Robert Kojder chats with Mercury in Retrograde director Michael Glover Smith…
Mercury in Retrograde is the second directorial effort from Chicago-based filmmaker Michael Glover Smith and reaches profound messages on relationships; this is aesthetically pleasing, strongly written and directed, superb work with an outstanding ensemble. It’s a must watch for anyone that values relationships and the definition of love. And it needs to be stated that the trio of women are unequivocally absorbing (I have an interview with them coming too). The film should be available on streaming devices towards the end of the year, but for those fortunate enough to be in the Chicago area it will have screenings at the Gene Siskel Film Center accompanied by Q&A sessions with Michael Glover Smith, and don’t delay looking up ticket information on the website as they are expected to sell out. If you can’t attend or want more dialogue on the film, please enjoy my interview with Michael.
On Facebook Messenger you mentioned that one character is based on someone you know. How much of Mercury in Retrograde is based on real experiences vs your own imagination?
I would say that the film is personal rather than autobiographical. A lot of the screenplay originated from things I’ve experienced, observed or heard about, but those details end up being combined with other details that ultimately transform them from their original real-world context. Then, when the actors get a hold of the dialogue, they put their own spin on the material and that divorces it from its original context even further. A good example is when Golda is talking about the song “Stardust” in the bar. Those words are coming from me. Nat King Cole was my grandmother’s favorite singer. So Golda’s reasons for loving that song are the same reasons why I love the song but the meaning changes when the words are coming from the mouth of an African-American woman. Alana Arenas ended up completely owning that dialogue and, ultimately, the character.
One of the most praiseworthy aspects is how you evenly distribute time between the three couples and all six individuals. Can you talk about how you achieved that successful balancing act?
First of all, I’m a strong believer in gender equality, which is reflected in the makeup of both the cast and crew of the film. I believe female characters need to be more prominent in cinema in general but this is especially true in a movie like MERCURY IN RETROGRADE where I’m taking heterosexual relationships as my subject. There have been a lot of indie films in recent years about “men behaving badly” that have been written and directed by men. In a lot of these movies, the protagonist is a jerk who’s also kind of cool and there’s a sense that the filmmakers intend for the character to be a kind of self-critique of masculinity and the male ego. But it becomes problematic for me when this one male character is on screen the entire time and the long-suffering women in his life are just bit parts. When I was writing MERCURY, I didn’t necessarily have a screen-time quota for the male and female characters or anything; I was just sort of following the general logic that a movie about relationships is going to be more dramatically effective if we spend equal time with both partners.
It’s fascinating that although the film is equally about men and women, coming from a male perspective, the female characters are actually more complex and authentic. Did Najarra Townsend, Alana Arenas, and Roxane Mesquida help influence their character personalities/backstory, and if so, can you elaborate? What was your approach to writing heavy material for women as a man?
My wife and I have lived together for over a decade. Our marriage has made me a better person, especially in regards to learning how important it is for men to listen to women. If the female characters strike you as authentic, that pleases me enormously but my wife deserves a lot of the credit because she’s my most important sounding board during the writing stage. Then, yes, of course, Najarra, Alana and Roxane are all phenomenal performers. They all had very strong points-of-view about who their characters were. There were certain things that they wanted to say or didn’t want to say and they absolutely had the agency to alter their dialogue. Most obviously, Roxane’s character, Isabelle, was originally written as an American woman and we ended up making her French. A lot of the references to French culture in the dialogue were things that Roxane came up with herself – including her decision to read that amazing Jacques Prevert poem.
The book club discussion struck me as a way for men to indirectly vent their feelings, as typically guys don’t like to show sensitivity or open up their emotions. Meanwhile, the women confess true emotions to each other. Was this intended or am I reading into my own gender commentary?
You are 100% correct. The whole point of that book club scene is that the men are trying to talk about themselves and their relationships but they can only really do that through the act of talking about the book. I feel like this is a truthful depiction of the way men relate to each other because, in our society, men are still socially conditioned to believe that they shouldn’t get too personal or show too much emotion when conversing with their male friends. Of course, the women in the film are having the exact opposite experience through their highly personal conversation at the bar. I wanted the juxtaposition of these two conversations to be both funny and horrifying. Cutting back and forth between them was meant to feel radioactive, dangerous and wild: how is it possible that these conversations can be happening between these people at the same time? It’s ludicrous, humorous and sad. Unfortunately, I think some people, including some film festival programmers, missed the point of the book club scene entirely. I’ve heard feedback along the lines of, “Why do the men spend so much time talking about a book that no one in the audience will have read?”
The film studies three different relationships in three different stages, all going through problems that could be addressed by significant others communicating stronger? Did you write the script aware and in agreement that communication is paramount to everlasting love?
