A Conversation With Anja Marquardt and Marc Menchaca (SHE’S LOST CONTROL)

(She’s Lost Control world premiered at the 2014 Berlinale. It also screened at the 2014 SXSW Film Festival, and will have its New York premiere at New Directors/New Films 2014, the first screening which is on Saturday March 29th. Visit the film’s Facebook page for more information. NOTE: Susanna Locascio worked on the film as 2nd AD but rather than being a conflict of interest, we felt this would contribute to a more illuminating conversation here, which, after reading said conversation, we feel strongly that you will agree.)

She’s Lost Control is the debut feature of writer/director Anja Marquardt. Originally from Germany, Marquardt came to New York to get her MFA at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Inspired by an article she read on the use of robots for elder care in Japan, Marquardt began researching this concept of simulated intimacy and touch, and her research expanded to the topic of surrogate partner therapy. She’s Lost Control tells the story of a young woman living in New York who earns a living through sexual surrogacy while getting her degree in psychology.

In an at once restrained and engrossing performance, Brooke Bloom (Gabi on the Roof in July, Swim Little Fish Swim) is Ronah, a sex surrogate whose clinical approach extends beyond her clients to her personal life. She meets her match in Johnny, played with quiet ferocity by Marc Menchaca (This Is Where We Live). Johnny is a troubled client who gets under Ronah’s skin, and disturbs the carefully constructed boundaries she has set for herself. The chilly strangeness of modern, urban New York is the evocative backdrop for this story of (dis)connection.

I caught up with director Anja Marquardt and co-star Marc Menchaca at SXSW, where She’s Lost Control had its North American premiere.

Hammer to Nail: How did your story transition from a sci-fi thriller to a drama? Or how would you characterize it?

Anja Marquardt: We’ve had some people say, “It’s a suspense drama.” And other others said, “No, it’s a thriller,” or “it’s a psychodrama,” so it’s definitely somewhere in that range. I think tonally it’s its own thing, and leads audiences, hopefully, to where they didn’t expect to go, but I think it’s also not that easily classifiable. I feel like drama is not quite…

H2N: It’s too vague.

AM: Yeah.

H2N: But initially you were going to write a sci-fi story?

AM: I was just really intrigued by the idea of simulating human touch and connection. Ultimately as human beings we all seek to love and be loved as we go through life. In the case of robots taking care of older people it’s like a substitute for human touch. And the surrogate partner literally is like a therapeutic element that recreates human touch, but it’s a real person. So I just thought it was really fascinating. In one very early version of the script I was even toying with the idea of having Ronah be a robot. [we laugh] Have that be the big reveal at the end of the third act, that she’s actually a robot.

H2N: Do you think that shaped how you formed her character? How you view someone who is able to do that for a living?

AM: No. I mean, as her character evolved over the writing of the script it was definitely infused by the professionals we talked to. I just saw an immense capacity for empathy and compassion, and just a strength of character.

H2N: Almost the opposite of a robot.

AM: Yeah. Because it takes guts and… I think you need to know yourself very well in order to be able to open up, like almost pushing a button and being really open and intimate with someone, and then saying, “Okay, and now I close the door to my heart again and move on.” It’s almost like you fall in love and force yourself to move on anyway.

H2N: You have to do it authentically in order for it to work.

AM: Yeah.

H2N: Marc, were you involved in the research too?

Marc Menchaca: No. I was not involved in that research at all. It was just you and Brooke [Bloom], right?

AM: Yeah. I guess we didn’t want to have too much of an insight into the therapy angle for Johnny.

H2N: So how did you come up with his character? Was it just based on the script, or did you talk about his backstory? What was the process of developing that?

MM: [Anja and I] talked a lot the first time we met. We just kind of threw some ideas out there. But we didn’t go into too much detail as far as what the backstory was.

AM: Yeah. I think we talked about sort of the starting place of the character going into the story, in terms of emotionally where he’s at, and what things might be hard for him. But in terms of like the inciting incident 20 years ago, of why this character is the way he is today, we never specified it like that. We talked about having sort of an anchor for the character, but I think that’s something you wanted to keep to yourself, and also not share with Brooke. Because we didn’t do any rehearsals with Marc and Brooke.

H2N: Right. I was very surprised by that.

AM: In retrospect I think it was kind of insane! [we laugh]

H2N: Very bold!

AM: But I mean it really worked out. Because obviously on 18 shooting days we didn’t shoot chronologically, but the scenes between Johnny and Ronah we did shoot in the order laid out in the script for the most part. So that first scene where they actually meet in the hotel room and see each other for the first time and talk, that was the “rehearsal” essentially, that was the first real interaction apart from having drinks together.

H2N: Was that intentional when you were designing the shooting schedule or did that just fall into place?

AM: No, that was definitely intentional. Obviously when you’re on a budget you can’t engineer the perfect schedule because you have locations and other considerations to worry about, but I think we were able to do it pretty nicely actually. Because we had the hotel shoot in the second week, and it was possible for us to kind of get into it as a crew and as a team and then get to the meat of the movie, and just shoot in this little time capsule in that crazy hotel.

