Somewhere I’m Not: An Interview with Ignatiy Vishnevetsky
I saw a number of startlingly good films in 2014, but nothing shook me quite like a picture I saw at BAMcinemaFest this past summer. The film was Ellie Lumme, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s debut…debut what, exactly? Clocking in at 42 minutes, the film’s runtime frustrates typical designations – is it a featurette? A quasi-feature? A long short film? Perhaps we should just call it a medium. A medium seems most appropriate, as the film is a ghost story — albeit, as Vishnevetsky has cheekily explained, a ghost story sans ghost. (This description is, in fact, perfectly appropriate, and if you read on you’ll understand why.) Humming somewhere between the world of contemporary low-budget indie cinema and the far reaches of supernaturally talented works that push the medium forward, the film exhibits a stylishness, borne out of narrative economy and highly complex character psychology, that makes it feel unlike anything you’ve seen in a long time.
For the uninitiated, the film concerns a young woman living in Chicago, the titular character (played by Allison Torem), who strikes up a friendship with an older man named Ned (Stephen Cone). It’s a friendship that points toward potential courtship — a romance that quickly turns sour as Ellie rejects Ned’s advances. Ned, in turn, turns stalker. I’m loathe to say much more than that, but it bears mentioning that perhaps paramount among the reasons Ellie Lumme is such a fascinating film is the fact that, via utilizing supernatural narrative tropes, it manages to illuminate, in an exaggerated or distilled kind of way, crucial realities regarding what it feels like to be a young person attempting to get a sense of oneself and one’s value in the world. Hegel once famously wrote that a good portrait looks more like the subject than the subject themself does, highlighting the manner in which art, at its best, uses the powers of its medium to produce a truth that is “realer” (i.e. more palpable and recognizable) than any truth is ever presented in real life. In Ellie Lumme, the subject is the selfhood of a young person, and the portrait is painted with colors imbued with all the powers of the ghostly, supernatural world. I had the pleasure of speaking with Vishnevetsky over Skype recently.
Filmmaker: I’ve seen the film three times now, and I have so many questions for you. Perhaps we should start generally: how did the idea for the film first present itself?
Ignatiy Vishnevetsky: That’s kind of complicated, because it has a long genesis. I pitched a basic idea to Stephen Cone, who plays Ned, a year before we made the movie. I wanted to make something that, frankly, was cheap, because I knew I didn’t have a lot of money to work with. So I was trying to write this very naturalistic drama about relationships – whatever it is that people make movies about when they don’t have a lot of money to work with! But I was also reading a lot of 19th-century ghost stories, and they just started seeping in to what I was working on. These supernatural elements started to come in. When we started shooting we didn’t have a finished script. Allison Torem was cast on three pages of script, none of which ended up being in the film. Same thing with Mallory Nees – I showed her fragments of the script and asked her, do you want to be in this? We shot the film over a long period of time, a number of months, because we had so little money. But there was an advantage to that. We were able to look at the scenes and see what needed to be added, and I would sit down and write scenes into the gaps. We ended up not using a lot – for a short, there’s a lot more deleted from it than would normally be deleted from a film of this length. We had enough material for a 60-minute film, but I realized that if we cut things out it would become more cohesive, and what we ended up cutting out was the overtly supernatural stuff. Without that stuff the film had a better rhythm. What I wanted to do, though, was to try to direct the script as if I hadn’t written it, and I tried to edit the film as if I hadn’t directed it. At every step I tried to think about it critically. I built a more interesting thing by cutting out the overt ghost stuff. At every level it sort of reinvented itself. It became a much more psychological narrative when the actors came in and I suddenly had to explain everything to everyone. It became much more ambiguous once we got to editing. So it changed shape several times over. You grind it down until you find what was in there the whole time.
Filmmaker: It’s so important to attain that critical distance from the work, so you can remove ego from the equation. At the same time, making an assured statement — it seems like ego is an important part of that, especially if you want to subvert norms formally, change aspects of the medium. What do you make of that contradiction?
