Why Sundance-Winner 'NANCY' Alternated Aspect Ratios to Ratchet Up Tension
Questions arise as a troubled woman claims to be the long-lost daughter of a grieving couple in Christina Choe's debut feature.
[SPOILER ALERT: This interview reveals surprise plot points from the film 'NANCY.']
Just who is Nancy, the title character at the guarded heart of Christina Choe's debut feature? As played by English actress Andrea Riseborough, she's an equally determined and conflicted woman possessing a wealth of secrets that even she may not hold the answers to. After her Parkinson's-ridden mother (played by Ann Dowd) suddenly passes away, Nancy is unsure of her next move until she views a "Missing Children" news broadcast one evening and feels she may be the long-lost daughter shown on the TV screen.
That young girl disappeared from her parents (played by the great J. Smith-Cameron and Steve Buscemi) decades prior, and Nancy, now at the age their daughter would currently be, feels she may actually be their lost kin. Whether the act is a moment of sincerity or deception is a back-and-forth the film constantly toggles between, and Choe's film is distinct in its ability to tease out tension even when the viewer is unsure of what to believe or whom to feel safe around.
Winner of the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, Choe sat down with No Film School to discuss the first time she worked with Steve Buscemi, the unique origins of the screenplay for NANCY, and how she blocked extended sequences at a dinner table to evoke scenes of interrogation.
No Film School: Your film features Steve Buscemi in a leading role, and it’s actually not the first time you’ve worked with the actor, as you previously “shadowed” directors on episodes of Boardwalk Empire, which he was the lead on. What did you learn from that experience?
Christina Choe: Well, that came via the HBOAccess Directing Fellowship in 2013. The program featured me and Ryan Coogler that year, although Ryan was already blowing up with Fruitvale Station at the time. I was shadowing on three different shows, and Boardwalk Empire was the first one. That's actually where I first met Steve Buscemi, and it was a very casual encounter. My overall experience was amazing, and the level of production design was so detail-orientated and obviously so period-oriented. It had so many great actors on board, and I actually remember working on Jeffrey Wright’s first episode. The show featured all of the best actors living in New York. It was really fun.
NFS: And from there, were you looking to work in TV throughout the next phase of your career?
Choe: Ultimately, my goal was to make my first feature. When the fellowship began, I was actually already working on NANCY, so my goal was definitely to make a feature.
NFS: And you’ve previously mentioned that the basis for NANCY was based on your college professor who was discovered to be a fraud. Could you describe that experience?
Choe: In a number of ways, my college writing professor was the most inspirational, encouraging teacher I ever had. He taught us a lot about writing from the heart and writing about the truth. He would say things like “write what breaks your heart, because what breaks your heart will mend your heart.” During his office hours, he would give me notes that I thought to be so profound. He would tell his students that he was a ghostwriter for this huge Hollywood franchise and that he had worked for this Irish playwright. And basically, I found out after I graduated that he had lied to his own family.
"Do the lies really matter as long as the connection is authentic? The connection is real, and that’s at the heart of the movie."
NFS: He made up all of these stories?
Choe: Yeah, and at first I was really shocked, and then I became really fascinated by the whole thing. It was like, “you know, it doesn't really matter that he lied about these things.” I still had a very authentic, inspiring experience and maybe because I didn’t have a personal relationship with him, I viewed it differently. I didn't feel like betrayed. That’s also the theme of my film. Do the lies really matter as long as the connection is authentic? The connection is real, and that’s at the heart of the movie.
NFS: The film opens (and comes back to) fuzzy, 4:3 VHS-like footage of the parents, Ellen and Leo, discussing their long-lost daughter and the honorary fund they’ve created in her honor. Had you watched a number of “parents-grieving-over-lost-children” PSAs to get that uncomfortably staged, awkwardly sincere plea feel authentic?
Choe: I definitely looked at a lot of old news reports. In the 1980s, which was when Nancy would have first disappeared, those Missing Children reports were such a thing. I guess that's also a thing on Stranger Things now, right? It represents such a prevalent thing, that fear in society. We wanted to evoke this feeling of memory and loss (within that era) while also showing the degradation of the media and seeing this bit of mixed media and how higher memory gets formed. It was something my editor and I were discovering throughout and we experimented a lot with that.
