The film detective is one of the most iconic of all character types in Hollywood. The noir genre has primarily been built around not only the profession, but the definition created and re-enforced by films. This understanding of the direct connection is part of the reason director Carol Morley was compelled to make her own version of Martin Amis' 1997 novel "Mystery Train." Premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival, Out of the Blue stars Patricia Clarkson as Mike Hoolihan, a detective put on the case to find the killer of Jennifer Rockwell (Mamie Grummer), the daughter of a New Orleans tycoon (James Caan). In the homage-satire of the genre, questions arise as to whether the murder is actually connected to a serial murder never found.
“I think the book and the movie stand alone," Clarkson said in an interview promoting the film. "Carol has a very singular vision, but so does Martin Amis. He is a beloved author, and I think Carol did the right thing to treat it as individual projects. They complement each other, but they can stand alone. I think Mike has pieces from the novel, but she really is Carol’s creation.”
Coming off a role in the HBO thriller Sharp Objects, Clarkson adapts to an entirely different world created by Morley. “So often a woman’s strife is connected to a man or a child ... But this is a beautiful character study of a beautiful, no-frills woman. All she had was life in homicide.” Stripped to just five pieces of wardrobe (she doesn’t even carry a purse), Clarkson found Mike’s minimalist worldview liberating. “It was refreshing to be on a set without anything. She had her magnifying glass. I had the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever worn. I had great hair, she has a little Joan Jett thing. But that’s the only thing, she has a little bit of an ex-funk/punk quality to her, she was a little edgy. It was a refreshing to have nothing else to rely on.”
Morley was intentional in her interpretation of the role, well-aware that while female detective have been popular on TV for decades; it’s far less common in film (and even less common in noir). “I found it really exciting to take the female investigative gaze and take a very complex woman and Patricia brought her to life so beautifully," she said. "There are so few films where the women have the agency to take the story forward.” Using the genre tropes to carry the story as well as subvert expectations, Morley explains that the film’s femme fatale is not the blonde Rockwell, but maybe Mike herself explaining “She’s the puzzle to be solved.”
To research and write the screenplay, Morley spent time in a homicide detective, observing the culture and lifestyles of the women there. Mike’s one personal connection seems to be her cat in the film, somewhat inspired by a detective she met. “Sitting was opposite a homicide detective and her phone rang” Morley said, “It was really cracked and broken. And she said, 'Sorry, it’s my cat.' And it turned out to be her vet. But after that I asked her what her favorite representation of cuts on television or film, and she said Barney Miller, because they do so much paperwork.” In another detail pulled from her observations, the film’s detective office was film in a warehouse without overhead lights, because to save money a department had stopped turning them on because detectives were always out of the office on cases. One of the detectives in the film has a cardboard cutout of a classic Hollywood detective, because Morley noted that “the office was full of cardboard cut outs of movie detectives…Homicide detectives have really embraced the movies’ ideas of homicide detectives.” One of the female detectives she shadowed had even considered going to film school, but torn between the two professions, decided to go into which ever program accepted her first.
When it came to the adaptation process, Morley had to trust her knowledge of the book and rely on her instincts. “It’s weird doing an adaptation because you go in, thinking you know the book. I read it twice and then put it away. And then as you start to dismantle it to write the screenplay, you realize it isn’t about the plot, it’s about themes. So in strange way I started to feel like I was rescuing some of the characters from the pages of the book, but I was also killing some of the characters and inventing some of the characters.” The book came to Morley from her previous producer Luc Roeg, who’s own father Nick Roeg had planned to adapt the book himself when it was first released. While they didn’t discuss the plans his father had had, Morley later learned that she had not only cast one of the actors he had intended to hire (Toby Jones) but also set the film in New Orleans.
The decision was made after Morley had written the script, expecting to film in Atlanta due to the tax breaks in that state, which had been eliminated from New Orleans. Clarkson had been filming part of Sharp Objects in Atlanta and called Morley that they had to go somewhere else because “there’s no more crews. The only hairdresser left is dog groomer.” When her brother-in-law informed her that the tax incentives had been re-instated, the film was brought back to New Orleans. The film’s darkly comic, Gothic elements fit the city perfectly.
Clarkson is one of TIFF’s most frequent guests, having come to the festival at least eight times with film premieres. Four of those films were directed by women, leading Clarkson to defend the festival as one of the most inclusive, saying “Women have always been part of the fabric of this festival.” Clarkson gives credit to Piers Handling (director and CEO) who in 1977 created a female directors initiative (30 years before Share Her Journey). Yet Clarkson says some of the changes in the industry will have to come from not only those making the films, but the industry supporting them, saying, “We need more female critics, we need more women running festivals…Television has been way ahead, we all know that. Women have ruled American television for a long time. Now it’s time for them to rule American films. And British films in this case.”
Morley, does see a difference in the British film industry which suggests significant changes have been made. “I remember years ago hearing that women need to start their own film industry. I find it difficult when the conversation is about putting a woman in a role which would normally be filled by a man. Like talk of hiring a women to direct the next James Bond film. What you don’t want is a kind of tokenism, where women are employed or given films they aren’t invested in. Being from Britain, it’s interesting that a lot of the female directors from there, they write their own screenplays but the male directors rarely don’t. We’re generating the stories we want to tell because we don’t want to be directors for hire.”
The decisions ended with an interesting note of hope from Clarkson, able to look back on her extensive film career. “I think things are changing finally. Young actors have it better now, there are more opportunities. It’s not about people having to hire us, it’s about people wanting to hire us. Wanting our stories. Wanting to tell these stories from a female perspective. We have different eyes. We see things differently. We have different stories within us.”
Out of Blue made its World Premiere at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.
© Lesley Coffin (9/13/18) FF2 Media
Photos: Out of Blue (Courtesy of TIFF)