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Focal Point

In-depth interviews with directors and cinematographers by Jim Hemphill

“I Was Doing a Page One Rewrite During Pre-production and Well into Production”: Yuval Adler on The Secrets We Keep

Joel Kinnaman and Noomi Rapace in The Secrets We Keep

Four of the best performances I’ve seen so far this year are all in the same movie, Yuval Adler’s riveting thriller The Secrets We Keep. Noomi Rapace, who also co-produced the film, plays Maja, a Romanian immigrant in post-World War II America who lives a quiet life with her physician husband Lewis (Chris Messina). Their placid existence is upended when Maja becomes convinced that her neighbor Thomas (Joel Kinnaman) is a Nazi who tortured her years before during the war. When Maja kidnaps Thomas and locks him in her basement, the film becomes a morally thorny and extremely suspenseful thriller in which the balance of power continually shifts between Maja, Lewis, and Thomas in fascinating ways. When Thomas’ wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) begins trying to figure out where her missing husband has gone the situation becomes even more of a pressure cooker, and director Adler expertly plays the audience like a piano, shifting our sympathies from one character to another as we’re constantly forced to recalibrate our assumptions and expectations. Rapace, Kinnaman, Messina and Seimetz are all fantastic in the movie, playing the moral complexities and ambiguities of their characters in ways that are natural and honest yet keep the audience (and the other characters) guessing, and Adler masterfully keeps the point of view where it should be in every scene for maximum emotional and intellectual force. Given the uniform excellence of the performances, I was eager to speak with Adler and ask about his actors and how he worked with them; we hopped on the phone on the film’s opening day (it’s currently playing in theatres and will arrive on all major VOD platforms on October 16) and began by discussing the origins of the project.

Yuval Adler: Noomi Rapace brought it to me. I knew Greg Shapiro, another producer of the film, from something I almost did with Kathryn Bigelow. He said, “There’s this script. It needs work, but it’s a good premise. Noomi saw Bethelehem [Adler’s first feature], and she wants to talk to you.” They already had a start date—they came to me in December 2018 and the film was about to shoot in April. I was kind of disinclined initially, because I was exhausted. I had just finished another film, and while the premise for this script was fertile, it needed a very aggressive rewrite. Noomi saw it the same way and said, “Let’s talk about it. Let’s meet.” She’s a very forceful personality, and she really wanted to do this film—and when she wants to do something, it’s almost impossible to say no. So we started meeting and talking about what we liked about the script, what we wanted to change…and we had that April start date. Now, in Hollywood, everybody says, “Oh, we’re shooting on this date,” and you never take it seriously. But this time, they really were ready to shoot in April. So I was doing a page one rewrite during pre-production and well into production. It was very intense. 

What was interesting from a filmmaking point of view was finding the nooks and crannies inside this genre piece that would elevate it so that it’s not just stuff we’ve seen before. And I had this wonderful chance to work with great actors. Noomi and Joel were already there when I came in, then we cast Chris Messina and Amy Seimetz. Also, the film I did before, called The Operative, was kind of an international spy thriller. Every day we moved to a new location. And I loved the idea of shooting a film that takes a lot of time in one place, so I could focus on the acting. That’s what really drew me to it.

Filmmaker: Well, in terms of the work with the actors, you’re dealing here with movie stars, one of whom is the producer. How was that different from what you had experienced on something like Bethlehem?

Adler: It couldn’t be more different on paper, because in Bethlehem my three main actors were non-actors. Their job with me was their first job. Basically, they believed in the middle of the film that they could be fired. They didn’t understand how this thing worked, and I encouraged them to have this belief. [laughs] Not that I needed to. I’m just saying, they didn’t know anything. They were people who were just grateful to be there.

Of course, with Noomi and Joel it’s a different ballgame. That’s the cool thing about this thing. There are four actors here, and each one was very, very, very different. Noomi was one of those people, you meet them and you immediately feel like they’re your family, like you’ve known them forever and can say any shit you want to them. You can be hard on each other and it isn’t a problem. I had that with Noomi immediately. It was very strange. As I said, this was her passion project, and as the producer she pushed me to do the film and pushed the other producers to let us take the film in any direction we wanted. And we took it in a different direction than originally intended. Then, when we got to shooting she suddenly stopped being the producer and became the actress, which was startling for me because I was used to her being a producer—in a good way. She was my partner in getting things done, and now suddenly if I needed something she would say, “I’m not doing this.” “What do you mean you’re not doing this?” “I’m not doing it. I’m the actress now, I’m not the producer.” That was actually really clever of her, because as the producer you’re thinking of whatever you need to keep the thing moving, but as an actor there are limits—you need to be able to get what you need as an actor and not care about what it does to the production. You know, she’s been doing films since she was a fetus, basically. She knows everything, and it was great working with her because I could be very harsh with her, I could be very loving—whatever was required because she was like family immediately.

