winner in the household. When it comes to the attempt at invoking the fictional universe of Jackson, the film falls short as well. It’s certainly not a match for a truly absorbing film like Hosszú Alkony (Long Twilight 1997) by Attila Janisch. 

Talking about the thespians, the meatiest roles are the female ones. Moss is as good as can be expected. The outstanding achievement for me was Odessa Young. In a part with many trap doors, she truly elevates the material, and I would love to see her work with Decker again. So, for me, this film was a major disappointment. Josephine Decker has set a high bar for herself. Now she presents a film that is more mainstream and script oriented than her previous works. Hopefully, she will return with projects that are terrific, competent, as well as unpredictable and exhilarating.

The film may work differently for those who haven’t seen a Decker film before. For a different view of the film, here’s a review, written by Zofia Wijaszka on FirstShowing.net.

Trailer for Shirley.

From Belle de Jour to Belle Toujours – My five favourite Michel Piccoli performances that you haven’t seen

Michel Piccoli

Michel Piccoli è Morto

To write about Michel Piccoli is a daunting task. His filmography lists more than 200 roles. He worked with so many essential directors; it’s impossible to name all of them. They were as distinctive as Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard, Agnès Varda, Claude Chabrol, Jaques Rivette, Michel Deville, Alain Cavalier, Louis Malle, Claude Sautet, Jaques Doillon, and Leos Carax. And that’s only a fraction of the French helmers he worked with. There were also collaborations with international filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock, Marco Bellochio, Jerzy Skolimowski, Theo Angelopoulos, Ettore Scola, Yousef Chahine, and many others. Seven of his performances were in films by Marco Ferreri, including Dillinger è Morto.

The Early Years

Born in 1925, Piccoli commenced acting in the forties, in the theatre as well as in films. Early works with famous directors include Renoir’s French Cancan (1955) Buñuel’s La Mort en ce Jardin, the subsequent year, and Melville’s Le Doulos 1962. The sixties would be the decade of his breakthrough with roles such as Paul in Godard’s Le Mépris (1963), the creepy René in Costa-Gavras atypical thriller Compartiment Tueurs (1965) and above all the part as Henric Husson in Belle de Jour. (1967). The role of Husson, who introduces Séverine (Catherine Deneuve) to the world of prostitution, was one of several highlights in Piccoli’s career.

Almost four decades later, the actor would reprise his role, but for Manoel de Oliveira in Belle Toujours (2006). Altogether he would make six films with Luis Buñuel. Five films for Manoel de Oliveira counting the three minutes short Rencontre Unique (2007).

My five favourite Michel Piccoli roles

Les Créatures

In Agnès Varda’s Les Créatures, Piccoli gets a rare chance to show his more playful side. In the role of Edgar, he has to navigate a world where the rules of the game always seem to change without order or explanations. The actor doesn’t protect his character (he rarely did) but is more than game to dig into the challenges that Varda sets out for him, whether it involves talking to animals (where Piccoli provides the animals voices as well) or getting involved in random fights for no discernible reason.

Michel Piccoli Les Créatures
Michel Piccoli in Les Créatures.

La Femme en Bleu

Michel Deville’s reputation seems to be on the upswing now. That is a welcome revenge of sorts for a director who constantly made witty and engaging films, but rarely wore the Auteur badge on his sleeve. Outside France, he might be mostly known for his 1985 comedic thriller Péril en la Demeure, translated as “Death in a French Garden”. A fact that delighted Deville, since he was a big fan of Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract, which was released in France as “Meurtre Dans un Jardin Anglais”. Piccoli has a small but pivotal role in the film. but the one that I want to focus on is La Femme en Bleu (1973).

As the musician Pierre, Piccoli once again delves deep down into his character’s obsession, on this occasion caused by glimpsing the titular woman briefly. and then spending most of the film’s running time, trying to track her down. He even engages his mistress (Lea Massari) in the process, who actually bears a striking resemblance to the blue-clad woman he is looking for. Hardly a main character to root for, but nonetheless captivating.

Génealogies d’un Crime

Raoul Ruiz’s 1997 film, Généalogies d’un Crime is the bizarre story of a failed lawyer (Catherine Deneuve) who takes on difficult cases and repeatedly loses. She gets entangled with two rivalling psychiatrists played by Piccoli and the equally brilliant Andrzej Seweryn. A scene where the two argue in an outdoor cafe, seated at different tables, is particularly hilarious. Throughout the film George Didier, as Piccoli’s character is named, is constantly on the brink of madness, and will not stop at anything to prove his theories. It’s one of the more accessible works by Ruiz, without sacrificing any complexity.

