“For Every Kink, There is a Case”: Anja Marquardt on She’s Lost Control
The erotic meets the clinical in German director Anja Marquardt’s debut feature, She’s Lost Control, a quietly intense portrait of two characters brought together by deeply personal physical and internal deficiencies. Ronah (Brooke Bloom) is a graduate student doubling as a professional sex surrogate for men struggling with physical intimacy. The student faces the ultimate test when confronted with her most troubled patient, Johnny (Marc Menchaca), an imposing, solemn figure who needs an alcoholic beverage to get through each session. Those sessions — sequences that allow the leads to take real risks as their characters interact unsupervised — are set in darkened hotel rooms that equally serve as medical office, safe haven, and battleground. As their sessions intensify, Ronah develops an interest in Johnny that stretches beyond her professional parameters.
Recently nominated for two Film Independent Spirit Awards (Best First Feature and Best First Screenplay for Marquardt), She’s Lost Control is a concentrated effort that allows Marquardt, working with a very small crew, to dive into the less-explored (and often less salacious) aspects of human sexual behavior. Before the film opens this Friday in IFP’s Screen Forward series at the Made in NY Media Center by IFP, I spoke with Marquardt about her research into the world of sexual surrogacy, shooting scenes using available light, and how she created a New York that looks distinctly indistinctive.
Filmmaker: This is your first feature, and you took on many roles: director, screenwriter, producer and co-editor. What led you to having to juggle those many roles your first time out?
Marquardt: When you make a film, things always evolve. I never planned to produce or to be an editor on the film, but it unfolded that way kind of organically. It was really due to the fact that we were trying to make this film completely outside of the system, trying to get it off the ground with the best creative team I could assemble (most of them dear friends) and just get it made. I’m very lucky with how it turned out.
Filmmaker: The ground your film covers is very detailed, and given your lead character’s occupation, specificity is key. Was there anything in your own background that lead you to crafting this occupation-focused story?
Marquardt: I’m most interested in worlds that are not my own, worlds that I can infuse with my own personal perspective. I read about caretaker robots in Japan who were touching patients to make them feel calmer, simulating human touch, and I later read about sexual surrogates trying to teach people how to be intimate. Those two [happenings] seemed to overlap for me, and it seemed to be a timely occurrence. I started writing the script thinking about the story as an extreme version of this professional intimacy that we have grown more and more accustomed to. As a filmmaker, I feel like there’s a lot of interaction with fellow collaborators that resonates on some emotionally intimate level. There’s a lot of intensity, there has to be, and without it it wouldn’t work. It applies to technology too. We connect to the world via our touch-screens, and sometimes that seems more urgent to us than looking into the eyes of someone right in front of you. There’s an interesting shift in intimacy.
Filmmaker: Ronah is, in part, undergoing these sessions with her clients due to her efforts to obtain a Master’s degree in Behavioral Psychology. How realistic did the scenarios with her clients have to be?
Marquardt: On one level, Ronah is an ambitious graduate student. The other part of her life, this under-the-radar job, is, I believe, a complementary way of exploring that same subject matter. We took great care in recreating the sessions between Ronah and her clients in a very authentic way. We had two advisors on the project who met with me. They gave us credible pointers and helped to understand what the motions were. In order for the client to feel safe, boundaries must be set, and my interest came from stripping away those layers and breaking down those boundaries.
Filmmaker: There’s one client in the film, played by character actor Robert Longstreet, who’s afraid to take off his shirt in front of women, and it struck me as a very specific fear to have. Were there specific cases you had learned about of men who needed help overcoming their difficulties with intimacy?
Marquardt: I read everything I could find on the subject and spoke to a few former clients who had undergone this kind of therapy. For every kink, there is a case, and it goes back to an emotional issue that’s at the center of it. It’s not as simple as “Oh, he has a big scar on his chest and therefore he doesn’t want to take off his shirt.” There’s more of an underlining sociological aspect there. Robert Longstreet and I developed the character as we continued to discuss him, and I remember the character initially having a different focus. Robert later brought his own incredible details to the character, related to his shirt, that became [rooted in characteristics] of OCD.
Filmmaker: The film’s co-lead, Johnny, works as a full-time nurse, while Ronah serves her clients as a sex surrogate. You’re uniting two medical practitioners on different ends of the spectrum, in a sense brought together by a common disability to connect. And yet, this isn’t a love story.
Marquardt: Yeah, I never set out to tell a love story. It’s more of anti-love story about the meeting of two people. Things happen and go a little crazy between them as they cross lines and go to a darker place together. It was important to me to keep the two actors apart before being on set together. The set was going to be very intimate, and I felt like their journey as actors was mimicking the journey of the two characters. I jumped into the shoot head on, without rehearsals, and I think it really helped in preserving that initial awkwardness, of smoothing each other out in the room.
Filmmaker: Did you shoot the sessions in real hotel rooms? What was it like to shoot in these very tight, claustrophobic square spaces?
Marquardt: You always try to shoot in bigger spaces and make them look claustrophobic, as opposed to actually being in a claustrophobic space with a film team yourself. We found an amazing space to shoot in that I’m not supposed to go on-record in identifying! It’s an amazing turn-of-the-century hotel that actually still exists and has an abandoned floor. Our original goal was to have these hotel room scenes between Johnny and Ronah evolve, so that they wouldn’t feel like a one-room story. If you look at every scene, back-to-back, they all look very different. Much like their literal emotional state, the space that they’re in keeps changing on them. That was important.
Filmmaker: You give the audience snippets of a backstory for Ronah, whether it be her family history (incorporating her brother and very ill mother into the story) or her unwanted relationships with former clients who now harass her with ominous phone calls. She also freezes her eggs with the hope of having children one day. Ronah isn’t a blank slate, but she is reserved, as I’d imagine one would have to be if in her position.
