“Something Seismic was Shifting in This Country”: Five Questions for The Wolf Hour Writer/Director Alistair Banks Griffin
With Alistair Banks Griffin’s recommended second feature, The Wolf Hour, containing one of Naomi Watts’s best performances, in theaters, we’re running again our interview with Griffin following the film’s Sundance premiere. — Editor
“I can’t get out but I look out the attic window and watch the world go by. I feel like an outsider. I am on a different wave length then everybody else….” — David Berkowitz
In one of the Sundance Film Festival’s real discoveries, Alistair Banks Griffins’s 1977-set The Wolf Hour, Naomi Watts plays June, a novelist and cultural critic existing somewhere in the intellectual shadow of the era’s greats, like Susan Sontag. After the publication of her first novel, The Patriarch, leads to her father’s presumed suicide — a fact revealed to her on live television — an agoraphobic June retreats into the womb of her grandmother’s run-down Harlem apartment, ostensibly to work on her next book but really to pace, fret, smoke cigarettes by the carton and to, in moments of self-care, dance spasmodically to Suicide songs. (“America, America is killing its youth… hey!”) It’s swelteringly hot, with tensions ramping up due to the Summer of Sam as well as the blackout. “Ford to City: Drop Dead,” was the Daily News headline not even two years prior, and plenty of people wanted the city to do just that.
Narrative arrives through dwindling funds and June’s need to deliver to her publisher a new draft, but, really, Griffins’s intentions are larger than a dramatization of writer’s block. With large south-facing windows, June’s vista overlooks not only her uptown block but also all of Manhattan below, a cityscape punctuated by the eerie totems of the Twin Towers. And just as the city grid’s power collapse reverberates to this day, Griffins’s analog-age vision serves as an atavistic shoutout from a time when not only the social contract but assumptions regarding identity and the politics of representation began to change — a moment stunningly visualized here within the split second of one wide shot.
I conversed with Griffin, whose first feature was the 2011 Faulkneresque drama Two Gates of Sleep, via email during the Sundance Film Festival, where The Wolf Hour premiered in the NEXT section.
Filmmaker: Let’s start with your protagonist, an author whose work mines both autobiography and politics and who plays a role culturally — as seen on the TV interview show — that not many authors seem to fulfill today. Do you have a particular inspiration for this character, whether that was a writer or even just someone you know?
Griffin: When Naomi and I first started discussing the character we dialed up all of these amazing, weird audio clips of Susan Sontag talking about her family and her early sexual experiences in her sloshy non-rhotic, transatlantic New England hybrid accent, and we both just sat there really hypnotized, and then we started wrapping June around her tonality. In the same breath, Sontag could go so effortlessly from talking about her life to the geopolitics of the Middle East, film criticism or whatever. I think the voices of that era were much less “put in a box” than today. There was a lot more random writing that we did, and what came through was all chopped-up for effect because we specifically didn’t want to create that box for June. We were also skimming into some of the prickliness and style of Germaine Greer, and Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking, about the loss of her husband and daughter roughly a year apart [the latter in Blue Nights], was an influence as well. And also Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels.
I have also really been fascinated with watching certain counter-culture figures go head to head with William F. Buckley, Jr. on his seminal program Firing Line. There was one particular episode with a highly inebriated Jack Kerouac and musician/writer Ed Sanders where Buckley goads Sanders into losing his cool. Back then it didn’t seem all about a zero-sum game, though. Thoughtful debate was still cultivated on both sides of the aisle. These episodes really give you an understanding of what was important in that time period for the establishment to suppress and about how much the cultural groundswell of that moment was scaring the shit out of them. I have never myself been an activist in any specific way but I envy that passion and perspective.
I was also drawn to the idea of turning the notion of the sought-after, reclusive artist on its head; someone who had reached some level of notoriety and then fallen off the grid so that literally no one was looking for them, like an ego abyss! June then perhaps starts crafting a misguided notion of people wanting to find her.
Filmmaker: What attracted you to the time period of the movie — New York in the late ’70s, an era which you couldn’t have known first hand?
Griffin: I don’t believe having lived in the era that you are making a comment on is necessary, otherwise we might not have Barry Lyndon, The Odyssey or even the Bible. I was born in the U.K. in 1978 and came to the U.S. at a very young age. My father had been embedded in ’60s and ’70s counterculture of both places, but as he moved into his professional life he became quite conservative, and I always wondered what had happened to create that shift in him. He is a history buff as well, and as a teenager listening to his take on the unrest of that time really hooked me, and a fascination began.
The New York summer of ’77 was particularly interesting because of how much it reflected the unrest happening in America in the present day. New York City at that time was the visual personification of Western decline and the anger that followed the seemingly unfulfilled promises of the idealism that spanned the decade before. The heat, the bankruptcy, the police corruption, this mad killer on the loose — the desperation all laid the groundwork for the perfect storm that came to a head the night of the blackout.
