A Conversation with Christopher Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein (THE STRANGE ONES)
I met with directors Christopher Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein on Sunday, May 7, 2017, at the Maryland Film Festival. We discussed The Strange Ones (which I reviewed at SXSW), their feature adaptation of an earlier short film (of the same title). The film received a Special Jury Recognition for Best Breakthrough Performance at this year’s SXSW Festival, for young lead actor James Freedson-Jackson, as a young teen boy on the road with his older brother. Alex Pettyfer (Magic Mike) also stars as that brother. A tale about loss and recovery, The Strange Ones is a beautifully photographed, elliptical dramatic mystery. Here is a condensed digest of our conversation.
Hammer to Nail: So, since you both not only co-wrote and co-directed the film, but also co-edited it, I’d like to start by asking about one of my favorite aspects of the film, which is its frequently abrupt scene transitions. How did you arrive at that almost smash-cut way of jumping to a new scene?
Christopher Radcliff: It’s cool to talk about the editing, because we spent so long editing it together. (laughs)
Lauren Wolkstein: And we haven’t really gotten many questions about it.
CR: And it’s such an integral part of the movie. I think there was a sort of underlying goal, for us, of disorienting the audience, at certain times. The film was so much about presenting conflicting information and keeping people guessing and a little bit unsure of what’s really going on. So there are a couple smash-cut editing moments where the edit really highlights, in some way, a kind of disorientation, or where the edit jumps forward from the audience, and then the audience is forced to sort of catch up, for a few seconds. Or the audience is taken from something really calm to something very chaotic, and that, to us, felt thematically consistent with what we wanted to do.
LW: And we also wanted to leave the audience with a question after every scene, at the height of the scene, kind of cutting out before getting too many answers, leaving them at the climax of the scene, and then moving on to the next one, so it kind of lingers with you. The editing process was all about trying to find the pacing throughout the movie, and a lot of the choices that we made felt like…once the scene hit its moment, to move on to the next one.
HtN: That is often the best reason to cut. Once the scene has done its job, just get out. I mean, there are all sorts of reasons to cut, but that’s a damn fine one. I’m noticing, in a lot the films I’ve seen recently, that there is a trend towards these long, slow fades to black, which I have mixed feelings about…(laughs) So, how long have you two been working together?
LW: Chris and I have known each other for over 10 years. We went to film school together; we went to Columbia grad school together. We started grad school in 2005, so…12 years, we’ve known each other. We hit it off; we were friends right away. And we both were making our own work, and then a couple of years into film school, we had both shot our thesis films and decided we wanted to work together, because we both really respected each other’s work and sensibilities, and we were really close, and we thought this would be a really cool collaboration, to find a project we could do together.
CR: So we started to work together when we made the short version of this, and that was in 2011, and so it’s been about 6 or 7 years that we’ve been collaborating.
HtN: And then you both worked on Collective: Unconscious.
CR: Well, I edited Lauren’s piece in that, as well as Lily Baldwin’s piece.
LW: We kind of work on each other’s movies in some capacity, as well as on our own stuff.
HtN: Beyond your official collaborations as co-directors, you also continue to work together.
CR: Yeah, like Lauren produced my last short film, Jonathan’s Chest, so that’s how we worked together on that one, and then I also edited Social Butterfly, her previous short. We always work together in some way.
LW: It’s kind of like this pure collaboration, where we’re really close friends, and we respect each other’s feedback and value each other’s work, and so we kind of maintain that film-school vibe of workshopping that we had in school, and that we carry on to our own work, which has been really nice.
CR: (laughs) Yeah, film-school vibe. That’s a good way of putting it.
HtN: So, you also construct this very elliptical narrative, parceling out information on a need-to-know basis, but also purposefully misleading us, at times. At one point, early on, I thought that Alex Pettyfer had magical powers, in that early scene in the diner. You keep us guessing, for sure. How did you decide what to show and what not to show?
LW: That’s a really good question. That was a constant thing. Talking about the edit…
CR: But even in the script. The major conversation about how we were going to tell the story, from the script point through the production and the edit, was always how much to reveal and when to reveal it. Like what experience are we taking the audience through. Something that was at the core of The Strange Ones, from the very beginning, was this idea that you think you know something, but then you are given a reason to believe that that would be false, or something else might be true, or that there are these different, conflicting versions of the narrative that are being presented to you. We wanted to make the film in a way where we weren’t purposefully misleading people, but we were giving people a subjectively ambiguous experience, which we consider very honest, but also very mysterious, and gives you a reason to have to examine and…
LW: …question yourself.
CR: Yeah, question it and question your perception of it.
LW: We were very aware of making a film that was subjective, especially through the boy’s perspective, and how he he has conflicting ideas of what’s happening, the same way that the audience should feel about his experience. And question any interpretation.
CR: For us, a lot of what feels potentially misleading is rooted in a sense of subjectivity with this teenage character, because he’s in this very weird, hazy headspace, where he’s haunted by these memories. He’s on this bizarre journey, with this person, and the audience sees things the way he sees things. And for us, one of the reasons why we’re interested in telling stories about a teenage protagonist is that it’s such a fraught time, mentally and emotionally and physically, and so all the kind of internal, emotional factors that he’s experiencing influence his subjectivity, and through that, the subjectivity of the film.
LW: Yeah, and conflicting views that he has about the world kind of come out, scene by scene, as he’s feeling a certain way.
