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SXSW 2017: Lauren Wolkstein and Christopher Radcliff on The Strange Ones

Alex Pettyfer and James Freedson-Jackson in The Strange Ones

Expanded from their 2011 short, Lauren Wolkstein and Christopher Radcliff’s The Strange Ones starts with a house fire. A young boy (James Freedson-Jackson) stands paralyzed in front of it, and next we see him on the road with someone (claiming to be?) his older brother (Alex Pettyfer). Over the course of a long, strange road trip, we slowly put together some (but definitely not all) the pieces of a story of sexual assault and two people on the run from the law. Motels, diners and farms are among the upstate New York locations. The impressively assured, enticingly semi-enigmatic film had its premiere Saturday morning at SXSW.

Filmmaker: The big, broad question is the development process of taking this from a short to a feature, which took a while, including going to Cinemart, where you were one of only two US French co-productions. 

Wolkstein: So we made the short and it premiered at Sundance in 2011. It also played Rotterdam. 

Radcliff: The short was drawn from true crime cases that we had been researching. The characters are somewhat inspired by real people and the short was a really brief glimpse into this story, but there’s so much more to the characters and their lives. Writing the script took a long time logistically because Lauren and I are both working and making other movies. We have jobs and stuff. The feature script went through several iterations as well, and that’s partly why it took so long, because we wanted to make sure that the feature had the same sort of philosophy as the short. The short was all about, “We’re going to present you with these events that service the whole story, but with this hidden world underneath it, and without really explaining too much about it and letting the audience kind of put the pieces together.” Figuring out how to take that approach at a feature length was really time-consuming because with a feature there’s more story. You have to give certain secrets away.

Wolkstein: You have to reveal more information.

Radcliff: And Cinemart was great. IFP Film Week happened at the early stages of the script, and then Cinemart came about when the script was almost finished, so it’s an interesting bookending thing. We had been working with a French producer who financed the short and several of our other shorts, and that’s how we ended up at Cinemart. It was really intense. We had 40 or 50 meetings in three days.

Wolkstein: So it was very similar to IFP, except that you’re at the same table and people keep coming up to you.

Radcliff: And you have to separately pitch it over and over again. So we were super shaky about our pitch on the first day, but by mid-day, we had done it so many times that it was actually great. It was a great thing to go through just in order to help us hone how we speak about the film, how we pitch the film and how we talk about the genre.

Filmmaker: What did you describe the genre as?

Radcliff: We described it as a psychological thriller with coming of age elements, because it deals with these sort of thriller-y kind of elements, like murder and kidnapping. But at the core of it, the guiding logic omes from trying to express this young kid’s perspective on these events.

Filmmaker: But when you got the pitch down that well, is that also frustrating because it’s kind of reductive? 

Radcliff: Yeah, it’s true. When you’re in this mode of pitching all the time, you stop caring so much about reflecting your film accurately. What you really care about is selling the movie to somebody in a way that they’ll actually be interested in. It’s a little bit frustrating because you step back and you’re like, “I’m not even talking about the movie the way that I intend to make it anymore.” The wonderful thing about Cinemart was that the pitch evolved in a weird way. We started by pitching it as a psychological thriller, and a lot of people at Cinemart were, from a European perspective, turned off by that, whereas in America that’s a great thing because it’s going to sell. In Europe, they don’t have those same concerns, so they were just like, “This doesn’t sound as unique or artistic.” When we could sense that, we tracked back and positioned the movie in a way that played more to how we honestly feel about it.

Filmmaker: What was the thinking behind opening the feature up to widescreen? The short’s in 1.85.

Wolkstein: We shot on anamorphic lenses, and that created this different depth than the short had. We wanted to have more texture than the short.

