Director team Lisa Robinson and Annie J. Howell return to SXSW 2016 with Claire in Motion (2016), the story of a woman undergoing a crisis of identity. Claire (Betsy Brandt, known for Breaking Bad and Masters of Sex) is a math professor in an Appalachian Ohio town who finds her life in disarray after her husband goes missing. As the police and her son give up the search, Claire continues to look, discovering unsettling secrets that force her to question her marriage and her sense of self. "We make films about characters searching for something that’s been lost — both physically and spiritually," Robinson and Howell wrote in their directors’ statement. "Claire’s quest to understand her shifting world after a crisis is a metaphor for more universal questions: How do we keep changing throughout our lives? How does our own change and behavior surprise those closest to us, or even ourselves? Can we ever really know anyone?"
Before the SXSW premiere of Claire in Motion, ScreenPrism spoke to the two directors about subjective camerawork, collaboration, and whether our ideas of self and loved ones will forever be “in motion.”
ScreenPrism: The title “Claire in Motion” has at least two meanings – visually, it echoes the way you follow Claire with a moving camera, and thematically, it suggests questions of identity and whether a person's self-image is always changing. What does the title mean to you?
Lisa Robinson: When we were talking about the film early on, we knew we wanted her to be moving a lot in the film, walking places and moving through space. [We wanted] this external sense of her repetition of her daily motion and also how that changes over the course of the film, as she goes into the woods and explores these other terrains. There’s also a thread that pulls through the film about falling. That also came into play in the title, just thinking about what it means to be in motion, both internally changing and externally in the world.
Annie J. Howell: Conversely, the problem of the film that she is stalled in certain respects. She is in the midst of a major life crisis, clearly, but we are also interested in talking about how this character is at a time in her life when certain pieces have come into place with her career, her family, and in the midst of this terrible crisis, it sort of provokes her, [and is] helpful for the long-term ways, to think about change at this particular time of her life, which has been difficult before. She has been, not in a standstill, but sort of coasting, not paying attention.
Betsy Brandt in Claire in Motion (2016)
SP: And the film makes us question whether you can ever know someone else or even yourself.
LR: Yes, definitely. She thought she knew who she was, she thought she knew who her husband was, and then after he goes missing, she discovers these strange secrets about him, and suddenly her life is upended, and her sense of who her husband was is upended, as well as who she herself was in that situation. So we were really interested in exploring this crisis in a psychological way.
SP: It sounds like you’re talking about relational identity, which often can be a problem especially for women. Is Claire’s story to some extent about learning to identify yourself not only through your relationships?
LR: Or even understanding how you are in your relationship, looking back on moments where maybe you were distracted in your relationship or maybe you weren’t as open in your relationship. Maybe she has a strong sense of identity—she’s a professor; she has a strong sense of herself separate from him, but who she was in that relationship is kind of going in and out of focus for her.
AH: We also present the opportunity for her to play the roles that our culture asks us to play. So we see her as professor, as mother, as wife. The confusion that can come with having expectations that are so specifically defined by a larger force, trying to re-center into [a real understanding of] herself.
SP: And this is a forever ongoing thing?
AH: It’s almost like coming to terms with that challenge itself.
LR: And being open to constant change versus thinking that your idea of your relationship is solid. I think that’s something that’s hard for people.
Claire in Motion (2016)
SP: How did you come to find the lead actress, Betsy Brandt?
AH: We had an amazing casting director, who Lisa had known from a previous project, named Emer O’Callaghan. We saw it as a great opportunity for her – I think it was her first feature. She works in TV. It was her first opportunity to really help us guide this choice. She was key. We really had a fantastic response to the script. And Betsy responded immediately, and it was just a case of making this all work with everybody’s schedules. We were so lucky that we could.
LR: We loved her in Breaking Bad, but we had also seen her in Masters of Sex, where she plays a much more vulnerable role. She has such an amazing ability. Betsy works in comedy; she works in drama. She has so much capacity as an actor. She knows how to connect to these deeper things.
