Five Questions with The Playroom Director Julia Dyer

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It’s hard to write about Julia Dyer’s The Playroom without writing about the passage of time. It’s been sixteen-years since Dyer’s previous (and first) film, the Sundance hit Late Bloomers, and Dyer has finally crafted a proper follow-up. But beyond that, the film itself is quite concerned with the changes in attitude and perspective that time renders. Set in 1970s suburbia, The Playroom tells the story of a dysfunctional, alcohol-fueled dinner party,  while also showing the same night through the eyes of a group of kids upstairs in the house’s attic. Premiering this week in Tribeca’s Spotlight section, the film features an especially strong ensemble that includes John Hawkes, Molly Parker, and Olivia Harris.

Filmmaker: Obviously it’s been a long time since Late Bloomers. In your eyes, how has the independent film landscape changed since that movie was released?

Dyer: In many ways, it’s a whole new world for independent filmmakers. The digital revolution has radically reduced the cost of production, while simultaneously opening up a much greater spectrum of opportunity for distribution. We’ve also seen the indie world evolve from a fringe-dwelling group of starving artists and rebels to a viable mainstream industry, with wide exposure and a significantly larger audience base.

But in some very basic ways the challenges remain the same. I’m not just talking about the money, although that’s as tough as it ever was. It still comes down to finding a story that’s rich enough to attract all the talent you need to make a great movie, and to keep you artistically engaged and striving for as long as it will take to bring it to fruition. That’s why we stayed with The Playroom for so long—in all those years, I honestly never read a better script.

Filmmaker: Similarly, how would you say your artistic sense has developed in the intervening years since Late Bloomers?

Dyer: Professionally, I spent ten years directing long-form documentaries, so I was constantly working on my craft: shooting and cutting, telling stories in pictures. I worked with the same DP, Russell Blair, as well as producer Angie Meyer, and we three developed a shared cinematic vocabulary and a great working relationship around the camera. I think all that experience together helped us rise above some of the limitations of low-budget filmmaking and do our best work on The Playroom.

On a personal level, I got married and helped to raise four beautiful kids to adulthood, so that was a lot of growing up. I also lost my sister, my older brother and my mother. When people you love pass away, you eventually have to make peace with your suffering–you have to get bigger inside so the pain doesn’t consume or embitter you. So I hope that deepening of spirit has helped me grow into a more generous and insightful artist.

Filmmaker: Was it difficult moving forward with The Playroom after the passing of your sister (The Playroom writer Gretchen Dyer)? How did this loss impact your filmmaking process?

Dyer: The only thing more difficult would have been not to move forward with it. Gretchen was my best friend and lifelong creative partner, and The Playroom was her signature work. She knew her days were numbered, and we all tried very hard to get it made while she was still with us. After the initial shock of losing her, her death seemed to re-dedicate our whole artistic community to making it happen. Gretchen was well-loved in this city, and doors started to open.

It was lonely making the movie without her, but it also helped me feel connected to her. The great joy of our relationship was exercising our imagination together, so this was a way to keep doing that even after she was gone. Another gift of the experience was working closely with my brother – producer Stephen Dyer. We both felt her absence so keenly, and it had the effect of deepening our relationship, both personally and creatively. I think Gretchen would have liked that.

Filmmaker: How much of the movie is based on your personal experiences growing up? Are any of the Cantwells based on members of your actual family?

Dyer: This reminds me of Flannery O’Connor’s famous observation, that anyone who survives childhood has enough material to last the rest of their lives. Gretchen definitely wrote this script from her own perspective–being a teenager in the seventies was an exhilarating and liberating experience for her, but it was also confusing and damaging and ultimately heartbreaking, and she used all of that to shape and inform The Playroom.

For anyone who knew our family back then, the bold and lovely Maggie Cantwell is probably recognizable as a movie version of Gretchen, and for that matter so are the rest of the kids. (I was Janie, the goody-goody.) The parents, not so much–especially as embodied by the brilliant Molly Parker and John Hawkes, who brought their own unique and deeply moving spin to these troubled characters. In reality, the combined forces of the women’s movement and the sexual revolution were forging a fault line down the middle of suburban America, and lots of families were cracking under the pressure. I imagine more than a few people who lived through that time will recognize aspects of their own family, or at least the family who lived down the street.

The truest thing for me in the film is what it felt like to be a child, one of a tribe of children, who saw more than we should have, more than we could grasp at the time. We knew the ship was going down but were powerless to stop it, so our best choice was get in the lifeboat together and try to take care of each other while we waited to grow up. That’s the emotional reality of The Playroom, and I think that’s something a lot of people can relate to.

Filmmaker: How did you go about casting some of the more high-profile talent featured? And how did you discover some of the younger actors?

Dyer: Gretchen and I were huge fans of Deadwood, and we loved John Hawkes in Me and You and Everyone We Know, so more than five years ago we were already plotting to get him for The Playroom. We heard he was coming to town for a film festival, so I stalked him at a midnight screening of a Robert Rodriguez film and he agreed to read it. He loved the script, especially how the kids were portrayed, so he attached himself early on and stayed committed the whole time we were trying to raise the money.

By the time we got into production, Winter’s Bone had happened and suddenly everybody wanted John Hawkes. To his great credit he came to Texas over Christmas to shoot our little movie, working us in between days on Stephen Soderbergh’s Contagion. We had just wrapped when he got the Oscar nomination, so of course we were thrilled for him and proud as punch.

Naturally, having John attached also helped us get taken seriously by Molly Parker. She immediately seemed to grasp every nuance of Donna’s character, and knew exactly what to do with it–the role was just a perfect fit for her fearless approach to acting, and she knocked it out of the park. It was a great pleasure to work with her, and her presence raised the bar for everyone on the set, right down to the props assistant and boom operator.

The biggest challenge was casting Maggie. In 2009, Gretchen and I mounted a statewide search, reaching out to school programs and private acting coaches to try to find a teen actress who could bring the mix of fire and vulnerability the role demanded. Out of 60 or 70 young women, Olivia Harris was the one who captured our imagination. She might have had the least experience of anyone who auditioned, but she made up for it with raw talent and guts and a fierce intelligence. I guess it was fortunate that it took another year-and-a-half to get the film into production, which time Olivia spent studying in one of the nation’s top acting conservatories. So she had plenty of time to prep the role.

The three younger kids are all from the Dallas area. Jonathon McClendon (Christian) and Allie Doke (Janie) were already seasoned actors–they both nailed their parts in their first audition, and we were just grateful to have them. Finding the six-year-old Sam was a little trickier. We didn’t see him in the agency kids, so we took a gamble and reached out to our personal networks to just try and find a little boy who was right for the part. Ian Veteto came to us literally through a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend– he had never acted before, but he had the desire and the wisdom and the self-control, and he turned in a pretty unforgettable performance.