A Conversation With Annie Howell, Lisa Robinson and Betsy Brandt (CLAIRE IN MOTION)
I met with directors Annie Howell and Lisa Robinson, as well as lead actress Betsy Brandt, on Tuesday, March 15, 2016, to discuss their beautiful new drama, Claire in Motion, for which I also wrote a review. Brandt plays Claire, a comfortably married mother and math professor, forced into crisis by circumstances beyond her control. The film was shot in and around Athens, Ohio, where Howell lived at the time. Here is a condensed digest of that conversation.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed
Hammer to Nail: Annie and Lisa, you went to film school together. This is not your first movie collaboration: you did Small, Beautifully Moving Parts in 2011. When did you know you wanted to make films as a team?
AH: Well, there was really no moment where we said…you know, someone else asked us, were you looking for a partner in film school? It really happened much more organically through the normal, small messiness of life. (laughs) Because…first of all, we were good friends…and secondly, we liked the same movies. And that was just after years of having conversations. We had sort of taught in a similar scenario where we had gotten to know each other a lot better…and then we were both kind of in the post-film school state of having scripts written, but…waiting…and we just said, why don’t we make something together? So we started talking about, should we do a short, should we do this? And we had a couple of lunches where we just came up with a character that we loved and we decided that a web series felt very achievable. And once that went really well, we just thought, well why can’t we just make a feature? This is ridiculous, it’s just longer. And so, at that point we really understood, and it gave us a lot of power to know that we didn’t really have to wait for anyone else. And that’s been the work, so far. And now we’re ready to graduate to a much bigger budget. (laughs)
HtN: (to Lisa) Do you have anything to add to that?
LR: No. I think that’s great. It’s been fun working together and creatively interesting, because we are different people, we have different ideas, even though we have similar tastes. So the writing process is really interesting, because we get to bounce ideas off of each other and really challenge and push ourselves into territory that, you know, comes from both of us.
HtN: Who does more of what, on set? Does one of you watch the actors more, while the other looks at what the camera is doing? Or does it just kind of depend on the moment?
BB: It’s a true collaboration. I can totally vouch for that, and I was directed by both of them. I don’t even know how they do it. They make it seem so easy and kind of like it’s the only way to do it! (laughs) It was just really, really lovely. Really lovely, having two heads.
AH: Yeah, and I would just add that it has been different every time. In this particular project, we were shooting in my house, so that occupied part of my brain, and so I was sort of doing some on-the-ground producing, probably more, and Lisa was directing a little more than usual, but we’ve just been adapting to whatever the project demands.
HtN: What was your house used for in the movie? Is it Claire’s house?
AH: Yes it was!
HtN: Wow! And where did you get that great house in the woods?
AH: I had just been to a party there, and that’s how the slow-burn location scout went, because I was living there, so it became like a…(cracks up)…five-year location scout. So, as another example, I went to my first birthday party – because I have kids – at that roller-skating rink used in the film, and thought, oh my God! This is unbelievable!
BB: (laughing) You could make an entire movie about the roller-skating rink!
AH: And the people who run it!
BB: And the people who run it.
HtN: So you were in Athens, Ohio …
AH: For six years.
HtN: What were you doing in Athens?
AH: My husband and I…he got the job first – because he’s a film scholar – so we both were professors at Ohio University. And we’re now back in New York. We didn’t plan it that way, but we’re now both at City College. So I was steeped in the kind of academic life that’s shown in the film.
HtN: How about you, Lisa? What is your experience with academia and teaching?
LR: I teach filmmaking – screenwriting and directing – at Long Island University’s C.W. Post campus.
AH: I just want to add, in terms of the artists and academics in Ohio, we had amazing Ohio University professors in the film, and I just want to give props to that community.
HtN: Betsy, how did the script come your way? Through a casting agent?
BB: Yes, through Emer [O’Callaghan). I didn’t know Emer, but I knew a woman that she works with, Jen. And it was an office that we really like. And my team got the script and said, hey, there’s a film that’s reaching out to you and they read it and loved it, and I read it and loved it. Then, when I talked to Annie and Lisa, on the phone, I just knew that I wanted to do it.
HtN: (to Annie and Lisa) Was Betsy the first person that you cast? Did you start with Claire, since she’s the centerpiece?
LR: Yeah, and we were so excited about her because we felt like we…I mean, we just saw Claire in her. Her work on Breaking Bad is so amazing and…
HtN: Yeah, although Marie [on Breaking Bad] is very different than Claire! I’m very impressed with your performance here, Betsy, because I’ve seen all six seasons of Breaking Bad and got very used to you in that role, and you’re very different here! It’s a terrific performance.
LR: We also saw her in Masters of Sex, which is a really different role for her, and it’s amazing. When we saw that, it just became clear that there’s all this vulnerability and strength in this character on Masters of Sex, and those two things together were what we really wanted in Claire, so that was really exciting.
HtN: And then, in terms of the rest of the cast, you’d worked with Anna Margaret [Hollyman] before, and how about the others? The boy, Zev Haworth, especially…
AH: Well, he had been a friend…I’m very good friends with his mom, and I had watched him, over the years, engage in just a number of different creative pursuits: he’s a musician; he’s a dancer. And then he had acted in some short films that I had seen. But he didn’t have any professional training. And so, when we were writing, I was thinking about that a little, that maybe this could be kind of amazing, and once Lisa met him, we started talking about the real possibility of having him really commit to this. Because a long day on a set for any kid who hasn’t been on a set before, or had only been on a smaller-scale project, requires him to be really interested in doing it.
