When a wife and husband first arrive at The Amaranth, an idyllic retirement community, everything seems perfect. Too perfect. Lilly, the wife, has trouble settling in. Maybe it's because she's quite a bit younger than the other residents, but her ailing husband Richard has pulled the necessary strings to accommodate both of them in his time of need. When Richard's precarious health takes a turn for the worse, that's when things really get strange for Lilly. Just not as she ever could have imagined.
The Amaranth has its premiere at the Austin Film Festival on Fri. Oct. 26 as part of the Dark Matters section. Before the festival, No Film School caught up with the writer Eileen Shields and the director Albert Chi to discuss how youthful 80-somethings elbowing people off hiking trails inspired a dark idea, how sound design can be both pleasant and edgy, and how Paul Thomas Anderson influenced several creative choices in the film.
Melora Walters in 'The Amaranth'Credit: Courtesy of the filmmakersNo Film School: Without giving away too much about the story, can you share with us where the idea for The Amaranth came from?
Eileen Shields: I'm a newspaper and magazine junkie, and I'm always interested in what's going on in the world. I had been reading a lot of stories about wealthy tech people, a lot of wealthy people in general, who were heavily investing in anti-aging research, including several methodologies and treatments that really seem scientifically questionable. Things like parabiosis where you get a blood transfusion from a younger person as if that's somehow going to make you younger. Simultaneously, the news was covering the refugee crisis, and I just thought, "What a crazy dichotomy." There's all this wealth that's going into living forever, and yet we have this huge crisis of people who cannot even survive that doesn't seem to have a solution. In my mind, I went to a dark place and thought of a dark solution that could happen. And that was the germ of the idea.
NFS: Albert, when did you come into the process and get on board with this project?
Albert Chi: I guess pretty early. I mean, how early was it, Eileen? Was I the first or second person you showed the script to?
Shields: It was pretty early. I was trying to figure out what I was going to do with it. I've known Albert for a dozen years and always respected his work, and he had been working with Paul Thomas Anderson for a really long time. I really just showed it to him initially for advice, before I even sent it to my agent. I thought, "Well, Albert sort of knows I haven't finished a screenplay in a long time. I've been doing different kinds of writing, and he really has his fingers on the pulse now. He's out there every day. He would be a good person to show this to."
NFS: And what was your reaction, Albert, when you first read it?
Chi: I was shocked. Eileen's stories always go to this dark place, so, when I read it, I kind of was ready for that, but not as ready as what I got. When I finished it, I thought two things. The way it was written I thought was super smart because from a producer's perspective, it was totally attainable. That struck me because I came up as a producer, so I read scripts with that lens anyway. So, that was number one.
The number two thing was, I was like, "Wow, this is really cool!" I loved the story, I loved the script, I loved all the dialogue, and the scenes were completely thought out and fleshed out. It wasn't like most rough drafts that I usually get. I remember, I read it that night I got it. It was in the middle of the night, and maybe I was too tired or too whatever, but I got all worked up, and I started thinking, "We could definitely make this movie." I think I talked to you, Eileen, the next morning, right? I even said I read it that night, and I was like, "I'm fired up about it." Never have I been given a script that I was excited about and felt like it could be a reality as soon as I finished reading it.
"Just keep making it better. Let's not get lazy or take the short cuts. The hard way is generally the right way."
NFS: Tell us about your collaborative process to bring the script to the screen.
Shields: Fortunately for us at the time, we lived next door to each other. So, we would talk about it all the time. I am probably a more cautious person, and Albert was very enthusiastic. Then my husband, Kevin Shields, who is one of the executive producers, got very excited and he kept pushing me. Albert has made movies, and he made it seem so possible. My husband thinks I can do anything, God bless him. Between the two of them, it was easy to get transported to a place where I thought, "Oh yeah, sure." So, we opened an office, and Albert and I would meet there. He has a bazillion contacts. Everybody loves him, so that was the other thing. He is the guy that you want to lead the cry and rally the troops because people line up behind him. He gives you confidence, and he makes you think, "Well, of course we can do this!" Whereas I am the opposite person. I am always looking at everything that's going to make it fall apart.
Chi: You make me blush, Eileen.
Shields: You know all that's true. I am always the negative Nancy and Albert is always finding a solution.
Chi: That definitely is our position when we get in the ring, for sure. I do have to say I think we pushed each other pretty far.
Shields: Yeah, we would be adversarial in a friendly way, in a loving way.
Chi: Yes, always with respect.
NFS: When you say being adversarial in a friendly way and pushing each other pretty far, was that working on the story itself to improve it? Or to make the film a reality?
