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The Dardenne Brothers-esque mode of deep character development paired with naturalistic aesthetics and a slow-paced story has become one of the more popular modes of storytelling amongst American independent filmmakers in recent years, and that mode is on full display in Liza Johnson’s debut feature film, Return. Johnson, a visual artist whose work has been exhibited around the world, decidedly chooses to not take the uber-aestheticized route some visual artists take when entering the cinematic medium (Steve McQueen is the most obvious example). Instead, Return constructs itself like a slow-build character-falling-apart-study in the mode of the aforementioned Dardennes, or a subtler version of that original American indie, John Cassavetes.
Subtlety is the gear that cranks Return’s engine; while plenty of films about an Iraq War vet losing their shit upon coming home could amp the histrionics to 11, Johnson’s film – in no small part due to the nuanced performances of Linda Cardellini and Michael Shannon as her husband (John Slattery also stars) – manages to keep itself planted firmly in the realm of naturalism. There is no melodrama at work here. And the plot machinations – our returning vet (Cardellini) begins to slowly become bored at work; quits her job; loses interest in her husband and kids – are handled with a simple, matter-of-fact touch. I had the chance to sit down with Johnson recently to discuss the film.
Tribeca: I have a friend who enlisted during the Iraq War, and it wasn’t for money or because he supported in the war – it was because, he said, he wanted something real to happen in his life. Life in America felt meaningless to him. And watching your film, seeing the way Kelly reacts to being back here, it seemed like she was going through something similar.
Liza Johnson: Yes, it does. People told me how shocking it was for them to not be interested in things they used to find very engaging, like sports. For me, it’s very plausible that Kelly would come home and say, wow, I can’t believe I’m taking my kid to cheerleading. Cheerleading is like anything – if you’re not into it, it’s totally stupid. I think that where the film is set, where I’m from, there’s an absence of meaningful work. So I understand your friend looking elsewhere for a job that has a sense of purpose. For Kelly, it’s shocking to be in a world where it’s hard to find that sense of purpose.
Tribeca: How did you go about doing research for the film – contacting veterans? What was that research like?
Liza Johnson: I conducted research on two fronts – I spent time in the town I grew up in, which is Portsmouth, Ohio. It has lost its industrial base and has a pretty big drug economy. And I did meet a bunch of different soldiers. The first one I spoke to was a friend who was trying to stay married once he came back. He did lose interest in certain things that had been interesting before, like football, and beyond that, he felt a certain gap of experience between him and his wife. He had very extreme experiences, and he felt like it would be irresponsible to those experiences to try to describe them to his wife. That gap is very hard for people to close, no matter how much people may wish to close it.
He also introduced me to a lot of female soldiers. Over the course of time of working on the script, I met a lot of different people, and the first thing I noticed is that there is no typical female soldier. People’s experiences were very singular. Researching was very good for me to create a character who was plausible, but there was no typical person or right way to represent that soldier.
Tribeca: You can see, in Kelly, a certain kind of internal weight or burden. That internal heaviness – was that something you were consciously aware of in terms of how you constructed the character?
Liza Johnson: Oh gosh – probably. Linda and I had a lot of time to research the role; she was able to meet people through the VA. We wanted to make a bit of an arc – in the beginning of the film she’s just happy to be home. As time unfolds and this gap of understanding expresses itself more, that gap amplifies.
Tribeca: Right. And as that gap amplifies, one of the things I thought the film did well was that it didn’t lurch into being overwrought or melodramatic, even though her life is really unraveling. How were you able to keep it feeling naturalistic?
Liza Johnson: I see that as a very generous question, so thank you. I did want to keep it in a non-melodramatic register. I think the conflicts and emotions of everyday life are actually very dramatic. My hope is that the film renders those feelings in a different way for the audience. I actually like films that are really melodramatic, but for this I wanted to not always tell people how to feel, to have something that felt unfamiliar or fresh about what is presented. What I hoped is that if it was less leading, with the swelling score and all that, you get thrown back on yourself and ask yourself, how do I feel?
Tribeca: You want the audience to be an active participant in the film. I think that’s an important way art cinema distinguishes itself from Hollywood cinema.
Liza Johnson: I don’t think it’s the opposite of Hollywood cinema – it does have to trade in certain audience emotions – but for me, it’s interesting to try to recalibrate where those feelings go, because I think when it defies your expectations a bit, you ask yourself, what do I think? How do I feel?
Tribeca: What is it about forcing the audience to question how they feel that is important in a work of art?
Liza Johnson: [Long pause] Such a smart question – I would like to live up to it. For a film like this, which traffics in realism, in a way, and either does or does not resonate in the world that we live in, and also because it does pertain to questions that we talk about in the register of policy or politics – you can be right or wrong about if you think the war was a bad idea, or your thoughts on the surge. Most of the ways we talk about that reality are couched with a right answer. For me, there are limits to that political conversation that are not always helpful – like on Crossfire, it’s pro! Con! Okay, settled, it’s one or the other. And most people already know how they feel about those things.
I think in order for people to figure out how they feel about these things, they have to be removed from the register of right answer/wrong answer. So by not using the kind of aesthetics that are like, “This is how you must feel here,” I hope that it does something different from this other register – which also does have a place; it’s not like I’m against people having policy conversations that are about right and wrong. But if the point of making a movie is to say something in a different way, then I kind of wanted to withdraw it from that right and wrong.
Tribeca: And it seems like also part of what you’re saying is, instead of putting it into a conversation with positions that already exist, the film is trying to have the audience explore a new realm so they can forge new positions of their own. Choosing new choices.
To switch topics for a moment – Michael Shannon is one of the best actors working right now. This was your first feature film. What was your working relationship with him like?
Liza Johnson: People often ask me if I find him intimidating, and I see why – he’s 6’4” and often plays scary characters – but he’s the warmest person, and all he wants is to make the film work, so he’s similar to other actors. I agree that he’s wildly talented, but I think sometimes people have this idea about him – but all he wants to know is what the movie is supposed to be like, so he can do his work.
Tribeca: What were the specifics of your process like, in terms of character work?
Liza Johnson: We talked about what the film would feel like, and who his character was, but we didn’t have a lot of time for elaborate rehearsals. I had a lot of time to do character research with Linda, because it took a while to get the film going, so we worked on backstory for her character, and did things she would know – we went and shot guns, for example. Mike’s schedule was especially compressed, so we tried to use that to our advantage and feel free.
It wasn’t improvised, but because we didn’t have time to really rehearse, it sort of felt like improv – we were just going with it, just trying to know who the characters were. We didn’t know exactly what would happen between people. So we tried to be confident that we could make these ephemeral feelings happen between the people. I’m sure another process could have worked well too, but this is what we had time for. And it produced some interesting ephemeral things.
IFP and Focus World will present an online interactive screening event to celebrate the digital release of Return: Liza Johnson will host a live screening Q+A via web-cam on February 28 at 8:00 pm ET. Visit constellation.tv/return to purchase your online ticket for $4.99.
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