“I Think Hope is When We Step out of the Cinema and Begin to Question Ourselves”: Director Andrew Dosunmu on his Michelle Pfeiffer-Starring Where is Kyra?
In his previous two features, Restless City and Mother of George, Nigeria-born photographer-turned-filmmaker Andrew Dosunmu has placed vivid human dramas within ultra-specific pockets of New York City. His films have examined how immigrant characters find their lives shaped by the often very subtle clashes that come from their retaining their own identities within the larger melting pot of the city. Working continually with the great cinematographer Bradford Young, Dosunmu also makes extraordinarily beautiful films, full of arresting images that convey the rhythms, exuberances but also pathos of these city streets.
With his new picture, Where is Kyra?, opening today from Great Point Media and Paladin Film, Dosunmu both expands and shrinks his palette. It’s his first film working with a bona fide Hollywood movie star, the extraordinary Michelle Pfeiffer, who cuts against her inherent glamour to deliver a delicate, wounded performance that is one of her best. And rather than situate his drama within a specific immigrant neighborhood, the film takes place in a working-class New York environs that could be a proxy for parts of any large or small city across the United States where the social safety net, particularly for the elderly and members of an aging workforce, is deeply damaged. That said, however, Where is Kyra? is a piercingly intimate film, one befitting the fraying psyche of its titular character, a middle-aged divorcee who, after the death of her mother, finds herself facing eviction and unable to reenter the work force. Pfeiffer, whose luminous beauty has always been inflected with a mysterious sort of guardedness, submerges herself in a very sad character, and the film follows suit, allowing Kyra to be lost in wide exterior shots while, indoors, the dark shadows of her apartment offer her their own protective emotional salve.
Pfeiffer has played these down-on-their-heels working-class characters before, in Frankie and Johnny and White Oleander, but Dosunmu’s is a very different sort of a film from these more naturalist dramas. While watching the picture I imagined it as a gallery installation, so palpable I found its mise en scene, and, during our interview below, Dosunmu actually said that he imagined it as such himself. The plot, involving Kyra’s efforts to stay in her apartment, is minimal, although it is struck through with a devastating metaphor about the invisibility of the elderly in our society. Kiefer Sutherland plays the film’s nominal love interest even as Dosunmu and Darci Picoult’s script makes clear that this most elemental of human connections isn’t enough to pay the rent. When movie stars in indie films often signify either bombast or middlebrow drama, Where is Kyra? is a beautifully visualized, bracingly mournful work that, like its heroine, should not be overlooked.
Filmmaker: Let’s start with the obvious first question, which is what inspired you to make this film? I’m interested in your attraction to this subject matter but also about the very spare approach and dark tone of the movie. And also, of course, about casting Michelle Pfeiffer as this very unglamorous character.
Dosunmu: For me, the story hinges on diminishing human values — how, sadly, women of a certain age are expendable, are invisible in our society. Living in the city, this has been something that I see all the time, how we walk around the elderly, don’t have patience for them. I was interested in how the elderly are vulnerable, because of lack of strength or diminishing mental capacity. So, at the project’s genesis, I wanted to do something around that. The [character of] the mother was tough subject matter, and from there I thought about how we could expand from that. Without the daughter, the mother would have died in her apartment alone, and without the mother, Kyra would have ended up on the streets much earlier. And in order to get people interested in such a theme, that’s where the notion of going to people like Michelle Pfeiffer came about. I thought, I’d like to see someone like her in such a frame.
I’ve always found Michelle to be both a great beauty as well as a dynamic, versatile actor. She has often been cast for her beauty without much thought to the depth of character she can play. What was remarkable about her in Kyra is that she was willing to strip away her physical beauty and go deep into the ugliness of the character.
When she first read the script she really liked it — this grittiness — and we met quite a few times. I think it was a bit scary for her, but she was willing to go there. I started by sending her pictures and references. One time I sent her a Walker Evans picture from the WPA era. Using someone like her, I wanted the audience to connect. Because she’s a household name, her familiarity is impactful to the audience. I wanted to make a film with Michelle Pfeiffer and Kiefer Sutherland that people don’t really expect them in. You expect a more commercial film, for lack of a better word. Directors move on to make bigger films with bigger names and the films become lighter, but I wanted to bring them in this artistic world, something that could almost be an installation but could still run in theaters. But that’s why they came on board, because of the work I’ve done before. It would be disappointing to do something else.
Filmmaker: Were these characters inspired at all by people in your own life?
