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“I Didn’t Want It to Get Too ’80s”: Rose Glass on Love Lies Bleeding

A female bodybuilder flexes on stage before a table of judges.Katy O'Brian in Love Lies Bleeding

Equal parts romantic horror movie, revenge thriller and twisted, small town family drama, Rose Glass’s second feature after Saint Maud, is a midnight movie for the arthouse crowd, complete with Hollywood stars (Kristen Stewart, Ed Harris, Dave Franco, Jena Malone) doing wild and crazy things all in the name of intense body horror. Set in the late 1980s, the film stars Katy O’Brian as Jackie, a woman making her way through the American Southwest en route to a bodybuilding competition in Las Vegas. In New Mexico, Jackie picks up a job as a waitress at a tacky shooting range run by an intimidating gun nut and his idiot son-in-law (sporting hairstyles equally hilarious and mortifying, the roles are played by Ed Harris and Dave Franco, respectively). Needing a place to work out in the evenings, Jackie visits a local gym and meets Lou (Kristen Stewart), who’s wasting away unclogging the establishment’s toilets. The two become romantically involved, share anabolic steroids and fight back against the abusers in their lives. Is Jackie a symbolic figure capable of what Lou cannot carry out herself? Is she a manifestation of what Lou doesn’t have the courage to be? What happens from there makes sense while the viewer watches it but not necessarily to a reader skimming through a brief plot summary, so I’ll just note that the film has fun toggling between the wants of its two leads, blurring the line between where one lover ends and the other continues.

After premiering at Sundance and the Berlinale earlier this year, Love Lies Bleeding goes into wide theatrical release today from A24. I spoke with Glass about the film’s distinctive soundtrack, its clever use of VFX, working with an intimacy coordinator and more.

Filmmaker: How soon after the release of Saint Maud were you planning a second feature? Was it a particular location or the scale of the production that interested you?  The two women at the center of the story? What was the original impetus?

Glass: I started coming up with the idea towards the end of post-production on Saint Maud, riding off the wave of excitement of having actually been able to make a first feature. The positive reception the film received was hugely emboldening, and when it came to thinking about what to do next, it wasn’t [like I had] a story in my head for years. This was quite fresh. In a way, I didn’t want to stop and think about what would be the tasteful, sensible thing to do, and instead wanted to make something a bit bombastic, to take a big swing and see what I could get away with doing. 

The initial hook was of wanting to do something about a female bodybuilder who perhaps finds herself unraveling as she’s training for a big competition. I teamed up with Weronika Tofilska [to write the screenplay], as she’s also a writer-director and we’ve been friends for years. That’s another thing—I initially found writing by myself quite difficult and stressful, so I wanted to try collaborating on a script. I came to Weronika with this very embryonic idea, then from probably some point in 2019 and all the way through the pandemic, we were basically writing this script. It was so weird getting to make Saint Maud, which was an exciting [experience], and then it finally came out (or didn’t come out) just as the [pandemic] lockdown happened. There was all this pent-up energy from [making that film] which then didn’t go anywhere because the film just ended up getting released online or whatever, as many things did at the time. Some of that pent-up energy probably just smooshed itself into this script instead. It became this weird, bombastic outlet to explore all sorts of things.

Filmmaker: Was it always set in New Mexico, in a desert area, in the 1980s?

Glass: By the time we started writing the script, we had settled on the time and place, but for quite a while while working on [the treatment], we went back and forth with that. Initially I was thinking of setting the film in the UK, maybe Scotland, but as the story grew, it just didn’t feel right. America felt like a much more appropriate backdrop for the story, [as it has] characters who have to get away with a number of murders and there are a lot of guns flying around, etc. The film is also, on some level, about ambition and taking a slightly cynical look at the pursuit of the American Dream. I guess it’s also about ego. There were a lot of elements in the film that made America feel like the most potent, crystallized world to set this story in.

Probably loads of filmmakers who aren’t from America are heavily influenced by American film and television. The influence on our cultural consciousness is huge, so anyone who wants to make films who isn’t from America probably hears some weird siren call coming from that side of the country, from Hollywood and this idea of “the American movie.” Love Lies Bleeding ended up inadvertently almost becoming a film about films, but not literally. Even without directly referencing specific films, the audience knows about these certain cinematic tropes, so setting this in America made those easier to play with and hopefully subvert those elements more boldly.

Filmmaker: When I think of bodybuilding or intense workout culture, it’s comically, via Jane Fonda VHS tapes or perhaps [Hulk Hogan]. Those, too, were of the 1980s. 

Glass: It definitely felt like the right decade for this.

Filmmaker: Did you have fun in finding those aspirational quotes hung up all over the gym Lou works at?

Glass: Yes, but I stole a lot of those from bodybuilding and weightlifting posts on Instagram. There’s a one-track mindedness to those [posts], of “following your dream.” The film is just taking a slightly more cynical look at that. Following anyone’s individual dream probably comes at the expense of someone else’s anyway, right?

