Shooting Mechanical Dinosaurs in 35mm: Lance Edmands on Bluebird
Lance Edmands’ ensemble drama Bluebird sets its story in a blue collar, hardworking industrialized town. The screenplay uses a tragic instance of negligence to connect age-defining experiences (first love, job frustration, potential loss of a family member) in the complex lives of its multitude of characters. Distracted by the title bird, driver Leslie (played by Amy Morton) fails to see an unconscious student in the back of her schoolbus before going home; when he’s discovered near-dead the next day, she’s accused of not doing her job properly, leading to everyone having an opinion about her. Featuring some beautiful, quietly arresting snow-covered images caught on celluloid, Bluebird is welcomingly familiar while finding a way to personalize and deepen its exploration of domestic pathos.
With Bluebird opening this Friday, I spoke with Edmands about the film’s northern Maine location, shooting on 35mm, and parallel editing as a form of storytelling.
Filmmaker: The film feels like the kind of story that’s being told less these days, emphasizing the interconnectivity of small-towns where everyone knows each other’s business, where local gossip can ruin lives, and people are just getting by by the skin of their teeth. How did you come to tell this story specifically?
Edmands: To be honest, I worked a little bit backwards. I started with a location where I really wanted to shoot, and then I formed a story around it. I was raised in Maine, and growing up, I’d always been attached to the mythology of northern Maine, where the film is set: the woods, the endless intimacy within the trees, the paper mills, etc. I always thought it would be a fascinating place to set a movie. There’s an inherent drama within the location. As I spent more time up there and started to sketch out the characters (these members of the town) that really spoke to and embodied this place, I wove them into the story, finding unique ways for them to react to one another. I wanted to tell a story about people that always circled back to the location, capturing a tone that I’d never felt anywhere else. I wanted it to be infused with that atmosphere.
Filmmaker: Killer Films was involved in Bluebird’s production and founder Christine Vachon served as an executive producer. Could you speak a little bit about Killer’s involvement?
Edmands: Kyle Martin is my producing partner, my right-hand man, and he brought on Christine. Killer Films had read an early draft of the script and always seemed really interested in it. When we were nearing our shoot, we needed a little bit more financing, and we went back to them and asked for help putting the last piece together. They said “of course” and connected us with financing partners, working together to help with that last little push. Christine has been amazing and supportive, giving feedback on the script and helping with relationships. Obviously, her track record doesn’t hurt when you’re looking for actors, and there are so many amazing films in her filmography that it was super flattering to even be associated with her. She was extremely helpful in logistically getting the film off the ground.
Filmmaker: The film was shot on 35mm, which is a rare choice for an independent feature these days. When did you come to that decision?
Edmands: Early in the process. I had always wanted to shoot on film, and it really fit the location and the story. I love film, and while I’m as nostalgic about it as the next guy, I also think it’s important for that choice to relate to the story you’re trying to tell. In a way, it adds a timeless feeling. All the paper mills near the town have closed, and it hasn’t been a really functional town since the late ’70s or early ’80s. Everything’s stuck in this timeless zone, and I felt that film would really draw that out. We shot on Super 35 and Jody Lee Lipes, my cinematographer, really underexposed the film a lot to exaggerate the grain and make it even softer, letting the colors bleed into each other. I love the look of it, because it has a tension, as if the image is going to fall apart. The grain is so prominent that it’s almost like you’re looking through it, trying to find an image through the grain. It’s on the verge of dissolving, which in a lot of ways, mirrors what the characters are going through. It took a lot of time [for us] to push it as far as we could take it, and it was always a very important part for me.
Filmmaker: How closely did you work with Jody Lee Lipes? I noticed he’s also credited as the second unit director on the film, and those prominent establishing shots are front and center. They’re like the film’s main character. How did you work on getting shots that really established a concentrated tone?
Edmands: I’ve known Jody for years and he’s one of my best friends. We went to NYU film school together and have worked together for a really long time. In a lot of ways, our formative years in New York — writing about film and making films — were spent together. We had a shared perspective and shared taste as far as what it was we really admired in filmmaking and photography. It was second nature, as we didn’t have to really talk too much about ideas. He just got it.
For a lot of the establishing shots of the town, we set aside a few extra days (both before and after the shoot) to go into that paper mill and shoot all the different working machines, and all of these establishing shots capturing a snowstorm, and things like that. Jody went on his own for a day and did all of this amazing, beautiful B-roll work. While a lot made it into the film, there’s some beautiful stuff that we just didn’t have time to include. Since we were focusing so tightly on these characters, I always wanted to pop out and go really macro and see the town from a bird’s eye view. Those establishing shots served as a connective tissue and are really an important part of the story. We go back to those shots to say, “Here’s a story of five or six people in a town of 5,000, and there’s a lot more to tell here.”
Filmmaker: You incorporate tracking shots in very interesting ways. Before departing for her route, Leslie discovers an unresponsive child in the back of her bus. The camera first places us inside as she gets out of the driver seat to investigate. You then cut to an outside shot of the bus, the camera tracking along as she makes her way to the tragic discovery.
