Against a remote, small-town backdrop in snowy Northern Maine, one woman’s simple mistake has tragic consequences for two separate families. Such is the premise of Lance Edmands’ haunting low-key drama, Bluebird.
Having cut his teeth editing the movies of his fellow NYU film school alumni, including Lena Dunham’s break-out Tiny Furniture, Edmands’ first foray as a feature director himself caused quite a stir upon premiere at this years Tribecca Film Festival. Currently, the film is in the running for the top prize at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (where it’s the only U.S. film in competition).
Ahead of the film’s first public screening at KVIFF, the first time director, along with his producer Kyle Martin, sat down with me to talk about the experience of making their film. Fans of indie cinema should definitely check out our spoiler free discussion, below.
Tom Clift: I know you’ve done some work as an editor, but has writing and directing always been the goal?
Lance Edmands: Yes. I went to film school at NYU, and that was always what I had wanted to do. The editing sort of came about as a way to collaborate with my friends, and work on their productions…and I also used it to make money. But I was always writing, and it was always the goal at some point, when I was ready, to make a film.
Clift: So was Bluebird always meant to be your first film?
Edmands: There were definitely other scripts and other projects that I was developing, and for one reason or another they weren’t the right one to make. This was the first project that gained some attention and some traction, and felt like it was actually something we could get the financing for. So it became the first project for that reason.
Clift: So at what point was it that the film looked like it was ready to start moving forward? Maybe you can talk a little bit about this Kyle?
Kyle Martin: We got support from the Sundance Institute very early on. They invited Lance to participate in the writer’s lab and the director’s lab, and I participated in a producer’s lab, all in one year. And that was the first thing that really gave us momentum and sort of validated the project in a big way. And in the States, it’s a good sort of seal of approval that kind of legitimizes the project, and also attracts the interest of the industry financially.
Clift: I’m curious about the origins of the script. Lance, I know you grew up in the area where the film is set, and I’m sure that probably played a big part in the movies’ inception. Could you talk a little bit about developing the story?
Edmands: I was definitely influenced by the location. It sort of came first in a lot of ways. I grew up in Maine and was always entranced by its mythic qualities, and the kind of storybook quality of the woods. And I was developing other projects to shoot there as well, but I was really taken with this town where we shot in Northern Maine, by Mt. Katahdin. The project really developed from that space…wanting to make a film that, to me, felt like this place, and the feeling that I got from this place.
Edmands: Yeah, it’s integral. I’m a visually driven director, in that I think in pictures and I don’t really think in words, and I don’t even really think in terms of character. I usually think in imagery and the emotions you get from looking at a picture. So that was key. And I worked with a great cinematographer, Jody Lee Lipes…he’s basically one of my best friends, and has been for years, so we kind of had a little bit of a secondary language. We, in a certain way, grew up together watching movies, because we went to film school together, and our formative educational years were spent in the cinemas in New York, learning to love the same kind of work.
So it became a visual movie, and we didn’t even really need to talk that much about it, because I think our sensibilities were pretty similar. But one of the key decisions we made was to shoot it on film. Even though it was a very low budget film, we were still able to shoot on thirty-five millimeter, and do it in a very specific way were we really underexposed it, so it was really grainy and gritty.
Clift: Well yeah, you sit in the audience and can clearly tell that this is a movie that has been shot on film. You can definitely see that grain, and I really enjoyed that. For me there’s something nice about seeing something shot on film, especially a lower budget independent film, which it probably would have been so much cheaper and easier to shoot on digital. I guess it’s a case of aesthetic thinking trumping the business side…
Edmands: A little bit. We did that a lot, made a lot of choice that I think were not smart business choices, but were the choices we wanted to make from an artistic standpoint.
Clift: The cast is fantastic. I’d like to ask how you, firstly, about how pulled them all together, but also how…I don’t know if you can speak about their processes, but in terms of trying to get them in the right headspace, and into the place that these characters occupy…I guess I’m just asking you to talk a little about your approach to working with actors.
Edmands: Well we had Susan Shopmaker as our casting director, and she’s fantastic…she really helped us sculpt the cast, because it was a very specific world that we were creating, as you said, and I didn’t want any one actor to throw off the balance of the film. Because it’s an ensemble movie and is very much about the situation and about how you take a step back, in a macro sense, and look at these people and how they’re interacting with each other. And any one person who tried to make the film about them, or drew the movie away from that almost distanced, macro look, would have been a mistake. So it was very hard to balance the cast out, and she did a fantastic job with that.
We ended up pulling people from a lot of different sources. Like, obviously people know John Slattery and Margot Martindale from TV, because they’ve done amazing work on television. But Amy Morton, as Lesley, is a Broadway star, and she was just Tony nominated and is a really big deal on Broadway. So she comes from a different world. And Louisa Krause, who plays Marla, is kind of up-and-coming in indie films, and people know her from Martha Marcy [May Marlene] and stuff like that. So she’s a little bit more of a rising star…And Emily Meade, we actually auditioned her…And then we did auditions in Maine as well, at the location. So some of our cast, some of those secondary characters, were actually cast at the place where we shot. So the cast really came from a lot of different places, which I think really helps the movie balance itself…it helps keep a certain equilibrium.
