A few weeks ago, when I began watching a screener of director-screenwriter-etc-etc. Brian Pera's The Way I See Things, I had no idea what to expect. At first, I wasn't able to get into the film, as I wondered – with dread – if I was in for a gay version of a John Cassavetes flick. About fifteen minutes later, I went for a chocolate milk break and when I returned, I decided to start the film from scratch.
Curiously, the second time around I became immediately immersed in the story, in the lead character's inner conflicts, and in Pera's spare, dispassionate style. That evening, long after The Way I See Things was over, I couldn't get the film out of my head. I was moved, I was shaken up – I knew I had experienced one of the most touching, most thoughtful, and, surprisingly, most humorous films in quite a while.
Pera's screenplay, which at times has a stream-of-consciousness feel to it, makes it difficult for me to provide a concise synopsis of The Way I See Things. Sticking to the basic plot points, the film follows a grief-stricken young man, Otto (Pera), whose boyfriend Jody (Jonathan Ashford) has unexpectedly died. The boyfriend's best friend, Rob (also Ashford), tries to help Otto get back on his feet by taking him on a road trip to Los Angeles. Shortly thereafter, however, Otto flees and ends up at a New Age commune, where he adopts a new identity. Everything seems to be going well (despite some loud tea slurping), until Otto's lies and a couple of ghosts from the past force him to confront the reality he's been trying to evade.
So, ultimately what's The Way I See Things about? Well, I'd say it's about identity, self, love, fear, loss, death, life. And it's about truth: the truth Otto must come to terms with and the truth the film imparts to its audience, from cinematographer Ryan Parker's naturalistic hues to Pera's unobtrusive approach to the material – the commune scenes, for instance, have the look and feel of a documentary, or perhaps of life unfolding as seen through Éric Rohmer's tell-all lenses.
The Way I See Things is also about first-rate acting, mostly from little-known and non-professional performers, with a couple of standouts: Brian Pera himself, whose highly nuanced Otto comes across as an appealing mixture of humorous detachment and mournful yearning, and newcomer Beverly Doggrell (right), who perfectly embodies a seemingly caring – if icy – New Age teacher. Also in the cast: Josh Berresford, Anna Stumpf, Michael Wiener, and Jeanette Comans.
Filmmaker Brian Pera has kindly agreed to answer (via e-mail) about a dozen questions on the making of The Way I See Things. See below.
Photos: Courtesy of Brian Pera
My understanding is that The Way I See Things is both a book and a movie. Which came first? And what was the inspiration for the story?
The Way I See Things was adapted from a novel I wrote the year after both of my grandmothers, an uncle, and two good friends died. It was essentially my way of coping. It was a difficult period for me and I had trouble figuring out how to relate to people. The experience was so extreme. I didn't take a lot lightly and couldn't really see the point in getting close to anyone; either they wouldn't understand or we'd get close and something horrible would happen to them, and I'd have to go through it all over again. It was unlikely to lose that many people to begin with, so those kinds of thoughts didn't seem so far-fetched.
Life plods on pretty remorselessly: you're stuck, but the world keeps rolling – which can feel pretty hostile. I didn't live a life of luxury, so I had no choice but to stay out in the world. But a part of me never moved on. Writing the novel was a way for me to get at how it feels when you lose people and try to get going again. You look at people who've lost someone, widows or widowers especially, and if a year later they seem slightly adjusted – or let's say they're not still totally a falling-apart mess – you think, “Well, they sure got over it quick, didn't they?” I think very often people move on superficially, but they're just going through the motions. I was. A part of you dies and stays dead, but you stop talking about it because at the same time people want you to stop dwelling on it.
I wanted to adjust that dichotomy. I wanted to dispense with the outward appearance that everything is okay, to show what it means to carry around that kind of grief inside yourself. The character of Otto embodied how I was still feeling, a year later, even if I couldn't show it. And when I was done with the novel, and I still wasn't over it, making the movie was a way to keep honoring those feelings, to sort of burrow inside that loss and make the world recognize it.
Otto seems to be lost because his lover, Jody, has unexpectedly died. Unless I missed something, you opted not to tell us why/how Jody died. At one point, The Way I See Things takes a radical turn so that the lover's death becomes – at least for a while – secondary to the conflict between Otto and his dead lover's mother. And then there are the assorted conflicts within the commune.