Marquardt: The idea was to make Ronah the patient. That was the concept Brooke and I came up with, and while we didn’t have any rehearsals, we talked extensively about the psychology and emotional arc. Making Ronah the patient helped amplify the duality between the character being extremely open, vulnerable, caring and empathetic with her clients, while also requiring forms of control in her personal life, whether that be being guarded with her identity or keeping her family life and its complex broken home aspects at arm’s length. Those walls are being broken down as the movie progresses. At its heart, the film is a story about being able to reconnect with your roots and go home, even if it’s just for a short time and it’s not entirely clear what home really is. You get to go back to some painful, but also essential, feelings within yourself.
Filmmaker: There are many establishing shots of cold, withered apartment and office buildings. There’s construction taking place seemingly everywhere, an impersonal rebuilding from the ground up. Ronah’s apartment is housed in a rather soulless, decrepit building, dirty and frequently falling apart. Your film is a visually dark, grey, overcast movie, featuring a New York we’re not used to seeing.
Marquardt: The challenge was that the shoot was pushed from January to June and July. The idea was to make the city look like a more isolating and isolated landscape, as New York is very bubbling and busy, as we all know. There are a lot of windows and walls in the movie, and the idea was to have Ronah be at her freest and most alive whenever she’s with her clients. The outside world is much more of an isolating place for her. This film came together because I wanted to get a movie made, and I knew how to make it happen in New York with all the people I knew and locations I could scout on my own time. What I was trying to do was look at it through a different lens and try to show a side of New York that we hadn’t seen before. It’s such a “movie moment” every time you see Times Square [in a film]. The goal was to withhold that [identification] for awhile. I had a few people come up to me after screenings and say “Wow, it took me 30 minutes to realize that this film was set in New York,” and that’s really what we wanted.
Filmmaker: In shooting those hotel sequences, it appears as though you were rid any of electrical light sources, while applying sunlight or other light sources to illuminate the room.
Marquardt: We used the ALEXA. Our DP, Zachary Galler, has a tremendous eye. We would shoot the scenes quickly — often using available light — so that we could turn the room around and balance it out with one or two lights in the room. We barely ever had more than two light sources, and so the challenge became keeping continuity within the scene. We had to keep the color temperature the same, since the light coming in through the windows from the outside world were different colors at different times. For instance, there would be a ten minute block of time where the sun would bounce off a nearby building, and the building would be less red or blue than before, so it sometimes took us a few minutes to realize what the hell was happening! There are some very interesting variations of light when you’re on the 27th floor of a Manhattan high-rise.
Filmmaker: You also feature some very arresting shots of Ronah walking through the city by herself, reflecting on her sessions and, at one point, feeling very real internal pain. How large was your crew for these sequences?
Marquardt: Our crew was pretty minimal there. Since we were shooting handheld, we went out and used natural light to stay under the radar. We had some extras that we planted and the locations were carefully chosen, but it was pretty [off-the-cuff] overall.
Filmmaker: In conducting your research, does physical abuse factor into these therapeutic sessions (the film touches on it toward the end of the film)? There’s always a sense of “We are two strangers alone in a room and this could potentially be a dangerous situation.”
Marquardt: There’s usually a triangular relationship between the individuals who practice this kind of therapy, consisting of a surrogate partner, therapist, and client. The feedback that goes on between the three of them is supposed to make sure that everyone is safe, client included. I think that in most cases, it probably works. It’s certainly helped a lot of people change their lives for the better. I wasn’t trying to make an argument for or against this kind of therapy. I think what happens inevitably between Ronah and Johnny is that they both cross lines and are equal participants in what occurs.
Filmmaker: Speaking of that intense physical confrontation toward the end of the film, it takes place in darkness, only lit by the light cast from a nearby bathroom. It’s a very different choice from the considerable usage of invasive, blinding afternoon sunlight peering in to darkened rooms seen throughout the film.
Marquardt: It goes back to that overall visual treatment of the film, of using available or naturalistic light. The only light source in that scene is coming from the bathroom with the door being half-open. It was important to really get that scene right. The fear and adrenaline that both characters feel and go through in that scene is perhaps unfolding because it’s in the darkness. It’s the first time they’ve been together that’s not during the daytime. They’ve had sex, they’ve fallen asleep, and now it’s the evening, and all sorts of feelings that they had kept under the surface start to come out.
Filmmaker: In your Kickstarter campaign, you mentioned that the film received support from the German Consulate General in NYC, and that you would do “some post-production in Berlin with the fantastic team at ROTOR FILM.” Could you speak a little about their involvement in the post-production process?
Marquardt: I’m from Berlin originally and I’ve always loved bringing people together on my films. I’d been talking with Martin Frühmorgen of ROTOR FILM for quite a while, and he had done some amazing sound on one of my short films. They came onboard as post-production partners for She’s Lost Control, and helped me finish the film for the Berlin International Film Festival. They’re an amazing sound facility that anyone in New York with a great project should check out.
Filmmaker: As you mentioned, the film premiered at the Berlinale in 2014 and I first saw the film soon at last year’s New Directors/ New Films festival here in New York. After touring the festival circuit for the first time, have there been any experiences along the way that really stood out?
Marquardt: It’s been an amazing run, allowing me to travel the world and sharpen my own perspective on what I’d like to do next. And just coming off the Independent Spirit Awards….well, that was an amazing chapter in itself. This is the first time that I’m going through the motions of promoting and talking about the film extensively, and it’s been really rewarding to meet my audience. That’s what I’m [going to] take away [from this experience]. It’s really about the audience. That’s who we make these films for, and it’s been amazing to connect with them.