Lyrical Brutality in Rural America: Behind the Scenes of Kimberly Levin's 'Runoff'
If you've read about small peptide chains known as hydroxy-methyl-phytochelatins in your chemistry book, odds are, you are familiar with Kimberly Levin's scientific research. But while working as a field biochemist in Kentucky, Levin didn't come up with a scientific discovery, but rather, the idea for a feature film set on a working farm.
From the effects a science background has on filmmaking to using Balthar lenses in a sea of chicken feces, Kimberly Levin sat down with No Film School to talk about the lyrical brutality of her first feature Runoff, which Variety called "Riveting... inexorably powerful... impressive."
NFS: I know your background is in biochemistry. As filmmakers, we’re generally so obsessed with human nature. But Runoff feels like it’s putting human nature within the larger framework of the natural order. Is that off base?
KL: You’re definitely tapping into what’s at the very core of Runoff -- the interconnectedness of things. Maybe it’s the scientist in me, but I definitely look at human behavior in the context of a much larger system. Where one thing, or part of that system, stops and another begins is very fluid for me.
I think the creative instinct one has as an artist is the same impulse that sets a person onto the path of scientific discovery to see what is unseen, to uncover the hidden connections between things. I wanted to explore these ideas through a character study, anchoring the concepts to story, the way the light falls through the frame, the way sound can drop you into an experience.
I think the creative instinct one has as an artist is the same impulse that sets a person onto the path of scientific discovery to see what is unseen, to uncover the hidden connections between things.
NFS: Having trained as a biochemist, do you think it’s useful for filmmakers to have a background in an area other than filmmaking?
KL: Science is definitely one of the frames I view the world through. I think it’s important to have many diverse reference points, whether it's other films, paintings, or double-blind, placebo-controlled scientific studies.
In terms of how the film is shot and edited, I thought a lot about how people experience reading a book and how different that can be from watching a film, which is unfolding in real time. When you’re reading, your mind can wander to something your mother said to you when you were fifteen or an argument you had with your lover the other day. I wanted to create this kind of space by leaving things unspoken between characters, and by creating meditative breaks with scenes from the natural world, so that the experience of the film is a composite of what’s happening onscreen and each viewer’s own personal narrative.
NFS: Runoff is a story that ruminates over the idea "the beauty of the land cannot mask the brutality of a farm town." What strategies were you playing with in order to convey this brutality in the film, and why?
KL: I wanted to find ways to create tension with not only plot, but also character details, visual motifs, sound, and shots that linger. In the opening moments of the film, you hear the sound of cicadas. Their chorus is underscored by the distant hum of an airplane as the shouts of children echo through a cornfield. A crop-duster roars overhead as the children’s footsteps chase the mist it trails behind; a rainbow forms in the sunlight above. In our gut we sense it belies something sinister.
Another scene opens with this teenager, Finley, sitting on the side of a road sketching a dead raccoon. He lifts his head from his drawing as a truck passes by revealing a black eye. How he got the black eye is not clarified through exposition. It’s not explained at all in fact, but asks the audience to go a little deeper. When I was working with composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, this was the guiding principle for the score -- to create another layer of complexity, not to lead the audience narratively or emotionally but to invoke a sense that something might be going on just beneath the surface.
I think it’s important to have many diverse reference points whether it's other films, paintings, or double-blind, placebo-controlled scientific studies.
NFS: How big of a role does the setting of a working farm play in this film?
KL: Both the setting and the time of year are integral to Runoff. The story unfolds against the dramatic shift from the verdant green of late summer through the fiery red and burnt umbers of fall, to the withered, almost decimated landscape after the harvest leading into the first biting frost of winter. The climax of the film happens during a Halloween carnival exploring the motifs of harvest and death. The bounty of the land and the sustenance it provides also signals loss and transition. It is no coincidence that the figure we most associated with death, the grim reaper, is also a symbol of harvest.
There’s no fresh air and the space is lit by these fluorescent practicals and a shaft of sunlight that is coming through a crack in one of the doors. There was a fine dust that created this incredible gauzy light, albeit the effect of a cloud of finely pulverized particles of feed and feces.
NFS: What was production like shooting on a working farm?
