Dead Women Walking is a subtle, sobering experience. The new film from Israeli born director Hagar Ben-Asher, her first English language/American made film, tells the agonizing final moments (some days, some literally minutes) of life for women on death row. Told in short films (nothing more than 10 minutes) with different casts and settings, Ben-Asher creates an intimate, almost documentary-esque narrative. Emotional of course, the empathy she creates from the audience is never forced, and she includes the matter-of-fact text about the step they are about to embark on and the crimes they were convicted for. Fortunately, I had a day to process the emotional reaction I before speaking with Ben-Asher about her challenging new film.
Lesley Coffin: I understand the film started out as short films. How did it evolve into a feature film?
Hagar Ben-Asher: Well, it wasn’t really individual short films, it was going to be a digital series, kind of episodic. But it wasn’t until I started editing them that I realized a film would be better, more powerful, if audiences watched them in order and didn’t select one or two to watch out of order. It felt like a film.
Lesley Coffin: Did that digital series have the book-end with the same character at the beginning and end, or did you have to add that element after deciding it would be a feature?
Hagar Ben-Asher: I always planned for that character to be in the first and last episode. I wanted the audience to see the same character going through that first part of the process and have her be the person audiences see put to death. I thought that would be more powerful.
Lesley Coffin: Having a different cast and setting for each of the vignettes, did you find you were more aware of your directorial style, finding ways to keep it cohesive?
Hagar Ben-Asher: I think so, because I think we always knew that the best method to watch this would be as a whole, even if it meant people “binge-watched” the entire series at once. The DP and I thought about that a lot. And the high level of realism in the film is very true to all my work. You’d have to ask the actresses, but I think everyone felt that it needed to feel as realistic as possible.
Lesley Coffin: And yet, there is a point when that ultra-realistic approach is left behind and you allow yourself a few moments to add a bit of heightened reality. Nothing big, but the use of lighting in the second to last segment, the final shower, and meta moment of a character watching a documentary about themselves. They aren’t unrealistic but they are very cinematic or surreal. Was there a point when you allowed those moments into the film?
Hagar Ben-Asher: It’s about how the film progresses, and I didn’t just do that with the visuals, I also used sounds and music to do that. I scripted that the film would develop that way, I feel that movies need to break within themselves sometimes. Everything doesn’t have to be cohesive or even flawless.
Lesley Coffin: Or just unexpected. You mention the sound and I’d wanted to ask you about the decision to use music in such an incongruous way.
Hagar Ben-Asher: My previous films all embrace the cinematic language, they are very art house, and the use of music was perhaps my way of enjoying myself or showing that aspect of my personality as a filmmaker.
Lesley Coffin: The actresses aren’t big names but they are all professionals and will be familiar faces to many viewers. Were they all hired by auditions or had you seen some of them in other projects?
Hagar Ben-Asher: I wrote the story for Dale Dickey. I really wanted to work with her. And I’d seen Ashton Sanders before, but I didn’t mind that he was a little more familiar because he was a boy and would stand out anyway. But otherwise I told the casting director I want the best actresses who aren’t names yet.
Lesley Coffin: Why was it so important to not hire well-known actors for this film?
Hagar Ben-Asher: Well, in order to create that sense of realism, almost documentary, and in order to create that sense of finality, you couldn’t expect to see them in another movie. I mean, Brad Pitt’s a great actor but you’re never going to forget that you’re watching Brad Pitt, although I’m sure he’d be great as a female inmate.
Lesley Coffin: Why did you choose to focus only on women going through this experience? Because the women come from all ethnicities and regions and I imagine the process you depict is the same in male prisons.
Hagar Ben-Asher: Well, part of it was a desire to understand myself how female violence is different from male violence. If you look at the statistic, 88 percent of women in prison were victims of sexual abuse and violence themselves. Women’s violence is an intimate kind of violence, and I was more interested in exploring that than in seeing characters. And regarding their backstories, although they look different and they are in different prisons, their stories are very similar. At least in terms of their emotional backgrounds. It’s very rare to find a woman in prison who wouldn’t be considered a victim themselves. The fact that this is victim violence was more interesting to me.
Lesley Coffin: Why was it important to tell the audience the crime they’d been convicted of?
Hagar Ben-Asher: The film is also meant to be document of sorts. It’s an institutionalized film, so it’s important to know the full story. And emotionally, it’s important for the audience to know as well, because it creates an inner conflict for them. Yes, you feel for these women and you want them to feel better before they’re going to die. But when you read what they did, you suddenly don’t know how to feel or how to process our emotions. And I wanted audiences to feel that shift, because it isn’t just about feeling sorry for these women. They did commit horrible crimes that caused others suffering.
Lesley Coffin: Would it have been more challenging for the audience to make that connection to the women if you had put that information at the beginning of the segments?
Hagar Ben-Asher: It actually shifted during the edit. I moved it backwards and forwards, it feels 35 or 40 times. It created a completely different experience, because when you enter the moment knowing what she did, you picture the horrible crime scene and it’s harder to attach to her. And I somehow preferred for the audience to become emotionally attached and then have to take a step back, I wanted them to feel emotionally confused. I preferred the confusion and inner conflict, and didn’t want to risk them not becoming attached.
Lesley Coffin: This is your first American film, and the subject makes it uniquely American. But have you thought how this film will play outside of the United States, in Europe and other parts of the world?
Hagar Ben-Asher: The film is about universal subjects like humanity and family and forgiveness, and the death penalty is a structure, it isn’t the essence of the film. I’m happy with the reactions people have had to the film so far, it hasn’t met a big audience yet. But I’m very, very curious how the film will play in Europe. The reaction could be very different.
Lesley Coffin: Were you specifically looking to make an American or English language film at this time in your career?
Hagar Ben-Asher: Oddly, this was a specific project that came to me. But I found it very liberating to write in English. My English isn’t perfect, but I somehow found it easier to write in English. I think the American culture ends up become everyone’s culture, so we’ve experienced so many of the same experiences. And it was a beautiful experience that opened my eyes.
Lesley Coffin: Was this the first time that the cast had an opportunity to see the other actor’s segments?
Hagar Ben-Asher: They hadn’t seen anything, even their own. And I was so nervous.
Lesley Coffin: What was their reaction to seeing all these performances put together, after having filmed their segments in such intimate settings?
Hagar Ben-Asher: Every premiere is difficult for me, but this one was hell. Because they made this without knowing anything about the whole. None of them read the entire script, they only read their own. I think that watching it, they felt a part of everything, and that was very emotional for them. They saw how connected the stories were, how one led to the next, and found a connection to each other watching the film together.
© Lesley Coffin (4/23/18) FF2 Media
Featured photo: Dead Women Walking (Courtesy of David Stergmeister)
Bottom photo: Colleen Camp, Andy Hoff, Bonnie McNeil, Lynn Collins, Maya Lynne Robinson, Isaac Montgomery, Dale Dickey, Hager Ben-Asher, DawnMarie Ferrara, Ben Zelevansky, Bess Rous and Joy Nash attend the screening of “Dead Women Walking” during the Tribeca Film Festival at Cinepolis Chelsea on April 20, 2018 in New York City. (April 19, 2018 – Source: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images North America)