Rachel Lambert’s directorial feature debut In the Radiant City (2016) is a poetic blend of atmosphere and emotion. Its movement between the past and the present, the stylistic considerations of the use of the camera and editing, alongside a compelling set of performances eloquently fuses together the technical and the human.
While an intimate story of a broken family haunted by their past, it is one that feels isolated, mirroring its lead protagonist Andrew Yurley (Michael Abbott Jr), who upon returning to his hometown refrains from re-connecting with his sister (Marin Ireland) and mother (Celia Watson). Yet here is a human ghost story that belongs to a similar group of films, including Kenneth Lonergan’s recently lauded masterpiece Manchester By the Sea (2016), that offset the traditional genre ghost story. These are stories that cast the memory of experience as an antagoinistic force, in which characters haunted by their own natures and past looks to the pain and angst that can define the human experience.
In conversation with Film Frame ahead of screening at The Glasgow Film Festival, Lambert discussed the need for the filmmaker to listen to the story, and the role of the subconscious in the generating and shaping the ideas. She also reflected on the filmmaking process, from its collaborative to musical nature, while contemplating the essence of philosophy and transformation in providing a film with a sense of purpose.
Film Frame: What has drawn you to cinema as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
Rachel Lambert: I’d say that there have been a series of inspiring and defining moments. I don’t come from the kind of place where people can be artists as a profession, or even sometimes as a hobby, so it seemed silly to let it be more than that for most of my life. And yet, film insisted on being in my life in a significant way. There were three films that changed me forever. The first movie I ever saw in a theatre was Fantasia (1940). It was a matinee, raining outside and we sat left middle section. I could go on about it, but let’s just leave it at: it’s remarkable. The interest was sparked. Then many years later and many movies watched later, I was at home and saw there was a TNT marathon of The Godfather (1972-1990). I had never seen it. I watched it, then I watched it again. And again. I bought the AFI Top 100 list the next day and watched every film on the list before I graduated high school. That taught me to take my interest seriously. Then, in college I could afford one movie a week. I had heard about this film that was big out of Sundance that was shot in the Midwest. So I went to see it – it was Take Shelter (2011). The interest sparked and made serious. I finally understood that someone from the kind of place I grew up could make something remarkable. For the first time, I believed I could make a movie.
Film Frame: You’ve directed the short film Kin (2012) and the documentary Mom Jovi (2016). In the Radiant City is your narrative feature directorial debut. How does the form, whether short, documentary or narrative feature influence you as a writer and director?
Lambert: Well form is merely the container for the story. With a short, I had a defined amount of time, money and experience, so that process involved me picking a container first, and then conceiving of something that fit that container. The documentary was a story that I encountered, and after spending time with the subjects of that story, and allowing myself to ask questions of what I saw by putting a camera in front of it, I came away with the materials to construct a narrative. Originally, it was to be a short narrative, but I looked at the pieces we had and the feature form revealed itself to be the only container that could hold all we had to say. Similarly, I guess, it went with Radiant City. Once I had spent time researching, asking questions and amassing enough raw material from which to write, I could start asking the questions I wanted my story to answer. And the questions I wanted to ask were too big for a short. They required a bigger container. So I told Nathan it was going to be a feature after all. This is a long winded way of saying: the story will tell you the size it is. It’s not my job to impose myself on it. It’s my job to give that story the opportunity to be the most whole, most truthful, version of itself.
Film Frame: How did the expectations of your narrative feature debut compare to the realities of the experience?
Lambert: Oh, this is very easy. They do not compare whatsoever.
Film Frame: The story of an estranged brother returning home both in Kin and Radiant City seemingly forges a connection between the two films. How do you view this relationship, or is any connection coincidental? If not coincidental, are you conscious of the themes that connect your work or do they emerge sub-consciously, using film as a filter?
Lambert: Kin was a deliberately crafted thing where Nate and I were trying out some ideas we were hoping to play with in Radiant City, so this was not a coincidence. We wanted to test that we could play upon the history between characters, without being overt about it, and also frustrate expectations, all while staging this thing in one space, over one night between two people. We figured if we could do that, then the ideas we had in Radiant City could work. I will say though about the subconscious nature to writing, I 100000000% believe that most writing, and the best writing, is first born out of the subconscious. My best work is often stuff I have zero idea how I got there, where it came from, or even what it means at first. I’m always trying to work from there. Perhaps that’s why I nap so much (I am not kidding).
Film Frame: How does the knowledge that you will direct the script influence the dynamic of the writing process?
