Q&A with Amy Seimetz, Kate Lyn Sheil and Jane Adams

The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of She Dies Tomorrow.

Can you talk about the origin of this project?

Amy Seimetz: I was dealing with a lot of anxiety and I realized that to alleviate the anxiety I was talking to my friends – namely Kate Lyn Sheil and Jane Adams – and I felt like I was burdening them with the anxiety. In addition to that, I was watching a lot of news. Every few days there was some idea that would spread like wildfire and then a few days later it would be a new thing that was spreading. This began leading up to the 2016 election and then I continued to watch because of the times we’re in, that was sort of the idea.

I was also developing for television and I just needed to shoot something. I wanted to touch on this idea of what I was going through, so I called [Cinematographer] Jay Keitel and Kate Lyn Sheil and we starting shooting these images of Kate moving through my house trying to capture to this visceral feeling I was going through. Then I was like, who would Kate (who is playing Amy) call? Jane! Because that’s who I would call. So that was the impetus of how it started, and then we began building this narrative together. Then I wrote the rest of the movie after we shot these initial scenes to work towards the tone and the humor that Kate and Jane bring to the film, but also the overwhelming aspect of the feeling I was trying to get to.

We were able to experiment with the visuals together and corral it into what made sense for the movie.

How did you develop the visuals where your characters have their moment of realization, and how was that communicated with your actors before shooting?

AS: The only boundaries I gave to everyone is that it’s a mix of fear and elation and curiosity and everything all at once. Like when you read about these near-death experiences, it’s not one feeling. Anyone was allowed to interpret what they wanted in that moment performance-wise. Because I self-funded it, we were allowed to experiment and play. Trying to push the visuals of how to get to this ecstatic moment was fun and pure joy, like being a kid again because you’re playing with lenses and colors, and microscopes and trying to find the most interesting thing. And once we realized how to control those visual and get what we wanted, that was my favorite part about making this movie, not only with the actors but with Jay [Keitel]. If we made a mistake, we didn’t put it in, but we were able to experiment with the visuals together and corral it into what made sense for the movie.

Kate Lyn Sheil: I would say that Amy came to me with the concept for that particular shot and what you [Amy] explained to me at the time was that I should convey every emotion I could think of at once. It was sort of a mash-up of elation and fear and sadness and happiness, and my main thought was, dammit, that’s so hard! And I just desperately didn’t want to mess it up. Although I’m sure what I conveyed was cool, yeah, let’s shoot it. But the hardest stuff is the most exciting stuff. Thank god that someone is tasking me with something that challenging.  

The film is very funny, often. Was it essential to infuse the film with humor in order to balance out the darkness? I was particularly struck by Jane’s scene with Josh Lucas, which alternated between kind of hilarious and devastating.

AS: What’s interesting is that I’ve previously worked with pretty much everyone in the film save for Josh Lucas and Michelle Rodriguez. We were trying to figure out who was right for that part and Josh and I share an agent, so my agent said “What about Josh Lucas? He has a day off” and we were like, what’s that going to be like! We all have a shorthand so bringing him in was a little like having a live wire aspect.

Jane Adams: He was so perfect. He was going through something stressful and was talking about it to me off-camera before we even shot anything. That seemed to help us in the scene. He’s such a great actor, he just shows up in his doctor’s costume and goes to the corner, and then like Batman emerges as his character.

AS: We’ve all done supporting characters, and it is a really hard thing to jump onto a set and embody someone.

JA: Especially a set where everyone knows each other. He’s so great, really professional and smart and funny.

AS: We were so lucky that he knew it was playful and he was so ready to play. He understood the comedy of it, but also the darkness and the depth of it in the same way that I don’t need to explain it to Kate or Jane. He just showed up and understood the fine tuning of playing with the darkness and the humor all at once.

I love the “last wardrobe” of each of your characters. Can you talk about costuming?

AS: I need to give credit to Jane on those floral pajamas. I knew I wanted her in pajamas, and Jane knew what she wanted. She was in full control, she needed them to be this specific kind and it was so perfect. To give her credit as an independent artist, she was going to the store to find them and was sending me pictures.

