Critical Questions: Bradley Rust GrayBy Josh Ralske
First love and unexpected collaborations.
Writer/director Bradley Rust Gray has directed four features, all in collaboration with his wife, filmmaker So Yong Kim (In Between Days). They are quiet, perceptive dramas about the lives of unique young women. His newest, Jack and Diane, is a departure in that its tale of young lesbian romance in Brooklyn also contains what might be described as "horror elements" and includes unsettling animated segments created by the brilliant Brothers Quay. We interviewed Gray via email about the terrors of first love, how he cast his film, and his creative partnerships.
CM: I was a big fan of The Exploding Girl. Is there something in particular that draws you toward these stories about young women?
BRG: I suppose I stared thinking about stories about girls because I was trying to distance my own life from my characters. Or in a way, write something personal, but under the guise of hiding behind my protagonists. It also makes me think about things in a universal way if I make my characters women and try to see the world from their point of view.
I see a connection between Ivy's (Zoe Kazan) epilepsy in that film, and Diane's (Juno Temple) unique physical frailty, and her sort of transformative nature in Jack and Diane. Do you see a similarity there?
Sure. I think there's a connection. I've always been interested in magical realism, in particular the works of Julio Cortázar. In my first film, Salt, there's a girl who turns into a seal in the story. It's based on an Icelandic folk tale. So there's this idea of thinking about what's happening inside someone's body; these magical transformations are something that I'm drawn to and still trying to understand. In Ivy's case, her epilepsy was something which was more set in the real world. Something she knows about, and is trying to control. It's a condition. I think in Diane's case, she's unaware of the transformations going on inside her, but it's something she feels. I was trying to create a link between that feeling and the feeling of falling in love for the first time. Suddenly your body is just acting weird: You feel tingly, and nervous, and excited and just strange. And you think, "is this love?" But it also feels scary when you realize how vulnerable you've become.
How did your collaboration with the Brothers Quay come about, and at what point during the process of making the film? Was the script written with the animated interludes in mind? How closely did you work with them on the animated sections, and what was that process like?
I met the Quays in London in 1994 when I was studying there. Basically I just looked them up in the phone book and called them because I was a fan of their work. In a surprising way, they were very welcoming. I ended up writing a thesis on the use of sound in their films. Over the years they've been very supportive of So and myself, reading our scripts, making suggestions, etc. So when I was writing this project of course I had them in mind. We were really terrified of asking them to do it, but we finally built up the confidence to ask them and they said, sure no problem. But that was almost the full conversation we had about it. Later, we talked briefly about how they could make vaginas dentata out of fish gills, and what a tuna asshole looks like, and off they went. After they had finished the animation they came out to Berlin where we edited the film and we went over how all the footage could be moved, slid, etc to fit into the final film. One thing about the Quays though is they wake up very early... very early. Like 4am. So we would do all our work before our kids even went to school. That was a slight adjustment. [Normally] we sometimes might not make it to bed till 4am.
There's a very dark undercurrent to the movie, almost a horror aspect to it, with the nosebleeds, the cab accident, and the disturbing animation, and of course that creature. But at the center of it is this performance by Juno Temple that has this light, airy feel to it. Can you talk about that contrast?
Well for me the feel of the film is trying to replicate the feeling of falling in love for the first time. So it does feel light and airy at first, floating, but then as I mentioned, it also has this terrifying undercurrent once you realize that you've given all of yourself to someone else. And it happens without you realizing it. Suddenly, you're deep in love and you can't think of anything else, and the smallest misunderstanding turns into this horrifying feeling of pain. We were trying to capture those feelings. In the same way you might add black pepper to strawberry sorbet to give it a little "smack smack" feeling. I also think that differences in tone and emotions are more pronounced if the extremities have space around them. You hear this in music all the time, from The Pixies to Penderecki. I was trying to imagine the structure of the film like a song or a meal -- adjusting feelings rather than story.
The creature is quite a shock when we first see it, and then the movie flashes back. Is the intention to throw the audience off-guard, to defy their expectations of a sort of low-key indie drama? Did you ever have any concerns that people might expect it to be a straight horror film after that startling opening?
That image came to me as the opening of the film quite early on. In fact it was probably the starting point for the script. I had a master editing teacher, William Haugse, who told me once that you can't change editing styles in the middle of a film. For example, you can't start jump-cutting half way through the film if you haven't introduced it as part of the vocabulary you're presenting earlier in the film. So for me, I was trying to just say, okay, this creature is part of the film, but now just watch the girls and hopefully you forget about it. You're aware that it's in this movie, but we tried to go as long as we could without reminding the viewer of it's presence... in the same way you forget the fear and pain in love, when you're on the other side of it.
Like Zoe Kazan (Elia Kazan's granddaughter), Juno Temple (Julian Temple's daughter) and Riley Keough (Elvis Presley's granddaughter, who plays Jack) are both related to famous artists? I suspect that's just a coincidence, but I find it interesting, if you want to comment on it.
