Martin Carr chats with director Blake Robbins…
Convivial, candid, passion and forthright are all words which describe director Blake Robbins in conversation. Openly collaborative, driven by a desire for unconventional methods of movie making and ploughing his own furrow with singular determination. It was my pleasure to talk to him early this week about his new film The Scent of Rain and Lightning which was released Friday [read our review here].
Hi Blake, many thanks for taking the time to talk to us about your new film. What prompted your move behind the camera having been an actor for so long?
The simplest answer is career dissatisfaction. For my first movie The Sublime and Beautiful I basically created a starring role for myself, because no one was inviting me to do lead roles in their films. Equally important though was that I think there had always been a storyteller itching and clawing to come out. So it was one of those opportunities to do two things.
What interested you in directing?
My general observation on actors is that they fall into two camps. Those that are curious about everything, the entirety, the whole, while there are others who just want to run their race. Neither makes a better or worse actor, that’s just the reality, so you find some actors ultimately end up diving into writing, producing and directing stories. I always found myself in the former camp from day one of being interested in everything. So through twenty plus years of being an actor I put together my own film school of observation and what I responded to which others did.
Why this particular project?
The straightforward answer is the project made itself available and they asked if I was interested. For me when I looked at it I saw the characters were very rich and not cookie cutters. At the same time they were grounded in archetypes in a really beautiful way, like some of those movies I grew up on and loved. People like Elia Kazan and John Ford who did big American ensemble pieces, yet had really good actors in them with nuanced and interesting roles. I was drawn to the idea of a whodunit but have seen enough really good ones, so wanted to work towards really finding out who it happened to and why. Then my goal became that the reveal would carry enough weight to make that journey satisfying.
With both my films so far as a storyteller and movie maker I was much more interested in the questions than answers. Far too many movies give you an answer, then another one and after its done giving answers, you’ll go out have dinner and never think about this movie again. My hope was that I wouldn’t be the only movie lover who would love my movie. I hoped I would make it and this would find passionate fans, because there are enough movies made for the other person. There are five, six, seven movies a week which come out for the person who wants disposable or consumable content. Movies where you can go do the dishes while you watch and they’ll make sure to tell you what you missed. Whereas when I watch my movie I feel like I understand all of these people and not one person talks about motives.
What is the most important part of the filming process for you?
Plot has been elevated to and become the driving force in most films and I find it one of the least interesting. If you equate the human body to a movie then plot for me would be the bones, but if I took a human being and all it includes would I say that bones are the most important part? I for one would more interested in soul, brains, organs, heart, in muscle, even tendons and so while plot gives me shape and allows me to appreciate something artistically it is not a chief concern.
Films these days are put through the Hollywood machinery where God forbid anyone can’t follow the plot. They won’t let the movie run its creative course unless plot is recognisable at all times. For me that kind of throws out all these amazing films from the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies where plot is put in the proper position. I think I am stealing this quote from Martin Scorsese when he says ‘I’ve never revisited a film because of the plot’.
Because the plot of this film is the killer of this girl’s parents gets released and we need to find out what happens. That this girl is able to take on an ex-convict filled with vengeance towards her and the family makes her an extraordinarily cinematic character. Mainly because ninety eight percent of all other twenty year old girls would back down. However I believed every step of the way that Maika Monroe as Jody Linder would do that.
Did you see a lot of people for that role or for those roles generally?
I zeroed in on Maika almost immediately but the first person cast was Maggie Grace because she and I share a business manager and she had seen my first film. She reached out and mentioned she would love to help if anything else came along to throw her support behind.
So when Casey and Jeff sent me this script I saw Maggie as Laurie and importantly saw it as something she had never done. I thought this part was built for a heroine from Tennessee Williams, someone who was just too big for the world and Maggie could bring a lot to that. So she did it mainly because she responded to me as a film maker and then came on board as a producer.
Although my casting director threw maybe four or five actresses at me I immediately thought Maika was not only right, but could be the grown up daughter of Maggie’s character. So when Maika and I met I offered her the job in the room and she said yes. Perhaps to a Hollywood fault these people do look like family. They look connected and related and I know that poses some challenges but I would rather that than never believe it. I believed that Mark and Justin were brothers, just as I was convinced Will Patton would be the father figure. From there I went to Brad Carter who I had seen in an episode of True Detective, thought he was stunning and also that he could exist in my independent film and make things very interesting.
How would you describe your directing style?
Well I’ve only made two films so I think my style is evolving. I have a team which include my cinematographer and production sound team who worked on both films. Half way through my first they started calling me ‘Blakenstein’ and this was an affectionate way of saying I was creating my own monster. These people had worked on maybe fifty or sixty features, so I found it fascinating that they thought my production approach was unique. I come from a place of love and collaboration and I tend to save my ideas for last because I want everyone involved. Acting I think is the hardest thing to do on set, so I try to surround them with craftsmen who are willing to indulge and support the actor’s process.
