Creating the Perfect Co-Directing Relationship in Cerebral Thriller 'Claire in Motion'
Good collaboration is integral to good filmmaking, but it’s not always easy finding collaborators — not to mention co-directing a movie with one.
Lisa Robinson and Annie J. Howell have perfected the process in their sophomore feature Claire in Motion, which just premiered at SXSW. The team have crafted a transfixing, thoughtful thriller; their deft maneuvering around the intimate performance of Betsy Brandt keeps you glued to the screen.
No Film School sat down with Robinson and Howell at the festival to talk about establishing a creative partnership, the film's visual strategy, and the merits of "less dialogue, more space."
NFS: Claire in Motion is your second feature together as co-directors. Clearly the two of you found out something that works. How did you get to this point?
Annie J. Howell: We started because we were not only good friends, but really liked a lot of the same films. Of course, there are differences in our tastes, but there were a few key elements that we really valued. One was just a strong cinematic sense. Two, we were interested in some of the same themes about life. We like movies that leave space for the audience and really engage your entire brain, and in addition to a strong emotional experience.
Lisa Robinson: We enjoyed coming up with these stories together from the beginning. It was really fun to play with contributions that we both brought to it and use them to bounce off of each other. We played tag team with the script, throwing ideas back and forth between us, expanding them and provoking each other to think further about something. I think that is very fruitful. We talked about films that we've seen, that we're excited about, and found a common language. We found — I don't want to say conflict, because that's negative, but, interesting —
"We like movies that leave space for the audience and really engage your entire brain."
NFS: When it comes to production, how do those intersections work out? What is the process on set for you as a team?
Annie: Each project has been a little bit different. It doesn't have a lot of rules and we don't try to pick it apart too much. We just try to let it kind of solve problems in a way that makes sense for them in particular. Not only solve problems, but face interesting challenges as well.
Lisa: Yeah, and we confer a lot on set. We are checking in with each other all the time. Sometimes that takes a little bit longer, but you know, that's how it goes.
Annie: We can slow down the set a little bit, but it's usually worth it.
NFS: As filmmakers, we're always hoping to find the right collaborators, and it's hard to tell who's right. How did you know?
Annie: When we were in school, most people were looking for director-DP relationships to go the distance. I didn't know of many people that were looking for writer-director connections. Because there was no pressure to do it, it happened much more naturally after film school. And we were both in a place where we really wanted to make something, and we had an idea that was really fun for us. It was born less out of the pressure of finding the exact right person and more from just the desire to make something after several conversations about movies over a couple of years, from just being friends, then it was like, "I have to make something, I'm going crazy. Why don't we try to do something?"
Lisa: We made web series together originally. Those were a couple minutes each. Having that experience of making shorter pieces together was a really great way to explore a creative partnership. We both also have continued to make work separately occasionally. But I think that's okay; the way we talk about it is like we are a band. Sometimes we play together, sometimes we play solo and that's okay. That's possible. It doesn't have to be either/or.
Annie: It's much better when there's less pressure. We are just able to grow and also stay solid.
"[Betsy Brandt] had...a deeper understanding. We didn't really pick that apart; we allowed her to have that, and if she needed us, we were there."
NFS: How did you guys work with your actress on this? Betsy Brandt gives a phenomenal performance; the whole film is this intimate observation of her character.
Annie: We worked with this amazing casting agent, Emer O'Callaghan, who helped us with the casting process. We both knew Betsy's work and we were so excited about her. Once she was on board, she was so amazing to work with because she brought so much with her in terms of connection to the character. She just got the character right away and had so much compassion and a deeper understanding. We didn't really pick that apart; we allowed her to have that, and if she needed us, we were there. She was so trusting with us and gave us everything she had, and then we would ask for more or other things, just to explore the situation a little bit. The fact that she would be willing to be that open made me feel so lucky to be working with her. She was so generous, as an actor.
NFS: So much of the film is getting you in the head of your main character. What was your visual strategy, and how did you accomplish it?
Lisa: We had these amazing people working with us, including [our cinematographer] Andreas Burgess, who has won Emmys for his TV work. We were really excited to be working with him and we talked a lot about a subjective camera getting really close to her, being in her mind space with the camera. Depending on where she is in her character arc, the cameras can go out of focus because at times the world can seem out of focus. On set, we were like, "Okay where is she in the scene? How are we going to cover this? Do we need the son if he's coming in and asking her to go on a play date or an overnight sleepover? Do we need her to see him in focus because she's so lost in her own world?" That was one scene where [the son] comes in and out but he's never fully in focus, and you really get this feeling, like, you're with her, you're with her and her troubled mind. And the blues and the greens are something we talked about with our production designer [Emmeline Wilks-Dupoise].
