Fantasia 2014 Interview: Talking THE MIDNIGHT SWIM And Emotional POV With Sarah Adina Smith
After directing a number of short films, The Midnight Swim is the first feature of young director Sarah Adina Smith. I detected a note of exhaustion and overwhelmed frazzle still lingering from the generous reception of the film the previous night. Sarah was generous enough to extend me some indulgence for an long cup of coffee on the eve of her exit from Montreal with her family (including her significant other and cinematographer pictured above.)
With pale, diffuse light cascading in through the tall window of an empty hotel dining hall and eerie, almost absolute, silence outside of the tinkling our our stirring spoons, we casually chatted about her delicate and emotive film, and subjects both mundane and profound. Empathy, the art of listening, the nature of found footage films, and esoteric notions of inner and outer spaces.
An abridged version of that conversation gently polished for flow, can be found below. The discussion is light on spoilers, but due to the nature of the film, some thematic ideas intrinsic to the filmmaking might be construed by some as such.
This is your first feature film, but I understand this is not an expansion of your short Sirens, which is similar in many ways?
I didn't intend to make two movies about three sisters and a lake, but that just happened. They do have similar themes, but Sirens is about loss and not being able to let go.
And that is kind of the starting point of The Midnight Swim.
Wanting so badly that connection but never fully getting it, yes, here in the relationships between the sisters and their mother. Here developing the character of the mother was almost the most important task. Who is this presence, who is both there and not there. I imagined what I would be like as a mother. It's not that Amelia doesn't love her kids, it is that there is an intellectual distance that is between them. Like they were her most amazing science experiment, and she loves them, but she loves them as people who just simply arrive and are about to embark on a story - rather than as a baby that you buy cute presents for and throw birthday parties. I think, in a way she has a curiosity and communion which supersede traditional affection.
You cast Beth Grant in the tiny onscreen part, so you get a little bit of her brand of 'flakey' which is her kind of speciality.
I do feel that what Beth brought to the film was so much more warmth than I had originally imagined for Amelia. It is not that Amelia was some kind of cold hearted monster of a mother, she was a good mother, she did not beat her children or anything. But nobody is a perfect parent, and I think she did parent the best way she could. She just didn't fit the mould that people often expect from women.
When you are a parent, and you make what you know is an obvious mistake, there is often no way to even undo that. Comedian Louis CK best articulates it in his stand up comedy. "Whoops! Well I've done that damage! Time to move on to the next thing, I guess."
Exactly, I think his show is the most brilliant thing on television. I do not know if this was super obvious or not, but the idea of motherhood is one of the biggest themes in the movie. The lake itself is a womb, a portal. The next thing I'm working on has a lot of themes of nature and finding the mysterious in the science. Amelia was a soft scientist, but she was still investigative, and was still looking deeply and closely at things. I think of her more as an explorer than anything else.
Darren Aronofsky's team used a lot of petri dishes and microscope images as the building blocks for realizing space and the big nebula at the end of The Fountain. The microscopic used to represent the macroscopic. And using that in that way. There is no reason in this day and age of CGI (which was probably used to polish those petri dish images quite a bit) to do things that way, other than thematic ones. OK, it does look interesting, but it mainly offers the idea that the deeper you drill down, whether it is physically examining an object, or headspace, the more 'infinite' things become. Just like if you look up at the universe and the stars.
That is definitely something I am interested in. Particularly when you drill in the space in your brain as far as you can go, you can almost go on a kind of space walk. You can really get lost, it is a dangerous place. This is something I encounter all the time in my work, the deeper you push the work, the more you flirt with insanity, and it is also the most seductive place. I don't know if everyone feels this way when they are working, the more tapped in you are the better, sometimes it can feel like you are walking on the edge of losing your mind. The most creative headspace. It depends on what part of the process you are working on of course, but when you are in your most channeling state.
How does that translate from you writing the screenplay, to getting actors to bring that screenplay to life?
I hope that I can be a sort of shaman for them to get there. It is about them being there in that state of mind when we are playing it out on camera. I go as deep as I possibly can when I am writing, but I want to go new, fresh, with the actors, and all of us go deep together. I am really interested what real people do with it. I feel that actors will be really better than I am at understanding their characters, so that they own that. I learn from them. This movie in particular, because we didn't have the luxury of a fully fleshed out script, it was both by necessity and good fortune that we had to improvise a lot of all it it. It forced me to be the best listener I can be. It taught me a great lesson which is, this his how I want to make movies anyway, even if there is a full script.
How tricky is that with being a director, and all the details and things that come up on set. How difficult is it to stop and listen.
It is my most favourite thing to do, and I consider it my most important job. Just like actors need to get themselves into the moment, I have to do that as well once it is time to create that space. That is why I use the word shaman, you want to create the environment so we can all go there together.