Absolutely. Jack and Golda are the oldest characters and also the most mature and responsible. Their relationship has its problems but they’re also the most open and honest with each other, which is why they’ve been together for over a decade. Richard and Izzy are the opposite – they’re completely out of touch with each other. This is encapsulated in my favorite moment in the film: Izzy sitting on the bed alone and crying while Richard, oblivious, is taking a shower outside. Then you have Peggy and Wyatt; they’re a new couple and they don’t yet know each other well so there’s a sense that they could end up going down either the Jack/Golda path or the Richard/Izzy path.
Towards the end, Isabelle and Richard get into an explosive argument that’s powerfully raw and sad to witness. Can you talk about how you coached them through that sequence?
It’s the climax of the story arc of those two particular characters so I wanted that scene to feel explosive. Even when we were having auditions for the part of Isabelle in Chicago, I tried to choreograph the action so that it would feel emotionally raw and even violent but in a way where the actors would still feel safe: the choreography was very technically precise in that both actors knew that the man would be pointing his finger at the woman’s face and that she would respond by slapping it away. Still, when Kevin and Roxane were on set in Michigan, I was shocked by the ferocity of the way they played it. Roxane and Kevin Wehby had a great working relationship but I think she knew how to push his buttons in order to make him explode.
Golda tries to relieve peer pressure from Peggy (put on her by Isabelle) and says “I’m not trying to sound like a mother hen”. To me, she is, but that’s a wonderful thing. Do you think it’s her age/maturity making her so wise and gentle, or is she just naturally a caring friend? Maybe it’s both?
I think that Golda’s “mother hen” quality is mostly a positive thing but I also think this characteristic means that she sometimes thinks she knows what’s best for everyone else, which is the source of her conflict with Izzy. Alana and I spent a lot of time talking about that. Incidentally, the thing I love most about that “mother hen” line is that it immediately follows Wyatt’s dumb joke on the porch where he picks up the pay-phone and says, “I’m talking to your Mom.” Our great editor Frank Ross found that juxtaposition during the cutting stage.
Before Peggy exposes her tearjerking tragic past, she has a drink. Do you think it’s the alcohol that causes her to let her guard down or the fact that Golda is just an understanding and compassionate human being that’s easy to talk to about serious topics?
It’s both of those things. Alcohol is, of course, a social lubricant although Peggy doesn’t have very much to drink. I think it’s more that the taste of the beer acts a kind of Proustian sense-memory trigger for her. And Golda is the perfect person for her to unburden herself to when they find themselves alone at that particular moment.
Additionally, that is the best scene in the film. Can you elaborate on how you walked Najarra Townsend through that moving revelation?
We shot that scene on the last day of production and I didn’t have that much to do with it, honestly. I agree with Abbas Kiarostami when he said that a film director should be like a soccer coach: you spend a lot of time communicating with your actors in advance but once its game time, you should just be observing from the sidelines. Najarra deserves all of the credit for the power of that scene. The original monologue was actually even longer and more abstract and she asked me in a couple days prior if she could edit it and make it more like she was “telling a story.” I said “absolutely” because I knew that that would be her way of owning the character and that it was only going to make the scene better. When we did the first take that day, I had no clue what she was even going to do.
The cinematography does not have a low budget indie feel. Can you talk about how you achieved such beautiful photography and how you settled on the location?
First, I hired a genius cinematographer, Jason Chiu. I was a big fan of his work on HENRY GAMBLE’S BIRTHDAY PARTY for the way he used the ‘Scope aspect ratio’ and the way he was able to frame many characters in the same shot. Then we shot this film on the ARRI ALEXA and used real Anamorphic lenses. They were Russian lenses from the 1960s and I kept joking on set that they were the exact same lenses that Tarkovsky used on ANDREI RUBLEV.
The ending caught me off guard as the narration from Peggy spills the beans on the fate of each relationship. Did you ever consider a more vague conclusion open to interpretation?
I never considered another ending. I like the “flash-forward” effect because it ties back in to the voice-over at the beginning and reminds us that the film is about Peggy’s memories.
What is the most important ingredient to true love, in your opinion? If you want, you could say what Jack says about asking yourself if you could live with your partner for the rest of your life; it’s sincere and an amazing speech
What a question! I have no clue what the most important ingredient to true love is. I’m just winging it like everybody else. But I will say that Jack’s speech is based on something my father once said to me and I agree that it is good advice!
What can you tell us about your next project?
It will be an anthology of three short films, all of which will also center on relationships but it will more overtly comedic. A gay couple will be prominently featured. There will be singing and dancing and someone will throw a Blu-ray player out of a third-story window.
Read my review of Mercury in Retrograde here: https://www.flickeringmyth.com/2018/01/movie-review-mercury-retrograde-2018/
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com