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Focal Point

In-depth interviews with directors and cinematographers by Jim Hemphill

“Family Was Always On Set”: Valerie Weiss on Mixtape, COVID Rehearsals and Why Directing TV is Great

Lucas Yao in Mixtape (Photo by Jake Giles Netter, courtesy of Netflix)

In the new Netflix film Mixtape, 12-year-old Beverly (Gemma Brooke Allen) tries to learn about her late parents by tracking down the songs they loved, a task made difficult by the pre-iTunes and Spotify era in which the movie takes place. The quest to find the songs—a necessity for Beverly given the unwillingness and inability of her grandmother (Julie Bowen) to answer questions about her mom and dad—yields one of the sweetest, smartest, funniest, and most touching coming of age dramedies since Stand By Me, a film with which Mixtape both invites and earns comparison thanks to its skillfully calibrated portraits of young friendship. What makes the film particularly remarkable is how lively and effortless it all feels even while the core questions it raises about grief and healing persist beneath the cheerful surfaces; the movie has the pep and charm of a more conventional tween flick, but it’s always operating on multiple levels that sneak up on the viewer for a finale that’s profoundly moving without veering into cheap sentiment. Along the way Mixtape touches on a multitude of subjects—the role of music in defining and expanding young lives, the causes and repercussions of bullying, the difficulties of making connections in the wake of devastating loss—and gives each of them thorough consideration without ever letting the careful tonal balance slip. 

The meticulous orchestration of varied tones and the seamless marriage between theme and visual style that characterizes Mixtape are hallmarks of its director, Valerie Weiss. Since her superb debut feature A Light Beneath Their Feet, in 2015, Weiss has built a career on work that is simultaneously accessible and complex; at her best, she recalls Sydney Pollack (whose regular editor, William Steinkamp, cut Mixtape) in both her adroit genre-jumping and her sensitivity to performance. At first glance Mixtape wouldn’t seem to have much in common with her previous feature The Archer—that film, an action masterpiece that combines First Blood with Thelma and Louise and equals the kinetic intensity of both, is as dark and relentlessly suspenseful as Mixtape is upbeat and buoyant. Yet what the two films have in common with each other, as well as with the dozens of hours of episodic television Weiss has directed (her resume includes first-rate episodes of everything from Outer Banks and Prodigal Son to numerous Dick Wolf procedurals), is an exceptional ability to present sophisticated ideas with concise, expressive visuals—she’s a master at finding ways of blocking for the camera that convey entire histories of characters and relationships in just a few seconds of screen time. Examples of this abound in Mixtape, a comedy about loss in which the laughs and the heartbreak coexist beautifully and organically; I wanted to find out how Weiss approached this material and made such a tricky balance seem so simple and natural, so I hopped on Zoom to talk with her a week before Mixtape’s December 3 release.                   

Filmmaker: One of the things I loved about Mixtape was the way it depicted young friendships—the bonds between the girls were thoroughly convincing and relatable. What kind of environment did you establish to foster that kind of chemistry between the actors?

Valerie Weiss: I’m so happy you led with that question, because that’s what I love to do—create real emotion in contrived circumstances. In terms of the environment, I took a page out of Jonas Pate’s book. Jonas is the showrunner on Outer Banks, and he’s a great, positive leader who you want to impress and seek validation from. Something I noticed when I did two seasons of that show is that the cast was always on set, whether they were shooting or not. They’d just show up. At first, it was weird, like, “What are you doing in video village? Why are you here?” But it was because they were supporting each other. They were hanging out, and they were actual, real friends from doing this show together and living together. There was no jealousy—they were all for one, one for all. 

I went into Mixtape knowing that was a smart way to treat your cast, so other than maybe one Zoom with Gemma, who plays Beverly, and Julie Bowen, I always did my rehearsals with Gemma with the other two girls, because this was a relationship I was trying to cement. I never wanted her to feel more special, like she’s the number one and they’re the supporting. And she’s such a lovely kid – she didn’t come with any ego or expectations. I know that process of treating them like a team from the very beginning really worked, because on the second day of shooting Gemma turned to the girls and said, “You guys are my best friends.” It was day two. And she meant it. We all still text pretty much every day, and it’s, “I love you. I miss you. When are we going to do a watch party?” I think that was a big part of creating that on screen.