AH: She’s really versatile. She also has a strong theater career. We are excited to see what comes next.
SP: What’s your process writing and director as a pair? You’ve made a previous film together—how did you start working together?
LR: This is our second together. [Robinson’s and Howell’s first joint feature, Small, Beautifully Moving Parts (2011), played at SXSW 2011.] We made a web series, too, way back. We went to film school together, but then after film school we were both working on independent projects and sort of waiting for them to be financed. But we got together, and we started working on web series, kind of as a way to play. It was before web series were so popular. It was the beginning. I think it was 2005. We made a web series, and we were able to sell it to the Sundance Channel website. Then we thought, Why don’t we make a feature with these characters? I think our collaboration spilled forward in this natural, organic way. We were meanwhile making separate projects as well. We both made shorts independently, and we had both been writing on other projects independently. It was always something fun to come back to. As collaborators, we were quite powerful in getting things together and getting them made. The writing process was really challenging already but also really interesting just because we were constantly bouncing ideas off each other, talking about films we loved, talking about ideas, kind of pushing each other forward to challenge each other to find the really interesting part of the story.
Lisa Robinson and Annie J. Howell
SP: As directors, do you feel stronger as a team?
AH: It’s always good to have two brains. [In Claire in Motion], we were doing a lot with a little. In terms of resources, this is not a huge film. It’s very helpful to not only have two brains working that, we’ve done it before, so we know how to manage it, but it also helps with being able to get the film made.
SP: You’re two female directors with a film starring a female lead, so I have to ask about the female director experience and the challenges of that. Working together as a team of two collaborators, did you find that helped to get the film made?
AH: I don’t know, actually.
LR: I don’t know if that’s the case. I think that we are so used to being female directors, we don’t know what it’s like not to be. Of course there’s been a lot of press about it recently. I at least have these moments where I’m like, Oh yeah, I’m glad people are talking about this because this was something I accepted for many, many years. It’s definitely easier to get a film financed that has a male lead, that has a story that appeals to men. No one would argue with you about that, and that’s a fact. Is it easier as two? It’s always good to have support whether you are collaborating with producers as well—we also have a lot of amazing producers that we work with on film. There’s a lot of women that we work with, and men, who have been champions pushing the project forward. I definitely think as a woman you just need collaborators. Whether it’s two directors, or a director and a producer, or a director and a writer, I definitely think films are more likely to get made with that.
SP: Do you feel that, with all the discussion happening and attention being paid, anything is changing in the climate?
LR: I don’t know—I’ll let you know soon.
AH: It’s certainly good to have it at the top of the conversation. As most problems in professional industries, it has to do with gates: who are the gatekeepers? For this particular project, we owned the gates. However, it doesn’t mean that in the future we will be in that position again. It’s a tough way to make films. We raised some money ourselves. The more complex and bigger a project that you try to make, the more obstacles. That problem is not going to go away by having this big discussion, but a big discussion can certainly lead to some action, which is really about changing the structure of the gate.
SP: Do you two have complementary views or styles?
AH: We have some different personality traits that help us navigate certain situations or challenges that complement each other. I’m probably more extroverted than Lisa is. We have similar tastes, so that’s a really good foundation. But of course we have different styles that I think can work together as a good combination.
LR: It’s too hard to analyze it. There’s definitely things there that help in little moments, where one of us is like, why don’t you do that? But to break it down is too weird, and would never be fully accurate with words.
Claire in Motion (2016)
SP: Where did the seed of the story first arise?
LR: It took us a while to write the script. But we were definitely interested in writing a story about a woman who was at this time in her life, where she is sort of coasting—she has a child, she has a job, she has a husband—and then something kind of throws her for a loop. That was what we wanted to do. Annie was living in Athens, Ohio, at the time, and that location was so amazing, and so we started to explore that as the basis for the story. We started to pull it together.
