An interview with filmmaker Bradley Rust Gray and his new film “Jack & Diane”, by Gabriela Seidel-Hollaender.
* Your new film is a departure. For a while we are where you left us in your last film … and suddenly it turns to horror.
For me it’s like making pasta: You put in just a little bit of cayenne. Just enough so you think, when you taste it: “Oh what’s that?” I think some people came to that really violent scene with the monster and they thought: “Oh finished, I’m gone, before that happens again”. I’d rather have it like that, than people wanting to see a creature film. I hope to win my audience with a love-story.
* What interested you in the creature? The genre?
I first started working on “Jack & Diane” that summer in Berlin (in 2003), when we lived there for a month. My assignment for me back then was to write ten scenes a day. I was trying to write a fiction film like a documentary – the way it is filmed and the way it is written. I would imagine scenes, what the girls were doing and just write them down. And then I could construct a narrative on whatever happened. But, I knew the film was about finding love.
We made “Salt” in a similar way. We shot a lot of footage and cut it down to a smaller film. We followed the actors and shot the scenes like a documentary. I am still really interested in that process and I found out that I couldn’t write without it – to get material down, to help me learn about the characters, what they do, how they speak. A scene could be one sentence. This is maybe my way of working.
One day I had this image of the opening of the movie, where Diane walks out in the bathroom of the club and she’s a creature. You know, she’s a sick monster. It was just in my mind and I said: “Oh, that’s it!”
* It came like that, was suddenly in your mind?
Yes. As I said, it’s like cooking. But this was even more as if something fell in your pot and you taste it and you say: “Oh, what’s that? That makes perfect sense, now I can start writing the script.”
I started writing the script a few days later. The first part was originally 80 pages until they kiss. It was very slow. The moments of her coming to the Poster Shop, meeting Jack and going to the club, and then finally getting to kiss each other, were originally 80 pages alone. It was because I described everything: when their hands touch, when they look at each other. The first draft was about 530 pages. There were a lot of scenes that were interchangeable and switch able. But for this beginning, I don’t know why, this part came out in one chunk. Part of what I was exited about that girl being a creature was that I really felt that it’s inside her, that’s her emotion, it’s how she can express herself.
I was also missing something that was closer to “Salt”. In “Salt” I was exploring this folktale and how it could play in a contemporary narrative. I wanted to do something similar in America. But we don’t have folktales. I still was very interested in magical realism and it occurred to me that genre films are our folk tales. So this was also a way of doing the same thing in America. Especially since my first film was an Icelandic film. And in my first American film I wanted to have subtle references to American cinema that were different than the Nordic experience.
*Between “Salt” and “Jack & Diane” you made “The Exploding Girl”. Why is “Jack & Diane” your second film?
I wrote “Jack & Diane” as my second film, but it took so long to make that I ended up working on “The Exploding Girl” in the interim. The script and style for “The Exploding Girl”, came after “Jack & Diane”. It was a study on Hou Hsiao-Hsien and his film “Café Lumière”. It was like me learning him, like a course on the framings percept by his style, like an exercise.
* There are elements in “The Exploding Girl” that are similar to “Jack & Diane”, especially the way the girls are acting. It seems to be very natural. Was there space for improvisation also in the dialogues or was it all scripted?
Yes it was all scripted. They did have the space for improvisation, but they didn’t necessarily use it.
For example, Juno Temple: she shows up at the set and she knows all of the dialogue for the day. She tells me what is next. She is very prepared, very professional. Riley Keough works in different way and I think the combination of the two was great. Riley might be the one to not remember the lines, but I don’t care. What counts, is the idea of what they are trying to say. I write how I talk, it has a lot of this “What” “Am” “Ah” “Uh”, and you know, these small things. I am just trying to give a voice to the characters.
* So what was the difference in your directing between “The Exploding Girl” and “Jack & Diane”? My impression was that in “Exploding Girl” you gave the actors situations and let them talk, while observing them.
No the dialogues in “The Exploding Girl” were scripted too. There were exceptions of course. For example, there’s a scene where the characters play cards with Ivy’s mother. For that scene we set up the shot and then filmed a 30-minute take. Then kept the 30-40 second segment we liked. So that was more of a documentary approach.
In “Salt” in contrast I gave the actors opposing directions. I said for example: “Tell her, you want to go” and we would tell the other actress “Don’t leave until he gives three excuses”. And they wouldn’t know what each other what the other was talking about. And I didn’t know either, because it was in Icelandic. But I could see, if he was getting frustrated and I could see, if she was getting a kick out of the fact, that he was getting frustrated, you know. And we all knew that as a way of working together.
