Monday, December 18, 2023

Reverend's Interviews: Strangers No More

Suppose you suddenly feel inspired to visit your childhood home, as we sometimes do as adults. Once there, you greet your loving parents and hang out with them a while. There’s just one thing amiss: your parents have been dead for the last 30 years.

Such is the unusual scenario in which central character Adam finds himself in the new, gay-interest drama All of Us Strangers. The film is scheduled for theatrical release beginning December 22nd by Searchlight Pictures. Loosely based on Taichi Yamada’s horror-leaning 1987 novel Strangers, it was written and directed by acclaimed filmmaker Andrew Haigh.

As adapted by Haigh, All of Us Strangers is set in contemporary London. Adam (played by out actor Andrew Scott) has a chance encounter one night with a mysterious neighbor, Harry (Paul Mescal, an Oscar nominee earlier this year for Aftersun). This punctures the rhythm of the reclusive Adam’s everyday life. As a romantic relationship develops between him and Harry, Adam becomes preoccupied with memories of the past. He eventually finds himself drawn back to the suburban town where he grew up and the childhood home where, to his surprise, his parents are still living. Mum and Dad also happen to look just as they did on the Christmas Eve they both died three decades earlier. Adam and his parents (super)naturally begin to catch up on their lost time.

Out filmmaker Andrew Haigh previously wrote and directed three award-winning feature films: Lean on Pete (2017), 45 Years (2015) and the explicitly gay Weekend (2011). He was also executive producer and lead writer-director on the popular HBO series Looking (2014-2016).

Recalls Haigh, “What I loved about the novel (Strangers) was its central conceit: What if you met your parents again long after they were gone, only now they’re the same age as you? It seemed such an emotional way to explore the nature of family. That became my starting point.” But he placed the story in a world more recognizable to his/our own. “Adapting the book was a long and sometimes painful process,” Haigh admits. “I wanted to pick away at my own past as Adam does in the film. I was interested in exploring the complexities of both familial and romantic love, but also the distinct experience of a specific generation of gay people growing up in the 1980s. I wanted to move away from the traditional ghost story of the novel and find something more psychological, almost metaphysical.”

Author Yamada and his family were respectful of Haigh’s vision, which changed the central character of the story to a gay man, and gave their blessing to make the film. The project then attracted the extraordinary acting quartet that is Andrew Scott (perhaps best known in the US as “Sexy Priest” from the Amazon series Fleabag), Paul Mescal (also acclaimed — and frequently naked — in the Hulu series Normal People), the ever-adorable Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool) and the lovely Claire Foy (Women Talking, The Crown).

After watching All of Us Strangers, I was struck by not only how moving the story is but how delicate it is in terms of cinematic structure. I’ve rarely if ever used the word delicate to describe a movie, but it certainly fits here. This became a topic of conversation when I was privileged last month to interview several of the artists involved in making the film: director of photography Jamie D. Ramsay, SASC; editor Jonathan Alberts, ACE; and composer Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch. The following are excerpts from my Zoom conversations with these amazing technicians.

Ramsay is a South African/British Director of photography. He is known for his cinematography on the breakthrough, gay-themed South African film Moffie. He next helmed the period drama Mothering Sunday and then re-connected with Moffie director Oliver Hermanus to make the Academy Award- nominated Living.

CC: It’s nice to meet you! I want to say congratulations to you for your excellent work on this film but also Moffie and Living. They’re all great films and well-shot. What drew you to this particular project or this story?
JDR: You know, when you look at a project that you’re going to be spending your life force on and your time that you’ll never get back, this beautiful life we live, you need to pick it correctly. You look at the filmmakers involved and you look at the script itself and the project as a whole in regards to cast and everything that’s involved, and within that you develop your idea of the film. I think with this movie first and foremost was to work with Andrew Haigh, something I’ve always wanted to do, and then the blessing of such an incredible script that I couldn’t put down when I started reading it. It resonated with me on such a deep emotional level.

CC: Comparing this and Moffie, another gay-themed story, would you say your approach differed or varied between the two stories in any way?
JDR: The big difference for me between this film and Moffie is that Moffie is a story about unrequited love because of how homosexuality was deemed as a sin in the 80’s in South Africa. This movie that we’ve made, All of Us Strangers, is not that. It’s a love story. It’s not a gay movie, it’s a love story. It transcends being a gay film beautifully. You don’t watch the love scenes and think “it’s a gay love scene.” You watch a love scene, and this is a love story about forgiveness: about self-forgiveness, about the cathartic process of letting go of trauma, and for me that’s the big difference.

CC: Great, thanks for clarifying that. When it comes to your photography and filming All of Us Strangers, what were some of the factors or conditions that guided your choices?
JDR: First and foremost, Andrew and I wanted to make a movie that represented the concept of nostalgia, that represented the concept of being locked in a place in your life where your best memories were 15 or 20 years before. For us to embody visually this idea of memory and nostalgia was very important to us. It was very important to create a very subjective journey, a subjective experience of loneliness from the inside out. The camera always needs to feel as if it was the unseen friend in the room rather than an objective camera telling the story. All of our conversations were really about feeling, about the metamorphosis of the journey and what feeling we wanted to embody as filmmakers, and how best to do that very subtly from a visual perspective.

