Marvel Scribe Nicole Perlman on Making Her Indie Debut 'Feel 10 Times the Budget'
Nicole Perlman's sci-fi directorial debut, 'The Slows,' imagines a world without youth.
Nicole Perlman had been waiting nearly a decade to make her directorial debut. In the intervening years, however, she had much to show for her work; she co-wrote Captain Marvel, Guardians of the Galaxy, and more screenplays from the MCU. But throughout her Hollywood success, a certain dystopian world—and the characters that inhabited it—never left Perlman's mind. One day, she knew she'd be ready to take a leap of faith.
With the help of a Cinereach fellowship, Perlman finally brought the ambitious sci-fi vision to life. The Slows, based on Gail Harevan's New Yorker story, premiered last week at the 2018 New York Film Festival. (It also screened at this year's Fantastic Fest). The film is set in a bleak future where, after the destruction of the natural world, children are "grown" in a laboratory. Every human begins his or her life as a young adult. They navigate a hermetically-sealed world free of suffering and strife, where people are free to pursue their passions and dreams. But when a journalist gains access to a quarantined reserve in the deep woods that houses "primitive humans," she begins to wonder whether her world—The Accelerated—has been stripped of its essential humanity.
No Film School sat down with Perlman at the 2018 New York Film Festival to discuss how she and her team maximized their limited resources to create a complex sci-fi universe.
"The importance of heart, emotion, and character above all else is what I took away from Marvel."
No Film School: I just watched the film. It's such a powerful experience.
Nicole Perlman: Oh, thank you. I really appreciate that. It's a lot, and it's still so fresh. I haven't even shown it to my family, but I've shown it to a few friends other than Fantastic Fest, which was last weekend, and now it's starting to get out into the world. It's a very emotional and exciting and happy experience for me.
NFS: This is your first time directing, isn't it?
Perlman: This is my first time being on a film set that wasn't a gigantic Marvel movie film set with a hundred people just watching in awe as all these set pieces are built around you. This was a completely different and really wonderful, intimate experience of shooting something that was personal and specific to my world and my experience. These are themes that were very, very resonant to me, especially the first time I read the story. I've been thinking about this project for about nine years, so it felt really great to see it come to life.
NFS: What it was like reading the story for the first time? What was compelling about it to you?
Perlman: I read Gail Harevan's story in 2009 when it came out in the New Yorker. It was such a fascinating look inside the mind of somebody who saw what we take for granted as important in life—in terms of our childhood and motherhood and the pursuit of happiness—who saw those things as almost a human-rights violation.
"The characters in the movie are two sides of myself having a conversation and challenging each other on their views."
I remember at first being like, "Oh, this character is so cold and so judgmental," but as you start to understand how society had moved to that point, that perspective starts to make more sense on an intellectual level.
I got very excited about the idea of using science fiction to make us question things about our lives that we take for granted. That's what I love about science fiction—even though you're talking about things with aliens or robots or spaceships, the function is always about something that's very relevant and very human. And the story, to me, felt like it could encapsulate so many interesting questions that don't have clear answers. Everyone brings a different interpretation to the story.
I've had people say that this movie really resonated with them because they felt like it spoke to being a member of an oppressed class, and how the people who are doing the oppressing see themselves as saving them. It's like colonialism: "We're bringing you roads and schools, and you should be so grateful." Just the anger there and the lack of comprehension about the importance of the other culture and the lack of understanding between the two cultures. That was the thing that a couple people brought up to me.
Perlman: I also had other people say that from a social services perspective, this is a really interesting story too about whether it's better to leave children in scenarios that are potentially more dangerous but more in touch with their roots or their family or their culture. And then, of course, the question of what control do women have over their own bodies? That was brought up to me recently as another really interesting facet.
But I think the thing that really spoke to me about this story it's two women speaking from across the divide, where neither one can fully understand the other one's values. But I didn't want one side to be evil and one side to be truly good. I wanted them both to have flaws and also both of them to have very human reactions that were maybe coming from places of distrust or anger.
I don't like stories where people are just good or evil. I really want to understand why they do the things they do, and why they feel that way. And so in some ways, the characters Eryn and Greta in the movie are two sides of myself, having a conversation and challenging each other on their views.
"A lot of the camera motions that we used were things that grew out of necessity for having a very small budget."
NFS: What happened in the nine years between when you first read the short story and production?