KL: The scenes in the working-farm environments were shot hand-held, in part to reflect the frenetic nature of these spaces and in part out of necessity. In all of these scenes the real work of the farm was happening while we were filming. The farm workers were going about their routines, crossing in and out of frame, just doing their job. There was a lot of chaos. These are totally unpredictable environments full of animals exercising their own will. Actors are trained to hit their marks and reset for the next take, but the animals – not so much.
One of the farm sequences was shot in a barn packed with thousands of turkeys, pecking and clawing at the camera and audio cables. The windows were boarded, so there’s no fresh air and the space is lit by these fluorescent practicals and a shaft of sunlight that is coming through a crack in one of the doors. There was a fine dust that created this incredible gauzy light, albeit the effect of a cloud of finely pulverized particles of feed and feces. There was a lot of confusion -- actors were going up on their lines, we were having trouble keeping track of the 180 line. The fumes were overpowering and at a certain point, we realized that the ammonia was really affecting us.
NFS: What complications came up from putting actors into scenes with live farm animals?
KL: The scenes in the dairy parlor were filmed while hundreds of cows were being milked on camera. When you bring the cows into that space, they have a Pavlovian response and have to be milked. It wasn’t practical to reset every time they finished milking one group and another was brought in. We just had to play through the scene regardless of what was going on around us.
Joanne Kelly who plays Betty was fearless. She had to get right up under the belly of this nearly one-ton animal and examine its udders. In the take that’s in the film, this massive Holstein cow becomes irritated and starts kicking the flimsy metal grate that is separating the two of them and Joanne is totally unflinching, playing through it as though she’s done it a million times. The idea was to embrace the chaos and let it inform the scenes with urgency and authenticity to create a vérité feel.
When you’re reading, your mind can wander to something your mother said to you when you were fifteen or an argument you had with your lover the other day. I wanted to create this kind of space -- by leaving things unspoken between characters, and by creating meditative breaks with scenes from the natural world...
NFS: What did you shoot on to achieve the look of Runoff and what was your inspiration?
KL: I usually start with a painting to use as a concrete reference point. For Runoff I started with Gaugin’s “The Siesta.” It’s a pastoral image of women reclining on a veranda and Gaugin uses these lush pinks, purples, blues, yellows and oranges to express the scene. I took the painting into Photoshop, de-saturated it and gave it to the team.
To enhance this design concept we used vintage Balthar lenses with the Arri Alexa. All of the lenses had a really unique fingerprint -- some of them created intense optical vignetting and others created chromatic aberrations.
My intention was to create the sense of a place that was once vibrant and self-sustaining that is now fading. The world that Betty and Frank are trying to hold onto is already gone. So the concept was to create a nostalgia for the present moment, a sense of longing for something you can already feel slipping away.
For Runoff, I started with Gaugin’s The Siesta...To enhance this design concept, we used vintage Balthar lenses with the Arri Alexa. All of the lenses had a really unique fingerprint -- some of them created intense optical vignetting and others created chromatic aberrations.
NFS: What was the most difficult challenge you faced making this film, and how did you overcome it?
KL: One of the biggest production challenges was gaining access to farming operations that would give a sense of scale that would portray industrial agriculture. We knew we weren’t going to get into a massive Tyson or Perdue plant, but this was a piece we had to get right in order to make the movie work. Most farmers didn’t want camera crews coming. They don’t know if you’re making a documentary for PETA or what your intentions are. We got a lot of no's before we could even start a conversation.
But a few were curious, so I asked them to read the script. Many of them identified with Betty and Frank and shared similar stories. The time that we spent with these farmers enabled us to build a relationship and trust. It was also an opportunity for me to deepen the script with details that were extremely specific.
KL: If this is what you really want to do, you’re going to question the sanity of your path. A lot. And rest assured, your Uncle Lester will ask you at every holiday, “Why don’t you cut the shit and get your realtor’s license?” So turn up your inner stereo. It’s cold out there, Major Tom. Take your protein pills and put your helmet on.
Thank you, Kimberly!
Runoff is now available on streaming platforms including iTunes, Amazon and Vimeo and will be released on Netflix later this month. For news, theatrical screenings and all the ways to see the film, check out the Runoff Official Site, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.