Michel Piccoli and Catherine Deneuve in Généalogies d’un Crime.

Belle Toujours and Je Rentre a La Maison

The above-mentioned film by Manoel de Oliveira is the second film of the Belle de Jour franchise. Almost 40 years after the events in the first film, Husson thinks he sees Séverine at a concert. He follows her, but she manages to avoid him. While trying to hunt her down, he frequents a bar where he engages in lengthy conversations with the bartender, played by Oliveira regular/relative Ricardo Trépa. Eventually, Husson manages to persuade Séverine to have dinner with him. One of the reasons is that she wants to find out what he whispered to her husband, all those years ago. Deneuve was approached but turned down the part, which instead is interpreted by Bulle Ogier.

This may be one of the best showcases of Piccoli’s charisma, besides Oliveira’s Je Rentre a La Maison (2001). The roles are short on dialogue, but the actor’s presence lends the films their necessary gravity. The funniest, and most poignant homage to Michel Piccoli, may be the tweet by Le Mépris costar, Brigitte Bardot. “Il avait du talent, de l’humour et il aimait mes fesses.”

A cinematic breath of fresh air The Films of Ágnes Kocsis 2: Pál Adrienn

Four years after the release of Friss Levegö, Ágnes Koscis second film saw the light of day. Pál Adrienn premiered in the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes film festival in 2010, where it won the FIPRESCI Prize. In the film, we follow the obese Piroska, who works as a nurse at a hospital terminal ward. She seems quite miserable and has difficulties standing up for herself at work. She lives with Kálmán who cares mostly about his diorama and his job.

One day a new patient arrives at the hospital called Adrienn Pál. The same name as one of Piroska’s best friend at school with whom she later lost contact. Now she decides to find out what happened to her and visits as many people as she can to find clues. However, many of the reactions she gets doesn’t confirm her own memories and are often contradictory to one another.

Deadly Boring Ritual

The film begins with interiors from the hospital. The first scene shows Piroska in an elevator going up from the morgue to the patient’s floor. We follow her out from the elevator while she’s dragging the, now empty, bed behind her. While the sound from the old Spica radio in the elevator fades away, we hear the clomping of her clogs.

It’s a sound that will be frequent during the first part of the film. Then we cut to the workstation where we see the nurse sitting in front of three rows of screens that monitor the ECG of each patient. The repetitive sound from those displays, as well as the sound of Piroska’s clog shoes, will be the aural representation of the rut that she is in.

An alarm sounds, and it’s time to see, yet another convalescent. Once there, the doctor declares the patient dead and tells Piroska to notify the relatives. In the elevator down to the morgue, she eats a piece of pastry, and it’s not the first one we see her eating. She leaves the body in the morgue. Before she goes out, she turns off the light, and there is a direct cut to her lying in her bed at home, suggesting that her domestic life is as dull as here working one. Her bed with its grid is also similar to the beds we’ve already seen in the hospital.

Pál Adrienn
Éva Gábor as Piroska in Pál Adrienn.

A Formal Affair

Hopefully, my lengthy description of the beginning paints a picture of a film which revels in the use of sound. Since Ádám Fillenz came back after Friss Levegö as cinematographer, it goes without saying that the lensing is topnotch as well. Initially, the camera follows the protagonist through the hospital’s narrow corridors with its drab green colours. Together with the sound design, the effect is quite hypnotic, even though it depicts something dreary.

Around thirty minutes into the film, there’s a scene where Piroska enters a cinema. While taking a seat, she asks Kálmán what happened. The answer is a laconic “nothing”. That echoes the sentiment of some of the critics when the film opened, in particular the Anglo-Saxon ones. One reviewer claimed that “it’s practically impossible to buy into the premise emotionally” even though “lensing, sound and production design are topnotch.”

The film is undoubtedly, intentionally, low on story-telling, but formally it’s one of the more formidable efforts of the previous decade. Comparisons have been made with Aki Kaurismäki and even Roy Andersson. Still, I would go further and suggest that the formal splendour on display here is equal to Jacques Tati’s in Playtime (1967). One example is when Piroska pays a visit to a former schoolmate who is now quite wealthy.