Edmands: I went into this film knowing that I didn’t want a lot of arbitrary camera movement and that I wanted to move the camera only when it felt necessary. We had a rule that we could use a zoom in certain scenes and a dolly in others, depending on what was emotionally going on. In that scene in particular, we’re in her mind subjectively, but when she makes the discovery [of the unconscious boy], we’re [placed] outside of the bus. It’s almost more terrifying than to be inside with her and looking down from her POV. By [positioning the camera] outside of the bus, you can somehow feel it more, as if she’s trapped. We’re not crammed in her face, and it makes the scene even more horrifying. We can’t even see her face when she reacts to him; as she’s framed by the bus window, she’s cut-off from the neck up. Sometimes when you have a big reveal like that, of something that could be really awful, not seeing it can amplify it. That’s what I was going for in that moment. The tracking shot down the side of the bus was used as a way to build up the tension of the discovery.
Filmmaker: When Leslie goes to wash her face at her daughter’s music recital, there’s a brief shot of an empty school hallway. We then notice Leslie in the far right side of the frame, taking a moment to regroup in the restroom. It’s a contemplative moment that doubles as an inventive use of negative space.
Edmands: That visual design element was something we talked about a lot. I love that shot. She’s in like one-tenth of the frame and the rest is just an empty hallway. I remember shooting that scene and looking through the camera with Jody and him asking, “Is this too much?” I told him, “No! We should go for it.” I think pushing that limit was important. For that scene, similar to the bus sequence, we see Leslie trapped in a sliver of the frame and cut-off. Emotionally and visually, squeezing characters into a small part of the frame makes them boxed in. At that moment she feels really boxed in by the community. You can feel how lonely she is and how she doesn’t have anyone to reach out to. The framing follows all of that, and you can hear the music from the recital echoing down the empty hallway, and there’s this kind of sonic texture. Isolating her out of the frame speaks to her emotions, I think.
Filmmaker: Speaking of isolation, the film features the inventions of the industrial revolution taking away from the Earth, destroying and removing trees and (we soon find out) local jobs. There’s very much a machinery and factory element to the story.
Edmands: I always imagined Richard, Leslie’s husband [who is a woodlogger], driving his machine like a mechanical dinosaur that stomps through the forest and tears down everything in its path. Metaphorically, humans think they have this great ability to face nature and, with these machines, cut down nature with such efficiency. There’s a certain arrogance to it, that these man-made things believe they’re conquering nature. At the end of the day, everyone is suffering at the hands of the natural world. I liked the contrast of the egoism of the machines with the ultimate power that nature has. The paper mill is the heart of the town, and the film opens and closes with it. I always saw the conveyor belts and machines as the valves and heart of the town. It starts there, and we begin and end with a cycle. There’s almost a documentary impulse to it, as the mill we shot in closed down, and I wanted to get in there and make this movie before it was all gone. I wanted to capture something that was dissolving. I had an impulse to get in there and shoot all of these machines working [one final time].
Filmmaker: Parallel editing finds its way into your storytelling as well. There’s that sequence where Leslie swerves off the icy road and crashes her car while Richard concurrently gets distracted at work and loses control of the logs he’s transporting from the forest. The whole film is a series of parallel misfortunes. Since you wrote the screenplay, how did you know how many characters and genres to incorporate and link together?
Edmands: In some ways, there was an impulse to show the town from all different perspectives. There’s a coming-of-age tale in there involving Leslie’s teenage daughter, Paula, and in many ways she’s the most aware of this place as a young person. We also have an adult, Marla [the mother of the child on the bus], who has run out of options, and Leslie and Richard who are a part of a separate community. For the narrative, I wanted to weave in some element of a mistake that someone was going to make, a distraction or a brief moment where you take your eyes off the road and everything changes. That was always important to me, trying to find that moment between these stories and weave them together. Marla makes the mistake of forgetting to pick up her son, while Leslie makes the mistake of not seeing him in the back of the bus. Paula makes a lapse of judgment with her boyfriend, the same mistake Marla probably made seven years earlier. Each storyline rhymes with another storyline. Marla and her mother are very much the same character at different ages. I wanted there to be those parallels to draw a different connection between.
Filmmaker: It’s a film that deals with criminal negligence, but it’s also a film where no one is totally at fault, just neglectful, although perhaps that’s its own kind of fault.
Edmands: I wanted the situation to be really ambiguous. Who is at fault and why? I wanted it to be everyone’s fault and no one’s at the same time. How do all of these people make sense of this terrible thing that happened? One of the ways people do it is to find blame and put things through a court or legal system and sort blame out that way. Once you find out that a certain person [is guilty] and was negligent, you say “OK, let’s sue this person,” as a way of parsing out the inexplicable so that everyone can feel comfortable with it, close the case, rest easy, and move on. At the end of the day, there are so many different forces at play, so many different excuses and acts of faith that bring something like this on. It’s not that easy. I wanted to see how these characters dealt with and made sense of an act of nature or an act of faith.