“I Wanted to Have a World I Could Paint in Broad Strokes”: Director Alexandre Rockwell on Creating the Full-of-Life Family Drama, Sweet Thing
Three children are left on their own in Sweet Thing, an evocative coming-of-age drama written and directed by Alexandre Rockwell. Returning from his previous feature, Little Feet, are Rockwell’s children Lana (playing Billie) and Nico. Joining them is newcomer Jabari Watkins as the kids’ neighbor Malik; Will Patton as their alcoholic father Adam; and Karyn Parsons (Rockwell’s wife) as their largely absent mother Eve.
Shot over one summer in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Sweet Thing travels through a bleak world of poverty and despair, depicted with surprising empathy by Rockwell and through the cinematography of Lasse Tolbøll. The writer/director’s script strings vignettes into a moving account of children on the cusp of adolescence, suspicious of the adults around them but dangerously innocent about dealing with reality.
Sweet Thing won the Berlinale Crystal Bear. It opens today at the IFC Center in New York.
Filmmaker: What was your plan going into Sweet Thing?
Rockwell: I was grinding on a script for about two and a half years after I’d done Little Feet. It was very personal, and it was one of those things where it was like a puzzle. Every time I changed a piece, the whole thing would change, and then I would want to throw it in the trash can.
I had a minor disaster in my house, the basement flooded, and I pried a very large check out of the insurance company. I said I’ll repair the basement myself, but I’m going to use this money to make a film. When I thought of this idea, the script came incredibly quickly. I think I wrote it in two, three weeks. It wasn’t a very long script. It had sequences that I could visualize in my mind, but I didn’t write them all out in specific detail just because I knew I would shoot it. Because I didn’t have to raise money, I didn’t have to articulate the scenes; I could just kind of make a roadmap of a journey.
I sent it to Will Patton because I thought he’d be great as a father. He really responded to it.
Filmmaker: Patton plays an alcoholic living in dire poverty with his two kids. The way you depict alcoholism is honest, even harsh, but not judgmental.
Rockwell: My dad was an alcoholic. I would have to carry him up from underneath the oil burner at night sometimes. He adored me, yet he put me in harm’s way quite often. To this day, I want to be anything but my father, but at the same time, he’s my true north in a strange way. We had very tender, beautiful moments. Christmas was always one of them — my dad would always try to make Christmas something. A lot of love, but watching your father drunk from afar is a memory that’s very clear in my head.
I’ll never forget when we went to pick him up after he dried out one time. All his possessions were in a brown paper bag. We have a shot at the very end of the film where Will hugs the kids, he’s wearing an ill-fitting suit and he has a brown paper bag — that’s right out of my memory.
Filmmaker: How much of the script is based on personal experience?
Rockwell: I think it all comes from a very personal place. The setting is different, we weren’t dirt poor. But carrying my father up from the basement, or very pure memories of watching my father while kids made fun of him, not knowing when I should go in and help, being so embarrassed, those kind of moments are very real to me. And then my mother left my father. Visiting my mother, she always had boyfriends who were fucked up. I have a very complicated family history, but a lot of humanity came out of it. There was still a lot of love.
Filmmaker: So you have a script that’s more or less a road map, you have Will Patton and your two kids, and you have Jabari Watkins, who’s never acted before.
Rockwell: I discovered Jabari in a park here in New York City. He lived with us up in the country. He had never walked barefoot on grass before. Everything about him was fascinating, but he could not remember a line to save his life. The first day we shot with him, everybody thought the film was going to be a disaster. And I was actually excited. The next day I said, “All I ask of you is, don’t look at the camera, just do not look at the camera, look at Lana.” I would just say his lines to him and cut myself out in post-production. That’s why he kind of pauses before he talks.
Filmmaker: Was it difficult shaping his performance?
Rockwell: He is just like a force of life in the film, his whole thing is to be spontaneous and full of life, defying the rules, defying everything. So I didn’t have to really monitor his performance.
He was alone for years, basically an orphan, living in different homes. A very troubled past. That monologue about his childhood, about how he was taken away from his mother and how he kind of found her again, he told that to me. I asked if we could use it as a bonding moment between you and Lana.
That was the most challenging scene. I have so much respect for him because he was a kid who is full of masks. He’s had to survive by kind of hiding. And he stripped that away for this scene. I didn’t put the camera on his face, I put it behind him and focused on Lana listening to him. He just volunteered this beautiful, very emotional, honest story about his childhood with her. It was amazing. That’s what’s so exciting about making films for me, moments like that.
Filmmaker: What was your shooting schedule?
Rockwell: I wanted a long shooting schedule because a lot of independent, low-budget films are shot at minimal locations, not on film, certainly not 16 mm black-and-white. They shoot them digitally on iPhones or whatever in one apartment. That’s not totally uninteresting to me, but film is expansive. Film is the world. My ideal is to move as you move, from one moment to the next, one detail to the next.
I wanted to have a world I could paint in broad strokes. I wanted a place where the shooting schedule could be really extended and I didn’t burn money. I had a crew that was working for very little money, made up largely of graduate students and local interns who worked for free. And we would just kind of go and shoot, and work long hours, but then we also were able to get it right, however long that took. So the schedule was longer than most low-budget, independent films. I think it was something like eight weeks.
