“Persistent Paranoia, Anxiety and Fear Does Something to Your Body…”: Five Questions for Tito Writer/Director Grace Glowicki
One of the great independent film discoveries of SXSW 2019 is a picture that is also one of the boldest artistic statements of year, Grace Glowicki’s Tito. The Canadian actor and director is known to Filmmaker readers as the female lead of 2016 25 New Face Ben Petrie’s Her Friend Adam, which I dubbed in these pages “a squirmy treatise on sexual insecurity and relationship oneupmanship.” Glowicki’s character’s response to her partner’s icky jealousy, I wrote, is one of “unrivaled power and blistering sexual humiliation, capped off by a loudly feigned orgasm that will erase in viewers any memory of Meg Ryan’s similar reenactment long ago in When Harry Met Sally. (Glowicki picked up a Special Jury Award for Outstanding Performance at Sundance.)”
Her Friend Adam was a sharper-than-the-norm slice of hipster millennial relationship anxiety, but Tito — in which Glowicki is the lead and Petrie the co-star — is something else entirely, an expressionistic plunge into the fractured psyche of an emotionally damaged social recluse that reminded me films like Lodge Kerrigan’s Clean, Shaven and Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers as well as the confrontational performance art of Mike Kelly and Paul McCarthy. Glowicki herself plays the near-silent Tito, eyes downcast, twitchy and shambling, but projecting an essential empathy. Petrie is an out-of-nowhere neighbor who wants to connect and to party. The narrative is purposefully minimalist, with moves from interior to exterior, and through visual spaces that both assault as well as echo the fears in Tito’s brain, as important as any single plot point. In fact, as Glowicki discusses below, Tito avoids the often misguided narrative impulse in films about characters with disabilities in favor of a discursive approach that places its character study in service to a complex thesis about male predation and “women as prey.” With the director’s own genderbending lead performance working on a meta level, Tito is both a midnight-movie-worthy blast of heightened sensation as well as a thoughtful personal expression by a notable new directing talent.
Tito premiered last week at SXSW, and Glowicki answered the following questions via email.
Filmmaker: The director’s statement for your film Tito talks about “re-appropriating the experience of women-as-prey as the male creation, and male problem,” and “regifting it to the male psyche from whom it originates.” Could you discuss further how these psychological, critical and theoretical ideas found their form in Tito, particularly in your decision to cast yourself as Tito and then to make the narrative as minimalist as it is?
Glowicki: The choice to perform Tito as a male character initially arrived as a purely intuitive instinct. The character first emerged with my trying on a piece of costume and listening as my body naturally responded to it with a physical posture. From that posture, the voice of the character emerged, and organically it became apparent that the character bubbling up was a man. I just trusted that instinct and followed through with it, really allowing my physical instincts to lead the psychology of the character.
Only later, when I reflected cerebrally on my instincts, did I discover that the choice to perform Tito as a male character aligned with the themes I wanted to explore in the film.
Not long before I began writing, I had gone through a difficult slice of time where I felt possessed with fear and anxiety about being in my female body: indoors, outdoors, regardless of my surroundings I felt unsafe as a woman…. I felt like prey to predators, which in my experience were male. Processing this period, reflecting on the nature and origin of my fear, and reading about projection theory, I came to realize that my anxiety was not an intrinsic part of me. Feeling like prey is not a part of my natural identity, but actually originates in the identity of the predator. It arrives from a need by the predator to assert power over others, from a place of fear and insecurity. The predator’s need to dominate others, and to make others his prey, imprints on the bodies that he selects; that imprint is left on his prey and leaves them fearful in a manner that resembles the trembling needs of his identity and not of their own.
So while predation is a problem that disproportionally affects women, it is not our problem. It is a masculine problem — something inside the masculine psyche that needs to dominate and hunt — and with Tito I wanted to play out my fear of being a woman in the male psyche from whom it so often originates.