Shields: Albert just has a much firmer grasp on what we can afford. He always would say, “Can we consolidate these characters? Can you consolidate this scene?” He was always looking for ways that we could trim it so that we could afford to make the movie. As the artiste, I would stomp my feet and say, “That's a terrible idea!” Then I would think about it overnight, and I would come back and I'd say, “You know what? Maybe ...” So there was a lot of that.
Chi: Yeah, absolutely. I have to say I went to this screening last night, and Melora [Walters], who is in our film, premiered her movie. She was talking about this advice she had gotten from Paul [Thomas Anderson] as well: Just make it better. Just keep making it better. We always came from that point of view: How can we make this better? How can we keep making this better? Let's not get lazy or take the short cuts. The hard way is generally the right way.
Shields: We took our whole crew out to Idaho to shoot this movie. Every day, something would happen that Albert would gently come to me, and he would say something like, “Remember when we thought were going to shoot in a laboratory? It turns out we can't get it, so can you make it a nursery?” I would pull my hair out, but then I would say, “Well, yes, I can.” Every day, it was some small thing. You have a very limited amount of time and you want to do the best job you can and sometimes things change.
Harley Jane Kozak, Tewatenniethaw Evans and Sewell Whitney in 'The Amaranth'.Credit: Courtesy of the filmmakersNFS: The Amaranth in the story is the eponymous luxury retirement community that looks like it has all the amenities you could ask for, including next-level health care. And yet, there is something about the way the location is shot and is presented in the story that feels off from the moment we get there. How did you find the location and then work with the location to make it feel like a character itself?
Shields: I actually have a mountain home there in Sun Valley, Idaho. I was always impressed and simultaneously creeped out by the vitality of old people who live in places like that who will go hiking and they'll literally be pushing you off the trail. You'll turn and look at them and they're like 80 years old. You go, “Well, that's weird.” It's isolated and beautiful, and so I brought Albert out there, and he started nosing around.
Chi: I think you even wrote in that email to me, Eileen, that you had a location in mind. So when I was reading, I thought, “Alright, if this location really does work, then the film definitely could work.”
Going back to what we were talking about earlier, like bad influences, we would just poker-raise each other every day. I'd be like, “Yeah, you wanna do it? Let's go to Sun Valley and take a look.” Then Eileen would be like, “Okay, I booked a ticket. We're leaving tomorrow.” And I would be like, “Oh my God, okay.” We would just do that every day, and then the location itself, logistically speaking, worked. It had everything we needed. Eileen has incredible contacts in the private homes around that area, so we were able to totally utilize the town.
The look of the film and the feel of the film, everybody always comments on that. I have to say, we have to give credit to Michal [Dabal], the cinematographer. He is such an incredible talent. He's young, I think he's in his 20s, maybe? Eileen, I don't know if you remember. I know we asked him once, and we all got kind of scared. He's Polish, and he comes from the Janusz school. I actually met him on a movie. He was apprenticing for this lighting technician who was on this film. He spent a day or two with us. I've always loved his images more than anybody else's. They just stood out. Michal came with such a bag of tricks that we used every day. He was just such a good guiding post for us. I remember there were so many times we would lean on him. He just gave us so many options to work with. Even now, looking back, some of those scenes were meant to be elsewhere, and some of those things were supposed to be directed differently, but because of how they were shot, it gave us so much freedom to tell the story in the edit room.
Shields: And Albert's very collaborative. He would say, “Michal really loves this horse stable.” And I would say, “There's no horse stable in the movie.” Albert would say, “Well, could there be?” And I said, “Yeah, I suppose, I suppose there could be. I mean, you could change this to that.”
"It's very gratifying that people are having disputes over their interpretation of your words."
NFS: The tone of the film is really unsettling. What was the process for creating that tone and then translating it to the final film?
Chi: It definitely starts with the words on the paper. Everybody that read the script was already 95% there. That's always the hardest part, getting a good script. Not just a good script that you can read and go, “Great!”, but one that a technician can read and break down and have it still make sense once it's broken down. So, in that regard, it really starts with Eileen.
For us down here at the bottom, putting stuff together, we're just constantly communicating and having the same sort of philosophy about things, from the photography to the production design to the costumes to the props to the actors, too. I remember, and Eileen, you can back me up, the production designers and DP would fight like cats and dogs, too, just like all of us would, but it was always for the betterment of the project. I look at some of these scenes, and I see some of the fights that were had over a plant in the corner or a coffee table in the room or chairs around the table. I look at them now, and I go, “Gosh, I'm so glad we had those fights,” because what fell out is working in terms of tone and the feel of the place.