I moved to New York several months before the 9/11 attacks and worked every morning just a few blocks from the World Trade Towers. I was lucky enough not to be there that day, but it has stuck with me in indelible and sometimes debilitating ways, and when I did experience the NYC blackout of 2003 I had a sort of un-lived trauma of the ’77 one, though it ultimately was pretty benign in comparison. When it came time to corral my feelings after over a decade of living in the city into a story it became clear that the most impactful way to do it was to bring it into an earlier moment in history rather than speak to my experiences directly. What came out was a bit more of an impressionistic interpretation of all those emotions.
Filmmaker: The movie deals with a character who is agoraphobic, it seems, or a shut-in, but you steer clear from making it a movie too much about her affliction. Could you discuss how you shaped this character with Naomi, and what kind of research you did?
Griffin: I did specifically steer away from diagnosing her here. I went through a period of not being able to really go outside and cutting myself off from friends and family, and now I don’t have that issue. So, I feel like labeling people with psychological tags can lock those traits into people’s minds when some of these things are passing phases in life. Naomi and I focused more on aspects of depression as a whole, and more specifically on the loss of relevancy — what that loss does to a person whose profession requires it. Naomi has been so vulnerably candid about her struggles as an actress in the first part of her professional life (pre-Mulholland Drive renown), and the memory of that pain and uncertainty seems to drive her a good deal in the roles she takes on. The notion of what Hollywood does to actresses after a certain age was also a topic of discussion and perhaps a bit of an impetus for creating June.
Filmmaker: All period films are in some way about the present. How does The Wolf Hour speak to where we are as a culture today?
Griffin: Absolutely. When I began writing this script the 2016 election had not yet happened but it was undeniable something seismic was shifting in this country and the world. Suddenly I was seeing dark parallels to that decade in a very specific way, and it forced its way into the story I was telling. I think in times of great tumult there is a tendency to want to hide away until it passes, and this is in part what June represents and why doing that is an unsustainable action. It’s hard to know exactly what is happening historically in the moment you are living through it.
I chose to tell this story from a female and historical perspective of the unrest of the late 70’s not so much to remove it from current times, but in that it sets up a mirror in which to better view how little has changed, that these moments roll in cycles and that there is always a light at the end of the tunnel.
Filmmaker: Finally, could you discuss your seamless interior/exterior work, which I’m guessing had to involve some kind of plate work. As impressive as the interior of your apartment set is, the exterior, which expertly conjures up New York street life of the ’70s, is even more so. How did you design and then implement these “looking outside” sequences?
Griffin: This was for me the greatest challenge and was crucial for the execution of the film to be believable. Because of our tiny budget and brutal 18 day shooting schedule it was clear that our perspective had to be hyper-limited, and this is something I was eager to cultivate as I really appreciate the notion of restraint in all creative fields. We established a specific rule early on that once we entered the apartment everything from there on out had to be singularly from June’s perspective (at least when she was conscious). We decided to complicate this restriction by shooting in 2.35:1 anamorphic, a format much more suited for big landscape work. It forced my DP Khalid Mohtaseb and I to use close-focus lenses in a way that is untraditional, and a lot of unexpected and fantastic things emerged from that.
When it came to seeing the world outside, I had carefully studied a sequence from The Pianist in which Polanski had done something similar in the perspective of Wladyslaw Szpilman witnessing the Polish ghetto uprising towards the end of that film. I was lucky enough to get to visit the set Polanski had used on the backlot at Babelsberg Studios just outside of Berlin. I spent an afternoon there with printouts of frames breaking apart his shots and understanding how he did it all and the incredible simplicity of it. Interestingly enough this is the same set Tarantino used for the movie theater exteriors in Inglorious Basterds. Quite a lot of cinematic history in that place…
Ultimately, because of budget, I wasn’t able to have that level of control of working on a big exterior set build so we had to find a city block in Manhattan that could double for the Bronx as not much exists as it did then. Luckily, our co-producer Ged Dickerson found a perfect spot that wasn’t in the city’s blackout no-shoot zones deep in the heart of Chinatown that we could dress, and we sent the camera way up high on a technocrane to get what we needed.
As for the stitching of it all together, it was a laborious sleight-of-hand process in post production that did involve some matte painting work, but for the most part, 95% of it was captured in camera. This is a testament to the incredible work that production designer Kaet McAnneny and her amazing team did — in some ways so well so that I don’t even see where the set ends and locations begin anymore!
But the greatest trick to this stitching was in the sound design. It became very clear early on that it couldn’t just be stock voices out on the street. We had to craft the texture and feel of slang and street energy of the Bronx in 1977. I watched a lot of docs about the Warrior-esque gangs that dominated the neighborhoods and wrote pages and pages of what I call ambient dialogue in post that an extremely talented group of voice actors came in and performed under the direction of the brilliant Tom Paul, Andrea Bella Feuser and Esther Regelson. It creates a whole other part of the unseen narrative, perhaps even making you think you saw more of it than you really did.