Mitzi Peirone’s self-proclaimed “riddle”, Braid (2018), sees lifelong friends Petula (Imogen Waterhouse) and Tilda (Sarah Hay) flee their Manhattan apartment following a random drug bust. Choosing the mansion of childhood friend and agoraphobic heiress Daphne (Madeline Brewer) as their temporary hideout, they resume their roles of make-believe play from their childhood. But with Daphne teetering on the edge of sanity, their choice of hideout inevitably becomes a stage for madness, violence and bloodshed.
The directorial feature debut of its filmmaker is a continuation of her questioning reality through the blurring of reality and dream state that was present in her short film Chaosmos (2016). This earlier work, which saw Peirone play a character called Petula, was also centred upon three young friends and a childhood incident.
Graduating the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City in 2012, actress Madeline Brewer has appeared in Orange Is the New Black (2013), Hemlock Grove (2014-15), Men Against Fire (2016), an episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, as well as The Handmaid’s Tale (2017-18). Alongside her television credits, she also plays the lead in doppelgänger erotic webcam thriller-horror Cam (2018), which is currently touring the festival circuit alongside Braid. She also played Ali, a comedienne whose desire to perform is thwarted by the memory of her father’s misfortune in Lindsey Copeland’s Hedgehog (2017), that echoes the performance and make-believe games of Cam and Braid.
In conversation with PopMatters ahead of Braid’s European Premiere at Arrow Video FrightFest 2018, Peirone and Brewer discuss the relationship between the performer and the technical aspects of production. The director also reflects on crafting a film that is closer to real life in its take on the hero’s journey, and the intent to counter the passivity found in the movie theatre.
Why film as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
Mitzi Peirone: For me filmmaking and storytelling is a way to help people feel less alone about their own demons, and Braid specifically deals with the idea of uncertainty about your own identity and reality. We created a world that, from my actors’ extraordinary acting, to cinematography and storytelling, it feels like reality is crumbling all around you. It’s meant to create a sense of discombobulation, euphoria and instability, and I think once in everyone’s lives, it informs your encounter with that feeling of not knowing who you are, and what you are meant to do. Or what any of this means, and even if what you are living — could you call it real?
If all you had was your perception of reality that is subjective, then what is reality besides what you imagine it to be, or the way you feel it to be? Every single time you’ve remembered something, you are remembering the last time you remembered it. So besides the present moment, what you have in your past are just memories, and the future is nothing but a dream. So I’m thinking about all of this and how much our perception of reality, and our imagination is shaping the world that we live in.
I think about social media, we are constantly living our own ideas of ourselves, and the fabrication is sort of like kids playing make believe. Things are not as they are, they are as we want them and believe them to be, and it has been this philosophical, this sort of existential monologue that I have had with myself that generated Braid.
Brewer: A lot of what Mitzi just said is how I approach acting. I want to explore the depths of my mind; I want to explore the reality that I’m living in and conversely other realities, and selves that I want to experience that I’m not afforded the opportunity.
But as an actor, I can live several different lives in my one lifetime and I just find that to be a fascinating thing. With Braid especially, it pushed the limits of my mind because she wrote a script that is so cerebral, but also so full of heart. It forced me to look at myself as a person, to dive a little deeper into those far reaches of my brain. Acting requires of you some serious digging into your person, into your heart and into your mind, and that’s what attracts me to it and that is how I approach it.
Peirone: Storytelling and specifically filmmaking is a powerful medium that involves almost all of the senses. It’s a great way to surrender to someone else’s story, and come out of the other side feeling hopefully a little bit shaken if you need to be shaken up, or comforted if you need it to be a bit more wholesome and complete. Even when specifically facing your demons, and realising that your fears are your own and everyone else’s.
Is there an element of being blind to some degree as an actor, wherein you cannot be fully aware of all the aspects of the technical process that is merging with your performance? Especially when you consider that entering the edit, the film is in its raw form and is then polished through the editorial choices and the addition of music.