JA: Amy has this brilliant assistant Alexandra, and I just commandeered her to find these pajamas that are difficult to find. I can’t remember the brand name but I had a couple of pairs in different colors. They had to get bloody and I just loved mine so much we couldn’t use them. They’re that really fine Egyptian cotton, they’re not heavy flannel, and they’re delicate. They’re not goofy, they’re kind of what grandmothers wore— at least grandmothers like mine from Kentucky and Indiana, who were kind of old-fashioned.

AS: But it still had to be striking in some way. We knew it need a pattern.

JA: And then Kate’s dress, my god that dress. I could’ve just played that scene for three days, looking at Kate on the floor in that dress.

KLS: The dress belongs to Amy; it’s her actual dress that she wore to the Emmys.

AS: There’s layers upon layers of meta-ness. I’d spent a lot of money on the dress and wore it to the Emmys. I’m a frugal person and I don’t buy expensive things for myself very often, so there was no way I was going to live with that dress in my closet without getting its worth. Working in film, you have these moments where you dress up and then you never wear that outfit again, it’s sort of like, why I am not putting on this dress every day?!

JA: Now that I know that it’s in your closet, I want to see more of that dress. We’re going to go on a hike and you’re going to wear that dress.

Q&A with Eliza Hittman, Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder

The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Never Rarely Sometimes Always.

Eliza, when did you first start to think about making this remarkable film?

Eliza Hittman: I first began thinking about this film in 2012. I read a newspaper article that was all about the death of Savita Halappanavar, this woman in Ireland who died after being denied a life-saving abortion. And I was really shook by her death. I started to read a lot about abortion rights in Ireland, and the eighth amendment which virtually criminalized it for women in that country. And I started to read about the long journey that women would take from Ireland, many times they’d go across the Irish sea to London, when they needed an abortion… and back, in a single day. And I started thinking about all of the financial burdens of that journey, and the emotional burdens of that journey, and I began to ask myself, why haven’t I seen a film that explores this very real hero’s journey? But of course, I’m not Irish, and I’m not a UK-based filmmaker! So I started to ask myself what the equivalent was in the United States? And I began researching and doing field work, and looking into the real journeys that women take in the US, oftentimes from rural areas to urban areas so that they can access reproductive care. So that was early in 2012, or maybe 2013, and then I sort of put the project down. I made my second feature Beach Rats instead, and then when I premiered that at Sundance in 2017, Trump had just been inaugurated into office and I was at the Women’s March doing all this press and everyone kept asking me what I wanted to make next. And I just intuitively started to speak about this project again. Because I felt a call to action in that moment, and I knew that women’s rights would be under attack in the new administration. And I felt like it was the next film that I had to make.

I began to ask myself, why haven’t I seen a film that explores this very real hero’s journey?

There’s a remarkable scene between a social worker and Sidney’s character that we really need to discuss. Can you talk us through the preparation you did?

EH: I spent a lot of time developing and workshopping that scene specifically. And I worked with a counselor named Kelly Chapman who worked at an independent private clinic in Queens. And a lot of the film has very short scenes in different locations. But that scene was always ten pages and I knew it was going to be a sort of pivotal scene of the film. I knew we’d do it primarily in a long take as well. So those were the ideas I had had going in. Because I really wanted to put the audience in the shoes of the character, and particularly for males in the audience, put them in the shoes of a character, since they’d never have gone through an experience where they’re as vulnerable at what the character is going through. And for me, it had to be done in a long take to achieve that. And in working with this counselor, I had her voice in my head when I writing the script. And then when we went to cast the scene we were looking at lists of actors – some of whom were quite impressive and famous! – and I just knew it had to be the real counselor. There were a lot of things that made that scene as effective as it is; one of them is certainly Sidney. And one of them is that she’s in these hands, the safe hands, of this real social worker. There was a lot going on that day. We kind of quarantined Sidney before shooting that scene, which was really important to me. Because a lot of times, the atmosphere of working on an independent film set can be a little like a construction site: The actors are constantly being moved around, navigating equipment, talking to hair and makeup and this and that… and I really wanted Sidney to come to the scene after being in a private place where she could think about the scene. And I remember going into her private room and going through the scene with her a couple times, and because it was so long, I told her at the beginning of the scene – where the questions are much more general – to just try to answer like the family history questions and the smoking questions and the more general questions, just to answer them as herself. And then at a certain point, it becomes more of the script. But I think that starting her in a deeply kind of personal place lead her maybe put her on track, as an actor, to reach a certain place.