The camera starts outside the flat when she rings the bell, then follows her inside as the woman talks about her affluent, indolent life, tracks backwards through a corridor that is a stark contrast to the one in the terminal ward, to end up in the vast living room. They sit down in front of some glass doors with someone walking behind it like a shadow theatre, the immensity of the space is enhanced by the sound of whistling and broken glass off-screen. Later, she will meet an interior designer in a fancy space with a spectacular view. Piroska looks around uncomfortably during the numerous interruptions, caused by the phone calls he takes.

A later scene shows Piroska sitting on the tram. At first, it just seems that we are watching her in front of us facing the camera. When the camera moves left, we understand that it is, in fact, a reflection and that she was sitting with her back to us. Once the camera finishes its movement, we see a double reflection. If one is so inclined, one could see this as an image of her journey and that looking for Adrienn will eventually end up with her seeing herself differently.

Diegetic Music gets a Full Score

Unlike the first feature, there was no music written for the film. Instead, all the music heard is diegetic, and it’s used to great effect throughout the film. Kálmán regularly listens to classical music full blast, while working on his diorama. In a sequence that runs for two minutes, the camera follows a model train through the diorama landscape to end up with Piroska sitting behind it silently following the train with her eyes.

There are other effective, and sometimes hilarious usages of music as well, whether the location is a nursery home or a karaoke club. The most beautiful use of music occurs during a child’s birthday party in a scene that defies the notion that the film would lack emotion. It’s also a setting that is very colourful. In general, the film becomes more saturated in the second half when Piroska’s world seems to open up and become livelier.

Éva Gábor in Pál Adrienn
Eva Gábor in Pál Adrienn.

It should be pointed out, that for all the cinematic brilliance that the film displays, it wouldn’t be the masterpiece that it is, without Éva Gábor in the leading role. She is virtually in every scene, and she’s consistently perfect. It was her first role ever, and she embodies Piroska in a way that makes it impossible to imagine anyone else playing the part. In a smaller role, we see Izabella Hegyi from Friss Levegö playing a rookie nurse, learning the ropes.

Favourite films are always the hardest ones to describe. Again, I feel I hardly scratched the surface of this fascinating work, and I left out several pieces of the puzzle to avoid spoilers. Hopefully, I managed to stir the curiosity of the reader enough to watch this endlessly rewarding film.

Trailer of Pál Adrienn.

The film can be watched legally on Vimeo.

“Life isn’t long enough to wait for things that may or may not happen.” Interview with Martha Stephens director of To the Stars

Talking to Martha Stephens

I saw To the Stars In November last year during the American film festival in Wrocław. The film is a coming of age story, set in Oklahoma in the sixties. Iris (Kara Hayward) is a teenage girl being constantly bullied in the small town she lives in. Suddenly, newcomer Maggie (Liana Liberato) sweeps in and provides protection, as well as friendship for Iris. It turns out that Maggie has some secrets of her own.

I liked the film a lot, and I was lucky enough to meet the director, Martha Stephens, to talk about her film. We touched on some other topics as well. Some questions refer to the Q&A, conducted after the screening the previous day.

I would like to start, talking a bit about your previous film, Land Ho! Was that film an important step for you?

Yes, maybe it was what jump-started my career in a way, and it gave me access to an agent. It premiered at Sundance, and it got picked up by Sony Pictures Classics. It did well.

 And that was your third film?

Yes, and the other two movies I made were made for like no money. So this is my first time selling a film, and it was funny after I got agents at the amount of all the old man scripts I was sent because they were like “Oh she’s gonna do old man comedies. That’s like her thing.” And I’m not really a filmmaker that specifically wants to do comedy. I like moments of levity, but I like all genres, and so it’s people tend to want to put you in some kind of box. It makes their job easier

And your job more frustrating I guess.

Yeah.

I saw that film years ago. I remember it as funny and relatively lightweight.

Yes, it was supposed to be like, what I’m really interested in doing is taking a very specific kind of movie that we’ve all seen and putting my spin on it so Land ho! was my eighties buddy comedy like John Candy, Steve Martin kind of buddy comedy but through my lens and so, To the Stars was a very classic coming of age story that we’ve seen, but through my specific lens again. 

Working with Aaron Katz

You co-wrote the script of the previous film, and you were two directors. How did that work, co-directing with Aaron Katz?

We went to film school together, and we both had made low budget, no budget movies which had as much success as you can have for movies made for nothing. So collectively, we had had five features at South by Southwest, and we were both trying to take that leap where we were getting bigger budgets, and it just wasn’t coming fast enough. So we decided to try to come together to make something more mid-range that wasn’t the budget we were looking for. More or less just a way to keep active and work and that’s Land Ho!. It came from being restless, and it was really fun. We both worked with the same cinematographer separately on our movies.