And as for making the narrative minimalist, that is a natural result of how my brain works; I don’t think in complicated narratives. I very much respond to the simplicity of comic books, fables, anime films…. I like the accessibility of simple storytelling and films that really focus on character over plot. As a result, in the writing process, while the character comes very organically the story is harder for me to nail down. I really believe in following what feels intuitive, so I want to try to push myself for the next one to listen to that part of me that doesn’t respond to plot and to see what happens in a purely character-driven world.
Filmmaker: Could you discuss the different influences and inspirations that went into the character of Tito? With his physicality, near silence, and emotional rawness he recalled to me both silent movie comedians as well as the kind of physical presence of certain conceptual and performance artists — people like Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelly. And then there’s also a clear choreographic quality to his movement, which suggested a whole other set of influences as well. What did you draw on to create his physical presence?
Glowicki: Tito was inspired by many things, but first and foremost he was inspired by this aforementioned period of my life when I was very afraid. Persistent paranoia, anxiety and fear does something to your body; for me, it created a frail, folded-in, shaky posture. Letting these feelings affect my body in this way when building the character allowed me to set an emotionally authentic base of physicality, on which I could then consciously build a psychology. Along with letting an intuitively selected costume help build the posture and movements, I listened to Mica Levi’s Under the Skin soundtrack on repeat. That film deals with some similar emotions to Tito, and the music was a really great tool to have when I was moving around my bedroom in the costume trying to find the right physicality.
I also looked to Denis Lavant as a constant source of inspiration — he is such a powerful silent performer, who I endlessly look up to. Watching his work, and really just knowing he exists, really helps me to explore this kind of performance style — which I think probably falls into some kind of strand of clowning.
I also thought of Johnny Greenwood quite often, as someone whose movements and look have always mesmerized me. Edward Scissorhands and Iggy Pop were helpful references as well.
Filmmaker: This is your second collaboration with Ben Petrie. In the first, he directed and you both starred. Here, you direct and he costars. Could you discuss this collaboration and how your working relationship has evolved and changed over these films?
Glowicki: Working with Ben has been one of the most fulfilling and exciting experiences of my life. When I first met him, I knew right away he was someone I needed to work with. He’s got an infectious energy, as a storyteller and as a performer, and he’s also this incredibly rare balance of an acutely emotionally aware and gentle person on one side, with an incredibly wild and rebellious sense of humor on the other. We started trying to write a script together which never really got off the ground, but then he appeared with a finished short film script he wanted to direct us in called Her Friend Adam. Making that film with Ben was a great experience, where we really started to build a relationship, but more excitingly a process.
We went to a Meisner acting class together, which we both found very fascinating and helpful. We continue to carry forward some of the language and techniques from that class — but mostly, it just informed our commitment to always trying to authentically connect to each other in scenes, with a devotion to genuine impulse and spontaneous emotional response. We also came to develop a rehearsal style — for us, the longer the better — which has involved very slowly discovering and blocking physical movements that support the dialogue and actions of the script. I love this part of working with Ben; rehearsing with him always feels like learning the moves to bizarre narrative dance, with emotional meaning hidden beneath each move.
Getting directed by Ben in Her Friend Adam was truly formative for me — as an actor, it really set a standard of collaboration and commitment to process that I’m always seeking in other directors. After the dust settled from that film I wanted more, so I started writing Tito. I’ve always been making tiny films and experimental videos, but never quite had I felt confident enough to accept the identity “Filmmaker” or “Director,” but something about watching Ben make Her Friend Adam really put the fire under my butt to get over that and embrace what I’ve been quietly doing for years.
Casting Ben was a no-brainer, as we had so much to build on after having cultivated such a gratifying process together. Making the internal switch from being the actor in a film Ben directed to directing him in one of my own took me a minute to adjust to — we had to discover the differences in the mechanics of our process within this new dynamic — but eventually I got the hang of it and we got really comfortable in this role reversal. The rehearsal process, which for Tito was eight weeks, was very collaborative; it felt very comfortable working with him not only as his scene partner but also as the director. As with Her Friend Adam, blocking and rehearsing Tito was a very open dialogue, with lots of ideas from both parties freely flying around. And funnily enough, when we get back from SXSW we’re going right into rehearsal for Worms, which is Ben’s first feature. We’re the two leads in it, and I can’t wait to collaborate again. I’m excited to get out of the hot seat of directing for a minute and let him take a turn at the wheel!