HtN: It’s a challenge for you, too, because the rules require that a child actor be on set for no more than 10 hours a day, right?
LR: Yeah, but we were able to do that, because there are so many scenes where Claire is on her own. She’s in every moment. But yes, it was challenging for Zev, but he totally rose to it, and he’s so natural, which is what we were so excited about. He just thought about his role in a way that was so mature. And we could direct him almost like he was an adult, which is something that, I think, with a lot of kids, you have to play games, in a way, to get them to the right place. But he could actually think about the role and then drop into it.
AH: With help from Betsy, too!
LR: A lot of help from Betsy.
BB: I had a great time with him. I have a child who is slightly younger than Zev, and I just adore that kid. He’s just a great kid. It was just easy, right away, and I loved watching you direct him, Annie, because you know him. I think he helped me keep it more playful, which gave Claire a levity that I don’t know if that character would have had, otherwise.
HtN: I have to say, the scenes between the two of you are wonderful. I also really like the scenes between you and Anna Margaret, because there’s this level of discomfort. She’s wonderful in that part, sort of making you roll your eyes in disbelief, wondering, who does she think she is, speaking to you in that way?
BB: And, you know, it’s not a straightforward journey with her, with this character, which I loved and, to me, is what makes the script so great. And Claire is so needy there, and she’s not normally a needy person. Something I did in this movie that I haven’t done before is that, when I was talking to Annie and Lisa, I said, I loved her [Anna Margaret] in Small, Beautifully Moving Parts, I’m sure she’s lovely, but I will probably keep a distance from her, and please let her know that it’s not personal – I’ve never met her – I just didn’t want there to be any…I didn’t want a hint of familiarity between those two. And, you know, we’re both actors, we could do that, and I just felt that it was so imperative, and I wanted to experience that, in those moments.
HtN: Well, it works. One of the many aspects of the film that I loved is how every scene feels fully realized, the details on the screen…even having something like that a cappella group that Claire walks by. I mean, there’s no reason for that, plot-wise, right? But it’s there, and it makes you feel like you’re on a university campus. Or when Claire is putting up one of the fliers, and there’s that guy sitting there, a child with him, and she just sort of waves to him. There was never a moment when I felt as if you hadn’t thought about every element in the frame. You talk about a small budget, but such details make the film feel fully…produced. Kudos to you for that. You even had actual skydiving footage!
AH: Somehow there was a skydiver that we befriended
LR: …that our production designer [Emmeline Wilks-Dupoise] befriended, because we used their brochures and they gave us permission to use their sign, and we couldn’t actually shoot at their skydiving area, because it was too far away – we would have loved to, as it was a beautiful place! – so we had to kind of recreate one, using their stuff. So in the process, our production designer, who’s ingenious at making friends – she’s so amazing – had also talked to them about footage, and so we got in contact with them, and they had a GoPro, and this man had shot this landing in a kind of stunning way. And we just went through all this footage, and picked the most evocative piece. So that was a found resource.
HtN: And then, as far as rich details go, there’s also Sakina Jaffrey (House of Cards) and her cat outfit. What motivated that? Just a fun little detail?
AH: I think that those threads – you mentioned the choir, and the cat…
LR: …there’s the clown car
AH:…and the clown car, that don’t really bear down on the plot, but they really fill out the world. And you can focus on how they help the building of locations, but also of characters. We love to work with material that leaves space for the audience. That was just one of those that was so fun to not answer the question. Just let it be; it’s sort of up to the viewer.
LR: Yeah, the only thing I would add is that when we were writing Sakina’s character, we were talking a lot about how this film grapples with issues of identity, and Claire is in a place where she’s a little bit stuck, where she’s been coasting for a while, and not really thinking about who she is, and how she’s changing and her husband is changing, even though they’ve been together for a long time, and so we wanted a neighbor who was a little more fluid, kind of a little more able to shift around. So it was fun, without thinking too hard about it, to have her be, you know, an acting teacher, and kind of explore that in a small, playful way. So she’s a little more fluid.
AH: Maybe a model for Claire, in a very subtle way.
BB: I loved it. When I read the script, it was like, the only thing I don’t get, I don’t get the cat.
AH/L R: (both laugh)
BB: I don’t get the cat, and then you guys talked to me about it, and when we were working on it, I saw the benefit to it, but then I really saw it when I saw it on screen. I love the juxtaposition of the professor who teaches acting and the math professor. And that’s who Claire is. (laughs) I relate more to the acting professor; she has a totally different personality.
HtN: Last question. I love your film. It works as both drama and thriller. However, though the story resolves, it doesn’t resolve in a traditional Aristotelian three-act narrative way. I wonder, at any time in any drafts of the screenplay, did you flirt with different endings?
LR: I mean, I think we were always committed to this being a film about her experience, and about her experience of uncertainty and not knowing. And so that was just something we committed to, and we thought that was really interesting. We thought that maybe it wasn’t as predictable or obvious an ending, but we were just interested in that reality for so many people, of not knowing something. So no, we never planned for it to be an outright thriller.
HtN: Or to have a closed-loop ending.
AH: No. I mean, of course we fiddled with the ending, but what we were trying to find was the perfect way – without any spoilers – to let the theme emerge into the material, and keep it to her experience, and allow that to be narratively satisfying. Because we always knew that we were interested in staying really close to her.
HtN: Well, thank you very much, and congratulations to you all for making such a beautiful movie.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)