Shields: I agree with all that. It's very gratifying that people are having disputes over their interpretation of your words. As a writer, it's an unbelievable feeling. Because they have ownership, and that's what you want. You want people to own their interpretations.
Brandon Scott in 'The Amaranth'.Credit: Courtesy of the filmmakersNFS: One of the things that stood out for me while I watched the film was the sound design. You're taking some of the most mundane things, like carrying a piece of bread or zipping up a purse, and they were almost unbearable to watch because of the sound design and the close-ups. Was this baked into the script, and why it was important to use it in such a way for the film?
Shields: This is weird because it wasn't baked into the script, but Albert knows that I am kind of addicted to ASMR videos. I have been forever or as long as they've been around. And even before they were around and they were called something else. They were called QVC showing jewelry at night or Bob Ross and his old painting show. I have a little bit of anxiety in general, and I've always found those super soothing. To most people, they're very weird, but they're just all about sound. But it was Albert's idea, he said, “Why don't we take that ASMR idea, and use it in places in the film?” Sometimes he would say, “Could this be ASMR? Could that be ASMR?” And I would say, “Yeah,” or “I don't think so,” because there are certain sounds that play into that. It was his idea to bring that to the film, and I really enjoyed the process of it. I enjoyed the clicking of dominoes like you wouldn't believe.
Chi: We all did. Who doesn't love that sound? Because I know Eileen is addicted to those ASMR videos, I wanted to infuse the story with something I knew that she would like. Then we had to find rules for how to include those sounds in the film. To say it was my idea is, I don't know, I guess it's fair, but for me, it was more like I need to find something for Eileen that I know she'll like.
"If Paul Thomas Anderson gives you shit, you know you're in a good place. If he just ignores you, that's when you have a problem. He is constantly giving me shit."
NFS: Albert, you have worked with Paul Thomas Anderson on a number different of projects, and you thank him in the credits of this film. Based on your work with him, did you take any specific lessons learned or any advice he's given you over the years into this particular project?
Chi: Oh yeah, without question, everything. I'm serious. I'm totally dead serious. My wife, Jen, jokes about it all the time. Paul and I had a working relationship that was pretty close for a long time. He's my mentor, I'm his apprentice, so there's no version of me making anything artistic at this point that doesn't have its roots from Paul's life and his canon of work, and his philosophies about things. Anything that I do, The Amaranth or anything else, I know at some point, I'll be in the room with Paul, and I'll have to own up for it, and I want to be able to stand up for it.
Beyond that, my favorite thing to do is to steal stuff I know he'll notice, put it in there, and then talk it about it with him. It's almost like asking permission to steal the car. I like that. I think he likes it, too. In fact, I know he does because he's one of those guys, like if he gives you shit, you know you're in a good place. If he just ignores you, that's when you have a problem. He is constantly giving me shit.
NFS: Are you willing to share the thing you stole from him to make him notice for this film?
Chi: How long do you want this interview to go on for? [laughter]
NFS: What would you each say was your biggest challenge making this film, and what did you learn from overcoming that challenge?
Shields: That's easy for me. The hardest thing was learning how to collaborate because that is not necessarily a writer's life. I write every day, I write for numerous publications, I write in a lot of different styles. I sit in my kitchen at my computer, and I write. I finish things, I send them away, and I get paid for them and that is what I like. But for this, it was an independent film, and we had to pull all of the money together, and get out there and work, and work in really close confines with a lot of different people with very strong opinions every day. I learned to enjoy that, but at first it was very hard for me. It was very hard for me to let go of something that I felt was mine, to realize it's not mine. The minute it's on the page, it's not mine anymore. It's ours, it's everybody's.
Chi: I guess staying humble and trying, just like Eileen, to learn how to collaborate with people. Then, also, in terms of the refugee angle, I remember I wanted to shy away from that because I was scared of it. Now, I'm so thankful that Eileen pushed us to do it and pushed me to learn more about it. That's been incredibly humbling. We cast Chandra [L. Upreti], a real refugee from Bhutan, as the second butler, and I wanted to try to stay humble while doing this because I know I can get a little crazy in my own mind. That's probably the hardest thing for me, then and now, still, probably forever. Learning to collaborate and staying humble, I suppose, is definitely the hardest thing for me.
'The Amaranth' premieres at the Austin Film Festival on Fri. Oct. 26 at 6:30 pm at Bethell Hall, St. David's Episcopal Church. Featured image: Melora Walters and Jeffrey DeMunn in 'The Amaranth'.