Sidney Flanigan: Like Eliza said, it was really helpful for me to have a sort of private, quiet place beforehand, because it did help me put my mind in the right place. You know, I didn’t really think about any of that before we started promoting the film and I heard her speaking about that scene. And I realized that, actually, I did have a lot more quiet time and personal space before we did the scene, as compared to other days. It definitely helped me to have that time to just contemplate a little bit. And then doing the beginning of the scene as I personally would served as a nice springboard into the acting part of the scene. Because then I wasn’t thinking as much about what I was supposed to say, and instead I was more immersed in the scene. I drew from a really personal place and that’s why I think it worked so well.

Talia, your character’s relationship with Jasper was fascinating and complicated. Can you talk about how you saw it?

I think from the moment on the bus where Jasper touches my character’s shoulder, from that moment on, I think Skylar understands Jasper’s character, and even if there was at the very beginning a sense that she was charmed by him or whatever… I think it all changes there, once he breaks that barrier of touch without asking her. And I think from that moment on, that affects how she looks at Jasper and what she wants from him. I mean, when those things happen, you can see the true nature of a guy like that from the start. And I admired that she was able to be around him and get what she needed from him even if it was uncomfortable.

Q&A with Josephine Decker and Elisabeth Moss

The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Shirley.

Elisabeth, I think this was the first time you’ve played a historically well-known person.

Elisabeth Moss: Yes, this is first time I’ve played a real-life person. It was a really good “dipping my toe in the water” experience with that because it’s an anti-bio pic… although grossly misrepresented by the title perhaps! We did a lot of research, Josephine, Michael [Stuhlbarg] and I, we read all of her work and the letters between her and Stanley and researched the era. We did all the good actor research that is done. But in the end, what was really liberating was being able to kind of throw it away. I always thought of this more as a Shirley Jackson story, one of her novels that she somehow ends up as a character in. And so that for me was a very freeing approach to playing a historical figure.

Given that Shirley Jackson did not do a lot of interviews, how did you develop her voice and body language?

EM: There’s only one recording of her voice! And there was no video representation at all. It was a mix of what Shirley looked like in photographs and how she held herself in the photos that we had, and the information that we did have that she had some physical problems and also some mental issues she was dealing with, so those lent itself to it as well. Just the fact that she couldn’t leave the house helped in formulating how she might move, and helped inform me how to move in the space. Some of it was made up based on our instincts. Josephine tells a great story about when we were working on movement rehearsal, and I said I don’t think Shirley moves very much. So I would just sit there while everyone else moved around me.  

Josephine, can you speak a bit about that rehearsal process?

Josephine Decker: It’s so funny because when I was going into it, I thought we needed three weeks of rehearsal. Of course, we had like a day and a half!  To some degree I think dialogue films can be really challenging because the sculpture of it, the dance of it is much more nuanced and subtle and more dependent on the actors and their choices. We got to spend a little time reading and talking through the script and I think that was really helpful for us all to get on the same page and talk through the gestating ideas. I’m really interested in ensemble so we did a few exercises to try and find the physicality of the characters. We also did some exercises where Lizzie, Michael, Odessa [Young], and Logan [Lerman] were all in a room against a wall and they had to make a piece without speaking and the only language they could use was moving backwards and forwards. They had to be completely neutral in their bodies. After a while everyone catches onto the idea that tuning into each other makes everything exciting and interesting. The movement of walking forward and backwards on your own is limiting; but when you get in step with the other actors and feel their presence and respond and move either with or away from them, faster or slower, then something powerful can emerge. It’s fun that these guys were able to play with me that way, and since it was such an ensemble piece with the four of them in that house for most of the movie, that was an exciting way to think in the group hive mind.  