Why did you make those choices – leaving things sometimes up in the air while adding different dramatic threads to the narrative that takes The Way I See Things in several unexpected directions? Was that always how you envisioned the film, or did you improvise as you went along?
The structure of the film is very close to my original intentions. We did improvise, but within the boundaries of the script. You find on the set or through editing that certain things are redundant or unnecessary, and you get rid of them – typically small things: bits of dialogue and transitional stuff, not plot points.
I didn't really see the point in detailing the circumstances surrounding Jody's death. And I purposefully withheld even seeing him or flashing back to his death until the end because by that time you know Otto much better, and have spent time with him, and have really identified with him in some way, and can understand that moment he found Jody's body much more viscerally. To me it just had more impact that way. You feel protected by then, believing the story won't delve into Jody's death, but when it does – and so unexpectedly – it carries some of the shock it must have held for Otto. You understand, I think, that he can never truly get away from it.
I don't really think of anything in the story being unrelated because we're sort of watching Otto's memories, his deeply biased remembrance of things – and all of these things he went through are somehow closely related for him. They are emotionally [related]. There's a tension in the story exploring just how far outside yourself you can move. If you pretend to be someone else, distracting yourself from your feelings and detaching yourself from your experiences, will you still feel the same way? And if you don't feel the same way, are you a different person? If no one truly knows you, how can they reach you enough to hurt you?
Otto makes a very conscious effort in the story to get away from the experience of his grief. You have to feel he's in a totally different place at the ashram, and forget about his grief a little the way he does or tries to – and in the end his grief comes sailing back at him like a boomerang.
I worked very hard to make the tone and setting different at the ashram. It feels like a totally different movie in some ways, which is how he perceives it, too. It's quieter, more bucolic. It's deceptive that way. The thing is, as completely different an environment as that is at the commune, Otto projects onto the situation and even experiences it with the emotional resources he has. You have what you've been given. He looks at everything through that prism of loss, which means that getting close to the people at the ashram is setting himself up for hurt again. When it does all go wrong at the ashram, it feels to him like that original loss all over again.
He had something wonderful, he opened himself up to it, let himself feel it, and someone else came in and took it away. It only makes it worse that this time he contributed to the situation through his own dishonesty. Had he been honest with people there and upfront about who he was he might not have been exiled.
The same actor (Jonathan Ashford) plays three roles: Rob, Otto's dead lover's best friend; Pherber, the man Otto meets at the commune; and Jody, Otto's lover. Why that choice?
It just seemed right to me. I think you look for the people you lose in the people you find. That's a good thing, but it has its risks. It means you can get very close to them; they recreate someone for you and an intimacy you had with that person, but it also precludes you from seeing people for who they truly are. You're experiencing them through a filter. It's a superimposition. It's comforting to find your loved ones in other people; it's powerful and makes the world seem purposeful – so the world moves on, fine, but maybe you can control how it moves to some extent – but it also diminishes the truth of the world, which is that it's a vast place where anything can and does happen, and people can't necessarily be counted on to behave the way you expect them to – and control is a massive illusion the weak need to feel strong.
It made perfect sense to me that anyone Otto got close to, or remained close to, would remind him of Jody in fundamental, maybe unexamined ways. Jody, Otto's partner, was very close to Rob, now Otto's “friend.” You get the sense that Rob is probably not the best friend for Otto to have. Temperamentally they're not suited to each other. It makes more sense when you learn that Rob was really Jody's friend. That tells me that Rob and Otto might both be engaged in keeping Jody alive by seeing him in each other.
Pherber, the guy Otto gets a crush on at the ashram, reminds Otto of Jody, too – and who knows why. Maybe he talks like Jody, resembles him, or maybe just the act of getting close to someone brings all that stuff back to life for Otto. So, meeting Pherber is a double-edged sword, and getting close to anyone means reliving that loss again in some way.
