So, where did the idea come from?
One of the initial things was that I had just made You Wont Miss Me, which is half inside a character’s head. Shelly Brown is the anchor of the movie, and literally we hear her voiceover within her mind. And I had been living in this person’s head for so long, that I really wanted to make a movie that fractured the perspective among many different characters, where you were aligning yourself with one person and transferring your alliance to a different character, and so the perspective and loyalty of the audience was shifted.
How did you do that?
I think that Lena [Dunham, co-writer] and I created characters that we love. We loved each and every one but we had them all fail in some way, we had them all win and then we had them all fail. So we gave them traits that were both appealing and disgusting. And so there was no specific villain. It was diverse in that sense. And that to me is the essence of our lives, you know? You watch yourself fuck up, and then you watch yourself do something good. And you are always navigating that push and pull.
So we start out focused on Olivia Thirlby’s character, Martine, but you don’t think the audience stays on her towards the end. At what point…?
I think it goes though different incarnations, and I think it shifts for different people. I think that after she has sex with him, I think a lot of people, that the tendency is to feel protective of the family in some way: “What is this girl doing? Why is she doing this? Why is she betraying this family?” But then by the time she says, "I have to get my shit done," you shift again. You wonder, well, was she pressured into this? Was she cajoled? Did she feel like she didn’t have an option? How helpless is she? How much control does she have over her own choices and actions? And how much of a victim is this person?
It really does have reverberations, that moment of, “I’m just trying to get my shit done.” You look back and realize how subtle her performance is during the sex scenes. She does such a good job of communicating, in that moment—once his attraction to her starts—that she realizes she’s fucked if she does and fucked if she doesn’t, basically. She does such a good job of communicating that sense of, “Might as well. This might be worse if I say no.”
It’s really subtle, is the truth, her performance. Even the way it’s written is really subtle. There’s this moment when she’s going to have sex with him where she kind of pulls away and says, “This house is full of people.” And therefore we shouldn’t do this, is the subtext of that line. But it’s subtle. She doesn’t pull away and say, “Well you have a wife!” But it’s in the essence of, there are other people in this world besides you and me. But he ignores it and kind of swoops her up. I think there’s a lot of hesitation there.
When I was 23 and when a lot girlfriends of mine were 23, it’s something that we experienced in all kinds of ways, that ambiguity of these complicated relationships: “Oh, am I doing something sexually that I’m not quite comfortable with yet? Have I just had a drink and am doing it now?” And I think that line is really interesting, and not quite seen often enough, maybe.
Those are such basic things about the sexual dynamics from that perspective—about power and also accidentally realizing a power you don’t want, and work—in your film, and I realized, “Oh, I’ve never seen this before in a film.” That’s so crazy. It’s so basic, for women, but it hasn’t been shown before. It just makes you realize how little of real, complicated female sexuality is actually on film.
It also really does a great job of showing the tunnel vision men can get in that moment. I feel another key line is when Julie’s patient tells her about the dream he had of her, when she was “dressed to fuck” but was resisting, and he says he took off his pants just so she knew he was hard. As opposed to Martine’s “I was just trying to get my shit done.” I feel like those counter such different male/female approaches in that situation when there’s an inappropriate attraction.
I’m attracted to you, therefore, what are you gonna do about it? Yeah. Yeah, that’s really interesting. And I think the movie also shows all these different levels. You have everyone from Dave the assistant who is just kind of into Martine and is there if she’ll have him, to those two characters, the patient and then John K., who’s kind of more of an active player. So hopefully there’s a spectrum there.
What else did you try?
A more performance-based, almost Cindy Sherman type video, her in costumes playing different parts. But bugs felt right. Not only because of the metaphorical aspects of it, but for her character, mainly. She’s the kind of girl who really would be interested in holding a Bolex camera in the desert shooting a close-up of a bug. It’s a very specific kind of person, you know.
I know that kind of person.