We also spent a lot of mornings digging into the scenes themselves. As a director, you’re on the least film sets of everyone there. The weird thing about being a director is that the DP, the lighting person, the actors are on sets every month of the year, and you’re on the set for a few months and then in the edit room the rest of the time. It’s kind of intimidating. But then it was wonderful because we had terrific collaborators and my style is to listen and learn from my collaborators. Lizzie and Michael have such different processes, but they would get into it and just go, and I could sit back and let them. It was such a blessing and relief to work with such talented and experienced actors because their instincts are never boring! One of the challenges for me was choosing from so many good options.  

EM: I am not a rehearsal person. I have trouble with it; I want the camera to be rolling and I want to do it and be done with it. What I loved about our small tiny rehearsal process and what was most valuable was getting to spend time with Josephine and the other actors in a room. What I took out of it was getting to know people, getting to have those conversations and know how people work. It was interesting for me because I can then adapt my process to Michael, or to Odessa. I don’t really have a rigid process so then I can kind of help by leaning into their process.

I always thought of this more as a Shirley Jackson story, one of her novels that she somehow ends up as a character in.

How did you both work together to shoot that riveting last scene with the camera focused right on Shirley’s face?

EM: Josephine can speak to the editing decisions as well, but that night was our last night of filming in the house and I was getting on a plane at 6am the next morning to shoot Jordan’s Peele’s Us. So we were on a bit of a time crunch, to say the least. And we had a lot to do – shoot the whole end of the movie kind of thing! I remember we were like, well the close-up is important and we’ll have to get that. I was really quite nervous, which is usually a good thing for me because I work well under pressure. I was nervous because I knew what I wanted to do with that scene, I knew that I wanted her to experience the range of emotions that she does, and it’s a lot to do and I knew I didn’t have a lot of time to do it. It’s kind of one of those bottom-of-the-ninth moments and you think, all right this is what we’ve been training all year for, here we go! And I’m pretty sure I went home and said to myself, I wish I could’ve done that again. Which is usually what I do. But I was very honored and flattered once I saw the film and Jo had cut it the way that she cut it. I thought it was a great decision for the movie because you really do see that everything in the film has led to this moment when Stanley is reading her book, and that’s all that matters to Shirley. I thought it was a really beautiful decision to show it that way.

JD: I’ve shared this story before, but I was also really nervous. When you’ve been doing so many different things visually with the film, you think you have to do something really amazing at the end. And I was like, I don’t know what to do! I was also so stressed out because of the time limitations. I knew we had to do Lizzie’s close-up, that was the most important thing, and then I’ll figure out my brilliant whatever after we get the close-up. And then we sat down to watch the first take. It’s amazing to hear you talk about it, because I still get chills thinking about everything that happens. That really is the climax of the movie, and it really is the simplest shot in the entire film. But I think it’s also the most complex performance in the film, and it’s stunning. I just remember this wash of, thank god for Lizzie! It’s like a homerun at the end of the film. I couldn’t believe the things that were happening on screen and the story really felt complete.

Q&A with James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham

The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Crip Camp.

How did you decide that co-directing this film was the best approach?

James Lebrecht: I’ve had the good fortune to have worked with Nicole on three of her films in the past, and we became friends over the years. I just loved her work! And over the last few years, as I’ve been mixing documentaries, I hadn’t quite seen films focused on disability that I really thought told the true inside story. And Nicole and I had lunch one day as she was wrapping up The Revolutionary Optimists, and talking about what she was going to do next, and I had a bunch of films having to do with disability that I thought might be of interest to her. Almost offhandedly, as we were going back to the building after lunch, I told her that what I had always really wanted to do was to make a doc about the summer camp I went to.