Lambert: It does not affect the writing process at all. It impacts how long I am in the writing process, in that when writer me is done with the drafting stages and it’s ready for the director to take over, then director me steps in and starts to approach the material from that point of view, and engage with Nathan and producers in a new way. Or writer me steps aside and sends the script to the director and works very hard from then on out to serve his or her vision, while protecting the integrity of the script because that’s my job at that point.
Film Frame: You co-wrote both Kin and In the Radiant City with Nathan. I’ve heard some writers say that they write separately and swap drafts of sections of the scripts, or even one writer focuses on one aspect of the script while the other writer’s strength is another. How would you describe your collaboration and how it has evolved?
Lambert: Oh dear, this question. We have written five films now. We’re creative partners in that way – symbiotic. Um, Nathan and I have a writing relationship that is pretty intuitive. We write them like novels, meaning we start at the beginning with an idea of the subject matter and what we’re interested in, and then we discover it along the way. We are willing to admit to ourselves when we find out the thing may be something else than we originally intended it to be. Sometimes a script will surprise you like that! We abide by the rule of, ‘we don’t know until we’ve written it.’ Not because we’re clever or something, but because we’re the opposite. Some might call it lazy? We also take a lot of eating and snacking breaks, and we like to keep some sort of alcoholic beverage in the house. Some days I like to talk to him, other days I don’t. Naps help too or going for walks! Walks are very good, especially on the days I don’t want to talk to him.
Film Frame: There is a perspective amongst filmmakers that there are three versions of the script – the script that is written, the script that is shot and the script that is edited. Do you agree and is the process one of discovery leading up to the final cut?
Lambert: Oh yes! Like the discovery of, “crap, why didn’t I get that angle?” Or “Oh man, this opening is NOT working.” I have those discoveries all the time! All of which is to say I completely agree with the three versions concept, and the embrace of that concept will allow a filmmaker the ability to remain honest with themselves, about what exactly they have at their disposal to tell their story well. The three versions concept is an elegant way of saying, “Please for the love of God realise you are not perfect, and the thing you’re making will continue to live in a state of not being perfect, and that’s totally okay. Now go in there and get to work to make it really great.”
Film Frame: A filmmaker once commented to me that writing is like composing the score, while directing is like standing on the podium conducting the orchestra. From the movement between the verbal and silent pauses in character interactions, to the pace of the editing, the movement within the flashbacks, as well as the positioning of these sequences, In the Radiant City seems to possess a melodic or rhythmic quality. Do you perceive there to be a musical dimension to the filmmaking process?
Lambert: Writing to me lives in the rhythm. It’s the life behind the black marks on the page. For example, we write in line breaks for long speeches, and use elements of punctuation and spacing to indicate rhythm. If I do my job and fine tune the rhythm of the script, then every single member of the team is hearing the same thing in their mind. So it keeps all departments playing in the same key, no matter where their muse takes them along the way.
Film Frame: Speaking with Babak Anvari about the capacity of actors to surprise him, he explained, “Just a minor adjustment can really transform a scene and so those minor adjustments are how an actor can surprise the filmmaker.” How did the actors surprise you in their interpretations of the characters that may have differed from your original conception? And in the filmmaking process is it sometimes the small things that occur in the writing, shooting and editing that offer the most significant transformation?
Lambert: I’m always surprised to arrive on set and find the actors to be engaged with something I wrote. It’s kind of absurd to me. I grew up acting in theatre and I got my BFA in acting. So did Nate. We write, imagine, and bleed for actors. I spend most of my time obsessing over a script just in anticipation of an actor being pleased and turned on, and inspired. It’s all in service to them. As to the other part of the question, about whether small adjustments usher in the greatest transformations, yes and no. Sometimes you have to be bold and decide to really play around with what you have. Sometimes you need to look at the material on the microscopic level and make very small adjustments. I think you have to just be able to call it right. Do I meddle heavily with this scene/moment or do I need to be delicate with it? How much more can this moment take, in terms of attention and manipulation? I am a very big believer in being done.
Film Frame: Is the process of learning to make films structured around the challenge of honing one’s instincts so that you are able to eventually function instinctively?
Lambert: Well, if by “function instinctively” you mean to make choices, then yes. Making a film is a marathon of decision making. I’m sure if I could cut down the time between question and answer, it would result in a much easier work day for everyone involved.
Film Frame: There is a period of the film where the characters give way to their philosophical inclinations in their verbal exchanges. I would suggest that it looks to an inherent philosophy that exists within all of us. Is this means of philosophical expression in the film a reason why we can read philosophy in the subtext of cinema more broadly, regardless of whether it’s conscious on the part of the filmmakers?