Perlman: A lot happened! My career as a screenwriter really took off. I started working for Marvel in 2009. I had been selling screenplays before that, but this was the first time I started working for Marvel, and I was very involved in setting up my Hollywood career.
Every time I brought up the idea of The Slows, people would say, "That's great, but you've got to find a way to make into something with really gigantic set pieces," and I was like, "That's not really where I want to go with that. I would want this to be complex and nuanced and very specific to a particular viewpoint." And so I never really found a way. I didn't feel like it was necessarily the right time for me to be able to protect the story the way I would want to protect it. These characters were percolating in the back of my brain, and I knew that I would want to direct this project—that this is something I would want to carve out space for and turn down a lot of projects so that I could make room for it.
But it was having that permission, in a sense, to put a big chunk of my screenwriting career on hold while I went off and did it. That was a big leap off a cliff for me. And I think that it might not have happened, or at least not have happened this year, if it hadn't been for Cinereach reaching out and asking to meet with me. They wanted to know, I could [make] anything, what would I want to do? And I said I would love to direct this short film about what it means to be human and about motherhood and childhood.
They invited me to apply for the fellowship program that Barry Jenkins went through, along with Terence Nance and Eliza Hittman. I was so honored that they would even consider me for a directing fellowship when my bread and butter is screenwriting big Hollywood movies.
When I got the fellowship, it changed everything. They were wonderful and incredibly helpful, and not just in terms of financial resources but also in terms of introducing me to people that I would never have met otherwise.
NFS: Coming from such big productions where you were watching, from the outside, someone else bring what you had written to life, what was it like reversing those roles?
Perlman: I think a wonderful surprise was how collaborative it was. I can't imagine taking a "Film By" credit ever in my life, because I love working so much with people whose vision enriches everything that I do. I had incredibly creative producing partners. Our visual effects team was brilliant. Production design was amazing. We had a fantastic sound team, and my composer was amazing. Everybody brought something completely unique and wonderful to this world. It felt like my vision was guiding it, but everything that made it come together and bring it to life was a group effort.
Perlman: I had heard tales about how, as a director, you're captain of the ship, you're a general, you're the leading the charge. But I really felt like choosing the team and the right creative partners was the most important part of the entire process. We made something special on a tight, independent budget. With the gigantic studio films, everybody's involved as well, but you're striated into different categories, and you don't interact. You're not sitting around a table brainstorming or coming up with a shared vision in quite the same way. On this project, I experienced the synergy and intimacy of creative minds in a way I'd never had before.
Everybody had warned me, "Oh, you're going to need to go cry, because it's going to be so stressful," and "You're going to be battling people all the time to get your vision across," and all of this. Somebody mentioned something about Spielberg having a boat that he would go cry in on the set of Jaws. I was expecting that to be the case, but on the first day of shooting, the only tears I had were tears of joy and gratitude. I couldn't believe how many people that I respected were coming together and working from 4:00 am in the middle of the pouring rain in the woods for several days for this project. It was one of the best experiences of my whole life.
NFS: Some of the more prominent elements of sci-fi are production design and VFX. How did you think about the ways in which you were going to collaborate with these department heads?
Perlman: It was the first time I had ever worked with the VFX team. I got very lucky with our collaborator, Tippett Studio.
The fetus shot was really something. I actually really wanted to have that be a practical effect. Tippett already had a fetus puppet that they had used for something else long ago, and they said, "If you want to use a puppet for this, you can."
"The most creative solutions are better than what would have happened if we had had a massive budget."
We also added the opening sequence with the molecular structure of what's going during the "acceleration" process after we did our work with Tippet. We were working with independent visual artists in San Francisco. I brought in a friend of mine who's a wonderful artist to do some storyboards. We must have pulled together, I don't know, 40 to 50 references so that we could exactly the look that we were going for, but everyone was really, really generous in terms of playing around with what would work best.
At one point, Cinereach asked if there was anybody that I had ever wanted to work with that I had never met before, and I mentioned that there was a visual artist who does both installation art films but also he's a director. He does wonderful work with Bjork music videos. He is an incredible artist named Andrew Thomas Huang. Cinereach said, "Hey, we got Andrew Tomas Huang to come in and mentor you." He has such an incredible eye for visual effects and for things that are hyperreal but also have a feeling of weight and reality to them. He gave us great advice about potentially superimposing human eyes onto the puppet, like that Madame Tutli-Putli short film which used stop motion animation with puppets and human eyes. Even though [my film] looks very different, that concept was wonderful. And so when we posed that to our incredible designer for that shot, Peter Clark, he composed gorgeous imagery around it and just make it feel very real and yet also cosmic.