[Laughter] Yes, the voodoo! Exactly. On set I kept thinking - because this movie has so much motherhood in it - to be a doula, a midwife, and take my own ego out of it. It is you helping this story be born. There are going to be things that exist outside of you, and if you just listen closely enough, it will tell you how it wants to come.
Were you given that luxury because it was all shot on one major location?
Even though we didn't have a tonne of shooting time, someone said to me once, you take time to make time. I need to hear that, but nature I am an impatient person. Knowing that we only had 15 days with the actors, it was pretty quick. Instead of feeling the clock all the time, I kept telling myself that time will expand here as we need it. It is nice to tell yourself that we have all time time in the world. Right now, you and I talking, we have all the time in the world, and it creates a space to communicate rather than run around.
I should do that more. All the clutter of everyday life does that. That is why people meditate, right?
Oh God yes. I keep meaning to meditate, I could use that in my everyday. That is what I love about making movies and being on set. If you do not do that, I imagine it is hard to make a good movie.
One thing that pulled me into the film is the hypnotic quality of the voices of Lindsay Burdge, Jennifer Lafleur, Aleksa Palladino v as they converse in the film. One character is always behind the camera, it is not always June, but mostly, but when the three of them are in the space of the house, there is a rhythm that lulls you into the world.
I think that is going to be the difference for people who end up liking or not liking this movie: Whether or not they are susceptible or not susceptible to hypnosis. You are right, that first 5 to 7 minutes is trying to put you under a spell. I think it is a very soft restrained movie. You know how water can be so soft and warm and embracing, but then very dangerous as well. Water changes so fast. Motherhood does that too. Soft and warm then...
Snap like a rubber band.
My hope was to hypnotize the audience at the beginning and lead them down this trail. It has some genre moments where you think you know where things are going to go, but instead bring them into the head of June.
The whole process of doing that is a very delicate thing. That is what sets this movie apart. You rarely get this intimate in a this type of film.
It is emotional POV. This is what I aimed for the whole time. Every decision that was made, with Shaheen [Seth, the cinematographer]. It was not, where do we put the camera to best capture this? It was, how is June feeling right now? And what would she be looking at. Where would she be standing right now based on how she is feeling. Sometimes that does not put you in the best place, or at least the most traditional place, but it helped us make more creative choices. As a director, I am not thinking, how do I cover this? Having the restriction about wanting this to feel like a documentary, meant that I tried to let it be a documentary.
I didn't allow myself for traditional coverage. In the moment June would have time to be like, now we are going in for a close up. So, it was a really wonderful creative obstacle, that forced us...I was a painter before I started making films, and my aesthetic can sometimes be maximalist. Often times I am drawn to things that are super saturated and rich and multilayered. If anything, here, I was pulling colour out and letting it be, in a way, a minimalist film. The sound design is specific and sparse, very quiet. A restraint to let the movie speak for itself without putting too much style on it.
It is still a very beautifully shot film.
Thank you. But it was because it was a character choice. We believed that June is artistic, she is a bit unstable and uses the camera to deal with the world, but she also frames the world in beautiful ways and does see things that other people do not.
How was the World Premiere experience for your debut feature at Fantasia?
I don't know! I have no idea how it played, my judgement was suspended I think. I was really overwhelming, and pretty amazing when people came up afterwards and tell me they were moved by it, or that they liked it. The was the first screening in front of any size audience. We didn't do any pre-screenings or focus grouping. I think that can be helpful to get that kind of feedback on certain types of movies, but it is a quiet, very specific movie, that I hopefully wanted to hit a small group of people hard.
Not every movie has to be for everyone...
Exactly, I was not expecting it to be for everyone, I'd be pleasantly surprised if it were, and I was surprised at the screening that unless people were just being nice to me.
I never thought of this as a found footage movie even though, I think maybe that will turn some people off. I hope people will give the film 10 - 20 minute buy in. Be patient to go along with the ride.
I think of it as a POV or a documentary, than as an artifact. A lot of found footage is structured to be what we caught on security tapes, or a box of tapes. And who put this together? I didn't want to ask those sorts of question, I wanted the film to be more of a surreal experience. And try to get the audience inside the head of the main character as much as possible.
You get the sense she isn't just filming to distance herself, she is going back at the end of each day and looking at her footage, her dailies, and building it on her laptop. In a way, you have kind of found a new solution to many of the problems that plague the deluge of found footage films, and makes the structure often feel lazy. In particular how people outside the three women, interact with the camera, the boyfriend Josh, the real estate agent in one particularly funny-awkward scene and how they react to June's constant filming. Is this humour designed to help an audience achieve that buy in and find their way into the mood of the film?
Exactly. The two sisters are used to having the camera rolling all the time. They know that is June's equivalent of a safety blanket. A lot of found footage films would want you to know why there is a camera rolling in the first two minutes. I didn't really want to do that. It is not until the first outsider, Josh, comes in that the camera is even really acknowledged.
