The second feature film collaboration between the directing team of Lisa Robinson and Annie J. Howell Claire in Motion is a mash-up of styles. Structured around a mystery, the disappearance of Claire’s husband in the woods, the film is ultimately a meditative examination of her own identity. Forced to confront how her sense of self has been shaped by her identity as his wife and shocked to learn of her husband’s upsetting secrets, Claire forms a surprising relationship with one of the people that claims to know him. Subtle in its visual approach, Robinson and Howell take dreamy approach to their film to convey Claire’s emotional journey. And the film proves to be a break out for star Betsy Brandt, a familiar face on TV but too rarely given leading roles. I spoke with the writing-directing team (a rarity among female filmmakers) about bringing the film to like and the value of collaboration.
Q: I know you were living in different locations while writing the script. When you were collaborating on this project, how did you manage to write as a team?
Lisa: When we started writing the script, I was living in New York and Annie was in Ohio. And we already knew the film would be set in Ohio, so she was kind of living her everyday life in our soon to be location. And that ultimately helped us because it allowed us to slow-cook these ideas. And logistically, we would just tag-team the writing. I'd write a little and send it to her, then she'd write a little. And I went out to Ohio a couple of times, to location scout but also it gave us the chance to do a little brainstorming. Personally, I think the film actually benefited from being made this way, because we had insider and outsider perspectives of the town.
Q: Why did you feel it was so important to be specific about the town on this film?
Annie: In the two films we made together, we've been really excited about using locations as a way to bare down on the narrative. We feel it can really have implications on a person's state of mind. And that was particularly true on this film. Living in a small town can be a bit like living under a microscope and she's going through something so difficult, that environment feels even more claustrophobic for her. I'd lived in the town we set the film in at the time, although I'm now back in New York. I had a 6 year stint in Athens, and like Claire, I taught at the University.
Q: Her being a teacher feels like an important detail, because she has authority and structure in the classroom, and suddenly her life’s become chaotic. What aspects of her character did you want to bring to the surface during this crisis?
Lisa: To us, it feels rare to see women this age really dealing and struggling with issues of identity. She's kind of settled in her life, she's good at her job, she has a family, and those are usually the women we think have a really strong sense of identity. But actually, that sense of herself is very fragile, so this happens and it kind of pulls that apart. We thought a lot about this being both a crisis of self, but also a catalyst for change. And we thought very hard about how much we change, or are willing to change, as we get older. She surprises herself with the behavior we see later in the film.
Annie: That's actually one of the reasons we filmed her occasionally from behind or over her shoulder, as if we were following her and not sure what she would do next.
Q: It looked to me you used hand-held cameras for some of the scenes of her walking in the woods. What was the cinematic style you wanted to establish on this film?
Annie: We used some handheld, but we actually used a short-dolly that was helpful on those scenes, allowing the camera to stay close to her and almost felt like the image was floating. That gives the impression of it being dreamy, because this feels like a bad dream for her. We'd also film characters slightly out of focus or push characters almost off screen, more than we usually would. It was the best way to upset the balance and focus on her state of mind.
Q: Did you talk about the color palette?
Lisa: We knew it would be really green, and liked to see Betsy in blues. We actually looked at some Edward Monk paintings which had this beautiful claustrophobic quality, and they had a cool palette with mostly blues, greens, and greys. And for the character of Allison we wanted to have a contrasting palette, so there's reds around her. But specifically for Claire, we wanted her home and clothing to feel like a cocoon. She has this sweater she wraps herself in, and that more than the color I think really helped Betsy get into character. She took that sweater and wrapped it around herself almost for protection. The town also has a gothic sense at times, so we used lots of really long shadows. Specifically in her yard.
Q: How did Betsy Brandt get involved in the project?
Annie: We were so fortunate because we worked with a casting director who had worked with Betsy before. We were looking at a few actresses we really liked, but Betsy was always right at the top of the list. And we were just lucky that she had a little time in her schedule. She really got the part and was so up for it. It's such an immersive role, she's in pretty much every scene. And we found it to be such a rewarding experience to work with her. She's a very nimble actor and game for anything. She was so much fun.
Lisa: We'd seen her in Breaking Bad and Masters of Sex, and on that show she had an amazing role where she showed how vulnerable she could be. So those two shows really made us want to work with her. She can do amazing things.
Q: I know you've done other projects on your own, but what do you like about working as a directing team?
Lisa: There are so many benefits of making these types of films together. We are putting the pressure on ourselves, because it’s a very personal projects and when we started we don't even know if anyone would see it. So having two people on board to share the work and experience, also helps to share the accountability that binds us to the project until the very end. It's their career too, so you know you can never just walk away when things get too hard or you hit a roadblock. And over many years, we developed a very specific sensibility with each other, and I think we really complement each other not just logistically but creatively.
© Lesley Coffin (1/12/17) FF2 Media
Photos: Betsy Brandt as "Claire" in Claire in Motion
Photo Credits: Courtesy of Break Glass Pictures