And he shot this one as well.

Yes, we all have known each other for so long. It was an easy dialogue between us. It wasn’t heated. Aaron and I were on the same page, so it was kind of weirdly effortless. 

But this is only the second time you worked with cinematographer Andrew Reed?

Yeah, well he shot my film school movies, and I tried to get him to shoot my other movies, but he was tough to get a hold of for a while. He would’ve shot all my stuff if he had not been busy.

To the Stars

You mentioned that the script, written by Shannon Bradley-Colleary was handed to you in some way. So it was more or less finished?

So concerning the script, there was no money. There was no cast attached. There was only a script, and it had been around. It’s like a fifteen-year-old script maybe older, and it had actually been at Annapurna, maybe like eight years ago. They didn’t reoption it, and it didn’t have a home and some agent that my producer was friends with sent it to her. He was like “This is a script that I really enjoy, and I think you should produce it.” And so she read it and thought of me.

 Martha Stephens To the Stars
Liana Liberato and Kara Hayward in To the Stars.

You mentioned you made some changes. Was it also in the visual style, or were those things already in the script? Like when we see the world through the glasses in the third shot and in the final shot, we see the glasses objectively.

Usually, screenwriters are told not to put in camera direction unless they are directing. However, that was the only thing we kept. The script talks about seeing kind of the world through her eyes, and that was maybe the only visual thing in the script that we went with. Otherwise, it was just really subtle things that we changed, just little tweaks and dialogue. I think Iris’s mom, Francie we worked pretty hard at making her not just a complete villain and on paper, she read just like an awful bitch. (laughing)  

Were there changes made to other characters than her in the script?.

I think all the actors brought more life to everyone, but she especially read very one-dimensional, so Shannon and I talked about it. There’s like that moment at the end of the movie where Iris hugs Francie, and that wasn’t in the script. So just giving Francie like a moment of grace, I felt was really important. Jordana, the actor that played Francie: She and I did a lot of talking about France’s motivations and really tried to figure out why she did the things she did. And I don’t think the things that we came to were necessarily things Shannon had in mind when she wrote the character.

So what does Shannon think on the film?

She loves It. We’re very close now.

You didn’t know each other in the past?

No, but now she lets me sleep on her couch when I go to L.A, and I just saw her the other week. She’s like a big sister now. 

So I was thinking about that. The characters don’t feel evil. It feels like everyone is trying their best, even Maggie’s father. They don’t have the tools to deal with the situation rather than just being evil or ignorant. 

Right. Right. I sometimes think, as a modern audience you’re quick to judge, but you really have to think about the time and the place and the morals and values and all that stuff that was pushed on people. And so I honestly do think everyone is trying in some way. I mean the younger kids, they are kids, but the parents I do think they in their own way think that they are doing what’s best for their child.

“It’s very much like a movie that feels like a movie. You know what I mean?”

Through a modern lens

Talking about through a modern lens, there are some people who commented on that the Maggie character feels quite modern. Was that intentional because that’s not necessarily a flaw. It could work as an anachronism or something.

I think I thought of it more like she comes from a bigger place. She’s more worldly. but I wasn’t trying to place, like a modern character in the past or anything. Still, I think there’s a fine balance with performance, making the characters feel somewhat naturalistic, but also it’s very much like a movie that feels like a movie. You know what I mean? It’s not purely documentary-style narrative filmmaking.

No, not at all, I would say.

No, but that’s the thing. I have made those sorts of movies in the past which feel like it’s real life. So this is a balance and the way we shot it was also a balance of those things Obviously it’s in black-and-white and a lot of our framing and lens choices reflect older films, but we use some modern tools that movies didn’t use back then to try to meld those things.

“In the US there is still this idea that you need huge actors to get people to see a film and I don’t agree with that way of thinking. I mean look at The Farewell, it’s doing very well, and half of it is in Mandarin.”

Why the film is released in colour

Talking about it being in black-and-white. I heard it’s picked up by Metro-Goldwyn, but it seems it’s going to be released in colour as far as I understand. Why is that? I guess it’s a compromise on your part.

Yes, it’s a compromise. It’s tricky with some coming of age story, you know. In the US there is still this idea that you need huge actors to get people to see a film and I don’t agree with that way of thinking. I mean look at The Farewell, it’s doing very well, and half of it is in Mandarin, but yeah I think that there’s a lot of fear with black-and-white.

