First-time director Adam Keleman wanted to make a narrative that captured the feel of iconic 1969 documentary Salesman, but with women.
Easy Living, a SXSW 2017 Narrative Spotlight film, is a unique blend of auteur-era cinema and contemporary character study. Two distinct visual strategies parallel the main character's duality as she goes door to door selling cosmetics.
Director Adam Keleman sat down with No Film School in Austin to talk about shooting on two very different cameras and getting a tour de force performance from lead actress Caroline Dhavernas.
"I designed this film around resources at my disposal."
No Film School: How did you come up with the story of the main character, Sherry, a woman struggling between two different worlds that she is trying to balance?
Adam Keleman: I love the Maysles’ film Salesman. I'm fascinated with the role of the interloper. I think Sherry is an interloper in a lot of ways. She's a drifter-interloper: she goes in and out of these women's homes selling make-up, sharing intimate moments with them, and sharing maybe intimate details about herself.
In her personal life, though, she's not able to connect as much with her family or men she pursues. So there's this polish and an exterior of a suave saleswoman, but her personal life is in shambles. I wanted to make the film about this woman trying to find her place in the world, wondering where she fits in.
NFS: That polished, saleswoman part of her has a very different look in the film than her personal life. What was the visual strategy behind these different looks?
Keleman: We shot those door-to-door moments two weeks before the rest of the narrative. They’re all improvised. All the door-to-door makeup-selling moments—Caroline did everything. I gave her some guidance with some questions to ask the women. Sometimes I guided the women to ask her something, but ultimately they were all improvised. I wanted to have a little time to see if anything came up in those moments in case we would be able to integrate them into the narrative story-wise and dialogue-wise.
I wanted to shoot those early for that reason, but also, we couldn't get our camera package in time. So we embraced a different camera as part of achieving that different look.
"I have so much respect for a director like Robert Altman. The idea is that you let the actors do what they want to do."
NFS: Something about the docu-feel of the shots combined with the main character’s powder blue suit harkens to that look of the PanAm era.
Keleman: Since we used a different camera, we used a glossier lens that gave it a shine. I think that helped a little bit to show this polish and whimsy. Since we had two cameras, so I think there's more of a looseness in those scenes in a way. I think that helps.
NFS: It's more of that Salesman feel.
Keleman: Totally. I think that helped dig into her character in those very specific moments. And then she goes back into her other life. She’s not a phony, but there's a lot hidden in her. She doesn't reveal a lot. I think you see it come out at the end. That was the choice we ultimately made in order to have a little bit of a different look, to show her in two different lights.
NFS: How did you work with your DP, James West, to pull off the contrasting visual styles?
Keleman: I let James run with it. We had to make a fast decision about the door-to-door makeup selling moments because the camera package that we received through the Film Independent AbelCine Camera Grant wouldn’t come in time for the improvised moments. One of our associate producers was like, "I have this camera and it looks okay." It was Panasonic GH4. Then we were able to get another camera for cheap, so we did the two camera thing. It was great to have the two cameras because it allowed us to do a lot of different things: slow zooms sometimes and pans, and have just a general wide.
"On the first day on set, my jaw was just wide open in awe...."
NFS: This film is very performance-driven by Caroline Dhavernas, who plays Sherry. Did you rehearse? How did you create the space to get those performances from her?
Keleman: I had two conversations with her before I saw her in person, because she lives in Montreal. So we had two different Skype conversations. It was casual, but they were great and she dug into it.
The first thing we shot were those make-up selling moments, and we didn't really say that much. I have so much respect for a director like Robert Altman. The idea is that you let the actors do what they want to do. Obviously, you give them little notes here or there, but you just let them come up with it because they'll add something so unique that you did not even think of.
What Caroline brought to it was something magical. On the first day on set, my jaw was just wide open in awe because she was so confident. She just brought this energy that I had no idea [about]. I'm such a huge fan of her work, and in this role, she showcases her range. She can dip as seamlessly into comedy as earnest drama. She has a very expressive face. I feel like she could be a silent actress. She has such control, and it was really wonderful to watch.
NFS: What's your best piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Keleman: I designed this film around resources at my disposal. Whatever you're interested in—whatever character or themes you want to explore—frame them around the locations you have, the props you have, and the actors you have access to.
For more, see our complete coverage of the 2017 SXSW Film Festival.
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