By Chuck Williamson
Jennifer Reeder is an award-winning visual artist and experimental filmmaker based in Chicago, IL. Her latest short, ‘A Million Miles Away’, is a surreal and surprisingly tender exploration of adolescent girlhood. Set to a choral rendition of Judas Priest’s ‘You’ve Gotta Another Thing Comin’,’ Reeder’s film concerns a moment of collective catharsis experienced by a conductor and her all-girls choir.
To begin with, would you mind discussing the origins of A Million Miles Away?
Sure. I am in the midst of revising a feature length script that features several scenes of a girls choir singing as a kind of Greek chorus. What’s often typical is to make a short adaptation of a feature-length project in order to get funding for the feature. So as a kind of challenge to myself, I wanted to try to write a short around this girls choir class. I knew I had that at the most basic level, that the main plot would feature this girls choir. From there, something that doesn’t happen, for instance, in any scenes in the feature is what happens in A Million Miles Away: this substitute conductor having a meltdown and the introduction of her crises through the writing in her diary, and the intro of some of the girls at the beginning. It was really just the most simple thing: how do we make this specific day in their choir class more impactful. And I went on from there.
I had met Jennifer Estlin through this very non-art oriented situation — where we were both asked to come and be “master storytellers” for this strange corporate gig — and I was really compelled by her as a person. She is a very experienced actor, and I knew I wanted to cast her.
Then what we did was reach out… a lot of high schools in Chicago have a pretty hefty performing arts program, so we reached out to about five different high schools to say, “We’re holding these auditions for girls between the ages of 13 and 18 who have to have [acting] experience… or can sing.” We at least wanted them to be able to sing. So we had a casting call and visited a couple of high schools to pick up some extra people who couldn’t make the original casting date. We cast 21 girls, but we could have easily cast 41. There were so many really talented young women who came through.
We were choosing girls who would make a really diverse mix, both in terms of race and general personality. I don’t know anything about choral arranging, but we were also able to put together a group who had a range of voices so that this three-part arrangement that we utilised worked. They actually came together and were an operating choir. They all had experience in music and theatre, but most were not seasoned in front of a camera — they were just excited to be a part of this project, and they were so poised and professional and really delightful to work with.
I’m also curious about your method working with your teenage cast. Were they ever active collaborators?
Not so much. Perhaps a little in the intro sequence, where we just get a little glimpse of each of the girls. For instance, the young woman who sings ‘Like a Prayer,’ that’s the song that she sang for her audition. She’s a big Madonna fan — [laughs] — like when I was a teenager, so I was instantly in love with her. I asked her if she could sing that song again and she was like, [flippantly] “Okay!”
But I didn’t necessarily give them a huge amount of room to improvise because they actually don’t have a lot of dialogue. Every girl got a line of dialogue. I made sure that everyone got to say something, which was really important to me. But we kept it really tight, in terms of the script; it was pretty by-the-script. We did the same thing with Jennifer Estlin, who certainly knows how to improvise. She kept to the script as well. I’m not against improvising, but I think that the girls themselves actually felt more comfortable having me give them lines rather than having them improvise.
We did shoot those intro sections in the girls’ own bedrooms. So you have a little bit of “improvised” set design and art direction, because we actually went to their homes and shot in their actual bedrooms without changing a thing.
I was struck by your complex and textured representation of adolescent girlhood.
Probably the last several projects I’ve done have included some aspect of teenage girlhood. Myself, as a teen I fell in love with all of the John Hughes films — which, in particular, still feel pretty fresh today. It’s probably nostalgia, but there are some teen films from the eighties — [Martha Coolidge’s] Valley Girl, for instance — that still resonate with me as great storytelling and give representation of a kind of era and a kind of teenager.
On the one hand, my fear is that, as an adult woman now, oftentimes when I’m negotiating my place in the world, I still feel like I’m doing it from the perspective of this fourteen year old me and just hoping I don’t blow it. [laughs] So my fear is that I’ll get it wrong, that I’ll get the art direction wrong or the wardrobe or the hair or the cadence or what they might actually talk about all wrong. So I try to pay attention to the teenagers that I encounter; I get real nosy about their mannerisms. I live in Chicago, and the city teenagers are different from when I go back to Central Ohio and observe those teenagers. But I feel like I’m always watching these packs of young girls to get an idea of their body language and what sorts of new fashion they’re wearing or thinking about, or what they’re listening to. More-so than just prescribing something or imagining that they can learn from me as an adult, I’m constantly in the opposite position where I’m really realising where I can feel like I’m learning from them; I can absorb and listen rather than talk. And that’s really even the gist of this film. It’s about the reversal, right? The adult in this film gets a lot of wisdom and guidance from this pack of teenage girls who at first she thinks are “a million miles away” from her, so to speak.
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.