H2N: Marc, since there was no rehearsal ahead of time, did you find things sort of organically once you were in the location? Or did you have a process for yourself that you stuck to in the interaction with Brooke?

MM: I think what I found before shooting, I just kind of kept with it. Brooke was so good to work with. The way that we worked together was very intimate in one sense, but she and I never really talked about our characters outside of shooting. But I don’t think any actor would want to tell what they’re working from, because it doesn’t serve the story at all.

AM: Sometimes when I would talk to you and Brooke individually on set I would tell you different things to kind of see where that would lead. So much about the encounter between them, at least in the beginning, is about not connecting and having this weird dance of checking each other out. I remember that first scene between Johnny and Ronah that we shot on the first day was actually a tough scene to shoot, in a way, because it’s a very long scene and there’s a lot of blocking that we had to invent on the spot to make it organic and interesting, and it was the first time for you to interact. And I think the scene is now one of my favorite scenes in the movie, but it was definitely one of the hardest scenes to shoot, and to edit as well.

H2N: The hotel room is a small space, and you use it in such a variety of ways in all of these different scenes that don’t end up feeling repetitive, even though they’re literally in the same space.

AM: Yeah, that was definitely a concern. When you’re working on a budget you want to make sure it doesn’t feel like a theater piece. And the space was obviously just a room. And I think Zack [Galler, the DP] did a really wonderful job in recreating that space each time, but making it feel like there’s a progression happening. And the way we blocked it, there’s a development, how the characters see each other, and how we see them in the room.

H2N: For a film with so many conversation scenes they all feel distinct. Was that a conscious choice, that visually you and Zack developed a certain kind of language?

AM: Yeah, there is the city, and windows and walls sort of play a role visually. And to differentiate between Ronah’s interaction with her clients and interaction in her own personal life, there’s definitely a tension going on. The moments between Johnny and her, and also the other two clients, are more intimate, and it’s often handheld. She’s freer in the way she uses her own space than she is in say, the therapist’s office, where it’s more contained.

H2N: This speaks to the idea you mentioned about “professional intimacy,” which I thought was fascinating. Could you talk a little bit more about that?

AM: Yeah, it’s just something that I noticed was happening in my own life a lot. Maybe it’s specific to being a filmmaker, but I think it kind of happens in every work-related interaction. When you interact on a project-to-project basis with people, or you’re trying to sell ideas, or a product, or your services, there are so many situations where you interact with people you don’t know at all, but soon you’re very intimate with them in some ways. And you have to open up emotionally and let them know who you are as a person because your currency in that interaction is yourself. If you don’t share anything of interest then chances are it’s not going to be very interesting or exhilarating, the other person may not want to work with you. So I think there’s a fascination and exhilaration that comes with letting people in like that, and being intimate in that way. But it’s not the real thing.

H2N: It’s controlled.

AM: Yeah, it doesn’t have any consequences. The intimacy that I share with someone I meet for a drink and we talk about a project, it doesn’t mean anything. We’re not going to be friends necessarily. Maybe we will, but more often than not it has nothing to do with actual intimacy. But it’s getting to a point where I think the substitute for intimacy, for love, for really connecting, is easier and more readily available, and also more satisfying, in a way, than the real thing, because the real thing is complicated, and hard, and messy, and it’s uncomfortable. You have to schedule it, you have to be there physically in a room with someone… [they laugh] And I’m not talking about sexuality, I’m talking just about emotional intimacy. This is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot. And in a way, the character Ronah, she’s just taking that to an extreme. She is professionally intimate with her clients for money in a room where she also sleeps with them. I don’t think it could get more extreme than that. And yet when she goes home there’s a “cut,” supposedly. But then, of course, that’s not so easy.

MM: I think one thing that’s interesting to me is that we do kind of compartmentalize our lives. Dealing with Johnny, it’s more of an extreme position, but I feel like we get, just in our interactions and daily lives… you get different kinds of intimacy from different people.

AM: Absolutely.

MM: You don’t think about it, but you do reach out to people to fill some kind of void that you need. I mean, that’s why we have friends, and people that you just really enjoy being around, for whatever reason, whatever part they fill in your emotional life.

AM: But I think even beyond the social interaction that you have with friends… It’s hard to describe, but I feel like especially in an urban environment, where you’re working around the clock, essentially, you have work-related interactions that are very functionalistic, they’re almost like a currency. Intimacy has become a social currency, and it’s something that you have to be able to give, or else you’re broke. You have to be able to step up and engage people in that intimate way. I find it exhilarating but it’s also brutal because it’s not the real thing… We’re technologically connected all the time, and it’s easy. It’s easier to text someone or to phone someone than to actually speak with them [in person]. It’s interesting. I’d like to do more research into how the brain responds to electronically shared intimacy versus real intimacy.

H2N: It felt to me like New York might be a character in the story. Was it always set in New York? Did it have to be set there, to you?