It ended up being the way that the film can be released theatrically and even though I wish it were being released in black-and-white, we did do a colour version of the film, and we knew that this might happen, so we made sure that everything looked good if it was to be seen in colour. 

What does it look like in colour? There’s not even a trailer yet.  

No, not yet. We looked at old sort of department store portrait photography from the fifties, so it’s kind of peachy skin tones and things like that.

So it’s only going to be released in colour in the US ?

In theaters, and then I don’t know about the streaming. You know, when you have a movie it’s not just me. It’s a bunch of people that are involved, and it means so much for my actors to say they have a movie in theaters because it helps their career. I don’t want to stand in the way of that even if it isn’t being released the way that you hoped it would be.

But in festivals it will always be in black and white?

Yes.

The importance of festivals

The director Mark Jenkin made a film called Bait that won the New Horizons competition here in Wrocław a few months ago. He had an interesting take on distribution saying that festivals were not only a window but could he be the distribution. How do you feel about such an idea?

It’s a springboard for other distribution. With my first two movies, if I didn’t have festivals, then I wouldn’t have a career right now, because they were movies that were too rough around the edges to be released theatrically. Festivals were the only life they had, and those were my building blocks to keep going. So they are so important.

You would see it as a step toward something else. You wouldn’t see it as an end in itself? You wouldn’t be happy with only distributing in festivals?

I think that it’s important. I think having both is great, but I wouldn’t want to just do festivals just because then you’re not reaching everyone that you could. But then again, To the Stars is probably going to be released in like twenty-something screens. So it’s still not gonna reach certain smaller cities.

You mentioned yesterday that you would like conservative people in smaller cities to see it. Then it has to be shown there first.

I would like that. There’s always streaming. Everyone has access to everything now.

A golden age of television?

You talked about streaming yesterday, and you sounded a bit dismissive over the fact that in the so-called, Golden age of television, it’s difficult to get films made for the cinema. You don’t see it as an opportunity as well?

Well, it’s complicated. I didn’t mean to sound negative. I think that the marketplace for independent films is at an all-time low right now. People are not buying as many films. So then investors are not as willing to invest in them, so it’s just harder to get an indie film in there. The streaming companies are now making everything in house, so they’re not really buying. At first, they started buying stuff, but now they don’t.

 So all of them?

Oh, they’ll buy a thing here and there. But when they first came on the scene they were buying up movies, and now they’re making more movies in house, and if you want to make a movie on your own it’s just harder to make the sale at this point, and that’s all. There are opportunities because there’s so much content out there. There are more jobs for directors, but if you want to make, like your own film it’s more difficult. I’ve gone to Netflix and pitched stories to them, but they have a particular kind of thing that they’re looking to make for their viewers, and what I’m selling them is not that. So that’s all.

Costumes and Actresses

Let’s talk about the cinematic aspects of the film. I was struck by the cinematography but also the costumes. You said this was the highest budget you had so far.

Yeah, this is the highest budget we’ve had. I worked with the costume designer (Kiersten Hargroder) pretty intimately trying to figure out clothes that suited each person. The thing that you don’t always think about is that beyond the actors, the costumes are the thing that’s closest to the camera, so it’s really important you get them right. She luckily has a lot of connections and got a lot of favours pulled to bring that wardrobe over. So I really lucked out. She’s just got a great eye for this.

How long was the shooting?

We did pre-production for five weeks and then we shot the movie in twenty days.

Were there lots of rehearsals for the actresses before?

Oh no, there was no time for that.

I’m asking because when I left the screening, I was thinking about the cast. I started singling out great achievements in my mind, but then when I thought about it, I felt it was a brilliant ensemble. They meld so well together. I thought that was a result of an extended rehearsal period.

I think of it also has an ensemble. The girls in the movie, they all just spent a lot of time together. We’were all staying in the same tiny budget motel together and I think that shows on the screen that they kind of form this little group. The girl that plays Hattie, Sophie (Bairley), she’s actually Liana’s best friend and she helped us find her for that role. All these young actresses kind of know each other because they all go audition for the same things and they’re all out and away. Madisen (Beaty) that place Clarissa, she and Liana have known each other for eight years so they have a past.

Cinematic references

As always I started thinking about references. To me, the film feels like a cross between The Last Picture Show and Carnival of Souls. The latter maybe because of the pond.

That’s cool. Carnival of Souls I’ve actually never seen. I’ve been meaning to. It’s been on my list forever, but I’ve never seen it. 