NFS: When we first meet Nancy, her world is defined by her cramped, low-lit living space shared with her mother, Betty. How did you create the drabness of the world she initially inhabits, and how did you consciously contrast that with the home of the couple she claims to be the child of?
Choe: I decided early on that I really wanted to shoot Nancy’s world, while she’s confined to Betty's house, in 4:3. Because Nancy feels so trapped and repressed there, shooting in 4:3 would make it feel more claustrophobic. In a way, it also makes it really flattering. It’s a flattering touch for a character (their portrait and their face) to be shot in 4:3. I was watching a lot of movies in 4:3 and I guess really fell in love with the ratio. And then when we were location-scouting, I thought the aspect ratio should mirror Nancy’s world once she goes to Ellen and Leo's house. Nancy’s whole word widens up, and I wanted the aspect ratio to reflect that.
NFS: Does the lighting change as well? It seems to shift from a dimly lit, overcast environment to a brighter, warmer visual palette.
Choe: Yeah, it does. We were definitely looking at Nancy’s [relocating] as a shift into a new word, a more vibrant world where she's becoming more alive, the story's becoming more alive, the colors and lighting are becoming more alive too…
NFS: That definitely comes across. And what kind of camera did you shoot with?
Choe: We shot with an ALEXA with Kowa sphericals and the addition of a few Flare Primes from Panavision.
NFS: Much of the film takes place in the dead of night where characters, curious and restless, look at their cell phones or hop on their laptops to Google a specific piece of information. The electronic blue hue of light that illuminates your characters’ faces feels purposeful, and I was wondering how you viewed its inclusion as a visual motif?
Choe: A few years before shooting the film, I had all of these ideas regarding how to represent the act of texting and the look of the internet on-screen. I would have these different versions that seemed really fresh at the time, but then a year would go by and the designs would be out-of-date. I would say to myself, “well, that’s not going to work now. House of Cards already did it!”
When we were about to shoot the film, I knew that whatever I showed was going to feel dated in a year, and so maybe the answer isn’t about what we see on the character’s mobile screens but rather how it's making the characters feel. Why is Nancy sucked into this blog or text message, you know? It’s really about the characters’ relationship to social media and why It's an escape for Nancy. There are scenes where she will be talking to her mom and yet she's in her phone all the time! That light emulating from the computer or cellphone screen to me is essential. It’s not about what the text is. It’s more about how Nancy feels when she sends that text. Or when John Leguizamo’s supporting character texts her, you can feel the reaction. It’s all in her face.
NFS: It takes three phone calls in rapid succession for Ellen, standing shocked in her hallway tied to her landline phone, to accept Nancy’s claims of being her long-lost daughter. And then later, when the DNA tests are revealed, there’s a shot of Ellen in the foreground of that same hallway with Nancy standing in shame behind her. It’s a rhyming edit that bookends Ellen’s beginning elation with crushing disappointment.
Choe: Can I ask how you interpreted that scene?
NFS: I interpreted it as Ellen discovering and dealing with the fact that Nancy isn’t her real daughter.
Choe: Right? I thought it was obvious! You know, it's funny because I never really thought about the phone motif, but it’s definitely interesting. I never really thought about the fact that Ellen is getting these two huge pieces of news in the same location.
NFS: Almost in the exact same spot!
Choe: That’s true.
NFS: I’m interested in the staging of other moments in that house: the recurring scenes of Nancy, Ellen, and Leo sitting at the dinner table, for example. It’s both innocent—they’re getting to know each other—and interrogational in nature. Nancy sits at the head-of-the-table and your cuts show each face individually; it’s rare for them to all be in the same frame while they're sitting. How did you shoot and edit for tension when filming these extended dialogue sequences?
Choe: I ultimately tried to shoot each of those table scenes differently. We wanted to change it up each time while still always remembering to ask ourselves “where are we in Nancy's head at this very moment?” In the first dinner table scene, there's a shot behind Nancy’s head where Ellen and Leo are analyzing her completely. And then in a later scene, Nancy's in the “hot seat”, and we were always trying to compose a shot where that emotional dynamic could be best represented. We were really conscious of how we blocked those table scenes and where each character would be sitting. We decided, on purpose, to always have Nancy sitting at the head of the table so everyone else could always be staring her down.
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