Perhaps the most arresting thing about Christina Kallas's The Rainbow Experiment, in an array of arresting things, is that its characters come to the screen fully formed, with their own special backstories, traumas, and histories which inform their actions and shape the story. The director's second film, which premieres at Slamdance today, Sat. Jan. 20, begins with an explosion and stays explosive. Ostensibly the story of a high school science experiment gone wrong which permanently injures a character, the movie is really the story of how disparate figures—administrators, parents, students—cope with the event. Some cope effectively, and some fall apart.
The film doesn't aim for neat, easy resolutions. Chips fall where they may, and in this case, that's far and wide. The performances in the film are outstanding, each one reflecting its own particular arc in the life of a character. And the story is housed in a visual hall of mirrors, as Kallas herself suggests. The cinematography is as expansive as the story, using perpetually surprising techniques to move us forward and also distort our impressions of events.
No Film School caught up with Kallas not long ago to talk about her film—how she made it, why she made it, how it evolved, and much more.
No Film School: You’ve said previously that you walk your actors through their characters’ past lives, and that sometimes that can be a very lengthy process. Could you say a little bit about the different activities you did to complete that process in the preparation for this film?
Christina Kallas: The way I work is I start with a screenplay which one would consider fully developed. I believe that story is structure, so my screenplays are extremely precise in terms of structure. I do color graphs, sequences, arcs—everything possible to make sure that it is well balanced and that I am creating an emotional experience for the audience. I am obsessed with multi-protagonist storytelling, so my screenplays have several protagonists and equally weighted storylines.
I will then start the workshop, which usually means that I invite actors I want to work with for the concrete project, to a weekly session of three hours. There are no auditions, no classic casting. Each week I set up three situations, three scenes. My intention is to see how a certain character will behave in a certain situation, how the chemistry between two characters is, how an actor feels in a certain character’s skin. The scenes are set up in front of the whole ensemble, and I use a method I have devised called emotional doubling to create a safe space for the talkback—one devoid of judgment, where everything can be addressed and where observation is more important than opinion. The actors remain in character throughout. Sometimes, the talkback, which involves the whole group, is even more exciting than the scene, sometimes it will flow naturally into a continuation of the scene.
'The Rainbow Experiment'Credit: Courtesy of Slamdance
Now, this whole process is very fluid. If I feel that a combination is not right or that a casting choice does not bring out the full potential of a part, I will adjust it. If a character resists, I will look into the why, and maybe push them even more in that direction. Sometimes I will drop a storyline or a character because one of the actors stops being available to me. I never replace an actor. You see, at this point the character and the actor are one. And like in life, certain people take more space than others; meaning: they are open to showing more of the complexities of the human condition. So I will create more space for them. In a sense, it is like when you have shot the film and you are now editing. Certain things have turned out more exciting than others. So you give them more space, while recalibrating the balance of the whole. This is what I do to my screenplay as we go.
Not once do we specifically touch upon the events in the screenplay. Everything we experience in the room has to do with the character’s past lives or with what-if situations. For instance, I may have the character meet her mother, when she was the same age as her. Once we start shooting, none of the actors know what will happen—or what the film is about. In the traditional way of working, the actors know more than the characters because they have read the whole screenplay. My actors only find out when they see the finished film. That allows for a different kind of performance.
NFS: I see a lot of emotional growth in this film, or at least a lot of cases in which individuals are pushed to the point of inner crisis. What did you want the film to say about how learning—not so much education by itself but perhaps the superficial meaning of the word, e.g., teachers, books—and the more profound meaning of the word—in the sense of self-discovery—interlock?
Kallas: It’s interesting to think of the correlation between these two things. This is a film set in a public high school, and education is what a school is for. But our educational system is not concerned with educating us emotionally or with making us fit for living together. I do believe that the lack of emotional education is one of the main reasons for the current systemic failure.
"In terms of the emotional growth in the film: I start shooting when I have all the characters at the point I need them to be."