That’s what I mean. We just impose things. (laughing)

The Last Picture Show, definitely. Other Bogdanovich films like Paper Moon as well. Dorothea Lang photography, Frankenstein, monster movies. We watched The Master, so that gave me a little bit. There’s even a touch of Edward Scissorhands in there, which also reflects monster films. Kind of all over the place with the influences.

The film has a kind of whimsical feel, but it’s kept in check. Also immensely helped by the score written by Heather McIntosh. It all blends together. The cinematography and the music.

Yeah, she’s a dream. She doesn’t come from a traditional film score environment. I don’t think she studied music in the same way that some composers did. She came up through indie rock in Athens, Georgia, from the indie music scene there.

She is in bands?

She played around. I mean, she plays the cello. She’s in bands, and she just has an intuition about things that you can’t teach.

There’s one thing you talked about yesterday that you made alterations to the scene where the men attack the car. At the end of that sequence, it almost felt like the last scene in The Birds or something. However, that’s a scene where you said you dialed down the melodrama because it’s still pretty dramatic compared to the rest of the film.

Yeah, I heard that before that it’s kind of a totally tonal change. Some of that has to do with the writing. I guess that’s the script.

But you were looking for that tonal change?

Yeah as I said, it’s like our Frankenstein moment. Also, that’s one of the scenes where we ran out of time, and I feel like I didn’t get everything I needed to completely construct the scene the way I wish I could have, but the sun came up so there was nothing we could do and that car kept breaking down. It was like some kind of a nightmare, that was rough. Shooting nights is hard for everyone, but I kinda like the scene. I like the flip.

There are many beautiful moments in that scene, like when Len says “I’m not good enough for you” and you see him through the broken car window. He is also trying his best. Of course, he’s not acting in the right way, but he is still trying. He is in pain, and he doesn’t know how to express that, and it comes out more violently.

He’s married to a woman that he’s not attracted to. And he’s attracted to, it’s unrequited, but he’s attracted to this hairdresser and the fact that it’s like his manhood is being challenged, and it is. It does come from embarrassment and pain. I really think that all of the actors tried to understand humanity and empathy. Noone’s a villain.

It would be easy to make the male characters villains, but I feel you didn’t. The scene feels like it comes from a different film, but it’s your Frankenstein moment, as you said.

Yes, we went there. We’re like: “We’re gonna do it!”

The pond scenes

In action films, there is often a second unit in some exotic location. Here though, in the credits, a “pond unit” is listed. Why is that? The pond is almost like a character in the film.

So the pond unit is different because we shot everything else in March, but it was too cold to film the pond. So we had to regroup and come back in June to film there. We had to film all the pond scenes in three days. It was awful. Oh, it was bad. We needed more time. When I look at all the pond scenes, I’m frustrated because I had to throw away my shot list all the time, since we ran out of time.

It still looks cool. The beginning with the clouds, then Iris in the water, and we see through her glasses as I mentioned earlier.

Thank you. Yeah, we hustled. But I think we put pond unit because a lot of different people couldn’t come back, so we had a different crew.

The upcoming project

I was really impressed by the film and you took a big cinematic leap from Land Ho!

Thank you, it’s amazing what more money can do. That’s the frustrating thing when you’re an independent filmmaker, and especially when you’re trying to make bigger budget movies like I am right now, they’re like “well, what can she do? Can she handle a fifteen million dollar movie” and I’m like,” did you see what I did with that movie? I made it look twice its budget. So just imagine what I can do with more money,” So that’s the thing. It’s the same with Andy, my cinematographer. The more money he has, the better. It equals more time, better equipment and he can do interesting stuff. I mean he’s a very talented guy.

So there is a new project in the works?

Nothing that has money yet. I have a script I wrote that I’m trying to make. It’s a car movie, so it has a lot of practical car stunts. It’s kind of like a throwback to the old Hal Needham seventies car movies and mixed with seventies sports movies like Slapshot and The Bad News Bears. It’s really a fun project, but those practical car stunts are expensive.

Well, in a way, you practised a little bit with car stunts in this film.

Maybe, but not quite as much as I would like to, but that’s the baby. That’s what I really want to do, but I’m attached to a couple of other things that I didn’t write.

That you would want to do anyway?.

Yeah, it’s an interesting dance.

Many directors have said that one doesn’t make the films one wants to direct, one makes the films one can direct.  

Who said that?

Well, Alain Resnais for example, and many others as well.

That makes sense. Life isn’t long enough to wait for things that may or may not happen. Sometimes you have to take something, knowing that it will hopefully help you get the thing you really want to make.