The other thing I observed on Outer Banks that I brought to this is that family was always on set. As soon as Jonas hired me, he said, “You’ve got to bring your kids,” and they came to Charleston. They were definitely a part of Mixtape; they’re now 10 and 13 and I know that age. I know how to treat them and talk to them like adults, but with love. Sometimes I had my kids Zoom with the actors or I’d have my kids text them. So they all just felt like they were my kids and all loved, unconditionally. 

Filmmaker: You mentioned rehearsals. What’s your approach to rehearsal, how do you use it as a filmmaking tool?

Weiss: I love to rehearse as much as I can get, because so many questions come up. I think rehearsals are essential for understanding character and clarifying the script, because no matter how clear you think it is, it’s very easy for someone to interpret a line differently. And you don’t even know that until you hear it. So it’s about hearing it, talking about it, figuring out things that bump them, things that bump me, asking, “How are we going to do this? This character needs to be able to see this and see that, but what does that look like?” So, I love not only reading it, but also talking through it and talking about emotional memories like, “what’s happened in your life that could be similar to this?” With Mixtape, it all had to be over Zoom because it was during COVID. We talked a lot about the themes of the movie and the characters’ perspectives and they all came up with such good ideas. Really understanding what’s underneath is so much more important than worrying about blocking or where to put the camera; if you understand the relationships you can do so much of that other stuff very easily right before you shoot. 

Filmmaker: Well, since you brought up blocking I want to ask about a specific scene that really impressed me. It’s an early scene between Gemma and her grandma that starts with a long, elaborately choregraphed oner that clearly establishes the emotional distance between these two characters. Can you talk about conceptualizing that shot?

Weiss: I’m a big believer in not being prescriptive, but letting the movie, the theme, the story tell me what it should be. In this case, the movie is unique, because it’s about grief, but it’s a family film. Thematically, it’s about this little girl and her grandmother who are passing each other, when what they actually need is to connect. They need to intersect and be still and listen and hug and love each other. There’s love between them, but there’s not connection the way a 12-year-old needs a mom in her life. So, I wanted to open the movie with them crossing paths and not connecting and showing Gail’s busy life, which is all about to-do lists—which wasn’t hard for me to relate to, because I work insane hours and I’m away a lot, and then when I finally have my kids it takes me a minute to refocus. So, that scene was all about missed connections and this little girl opening her heart—like, here’s a poem, and it’s silly, and you don’t think it’s funny, because you’re in another space. Then, at the end of the movie, they come together and they’re snuggling on a bed and really connecting. That was the reasoning behind it.

Filmmaker: Your point about it being a family film about grief gets to the heart of another thing I loved about Mixtape, which is that it’s a light, joyous, entertaining movie with extremely dark undercurrents—I mean, under the surface it’s almost Ordinary People. How do you modulate tone on something like this without letting the film veer too far in the wrong direction one way or the other?

Weiss: I think for me it’s intuitive. The original script was older and edgier; it felt more like Ghost World. But we were making it for the family division at Netflix, so I knew we had to take it in that direction and kept asking myself, “How do I marry those? What is that?” What came to mind is Wonder, which is also a family movie with that kind of unusual tone. I thought, “If we can make this like Wonder, I think we have a successful formula here.” And that is what I love. I have this phrase I use about my work—daringly light. I really like to make work that has emotional resonance, and can help the world, and make people see things differently in their relationships, and that is about something, but I want the ride to be fun. I want the spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.

Filmmaker: It’s similar in a way to what you did with The Archer, where you’re dealing with very real sociological and legal problems in the guise of an extremely entertaining action movie.

Weiss: If you look at my other movies, and Outer Banks, and different things I’ve done, I think you can always see that sensibility. Now, how do you execute that? Then it’s very much the DP and I saying, “We’re going to elevate this. We’re not just going to make this a poppy kids movie.” I mean, it’ll have color. I love color. Pedro Almodóvar’s my biggest influence. But it can’t be gratuitous, it’s all about making sure that the palette and shots and blocking feel organic, because I never want you to feel like something’s stagey, like somebody walked in and did a pose. No, no, no, that’s not what I do. The goal is to make it grounded but full of life, bringing out the essence of these amazing kids. I think that’s how you combat the gravitas of an Ordinary People, which is so great but not the kind of movie we’re making. 