Dosunmu: I have many cousins and family in the midwest and all across the country. And I have met people who started working at a company when they were 18, and now they are 50 and they’ve been laid off. They worked there for 32 years and now don’t know what to do. That really intrigued me. I’ve always been a freelancer, have always been on the fringe. The edge — that’s my life. But someone who has never experienced that, who left school, got a job, and doesn’t know anything else, what do they do? So that’s what inspired me — both our lack of interaction with the elderly and hearing about people who are unemployed.
Filmmaker: All of your films have been striking visually, this film no less so. You push the boundaries of darkness in some scenes, play with unusual framing as well as very shallow planes of focus. Could you talk about how developed the visual style for this picture with your DP, Bradford Young?
Dosunmu: Bradford and I have worked together for many a decade now. One of the things we decided to do [had to do with] the idea of sunshine — that the lightness in our lives is disappearing. There is a certain dimness, a darkness, shadows, a kind of despair. We wanted to heighten the sense of despair, to make the apartment feel like it was closing in on her. Photographically, that was the genesis of it. How do we light this place to be bleak, despairing, while [Kyra] just wants to be at home because she doesn’t want to step out.
Filmmaker: What about some of the framing. I was particularly struck by the shot where Kyra crosses the street and the whole shot is framed up so that her head is just a tiny object at the bottom of the frame.
Dosunmu: I wanted the audience be in her world and for the film not to be just about Kyra. I wanted us to experience what she is going through, so she is not the only thing you are looking at in the frame. What’s the best way to do that? When she is walking through the frame you describe, there’s the theme of strangling. She’s been strangled — her head is almost at the bottom of the frame, like she has been almost hung. The whole world is consuming her.
Another conversation I had with Bradford was about Cindy Sherman. I’ve been a fan of her since college, and I love her Untitled Film Stills. And the Byzantine era — I have always loved those paintings, the way they were lit, as if almost painted under candlelight. I have always wanted to make films that each time you watch it, you would see things like a cat under the couch.
Filmmaker: Going back to Michelle, there’s an early close-up of her looking straight at the camera that you hold for several seconds. I almost felt that this shot was you forcing the audience to get rid of any previous conception they have of her on screen.
Dosunmu: I really wanted to show that portrait — this is who she is, this is her face. Again, that [shot] was very influenced by WPA Depression-era photography. “Look into my soul.” For me, portraits reveal so much about people. Kyra staring into the camera, the audience gets into her internally. This is someone you know, this is your aunt, your daughter. Look at her.” I wanted the audience to face her and to know the film I am making.
Filmmaker: In terms of dialogue, the film is minimal. Can you talk about how you work with your screenwriter collaborator, the playwright Darci Picoult?
Dosunmu: Darci, she’s been amazing. We worked together on Mother of God at the Sundance Lab and at the IFP Lab. She definitely knows the kind of film I like, the themes and the kinds of scripts I’m attracted to, and we’ve got this shorthand. And being a woman, her perspective means a lot. She understands the nuances, and I’m constantly learning from her, bringing her into the cinematic room, which is more of a visual medium, because she’s coming from being a playwright, and that’s a beautiful compromise.
I guess maybe because I grew up watching foreign cinema and subtitles, I wanted to make films that would never be “lost in translation.” I have only wanted dialogue to intuit what I can’t convey visually. My themes start from an image, and I start thinking backwards and forward — what was that character before the picture was taken, and what are they like after? Again, cinema being a visual language, dialogue can become a product of not trying to expand one’s visual palette or perspective.
Filmmaker: What were the specific challenges of this film?
Dosunmu: The challenge of the film was about not having enough time. We were a low-budget union film in New York making a film you’d normally do non-union. We had 18 days with Michelle, and a maximum of ten hours a day, including makeup. And moving around the city was tough, so we were only shooting a couple of hours a day. But I had the support of the producers and the financiers — they’ve been generous.
Filmmaker: Finally, I’ve always appreciated bleak, lacerating cinema, but there is a class of viewer who would come to a film and ask, “Where is this hope?” What would you say to that person? And what do you think about that expectation by sum that a film dealing with social ills must also provide a kind of solution or answer for an audience?
Dosunmu: Where is Kyra? is not a social or political film but it’s definitely a commentary on society and why we should question things and not assume. It’s about having a consciousness of the environment. When we see people who are homeless, or are drug addicts, we should not quickly assume that they are there for [bad] reasons. Us being aware — that’s what I’m trying to do. So it’s not the idea of having a finale that creates hope. I think hope is when we step out of the cinema and begin to question ourselves and imagine what life is like for the people. That’s what I want people to walk away with.