Perhaps a school is not the right place for emotional education. Perhaps it is the purpose of art, but then again, art is not considered very important or indispensable in our current society—in the way Ancient Greek dramas were for society then. They were so very important, because they were serving as emotional education—what some scholars call the poets' solution to the riddle of civilization. They were meant to forge compassion and to cultivate the civilizing emotions. Aristotle, who everyone refers to in order to support predictable and didactic dramaturgy, did not in fact see drama as superficial entertainment in the sense of escapism, distraction or diversion. He spoke of the double goal of entertainment and awareness. Drama should not only increase enjoyment, he said, but also enrich experience and knowledge. This presupposes stories that challenge the audience, that broaden the spectrum of their experience since they intrinsically represent an experience themselves.
In terms of the emotional growth in the film: I start shooting when I have all the characters at the point I need them to be. Which means that they are pushed to the point of inner crisis, as you say, they are in a pressure cooker—each one of them for their own complex reasons. Now, do the characters change in the film? Do they grow? I do not know. This is a matter of perception and interpretation. Some do, some stay the same.
NFS: How do you see the split-screen functioning in this film?
Kallas: Split screen editing allows for vertical as well as horizontal juxtaposition of different scenes and storylines, and ultimately for a different, more visceral and compassionate perception of the story and its complexities. I write the split screens into the screenplay because I need to shoot each frame for a certain length and create complimentary mise en scène so it all matches up, and this takes an incredible amount of planning. There’s so much detail going into the creation of something that is moving constantly in terms of its composition and that is meant to allow several levels of perception. One can never be done watching. There’s always something more to see—a different combination, another level one wasn't able to perceive before. I make films that invite multiple viewings. I love the idea of seeing films either as windows into the world or as paintings of the world. But there are films that are neither. Those films, my films, are mirrors.
'The Rainbow Experiment'Credit: Courtesy of Slamdance
NFS: How important was improvisation in the film? And, by extension, how important was the script?
Kallas: When we start shooting, everything is controlled but actor-focused. I devise a plan for when I will give pages to which actor—so that I do not destroy the freshness of the experience. Which means that the actors get pages, but as long as they cover what is on the page, they are free to live it as their character should. Some will use that freedom more than others.
I never do blocking, but I will sometimes do a walkthrough. I shoot each scene in one take. I then adjust and we go again—till I have everything I need. I don’t spend the actors’ energy getting as much coverage as possible, because authentic performance is more important to me than traditional coverage of a scene. My cinematographer and I have worked together over two films now, so he has a very good understanding of what I need to be able to cut the film. In The Rainbow Experiment, there was one scene I had to shoot in the classic way: shot/reverse-shot, close ups, actors not in emotional continuity, the works. This is not how I like working, but it was a crowd scene and there was no other way to do it, given the time and space limitations we had.
The script is, by the way, more important in this way of working than in the traditional way. Even with all the work that goes into the characters beforehand, you have to place improvisation in the context of a cogent narrative. Films that employ improvisation are more dependent on a clearly defined narrative than are more traditional productions—both for the individual scenes as for the whole film. And when the time comes to edit, you follow the screenplay while maximizing the potential of controlled improvisation through imaginative editing—combining moments from different takes, using emotional logic and rhythm. It’s like making music.
"There are some characters who are the same in both films—only they have made a different decision at some point in the past, and they ended up in a different version of their life."
NFS: What is the difference between right and wrong in the small universe this film creates? I ask because characters seem to be alternately calling for and rejecting our sympathies constantly here, through their actions, and I’m wondering what your thoughts were about relative morality as the film was in development.
Kallas: This is a deeply philosophical question, and I would hope that someone watching the film would answer it with: there is no right or wrong. And this is indeed my mantra when working with my actors. I keep saying, there is no right or wrong. There is no good choice, neither as an actor nor as a character. As in life, each choice leads somewhere else. It moves the cards around a bit. Ultimately, it looks like we always end up facing the same issues, whatever choice we make.
This is one of the reasons behind another one of my experiments: there are some characters who are the same in both films—only they have made a different decision at some point in the past, and they ended up in a different version of their life. See Alis, for instance, played by Lauren Sowa, or Sila, played by Laura Pruden, two of the actors who are regulars in my Writers Improv Studio Ensemble: their circumstances are very different in each film, still, deep down they are the same character. One does not have to watch both 42 Seconds of Happiness and The Rainbow Experiment, but if one did, one would have to wonder: do the different circumstances make them happier? What are the differences? And ultimately: would our life be so very different if we made different choices? I am fascinated by questions like this, and I have no answers—at least not in words. Perhaps there are no answers.