Filmmaker: The period aspect of the movie is fun too. Even though it only takes place 22 years ago, in some ways it feels like another century—and in other ways it doesn’t feel that different at all. 

Weiss: Some of the best period pieces are ones made 20 years later, like The Outsiders, because they present elements from the time with a filter of a more modern perspective. It was really cool to look back at that era before cell phones, and before the internet made it so easy to get a song. We tried to capture that as much as we could visually, like when Gemma walks into the record store. I said, “I want this to feel like a church. I want the light to come in like it’s through stained glass. It’s a tactile experience. I want us to almost smell what those records smell like as she walks through it.” It’s such a big deal at that age to get somewhere on your own. How did she get there? Did she take three buses? Did she walk 40 minutes and run the last 10 minutes, because she has to get back to school before someone finds out? So just putting myself back in that era—which was very easy, because I grew up then—and just letting that inform a lot of the choices was…well, I feel like that’s what helps make something timeless. You take the parts that last in your memory and infuse the movie with that.

Filmmaker: Now, you also have a background as a scientist—a doctorate in something called X-ray crystallography, which…I don’t even know what that is, can you explain it?

Weiss:  It’s 3D photography of molecules. If you can snap a picture of, let’s say, coronavirus, for instance, you can see it and start to understand how it works. You might even start to understand how to stop something, because you can use structure-based drug design to design a little drug that jams up its mechanism.

Filmmaker: And how does that tie in with your directing work?

Weiss: The same brain that wants to know why human behavior operates the way it does, which makes me want to direct, is the same brain that wants to know why anything works, how we got to be here and where we came from, where we’re going…I think I just have a relentless curiosity about the why and how. You have to look at the past and how things got made in order to make new things. That comes in very handy for directing, because I have both the creative and the logical—though even my logic, it’s creative, because it’s all in service of, “Ooh, what else can we do?” When I read a script, the first thing I need is to go through it and address anything that isn’t making sense to me or bumping me. Otherwise, I can’t even go forward.

On the show I’m doing for Brian Yorkey right now, the very first thing we did was a story meeting. So, I got to ask all of those questions before I even did any additional prep. And I think it helps, because the actors have the same questions. They ask, “Why am I standing here? Why didn’t I make this phone call first?” And if you don’t get ahead of that, then it really blocks all the creativity.

Filmmaker: In the five years between this and The Archer, you’ve built an incredible career directing episodic television, and I’m curious how that informs the way you direct. Do you take lessons learned from those shows with you when you direct a feature like Mixtape?

Weiss: Oh yeah. Episodic TV’s amazing. I love it. When I did the movie, people were like, “Are you still going to do TV?” I said, “Yes, I love TV.” I love the variety, how fast it is—you’re on something for a month or two, then you’re done and think about something else. So, I’ll always want to bounce back and forth. I think I’ve done 23 episodes of television now and all of that since The Archer. TV is great, because I’ve worked with so many different actors, Academy Award winners. I just worked with Susan Sarandon. I’ve worked with Viola Davis. And it’s just incredible to have to adapt to everybody’s process, because everybody is different. I mean, you can have a scene with two actors who approach it very, very differently—one who doesn’t want a note until the fourth take and it needs to be quiet, then someone else who is hungry for direction and wants you to talk over the take. Navigating that is fun, and it’s what keeps directing exciting, always having to adapt. So, there’s that aspect of television. 

It’s collaborative in a different way. You’re working with showrunners and producers who have a very strong vision. Someone like Marc Cherry knows what makes things funny and wants you to shoot it exactly like it looks and sounds in his head. Then sometimes you have another show where they’re literally like, “Make your movie”—like, “I wrote it, but make it better.” Learning who wants what and how to communicate within those constraints is a super valuable skill that helps when you’re making a studio movie, where you have really talented producers and executives who all have an idea of what they ultimately want it to be. Learning how to understand what’s important to people is such a big part of directing. It’s kind of like directing actors and how you can’t just give them result-driven directions and say, “I want it to be this.” You need to understand what everybody’s hope is for the movie, take it and actualize it into the movie. I feel like TV has been incredibly helpful to learn that skill set. And just getting to do it, getting to exercise that muscle for the majority of every day, every year, you get really good at it.

Jim Hemphill is a filmmaker and film historian based in Los Angeles. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.

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