Vishnevetsky: I think it’s complicated. I think there’s a difference between ego and confidence. I think you have to be confident about certain things. And then at certain moments you have to be okay with letting go of certain things. You know, I’m never terribly confident about film, but sometimes you have to accept that a shot is the way it’s going to be and move on to the next thing. I think about the viewer, the reader, the audience, while I’m working, while I’m writing. That’s really your medium. That’s what you’re actually sculpting in, working in, affecting – the theoretical person that’s going to watch this. I think in terms of what I’m doing to or for them, in terms of what I’m going to offer them, in terms of an experience. I don’t really think of this as a first-person kind of thing. I don’t think of it as a first-person work. I am not the person for whom I’m making this. You know, everybody seems to make movies for “me.” There are enough movies for “me.” I can make movies for everyone else.
Filmmaker: Do you have an ideal viewer in mind? What’s their mode of reading a film?
Vishnevetsky: Well, “reading” a film is such a complicated idea – I guess you should just view it! Ideally, it’s a person sitting down in a movie theater, and it’s fairly dark! Here’s the thing: when you’re making a 42-minute film with a limited budget, you have an extremely specific audience of who’s going to see it. You like to imagine that all kinds of people are going to see it. I’m trying to think as generally as possible, because you want to make a film that wouldn’t be out of place outside of a little festival. But of course, it’s going to play the little sidebar at the festival because it’s 42 minutes long.
Filmmaker: Clearly, there’s a manner in which the film’s storytelling functions, though – there’s a specificity to the storytelling’s confidence. I love that moment in the opening where Ned gives Ellie his number, and then you smash cut to her phone indicating she has eight missed calls from him. It reminded me of a great Kurosawa quote – that he believed that the audience was more sensitive to the transitions between scenes than anything else in a film.
Vishnevetsky: My general feeling is that you shouldn’t waste people’s time, especially if you’re making a film. So it was important from the get-go that the film move briskly. Some of these abrupt transitions were just things that we ground down to kind of jagged cut points over the course of editing. Trying to figure out what we could go without, which is totally practical and unsexy. But we wanted to find a rhythm – what gesture was going to connect best with another gesture? We were wondering, what are the rhymes we can find in the film? The transitions, the brisk movements from one scene to another, are texture that often came organically.
Filmmaker: You spoke about not making films for “me” – you really seem to not be so burdened by the ego, especially when cutting. How do you manage that? So many filmmakers are.
Vishnevetsky: Well, that’s only because we’re talking about this a while after I edited the film. In the actual editing, there are totally things you don’t want to get rid of. For instance, I’m sad that we lost a big chunk of Mallory’s performance — a lot of Mallory’s performance figures in stuff we had to cut out. It’s unfortunate, because it’s a performance that I think is wonderful, but the film became stronger when we got rid of some of those scenes. There are so many things I wanted to keep in, but a lot of them weren’t going to do jack shit for the viewer, whom you want to sculpt, to mold.
Filmmaker: You say the film isn’t a film for “me,” which I follow, but at the same time there’s such specificity and personal expression to it.
Vishnevetsky: Well, just because you’re doing something for someone else doesn’t mean it’s impersonal. We do things for others every day that have completely personal reasons. I mean, this isn’t some selfless, saintly movie! Obviously there is ego and hubris involved, things you’re doing because you think they’ll look cool. Often, those are the things that don’t really turn out right. In this film, we had good luck in that, at every moment, we were severely outmatched by our ambitions. We were going in to shoot dolly shots with multiple changes in focus along the roof of a building — that’s the opening of the film. And you know, you’ve got one person running the camera, one doing the sound and one person pulling the dolly. So obviously personal taste is there, and your own personal feelings are always informing the way you think about these situations. I’m not sure personal expression is something to aspire to, though, because it’s always going to be there as long as you’re honest about why you’re doing things, right? That said, I went into the film wanting to make something that wasn’t personal. Obviously it’s going to become personal because I’m making it and my tastes are going to inform it, but the writing of the script was about other people. Trying to think about how other people will perceive a situation. I wanted to have a bit of distance.
Filmmaker: I understand it’s not a personal film in terms of the subject matter, but there’s clearly an artistic sensibility at work. I guess what I’m driving at is, do you need to bring your personal sensibility as a filmmaker to material in order to want to be involved in it?