There is one more thing that seems important to address in relation to your question. You say that characters seem to be calling for or rejecting our sympathies. You see, what is fascinating to me is that different people will sympathize with different characters here—more so than in a traditional film. I am not trying to make anyone sympathetic. My only effort goes towards authenticity. And towards enabling compassion for everyone, and for the human condition. Truth lies in the simultaneous understanding and acceptance of all sides, in what on the surface looks like a paradox.
'The Rainbow Experiment'Credit: Courtesy of Slamdance
NFS: What would you say was the chief complication you hit during the making of the film?
Kallas: After the satisfaction of intertwining ten complex characters in 42 Seconds of Happiness, I became overambitious. I had so many great actors in my hands, who were all ready to do the work and explore the questions, that I got carried away. The Rainbow Experiment has 36 characters, and every time I became anxious, I reminded myself that one of my favorite films of all times is Altman’s Nashville. And that has the exact same number of characters. I thought that was a good omen—although it is a very different film of course.
NFS: To what extent could this film be seen as a uniquely American story?
Kallas: It is about American society. The characters are American, they experience life here, in this country. Many of the issues that the film addresses are issues that are now in the focus of public discussion in the US: the systemic failure of most of our institutions; public education and the state and meaning of education; the precarious situation of educators in a system which prioritizes competition and individual financial success over awareness and compassion; a system which rewards leadership qualities in students more than collaboration; illegal immigration and the fear of deportation in a country that was built by immigrants and that from the outside always seemed like the very proof that all nationalities, races and religions can indeed co-exist and enrich each other; and last but not least the manufacturing of violence. America is a pressure cooker of its own making, and this film is to me nothing less than an imprint of American society, seen from the inside out.
'The Rainbow Experiment'Credit: Courtesy of Slamdance
NFS: What experiences of your own did you draw on to write and create this film?
Kallas: When working with my screenwriting and directing students on their stories, I will often ask them what their moment of inspiration was—I believe deeply that it contains the whole story. My moment of inspiration for The Rainbow Experiment was when I received an e-mail from my son's school, informing me that two kids were injured in class and that they had been transferred to the ER. The e-mail did not mention any names, and for a moment there, I panicked. My first thought was: 'What if it is my kid?' The second: 'He is fine, but it's someone else's kid.' The third: 'Imagine being that teacher.' The fourth: 'Or the principal, for that matter.' And so on and so forth. In a few seconds, I had the whole cast of characters and their emotional states of mind in my head. And I could feel all of them, all at the same time—their vulnerability, their guilt, their anger, their sadness.
At that moment, I had such a deep compassion and apprehension of what it means to be a human being that I wanted to recreate that as an experience. And it was so intense that every time I got stuck later on, or when I forgot why I was making this film, it was enough to recall that moment of inspiration. It seemed to contain all the answers to everything I was struggling with—even if I cannot put them in words.
NFS: And, last but not least, what was the benefit for you of having Matty narrate the film? At the end (no spoilers!) he even reshapes the story he has told—what was the significance for you of his control, or lack thereof, over our vision of the events taking place?
Kallas: I am fascinated by the process of storytelling itself. You know, something happens, and we experience it a certain way. Then we tell the story to someone else, and our experience changes—depending on our emotional state of mind. Are we trying to impress the person we are telling the story to? To explain our choices? To establish ourselves as the victim? To put the blame on others? To call for pity? To ask for forgiveness? To find a way to forgive and forget? Watching Matty is watching that process happening. He does all these things and in doing so, he is an unreliable narrator. Like we all are.
Our fundamental tactic of self-protection and self-definition, our survival mode is telling stories, connecting and controlling the story we tell others—and ourselves—about who we are; and why we are that way. So the only way we can control reality is by controlling our storytelling—not to others but to ourselves. This is probably one way of understanding the ending. But it is not the only one.