In Bluebird, like a quieter, humbler The Sweet Hereafter, a school bus tragedy has reverberations all up and down the fault lines of a small, snowbound town, beginning with bus driver Lesley (Amy Morton) and her logger husband (John Slattery). Writer-director Lance Edmands lives in Brooklyn and went to NYU, but he grew up in Kennebunk, in southern Maine, and to make Bluebird traveled north to Millinocket, an old paper-mill town struggling to move forward. Over email, I asked him about the allure of the place—and time—Bluebird takes him back to. Bluebird, Edmands’s first commercial feature after work as an editor (Tiny Furniture) and an award-winning Maine-set student film Vacationland, opens February 27.
I want to talk about the cinematography, because I think it’s some of the best work Jody Lee Lipes has ever done, and because I had a variety of responses to it, aesthetically as well as personally. Between the grain of the film image and the dying-industry set-up, I was initially thinking about 70s films like Slap Shot and The Friends of Eddie Coyle; but the way you and Lipes work in very low light, really soften the colors, bring down the glare of the overhead fluorescents at the Marden’s department store where one character works—it actually looks like a more artistic version of my family photos from when I (like you) was growing up in Maine in the 80s and early 90s, probably taken on a disposable camera, underlit and with the colors fading. Can you talk a little bit about the technical steps you and your cinematography team took in terms of establishing a color palette, working with natural and artificial light in Maine in the winter, and so on? And what did you emphasize about the look you were going for, in your conceptual conversations?
We talked a lot about it and worked really hard to give the film a distinctive look. We shot on 35mm film, which we had to fight for because we had very little money. So many independent films you see today have the same exact look, which is one of the real downsides of the digital revolution. I figured that if we were going to shoot film, we should really push the texture to the extreme, both so it would stand out from every other low-budget film, and also because it made sense with the story and locations. We drastically underexposed the film so that the grain became really noticeable. Doing that also gives the blacks a milky texture and the colors start to dissolve into each other. I think it’s beautiful and has a kind of tension—like it’s dancing on the edge and could fall apart at any moment. I think that tension mirrors what’s going on in the story. The place we shot was a crumbling mill town on the verge of extinction. The last time this town was really operational was probably the late 70s or early 80s, so everything there looks that way. It was the last time most people had the money to update their appliances or their work equipment. It has this frozen-in-time feel and I really wanted to capture that. We tried to emphasize the timelessness as much as possible in the cinematography and production design. We looked at films like The Deer Hunter, Silkwood, Fat City—that kind of thick, sludgy look of some of that stuff from the 70s. It’s really kind of the opposite of what a lot of movies look like now.
The film’s setting is contemporary, I guess, because the sheriff’s deputy takes a mug shot with a digital camera, and John Slattery won a high school basketball championship in 1980, but characters don’t use Facebook or listen to Top 40 radio (or its cheaper-to-license equivalents); you also avoid, in your exterior shots, any of the recent additions to the rural Maine landscape, like Walmart facades, and for your interiors you found a lot of cold-looking wood-paneled walls and stuffy, scratchy furniture. Was that vibe part of the attraction of shooting in a northern Maine mill town? In general, in what ways was the Katahdin region an inspiration for the film, in terms of story, tone, and so on?
I grew up in Maine and there has always been a kind of mythology associated with the northern part of the state—especially the Katahdin region. There’s just this dense darkness to the forest that has resonated with all kinds of storytellers, from Native Americans to Stephen King. I was also compelled by the extreme contrast in everything up there. There’s this reverence for natural beauty right beside the harshness of the logging industry and all those grinding machines. There’s a puritanical, hard-working stoicism that permeates the social culture, but there is also a desperation. You have this economic collapse with a lot of people refusing to change or even admit there is a problem. In a lot of ways the inherent drama in the landscape is what inspired me to start writing and then the plot and the characters grew out of that. The film follows a group of people from a frozen state to a thaw. At first they’re all kind of suffering alone, but over the course of the movie, they learn that they need each other in order to find understanding. That’s how I feel about Northern Maine. It’s strong and beautiful, but isolated.
The actors don’t seem to make aggressive attempts at doing Maine accents. Was that ever a subject of discussion?
Definitely. First of all, we couldn’t afford dialect coaches and the Maine accent is very specific. It’s not like a southern accent, which can be more general, or even a Boston accent, which is much more widespread. The Maine accent is more sing-songy—it has a strange, almost British lilt to it, and it’s not easy to nail. John Slattery spent his summers in Maine growing up, so he understood the culture and the accent a little bit. We tried it on him. But if he was going to do it, the whole cast would have to do it. It’s the kind of thing where nobody would probably notice if it wasn’t right outside of Maine, but Mainers would spot a phony accent from a thousand miles away. Authenticity is extremely important to Mainers and it was important to me. I didn’t think it was right to try and fake it, just let it be what it is and let the actors be who they want—don’t add another layer to the artifice. They did a decent job with Olive Kitteridge, but they had the resources, and even then it was hard to watch without cringing now and then.
It must have been a thrill to work with Amy Morton, who played Henry Rowengartner’s mother in Rookie of the Year—in any case, she’s perfect, both her look and the balance she strikes between buttoned-up and troubled. What did you see in her that convinced you she was right for the part?
I was after this combination of toughness and sensitivity and Amy has both of those things in spades. In the film, the character of Lesley comes from a long line of truck drivers and she drives a big machine, too. That had to be convincing. A combination of truck driver, mother, and babysitter—that’s how a schoolbus driver described her job to me once when I was researching. But at the same time, Lesley had to have natural sympathetic qualities, because she doesn’t complain at all, and her performance is so stoic and quiet, with a lot of scenes where she’s alone, just sort of feeling the internal tumult and guilt. Amy is from Chicago and she still lives there, so she’s used to the snow and scraping ice from your windshield at 5am to go to work. She’s primarily a stage actor, so she has this highly expressive face. She’s used to bigger emotions on stage and this film was so intimate and close, all of those big emotions got kind of compressed into a highly concentrated nugget of feeling that she wore on her face. She’s just amazing. And she’s a director as well at Steppenwolf. It was so intimidating having her and John, both seasoned actors, both directors themselves, and here I am with my first movie! I guess I just got extremely lucky to work with the people I did.