Brewer: In my personal life and as an actor, I like to come from a place of information that allows me to put all of that in, shake away what I don’t need and leave with what is only necessary for the scene. I want to learn about camera angles and cinematography. I want to learn about direction and that’s why I ask so many questions because when I’m working I’m constantly learning. It’s not a passive experience for me, so that’s part of the reason I want to know everything.
But also because if there is something I can ever so subtly gesture, a turn or a look, it makes the moment come across in a more impactful way, based on where the camera is to my performance. Then it starts getting the story across in just a much more personal and clearer way.
I’ve been an audience member and I’m a huge fan of film and TV; I love it. So I want to understand what’s impactful and illicit any sort of response from the audience. I want people to feel things when they watch what I’m in, and I want them to see themselves, to question and react. I don’t want their’s to be a passive experience. So I dive deeply into my understanding of it, and that’s where I approach it from. Saying lines to the camera works for some people, it does not work for me, and I can’t pretend that there’s not a camera two feet from my face [laughs].
Peirone: This was my first feature film, so a lot of the things as far as the process was what I thought made sense. I come from a theatre background; I went to theatre school and I acted. As an actor I always needed to know what was happening because actors are way more aware on set than what general opinion believes them to be. They need to know the set up, not everyone, but I figured that Maddie would want to know what her shots and what the camera angles were, and what the camera seeks.
She was always very eager to know on set and I was happy to tell her what was happening, and it actually made her performance better. I wouldn’t say that she was ever blind to what the camera was doing because Maddie specifically was hyper-aware of that, changing her performance, her body language and blocking according to what we were doing.
Speaking with filmmaker Michael Pearce, he referenced French director Jean-Pierre Melville’s desire for viewers to come away from his films unsure whether they understood them. By the end of Braid there’s a feeling of the need to re-watch the film again, but was it the intent to create ambiguity and even confusion, and as a consequence deny the audience a passive experience?
Peirone: Now that we are doing this interview together, back to back, it makes me realise how much of our method went into the content of the movie. So on the idea of not being passive, Greek tragedy was born to help the audience go through a type of catharsis of some of the most violent things that life could throw at you. I don’t want to say it’s necessarily a problem, but I believe that often the movie theatre has almost turned into a more passive place of numbness. You go in there and you eat popcorn, maybe you keep checking your phone and you are never so completely engaged to the point of forgetting yourself, which I think is ideally what film should help you to do.
Braid’s nature is extremely cerebral and challenging, it’s a constant riddle, a visual poem that’s going in and out of reality. It definitely has a very riddling narrative and that’s suppose to keep the audience engaged and always questioning what’s happening. This is the kind of movie you want to watch again because once you get to the end, going back to the beginning helps you catch all the little clues we left along the way.
Film is a playground where we get to explore the darker shades of ourselves, as well as those darker aspects of sympathy. A reason for wanting to rediscover the film is one you cannot necessarily put into words. It’s that sense of feeling that derives from not only the film’s aesthetic, but the performances and the morally dubious characters, whom one enjoys spending time with.
Peirone: To call them morally dubious is correct, and to me they’re a mixture of Tarantino and Kubrickesque villains. They are living life without thinking about the consequences, and whether they’re hurting other people or themselves. They’re so intoxicated with their needs and their fantasies, the best way I can put it is that’s it’s like this baroque bravado. It’s decadent and excessive, but they are so viscerally human, and the fact that they’re so drunk on life basically, with their desires, dreams and passions. It’s infectious and the audience lives vicariously through them because it’s always like what’s the worst thing possible that I could do right now, and they do it!
It could be ascertained that films exist on a dream logic and are psychological constructs. The concept of Braid being a dream is interesting when we consider that we are exposed to any dream once, whereas with film we can revisit the dream itself, albeit our understanding and the way we experience it is always in a state of flux. Dreams inherently possess their own logic, and a source of friction with film as a dream is in our conscious awareness, in which we try to make sense of it by applying the logic of our conscious state. This is important to remember both in the immediacy of experiencing Braid and in hindsight.