CC: I spoke with Emilie the composer and the editor, Jonathan, earlier and that word subtle came up with both of them. And also I described the film as being very delicate, a very delicate story and a very delicate film. It seems as if one factor — if the photography had been too dark or too bright, or if the music had been too loud or too frantic — the whole thing could have fallen apart. It’s just a perfect balance that you all found in that delicacy. Do you have any thoughts about that?
JDR: Thank you. Yeah, you know while you were saying that I was just thinking about how delicate our existence on this planet is. We have this human experience on this world but we ultimately are made from stardust; we are carbon atoms that have this soul within us. The fact that we breathe and we think and we love and we hate is just such a delicate holding together of things, and can be unseated so quickly by an accident or by a sickness or by this or that. But in (life’s) delicateness there’s a robustness as well that drives us and a tenacity that drives us, and ultimately it’s the pursuit of love. Love is the thing that generates us forward and that’s the glue, isn’t it? This movie, for me, is really about finding that love and finding it for yourself. And that’s what I’ve got to say about that. (laughs)

Jonathan Alberts, the movie’s editor, is an alum of McGill University and the American Film Institute. His previous films include Wristcutters: A Love Story and Like Crazy, Andrew Haigh’s previous films 45 Years and Lean on Pete, and Alan Ball’s Uncle Frank.

CC: Congratulations on not just this film but all your work that you’ve done with Andrew. It’s really significant and impactful, and you obviously work well together. Maybe first and foremost, some of my readers might not know exactly what an editor does, so can you say maybe just generally what the role of the editor is or what is your approach to editing a film?
JA: Sure. You know, I think a lot of people think that editing is about continuity, it’s about making things match, and there is an aspect of that but truth is I don’t think editing is anything about that. Editing is about how to tell the best story. The first thing that you put together is not what you end up with. As an editor, you’re thinking about “how do we tell this in the best way possible” using all the variables that you have with filmmaking, which is cinematography, performance, sound design, music. Those variables provide endless permutations, so as an editor I’m taking all those things together and I’m trying to understand how best to tell that story.

CC: In terms of this particular film or this story, did you do anything different in terms of approach? Did it challenge you or call you to do something different or reflect on the approach differently than other films?
JA: I think in some ways. So, every film presents a different set of problems. With (All of Us Strangers), it’s not just a straightforward drama. It has a supernatural element, it has this fantastic fantasy side, and I think we had to really think about the tone in terms of “how was this tone going to work.” It could have gone horribly wrong in a lot of different ways. We spent about a year editing the film and it was a long time of really experimenting, of really trying to understand what the film was. I mean, you know by the script what the story is about but all of the variables that I was talking about before change. It’s a different kind of alchemy that comes to the actor’s performances and the dialogue, so as an editor you’re often thinking about that.

CC: This is a very delicate film, and that’s not a word that I’ve typically used to describe a movie, but I think it’s very true. And I think the same is true of the editing. I really think there is a delicate quality to your work that really makes the story come alive. Do you have any thoughts about that?
JA: It’s interesting because as an editor, you know, before the music composer is on board you’re building a whole temporary soundtrack for the film, so I would talk to the director about what we want it to sound like. He would send me a playlist and I would take that playlist and start building another playlist and send it to him, and it was an interesting kind of thing. You spend a lot of time as an editor thinking and feeling “let’s try this piece,” and there was a crazy number of soundtracks I’m pulling from thinking “maybe this will work.” And then the composer comes on board and starts listening to this music you’ve put on it and they end up taking all of that off. (laughs) For this film, it was delicate. It’s such an intimate film and the music was a really hard thing to nail. I think Emilie did a great job, and we had many many conversations. She was so open and so inviting about trying different things. She had all these different ideas and she was so patient about finding the sound, but she found it and I think the soundtrack is absolutely beautiful and perfect for the film.

Speaking of, Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch is an award-winning composer and artist living in London. She scored last year’s Oscar-nominated Living, starring Bill Nighy. Her previous credits include The Forgotten Battle and The Strays, both for Netflix, and MGM’s Censor.

CC: Hi Emilie! Thanks for your time and thanks for your score on this film. It’s a lovely, delicate film. What drew you to this project or story in the first place?
EL: I saw an edit of the film before coming on board and I think I had a reaction that’s pretty similar to everybody. It kind of hit me like a ton of bricks and made me cry. I was also very impressed by how you can create a story that’s so specific but also touches on themes that are so fundamental to every human being’s experience. I just thought that was so impressive, and done in a way that was so subtle and with humor at times and yet so bold. As you say, it’s colliding so many different little elements and yet it works as a whole. But mainly it made me cry and I wanted to be part of it.

CC: I know you’re relatively new to composing for film but you have some impressive credits under your belt. How did you approach composing for this film and how was it different from or similar to other projects?
EL: An approach I have to a lot of the films I work on is, generally, I have to become emotionally really close to one of the characters. I really try to understand them because all of my music comes from a place of emotional truth, so I need to be able to feel what the character is feeling. And then I know that the music I am going to write from that place is going to be truthful for the character and truthful to the story. In All of Us Strangers, it was just really connecting with Adam, which was not hard for me because I love Andrew Scott’s performance. It’s just so subtle and all in the details. And then the next step is thinking more intellectually about what are we trying to do with the score, how the score should work. There was conversation with the director and editor about warmth, there was conversation about the nature of memory, and a more technical aspect was how are we going to use the score in order to gel a complex timeline and various genres into something that feels like a whole.

CC: Wow, that’s a fascinating process. Did I detect a love theme for Adam and Harry? I kind of heard bits and pieces but I wasn’t absolutely positive.
EL: That’s well spotted! Because of this idea of fragments that we had, because of the nature of memory and things like that, it was quite important to keep it really short. We have a few fragments; three different, very short melodies. The love one is at the very start of the film, when (Adam and Harry) are in bed having that long conversation, and at the very end of the film is the main moment when it comes back. They are very, very subtle and hard to grasp. It felt like if we had melodies that were very romantic and very hummable it would not be right for the film.

All of Us Strangers will have a limited release starting this Friday, December 22nd.

Reviews by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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