'My Days of Mercy': How a 'Dream Call' from Ellen Page and Kate Mara Led to TIFF's Breakout Indie Feature
For Israeli director Tali Shalom-Ezer, a Sundance debut truly was her calling card.
Israeli Director Tali Shalom-Ezer’s feature Princess made waves at Sundance 2015 for its borderline taboo portrayal of budding young sexuality and adult behavior that many would consider inappropriate if not illegal. Words like “nauseating” and “disturbing” were used in reviews of the film, but Shalom-Ezer was also universally praised for her direction of the uncomfortable story.
It was this intimate directing style and portrayal of raw humanity that presumably led to the phone call that Shalom-Ezer received—one that all burgeoning directors hope for but few expect. Veritable modern indie royalty, actors Ellen Page and Kate Mara, backed by Christine Vachon and Killer Films, rang the director up and asked her to helm their next project, My Days of Mercy.
"They offered me to do this movie, and I couldn't believe that this was happening."
The project was a leap for Shalom-Ezer, from Hebrew-language films produced in her home country and cast with relative unknowns, to an American-made, English-language film featuring big stars, but the results are breathtaking. In the film, Page plays Lucy opposite Mara’s Mercy. Lucy is an anti-death-row activist, who meets Mercy at an execution that Mercy supports. Despite being on opposite sides of a hotly contested political issue, Lucy and Mercy begin a passionate relationship, which becomes more and more complicated as personal details unfold; we learn that Lucy’s own father is on death row, accused of killing her mother when Lucy was a young teen.
The film, punctuated with still shots of the last meal requests of death row inmates, unfolds slowly but builds to a gut-wrenching crescendo that manifests heartbreak in all its forms: between lovers, between family, between people and their desperately long-held beliefs. No Film School spoke with Shalom-Ezer before the film’s TIFF premiere, about getting that “dream call,” building sets as a “texture” for foreground closeups, directing intimate sex scenes, and more.
NFS: I think our readers find your story in particular pretty inspiring, especially because you've transitioned from Hebrew features with relative unknown actors to this English feature with big names. How did it happen?
Shalom-Ezer: This time in my life is kind of like a dream, to be honest, because, until now, I wrote and directed all the films that I did, and this is the first time that I didn't write the script. A few months after I premiered my previous movie Princess at Sundance, Ellen [Page] and Kate [Mara] actually approached me. They're the leads, but they're also producers on this picture.
They offered me to do this movie, and I couldn't believe that this was happening, because first I got the script from my agent, and I felt such a strong connection to the story and such a strong connection to the character, to Lucy, especially. There are many similarities in our lives. I felt very strongly about that, and then I had a meeting with Ellen and Kate, and again, we felt a strong connection, the three of us.
A few minutes later, they sent me an official email offering me the job and telling me, "Please, we want you to direct the movie." It was really, very, very special.
NFS: How did they approach you? They just found you from Princess and they reached out?
Shalom-Ezer: Yeah, exactly, because they watched Princess. It is a dream, especially to me, because my previous movies are a little bit darker. My Days of Mercy is very dark and very, very painful, but there's something about the love story here, it's just so beautiful, in my opinion, and so to me, it was like a true gift.
NFS: It's interesting that you were so attracted to this script, because to me, it felt like a very American story. What was it that interested you?
Shalom-Ezer: To me, My Days of Mercy is not an issue-driven movie. Of course, this is the setup. This family, their father is on death row, and they don't know exactly what the father has done to be executed, and this is their life; they live in a limbo because you never know when it's going to happen.
My connection to the story is more psychological. I felt this strong connection to Lucy because I feel that there's something about her that she has a lot of intuitions, and she has her own truth. This is something that I relate to.
I remember when I first read the script, I felt like "Wow, this relationship between Lucy and Mercy, it really reminds me of my own relationship when I met my partner, actually." The feeling of "Wow, I just found home." Lucy found someone that really speaks to her, someone who really encouraged her to find her own truth. It feels so familiar to me in my own relationship. When I met my partner, she asked me to express truths and things I wasn't able to before I met her, so that was very strong for me.
NFS: How did you research middle America to understand the feeling of that part of the country?
Shalom-Ezer: Obviously we spent a few months there for the shoot, and so I had some time to get to know the area. I watched documentaries, read a lot of articles. One of the associate producers on the picture, Talia, she's also Israeli, and she helped us a lot with that. Not only me, like me and the D.P., who is Polish, and also the other people in the crew, we had a lot of questions and she prepared information for us about the death penalty and a lot more.
The subject is really, really interesting for me, again, more from a psychological aspect. What's interesting for me is to see how see how different people have different needs and different approaches to things. For instance, if someone hurts you, some people really need revenge. So for the pro-death penalty people, it's like a closure when they see the other person dead. So this is really interesting for me to understand why some people are like that. Why are some people like that and the others are the opposite?
“We used Cooke lenses because we tried to create a nostalgic look for the movie.”
NFS: Moving on to the more technical aspects, what did you shoot with?
