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TIFF 2016: Five Questions for In the Radiant City Director Rachel Lambert

With In the Radiant City, I wrote in my Toronto preview, Louisville, KY native Rachel Lambert has brought to Toronto a debut film that seems like it might be the kind of laconic, unexpectedly emotional regional drama associated with filmmakers like Victor Nunez. Executive produced by Jeff Nichols, In the Radiant City follows a man, Yurley (Michael Abbott, Jr.), estranged from his family, who returns home to finally deal with the aftermath of a violent act in his family’s past. Supporting players include the always excellent Marin Ireland and Paul Sparks. Below, Lambert discusses how she connected with Nichols, why she focused on the subject of grief, and how she worked with screenwriter Nathan Gregorski to parcel out her film’s important reveals.

In the Radiant City premieres tomorrow at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Filmmaker: First, tell us about the origins of this film? What made you want to tackle the subject of grief and trauma in your first feature? Is there an element that’s personal to you?

Lambert: Well, I read an article in the New York Times that profiled families of murderers that carry some degree of notoriety. I was struck, in the process of reading it, by how uncommon it is to hear from this side of the narrative of violence, and also was provoked by the inherent challenge it posed to me. The piece forced me to locate humanity in an inhuman act, and as a result, it frustrated my natural inclination to assign the figures in the narratives as either “good” or “bad.” And that knee-jerk assignation of good and evil is, I think, a symptom of a justice system that lives in stark, unrelenting binaries. Of course that perspective will eek out into the culture at large and impact how citizens see each other, assume of each other, and of course, then assume of themselves. After reading that article, I contacted the journalist, and from there started a winding road of research with Nathan, my writing partner, via the journalist’s sources, and our own. Once we felt we understood enough, emotionally, about this we set out to construct a fictional piece that would allow us to explore the themes as we wished. And, to your question about tackling grief and trauma in our first film, I would say the need to investigate this story honestly just pointed us in a direction that indicated following the arc of trauma was the truest way of understanding our characters.

Filmmaker: And tell us about the production. You’ve worked in theater and made shorts. How did you find the financing for this film, and what aspects — whether that’s story, cast, etc. — motivated your financiers?

Lambert: I knew from the moment I decided to do this that I had zero value for anyone considering this project. Zero. So I had to think of what I could offer: I knew Nathan and I could write a decent script, and I could try and find a cast of great repute, and talented department heads. So I did that. And those people said yes, unbelievably. I also knew that I had to plan out a way to keep this budget down. So we made up one on our own, one that was ambitious but doable, at least I had pledged to myself was doable. Finally, I figured if I already had relationships and support where I wished to shoot, then it matches that ambition with practical resources. So I went down home to Louisville and set about meeting folks there, making connections and getting the lay of the land. Fortunately, Louisville, and the region, opened its arms to us. So, I assembled all that, put together my look book and statement, and we began sending it around. We had the money at one point, but that fell through, as it so often does. But we just kept going, and then on a whim Michael Abbott, my lead actor, suggested he send it to an old friend of his who may have some advice for me on where to look and what to do. So he sent it. His friend is Jeff Nichols. As in: my hero. Jeff liked our script, he called me, he grilled me for a heart-stopping 20 minutes, and I must have not sounded too stupid because he said he wanted to help me (which, for the record, he’s continued to do, and I am in great debt to him). From there it went to Alex Saks at ICM (who became my agent, and is now producing my work), who then got it to Sonny Mallhi. Sonny read the script, talked to me awhile on the phone, and within 24 hours had an offer out, an offer that agreed to my script, cast, location and department heads from the start. Pretty brave of him. So I took it. That whirlwind few weeks has left in its wake three people to whom I owe an undoubted metric ton.

Filmmaker: Your film deals with a man returning home to deal with an event in his past and the family that event left in its wake. With any film where the pivotal event is in the backstory, a writer and a director has to decide how to parcel out that information — how much to reveal early and how much to withhold until later in the film. What sorts of decisions did you and your screenwriter make about how informed the audience would be at different points in the movie?

Lambert: Well, Nathan and I are creative partners, and we write all of our material together. We write as one voice, and then it’s my job to interpret it as best as possible on screen. I only mention this because the writing process to which you are referring here is unique in that we are making decisions as we write that directly correlate to how it will be realized visually. In that case, we knew this was a ghost story, and we wanted to show people who were haunted by a trauma, and we couldn’t reveal it all upfront because we had to show it was something they didn’t want to face, but we also wanted to endow their ghost with some presence in their lives, thus the dream sequences and how we visually wrote Laura seeing Andrew at the grocery store. In addition, we knew we didn’t want to hold onto exposition until the end because we were not setting out to make a “big reveal” or “big realization” movie, but we needed the audience to understand that Michael actually did this horrible thing. Because the questions we were asking were: “My brother did this horrible thing, and tore my family apart, but I still love him, and them, and I miss them, and how can I reckon that? Can that be reckoned?” In essence, examining what is “good” and what is “bad,” and are those things even real? So, we elected to put this exposition halfway through, placing it in a scene between Beth and Andrew. Here it isn’t just an info dump, but actually carries emotional and narrative consequence; it creates an irrefutable connection between him and the family he’s been estranged from.