Filmmaker: You said in an interview that you and the crew would have to invent your own cinema every day. Could you expand on that?
Rockwell: I teach directing at the graduate film program at NYU. Basically we do exercises every week. We’ll work on a master shot, or on a moving master, or on building a scene through details. When I decided to make this film, I thought I would approach every day like, okay, I’m going here to set traps. I’m going butterfly hunting. I can’t say I will hit this butterfly right here at this time, but I can set up a trap, kick the net, get everything ready and coax this thing out. However that had to be done is what we would do every day.
I’m at the age where I just won’t do anything I don’t want to do. In terms of filmmaking, for a number of years I was so compromised. I just became used to compromising, trying to convince people to do things, it was like trickery. Trying to get people to give me money, always presenting one thing and trying to do another. And now I’ve gotten to a point where it’s like, if I don’t like what I’m doing, I’m just not going to do it, or I’m going to do it again the next day. And I pay for it with my own blood. I’m not asking anyone to pay for it for me.
The crew was so great about this. Because we had a relationship with the graduate students over a couple of years, they were ready to go. They had no baggage about what a film is “supposed” to be. One minute we’d be shooting an old-school master, and the next a handheld violent sequence. It started to have its own its own life. The film itself started to dictate how it should be shot.
Filmmaker: With an approach that’s always changing, how do you collaborate about composition and framing with your cinematographer Lasse Tolbøll?
Rockwell: I got to watch [writer and director] Ilan Rubin Fields [The Prophet] working on set. He would sort of set the actors in place and watch them, move around in rehearsal and say, “I want the camera here.” Like feeling out the scene. You have a rough idea, maybe a storyboard-ish thing, maybe more like a floor plan of the location. You watch and feel the scene and compose it. I don’t like overt cutting, I like to have one thing lead to another, so I look for that.
Lasse’s a student of mine, and he’s got a great eye. He’s very visual, very meticulous. He’s very pliable to work with because there’s no challenge about where to put the camera. I’ll have an idea and he’ll put it there. And then if he comes up with a more interesting idea, I’m totally okay to flow with that. Sometimes with a DP it’s almost a struggle about how to shoot.
Filmmaker: You made the decision to present most of the film in black-and-white.
Rockwell: We look at still photographs in black-and-white and don’t even question them. Why not apply that to film? It brings out other qualities, you know? Digital color is ugly. Period. If you don’t control it, if you don’t work with really fine equipment in post-production, it’s hideous. It’s just not visually attractive. It’s like looking at a light bulb, or soft porn on Showtime or something. If you don’t have a lot money, it just looks gross.
Black-and-white film is beautiful because it deals with tonality. As long as the DP has a good sense of balance and eye, you can almost point and shoot. And I just love film grain. It’s like analog music, it’s like vinyl.
Filmmaker: Did you shoot on black-and-white stock?
Rockwell: What I discovered back with In the Soup days was that they just gave up on black-and-white film stock. There used to be beautiful reversal films that had high contrast imagery and fine grain, but they gave up on them. The best grains were in color stocks. DuArt had this process where you’d shoot in color and then then you print on sound stock, which is a high-contrast black-and-white stock. And it looked beautiful. It was radiant.
With Sweet Thing, we shot a really fine-grain color stock donated from Kodak. In post-production we went through desaturation at a film lab up in New Bedford, of all places. You try shooting on black-and-white stock now and it looks like green garbage, just yucky, milky imagery.
Filmmaker: The title Sweet Thing comes from a Van Morrison song on his 1968 Astral Weeks album.
Rockwell: I listen to music when I write, it’s a big part of just where my mind goes. It’s sets a mood where I can empty my head. I kept listening to “Sweet Thing,” it nailed emotionally the heart and soul of what this film is. I love that lyric, “We will never grow so old again.” I wanted my daughter to sing at the end, something her father has passed to her which she then interprets and changes. So it ends the film with this kind of celebration.
Then I had to go to Van Morrison. You just don’t get him to give you a song. It’s impossible. He’s an extreme character. I got refused by agents and record companies. And finally I found some little guy in Switzerland who booked him 10 years ago in a festival. And he knew a direct contact to a personal manager. I wrote them, I spoke to them on the phone. They were very kind. They said, send the clip to this address in Los Angeles and you will get to the right person. I was like, okay, that’s pretty vague. Sure enough, three weeks later, I get an email from the record company saying, we’ve agreed to give you this at any price that you’d like. So Van must have seen it and said, just give it to him. I mean, people were quoting $250,000, like we won’t even talk to you for less than $250,000. That was the whole budget of the film, including music.
We’ve become such a corporate world. Back in the day, I got David Bowie to give me a song. I actually could get The Rolling Stones to give me a song. I remember sitting in First Avenue bussing tables. I got on a payphone and I called the lawyer for The Rolling Stones in New York. He said, “How much money do you have?” And I told him I had nothing. And he just broke out laughing. He said, “A nickel to one guy’s $50,000 to another, isn’t it?” He liked me, he liked the energy of what I was doing. And he gave me the music. You could almost do that in those days.