Andy Goddard's noir-thriller with Patrick Wilson and Jessica Biel follows Hitchcock's path; it's the latest cinematic adaptation of a Highsmith novel.
There have been upwards of two dozen film adaptations of Patricia Highsmith's novels. The best known include Liliana Cavani's Ripley's Game, Todd Haynes' Carol, and Strangers on a Train, an adaptation of Highsmith's first novel, by Alfred Hitchcock himself. Films born out of her work are known for their rich texture and noir intrigue. "Highsmith Country" is a land where no one can be trusted, and all the women are beautiful.
The latest filmmaker to tackle a Highsmith novel is Andy Goddard. Goddard's film A Kind of Murder is an adaptation of The Blunderer, about a man who, in the process of falling out with his wife, becomes obsessed with a spousal murder case in the news. Patrick Wilson plays this man obsessed, against a neurotic and ailing Jessica Biel. The film is set in 1960s New York, with a nod to the period-piece fanbase in the casting of Vincent Kartheiser (Mad Men), in the role of a moderately deranged detective.
"I was really interested in this idea of "technicolor noir"—exploring a story with noirish brushstrokes, but on this canvas of post-war late 1960s Doris Day-Mad Men-era kind of color."
No Film School sat down with Goddard to speak to him about making a noir film in color, the challenges of period pieces, and the concept of entrapment within A Kind of Murder.
NFS: I noticed a lot of references to older noirs in the film, including The Maltese Falcon and The Third Man. Can you talk about some of those homages specifically?
Andy Goddard: When I read the script, this world of noir leapt out at me. It's a world I adore. I love the novels of James M Cain, and Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler. I grew up reading that sort of literature and I absolutely love the movies too. I was really interested in this idea of "technicolor noir"—exploring a story with noirish brushstrokes, but on this canvas of post-war late 1960s Doris Day-Mad Men-era kind of color. And the combination of that kind of wardrobe and what we could do with the color palette interested me greatly.
It's a very Patricia Highsmith idea, presenting a world that appears to be beautiful. If you think of movies that are set in "Highsmith Country," you think of The Talented Mr. Ripley, or The Two Faces of January, or even Strangers On A Train, it's a world populated by beautiful people, in beautiful clothes, in the context of a beautiful world, yet you scratch the surface and there are clearly something dark. I thought it would be interesting to present this world to be as beautiful and dramatic as we could, and we also drew on many references like Edward Hopper. I suppose I wanted to move away from the obvious noir references, but it's hard to avoid them.
"I actually shot a black and white movie before this, so it was a major thing for me, exploring the use of color. "
NFS: To follow up on what you said about the color palette, I noticed specifically a use of some very dramatic reds. Can you speak to how you used the colors to tell the story?
Goddard: One of the key things I did was I encouraged a very close relationship between our costume designer, Sarah Mae Burton, our production designer, Pete Zumba, and our cinematographer Chris Seager, and all of us, we'd very much trade notes. We remained close across each department, so if there was for example, a coat or a dress Jessica Biel's character was wearing, we might have a counter flash point of color that could balance or contrast, and say something about that scene.
We were very prescriptive about this idea that Patrick Wilson's character crosses a threshold into different world. He comes from a very affluent suburban lifestyle with his wife Clara, with very sunny, opulent colors. Then he crosses over into a more darkly seductive, erotic, bohemian jazz world represented by Hayley Bennett's character and then he crosses over again into this kind of murky world of Eddie Marsan's character. This character who lives in a bookshop, and he may or may not have killed his wife. The world of Eddie Marsan's character was very much olive green, diluted nicotine yellow, with a kind of brownish hue, and it felt a little more scuzzy and grungy. And it's a contrast to where Patrick Wilson's character has come from.
Goddard: I think the world of 1960s New York, a period where people were very aspirational, it really lends itself to those themes of cross division. Color was absolutely key to this film. I actually shot a black and white movie before this, so it was a major thing for me, exploring the use of color. One of the warm things for me, is that people often comment on the look of the movie. And I think that's a complement to the work of Sarah, Pete, and Chris. Their work really stands out and I feel the collaboration we had clearly worked.
NFS: Can you speak to some of the challenges of making a period piece about New York?
Goddard: Well, we shot it in Cincinnati, so it was kind of a magician's sleight-of-hand trick—in the sense that Cincinnati is meant to be New York. Cincinnati has some beautiful architectural locations. There are a lot of mid-century modern houses, one of which we used for the Stackhouse home.
"It was kind of a magician's sleight of hand trick"
The challenges very much pivot around the resources that you're working with. Using your budget wisely, choosing which scenes you really want to show more, and which scenes you can kind of imply.
NFS: What do you mean by that?
Goddard: Well it's the idea that you can sometimes infer the world without actually seeing it. Often when you're working within a smaller movie like this, with a small budget, you can do very careful window dressing to imply other things without seeing it. I looked back at the movies that were being shot around the time this movie is set, B-movies that were being shot very creatively.
We fell back on these sort of vaudeville theatrical devices to tell our story—to me it's all balancing on whether your writing is strong enough, your actors are strong enough. You don't always need a lot of bells and whistles. And again, a lot of it goes to Pete Zumba our production designer. He and I would agree, "okay we're in a hospital, but you don't have to see the whole hospital, you only see the bed." You're in a café in downtown Greenwich village, you can kind of suggest that without seeing everything.
NFS: I'd like to turn the conversation to the way that it was shot. I'd love to know how you explored this idea of a technicolor noir in the way that you shot and lit the film?
Goddard: Because we had a finite number of days in which to shoot it, and a limited budget, myself and the director of photography had talked a lot about how to be as economical as we could with the camera, and really it came down to two things. You're obviously limited by the time constraints that you have. And equally, I was working closely with the actors, and I wanted to give them some freedom within the frame.