Using the same actor for these three characters also works because it suggests that what Otto is seeing is unreliable, distorted in some way. He's either imagining things or remembering them the way he chooses to. It helped that so many movies I love employ similar strategies. [Robert] Altman's Images has Susannah York see herself as if she's another character and [be] herself at the same time. Luis Buñuel did the reverse, using two different actresses [Carole Bouquet, Angela Molina] to play the same character in That Obscure Object of Desire.
In The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, [Michael] Powell and [Emeric] Pressburger have Deborah Kerr play three different roles. I hadn't seen that movie when I made The Way I See Things, but it helped hearing about it afterwards, giving me a little confidence in my decision. Lost Highway has Patricia Arquette in dual roles, each an inversion of the other, and [David Lynch] went one step further than Buñuel by having a different actor play the same character after becoming a different person.
Ultimately I couldn't see any reason not to use the same actor except that some people wouldn't like it and would be hostile to the idea, which isn't really a reason not to do anything – unless you work in TV, in which case I feel for you.
Producer/director/writer/star/co-editor/sound designer. How did you manage to wear so many hats – and not go totally nuts – throughout the making of your first film?
I did go nuts, but hid it very well. People trusted that I knew what I was doing. I didn't necessarily, in the sense I'd never made a movie. But I think they trusted I didn't want or intend to fail, and that gave them a certain sense of safety. I was putting myself out there, like them. I have a lot of respect for the position you put yourself in as an actor. It makes you vulnerable.
I wish I'd been more available. I'm not the kind of director who strokes and coos, and I think actors need that and deserve it. Even the most technical actor is dipping into weirdly submerged pockets of emotion, bringing it to the surface in a way he or she can't always control after the shot cuts. I certainly didn't have that support, and recognized the usefulness of that sort of encouragement.
I hide things well, which is handy but also a problem sometimes. People weren't sure what I thought of their performances. I'm not a sadist, so I didn't derive pleasure out of their discomfort, but under those circumstances I was pretty powerless to change. Saying that, I was most definitely on their side.
Memphis doesn't come to mind when I think of a major film center. Neither does Hardy, Arkansas. What was it like – in terms of finding talent, productions facilities, etc. – to shoot your film in those areas?
Memphis actually has a lot of filmmaking going on. Craig Brewer is filming something here right now for MTV. Ira Sachs is from Memphis and filmed Forty Shades of Blue in town. A guy named Morgan J. Fox makes movies and created Sawed Off Collaboratory Productions, which helps other people make movies by loaning out equipment and facilities, and [it] holds screenings and has really made a name for itself in town.
Kentucker Audley, whose film Team Picture did very well this year – it was picked up by Benten Films and reviewed well all over the place – lives and works here. (Audley was listed in Filmmaker Magazine's annual 25 to watch.) A filmmaker named Mark Jones does a lot of work, too. We have an incredible advocate in Linn Sitler, head of the Memphis Film Commission, who's responsible for so many filmmakers coming here to film, most recently Wong Kar Wai.
So, there's an interesting vibe in the air. It's a low-key, unpretentious place, and people help and cooperate without charging you fees or fining you for walking down the sidewalk with a camera – or a dramatic look on your face as if looking for a movie to star in.
That said, I might be the wrong person to pose this question to because all I really used on my film was a camera, a boom, and some cables. I felt emboldened by these [available] resources, but didn't find I needed them. We had a crew of four: me, Ryan Parker, the cinematographer; Bard Cole on the boom (Cole is a writer whose book Briefly Told Lives was published the same year as mine [Troublemaker] by the same publisher, St. Martin's Press); and Shelley Gillete, who ran lines, picked up the slack, and even acted in the film.
I'm not of the mind that you need production facilities necessarily or production values – just imagination [should be enough]. Finding the talent was a challenge, but I didn't really know where to look and wanted something very specific – a bad combination [when you're] in a hurry. So, I went online through a listing service when it came to casting.
The alternate use of black and white/color seems to differentiate what is real from what is inside Otto's head. However, the commune scenes are nearly all in color. Why that choice – when some of it seems real while some of is clearly imagined? And while I'm at it, how did you and cinematographer Ryan Parker decide on the film's very naturalistic – yet dreamlike – color palette?