Filmmaker: From the film’s opening and throughout its duration, there are several shots in which the camera peers down into a crack that has fissured deep within the Earth. Bathed in dark red lighting, it’s a striking image. The desert (where the fissure is located) is an area the film returns to often and you find unique ways to depict it on screen. At times, the blackened sky looks like a matte painting or a green screen, something intentionally less than real. 

Glass: A lot of that stuff’s VFX. The starry skies, when they go into the desert and there’s that big crack in the ground, that’s all VFX. We worked with this amazing company in England, Time Based Arts, and they ended up doing a huge amount more work on the film than we’d initially [asked them to] because I kept adding new bits. Anytime there was a plain black sky, I was like, “Oh, imagine if it was more of a starry field.” A lot of those are digital matte paintings, but for some of the more landscape-y things, I told them it was fine to go a bit more painterly, that it doesn’t have to be too literal. While I don’t think there’s too much connection to [the finished images in the film], [I wanted] the matte painting backgrounds to look like the ones you’d see in films by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. I love that kind of thing.

Filmmaker: I like how those dark reds seep into the film, not only in the quick cutaways where Kristen Stewart or Ed Harris threateningly look directly at the camera, but also in a scene where they reconvene next to a Coca-Cola vending machine in the hallway of a hospital. The red from the brand’s logo illuminates their faces in much the same those earlier shots do.

Glass: That was a fortunate accident. It was meant to [take place] by a vending machine but then it just happened to have that amazing red light [emulating] from it, the red [of a] Coke bottle. My cinematographer, Ben Fordesman, and I got very excited by that, and the scene probably fed into our wanting to include the red flashbacks you mentioned, as we actually shot those as pickups later on once we were halfway through the edit. All of these things stacked up on top of each other.

We set a LUT for the overall grade, so we had a look going in [to the film], but there are always nice surprises that happen. We worked with an amazing colorist as well. We always wanted the film to have a heightened and gritty (but quite rich) visceral feeling. There are a lot of reds that get picked up throughout the film. You can’t have “bleeding” in the title without making a bit of a thing of it.

Filmmaker: How determined were you to incorporate ambient light sources to help  contribute to that theme? And did their inclusion factor into the ’80s, analog type of vibe you were going for? I’m reminded of the lush colors that emulate from different signage that can be flipped on and off, things like that. 

Glass: Yes, and there are a few green neons in there as well. I didn’t want it to get too ’80s, too pastiche. That was constantly a thing to balance out, both in terms of how we shot and lit the movie but also via the costumes and hair. While you don’t want the film to feel too much like a throwback, at the same time, the ’80s did sport a lot of insane colors and hairdos, so it was a fun thing to try and balance. Ben, our cinematographer, is phenomenal, and [these aspects] were truly a collaboration between him and Katie Hickman, our production designer, constantly having lots of well-placed lamps and light sources and making it all feel naturally motivated while still possessing a rather heightened look.

Filmmaker: Speaking of the hairstyles, were you working with each actor on developing their character’s specific look (i.e. a mullet for Dave Franco and the abnormally long, flowing hair for Ed Harris) or was that predetermined based on the type of character they were playing? 

Glass: As Weronika and I were writing the screenplay, we quite specifically had how Lou and Jackie’s hair would look (and how they would look together). I wanted each of the characters to be recognizable and distinctive enough so that you could draw a little cartoon [from memory] of them. Our costume designer, Olga Mill, wanted them to feel distinctive, so that if you had to dress up as one of them for Halloween, you would [stand out]. Our hair partment head, Megan Daum, made sure they each had their own little story to them, that Jackie’s wig in particular was inspired by a bodybuilder named Lisa Lyon, who I saw in a book of photography by Robert Mapplethorpe. Mapplethorpe had released a whole book pretty much entirely of pictures of her in the 1980s. [As The Guggenheim Museum Archives’ Artist Files notes, “Lisa Lyon, the first World Women’s Bodybuilding Champion met Mapplethorpe in 1980, and collaborated with him on figure and portrait studies, a film, and a book, Lady, Lisa Lyon.“] She had this amazing hair, a bit like Jackie’s, and there are these very striking black and white photos of her looking muscular and beautiful. 

Ed’s hair is something he came up with himself. I wanted him to look distinctive and different from how we’d ever seen him on screen before, but I wasn’t sure quite what that would look like and he suggested, “Maybe we could do something with my hair where I’ll get a ponytail.” Then he got someone he knew to put in these amazingly long, lush extensions, which was much more bonkers than I was initially picturing. I was picturing the character [Lou Sr.] with some little wispy, ratty thing then Ed [shows up] with this amazing mane. His look helped to decide what Dave [Franco]’s character, JJ, should look like because JJ is his son-in-law and he works for him. So I was like, “Well, maybe he’s semi-aspiring to one day be a bit like Ed and he’s growing out his own weedy, pathetic version of Ed’s luscious mane.”

Filmmaker: My eye quickly caught a first edition paperback of Macho Sluts being read by a character in the film once or twice and wanted to ask about the reasoning behind its inclusion.

