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“…The Story of a Girl Who Really Loves Her Father and Also Knows She Has to Leave this Complicated, Toxic Relationship”: Writer/director Annabelle Attanasio on Mickey and the Bear

Mickey and the Bear

A high-school student in a small Montana town faces tough choices about her life in Mickey and the Bear, the debut feature from writer and director Annabelle Attanasio.  Starring Camila Morrone as Mickey and James Badge Dale as her father Hank, a veteran with drug issues, the movie probes their troubled relationship with unusual insight and compassion.

Attanasio trained as an actor and dancer and was cast in roles on The Knick (Cinemax) and the CBS series Bull, and also attended NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Study. She has written and directed numerous shorts. Mickey and the Bear premiered at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival. It screened at Cannes and several other festivals. Utopia released  the film theatrically this past Wednesday, November 13..

Filmmaker: What’s the background to this project?

Attanasio: In 2014 I was in my junior year at NYU Gallatin. One of the great things about Gallatin is they offer summer research grants. I applied with a project to research veterans and their families in Montana, and to turn the research into a narrative film. I selected Anaconda, where there was a VA outpost clinic, an American Legion, a VFW, and a Disabled Veterans Chapter, all in a town of 6000 people. 

I went out with three others, I think we had a Canon T2i and a microphone. We used Facebook to get in touch with people in the town. Coming from a city background, growing up in Los Angeles, I didn’t know what to expect, but I was really happy that we made such a deep, organic connection. After that I started working on the script.

Filmmaker: You had specific themes you wanted to cover before you started writing?

Attanasio: One of the things about applying for this grant is it forces you to come up with a mission statement ahead of time. I knew I was interested in studying the way PTSD, addiction and grief affect the family unit, specifically children. I also wanted to look into the treatment of veterans once they come home, the flaws in the way drugs and treatment and therapy factor into that. 

So I came into the scriptwriting phrase with these issues already at the forefront of my brain. I would say the narrative and the issues kind of went hand in hand in my writing process.

For some reason I always think of the space first, before characters. Like with Mickey it was this small space in the middle of nowhere.

Filmmaker: So you have Mickey, a teen facing a lot of responsibility, and her damaged father Hank in a trailer in Montana. What you leave out of the script is as important as what you include.

Attanasio: In my favorite movies you’re always trying to figure things out, trying to piece together a back story. For instance with Mickey’s mother, there’s so little information about where she is, and that was intentional. To be honest, the two bits of information you do learn about her mother I didn’t really want in the movie. 

Talking about Hank’s dependency, I really wanted to treat his condition with respect. I think that there’s a lot of gratuity in films about addiction. Badge and I, neither of us wanted to portray addiction with any sort of flashiness or spectacle. We wanted to treat Hank’s addiction as a very private thing that he deals with on his own, and tries not to bring into the lives of others. Of course his addiction does feed into Mickey’s life and that’s kind of what the movie’s about. But it’s in ways that are kind of out of his control.

Filmmaker: You make it clear that addiction’s a disease and it’s not Hank’s fault he got addicted in the first place.

Attanasio: It’s a larger, systemic issue. The way our country treats veterans, with so little respect and so little investment to help them heal, that’s a reason why he is the way he is. It was important for me not to have him be either an awful father or a great father, and particularly not to villainize him, but to have him actively fighting the things working against him. Like the fact that he lost his wife. Or the fact that his daughter’s impending departure from Anaconda is going to wreck his entire sense of normalcy.

Filmmaker: How self-aware do you think he is?

Attanasio: I really went back and forth with that in the script phase. I would say he’s a fairly deliberate person, more so than I originally conceived. There are times he deliberately manipulates his daughter to keep her in Anaconda. There’s also part of him that’s oblivious as to why he’s hurting his daughter and himself. I think in Badge’s performance there’s this amazing push-pull between the two. 

Filmmaker: He’s volatile, and you can’t pin down his motives. But you can see why Mickey cares for him.

Attanasio: Badge was so good. When we had a dark scene coming up, which is a lot of the movie, he’d say to me, “Keep it light, we’re going to keep it light.” He really understood how embracing Hank’s levity made him way more harrowing. Badge has the confidence to take a scene you’d read on the page as completely menacing and play it smiling.

I knew Badge’s work from working with [casting director] Avy Kaufman. I worked for Avy as an intern throughout college, and she always had Badge on her casting lists. When we were casting, I looked up actors on YouTube, Google, wherever. There’s a clip of Badge in Flight where he’s a dying cancer patient. It’s a very dark moment, but he did it with such lightness and positivity and humor, almost a flirtatiousness, and I remember thinking, That’s Hank. That’s Hank. He’s so tragic, but he’s able to have pride and heart in the face of tragedy. 

Filmmaker: How did you cast Camila Morrone?

Attanasio: I wanted to see everyone possible, from 15 to 25, from all walks of life, non-actors, professionals. We wound up seeing over a hundred girls. Camie’s tape always stood out to me, she had a wide-eyed rawness to her. She felt very cinematic, she has an amazing face, like an actress from a French neorealist film. There’s this duality to her: tough and innocent, soft and hard, could be the tiger housewife but could also be this thirteen-year-old girl. 

In the movie you don’t really know what her dynamic is with her dad. She could express that in her acting. When we met, she told me she was an only child. Before her parents divorced, she navigated a lot of similar themes. She understood the adult-child syndrome that Mickey deals with.

She also knows how to care for someone, she has a mothering sensibility. There’s a scene with Badge where she cleans him up, gets him ready for bed, sings him to sleep — that couldn’t have been more natural. I didn’t need to direct her at all. 