Well, the palette was what was there, for the most part. We chose the ashram location because it was available, number one, but also because it was rural. We were there in the fall, and the area had a lot of change going on and a nice melancholy look to it. I love Hardy, Arkansas, where those scenes were shot. It's magic to me and I've been growing up there all my life. I figured I'd need that comfort during the stress of the shoot, that familiarity. My grandmother had lived in Hardy and I really felt her presence there. That helped. I can't go there without instantly experiencing that sense of loss.
The color I added was supplemental prop stuff: the dressings, blankets and pillows, and sheets and dishes, all the clutter within the frame. I did that so that the look and feel would be consistent. To me, those things stuck out subtly. I believe they're the colors Otto remembers things in because they remind him of Jody and the cabin they stayed at one year, which the cabins at the ashram resembled.
It was also just a way to make everything seem similar in a weird, subconscious way. Otto's consciousness ties everything together, so that any place he goes carries with it the impressions of places he remembers and wants to get away from, that pall of melancholy. All of those props I used were bought in the thrift store. The colors are dated and visually reference the past, if only subconsciously. They felt nostalgic to me and seemed a nice, effective shorthand.
Leisurely without ever being dull. How did you and Ryan Parker opt to handle the film's editing? Were there many scenes that were left out of the final cut?
We had 36 or 37 hours of footage, so yeah, there was stuff we didn't keep in, and much of what was improvised was left out because we couldn't find a logical place for it. I was pretty merciless editing. And Bard Cole helped me get there, being an objective eye without the emotional attachments I had to some of the material. I was very clear with myself on the fact that I was trying to do things that might alienate certain parts of my audience, and if I wanted to pull it off with whoever was left I needed to be disciplined and do it very well – as well as I possibly could. It had to be very clearly edited and tightly paced if I wanted to preserve that feeling of languor. Again, we worked really hard at that, at walking that line.
It helps to have interesting developments too, which needn't be huge, just imaginative.
The performances in The Way I See Things are almost invariably flawless. Where did you find those actors? And what was it like to direct actors with whom you were sharing scenes?
Directing and acting within a scene is difficult, for me at least. At first, I thought it was due to inexperience. Now, I've done it more and understand why it's so hard. As an actor you rely on the director to give you a sense of scale. It's impossible to gauge how big or small what you're doing is. The space you're acting in feels enormous compared to how it registers on camera. I didn't have a director giving me that sense of proportion. I set the scene up then stepped into it with the actors. I didn't have a headset on to hear how my voice was registering. I felt like I was yelling most of the time. I kept talking louder so the mike would pick me up. We'd cut and I'd play it back or I'd hear myself in the dailies and realize I wasn't being picked up, so I'd modulate the next day. But I felt so out of whack: too loud, too big, too small, too quiet. It was a curious mix of the technical and the intuitive.
On set, ideally, a director is listening and watching on the monitor, and if you need to make changes he or she lets you know. Guides you. I would imagine. It's hard to direct yourself under those circumstances, and hard to get your mind inside the technical needs of the role, especially when you might not be the ideal actor for the part, rather the best one you could get. There was so much going on, and as a director with all those pressures so much is running through your head. I was highly keyed, and yet, the character required a specific blankness and that needed to be consistent. When I got in front of the camera I did my best to put the other side out of my mind, but you never do – and I'm not sure you need to unless you're inclined towards method acting. I'm not.
The actors came from New York and Memphis. I cast well, based on gut reactions and specific interactions. I wasn't just looking for actors with certain qualities, but people with interesting outlooks and a game sensibility. For the most part I got that. I'm in awe of those actors. They gave me so much and really came to the set prepared. I loved working with them. It felt like play, exploring the boundaries of the script and its intrinsic possibilities. I was entertained by them. They kept surprising me. These are incredibly resourceful, eccentrically wired people. They trusted me, and trusted coming to some cabin out in the middle of nowhere with one working burner on the stove, and cold, toe-freezing nights to contend with. The woman who played Doshi [Beverly Doggrell] had never acted before and was so perfect. There was so much serendipity and I'm glad I had the balls to go with it.
The Way I See Things has a quite subtle – but haunting – score. Did you tell composer Harlan T. Bobo what you wanted, or did he come up with that choice on his own?