HtN: And I like how our own impression of the events unfolding in front of us changes; I like how you parcel out that information. But let’s talk about the cast now. Your film won a Special Jury Recognition for Best Breakthrough Performance at SXSW, for James Freedson-Jackson, who plays the young Kilgrave on Netflix’s Jessica Jones. How did you find him, and how did you assemble the rest of your cast, including Alex Pettyfer? And by the way, I think this is the best thing Pettyfer has done. I always like him, but he’s especially strong here.
LW: Thank you! He really pushed himself, to be able to explore different sides of himself. I guess in his previous work he wasn’t allowed that kind of multidimensional character. James Freedson-Jackson came to us through our casting director, Jessica Daniels, who we’ve worked with on pretty much all of our stuff. Once he came in, he just kind of blew us away with his maturity and his grasp of the material, in a way that we weren’t sure, at first, that a 14-year-old could handle such dark material. He really was able to take it to the next level and understand the complexities of the character. And with Alex, we were both like, “I don’t know, let’s see about Alex.” Because of his previous work, we weren’t really sure if this was something that he would be interested in, but he actually came in and…
CR: He was the first person we met, actually.
LW: He really wanted to do the project! He really responded to the script and the dark material, and we were really fascinated with showing a different side of Alex beyond the heartthrob that everyone grew to know from his previous work…the damaged, vulnerable side, as well as a paternal side, as well as this attractive guy. And he had all of those aspects.
HtN: I think he’s excellent. I love the way the film looks. Could you describe your process of working with your cinematographer Todd Banhazl?
LW: Todd is brilliant. Once he came on board, I feel like the complete vision of the film came to life. We worked with him on creating this color palette, from the beginning to the end, and he was really in sync with everything that we presented to him, and he had great ideas, in addition. He just really had a wonderful handle on the story and the vision that we were going for.
HtN: Had you worked with him before?
LW: We hadn’t, no. Our producer introduced us to Todd and when we were interviewing DPs [directors of photography], he actually came to us with 40 or so images and reference materials that were … a lot of them were the same reference materials that we had, going in to the project. So it just felt like he understood what we were going for.
CR: And he’s very adept, technically and visually. He has a tremendous understanding of the tools at his disposal and how to use them to create the exact images that you want, but he is also great at engaging with the material on a narrative and emotional level. He really understood what we were trying to do, story-wise and character-wise, and how to create imagery that reflects the emotional state of the characters, or the more tactile experiences the characters are going through. I remember one thing that he was very aware of, which Lauren and I never though of, was the texture of the oil on their skin. Because this is sort of a dirty, hot road trip, you know, and he was really great at honing in on those small details.
HtN: What did you shoot on?
LW: We shot on the Alexa. But we had a lot old, vintage lenses.
HtN: Got it. Because I was almost wondering, at one point, if it were shot on film, because it has that texture.
LW: Yeah. We knew, right away, that we wanted to create that tactile feel for the film, so our discussions with Todd were about how to make it feel cinematic and filmic by using the Alexa and these lenses.
CR: These really old, anamorphic lenses.
HtN: And then the grittiness of it.
CR: He had a good idea of what tone of black the blacks should be, and what tone of green the greens should be, and stuff like that.
HtN: What about the production design, by Danica Pantic? Who came up with the idea of the drawing of the dark swirl that the boy does?
CR: That was in the script. We had this subtle motif of this void, or this black hole, of the swirl, the scribble, and it comes out several times in the movie, where we try to echo it. It’s almost this kind of black hole that’s beckoning to the characters throughout the movie, and he’s approaching it and eventually gets sucked into it. So we wanted to create that visual motif with the notebook, as well as with the coffee cup, which is also like a signifier of that, as well. And I think it was Danica, or Shane [Torres] – our props guy – who actually drew the swirl, but it just tells you so much, that this kid is just sitting there, doodling this black hole, kind of spaced out.
HtN: It’s a very horrifying drawing, in a sense, for a young kid to be doing over and over again. So, last question, which I’ve been asking of all the filmmakers here: filmmakers and others from outside Baltimore seem to really like the Maryland Film Festival. You’ve both been here before. What, to you, makes this particular film festival so special?
LW: It’s one of our favorites. The sense of community is so great here. There’s no sense of competition, or having to worry about the industry or what is beyond the festival. There’s none of that. It’s just about enjoying the festival and the festival experience, and enjoying each other’s company and seeing everyone’s films. At other festivals, it’s really hard to see movies, when you’re trying to sell your own, or you’re trying to get press. There’s all this pressure on you. This is our first feature, and so that’s something that we haven’t really experienced before, with our other work. But it’s so great to be at this festival, in particular, and just enjoy movies. The people that run the festival really love cinema, and that’s amazing. And to be in Baltimore, which I think is such a vibrant city, and to be here when the Parkway Theatre is opening was so amazing. In addition, the special presentations are great: we went to see Vagabond and Roar, the other day…
HtN: Roar, otherwise known as the quasi-snuff film…
LW: Yeah! The family snuff film! There’s just such a passion for cinema here.
CR: It is an uncommonly great festival, in that: a) the programming is amazing – [programmers] Jed [Dietz] and Eric [Allen Hatch] and Scott [Braid] have great taste, and what they do is to build a program that really reflects the current state of independent film in America and in the world; and b) I think they’ve really thought a lot about how filmmakers experience the festival – it’s just a very filmmaker-friendly experience. We get to come here, as filmmakers, and finally see a bunch of inspiring work.
HtN: Thank you both. Congrats on the film!
R/LW: Thank you very much!
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)
(The Strange Ones is in limited theater release now and available on VOD)