Glass: Yeah, it’s shown twice in the film. At one point very briefly, the working title for the film was Macho Sluts. I found Pat Califia’s book in a bookshop years ago and didn’t know anything about it. I just saw the title on the spine of the cover and thought, “Oh wow, what’s this about?” It contains these very hardcore, BDSM short stories, and it’s quite an interesting read, and the title felt good. Now obviously, we didn’t use it [for the film] in the end, but I think in a few scenes where we had to give Lou something to be reading, it felt like we could have a little nod to it. It felt like the kind of book that Lou might’ve found somewhere in a bookshop and been like, “Oh my God, what is this?”

Filmmaker: I was curious about the film’s inclusion of anabolic steroids [Jackie is introduced to various kinds by Lou, who has been purchasing and distributing them discreetly in her gym]. They take on a more heightened role as the narrative progresses, but of course, steroids did (and, for all I know, still do) persist in the world of competitive bodybuilding. 

Glass: When Weronika and I were writing the script, we went back and forth on how real versus fantastical the drug Jackie’s taking should be. In our earlier drafts, I think it was much more explicitly a magical kind of thing, and I was flirting with the idea that anytime you see the steroids on screen, they may be glowing a bit or something like that. Ultimately, it just felt too distracting, so in the end we settled on a logic where, yes, anabolic steroids were and are around a lot back then (and I’m sure are used a lot in the bodybuilding world—but that’s quite a complex subject in and of itself and one I wasn’t interested in getting too deeply and literally embroiled in), but ours was probably not going to be the most strictly realistic depiction of steroid use. We always wanted it to be a little ambiguous as to whether all of this is happening because of the drugs Jackie is taking or if it’s due to the power of love making her mad in some way. Or perhaps it’s due to Lou’s corrupting influence? We have these slightly more heightened transformational moments being seeded throughout the film and they come, yes, after Jackie’s just taken steroids for the first time, but it’s also at the point where Lou and her are having sex for the first time. We took creative license with it.

Filmmaker: Regarding those more intimate, sexual moments in the film between Lou and Jackie, were you always directing those scenes on a very closed set? Did you enlist an intimacy coordinator?

Glass: Yes. Going into it, I knew the film was going to have a lot of sex and violence in it. If you’re including a romance [in the narrative], obviously the sex is going to be an important part of the story. But, on some level, you’re just treating those like any other scene. You write them with (hopefully) a great degree of specificity and make sure everything’s there in the script for good reason. When you come in to film those scenes, it’s just like with stunts, but where you’d typically have a stunt coordinator you now have an intimacy coordinator. It’s to help choreograph things and to make sure that everyone in the scene feels comfortable. It’s obviously a weird thing to do, to pretend to be having sex with a person who you are not in a relationship with, and to do it in front of a bunch of people with a camera. The situation is inherently odd, so you want everyone to be focusing on doing the work, enjoying it and not being distracted by being too self-conscious. I think having an intimacy coordinator takes out any potential uncomfortable uncertainty and ambiguity. Everybody goes into it knowing exactly what’s going to be filmed, exactly what’s going to be shown and what’s not going to be shown. If anybody has any concerns about something they do or don’t want to do, it’s all been very clearly sorted out beforehand. This also helps to make it fun. It means that then when you’re blocking the scene, it’s all very unsexy and mechanical, like “OK, my hand goes…here? No, we’re here,” and blah, blah, blah. If you know that everyone’s comfortable, it frees you up and the actors can focus on [giving] the best performance and you can enjoy shooting it. It’s all quite fun.

Filmmaker: I was curious about the influences [involved in] curating the film’s soundtrack, which feels heavily stylized but in tune with the [story you’re telling]. Some I recognized and some I’m less familiar with.

Glass: Yeah, there’s a huge amount. Clint Mansell is our composer and created a wonderful score, but there’s also a huge amount of commercial music throughout the film. A lot of it’s really woven in there, not even just in the obvious places where a song would be playing on a radio. A lot of it feels a bit like [it’s] score. I was actually working with a music consultant who, even during prep for the film and during the shoot, would come up with curated playlists for the main characters so that we could figure out what kind of stuff these people would be listening to. And while I knew the film needed a lot of music, the ’80s is also a decade that’s been so done to death [on screen] and I wanted to avoid the temptation of filling the film with familiar, fun needle drops so that we weren’t just saying, “Hey, everybody knows this!”

I worked with my partner, who’s a musician, tasking him with finding a sound music palette, a lot of which was made up of music we imagined Lou would listen to. It’s slightly more alternative, a lot of industrial or ambient kind of stuff [that’s] synthy. We wanted to find some slightly less familiar ones, aso there’s a lot of stuff by [’70s and ’80s disco and hi-NRG composer] Patrick Cowley heard when Lou and Jackie first hook up. There’s also Throbbing Gristle, Martin Rev and a few tracks by a Japanese artist named Shiho Yabuki that play a big part in the slightly more twinkly, fantastical, sexy, playful side of the music. Those [choices] then fed into what our composer Clint was doing, so that when he eventually took over, the more ominous, throbbing, dread [feelings from the music] came via his [contributions]. It was all about keeping it interesting and there’s a lot of great stuff in there.

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