Harlan is a friend of a good friend of mine and a total sweetheart. A fantastically talented person and so humble about it. And he has an odd loneliness about him, which really fit the project. It comes through in his music, particularly his instrumental music. He'd done some stuff for HBO and said I could look through it. I first thought it was wrong for the film. Then we started playing around with the tracks, laying them over scenes, and they fit beautifully.
At times The Way I See Things reminded me of an existentialist Michelangelo Antonioni or Ingmar Bergman drama, or one of those dreamlike Robert Altman films of the 1970s. At other times, the film reminded me of the low-key humor found in Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise or the twisted humor in David Lynch's films.
On your blog, you explain that you're a major film lover – your list of favorite movies includes a wide range of titles, from O Fantasma to Superbad; from L'Avventura to Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Who/which were your sources of inspiration for your approach to your first film?
I have very broad, diverse influences. I love slapstick humor, early Woody Allen stuff for instance. That bit in Sleeper where he pretends to be an android kills me every time I see it. I love most genres and appreciate the rest. I read voraciously about filmmakers and filmmaking: interviews with editors, sound designers, art directors, the directors themselves. I read the [Alfred] Hitchcock-[François] Truffaut book when I was little and that had a huge influence on me. It was such a high knowing people sat around talking about movies like that, picking them apart.
In terms of The Way I See Things, so much influenced me. Altman has been an endless source of inspiration. Particularly his attitude toward actors and sound. I wasn't a dictator with actors. I wanted them to contribute to creating who their characters were. I wanted them to use the environment and the circumstances of the shoot. They chose their wardrobes. They styled themselves. I allowed them to work out things amongst themselves; then we all brought it to the table and went from there.
Hitchcock's Vertigo is another thing I keep coming back to: seeing one person in someone else, contributing to their erasure so they can enact this psychological recreation for you. I love the way Antonioni dealt with space and time, and the blankness of his characters and the nerve that took. Look at the way people reacted to L'Avventura at first. They're still hostile to that kind of characterization.
Tina Fey is a big influence. I love her delivery, her comic timing, the cadences of her voice. She's the closest thing we have to that refined banter of old screwball comedy. David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. blew me into new frontiers in terms of what you can do and what you ultimately owe to an audience. Mulholland Dr. probably influenced me more than any single movie I've seen in the past decade. So fresh and ballsy, and so confident in the audience's ability to think.
Hal Ashby is probably the biggest influence in terms of performances. I loved the performances he got. They weren't rushed and had a certain melancholy to them. They were sad and funny in peculiar proportions. I think Julie Christie in Shampoo is one of the most touching performances of the seventies. And Being There was an influence, that sense of being blank, someone that people react to; a person who evolves in relation to the way other people view him.
The [film's] look is really influenced by Gus Van Sant, particularly My Own Private Idaho. I think I related to the colors in that movie more than anything. They were everything. I like Van Sant's tone too, particularly the early films – that weird, wry sense of humor.
And Dawn French, she's an influence. I think she's brilliant, [with] her sense for the cadences of good delivery and physical comedy. I feel like I'm listening to good poetry when I hear her talk. You can hear the history of twenty-first-century comedy in that voice.
If you had to describe the multi-layered The Way I See Things to someone who hasn't seen it, how would you get around to doing it?
I would probably change the subject after finding some way to distract them.
And finally, what's up next?
I'm working on a short film. I just completed the script. Most people start with a short and progress to a feature, so I'm doing it backwards, I guess. But it's such a different form, and I'm interested in playing around with it. I have three scripts finished and the one I do first will depend on how much money I can generate and how much enthusiasm. They pose different challenges, so I'm trying to work those out to some extent.
I'm [also] interested in doing a pilot for a miniseries based on my friend's experiences as the curator of a major art museum. He wrote a novel about it, a roman a clef, and we're talking about the best way to adapt it. It would be a challenge. A large, ensemble cast and many locations. Limos, Escalades, personal planes: these are not things I have tons of access to. Oddly, the other movie I'm considering – a psychological sci-fi which takes place on Mars – would be a million times easier to shoot in comparison.
The writer Masha Tupitsyn and I co-edited a book on film writing which will be published in Spring 2009 by City Lights. At the moment, I'm talking to other filmmakers about the prospect of turning some of those pieces into five-minute films.