Radcliff: Originally, we really wanted to shoot on 16mm. It wasn’t within our budget to shoot on film, but we still wanted the movie to have a cinematic texture, so we were talking to our DP and it evolved from there. He put us up to these really bold anamorphic lenses [the production used Cineovision Primes, a Panavision Vintage Anamorphic Zoom, and an Anamorphic Adapted Angenieux Zoom] that are similar to the ones that were built for Kubrick. They have this really specific type of glass, so when we started to envision the characters and the landscape, it felt like it added a really subjective quality to the movie, which our movie’s so much about subjectivity that anything we can do to kind of put it into this more subjective dreamy space —

Wolkstein: And draw the viewer into the characters more, which we felt like the anamorphic lenses did. We also used a bunch of zoom lenses as well. We wanted to have the option to show different boundaries and shoot through different layers, which the zoom lens really helped us with, by having glass in between the lens.

Radcliff: A big motif that we were going for was the layers of the characters through the visual layers in terms of shooting characters through barriers obscuring them, like windows and glass or underwater.

Wolkstein: So the lenses really helped with that aspect.

Filmmaker: The fire, I assume, was both real and expensive.

Radcliff: Yeah, the fire was our biggest obstacle all throughout pre-production. It was the one thing we knew was going to be the hardest thing to pull off. Our producers were working really hard to come up with how to do it in a way that would look right, be safe and also be within our budget. A lot of different ways to execute it were thrown around in pre-production, and that included burning down a real house. For a really long time, we talked about finding a foreclosed house that we could work with the fire department and burn it down. Should we just do it with computer effects? We were always sort of against that. Our production designer actually built a chunk of the house that would be the size of our frame. We created the shot before we actually executed it, so we knew the frame size and the exact amount of house that we wanted to show and what the framing would be.

Wolkstein: And where James would be in that frame.

Radcliff: So a part of a house was built for the shot. That was our way of doing a real fire, but cost effective.

Wolkstein: And we modeled the house that our production designer constructed out of the real location that we shot at, which we couldn’t really burn down.

Filmmaker: The other thing I wanted to ask about is the local news segments. It’s one of those things that every movie, it doesn’t matter if it’s a Hollywood film or an indie, they’re always wrong for some reason. I saw that you had Jeremy Hersh, who’s a director himself, do this as a second-unit director. 

Radcliff: The segments were in the script and were really important to the story because they give the viewer bread crumbs of information at key moments. So they were things that would’ve been really hard to cut from the movie if they didn’t work. The press conference with the hikers, that one is inspired by a real life interview that happened. We showed [Jeremy] a clip of that, and we were like, copy this as much as you can. It’s usually outside of a building somewhere, there’s a mic stand. Jeremy was just also really great at looking at the clip that we had and directing the actors in a way that was very in line with normal people that had never been interviewed before being interviewed, the subtle awkwardness.

Wolkstein: And then with the voiceover, we actually hired real newscasters who came with the right voice.

Filmmaker: I appreciated it. One of the punchy things about the movie is that there’s a sort of ambivalence or lack of clear moral resolution in terms of this complicated question of having an semi-possibly consensual relationship between a teenage boy and an older man. The only movie that I remember in which that maybe helps shape somebody in a sexually positive way is Mysterious Skin, but that idea really always wigs people out. What was that discussion like?

Radcliff: It’s something that we thought about a lot in the making of this movie. I think we both love Mysterious Skin and it was a reference point for different elements of this movie, in terms of capturing a very fraught teenage experience and how a teenage person who’s dealing with really majorly dramatic circumstances and trauma and instinctually looking for some type of support system, a loving relationship that maybe he doesn’t have at home. And how quickly, as a teen, the lines between sort of that kind of attraction and a more sexual attraction are more, I don’t know —

Wolkstein: They’re blurred, because as a teenager, you’re coming into your own and just discovering things for the first time, especially discovering sexuality, and how that could be confused or misconstrued or how attraction can take several different forms. And we were interested in the dynamic between these two characters, especially the power dynamic between them, and when is someone in power, who’s manipulating who.