AH: Our last film is also a crossroads film, but not crisis; it’s a coming of parenthood. [Claire in Motion] is a crossroads involving life is changing for the worse, in that terrible moment, but also using that as an opportunity to universalize the themes for people who are not experiencing a crisis but are still experiencing the negotiation between stasis and change, especially at this time of life for this character which was after [these pieces have come together.]
SP: How did you approach visualizing Claire’s state of mind in the camera work and cinematography?
LR: We were really interested in the subjective approach to the story, where we wanted the audience to feel they were with her in the story, that they were really close to her in this experience rather than sort of watching her go through it, kind of experiencing it with her. We worked with our cinematographer, Andreas Burgess, who’s amazing. We shot with these lenses that gave it more of a dreamier, muted feel. We kept talking about oh, the camera needs to be close to her, like hovering next to her, maybe letting secondary characters go out of focus. Kind of feeling like we are right there with her in a space that is really internal. That was something we talked about every day, almost every scene: can we rethink this, or is there another way to do this that puts us even closer to her?
SP: How did you approach the sound design and music?
AH: Sound design was a really fun part of the process, to sort of heighten that sense of her perception of the world, kind of snap her in and out of her brain a little bit. And then we worked with this amazing composer who did our last film, Xander Duell, who just has an atypical approach to everything in his life and really gave us a score that is not predictable, that is really complex and rich, that might sound a little less like a traditional movie score, at least to us, and really is emotionally evocative in this way that doesn’t kind of hit the standard notes of how you are supposed to feel at a certain time.
SP: So the music doesn’t tell you how to feel?
Claire in Motion (2016)
SP: What did you have in mind for the film’s editing?
LR: Again we were thinking about this issue of how to stay close to her in the edit, too, and in terms of the coverage that we had, choosing ways of getting into the scene so that we were right next to her versus looking at her. Of course, when we were shooting, we did more coverage than we needed. So then we had these options we could choose from.
AH: We were really interested in the arc of the film, where you start to get into her mind more and more. The film sometimes takes these leaps into her mental space, on some level, or at least it feels a little bit like that, and using editing to push you forward into that rather than explaining everything. We wanted the film to be really visual and not telling you how to feel but really showing you and pulling you along on her personal journey. So I think editing really helped us do that. We worked with Jim Isler who, he’s worked on a lot of documentary as well, and he’s so great at creating these evocative moments with the cutting.
SP: How long did it take from writing the script to finishing the film?
AH: It was a couple years, for sure. The scriptwriting process in this film took a while, but it was worth the time. No one was saying, “Where’s the next draft?” except for us. But that really allowed it to kind of simmer in a way that benefited the film, ultimately. But we shot last May, so from May until now has been the trajectory since production. It was fun to write a script in that way and not have this—of course, there’s always pressure, but it did unfold in this way that allowed it to really steep.
SP: When you make a film, you live with it for so long. From script to promotion, it’s a matter of years. When you’re starting on a story, how do you know, of all the ideas, that this is one you want to stay with?
LR: It sticks. When we are writing, we are constantly questioning a story, questioning our commitment to certain choices. If it doesn’t totally feel that things are gelling, we find something else. At some point it starts to really work, and things can start to reveal themselves. Suddenly the story is there, whereas before you felt like you were knocking at this door. Like, “Is this it? Is this it?” And then finally you feel like, “Oh, this is it. This feels right.”
AH: So it has this instinctive part of the process. But I also think there is truly relying on whether or not something just feels delightful to you or not. When you are most excited about something, to really trust that, as opposed to trying to test yourself if this is the best one or not—because you are never going to know the answer. So just kind of trying to feel it, if it feels exciting and fun, delightful and interesting, that’s a pretty good sign. And of course you are going to still question that, but trying to take your temperature on that is a really helpful sensitivity meter.