You can bring actors on board with that sort of team. Although I think that sometimes actors might find that frustrating. And actors improvise in a different way than non-actors. Non-actors typically don’t say anything if they don’t know what to say – actors tend to say something, when they don’t know what to say.
I really like it when the script is changed or when people go in the wrong direction or when somebody forgets a line and the other one picks it up. I think, when you are filming you are kind of looking for accidents, you are looking for things that are unexpected and surprise you. That’s why you are making the movie. To get it out of your body and get the world into the story – and trying to figure out how the two are connected. But the scripts in both of the films were pretty much written down. But I am happy that you think it was improvised.
* How do you see your development as an artist through your films? Do you think you are getting more professional with each film? Is the work with well-known actors changing your style?
Of course it’s much different to have Kylie Minogue playing a part rather than having the manager of the fish factory playing the manager of the fish factory, which is how both of us – So Yong Kim, my wife, and I – started.
I think we both get concerned and judgmental against ourselves. I feel even with my third film that I know less about where the camera should go and how I should shoot a scene. Part of this is because you are changing your style. You want to be able to have a range of different approaches. In the same way you love different types of cinema.
In “Salt” we gathered a lot of footage that was different, with different lines. Every take was good, but it had different lines of dialogue, different scenes, and different pieces of life. In a way it’s more exiting. But there are certain things you can’t do with that approach.
When we first started our films we were three of us: me, So and Anne Misawa, our Cinematographer. We were the crew and then there were the actors. And they didn’t know, how to make a movie and so they didn’t know what we were doing wrong. And we didn’t know how to make a movie so we didn’t know what we were doing wrong either.
* Talking about style again of your films: is there any aesthetic movement you would refer to? Some people saw a connection of “Exploding Girl” to “Mumble Core”. What do you think about that?
I think the word came out of Andrew Bujalski’s film, where his soundman said on the set it was “Mumblecore” because he was having a hard time with the microphones.
But I am not part of that group. We’re good friends from Andrew Bujalski and I’ve met Joe Swanberg a couple of times.
* Maybe the word “authentic” is even more important for the “Mumblecore” Movement. However is it important for you to exchange aesthetic ideas with other directors and artists?
Yes, but it’s more about admiring films that I like, than having a talk with contemporaries. So Yong Kim is the only director I know in America that has a similar style as me. We have a very related style since we live together and we talk about it. We worked with the same cinematographers; I think we have a similar language. And of course we are going to be closer than anybody else. But I don’t think, that it’s so much of a conversation.
I watched for example the Leos Carax film (“Holy Motors”) yesterday and I’d heard that he had had a modest budget, at least modest compared to what he is used to. And you see these instinctual things that he does with the film. Of course I think his set-design is always so particular, but that’s really expensive. So, there’s a scene where he is going to the last life at the end and there’s this apartment buildings in Paris, but it looks like a Carax set, right? You see: “Oh! He’s so detailed!”
I am assuming maybe they went around and he found the spot and the lights in the shot are the actual streetlights, because on a film you normally have to replace those lights. Which takes a lot of time because cause there is a lot of streetlights. This could have been a very expensive shot.
But it could have also been a found shot, but the way he does it, feels like a Carax! Bold and strong and designed. I was trying to imagine the level of detail he’s thinking about when he is making his films and how the camera moves. It’s more about watching films like that, which you admire and learn about from them.
* Who designed the creature and the animation in “Jack and Diane”?
The animation is the Brothers Quay. We’ve known the Quays for a long time, I wrote my dissertation on them in 1995. They maybe appear to be reclusive and hard to approach, but they are quite friendly and nice. They have been really big supporters of our work. They read “Salt”, and they are kind of mentors for both of us, So and myself. They also introduced me to Julio Cortázar who has become one of my biggest influences.
I wrote these sequences hoping that they could do it. So they had the freedom of working on it as they liked.
And the guy who made the creature, his name is Gabe Bartalos. I had talked to different Special Effects people and told them what I was working on and they were all really interested and talented, but I hadn’t found someone who had that same open approach and that sense of discovery. And then I found him.
*Did he bring up the creature head? Is it a real animal scull?