Filmmaker: Your film harkens back to a sort of spare, regional naturalist drama that we haven’t seen as much of in independent film in recent years. What were some of your inspirations for this film, whether that’s other films, or plays, or books, or life? And what are your hopes for this film as it enters the marketplace?

Lambert: Nate and I are both from small parts of our country, he from the far reaches of Northern Michigan, and I the far reaches of Northern Kentucky. So. Growing up around that provided the greatest inspiration. In fact, most of the locations in this film are from my childhood: my grandmother’s home, the town store where I rented my first movies, etc. Nate and I like movies that find poetry in the small, so we brought that to bear on the script. Now, I say this without irony and without embellishment: our first outside inspiration was Take Shelter. There was an organic nature to how [Nichols] transitioned between reality and dream, and a dogged adherence to tone. He also used genre to his advantage, a firm structure that, if generally respected, can actually grant permission for all sorts of deviations and innovations on the page. Take Shelter was absolutely the first time I saw great drama staged in a place I recognized. I didn’t know people could do that. Or that I could. It was seeing that movie, in fact, that made me think I could be a filmmaker at all. So, obviously, when I set out to do this, I treated his work like gospel. I also looked to Paris,Texas for inspiration, most especially with my DP, Zoë White. We decided the film’s use of color in that Western landscape elevated a seemingly naturalistic story into a place of folk tale. And that felt right. It also knew when to use tricks and when to hold back. The push and pull between classic compositions and the flourishes of kinetic imagery became a way for us to visually build the tension between what is said, or done, and what is felt by the characters. And to imagine what those flourishes could look like? We actually looked to Scandinavian filmmaking: early stuff from Bier, Vinterberg. They know how to match emotion to a freer camera, so it always feels earned. Finally, in the editing phase, Julia and I thought a lot about Malick when creating a language for the dream sequences. It’s hard to escape him. But, perhaps surprisingly, we also got a moment of inspiration from The Master. We went to a screening while still trying to work our way out of the toughest scene to cut, the motel room, and boom! Right there in The Master, P.T. Anderson gave us an answer: Freddie Quell staring up at Lancaster Dodd as he delivers the second book, not cutting away for what feels like an eternity, and then his eyes dip down for just one moment before returning his gaze back up to the podium. We understand immediately that he thinks this whole thing is bunk. So we stole that for Beth’s realization in the motel. Just straight-up stole it.

Filmmaker: Your film builds to a penultimate scene climaxing the film that has to be both honest and suspenseful. Without spoiling that scene, what were the challenges of that scene, and how did you handle its direction on set and with your actors?

Lambert: Well the greatest challenge existed in the writing. Our first thought, when we came to it, was “Man, why in hell did we do this to ourselves?” Because, yeah, we knew this conversation was a big deal. But then the second issue reared its head: this isn’t a classic showdown Western moment, where the expectation would be “A reveal!” or “A twist!!” or “Oh my God Andrew kills his brother with a shiv!” or something along those lines…. I mean, it is a showdown in a way, but it’s askew from tradition because we had written a negative climax: the encounter with the Woman disrupts the resolving action from the fight at the house, which was a false climax. The Woman presents a remaining obstacle that the hero must confront, and he decides to. So, the scene with his brother is actually resolving action of a climax initiated by the scene with the Woman. Therefore, the scene’s main purpose is to see the hero stare down his foe, and consequently unravel the tension built up between them. Of course, this presents a new wrinkle: the antagonist of this film, the foe, is not a person, it’s trauma. In fact, the entire film is told, ultimately, from the point of view of the antagonist. We track how trauma moves from person to person in this family web until it leads to convergence. The family, in a sense, is passive, but the trauma is active. So how to dramatize a scene that is honest to these people, but also satisfies the dramatic demand? How does the hero face the foe? Well, it is our supposition that elemental truth and honesty dismantles trauma. And Andrew and Michael do that for each other and to each other. In fact, it’s a great act of love that Michael says what he does to Andrew, and I think he does it because he recognizes in his little brother the scars of trauma. They share it. And he doesn’t want him to have it anymore. Or as badly as he does now. So he says something so bald, so honest, that it works to break apart long-held grief and shame for Andrew. But, of course, it doesn’t erase the pain in total. Dismantling trauma, while a win for our protagonist, does not provide tidy relief and absolution and answers. That’s, unfortunately, not how life works. Nor drama, for that matter. To your question about how that translated on set? Well. We were in a live, active prison. So that created a naturally charged environment. And we carved out a whole shooting day for this scene, which for us made this day sacred. And the crew knew that. So during rehearsal we had the room empty and quiet save for the players, and during the shooting, if you were needed, you were present doing your job, otherwise you were in your cell, not talking and not seen. That resulted, at least from my perception, in a space that was concentrated and focused and allowed the actors to do their jobs. I did my very best all day to get out of their way and answer questions when asked.

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