Your film also lets us eavesdrop on the private (and at times coded) communications between teenage girls: the texting, journaling, secret whispering. That’s an indelible part of this portrait you’ve created.
There’s this layer of secret language, which I witness all the time. In other projects that I’ve done with teenage girls, it’s often the case that between takes they lean into each other and have these very quiet conversations as a way to… I mean, I think that they feel protective of themselves and self-conscious in that way that something that’s said too loud or too publicly then doesn’t belong to them anymore… and there’s so much that doesn’t belong to them. They’re caught in this sort of place where, on one hand, they do have a sense of autonomy that’s maybe attached to emotions, but they’re all still living with their parents who dictate — probably non-stop — where they’re going and who they’re going with. So I just wanted to acknowledge a couple of different levels of communication that we, as the audience, have access to; we’re privileged in that regard. If that was in the real world, then only the person who was directly getting that message gets the information.
Your previous project, The Forevering Trilogy, featured moments of narrative suspension where characters would express long-suppressed emotions through retro-kitschy 80’s music. Similarly, A Million Miles Away concludes with a moment of catharsis prompted by an acapella rendition of Judas Priest’s “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’.” Why are you drawn to these sorts of musical interludes?
I love films that successfully break rules on some level. Maybe it’s a rule of linearity more-so than some kind of fourth wall rule. But they break the rules of reality or linearity to sort of stop and have a kind of poetic cinematic moment, to remind the audience that what they’re watching is this ephemeral thing. That, outside of the plot or the characters, they can have this thing that is a more pure, poetic, and lyrical experience… that is an extension of the narrative and the dialogue. It’s this little poetic eruption, or maybe even more-so a kind of disruption.
I’m not drawn to musicals, for instance… [laughs] …but I feel like there’s more and more music that enters these films. I remember the first time I saw [Paul Thomas Anderson’s] Magnolia, for instance, and there’s this really great scene that I think is really polarising for some audiences with Aimee Mann’s song, “Wise Up.” She starts singing and then there’s this non-diegetic moment where the song is just coming on as a part of the music production. Then the characters one-by-one sing along with her… or sing along with that track… and that was so surprising in that film. That was this moment when all of these characters, who seemed so damaged and separated from one another, have this moment of lyrical synchronicity. That, to me, was about hope in the midst of all this damage. That’s also how I imagine these songs: that they are about a kind of human synchronicity. After you’ve had your head in your hands, you lift your head to realise that we’re all in this together and, in that realisation, there’s hope for tomorrow and all that sort of stuff. Because I tend to write difficult characters or situations that feel like they’re leading to a not-so-happy ending. And there’s something about the songs that suggest that… maybe today won’t end happily, but that happy endings exist.
A Million Miles Away is also rich in sensory detail: bold, expressionistic lighting, extreme close-ups, experimental uses of soft focus and double exposures. Would you mind discussing the process of designing the look of this film?
I love a close-up, in the way it can give some really important details of a character without explaining things, without requiring more dialogue. With a close-up of a hand or a face or a mouth, or a close-up of something in that person’s environment… a close-up of a bloody hangnail or something… you get more information about that character without having to write dialogue where someone says, [facetiously] “What happened to your finger?” And then someone has to explain it in a really ham-fisted way that just makes me cringe when I see those moments in other films. So I want to use the camera for what it does, which is something that the human eye can’t do. We’re not able to, in the real world, get really close to strangers. The proximity that we have from one human to the next is… quite literally, there’s a distance. So I want to bring my audience into the world of these characters, right up next to their skin, as a way to convey intimacy, privacy, secret information, and a kind of personality.
In this film in particular, I wanted these pastels to read also: the pinks of their faces or the browns of their faces or the softness of their skin… or the softness of their souls, in a way. That sounds so goofy, but it’s true. I wanted that to come through in some of those superimpositions: the pinks in their rooms, the softness of the clothes they were wearing, or even the stickiness of the suckers they were eating. I wanted all of that to feel like this really visceral thing, where the whole film itself was leading you into this place seductively. I wanted this to feel like there were aspects of a bait-and-switch, where you bring the audience into this world where there is, again, beauty and poetry and all of this kind of stuff.
Thankfully, the D.P. for that film [Chris Rejano], who’s working on the film I’m shooting this summer, gets it. When I’m like, “Closer, closer!”, he’s never like, “It’s too close!” He’s like, “Okay!” And my editor [Mike Olenick] is the same way. If I say to my editor, “We’ve gotta put a bow tie on E.T.,” he never says, “That’s a terrible idea.” I mean, sometimes he’ll say, “That’s a terrible idea, but it’s gonna work and it’s gonna be fantastic.” So I’m able to work with people who understand my aesthetic.
[laughs] If our readers get anything from this interview, I hope it’s “we gotta put a bow tie on E.T.!”[laughs] I know, right?
Chuck Williamson is a film critic for the magazine.