It’s a polar bear. It’s the second largest polar bear ever captured by humanity. We looked at heads of different animals. And for some reason we started thinking of the scale of the creature as a bear. We also had talked about Diane’s face as part of the creature’s head. It’s very difficult to see in the film, but her face is actually part of the head. It’s hanging at the side and is moving. It’s all remote-controlled. We had two remote controls. The eyes are winking. It is a real old school technique. It’s a wonderful peace of work.
* Why did you choose this Tomboy topic, why are they two girls?
I made a short film with two boys, which was the starting point. I never questioned it. Of course it could have been more something about somebody coming out and getting aware about the fact of being gay. But I did not want to make a film about a situation where people are staring at them in the streets just because they are holding hands. I mean twenty years ago, there were a lot more films about coming out. But now, I just wanted a love story. I didn’t want to make a big firm statement about gay rights. But at the same way, by not stating something like that, I wanted to say that it’s normal.
*It’s a statement too.
Yes, by not making an issue. It’s like saying: this should be accepted and then just watch the story. And if it’s not accepted, then it is a statement.
* There are still a lot of homophobic parts in the States.
Yes. But I forget about the homosexual part of the story.
It was another way of looking on a love story. For me the difference between this film and the other films it’s more the logistics of a relationship. In “Salt” she can’t be with this guy, because it’s her sisters’ boyfriend. She knows him already for a long time. In “Exploding Girl” Ivy is breaking up with this guy and she has had this friend for a long time. But she isn’t aware of her feelings for him.
In this film it was not that I thought: well it’s now two girls and they fall in love and are aware of the fact, that they are gay. It’s more that they didn’t know each other and they fall in love with each other in the very beginning of the film. How do you convince people, that their love is that strong? I want the audience to understand what they feel. And that was difficult, because it’s much harder to keep interest in a couple which loves each other and sees the world rosy.
*You stick in your films with this first love experiences. Although it’s just a very interesting phase in our life, are you going to make a film of another life phase?
Yes, that’s what I am working on now. Paul Dano and I have talked about a project together, and I was working with him and Jena Melone prior to So. But So was so much faster, so Jena and Paul ended up in So Yong Kim’s Movie (“For Ellen”). Paul and I, we are working on something else now.
But in the meantime there is an actress, I like very much and I was asking her, if she would like to work together and to my amazement she said „yes“. So I am working on something with her in mind, and a bit with her. Similar to how I worked with Zoë on “Exploding Girl”. I’ve been working on this script about two years now.
She’s like 31, which is good. I didn’t want to work on another teenage-girl-film.
It’s based on dreams in the way the film is coming to me. Similar to what I was talking about before with “Jack & Diane”. The film started playing in my head and I am seeing this movie I need to make, but it’s frustrating at the same time because I don’t know when it’s going to play in my head again. I know how it ends but I’m not sure how to get there. It’s elusive, and more mysterious than the other films.
I was talking with the actress a lot, we were emailing and we were talking about dreams. And she had a dream about the title of the film, then suddenly this thought took over: it’s going to take place in Japan! Then this is sticking and that is sticking and I don’t know why. But I am trying to keep all the things that are sticking. And it’s more about a feeling the character has, it’s a feeling of anxiety, to the point of losing the sense of who she is.
* There are people who see the whole picture and write it down.
Yes. “The Exploding Girl” was like that. Actually I wrote 60 pages of a different story for this film. It was a completely different story, but with a lot of similar information. But then something happened at page 60 and I knew there was something terribly wrong. So I just started over from scratch and finished the script in about a week.
I had this teacher, the filmmaker Nina Menkes. And when I was working on a short film called “Hitch” that I did in her class, I had this idea and I wrote it down in 2 hours, 18 pages of script, which was the whole thing. But then I started working on that Icelandic film and at one point there were aliens in the film or you know: ghosts and then you have this big thing. And so I asked her: “why am I having such a hard time working on this new script? I’ve been working on it for a couple of years now and the other one came in a couple of hours?“ And Nina Menkes said: “Every trip to OZ is a different journey.”
The process of making each film is different.
But coming back to the actress I am working with. We talked a lot, so I’ve drawn a lot from her. But I’m trying not to watch her movies, to not get influenced by the characters she has played. We are talking a lot about dreams. The title of the film is coming from a dream of hers: “Blood”. So now it has to be that title. I know I am writing about something that is really personal to her. I respect her a lot and I feel it’s an honor to work with her. Sometimes I am terrified of not fulfilling that responsibility. I am terrified of her not responding to the script.
* But that’s part of the game.
Yes. If you are not scared it’s not worth the journey.
Locarno, August 3rd 2012
On demand and in US-Theatres November 2nd 2012