Vishnevetsky: Well, I think it’s more fun when something doesn’t come naturally and you have to put a certain degree of effort into it. I’ve made this, and now we’re working on this other project that I’ve done some preliminary work on, so maybe this is just my approach, but I think it’s really important to always cast someone against type, to get some distance — this is just purely dealing with actors — to create distance between the character and the performer. Because then they have to cross that distance. I mean, if you’re playing someone exactly like you, you’re just going to be you. But if you’re playing someone different from yourself, you’re going to have to sit down and think and imagine this person’s world. It comes down to things as basic as appearance. You know, Stephen wears glasses, and it was very specific that his character wouldn’t, just to make it uncomfortable. I think it’s important for the actor to look in the mirror and have someone else look back at them. And I think that’s how I approach everything. I think when you set your goal outside your comfort zone, then you really have to figure out how you’re going to get there. You have to figure out, how do these people live? How do they spend their day? How do they organize their space? And I think that’s where the really interesting creative work happens — in the journey from Point A, which is you, to Point B, which is outside your area of expertise. I have a very limited area of expertise, and I swore to myself I would never make a movie about, y’know, Russian immigrants who become film critics. But the funny thing, now that I think about it, is that the most personal stuff comes in during the process of resolving the disconnect between yourself and your subject. Because you’re constantly drawing on your own life experiences to figure out how other people see the world.
Filmmaker: When we first started, you were talking about how you wanted to make something about personal relationships, and you were also reading these ghost stories, and that’s something that makes the film so special — you use the supernatural as a means of demonstrating the enormity of things that are typically only dealt with in “realist” terms. Introducing the supernatural element enables the film to resonate more broadly.
Vishnevetsky: Well, it felt natural once it happened. Once those two things converged, it made sense. It made sense thematically, it clicked. There were versions of it where the supernatural element was much more overt. There’s still a supernatural vibe, but earlier it was even ghostlier. I should say that the end stretch of the film, with the dream and the Tarot and the cut back to the dream, which, I have to admit, is totally stolen from House of Pleasures, which was a big influence on the look of our film — that end sequence came together once I realized these elements had to converge. And the rest of it was figuring out how to get there. To me, the thing that works is to not think of the ending as just an end point, like you start a story and figure out what an end point is. You know, the ending is the last thing you’re going to show your audience. It’s kind of your destination. It’s where you have to take them. So once I figured out that that was where we were going, that it would be that scene, then I had to figure out how to get to that moment.
Filmmaker: That ending is a very special thing, the dream sequence. That was when the film really locked in for me. I was with it the whole way, but that scene really devastated me. Ned says something in that scene; he says, “I’m going to be with you for a long time.” And it made me think about validation, and what it means to be a young woman and to be unsure of one’s value, of how you’re viewed in the world, what your “worth” is. It made me think of how the experiences you have when you’re at a formative age really do mold you and kind of “teach” you what you should believe your value or lack of value is. It kind of forms a cast that influences the rest of your life. Could you comment on that observation?
Vishnevetsky: Well I don’t know, because I have an odd trajectory. I got married when I was 24, which is a bit unusual in this day and age. So a lot of this is just imagining other peoples’ lives. To me, one of the entry points — the entry point into Ned’s character — is that he’s kind of feeling trapped, he’s not happy with his life. When you think of it as a ghost that haunts you, it’s sort of like you’re transferring the evil eye from you — you have frustration about your life and you’re transferring it onto someone else. When I started thinking about the nastier ways people treat each other, the ghost stuff started to feel natural. I think the ending is kind of hopeless, in the sense that Ned is kind of right — this is going to color interactions for Ellie with total strangers for probably the rest of her life. In that sense people do kind of become ghosts that haunt you, don’t they? You have one socially awkward interaction and you end up thinking about it whenever you’re in a similar situation. It creates all kinds of anxieties. To me, that’s one of the things that’s at play there.
Filmmaker: The idea of transferring the evil eye from one person to another — can you say a bit more about that? It’s such a fascinating concept. It’s almost like Ned is getting all the poison out of his life by transferring it onto her.