An example of that is the fact that we never laid down a mark. In order to do that I have to work with a special group of camera and sound people who love actors and love the moment as much as I do. In both my films I employed the use of focus, soft focus, light and dark and the juxtaposition of them. So I indulged that approach because I felt this was a puzzle and putting together that puzzle, I wanted things to come in and out of focus artfully with shape and craft behind them.
Just to pick up on something you said about marks and not laying them down. Are you saying you don’t do any blocking?
That’s not entirely true, what happens is I over prepare with my team of actors. I will never tell them they have to do anything, I will find out what they want to do, how they want to do it and earn their trust over time. I don’t do a blocking rehearsal, but I will come and have the conversation and get a kind of general shape and feel then share that. It means everyone has to be really good so we can hide the technical elements of the movie, because there can’t be a video village right next to set, in case someone walks over there and you see the movie.
If you look in my movie even with the tight and wide shots the camera is always moving, and if we did our job right you never see the tiny place where we hide the technical aspect. My actors tend to be on set and seldom if ever see anyone, other than a handful of people who are absolutely necessary. I want to provide them with as close to a real and private experience as I can. I tend to spend time hiding behind the camera with a monitor so I can say things. I will sometimes step on a moment and if they will tolerate me make a suggestion. So it becomes a living breathing thing we create together.
I think that explains why it feels so different to some things I have seen because of your process.
Well I couldn’t do it without a really talented crew and actors who are willing to be brave and truthful. For instance that scene where they are having breakfast at the Linder household is really breakfast. That is me telling production crews you need enough eggs to serve forty people because that will make it happen in two hours as appose to eight.
I think we did that scene two or three times on two different lens sizes and I would run around pointing at actors to cross over. Or I would come up with hand signals and they would be in character responding to what is happening and know the script. So they all had to really trust me and not launch into it, because for me I wanted to get a sense of this world that they live in. At this point I had very few scenes like that and I wanted anyone watching this to want to have breakfast in this household, with this family and understand why. They are very generous, everyone is included and it’s full of life and to me that’s more important. There were three or four plot elements and I squeezed them in there but the rest is story.
Were there any challenges you came up against on set?
All the police personnel on film were real police. I had to do something fast so asked them to send over some cops because we were asking for cop cars anyway. I said to the police what would you do here, how would you get a gunshot victim from here to there, and they said we would do this and I said can we roll on it?
Everyone was willing to sign waivers and they were going to show us how to do it. Then unions came in and told me I can’t tell them what to say otherwise I have to upgrade them. I can ask them if they would be willing to say what they want to say, don’t ask them to memorise any lines and just catch it in the boom.
How long did it take you to shoot?
We shot it in twenty one days, twenty technically, one day for some additional B-roll. My first film I shot in twelve days. In The Sublime and Beautiful I was the central character and knew I could do seven or eight pages a day. With this one though you are waiting on actors to go through hair, make-up and wardrobe, combined with the reality of getting them to and from set which added more time.
If you had to tie the film to a genre what would it be?
A Midwestern crime noir is what I would call it. My cinematographer and I were talking and he said that we should coin the phrase Midwestern realism. I am drawn to the people that live in the Midwest because I have roots in Kansas and Oklahoma. My family is from Arkansas Kansas and I feel like it’s a neglected area of the world for Hollywood.
What do you have coming up next either in front or behind the camera?
I have been attached to direct another Midwestern which is a kind of modern day Bonnie and Clyde dealing with family. I met this gentlemen on the film festival circuit and he loved my films and agreed to let me attach myself as director. So we are just waiting for the next draft of that script.
There is also a Dardenne brothers influenced Midwestern movie I want to do from an outline and it’s all kind of teed up except for the financing. I had two other movies lining up before Scent of Rain and Lightning came to me, so maybe there is something else out there which hasn’t revealed itself to me yet.
I do love both of these movies and hopefully this one finding an audience beyond even the film festival circuit, will perhaps make those others become a reality. I am also writing an unconventional love story set in New York. I have twenty five pages of that and I’ll get another twenty five pages out next week and then I’ll see if I can round it into form.
If you could remake one film what would it be and why?
I wouldn’t remake any of them. Sorry to pull the rug out from under you there but I would rather be invited to put my taste, approach and ideas into Hollywood films. For instance the next project we are putting together as a sort of modern day Bonnie and Clyde could be called a remake, but I’d much rather stand on the shoulders of that movie than try to remake it.
Blake thank you so much for taking time out to talk to Flickering Myth and my congratulations on The Scent of Rain and Lightning which is a great movie.