When you are writing, and trying to get structure together for the film is there a moment you decided on when you were going to reveal the actress behind the camera?
Yes but it still ended up changing in post production. Originally I wanted to really wait to reveal her. My goal was to have you feel her as much as possible before you see her. It is the equivalent of 'the seventh sister' [note: the dimmest star in the Pleiades constellation shown in the film].
She is invisible at the start and slowly reveals herself. That is why the film works as a dramatic piece, the mystery is where the drama and emotional elements are going to go.
Exactly, like a psychological mystery. It is about what is going on in June's head as much as it is about everything else. I'm interested in is the liminal space of what is going on in her head: What is real and what isn't, and those two spaces blurring.
Her sisters try to control that, but then they also kind of indulge it.
I think the point in the film where they allow her the safety blanket, her camera, she hasn't acted out, her past history. But then there comes a flipping point, when she is doing one of her manipulative. These three sisters, I wanted them to be half sisters, Even though there are plenty of half-sisters in the world that are close, but I wanted to use that to say there is distance between them. That they are only 'halfway' there. I imagined that as they got older and left home, they hadn't been talking to each other, and were distant from one another. So much so that the authorities couldn't even find them for several days after their mother drowned.
All three of the women have different fathers? There was a point where Isa mentions asking to borrow money from her father (not their father) for money, and I was wondering about that.
There is a lot in the film that we never explicitly hear. But I wanted it there layered in the background. I hope that came through. I imagine that people tend to avoid painful things. That's where 'lets have a guy over' comes from. That's where the 'lets go summon a ghost' comes from. How we avoid the very painful task of really getting to know each other.
The older sister, Annie, seems to have her own set of pathologies. In many ways, Annie carries the bulk of the dramatic weight of the film as the responsible sister of the three.
It's true. I think for a lot of people she will be the most relatable character. As a lot of older siblings do, she has got the burden on her shoulders. And we feel for her for that.
Her big scene where she snaps about the way her mother treats her.
That's true. I think the middle sister, Isa, is the more entryway into the mysterious and the supernatural. The like chooses her first, she fishes out the shawl, she hears the lullaby in her dream. She is the more tapped in and in tune spiritually. But she choses life and throws the shawl away and decides, not now. June has the courage to pick it up. I had a crazy therapist once who told me that children up until the age of reason must choose whether they want to be on earth. And June, for me, was a woman who never made that choice, so she was always there and not there.
The way she always eats alone in the film?
Yea. There is a story where hear repeated, once at the beginning where the audience's ears are sort of warming up, they kind of hear it then, but again when they are on the boat about reincarnation and the river of forgetting. And June says, if babies could remember their past lives, they may not want to live. I think that some people come into this life, if not with more memories of the past life then with past traces. We don't come fully naked and clean into this world, but with trailing clouds. Some people have more traces than others.
Can I switch gears for a second to technical stuff? Could you talk about the shooting, compositing and overall design of the recurring shot and night of the dock and the lake and the seven sisters up in the sky?
We really wanted magic to seep into this movie. I love how you keep using the word hypnosis. We wanted to start as real-feeling as possible and have the movie feel like quick sand in terms of how you can slip into the supernatural. Those shots get increasingly supernatural, they were almost like our markers for how, well, it depends on how you interpret this movie, either for June's sanity slipping or just how insane the universe it is - how fucking magical and amazing it can be.
Do you emphasize the stars with each increasing shot?
[Laughter] Yes, you can to go back and watch it again, yes, you see the Pleaides does in fact comes out more and more. If you were to compare the first dock shot to the last, you would see different shots.
I thought I saw that, but was wondering if I had just convinced myself that I did. I often find myself doing such things.
Not to give too much away of the magic by getting technical, but when we first got to Iowa and tried shooting that at night. We very quickly realized that we do not have the crew or proper lighting kit to shoot this the way we want, so we did it day for night. Oliver Zeller is the visual effects magician who worked on that. Even with that there are so many ways we could have made that more maximalist or painterly, but we still trying for restraint. The documentary style was a way for the audience to feel, this is not always the case, but I think sometime it is a little easier to feel for the characters when it feels naturalistic. I wanted the first half of the movie to not go too far to fast. It was really important to me that we stay emotionally connected to these characters.
Early on when Josh and the girls walk down to the lake go through the Seven Sisters story and ritual, it is not mystical, they are kind of drunk and having a laugh about it.
Now that I think about it, those sort of moments were the most challenging for me as a filmmaker. Having to walk that tightrope between natural and supernatural and be so heavy about it that I fall off one side or the other. I tried to listen rather than impose. I tried to be a good parent. [Laughter] Now you have too many metaphors, shaman, doula, parent. Oh my god.