NFS: How did you approach the cinematography?
Perlman: I pulled a ton of visual references. I made a very complete look book. I wanted to use and different instances of color saturation, with the understanding that we were going to be shooting in the woods in November. And so we had a very specific quality of light; there's a wetness to it.
One of the reasons we chose Adam Newport-Berra to shoot the film, in addition to the fact that he's very, very talented, is that he lives in Portland, and he's shot up there a number of times, and so he knows the wilderness up there really well, and he loves being in the woods.
It was really important to me that The Accelerated world feel and sound more filtered and neutral and flat—almost like the highs and lows were cut off, in a sense. I wanted it to feel like their existence was not exactly banal, but luminous, and with and no real room for darkness and mystery there.
And then when we were going into the woods, I wanted there to be a lot of emphasis on things that were rotting—mulch and the mushrooms and the dripping leaves and all the greenery. I wanted the messiness and darker blacks and more of a mysterious feeling there, because I wanted those two worlds to stand in opposition to each other.
I used art as references. My whole family loves art. My mother's an artist, so it was very helpful for me to be able to say, "I want that nursing scene to feel like a Vermeer," and "I want the birth scene to feel like a Rembrandt—this particular Rembrandt." And Adam completely understood what I was going for. I didn't have to go much further than that, because he understands art.
NFS: Was there anything you learned from Marvel specifically that helped you direct this film?
Perlman: I think the character work that Marvel does is very, very good. They bring you into who these people are, what their lives are like, and make you feel emotionally attached to them early on. That is one of the reasons the Marvel movies are so great. I would like to hope I brought some of that sensibility to The Slows. The importance of heart, emotion, and character above all else is what I took away from Marvel, and I try to put that into all of my work.
I also learned from Marvel how to identify, "What is the best visual here that we can do?" Because of Marvel, my initial instinct is to do whatever makes the most sense for the story. Having to temper that with the budget, obviously, can lead to even better versions because you have to think creatively. A lot of the camera motions that we used were things that grew out of necessity for having a very small budget.
We got creative with shooting the village and the ways in which we could showcase it. I think in some ways, the idea to build a village in the woods and populate it with 20 extras, and have everything feel as true to that world as you possibly could...that felt like something that would be very Marvel-like. We had to use creative solutions that you have to use when you're working on an indie budget. It wasn't my first instinct [to shoot it like that], but I actually love it even more than if I could have done a 360-degree view of the village and a helicopter shot. I really love the way that we made it work.
"The strength of relationships is so important in independent filmmaking, where you can't just write a check."
NFS: Can you think of anything else that you did to maximize the resources that you had?
Perlman: Everybody that I worked with was so resourceful. Kyle Eaton, who is one of my producers, had such a great reputation in Portland. Everybody's worked with him there, so he was able to reach out to people that he's worked with in the past and say, "Hey, we have X amount of money. We have to make two entire worlds. Where can we source some of these materials? Can we borrow things? Can we barter? Can we trade?" The strength of relationships is so important in independent filmmaking, where you can't just write a check. You're working with people who care about you and who want to help and who believe in the project.
In terms of a specific example, I will say that for the councilman's office, we wanted a very imposing desk. None of the desks that we could find were quite right, and the ones that we could find were over a thousand dollars, even to rent for the day. So our production design team built the desk out of plywood and painted it to look like stone or cement. It looks great, but it's actually a very flimsy desk that we made very quickly and last-minute. That was movie magic.
The entire Accelerated world is shot in one building in Portland--a design center in Portland that was incredibly generous in letting us roam through their building and find little nooks and crannies to transform. I didn't have to book multiple locations. We transformed things. The acceleration chamber is actually an auditorium in this design center that, shot from the right angle, and given a futuristic floor and building a print, it makes it look like it's a laboratory or an observation surgery room.
The combination of thinking about spaces and what can be done with some creative solutions, as well as just the generosity of people who want to come together and work on something that they believe in, can make a movie with a small budget feel like it has a budget ten times the size. Honestly, I think the most creative solutions are better than what would have happened if we had had a massive budget.