AM: Yeah. That’s interesting that you say that. I think as far as we could, we definitely wanted to make the city a character, and try to find a way to look at it through windows, and with walls sort of surrounding the character, and avoid the typical landmarks that are too easily recognizable. Some people came up to me after the screening and said, “I didn’t even realize it was New York until 30 minutes in.”

H2N: Especially in Hollywood films there are so many fantasies of what it’s like to be a young working woman in New York, and this story felt actually very realistic. I love that Ronah wears the same clothes over and over, little details like that. But also the way she’s described, as sort of “fiercely independent.” For you, is Ronah somewhat of an archetypal New York character in that way? It felt like there are a lot of women who are going to be able to relate to her character.

AM: I think also a lot of men. Because it’s not something that is gender-specific that you have an intense focus on your professional life… I was always hoping that I could shoot in New York. I briefly considered Brussels, because initially I thought maybe it’s going to be a co-production, and maybe we need to shoot in Europe. But then I thought, okay, it’s just not going to be the same [as New York], there’s no way to have that intensity, and that level of being connected yet isolated at the same time.

H2N: Have either of you seen Spike Jonze’s film Her? I know it’s in a different vein..

MM: Yeah, I did see it. I loved it. It touches on a lot of the same things this film touches on.

AM: I saw it for the first time about two weeks ago, and I just was blown away by it, I love it so much… I think thematically if there was a film in the past year, or five years, that I feel like is a brother in spirit to my film it would definitely be Her.

H2N: Although in the end you made your protagonist a real person. So it almost does seem to suggest that there is no replacement for human touch, or that they’re different in nature somehow.

AM: Yeah, I mean, that’s the question. I think it goes back to what fascinated me about this story that I read about a geriatric facility in Japan where they use robots to take care of people, is that the patients that had the robot touch them and caress them, they were actually calmer and easier to handle. And so there is a measurable effect, even though it’s not the same thing.

H2N: So you’ve screened at the Berlinale, and now at SXSW, and you’re going to New Directors/New Films. Do you know what will happen after that? What are your hopes for the film?

AM: I just feel really lucky at the moment to have been invited to these three fantastic festivals. I just love seeing how audiences connect to it. The Berlin audiences and the SXSW audiences are very different. And also the setup in the theater is so different. I’m just really enjoying seeing how it plays in these different settings.

H2N: Is there anything particular you noticed in the differences between the audiences?

AM: I think it’s a real balance between men and women who respond to the film strongly. Which is great, because I always wanted to make a film that has a reach that transcends any gender stereotyping. I’m happy to see that that works.

H2N: My last question is what was your biggest challenge in the process, and what was your best moment?

AM: The biggest challenge was finding Brooke. It was always conceived as a full nudity role, and it’s interesting how in the end the film doesn’t have that much that would be controversial in terms of the sexuality. It’s very naturalistic, and very organic. I don’t feel like any of it is gratuitous. That’s what my casting director Allison Twardziak was always communicating to agencies. But I had never made a feature before, so people didn’t really have a reference, and were afraid that I would make a movie that is exposing their actors in a way that is not helpful to their careers. So I was spending a lot of time convincing people that it’s a character-driven film, and it’s going to be really all about the intimacy. I ended up recasting the female lead twice because of different obstacles that came up in the process of either negotiating the contract or defining the nudity. Or just being on the same page in terms of how this should work. And then I found Brooke when we were tech scouting. [she laughs] We were supposed to shoot in January, and I just really saw it from the second she came in. I had seen scenes of her previous work, Gabi on the Roof in July, and she was in a play at the time. And after like three months of looking at people and re-envisioning the film, with every actor that we were considering for the lead, it was a very calm, peaceful moment of like, “Okay, this is it, I see the movie now.” And then from there we waited six months for Brooke to finish her obligations in Los Angeles, and her play in New York, and then we shot in July, as you know. What was most rewarding was just being on set with you guys, finally, after waiting for awhile to be there. And then just seeing how you guys worked together, it just was so much fun.

MM: Yeah, I agree with you. I think the biggest challenge was in the early scenes, wanting to communicate with Brooke, but not being able to. Because my natural tendency is, if I don’t want to communicate I fend it off with some kind of anger or fear, and I want to just put up a shield. But I wanted so badly to communicate with Brooke, and it was difficult to not communicate with her. And the most rewarding thing was, I remember lying in the bed before [the scene where] we have sex, and I remember I felt so comfortable with her. It was really fun to work with her because we did get so comfortable together. I felt like I had developed a relationship with her.

AM: This was a big risk, not to put you guys in a room and see how you would play off one another. Which was always how I intended to do it. When I started with casting that was always the game plan, cast Ronah first and then put the top candidates for Johnny with her and see what happens. But then it all happened differently. I just had a gut feeling about that being sort of right, although I knew it was going to be a risk. And then it was so rewarding to see that you guys actually had this chemistry. On set, I just saw you guys do your thing, and I was just like, “Okay, I don’t have to worry about anything.”

— Susanna Locascio

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