Lambert: I would argue that if a piece of art does not communicate some inherent philosophy, it has probably failed as a piece of art. Or it is, at least, kind of a waste of my time because it means the maker isn’t present, or doesn’t care enough about it for me to care about it. Even if that philosophy is, ‘stop being so serious and laugh for Christ’s sake’, which could be the philosophy of a number of cherished comedic films in my library. Although to continue that thought, deciding what’s funny on the part of a comedian is also an expression of a philosophy. So, there’s that.
Film Frame: I often look to stories that fall outside of genre cinema such as your film alongside Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea and describe them as human ghost stories – characters haunted by their own natures and/or past events. Could we describe In the Radiant City as a human ghost story?
Lambert: DING DING DING!!!!!!! YOU GOT IT! Nathan and I have said from day one that this film is a ghost story. I am beyond bowled over that you zeroed in on that. No one has said that to me yet. Yes! This was our entire intention!
Film Frame: Ingmar Bergman is often acknowledged for his mastery of dream sequences. In the Radiant City features flashbacks, both the nightmare of the past and the romantic memory of youth. Having incorporated these scenes into your film, how has it shaped your perspective of dream sequences or flashbacks as a storytelling device?
Lambert: I think most creative people have certain lifelong preoccupations that they explore in their work throughout their lives. One of mine would be the role of memory and how it exerts itself on us. Or, more accurately, how our mind space interacts with the physical space we live in. I’ve committed myself to figuring out new ways to put memory or thought, or the internal life of a person into a story, and sometimes into the space they live using the tools of cinema. So much of cinematic history has involved itself with stories that exist in the natural sphere that happen in a linear fashion, and follow the rules of physical reality. I am very interested in the internal space of characters, how it can be animated, dramatised and brought into their worlds in a way we can see. It’s an undiscovered country to me. Basically, I am saying I like a touch of magic and the unreal in my movies.
Film Frame: C.G. Jung contextualises dreams as being a means to solve the problems that we cannot solve in our waking state. Do you think there is an element in which films exist on dream logic?
Lambert: Sure, I think some films fully engage with the ability for the human brain to make profound associations when moving image, sound and music converge. I think other films perhaps don’t rest so heavily on the associative form of communication though, and come at the material in a more literal or sometimes even a more discursive way. The choice as to which way to communicate to one’s audience reflects the voice of the filmmaker, and hopefully is particularly suited to the material or story.
Film Frame: Recalling the idea that there are so many archetypal stories, is one of the reasons because films like dreams serve to help us to understand our world? Hence, are the same stories told again and again in order to help each generation deal with those cyclic themes that confront each generation?
Lambert: I think films, like dreams, like theatre, like campfire stories, like photography, are all looking to do the nearly impossible task of connecting one insular human brain to another autonomous brain. To see as another in an effort to feel as another, which is the definition of sympathy. And sympathy, the urge to engage with it, and the ability to house it in oneself, is how we as a species were able to imagine beyond ourselves to grow and progress, and make cities, write books and go to the Moon. And how do those art forms succeed in doing that? By using vocabulary that can unite and communicate very big thoughts. And that vocabulary has to be tacitly agreed upon in the common human psyche, consecrated over time so that when each subsequent generation needs to find ways to connect with the lessons of sympathy, in order to carry on the human story in their time, there are works of art to help them do that.
Film Frame: Speaking with Carol Morley for The Falling (2014) she explained: “You take it 90% of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves: their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it.” And if the audience are the ones that complete it, does it follow that there is a transfer in ownership?
Lambert: Let’s be frank, the moment mine and Nate’s idea goes from our script to anyone else, be it producer, actor, production designer, director of photography, there’ s a transfer of ownership. Obviously a director is steering that and making sure everyone is reading the sheet music correctly. But if that same director doesn’t allow the team to take ownership of that script, then that’s probably not going to be a very good movie. Or, it’s going to be a movie that has no life to it. Why hire people and then not be interested in what they can contribute? What a colossal waste of time, otherwise.
Film Frame: Filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process?
Lambert: If it wasn’t transformative, I wouldn’t be doing it. We ask these questions when we set out to do something, in order to try and arrive at an answer. The pursuit of that answer should be consequential to the person asking the question. If it’s not then what a colossal waste of time.
In the Radiant City screens at The Glasgow Film Festival on Sunday 19 February at 13:15 and on Monday 20 February at 11:00. Writer-director Rachel Lambert will be attending the screening on the 19 February.