Annie: It was fun to design a more non-classical approach to covering a scene. We had spent some time looking at films that didn't cover things traditionally. Sometimes to get safety [in editing], we covered something additionally in a way we could cut it a little more traditionally. But we would utilize slightly more unusual strategies with supporting characters, just to emphasize that we're really with her. Our DP wanted to use these lenses that gave the film sort of a '60s muted look; we just thought that was a great idea right away.
Lisa: We used the Scarlet Red, clear Cooke lenses. We looked at some paintings that were blues and greens for the look. There is a dreamy quality that we're looking for in that palette. Just a feeling like, it was real but maybe not. A bit muted. Going towards a dreamier feel, things are a little bit off.
Annie: And then in terms of filmmakers, we looked at Lynne Ramsay. We've always been inspired by Jane Campion; she's somebody who really pushes coverage and subjective experience. Someone will be shot from the very edge of the frame and it doesn't really feel odd, but it just feels different.
NFS: It's so interesting how much the subjective thing is important in this because so much of the movie is asking, "Do you really ever know someone else?" Can you guys elaborate on choosing that subjective power in film to explore this?
Lisa: I think a lot of films are very objective. For our story, we wanted the viewer to feel really close to Claire and feel like, instead of watching her go through this experience from a distance, that they're kind in there with her and they're experiencing a bit of her confusion and disorientation and unraveling.
"We are trying to take an internal shift in a character and put it on the film so you can see it. Cinematography can help pull the viewer into that experience without having to talk about it so much."
The part of the story we were really excited about — of course, there's the missing persons thriller — but we're really interested in the fact that this woman feels like she knows what her life is at the beginning of the film. She's coasting a bit, maybe a little bit distracted, not really paying attention to the world around her as much as she should be, and when that gets offended, it upsets her, in good and bad ways. We are trying to take an internal shift in a character and put it on the film so you can see it. We thought about how cinematography could help us do that. It can help pull the viewer into that experience without having to talk about it so much. We're big fans of less dialogue, as you can tell.
Annie: That was challenging. And it's always challenging to go from the page to the screen because the page always needs more and the screen just needs less. Betsy's performance was so strong that there were often moments in the editing room where it's all on her face; we don't need it explained.
NFS: Given this was your sophomore effort, was it hard to get it off the ground?
Annie: It was like moving a mountain, you know? It's so hard. You have to really, really want to do it and there are a lot of forces working against you. But we were really lucky, too, about where we chose to shoot. The couple of years that we thought about that location, I was living there and just drove around the town, so there was a sort of slow burn location scout. And then the resources were also helpful because of living there, in a film-friendly town. Those things were a good fit and you go for where the good fit is, and you build on whatever momentum you have, and just go for it.
"You have to try to divorce yourself from "this is a good film, this is a bad film...." Instead, shift the paradigm to: I'm interested in this, therefore I am going to pursue it.
Lisa: We were writing the script thinking, "Okay, what appeals to us, and what can we actually make?" But it was a very challenging film to make. We had to cast a kid in our film. It was amazing that that worked out. Getting an actor like Betsy to play the role was a huge challenge. So once we overcame those we were able to feel confident that we had amazing people to work on this film. Together, we get pretty fierce about getting the movement going on the film. Because, as the momentum rises, things start to come together. I think that there is a lot of faith that we have developed from our past projects; we kind of know that the finish line will be met, even though we don't have all of the pieces yet. Whether it's financing or other resources that we need.
NFS: When confronted with disagreements, what's your advice for collaborators to find a solution?
Annie: Talking in person is good, and also relying on the foundation of a longer relationship. For me, I feel we're making films, but we're friends, and that's really important. I try to keep those two things in my head for them to fuel each other.
NFS: What would be your general advice for filmmakers starting out in their careers?
Lisa: My advice is to get really clear about what you're interested in, in film. I think that's really helpful. Don't try to make films that please some audience, or please some person. Just be clear on what you are interested in or what you like in other films, and then really focus on that in a specific way and a personal way. Make your work as unique as possible to you and to make sure you love it as much as possible. I really think that that kind of passion and connection translates to other people finding it interesting, because it comes from something that's like a window into somebody's else's world.
And I think that you have to try to divorce yourself from the paradigm of "this is a good film or a bad film." I can only make a film if it's a good film and instead shift the paradigm to: I'm interested in this, therefore I am going to pursue it. Because then it's outside of the realm of other people judging it, and just inside of the realm of what is challenging and satisfying.
No Film School's coverage of the 2016 SXSW Film Festival is sponsored by SongFreedom.