Filmmaker: One of the most striking elements of the film is its soundtrack, by Casey MQ. There’s an almost musique concrete quality to the score as it both underscores Tito’s emotional state as well as represents a chaotic outer world. What led to this soundtrack choice, and what did you want music to do in this film?
Glowicki: Collaborating with Casey was incredibly fulfilling. He is this wildly talented musician who plays a million instruments, can imitate any style of music, works with remarkable speed, and produces a lot of material. On top of this, he is incredibly open to collaboration, and to stepping into someone else direction and process; he really believes in the power of collaboration and process and embraces it with an enthusiasm that really energized the film.
We started developing the soundtrack even before shooting. I didn’t let him read the script, and instead just talked with him about the vaguest possible story details — mostly just the essential feelings we were going to be dealing with in the film. I compiled a list of feelings or moments for him to explore musically; he would read through it and then send me back a long improvisation, exploring each feeling, and trying to process express it through a smattering of different sounds and instruments. We went back and forth with this, building a library of improvisations of Casey seeking out these different feelings with relentless curiosity. It was important to me that these sounds not have melodies, so that they could be malleable.
After amassing this rich library of Casey’s exploration, I took these sounds and positioned them where they felt intuitive to me. Once I lay down my first layer of Casey’s sonic textures, I then showed to him my choices and we talked about why I had chosen certain sounds, and the how and why I had put them there. He then took that layer and worked on top of it, building on it, adding nuance to it, morphing it, re-inventing it, and in some cases replacing it with something better.
The resulting soundtrack in the film is the result of 18 months of an ongoing conversation, layering ideas and tones and sounds and emotions until we found the sounds that felt like they best distilled what we wanted to express. It was thrilling working with someone so artistic and devoted to process.
Filmmaker: Finally, the movie marries in its cinematography and production design a kind of squalid realism with at times dreamlike visuals that range from clearly imaginary spaces to hyperreal, stylized interiors. Can you talk about the different types of spaces you wanted to evoke in this film and the sort of direction about them you gave to your cinematographer and production designer?
Glowicki: The sense of space in the film was inspired by what it feels like to stay in your house for too long; when your world is physically much smaller, you adapt to this confinement, and strangely each room opens up into a world of its own. In this context, when (if) you do go outside, it can feel like this vast alien planet. Our production designer Anastasia Popova did an incredible job with a very tiny production design budget of bringing this sense of space to life. I talked with her about designing Tito’s house as though when he moved in, there was some furniture and dishes left behind from the last tenants, and he just never really built on that. While keeping the space stark and minimalist, Ana added subtle details to the walls and blinds which really added emotion and specificity to the backgrounds while also heightening Tito’s world just slightly in a way that aligned with the film’s subjectivity. She was really a one-woman-band as production designer and really crushed it, taking my direction and running with it confidently with very little resources.
Christopher Lew (DP) and I had many preparatory conversations, getting a sense of the visual landscape and space of Tito. It was important to us that the film’s visual aesthetic leaned in to the purified emotions we wanted to deal with in the story; absolute fear, absolute loneliness, absolute relief — whatever the feeling, we wanted to express it with the heightened impact felt by someone isolated and fearful enough to be utterly vulnerable to his emotional inner world. In this pursuit, a big inspiration for us was comic books and cartoons; these types of images helped inform the ways we could heighten the intensity of Tito’s subjective experiences. Highly expressive use of light and colour was a big part of our resulting choices.
Our visual decisions were also informed by the realities of our shoot — we had seven days to shoot the entire feature. This reality encouraged us to follow our natural instinct to shirk excessive coverage and instead to find expressive compositions through which long stretches of scenes could be performed.
Watching the footage, while editing with Brendan Mills, I came to realize more and more that Chris just intuitively understood things. He’s got such a sensitivity, I can feel his intuition in every shot. He was able to see the world through Tito’s eyes and to plug in to that subjectivity so that the audience could experience his inner world alongside him.