The plight of the rural American working class has been well-covered this past year owing to its determining role in the recent United States presidential elections. But although books have been written and pundits have pontificated on this section of the country ad nauseum, most of us still don’t know its residents on an intimate level.
Filmmaker Deb Shoval, herself a native of Pennsylvania coal country, has brought us into this world with AWOL, a story that manages to make the bleak pastoral landscape a backdrop for a tender love story while also examining some of the social and cultural underpinnings of the US today.
The film, beautifully shot by Gal Deren, stars Lola Kirke and Breeda Wool in an on-again, off-again affair between a beguiling mother stuck in an unhappy, borderline abusive marriage and a younger woman on the verge of joining the military for an opportunity to escape her grim financial prospects.
"Put aside the idea of putting the work out into the world and focus on practicing your craft. You'll know when it is excellent."
AWOL has had a trajectory that many aspiring filmmakers covet. It began as a short film, premiering at Sundance in 2011; Shoval eventually turned it into a feature that screened in competition at Tribeca 2016, securing theatrical and streaming distribution via The Orchard (Cartel Land, Hunt for the Wilderpeople).
Prior to the film’s release on iTunes and Amazon, No Film School spoke with Shoval and Deren about turning a short into a successful feature, how they captured the American heartland cinematically, getting authentic performances from actors, and more.
No Film School: The film looks beautiful. Gal, what did you shoot with, and how did Deb describe her vision to you?
Gal Deren: Thank you. We shot the film on RED with the old generation of Zeiss lenses. When Deb and I started working together on the film, the world of lesbians in rural and post-industrial America was unfamiliar to me. I followed her lead. The important thing for me was to identify the essence of each scene as Deb meant it to be, and to capture that in the frame.
I came to understand that the story Deb was telling needed me to take the observer approach, and I put aside my ego as a DP to do just that.
NFS: Was there anything in particular you did to capture that specific light and color scheme of the heartland?
Deren: Mostly, it was important for me to work with vintage lenses in order to soften the digital look and get closer to the "film look." The landscapes of Pennsylvania are so beautiful; my instinct was to just frame and shoot.
"It was important for me to work with vintage lenses in order to soften the digital look."
In post-production, we worked with Jaime O'Bradovich from Company3. He's an amazing colorist. Together, we created a pastel color palette. Ultimately, we also decided to add a bit of film grain as a final step to mitigate the digital sharpness.
NFS: In some ways, this is a typical love story, and in some ways, it’s not. How did you decide which conventions of on-screen romance to keep and which to throw away?
Deb Shoval: [Laughs] To be honest with you, my background is in sustainable agriculture. I do have an MFA in film, but that was from art school. I have not studied much film history or theory at all, so for better or worse, I am embarrassingly unfamiliar with the conventions of on-screen romance.
Deb Shoval and Gal Deren behind the scenes of 'AWOL'
NFS: Your dialogue felt very authentic. How did you maintain those authentic voices in the screenwriting process, and was there any improvising on set?
Shoval: I grew up in Northeast Pennsylvania, where the movie takes place. I can hear the characters' voices in my head.
In terms of improvising on set, my strategy is to first do whatever I need to do to get exactly what I want, both in terms of performance and camera. I stuck very close to the script because I know that I was in a clear-headed, calm place when writing and editing it—versus the hectic, rushed pace of the low-budget film set—and I had a reason for wanting those exact lines.
Once I have that, if we still have time, I get some other emotions, so that we'll have more options in the editing room in case we ultimately want to take the scene or the arc of the story in a different direction. And then, yes, if the actors or the DP have something they want to try, I am open. One of the many wonderful things about working with such talented actors as Lola Kirke and Breeda Wool is that they usually nail the performance immediately, so there is time to play.
"Get feedback. What are people repeatedly telling you is confusing?"
NFS: The performances, too, felt very real. How did you work with your actors to ensure that feeling?
Shoval: Lola and Breeda are both incredible actors. I cannot take credit for the work they have each done to be so present in the roles they inhabit, but I'll take credit for seeing that potential! Casting is everything.
The journeys with Lola and with Breeda were different. I met Breeda a few years before I met Lola around 2009. A friend of mine, an installation artist named Natasha Johns-Messenger, invited me to see Breeda’s performance in a movement dance piece at PS 122 called blind.ness. I couldn’t keep my eyes off of her—the way she carried herself, how present she was.
Lola Kirke as Joey in 'AWOL'Credit: Megan Ghiroli
Shoval: Breeda still lived in New York then, just a few blocks away from me, and I started working with her on whatever little project I was doing; she’s one of these true actors who just wants to work all the time. While I was writing the script for AWOL the short, we began meeting to discuss the character Rayna, and we developed her together. Breeda played Rayna in AWOL the short, and I fought hard to keep her for AWOL the feature. She's magnetic. It has taken a while, but people are catching on.
With Lola, it was a whole other story. We had a casting director. This was in 2012. The role of Joey was a tall order. The Joey I was looking for had to sing like an angel, look no older than 18 but actually be at least 18 because of the nudity, have a mouthful of imperfect teeth that signaled a working-class upbringing, and have an incredible range as an actress. We were on our last day of auditions for the role of Joey in New York. I hadn’t seen anyone that felt right. We were about to push the shoot to hold auditions in LA, and then at 9 AM on the final day of New York casting, Lola walked in. She looked like the Joey in my mind. And her singing voice was unreal.
The next day, we brought Lola in for a callback with Breeda; I wanted to see if there was chemistry. Afterward, I brought that audition tape over to my friend and mentor, [filmmaker] Rose Troche’s, house. She pulled together a whole little crew that night. We all watched the audition tape together and we all agreed: Lola was magical.
Breeda Wool in 'AWOL'Credit: Gal Deren
Shoval: That said, we had very limited time we had for prep, which included no rehearsal, so what was most important to me was introducing Lola (in person or via Skype) to real people who shared elements of her character's biography: Catholic lesbians from the region, working-class lesbians in the Army, etc. It was also important to me that Lola and Breeda try on their costumes beforehand and have input into what clothing felt authentic to their characters and what didn't. Lola, in particular, had a lot of feedback about her wardrobe, and our fantastic costume director Samantha Hawkins was open to it.
NFS: As AWOL was a short first, do you have any advice for filmmakers looking to adapt their shorts into features?
Shoval: Just make work. Keep working. Allow yourself to be humbled and to learn from each project. Listen to how you are speaking to the actors in between takes. What did you say that got you the performances that feel most authentic? Get feedback. What are people repeatedly telling you is confusing?
We can learn so much from each project. Put aside the idea of putting the work out into the world and focus on practicing your craft. You'll know when it is excellent.