In looking back at a lot of these old movies, they are very simply shot. And that got me thinking that maybe we could create really beautifully composed frames and just let the actors do their thing in the frame, and maybe we didn't have to be slavish about coverage. It felt like the right approach. I was aware, as we were developing this, that we were building a look that we deemed reflective of a late 1960s movie. It didn't make sense to shoot it in an MTV kind of way.
"The idea is to shoot fewer frames, but put all our energy into the frames that we do make. And make them as story-centric yet as beautiful as possible."
It's a style I learned through [directing] Downton Abbey, and I've learned that when you have fantastic actors, and fantastic costumes and production design, you don't need a lot of camera angles to tell your story. And I thought, well if that's the case, then we want to be true to that in the color palette and the designs. It's all there. Someone once commented that it was shot like paintings, which I think is a wonderful complement.
The idea is to shoot fewer frames, but put all our energy into the frames that we do make. And make them as story-centric yet as beautiful as possible. I find it's a more actor friendly way of doing things. But it's also driven by the reality of making a small movie like this.
NFS: Speaking of the actors, I got the sense that one of the points you were trying to make is that everyone has a certain badness in them, or everyone is capable of it.
Goddard: Yeah, you're absolutely right. I think that we all have the capacity for it, and I think some of us cross over that line and others don't. Most of us don't. Some of us think about it, and others physically act on it. And what is it about that thin line between thinking about it and actually acting on it? For some people it's a passion, for others it's that one singular event that nudges them over the line, and others still it's kind of a slow burn.
"When I just meet an actor, I tend to hold back a little bit, maybe hold my poker hand."
NFS: How did you explore that when you worked with the actors?
Goddard: When I just meet an actor, I tend to hold back a little bit, maybe hold my poker hand, because I don't want to influence them too much. Oftentimes their take on it is a lot better than mine, or they will picture it in a way that's a lot more clear than my rambling. Once we strike up that relationship and that trust, and start swapping ideas, I tend to empty the contents of my head and tell them all my ideas, all my references, and it becomes a combination of talking about literature and movies but then equally we talk about more personal stuff. And it all kind of builds.
For instance, Jessica and I were very keen to build a backstory for her character. The original Patricia Highsmith book, called The Blunderer, doesn't give away too many clues, but I was just fascinated by this character. Why does a woman like that behave in such a particular way? She can't just come into the room like that, there's been a series of events or some sort of catalyst event that has made her behave like this. And we would guess what that could be, and Jessica was drawing on some personal things and we would work it out together.
Goddard: I just enjoy that kind of dialogue. And we talked about badness within people, goodness within people, of guilt, doubt and deception. And one of the things that was recurring was the idea of entrapment. All the characters, almost without exception, are trapped. Whether they're trapped by marriage, by their position in society, by ambition or shortsightedness, or trapped by themselves and their neuroses. This idea of wanting to be free of that entrapment, and the ways in which people try to break out of that trap were very interesting to me. And I think the journey that Patrick and Eddie's characters go on is very much part of that idea of wishing yourself to be free.
NFS: Did you explore that with the visuals as well?
Goddard: Yeah, always. In this film, Patrick Wilson's character is an architect. In the novel he was a lawyer, and the writer changed it to an architect, which was for the better. We were always looking for ways to frame him within the context of his surroundings. We talked about mixing up the use of lenses as his journey progresses and he becomes more and more trapped, and staying more and more claustrophobic with the frame. You'll see in the Stackhouse home, there's a scene with Jessica and Patrick, where there's literally this divided wall between them. There's also a wonderful little spiral staircase in the Stackhouse home that looks like a spider's web, so yeah we were always trying to use things like that.
NFS: I'm interested to know what your collaboration was like with the writer.
Goddard: The screenwriter, Susan Boyd, has worked extensively in publication and she is very very very entrenched in the world of Highsmith and "Highsmith Country," so it felt to me like the next best thing to having Patricia Highsmith at my disposal. What I learned from Susan was a deep understanding of the world, the themes, and her characters. The more I read of Highsmith, the more I could see just how the world was fully realized, and I was just a part of the fabric. Hopefully what she got from me was just that I tried to keep a steady hand on the rudder. And thought about how I could best honor the script that she'd written and bring it to the screen.
"Often you sort of have a honeypot to dip into and you use the honeypot to tell your story."
There's a lot of trust between me and Susan. I could see, having read the novel, the choices she had made. There are many scripts that have been adapted from novels, and they're almost just a blanket xerox of the novel, whereas with this, she had very clearly cherry picked the things from the book that she'd like to use. I could see the edits that she'd made, and there were things that she'd deliberately left out. With all respect to Highsmith, I have to say that there are chunks of the movie that are better than the original novel. A lot of it is to do with waves in the modern audience. There are things in the novel which just won't do today and I trusted Susan to see that.
NFS: Is there anything you've discovered about the film, or yourself, through the festival and release process?
Goddard: I'm really intrigued and excited about the release, and there's lots of trepidation as well because it's been such a long journey. How will audiences respond to this film? I feel it's a very strong and worthy addition to the cinematic canon of Patricia Highsmith. After you direct a story, you learn through the process about what you gravitate towards. I think you just sort of cement your own convictions. With me it is: I love working with actors, I love quality writing, and I love the challenge of telling stories. Often you sort of have a honeypot to dip into and you use the honeypot to tell your story.
And I guess one of the biggest challenges for me was that I was jumping into a world that I had only read about. This American post-war crime thriller, 1950s-60s, as a British director, it's a very big topic. Worlds away. The first time the script came across my desk, there was one word that leapt out and that was "Highsmith." It's like a brand for this film or a genre of its own. And I wanted to honor that.