Radcliff: Is this relationship real or not? Are these characters in this relationship? Versus depicting it in a much more straightforward way and trying to psychologize too much why they would be in a relationship, why it’s a positive or a negative thing, that didn’t really interest us. The more interesting thing to us was the intrigue around the question of whether the relationship exists. 

Wolkstein: We’re more interested in people’s perception of this relationship rather than really stating what that relationship is. There are moments in the film where the older guy is more in power than the kid. What does that mean? And there are times when the kid is more in power than the older guy. 

Filmmaker: Okay, let’s do a few more locations. Tell me about the farm. I assume that’s a real thing?

Radcliff: The farm is an actual sort of farm in upstate New York called The Yiddish Farm.

Wolkstein: They also make matzo and teach Yiddish.

Radcliff: It’s this really beautiful, ramshackle place. We shot there for four days and they were really supportive and cool, and didn’t ask a lot of questions and let us do our thing. They also have this camp program, where kids and people can go and stay there. So it has all the elements that we were looking for— it’s got to be really pretty, but it also has to be a place where a bunch of wayward youths would go to escape their lives and learn life skills. It has those amazing little bungalows that the kids all live in that are all different colors.

Wolkstein: I think it was the first location we went to. We saw a bunch of different farms, but we kept coming back to this one.

Filmmaker: And the diner? I assume you had to shoot super late night?

Radcliff: The scene takes place at night, so we always were going to shoot it super late. That is the Phoenicia Diner. It’s actually a really popular hip reclaimed diner that’s in the Phoenicia Mountains upstate. It’s in the middle of nowhere; a bunch of people that go up there to take vacations from New York City always end up there. They have really great farm to table food and stuff, but it has this amazing retro, old diner look. We tried to de-modernize it in certain ways when we shot there, because it looks like a place out of a magazine spread if you just go there. It’s beautiful and really clean and great.

Wolkstein: And we wanted something more rundown and older.

Radcliff: It had these great big windows that looked out into the parking lot and booths and tiling, and neon stuff that we really liked.

Wolkstein: We even brought some neon in.

Radcliff: Really good food. We ate there even when we weren’t shooting there.

Filmmaker: So how much physical distance did you have to cover over the course of the shoot to get from all the places versus number of shooting days?

Radcliff: We shot in 20 days, so it was really short.

Wolkstein: Four weeks, five days.

Radcliff: Since the kid was in every scene almost, we had to shoot shorter days, because of the law. But the farthest we went was to the Catskills area, about three hours north [of NYC]. We shot [the motel] literally down the street from where we shot the short film. That was also the first place we went, so we went the farthest first. We shot there for a week. We stayed at the motel, and then the rest of the shoot was almost like a trip back to New York. So for weeks two and three, we were in the Hudson Valley area. That’s where the diner was and a bunch of our other locations. And then our last week was on the farm, which is near New York. So it’s kind of like, three hours away and then two hours and one hour. And upstate’s really cool, because it’s super-mountain-y and there’s a lot of diversity in terms of landscapes. So we were able to paint the road trip and make it feel like they traversed a wider terrain than we probably really did.

Wolkstein: And that’s what attracted us to upstate, too. It doesn’t feel like it’s really New York. It feels like it could be anywhere, which is what we wanted.

Filmmaker: Do you have a particular set of expectations or a game plan forSXSW?

Wolkstein: We’ve done all our shorts together, so we’ve been there with all of our shorts.

Radcliff: Like five or six times. In terms of taking this film there, post-production has been an absolute blur for us. We wrapped at the end of August.

Wolkstein: End of August. Started editing. We edited the film ourselves, so we haven’t really had any break.

Radcliff: We haven’t had any distance. We just locked picture at the beginning of February and did the rest of our post throughout February and just finished. A few days ago, made the DCP. So we’ve had so little mental bandwidth to even consider what to expect or what not to expect.

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