“I Know So Much More Now about Pandemic Response Than I Did When We Made It”: Brian Duffield on Spontaneous
One of the most fascinating things about viewing new movies in the age of COVID is how many of them tap into current anxieties in spite of having been completed before the coronavirus arrived; films as varied in style, budget, and genre as I’m Thinking of Ending Things, She Dies Tomorrow and Tenet all resonate in this historical moment in ways that would have been very different–and probably less effective–if they had been released just a few months earlier. Screenwriter Brian Duffield’s strikingly original and extremely moving teen comedy Spontaneous is the latest film to speak to the persistent unease and uncertainty of living through a pandemic, and perhaps the most oddly reassuring. The story follows the budding romance between two teenagers (Katherine Langford and Charlie Plummer) who fall in love while the world around them is falling apart due to the phenomena of their classmates exploding without warning and without reason; Duffield takes this outrageous, darkly comic premise and roots it in reality in a manner that allows him to create a tone unlike that of any teen movie I’ve ever seen. Spontaneous is a poignant coming-of-age romance, an unnerving horror film, a sly satire, and an apocalyptic sci-fi flick all in one, but Duffield’s total command of his craft keeps it from spinning out of control. The movie is confident and cohesive and steadily builds toward a resolution as affecting as it is unexpected; the end result is something like Heathers with a heart, or, as Duffield himself suggests below, a John Hughes movie where David Cronenberg keeps crashing in. Such comparisons don’t really do Spontaneous justice, however, since for all its recognizable influences it ultimately stands alone as both one of the best high school movies of recent years and one of the most impressive directorial debuts.
Spontaneous opens theatrically on October 2 and will be available for streaming on premium VOD October 6; I spoke with Duffield about the movie via Zoom a week before its release.
Filmmaker: One of the things I really loved about Spontaneous was the really unique tone–it’s very funny and kind of smart-alecky but also genuinely heartbreaking. What were you going for when it came to the tonal balance in the piece?
Brian Duffield: What I liked about Katherine’s character in the book was that she felt very genuine. I feel like a lot of YA stuff can get overly intense, with the characters waxing philosophical and always reading poetry, and that never fully rings true to me. Katherine’s character in the book, and hopefully in the movie, felt really goofy but also very real and relatable; her tone was a little silly. Every time you think someone in the movie is going to say something big and romantic, they fuck it up and say the dumbest thing they can say, because they think it’s funny. But then there’s also all the serious stuff—something like 40 kids die in this movie, and it’s not supposed to be trivial or exaggerated. These are real people, with parents who are weeping and friends who are traumatized. Somehow I felt like having Katherine be the voice of the movie and having her be more in that Juno range allowed us to make a movie where 40 kids die without it being offensive.
Filmmaker: The visual style also helps with that, I think. How did you try to set the tone with your camerawork?
Duffield: I was thinking a lot about Cronenberg, and how perfectly he nails the tone in something like Naked Lunch, which is big and really funny, but he’s not twirling the camera around. Sometimes it’s a locked off camera shooting a ridiculous scene that everyone is playing very genuinely and real. I think humor is a huge part of making things feel realistic, so I was always trying to find that balance of finding ways to talk about grief that weren’t diving into really depressing art film territory, but also weren’t so big and broad that people were offended and upset. The choice not to move the camera that much was initially dictated by the limitations of our schedule and weather, but it ended up being a good thing because I realized that with this premise even the slightest bit of camera movement made the audience nervous—it made them wonder if something bad was coming, and I didn’t want them to think I was always a guy standing around with a needle and a balloon waiting to make them jump. That forced us into a visual language that was very calm and specific, which seemed to serve the tone we’ve been talking about.
Filmmaker: How does the editing play into that?
Duffield: I had a great editor, Steve Edwards, who edited on Dear White People, the show. I think that show is a master class in tone in terms of how it can be really funny one moment, then flip on a dime when a cop points his gun at a kid and it’s life-altering and traumatizing. That whiplash is really powerful and effective, and the show never feels like they crossed the line, where it’s a comedy and then this traumatic thing happens and they didn’t earn the trauma. So, having an editor like Steve really helped nail the tone, because sometimes just one line of dialogue can make it too sharp or too heavy. Then if you take it away, it lets you breathe a little easier because you’re not going too broad. You’re not going too dark. Really, I was just stealing from Justin Simien, then having people I trusted let me know where lines were knocking them out of the movie.