You also have to have people that fit into that world and don’t feel like they’re putting make-up dirt on their face, you know what I mean? They really had to kind of dive in there, because – and this maybe gets to the second half of your question – Amy was really driving a bus, and John was really learning how to drive this logging equipment, and it had to be an immersive type of experience, where people were really doing these things…Everyone had to learn some kind of physical thing to do, which I think helps actors, in a way, get into a role, because it allows them to experience something with their body. And also the weather. I think for a lot of them, it’s was just so cold. It really is that cold and desolate–
Martin: You don’t have to pretend that you’re cold. It’s really cold. The other part is that it’s just an immersive process. We were all up there in this really remote part of Northern Maine for weeks, and I think just being there had an effect on their experience. It wasn’t like they could go home to their apartment in Manhattan every night. They were stuck in Millinocket, Maine, and I think that also helped them absorb the spirit of the place
Clift: We’ve spoken about some of the actresses, and one of the things that I really liked about the movie was the number of strong, three-dimensional female characters. Was it an intentional thing to focus more on women characters, and do you find it easier or more difficult to write female roles?
Edmands: Yeah, that’s interesting. I actually prefer writing for female characters, and I like films with female leads more. I’m not entirely sure why. I think there’s something…it’s hard to talk about without lapsing into cliché…it just resonates with me more. There’s something about, in my process I think, getting out of my own head and out of my own experience, and part of writing for me is transforming my life and my experiences, and channelling them through a different lens, and for some reason I think that full metamorphosis actually helps me think about the emotional content in a more honest way. It’s really hard to talk about why, but that’s sort of as clear as I can be about it…
Clift: I guess for me it’s just gratifying to see films with strong female characters…even multiple female characters…
Edmands: Well that’s the other thing. Maybe what’s part of it is that you don’t see it that much. You don’t see a movie with a woman lead that isn’t about sex, or about men. [Bluebird] is about just being a human being, and that’s the story of most people’s lives. Male or female, a story about human beings just trying to relate to each other, I think think it’s universal. I don’t think it’s a male or female thing.
Clift: Building on that, family is definitely a huge part in this film. We get this juxtaposition of these two families, and these various different mothers…again, was that a theme you were interested in exploring?
Edmands: Well yeah, family is obviously a very rich subject matter, in the way that people deal with their family and the way they interact with them. That was very much the subject of the movie to me in a lot of ways. I don’t…it is something I’m interested in. Not exclusively so, but I do think that the way people are affected by their family, and the way things are passed down…there’s a sense of inevitability about it. You’re physically made up of the cells of these two people, and can you escape them when you are them? I think there’s just something about being trapped within your own body, and within your own sense of self, that’s kind of lonely and terrifying. And to a certain extent everyone [in the movie] is trying to escape this feeling of being trapped.
Clift: Another thing I love is that there’s never really judgement passed on any of the characters…there’s a lot of moral ambiguity. Was it a conscious consideration to emphasize that sense of ambiguity?
Edmands: Yeah it’s definitely intentional. It’s actually something I think about a lot in terms of storytelling. I’m not that interested in stories where the drama has a good side and a bad side. I just think that everyone is the hero of their own story, and everyone thinks that they’re pursuing truth and honesty in what they do, no matter who they are…I think it’s far more interesting when there are no villains, there’s just a situation. And maybe there are sides…It’s not about who’s right and who’s wrong, it’s just about these people with conflicting needs. I think the more ambiguity that you can pour into a dramatic situation like that, the better.
I think part of what the movie is about is the way people try and find meaning in a situation that’s essentially meaningless, or that’s essentially chaos, and what’s happened to them is out of everybody’s control, and so everybody’s scrambling to make sense of it, and scrambling to try and find out how they fit into this problem. To me that’s more interesting than saying “this is the stated goal, and this is the mean person who is against the goal, and we’re going to go towards”. Because that’s not how things, in my experience, work in the real world.
Clift: I think we’ve got time for one last question, so I guess I’d just like to ask what’s next. Where can people see the film going forward, and what other projects do you guys have on the horizon?
Martin: We’re in a bunch of festivals both within the US and internationally. I don’t know if we can talk about all of them, I don’t know if they’re public yet. Next we go back to the US and we’re in a bunch of great festivals. We’re showing the film in Maine, there’s a great festival there that’s been a big supporter of our work, and that’s really exciting. We’re [going to show it] in the high school that we shot in, which will be tons of fun. And then just some festival stuff lined up in the Fall and then look towards release.
Clift: So is there distribution in place yet?
Martin: We’re still working on that at the moment. There are a couple of territories where that’s still a process…
Edmands: And then we’re working on making another movie.
Clift: And do you have an idea what the next movie will be?
Edmands: Um…there are a number of things. It’s the same situation where we’ll see what sort of feels like it makes the most sense to make next. I like to have a few balls up in the air at once.