Shalom-Ezer: For the camera, Alexa. We used Cooke lenses because we tried to create a nostalgic look for the movie. When I was reading it, I felt like Lucy and her family are stuck in the past. Their life is frozen because something happened when Lucy was still a kid, and since it happened, when she found her mother's body...something just stopped, her life stopped, it was frozen. Always when I envisioned this movie, it had a nostalgic look to it, like it takes place in the past.
So Radek [Ladczuk], the D.P., and I, we looked a lot at the Kodachrome pictures, from the seventies. We really liked the colors and this kind of look. That was inspiration for us.
NFS: I also noticed it was shot very intimately, without too many big, wide shots or big sets, but we still get this very specific sense of place. I was wondering how you accomplished that.
Shalom-Ezer: Thank you. That's a compliment for me. The most important thing for me is to be as close as possible to the character. This is obviously a character-driven movie and Lucy is the main character, so the camera is very close to her because I want to feel her emotion, I want to go through this journey with her. So that was always the priority: the character's emotion, the character's state of mind.
“In the foreground is always the close-up of our character, and then we built a texture.”
As far as the background, I was lucky enough to work with Maya Sigel, who was the production designer, talked a lot with Radek, obviously, and Amela Baksic, the costume designer. We talked a lot about the set-up, exactly how the house looks and how these camps look and what exactly are the surroundings.
We tried to build kind of a texture with the background. In the foreground is always the close-up of our character, and then we built a texture [behind them].
NFS: I also noticed many shots that were composed like paintings, like the last meal shots and other still establishing shots that give the audience a moment to breathe. How did you develop those moments?
Shalom-Ezer: Again, my desire was to express the feeling of frozen life, something is stuck. We looked at still photography too, so that was inspiration for us to try to create this feeling. For instance, we have an image of a pinwheel. It's a metaphor: it is spinning, the time is passing, but nothing is changing. That was our purpose, to give this feeling of still life.
Also, in their house, you see that they haven't changed anything since their mother died. In the parents' room, you can still see the stuff of the mother's: the sewing machine, all her perfumes and the small things. They didn't touch it. It's kind of like a holy place for them. That's why you see that everything is very old and kind of broken.
NFS: Turning to directing, I thought that the first kiss between Mercy and Lucy was one of the most tender that I've seen in a long time. I was wondering how you directed that particular scene, and was there something different between how you directed that and the more aggressive sexual scenes?
Shalom-Ezer: Absolutely. The sex or the intimacy is a major part of their relationship and the dynamic between them, so every intimate scene, we spoke a lot about what is the emotional center of this scene, what we're trying to achieve.
The first kiss, which was more a comforting kiss, it wasn't sexual at all. It was more like a very intimate moment when Mercy supports [Lucy] and hugs her. It was more about the embrace and about being close to someone, but it was less about the sexual aspect of their relationship.
Their first sex was really more aggressive because I think there's something in Lucy, in her character that is full of rage. There's a lot of anger inside of her, and I think that she's been waiting for some time for this sex with Mercy, it took a while until it happened. That's the way that I envisioned it.
The beginning is more tender, and then there's some aggression that wants to be expressed through sex and through physical interaction. Then the sex becomes more emotional, in my opinion. The scene when they're first in Lucy's room, it's much more emotional and more gentle than the sex scene at the R.V. Every intimate scene is different.
"As I see it, a sex scene is a choreography."
NFS: How do you as director handle those differences?
Shalom-Ezer: As I see it, a sex scene is a choreography. I just have, in my mind, some positions. I tell them how I see it, what are exactly the positions that I had in mind, and then they just bring it to life, and then it becomes real.
I think the fact that Ellen and Kate are such close friends, that also helps. We really succeeded to build this safe environment. Also with Radek, the DP, we spent some time together before the shoot at Ellen's place, for rehearsals and the intimate scenes were part of their rehearsals. We talked about it and so then we felt quite comfortable when we got to the sex.
NFS: I would love to hear your advice about moving up in the scale of your filmmaking, like where you transitioned from one scale of very independent to the next level of “big independent.” What did you learn along the way?
Shalom-Ezer: To me, always the most important thing is to choose the right story to tell, so then it doesn't really matter if it's a small independent movie or the biggest movie with a huge budget. It's always about story. As a filmmaker, I think it's really important to have your own personal approach to the story, and find a story where you're the only who can tell it. So then the transition is not so hard because you just follow your story.
Meeting American actors, it was beautiful and amazing for me to see how in the States, it's a different way of filmmaking. I feel that, in a way, in Israel, it's a bit more free. And here there are more rules and there are certain ways to do things, but that wasn't important because what was important is that I was so inspired by the story and I wanted to tell this story, and I could really give my heart to this story, and to create the right environment for the actors to act and to find the right collaborators to make the movie with.
Also, to me, it always comes from love. It's really important for me to really love the story and the actors. I really love the actors that I work with, and then I think it's something that you can see on screen. When I choose them, all the cast, I'm really interested and curious about them and I really want to learn how to know them better, and that's what I'm trying to create: compassion, in my movies, for my characters. This is my way.