It was a constant battle throughout writing, filming, and editing to keep it as cohesive as possible, and to…it sounds like a joke, but I wanted it to be the cutest movie about grieving possible. I wanted it to be palatable, not to repulse people immediately, which is why I didn’t show the kid exploding even though it’s the first thing that happens in the story. I wanted people who were not gore fans to know they could hang with this movie, although it probably meant that horror fans were disappointed there wasn’t more gore and blood. But I didn’t want people to be apprehensive the whole time worrying that I was just going to fuck with them.
Filmmaker: What kinds of conversations did you have with Katherine along those lines? Her character is tricky, in that her way of dealing with everything with humor could be misread as apathy or self-centeredness if played in the wrong way.
Duffield: Yeah, it was very important that she not come off as a psychopath, or someone who doesn’t care about what’s going on. It’s more like, I see this terrible thing—how can I distract myself from it? The trick is, how do you tell a joke and let the audience see that you’re in hell at the same time? We talked a lot about All That Jazz, and Jason Reitman’s Young Adult; movies that are heavy but not depressing, which is a bizarre line to walk. Charlize is so funny in Young Adult, but she’s also in such obvious pain the whole movie. Here, it’s like Katherine really wants to be the star of a John Hughes movie, then Cronenberg just keeps forcing his way onto the set and ruining it. Katherine’s performance is the thing I am proudest of in my whole career, but I can’t take much credit for it, other than having the good sense to cast her.
Filmmaker: There’s a whole other element to Spontaneous beyond that “cute movie about grief” aspect, which is the way the movie captures the anxiety of the world suddenly changing in ways that are not controllable or understandable. That obviously speaks to the moment we’re in right now, but you shot this a long time ago, right?
Duffield: Yeah, the movie was basically done in 2018. There were two big curveballs I had as a first-time director on this film, and the first one was that the company that made the movie was imploding and got sold very quickly into us making the movie. We spent two years in limbo, trying to find a home for the film, and that was very difficult.
We were feeling the effects of that; we got shut down in post for a while, and the whole time I just felt like I needed to get as much as I could get, because I didn’t know if I’d ever get a chance to go back. The second curveball was that we shot in Vancouver in January and our weather was horrific. We lost a lot of time to the snow, and there’s a pivotal scene in a graveyard toward the end where we had to stitch together three different locations because we kept getting snowed out. The bulk of that scene is two actors lying on a warehouse floor. We had 21 days to shoot, and with that weather we just ran out of days; it was constant juggling where I was thinking as fast as I could and sacrificing scenes I could live without, and we had to lose scenes in the edit because the movie’s supposed to take place in April and there’s just snow everywhere. That even dictated some of the compositions, because the frame would just be whatever space we could clear snow out of quickly.
We just had to roll with it, but the kind of nice thing is that it was kind of what the movie was about—these things that are happening that you really have no control over. I have no say in a studio selling to a corporation and I obviously have no control over the weather, and it’s like the movie itself was telling me to calm down. The biggest thing I learned as a director was to be as adept at improvising as possible, and I had to compromise a lot, which was hard. There are a lot of places where I would have liked flashier camera moves or more cinematic ways of approaching things, but I had to constantly recalibrate according to circumstances. And now we’ve all had to recalibrate what we thought this year was going to be like before the pandemic. So you’re right that the movie speaks to the moment, though in some ways it’s frustrating because I know so much more now about pandemic response than I did when we made it! But given the way the world is right now, I’m really happy that it’s a movie about what everyone’s going through that isn’t dark and depressing. It has some levity and optimism. I didn’t want it to be like We Need to Talk About Kevin, even though I love that movie. I wanted to acknowledge for kids watching that life is hard without being pessimistic or turning people off, which is a challenge.
As a director doing your first movie, there’s always going to be a part of you that wants to show everything you can do, but if I had done every elaborate camera move I wanted to do I now see that it would have been really detrimental to the movie. That was a good lesson for me, to let things happen and be calm and let the story be the director instead of me—especially with a subject as sensitive as kids dying. We would have created the wrong emotion by doing things we would do without hesitation on any other movie. You know, the directors I love the most are the ones who change themselves to fit the movie they’re making, and that was the big revelation for me—that that’s the kind of director I am. On some of the movies that I’ve written that I didn’t direct, I often had the sense that some of the directing was not in the service of the story—that it was more about the directors not wanting to give up any of their fancy toys. I always felt like a kid whose parents were donating the toys that I would like to have kept! Emotionally, I always felt protective of the movies and felt that I knew what they needed as the writer, and here I was able to really follow through on what the movie needed to be.
Filmmaker: A movie about 40 kids blowing up that leaves you feeling good and optimistic in the end.
Duffield: [laughing] Exactly. I’ll take it.
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.