I had an interesting arc with Joel, because he had another thing going and arrived when we were already shooting. He came into a very intense situation where he had to do 80% of the movie tied up. That’s very difficult for an actor, not just physically, but because half of your expressive power is taken from you. You literally can’t even move your hands. So it was frustrating for him. And I like to do 15 takes sometimes, and I like to run takes in a row. Joel had to be tied up for all that, and he didn’t know me. He got there a week in and suddenly had this guy with an accent, that he doesn’t know, telling him to do all this shit. So we had some clashes in the first day or two. Then it was a weekend, and we sat and we talked, and it really changed. Now we’re looking for stuff to do together, we’re best buddies, we’re exchanging subversive media on WhatsApp. 

Filmmaker: What about the other two actors? Chris Messina and Amy Seimetz are really great in the movie too.

Adler: Chris Messina is an amazing actor. He’s just a joy. He’s so funny, and he’s a fanatic. He’s on the set all the time. He has a lot of ideas, and he would come to me and say things like, “Listen, Yuval, I know you probably want me to kind of break down here, but I want to play it completely cool.” And for two hours, he would nag me to death with what he wanted to do, and I’d always go, “Yeah, sure. Sure, let’s try it. Go for it.” Then when I would say “action,” he’d immediately do the opposite of what he spent two hours trying to convince me! He’d say, “I don’t know, it just didn’t feel right.” It was really funny. And he has this preparation thing where he starts screaming before takes and it would drive all the other actors crazy. But when you say action, he’s so on point, and he does things so many different ways. Very different from Joel, who is like a laser. He needs to know what you want, he needs to agree, and then boom, he’s getting it. Whereas Chris is just raw emotion. You channel it this way, and then you direct it another way, and whatever. 

Amy is very precise, very smart. She has to play somebody who always holds stuff in and doesn’t like anything to show, but is in a predicament that needs to let out something that she shouldn’t be showing the outside. She played that beautifully. The script was constantly being written as we were shooting, I had to write, write, write, write, and at one point there was a big scene with Amy that I wasn’t happy with. So I got together with Amy and Noomi on the weekend, and they improvised. I just transcribed what they were saying and I took it to my room, edited it and created this scene. I love that kind of stuff. We did the same thing with the last dialogue scene between Noomi and Chris; we changed it until the last minute, pushing the shooting until the afternoon so we could still work on writing it at lunch.  

Filmmaker: What was your thinking as far as the visual style of the film goes? I thought you did a nice job of keeping things from becoming monotonous in the confined space of the basement where so much of the story takes place. 

Adler: That was our DP, Kolja Brandt, a German guy. I shot The Operative with him in Germany, then brought him here. He was constantly thinking of ways to slightly adjust the lighting to be consistent with the physicality of the space and not make it monotonous. Aside from important genre shots—you know, a big shot with a gun or whatever—we didn’t shot list it, because typically we just wanted to follow the actors. I wanted to shoot on the widest lenses possible and just dance with the actors. The actors would rehearse it, we would see what they did, then he would light it basically in two directions. Every time you shot, you had 180 degrees where you can move anywhere. We did that, then we would flip direction. Yeah, I think he did very good job in terms of the lighting, letting the film be dark but not monotonous. 

Filmmaker: How were the Louisiana locations chosen?

Adler: The location was chosen the way locations are usually chosen now in American filmmaking, by the tax credits that you’re getting. Initially I didn’t want to be far from home and they told me “Oh, but we’re shooting in New York.” Then, once I was in too deep to back out, they said, “Listen, we can’t shoot in New York. It’s too expensive. We’re going to move to New Orleans, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” But I loved going to New Orleans. I didn’t like leaving home, but I loved going to New Orleans. There’s a vibrant community there with a lot of professionals. We never shot in New Orleans proper, but in the suburbs, because there are a lot of suburbs that are very ’50s-looking. If you look at the film, the houses are raised, so you can tell it’s New Orleans. Initially we wondered, “Oh, should we fix it digitally?” We talked about it, then just let it go.

Filmmaker: One of the things I love about the movie is how it really works the audience over in terms of the identification with the characters. It really makes you question all of them and constantly reevaluate where you think you stand on their actions. And I’m curious, did you find in the editing room that it was tricky finding the right balance?

Adler: It’s amazing how much of a character is created in the editing. We had a screening of the film where people felt, “Oh, the husband is too passive. He feels weak.” The editor, Richard Mettler, and I sat for a week and did a pass on that character where we changed him, and in the next screening people said, “Oh, he’s such a strong guy.” So you can totally change each character in the editing, and you’re trying to create a balance of power between them. In the first cuts Joel’s character was too evil, so we did a cut that was much more ambivalent. Then with Noomi, we wanted her to feel totally confident at the beginning and start to doubt herself later on; we got that in her acting but pushed it more with the edit. It’s remarkable what you can do in this kind of movie, where it’s all about the people’s faces, with just rhythm and pauses and by choosing the right takes. You can really re-create the character.

Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD and streaming on Amazon Prime. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.

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