Vishnevetsky: Well, I think that’s why he does it on a subconscious level, but I don’t think it’s going to make his life any better. You know, I don’t think Ned’s feelings are all that uncommon or unusual — the way he feels trapped and lashes out. A lot of people, when they feel angry and trapped, they tend to drag others down with them. You want to also make other people feel like shit when you feel like shit. I feel like the supernatural thing, when you’re bringing in these ghosts, these evil eyes, for me it was a way to make some of these ideas and feelings clearer. The movie is kind of ambiguous in the later stretch, but for me ambiguity is not the end goal. I do think it’s a really powerful tool. I think there’s a difference between ambiguity as a means and ambiguity as an ends. My hope is that our end is not ambiguous, but we use ambiguity to get there, and we play with the viewer’s perception of, to what degree is something real and to what degree is it supernatural, because I want to make the viewer understand something about how these vicious personal interactions work. You know, certain things I brought into Ned’s character were personally painful for me because I can sometimes be a dick. But that’s how it is – you’re trying to exorcise yourself, always. When you’re talking about the emotions of other people, those people only exist within you, as you perceive them. So you’re always really talking about your own emotions. So I had to make things a bit difficult. Because it’s difficult to think about how you might be an asshole. No one ever wants to think about that. Except assholes.
Filmmaker: It seems like perhaps there’s a tiny bit of Ellie that almost — almost — enjoys being stalked. Part of my read was that there was a kind of validation, as odd as it is, in being stalked by someone else.
Vishnevetsky: That’s something that Allison and I talked about when we were trying to figure out why Ellie behaves the way she does. We rehearsed the film before shooting it, and that was a great creative aid. I would end up rewriting things based on what I was seeing in the rehearsals, and based on the questions the actors posed. Actors are great bullshit filters. There’s the old dumb joke, what’s my motivation, but it’s a very valid question and it makes you ask questions about the material that you yourself have not yet asked. That’s why I like working with more or less professional actors, people with that kind of background and framework, who are going to come into a character and want to argue with me. That’s something we talked about wanting to be there. She does kind of enjoy it. I hope it doesn’t incriminate her, but the hope was that it kind of complicates her. There is a point at which – before desire becomes unwanted, there is a point where you’re sort of okay with it. At first Ned is just this outside interloper. Only later does he become an oppressive force.
Filmmaker: What led me to think about it is the scene toward the end where she goes to his house after receiving his letter. She doesn’t have to do that, to seek him out. And she asks him why he won’t leave her alone. And he responds, a strong person would have just gone to the police, gotten a restraining order and moved on with their life. And of course, in the dream at the end, when Ned dares her to call the cops on him, she hesitates, and she doesn’t call the cops — she instead tells him she just wants him to treat her like a person. To which he responds, you were never a person. You were a thing I wanted, and then you were a thing I wanted to break. And that, of course, is the lead-in to the line where he tells her, essentially, that he’s going to haunt her for a long time. It’s beautiful, the complexity of the film’s portrait of a young girl’s need for validation, and the manner in which she gives the power to validate to a horrific person. Were these things you were considering as you wrote?
Vishnevetsky: Sure. You think about all kinds of things. You know, every time I say “You,” what I really mean is “I,” but for some reason I’m allergic to using the first person, so I’ll stick to the second. You want things to be – for lack of a better term – multifaceted. I know it sounds dumb and may be insensitive, but it’s always more interesting when something is going in several different directions rather than something being just one thing, where you can say, this is what this is clearly saying. These were all things that were going on, things that came together from notes, thoughts. You know, I’m a man, so I can’t really ever know what the world is going to be like for someone like Ellie, or what she’s going to see. That comes back to the idea of setting the point outside your comfort zone, since it’s in the process of getting there that all the really interesting stuff happens, because you do have to sit down and re-imagine the world. These were all issues that started coming up once I made the trip from myself to this character. And you know, it was cast with the barest fragment — and I didn’t know Alison very well. But I liked her work. Once I knew it was Alison, I knew what the character looked like, and I began to work at playing off of the fact that it was Alison, playing off her instincts. She’s very goofy, very friendly. So I decided Ellie had to be a bit standoffish. I needed Alison to travel a bit to play the role. And once we figured out who the character was, we had to figure out how to get the character to a certain point. It’s kind of like putting pins down on a map, and then figuring out your route to get between points.
Filmmaker: Before you cast Alison, what was the impetus to have the film be about Ellie? To make a film whose protagonist is a young woman?
Vishnevetsky: Because I’m a man, and it’s boring to make a movie about someone like me. That doesn’t sound like the most noble thing, I know, but you have to figure out how to sustain the creative process, and for me that’s trying to go somewhere I’m not. So I thought, obviously this film has to be about a woman who doesn’t have a whole lot in common with me. And I had to bridge that. With my next film, I’m doing something that’s the exact opposite, or trying to. I want to let Ellie Lumme sit. I’m not coming back to this milieu anytime soon.