Peirone: Just so you know, this is what’s going to happen to your brain. Don’t be scared, enjoy it. I think you’re absolutely right, and there’s no proof that we are alive in reality rather than in a dream right now. I don’t see how people can be so convinced of the difference between the two. We could be living in a dream right now, living in someone’s imagination or a simulation, and not know that. And one of the initial tag lines that I had written for the movie was: ‘When you wake up, do your dreams go to sleep?’
So it was this idea of dreams and reality being very much one, and breaking and subverting the standard structure of filmmaking and storytelling. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a beginning, middle and an end. I think that Braid’s structure is a new takeover of the hero’s journey.
It’s not so much a perfect circle as the flawed hero going from point ‘A’ into the underworld, seeking something and then re-emerging into the real world victorious. It’s a never-ending cycle, and with Braid it becomes a rabbit hole, as these three girls spiral because to me, that’s a little bit closer to real life. You have problems and you don’t wake up the following day and they are gone. You relapse and you keep on working on yourself, and dreams seep into reality just as much as you dream about the stuff that you think about. So in the end it’s all generated in your conscious.
Brewer: I couldn’t say that any better. I dream very vividly, and I find my dreams in my perceived reality and pieces of my everyday are in my dreams. It’s sometimes hard to tell the difference, and why should I?
Peirone: Yeah, we don’t know what real level of temporality is generated in the physical world; we don’t. We say we believe we are living some meaningful tangible life, but our dream selves could be living just as much an important life, and we wouldn’t know that… we could be our dreams.
When you approach cinema to create what you describe as a “riddle” and philosophically driven beyond a momentary and entertaining pleasure, how difficult is the process of securing distribution?
Peirone: Well whenever you make a movie, you never know what’s going to happen. All you can do is give your heart and soul, believe in it, and have fun during it because it’s going to end, and once you are done with it, it’s out into the world. I encourage every filmmaker, every artist, every actor to let it go because you can’t make people love and understand — or hate — anything. It’s their own journey and you shouldn’t ever be effected by whatever people say, whether it’s good or bad. It’s your moral compass, I did good and I had fun, and it meant something to me, that’s all that matters. It’s not all that matters, but that has to come first.
After that, I knew Braid would have been received in not a shocking way, but it would have ruffled some feathers so to speak, and the reviews would have been something like: A shocking tale of decadence and disturbing beauty. But thankfully, although this movie is bold in every possible way, from the storytelling structure to the way we funded it, to its narrative and the visuals etc., it’s finding its audience .We have gotten into over seven festivals and counting. It’s selling out every show and the movie is going into theatres next year, which is great because not that many independent films get a chance to have a theatrical release.
Filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process, and should the experience of watching a film offer the audience a transformative experience? Is this a means to measure the merit of a piece of filmmaking?
Brewer: I personally feel that with any film and with any character there’s a level of learning and self-exploration. But it’s kind of everybody is in the trenches for twenty-some days together and it’s a special experience, so it’s impossible not to learn from and value that.
But I don’t think it’s a way to measure the merits of a film, necessarily, because it’s all so subjective. Someone may watch Braid and think that it’s the most brilliant, transformative experience of their entire life, and another person may watch Braid and think that was nonsense. I have no idea. It’s all just what someone is open to at that time. … It’s just getting what you have inside out there to the world, which you are credited if someone is affected by it and transformed. If they are not, they’re not. But you do it for the people who see themselves in you and your art, and what you are making. You do it for the people who just seem or feel transported, and that’s the way I view it.
Peirone: For any creative process, I would hope for every single person in this world to be able to make a movie or to do something that is creative and challenging and transcendental — almost to having a vision. Literally starting from nothing. It’s like being one of the first explorers in the 1400s going from Europe into the unknown, into the Americas or India. You start off and you have this dream, and then you talk about this dream and other people start seeing the same vision, the same ideas that you have. And you sail away into the unknown, not knowing what’s going to happen. Then, with perseverance and hard work, it happens, and it is without a doubt the most tremendously joyous experience, at least that I’ve had, directing and making movies. It’s what brings me the greatest joy.