It is an interesting coincidence. But purely just a coincidence. They're all wonderful girls: unpretentious, unspoiled, bright, and kind. So kudos to the parents involved in all of their lives.
Juno Temple (The Dark Knight Rises, Killer Joe) has been in some high profile films lately, while Riley Keough is a relative newcomer. I thought she was excellent, and in a role I wouldn't necessarily have pegged her for, just from seeing photos of her, or seeing her performance in The Runaways, which was the only thing I'd seen her in before this. Then you have Kylie Minogue, who has had this sort of resurgence in independent films with this and Holy Motors. Can you talk about how you cast the film?
Kylie's manager had expressed she wanted to do independent films and she happened to be in Brooklyn so I met her the same day. We went for a walk and I thought she really understood the character. She was a treat to work with, and she fit us into her insanely busy schedule. I met Juno in Los Angeles and really felt she understood Diane. She has a very gentle nature which she keeps close to her heart. Riley came on about a month before we shot the film because we had a casting change. But finding her was something which made waiting on the film for eight years worthwhile. She was the magical missing piece.
Can you talk about the significance of the mixtape, another sort of dark undercurrent to the story? Music is realistically very important for these young women. Can you also discuss how you chose the music for the movie?
Well the tape is part of Jack's brother's story. It's something he made for his girlfriend as a symbol of true love. As Jack explains. I think it still represents that for her. In my mind she's just recently found it, maybe even on the same day that Diane arrives, and she puts it in the cassette player at the shop just to hear it through big speakers, and that's the moment Diane arrives. I like the song, "Only You" (by Yazoo), because the first impression is that the song is quite cheesy. It is cheesy, but I also think it's quite heartfelt. And the more you hear it, the stronger it builds on you. I wanted to have the song play a few times in the film, so that when you hear it at the end you hear it as Diane does, from her point of view. That, in a way, it's become more than just a song. It represents Jack and her together.
We had to replace almost half of the songs in the film in the last two weeks of the mix time. This was unfortunate timing, but one of those moments when things just start to happen magically. For example, we wanted to use a relatively unknown slow-metal band for the song in Tara's (Minogue) tattoo shop. I thought it wouldn't be too difficult to get the song, but it turns out that that band had broken up and they didn't get along so they were unapproachable. Our music supervisor Annie Lin then suggested that I just name bands I would like for the scene. I mentioned Rapeman and she said she had a contact who knew Steve Albini. Fifteen minutes later I was emailing him in Italy and ten minutes later he emailed back and said no problem. And we ended up using a Shellac song. I would have never dreamed of being able to use some of his music, but just goes to show you should reach for what you want.
There's a local band called Runny which plays a lot of the poster shop music, along with The Dillinger Escape Plan, who So and I are big fans of. Again, DEP was very open with us using their music.
I was editing the film in Berlin and was hanging out with a friend at a playground. And while our kids were running around together he mentioned he had done an album with Mark E. Smith. I went home, listened to the song (by Vonsüdenfed) and fell in love with it, so we have that track at the start of the film and in turn we were able to get The Fall for Aunt Linda's (Cara Seymour) song.
We always have a majority of Icelandic music in our films, just because we used to live there and we have so many friends who are in bands from there. For example, this guy [Rock] Kohli, who shows up asking the girls if they want to join a band, made the music for the video games in So's film In Between Days. The Icelandic music in the film are FM Belfast (who did the club song, "Synthia". They also have a member of múm in that band), Jónsi, Lady & Bird, and especially the band múm themselves, who did our score.
So and I have known múm since 2000 and they've contributed the closing music for all of my films. But this was the first time we worked with them actually making a score. I was super happy and felt very fortunate for the experience. They shifted things in all sorts of directions I would have never guessed. Also, we were able to ask them to do a song for Kylie which we recorded in London and is the closing music for this film. The song is called "Whistle" and should be available in January.
Could you tell us about your collaborative process with So Yong Kim? You obviously share an affinity for a certain kind of subject matter. How do you choose projects, and how involved you are in making each other's films?
Yes, I think we have an affinity for subject matter and tone and style. If you put them up next to each other you might see a lot of differences, but I think we have more in common than we do with other films. It's a natural occurrence because we live and work together. It would be extremely rare that So's seen a movie I haven't' seen or if I was listening to music she didn't know about. We're lucky to be given the opportunity to make films together, so we try to work hard and be thankful. We choose each of our films individually. Right now we're both working on scripts the other hasn't read yet. So I imagine in a month or so we'll be handing our material to each other and then biting our fists while the other reads it. It would be nearly impossible for me to work on something which So didn't like. But if So likes it, I know we'll get it done. We basically just try to help each other get our films made.
|Jack and Diane Tralier|