Maria Pulera wants to embrace the weird and wild in ‘Between Worlds’

Written and directed by Maria Pulera, the genre-bending Between Worlds weaves supernatural horror and erotic thriller together to create a wild, sometimes campy, often funny ride. Nicolas Cage stars as a man who prevents what he believes is a suicide, only to enter her world of possession. Pulera, whose previous film Falsely Accused starring Rosanna Arquette and Jon Gries, clearly has a keen on eye genre, using the conventions to twist audience expectations. She’s also moved into the world of production as one of the co-founders of Rise Up, the new production-distribution house.

Lesley Coffin: Before we talk in detail about the film, I wanted to ask you a little about the nature of being a female writer-director with a strong interest in making genre and action films, which have been traditionally dominated by men. Were you encouraged by the community to go in that area, or was that an additional hurdle and part of the reason you’ve turned to producing your own films?

Maria Pulera: I went to film school in the ’90s and just wanted to make a movie. I love genre movies and had to stay true to myself. It wasn’t a conscious decision to start Rise-up to produce my movies, we just had this goal of making movies that would allow voices from all over the spectrum to be heard. We need a diverse reflection of society, including more female voices. With Rise Up, we wanted to break out of the classical paradigm of how movies are distributed. I have the movies I want to make as a director, but I also want to find other people that have that same desire to make their voices heard. I have two partners at Rise Up. David Hillary was one of the early kings of American independent films in the ’90s with Virgin Suicides and American Psycho. And he really believed in me and my voice, and Eric Banoun really focuses on the business side. So that desire to break into films as a director has just extended my desire to find and encourage more voices who deserve to be heard.

Lesley Coffin: I had read that even though the film had been scripted, you ultimately used it more as a map and allowed improvising and contributions from the actors and crew on set.

Maria Pulera: Absolutely. When you’re casting, you’re looking for people you can really trust with your material. And I found a bunch of talented, collaborative actors who wanted to go there with me. I hired them because I wanted what they’d contribute and being open to that is part of the beauty of making films. It made it a more enjoyable experience to use the script as a map, so they could fully explore the character. We captured a spontaneous energy on set.

Lesley Coffin: What’s the editing process like on a film where people can go in dramatically different directions?

Maria Pulera: I work with Tim, who did my first movie, and we think the same way. Once we went into the editing room, the film really changed. Because people were being spontaneous on set, you can’t map out and envision the full film because you have an unpredictable product. We tried to change the space and time continuum of the film. We decided in some cases to utilize smash cuts to signal something that would be coming up. It’s a risk to take, but I think in the long wrong it creates this very unusual tone that bring the whole film together.

Lesley Coffin: Regarding that usual tone, having screened the film for audiences, what’s been the public’s reaction to all the twists and turns the film takes? Do most people want to get on the ride or does it take time to build that trust with the audiences?

Maria Pulera: I think some people really expected the film to be a supernatural thriller, and they aren’t expecting the film to go in the directions it does. Some people walked in wanting to see a specific kind of film will be disappointed. But those who come in without any expectations will really enjoy the ride. I was asking myself the same thing, but when we screened it in France, people seemed to really enjoy all the twists and turns the film takes. Most people take 5 minutes to fall into the film, but there will be some people unwilling to buy in.

Lesley Coffin: Regarding the casting of Nicolas Cage. I don’t know when or if this is exactly right, but I remember him saying that he’s not really interested in being naturalistic in films anymore, he likes the performative aspects of acting. When you hire an actor like him, does that impact your directorial approach or the performances of the other actors being hired for the film?

Maria Pulera: I never really thought about that. I cast him based largely on the performances I’d seen him give in films like Wild at Heart. I wrote the film wanting that old school Nicolas Cage performance. We did a lot of improvisation before film, to develop the character and see the directions he’d go. And based on that, I knew his character would be going places I didn’t expect. Fortunately, the two women I hired for the co-leads were amazing actors and could go toe-to-toe with him. I couldn’t believe the way Franka reacted to some of the stuff he did in the film, I would have been laughing but she just stayed in character and never broke. Her reactions to some of Joe’s behavior is the reason people can laugh during the film. I couldn’t speak higher of Franka and Penelope’s performances, their reactions really make some of Joe’s craziest moments work.

Lesley Coffin: When directors pitch and propose films to investors and actors, they often have to compare their film to other films. And this film goes in so many directions, I imagine it would be hard to find comparisons which weren’t superficial. How did you pitch and explain your vision?

Maria Pulera: I created a video look book for the actors and used that to explain what I was going for. I like a lot of weird performance artists. To explain the vision, I had for Joe’s character I used a lot of Jim Morrison’s music and his writings. I don’t really like to use movies, I prefer to select a lot of different types of art, across the whole art spectrum. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the producers compared the film to movies when talking with investors, but I really didn’t.

Lesley Coffin: I know this film was primarily filmed in Mobile, Alabama. But I read that you want to focus on making films outside the traditional areas Hollywood uses.

Maria Pulera: We want to make films anywhere. I’ve spent the last few years in Spain, so I’d really like to make films there. We’d like to make films in Indonesia. I want to shoot everywhere and anywhere. You can find interesting places and you can find intriguing people. We cast a lot of local actors to play smaller roles and be extras, and that adds to the fabric of the story. And I also like the idea of supporting these local areas.

Photo credits: Rise Up

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