Nicole Newnham: That kind of made me roll my eyes a tiny bit! Even though I absolutely loved the idea of working with Jim on something. I had become really compelled by sort of watching along as Jim was fighting for better representation in our industry for people with disabilities… and just access in general. For example, I’d come in to mix and he’d be finishing up an email to somebody to argue that he should have access to the area where filmmakers congregate at a festival or something like that. And that was really eye-opening to me: Why should there be “separate but equal” treatment for people with disabilities in our industry? Especially as it relates to documentary, which are so often focused on telling stories of social justice and about marginalized communities. Any way, I thought, “I’m sure Jim went to a summer camp that’s very special to him!” But not everyone’s special summer camp deserves to be a film unto itself. But as Jim started telling me about it, two things started happening to me. First of all, the way he told the story of this joyous, riotous kind of hippie-utopia filled with these kids with disabilities who were fully in the mode of the early ’70’s was painting an image in my mind that I did not have, at all, of people with disabilities. Which is really exciting, because with film, you can really shift the way people think. And then Jim also said that he had a theory that the camp itself had something to do with the equal rights movement that came later for people with disabilities. And that was really intriguing to me. And then he followed it up by sending me a facebook page where campers and counselors over the years had been collecting pictures from the camp… and that was just incredible. I literally looked at the pictures and thought, “if it’s not a film, it’s a photo exhibit, it’s something, it’s something so amazing and so special.” But then as I thought about it, you know, Jim had suggested I direct it. And that he co-produce it or something. I thought what’s really special is that here you have someone who is poised to make a documentary himself, who has this long and storied career in the film industry, and whose story this is. And so I got really excited about co-directing with Jim and telling the story from his personal perspective and went back and pitched that to him. 

Crip Camp is a sort of love letter to the disabled community

There is one archival scene involving a roundtable discussion amongst the campers that is really exceptional. Nicole, can you you discuss that scene for us?

NN: That particular scene, when we saw it, I remember we had a conversation… we said we should build this entire act up to that moment. Because that’s such a profound moment. It shows you that the campers have formed a community, and that it’s a community of trust and love. The patience with which they listen to Nancy Rosenblum speaking, and the sort of profound moment when Steve Hofmann [one of the other campers] with cerebral palsy translates for her… it seemed like a really powerful apex moment for that act. The scene is like a journey that the audience member goes on themselves— the viewer has to sit in that position of not understanding what she’s trying to say, and feeling a little uncomfortable, and feeling bad about themselves that they feel impatient… but then really wanting to know what she says, and then noticing that everybody else is being patient, and then finally understanding! And the joy you feel when you do understand her, that’s a whole growth experience that we, the audience, get to go on along with the folks who were there at the time. When we initially showed that footage to some folks, and asked them how it made them feel, some people were skeptical that an audience would ever want to see that. That people would always feel too uncomfortable to sit through that entire scene. So we just made that our goal, to bring people along such that they would be compelled by that scene, and they would understand the profundity of it by the end. It actually wasn’t that easy, even though the camp footage was so amazing. It required so much incredible scaffolding and work in the edit room to create something that made you feel as though you had entered that world, made friends, kind of gotten to understand the language people were speaking… and then be along for the ride during that particular scene.

Jim, can you share some final thoughts? What was it like working with Higher Ground Productions, the company founded by Barack and Michelle Obama?

JL: You realize that, especially working with Higher Ground, that it’s such an incredible opportunity. It certainly raised the electricity in the room throughout the project. Corbid O’Toole, who’s in the film, described Crip Camp as a sort of love letter to the disabled community. And I think she was really right. I think it’s the kind of film that so many of us have wanted to see, where it was much more of a real human experience… I think it’s breaking down barriers and causing conversations to happen that have needed to happen that people just weren’t willing, or were afraid, to do.

Q&A with Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk

The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Athlete A.

As you began this project, what did what you learned that differed from what you saw in the news?

Bonni Cohen: This was still 2017. We had followed the Nassar story but he hadn’t gone to trial until January of 2018. This was still in the beginning phases of him being caught and the survivors starting to come forward. At that point it still wasn’t clear how big a story this was, so probably much like you we were following the news and it seemed horrible and tragic, but it hadn’t risen in our minds to incorporate these other abuses that we learned were taking place at the institutional level. We got involved with Jennifer Sey and started to think about what she had done in 2008 in her book, which was to go back decades to elite gymnastics in the U.S. and focus on how this “win-win” style of coaching was creating eating disorders and forcing gymnasts to compete with broken bones.  Girls were living this obedient, tragic, abusive lifestyle inside the gym away from their families, and this view was hidden from the public who watch the Olympics every four years. As we started talking to Jen and [attorney] John Manly and the reporters, we began to realize this story was much bigger than we realized and we became more interested in this trend of institutional abuse that seems to pervade different corners of our country. That’s when we started percolating the idea of going deeper into that sphere.