Well, then, speaking of metaphors, tell me about the ladybugs then.
That was a happy accident. It just so happens that Amelia calls June junebug in the script and I felt that June would be interested in that. And the last time we see it is walking the edge, trying to take off and the waves are crashing behind it. That wasn't something I wrote down, or that I needed to go find lady bugs, it was just something that was there and we used it. There was some beautiful footage that did not make it where Amelia had a collection of dead bugs and butterflies and June plays with them. There was a scene that I really love where thy are packing up the house, and June finds a dead butterfly, and asks the other two, "How am we going to pack this?" Because it is so delicate. That was a really wonderful moment of hear headspace.
You should cut a trailer out of that scene.
Oooooo. Cool. That is an interesting idea. I like that.
I feel that the movie is shot in such a way that when different people handle the camera. When June is filming there is a type of control, but when other do it, it is more awkward. The one thing you almost never see in films, which I really loved here and really pulled me in is the disembodied voice. And the camera itself is communicating this to augment the voice.
That is my favourite thing about working with Shaheen, he is another actor on set, responsive like an actor, and in the moment like an actor. I think that is his greatest gift. I don't know if you noticed this or not, one thing that was really important to me was that you can hear June breathing throughout the movie. I hope it is subtle enough that it is not right in your face but it was a way of making that camera come to life and sort of keeping things hypnotic throughout.
The movie as living, breathing entity?
Yea, totally. I'm so curious to know how the different the effect is of watching it a home versus in the cinema. I would love it if filmmakers could give their movies with a list of watching instructions. [Laughter] Number one, take a bath. Number two, submerge your head completely underwater for twenty seconds. Number three, get out and make some tea. Number four, stare a house plants, maybe have some mushrooms, that is optional. Only when done one through four...than five watch the film I do think that if people are watching this on their laptops, the headphone experience may be in a way more powerful than the theatrical experience. What I love about headphones is they do put you more in your own head. You might feel closer to June in this movie. But I do love that movies do indeed change whether you are watching them with an audience or by yourself. One thing that is challenging is that The Midnight Swim is such a quiet movie that any time that someone coughs or adjusts, you can hear it. But at the same time, the more people there are in the room, the more powerful the spell.
Like mass hypnosis.
It comes back to hypnosis again!
Can you talk about the lake itself? Certainly it is a presence that cannot be ignored in the film.
That lake has probably been the most in influential force in my life. That lake is very personal to me. I grew up on it. Ever summer i went to that lake with my family. My mom's family shares that cottage and her parents before. I was raised in a very non-magical suburban american home. That lake was my gateway to the other world. I took the midnight swim. There has always been some so welcoming and warm about that lake, but also this underlying feeling of lurks beneath.
Everyone remembers cottages or lake houses as splashing and playtime with family as a kid. But there is the adults side of relatives fighting over the right to use the cottage, getting along if multiple families are there, and who owns what. That can be a nightmare. And there is a third side. When you are fully by yourself on the porch with a warm drink, or on the dock looking up at the stars.
I have nothing but the happiest memories of my childhood at this place. But the lure of making something or ask questions about the place was that quiet moment on the dock, alone with yourself.
And that is a very universal quality. I felt at times watching this movie, even though I never had sisters, or was in particular dark places as a child, that so much of this movie was made personally for me. That is one of the surprising things a filmgoer can get out of a movie, a connection with the material.
That is gratifying to hear. I think filmmakers work in two kind of ways. Sometimes some filmmakers do both at the same time. I didn't make this film to be like [Rockstar Voice] This for the audience! [end] It made it from my own intuition and hope that I am enough like other people that it is true to me and true to anyone watching. I just wanted to let it be this small thing.
And how did all those happy moments at the cottage turn into this distilled emotional damage?
Well, the story is certainly not autobiographical. We filmed on lake is Lake Okeeboji, not Sprit Lake which is another lake nearby. I liked that name. I think we all have access to the deep It is not that I had these personal dealings and issues that these sisters go through, but I think we all have access to these deep wells, so just really throwing your line in and seeing what you are going catch. It is not that I had any sort of personal dealings with the issues of these sisters, but that is the whole process of listening, not let it be about you, and let whatever it is that is going to come up, come up.
Is it the case where it is easy to write a desperately happy movie when you are in a terrible place, and a desperately unhappy movie when all is well?
All my therapists tell me I am incredibly stable [Laughter] But I am fortunate enough to tap into dark places when I chose. I don't actually do this for fun, there are a lot of other things I could do for fun, and i'm not interested in making movies for the sake of movies. Nothing is going to last, and there is really no reason to do anything! Even Shakespeare will not last forever. But I suppose I make these things simply because it is a way of being in the world. Maybe I'm like June. I guess I don't know the answer to that your question yet. Lets talk again in 10 years!
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