And for me, there was a scene in You Wont Miss Me, where I had to ADR the whole scene from scratch. And I thought, this is amazing. The whole process with the actors, creating live from scratch, creating all the ambient sounds, everything. It was like a whole new level for me in terms of the creation of sounds, and I felt that hadn’t really been explored enough yet in enough other films—there is Blow Out and The Conversation. But I wanted to really explore that.
But it’s also interesting, in terms of the conflict in the film, where the John K. character admits that he just got carried away with the work. That the sexual relationship was an offshoot of that. And I thought that it was really interesting. Because there is an inherent intensity and intimacy in film work.
And, I’ve read articles that suggest that intensity and intimacy—and the social aspect of film—is part of what eventually leads to some of the gender disparity…
I think in terms of working relationships, especially in creative mediums, it gets intimate really fast. Because what you’re doing is so personal, and not regular hours, you’re not even in a regular office half the time. Work gets personal really quickly, and that can be really complicated. And those dynamics are fascinating.
The relationship between the two main women, Martine and the wife played by Rosemarie DeWitt, with rivalry and camaraderie, and also understanding, was really interesting. At some point it really becomes the wife’s film. That’s an interesting way to shift from innocence to experience. Was that always the intention, or did that emerge in the performances?
I think that was always there, in terms of who you aligned yourself with. But I don’t know, sometimes people align themselves with the 16-year-old girl, Kolt, who I think is very appealing. She’s kind of the “looker” of it all; she sees all and is the witness. But I think one of the things that I’m interested in is about the transference of alliance to the characters and when you change your allegiance. I think part if that is the way it’s done; Rosemarie DeWitts’s performance is so grounded and captivating, that the audience does gravitate to her. But she’s also saving her family. She’s saying, you’ll never hear from us again. I think the audience is going to naturally gravitate towards that. Because everyone wants a hero. And I don’t think Martine emerges from that story as a hero.
There are no heroes?
Julie (DeWitt) does become the hero, though, if there was one to be had. Because she made a moral decision. And in all this immorality, it’s nice to have someone drawing the line in the sand. And it’s interesting. Because we do need that, for life, for love. How are we going to love unless we know what’s ok and what’s not.
Can you talk a little bit more about what inspired the film? It’s a very LA film, and your last film was a very NY film.
Everything I do is about wanting to do something different and challenge myself. I looked at a lot of Los Angeles films, from Los Angeles Plays Itself to The Long Goodbye to Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. So I was looking at a lot of cinematic history of Los Angeles, particularly of the 1970s. And artists too, like Ed Ruscha, and Eames, all that stuff. The language and psychology of all those iconic images was something I got really into. It was important to me that the landscape and city be another character in the movie.
How did that manifest, then?
I think everything from the colors to the kind of house that they live in. Also the easygoing flow of their life—there’s an element of California liberalism. Sure we can invite a stranger to live in the poolhouse and it will all be ok! There’s an openness in a kind of 70s way.
There's another LA 70s movies that I heard you mention, a really interesting comparison to this, Shampoo. Yours really is kind of an inversion of that, but when it’s a woman instead of a man, it’s not funny. It’s kind of heartbreaking.
Oh, yeah Shampoo! I always forget to mention that one. That’s one of the films that I came to late, after I had already written the script. But I showed Shampoo to the cinematographer in terms of the extreme softness of the image. But I do think Warren Beatty is kind of an extreme player in the way that Martine is, and he does break up a marriage, and he does break girls’ hearts, but there’s so much kind of charm and dandyism to him. But with Martine, we’re so much more likely of an instinct to go with the femme fatale. Is she evil? Is she really going to do the worst to this family? Whereas with Beatty it becomes more lighthearted.
So you were thinking of those classic Los Angeles noirs, too, like Barbara Stanwyck’s femme fatale in Double Indemnity?
I think I was aware of that, but I was interested in an Altman kind of paradigm, in terms of character, and seeing people based on their actions and interactions. You don’t always know what people are thinking, and I’m ok with that. That was my interest in this movie, but every movie is really different for me.