Filmmaker: Badge has been in dozens of movies, Morrone is a relative newcomer. Did you have to adjust you style of directing between them?

Attanasio: Badge didn’t really want to rehearse, he was more independent in his process. Camie was very involved, she wanted to go through each piece of each scene, and would be very vocal when things resonated with her.

To be honest, I come at film much more from a behavioral approach. I don’t really talk to actors in terms of emotions. I try to talk to them about behavior. Then the emotions will follow. I try not to tell them how to feel, but more guide them in terms of what their bodies might be doing. To tell someone you’re menacing here, the way I think of menacing and the way someone else thinks of menacing might be two totally different things. Instead I’ll say lean in here and put your cheek on your fist, and something will come. 

So with Camie, again coming from a modeling background where she has to be so present in her body, if there was an emotional moment, I knew what to say, I could come in and bring a personal question like what if that were your real dad. 

Filmmaker: So Mickey has to decide whether to continue caring for Hank or leave Anaconda to find her own life. You crystalize her dilemma in a scene where she’s having lunch with VA psychiatrist Leslee Watkins [played by Rebecca Henderson].

Attanasio: The thing about Watkins was she had to be an adversary for Mickey in the beginning, so Mickey could lean on her later for guidance. When I was writing that scene, it wound up being a straightforward negotiation scene. Mickey needs a prescription for her dad, Watkins wants to get to the bottom of her situation.

We shot it in this restaurant in Anaconda called Peppermint Patty’s. It’s a classic Montana diner, they make this fried pork chop sandwich. 

The scene was actually about three times the length of what ended up in the movie. They talked a bit more about Wyatt [a fellow student played by Calvin Demba], they talked about Mickey’s mother, they talked about a book Mickey was reading. But all of that got cut because it just wasn’t adding enough. So it became this really pared-down negotiation between the two of them.

Mickey feels that Watkins doesn’t understand her situation, and how could she?  Mickey has this obstinacy that is typical of teenagers. But when you’re in an abusive, desperate situation, the last thing you want to be told is that you should get out of that situation. Because some part of Mickey knows that she should get out, so advice like that is kind of beside the point.

The story I always wanted to tell is the story of a girl who really loves her father and also knows she has to leave this complicated, toxic relationship. And when people are in this self-destructive dynamic, the only way they can get out is by themselves.

Filmmaker: How you treated those two characters, that was the moment I knew I could trust you as a filmmaker.

Attanasio: I talk about that all the time. I just saw Parasite and it feels so good as an audience member to be so gently but firmly guided the way Bong Joon-ho guides you through that movie. If you feel that you don’t know what’s going to happen but you feel taken care of, I think that’s my favorite movie experience.

Filmmaker: Did you face any problems during shooting that forced you to change your plans?

Attanasio: Oh my god, that was the bulk of the shoot, hoping things would work out. For the moment Hank falls off the cliff, you’re just hoping that we get the stunt person and they come to Montana to do this fall. And then the fair, hoping that we get the hundreds of people we need so the shot works. And there were so many moments where you have to pivot very quickly. The hospital scene at the end of the film, that morning we didn’t have that location. We had this crazy search party with the three or four people who were able to leave the set. It’s actually really hard to find a hospital location, especially one where we have to shoot today.

Here’s one example: there were no huckleberries for the fair scene. We were shooting in August and September, and huckleberry season is really June and July, so anybody who grew up in the Northwest, especially Montana, will know that those are not huckleberries in the film. We are all very ashamed.

In terms of changes, I come into it with a bit of a producer’s brain. Everything’s malleable. If you know the purpose of a scene, how it will serve your story arc, it’s not necessarily easy, but it’s simpler than you would think to let go of your old conceptions and say, okay, why not shoot this outside? If the weather’s not right, if the location’s gone, if you don’t have the means to do it the way you wanted to, do it another way.

Filmmaker: Mickey has a surprisingly spare score.

Attanasio: I guess I was rebelling against what I thought other people would think this movie was going to wind up being. You go on all these meetings trying to fundraise, and I could tell a lot of the time that people didn’t have the imagination to think that this would be anything other than a really sad small-town coming-of-age movie. So I think with the music, I wanted to embrace what I imagined real teenagers are listening to now, like the Uffie track “Difficult.”

Brian McOmber scored Krisha, which is one of my favorite first features. I just loved his totally unusual style of music and thought it would be a great counterpoint. He collaborated with Angel Deradoorian, they were in the Dirty Projectors band together.

Filmmaker: What was the editing process like?

Attanasio: It was a just long process of weeding scenes or shots or information out of the movie. What was a nice surprise for me and Henry Hayes, the editor, is that the order of scenes didn’t change from the first assembly, or really from the script. There were two scenes we swapped in order, the rest was pretty much just taking things out. Which in retrospect made the process sort of fun, because it was about what moments do we really want to land and what scenes do we really want to sing, and what do we take away that doesn’t belong.

The assembly was probably fifteen or so minutes longer. A lot more explaining things and tying things up. There were three more scenes with Wyatt that were in the script and that we shot but aren’t in the movie. They resolve his relationship with Mickey, but it was like tying up something in a bow that didn’t need to be resolved. They also made the story too much about him, it kind of distracted Mickey from her mission.

Filmmaker: Can you talk about your next project?

Attanasio: It’s still in the fetal stage. I’m interested in the way patriarchy, and the systems of patriarchy, infiltrate different spaces. Mickey to me was the manifestation of patriarchy in the home. The next thing I’m working on is the manifestation of patriarchy in the workplace. It’s a very different dynamic to work in.

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