Thursday, November 20, 2008

Rebecca Miller on "Personal Velocity: Three Portraits"


What was going on in your life before Personal Velocity?

REBECCA MILLER: I had basically given up, at least for the time being, the idea of making films, because it was so hard for me to get my films made at that point. I had made one film, called Angela, which had won the Filmmaker's Prize at Sundance, They've discontinued the Filmmaker's Prize; all the filmmakers voted on their favorite films, the ones in competition.

Angela did well with some critics and things, but it didn't make money. It was a very uncommercial film. And then I had written The Ballad of Jack and Rose, which was something I would make later, and I wrote another film that collapsed in pre-production. So I had gotten to the point where I just felt like I didn't want to just wait and wait to make films and tell stories. All I did all day was write these screenplays that nobody seemed to want. So I decided to write short stories.

My friend Gary Winick called me. He was making this series of films for the Independent Film Channel. He had come to them with this idea that he would make ten films a year for a million dollars, but what they ended up giving everybody was a $250,000 budget.

He asked did I have anything, did I want to make a film on mini-DV for that much money? And none of the films that I had already written were really right for that, because I figured (and I was right about this), that you'd have to tailor a script for that medium and for that budget; you shouldn't just take one of your script and try and turn it into that kind of shoot.

I was sick of writing screenplays that no one was going to make, I said, "If you want to look at the stories that I'm writing, I could maybe do something out of one of them." So I gave him a few stories from the collection and he read them and he really liked them. He ended up giving them to Caroline Kaplan, who was running InDigEnt with him, and they ended up green lighting the film. It was also Gary's idea to use three stories at once and make a trilogy, and when he said that my mind took off.

The thing that's great about Gary is that he really insisted that I feel completely free. At first I was sort of checking with him and saying, "I'm doing this, I'm doing that," and he was like, "Look, do whatever. The point is that we want to get filmmakers who have experience and who we believe in to feel free."

And so I wrote the script for Personal Velocity in about two months. It took me about two years to write the book, and I knew what everybody in those stories was feeling and I knew the characters from top to bottom, so writing the screenplay was mostly about finding the form and the structure.

How did you decide which of the three stories to use?

REBECCA MILLER: I chose the ones that were the most dynamic in terms of action, where there was conflict that was externalized, because some of them were very interior. And also where I thought that there was a good clash; like I thought there was a very good clash between Delia, which is a story about a working-class woman struggling with an abusive marriage, and Greta, which is about an upper-middle class woman struggling with the clash between her own ambition and a marriage which is feeling increasingly stultifying, and finally her ambition propels her out of her own marriage.

They both involve crisis, but of a different order.

And then, class-wise, Paula is kind of a floater, because she's an artist, she's from that class although she doesn't really produce anything, but she's in-between the two classes.

At what point in the process did you decide to use narration?

REBECCA MILLER: I always knew I was going to. The narration was built into it.

Early on Gary had said that he loved the way the narrator spoke in the stories and that it would be a pity to lose that. And I also thought that with the three stories, I thought it would be a good thing to link them together. And it also gives you a lot more freedom, because we're jumping back and forth through time constantly. And the narrations also carries a lot of the humor. It's a sympathetic third voice.

In the end there was a whole debate about whether or not to make it a male or female voice. I always knew that it was meant to be a male voice, but then there were some people who saw it and said, "You can't make it a male voice; it's about women."

But I just ended up really liking the male voice, because I thought it differentiated itself from the other voices. Otherwise, it was just another's woman's voice, it was like a soup of women's voices, and I thought it was good to have the male voice.

Also, I thought it was kind of optimistic to have a male voice, it seemed to be sympathetic and unjudgmental of this of these women while some of there struggles were against men, and it was my overriding view, my own point of view, which is that it's very possible to have sympathetic males in your movies.

How did your background in acting help the writing process?

REBECCA MILLER: I think there's a really big advantage to have been an actor when you're the director, because you have more of a sense of what the actors might need and help them keep it all natural.

In a way, the film isn't naturalistic at all. It's like a poem, in a way. But the way that it's happening and the way that it's shot leads you to believe that it's naturalistic. It's a funny combination.

I think that acting was a very necessary step for me. I had a weird, long apprenticeship, in that I was a painter for quite a while and then at a certain point realized that I wanted to make films.

I acted for about five years while I was writing my first screenplays and still painting for some of that time -- it was like a bridge. Without the acting I don't know that I would have been able to successfully make that leap -- when I was a painter I was so far away from the mindset of being a filmmaker and being more sociable like that and thinking about what it's like to be on a set where there are so many people. I just learned all sorts of things, just how it works, what a film set's like.

One of the problems with being a director is that you never get to go on sets -- even if you go to film school, you don't usually get to be on sets when you're coming up. You learn when you get on your own set, but it was nice to just understand certain things, to have been around directors. For writing it probably helps, too.

You're writing to shoot, and that's what's important to remember. And I really remembered it with Personal Velocity. That screenplay was really tailored, it was absolutely tailored to the medium. I don't think I even cut any scenes out; there was no waste in that thing.

You shot what you wrote.

REBECCA MILLER: I shot what I wrote and I kept what I shot. Which is really unusual. Usually you end up realizing that there are internal repetitions that you didn't notice. But this was all done in a spirit of such economy, so I was very conscious of not wanting to shoot anything extra.

We had no overtime, so we had to finish our days, and we had no extra days. So there was no leeway at all. If you weren't making your day, you had to start cutting scenes. And there was on occasion where I did have to cut a scene, which was completely unnecessary and I think in the end I would have cut it anyway afterwards.

Did you tweak the script after it was cast?

REBECCA MILLER: I'm sure I did. I'm usually kind of tweaking things until they get said. But I do really believe very, very strongly in having a very, very strong script, then you can throw it out. The thing is to have a really strong script and if you are the director then to fool yourself into thinking that you didn't really write it and that it's somebody else's. Then you can be totally irreverent with it and throw it out.

It's a blueprint, it's only a blueprint, but at the same time, if you're really well prepared, then you can always change everything. It's when you're not prepared, I think, that things get really scary.


1 comment:

Chris said...

Really interesting interview, i can appreciate how frustrating and tough these things can be (not me but a good friend of mine, has a similar story)

I am going to watch ANGELA, i googled it and it looks great... will let you know my thoughts. I saw a great independent film by director/writer Rob Martgolies called LIFELINES, I dont think its even out yet, but my friend had a copy as is a friend of Rob's. I loved it.

Its a real unique dark comedy, bringing a family to life showcasing inner secrets that not even they are ready to explore themselves, much-less discuss with one another!

That's as much as i'll give you, dont want to give the story away. Its really beautiful, fingers crossed it will get the recognition it deserves