We had this idea, what if we could talk to everyone that had a key link in the chain that led to the uncovering of this story?

How did you decide what to include and how to show how the puzzle pieces fit together?

Jon Shenk: That was the main question in the beginning, because it is so overwhelming. It’s likely there are at least 500 survivors of Nassar alone, not to mention dozens of other coaches even going back to when Don Peters was coach of the Olympic team in the late seventies and early eighties. He is also known to have sexually assaulted his athletes. So it was a very big story. Early on we had this idea, what if we could talk to everyone that had a key link in the chain that led to the uncovering of this story? That led us to the Indianapolis Star. They had gotten a tip surrounding the lack of policy at USAG about going to authorities when they received complaints about sexual assault in their gyms. That general story led to Rachael Denhollander and Jamie Dantzscher and Jessica Howard; the three gymnasts who first contacted The Star about Nassar. Later on we found out about Maggie Nichols, who almost simultaneously within USAG had reported Nassar internally, but it wasn’t known until much later because USAG didn’t go to the police. And even when they did, the FBI mysteriously didn’t do anything for a year. So there were all these puzzle pieces that kind of fit on the same timeline but also kind of didn’t, so we tried to narrow it down to the key people that led to the unraveling of the Nassar mystery. That was an organizing principle that made things a little simpler for us as we went through production.

BC: And we need to call out our editor, Don Bernier. This is the third film we’ve cut with Don. It was really a Herculean editorial task. In the edit room, structurally, we must have pulled the film apart about three or four times to try and get it right, because as Jon describes, there are all these different threads. We really relied on Don as a third set of eyes to keep shifting our perspective and bring us back to the origins of why we were making the film and which pieces of information you need first in order to go on the next part of the story. It’s probably the hardest film we’ve ever edited.

JS: In our edit room, as in many edit rooms, we have an index card system where one scene leads to the next and sometimes it’s color-coded. We also had a whole other wall that was like a sort of like an investigative murder board. I always thought it looked like something that Carrie would use on Homeland. We had pictures and timelines and ribbons connecting things, dotted lines, straight lines. It was tough enough to keep it in our heads, let alone put into the film coherently, and we owe Don a great deal.

Making a film like this is challenging not only because of the pieces but also because of the visuals. I was really struck by how you made this so interesting cinematically.

BC: Well, I’ll let Jon answer most of this because he also photographed the movie in addition to co-directing. In addition to what Jon shot so beautifully, we also had the whole other separate element of this vast archive. It required a whole team of people to work on, from excavating Russian gymnastics archives and talking to gymnasts from the eighties to ask them to find their VHS tapes in their garages from national competitions.  That was a substantial part of why we believe the film feels so cinematic, but obviously the other piece is Jon.

JS: Before we move off the archival, we owe a great deal to Rich Remsberg, the archival supervisor and Serin Marshall, our third producer. They are both incredible archivists. Serin worked with an assistant we had in the office, Yael Chanoff. We would literally get boxes from people’s garages and they went through all those boxes. These were from people who had taped the Olympics or the trials or their local news, that sort of thing. A lot of things were not online. And one day, Yael yelled “Oh my god, there’s Nassar.” It was the clip from the mid-nineties where you see Nassar come out to the floor to treat a gymnast and the announcer says “There’s Nassar. He keeps all the women together,” and that became the introduction to Nassar. The team of people looking for that stuff did a huge service to the film.

The original visuals we did were a challenge too. What do you show? Reporters at their desks only goes so far. At one point we thought about the ranch and whether you can go there anymore. Are the Karolyis still living there? We got a tip about an excellent drone operator out of Austin and said, why don’t you go down there and see what you can do, don’t worry about the film at all. Just scout around. The law in Texas is that you can fly anywhere if you don’t set it down. We said what we’d really like is a dolly shot like you’re on the ground and he said okay, and we described a few others. So we had some photos and storyboards we sent him, and that night he came back to show us what he got on his scout, and that’s the footage you see in the film. He never had to go again. He did a terrific job and every second of footage he got from the ranch was gold.