A Lucid Dream: Interview with 'Untogether' Director Emma Forrest
Emma Forrest reflects on a plot similarity to David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, her love of the absence of narrative impetus in the cinema of Jim Jarmusch, and the joy of filming Jemima Kirke's face.
Freestyle Digital Media
8 Feb 2019 (US)Other
Emma Forrest's directorial feature debut Untogether (2018), tells the story of doctor and author Nick (Jamie Dornan) and writing prodigy Andrea (Jemima Kirke), whose one night stand continues as an undefined relationship. Having written her debut novel during a destructive phase in her life and now living with her sister Tara (Lola Kirke) in Los Angeles, Andrea struggles to write her follow-up book. Meanwhile, as Tara and boyfriend Martin (Ben Mendelsohn) begin to encounter relationship troubles, she tries to find solace in religion after meeting a charismatic Rabbi (Billy Crystal).
Forrest has worked as a music journalist, writing a column for The Sunday Times, and has published fiction and non-fiction works that include the the edited non-fiction anthology, Damage Control: Women on the Therapists, Beauticians, and Trainers Who Navigate Their Bodies (Harper Collins, 2007), the memoir Your Voice In My Head (Other Press, 2011), and the novels: Namedropper (Simon and Schuster, 1998), Thin Skin (Bloomsbury, 2002), and Cherries in the Snow (Three Rivers, 2005).
In conversation with PopMatters, Forrest discusses cinematic influences alongside personal experiences and dreams in defining her feature debut film.
Why film as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment for you personally?
… It has always been my comfort blanket since I was as little as I can remember, and the really useful thing is that somehow, my parents whether they meant to or not, let me watch things that were too grown up. So I think it [cinema] shaped me from a very young age, whether it was The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) when I was six, or Blue Velvet (1986) and Betty Blue (1986) when I was 12. At these pivotal ages I was exposed to things that I couldn't quite yet understand, but I could feel. I would get the feeling of what they were about and I think you end up with Untogether being one of those films that has a lot of texture and feeling, and I attribute that to how young I was when I started absorbing all of this.
C.G. Jung contextualised dreams as a means for us to solve the problems we cannot solve in our waking state. Picking up on your observation of the importance of your past cinematic experiences, would you consider cinema to be structured on a dream logic?
… I'm fascinated by Jung, lucid dreaming and synchronicity, and actually I set myself two goals for 2019. One is to write my first short story and the other is to figure out how to lucid dream. … And that I've cracked because I've made a movie.
Mulholland Drive (2001) is a touchstone film for me. I watch it every year because it is a lucid dream and to me that film is about people falling in and out of each other's dreams. Everyone's dreams are bleeding into each other and there's actually a lot of that in Untogether.
On that point, I'm fascinated by how people meet, end up spending their lives together, and raising a family in many cases because at some point they were children finding themselves, strangers to one another who ended up on a trajectory where their lives intersected. Is there such a thing as coincidence, or a divine or metaphysical orchestration of fate? I ask this because Untogether is about how our lives are influenced by other people.
I appreciate you saying that. Ben Mendelsohn said to me that he thinks my scenes in my life's work is how traumatised people attempt to create alternative families. … I hadn't seen Untogether in a while and when I watched it last night, I remembered that once the cat has the sex change, everyone's fortunes change and everything speeds up.
Everything goes wrong for Jamie without Jemima, and everything goes wrong for Jemima without Jamie, and Lola doesn't get what she wants from Billy Crystal's character. So when we were editing, I was like: "Yes, I didn't write it this way, but the cat and the surgery is the equivalent of the key being turned in Mulholland Drive, and you end up in that other world."
Ray Bradbury said, "Many people hear voices when no one is there. Some of them are called mad and are shut up in rooms where they stare at the walls all day. Others are called writers and they do pretty much the same thing." Do you find the idea agreeable that the story is your co-author, communicating its desires or intentions on a metaphysical or sub-conscious level?
… Honestly, a lot comes in my dreams. I always keep a notepad by the bed and as tired as I may be I force myself to write down what happens that night. A lot of the images you'll see in Untogether came from a dream, like the girl who eats the cucumbers from the eyes of the man she has just given a facial to, or the couple walking off and you staying with them and seeing them disappear and then reappear, disappear and reappear. … I have always had a very strong dream life, and I'd think that most filmmakers who have a strong voice probably [also] have a strong dream life.
Jemima Kirk as Andrea (official trailer screengrab / © Freestyle Digital Media)
Watching Untogether, I found myself thinking that I didn't care about the story, but rather I enjoyed spending time with Jemima Kirk's character, Andrea. There's something we take away from following and witnessing a character's experiences that could be connected to the idea of cinema as dream logic, and I feel sometimes we are too critical of plot and narrative structure, missing the point of what a film can or even should be something beyond the story itself.
Well, I'm so grateful that you see it that way. That's how I see it, and I think that's probably a rare way to see it. My favourite film of the last year would be Leave No Trace (2018), Debra Granik's film that felt like part of a dream. It's very slow and not much happens, but it does move somewhere -- it's like it has caught you up in a cloud that has carried you through the sky with it.
As a kid I always loved Jim Jarmusch's movies. It was the same thing where not a lot happens, there isn't a massive forward momentum, but you either want to be with them or you don't.
I knew that I wanted Jemima because that's a face I think people stay with, whether or not there are epic plot twists. It does come back to that face, and it was never not a joy to shoot that face. I think Rachel Weisz has the same thing, and I think Jemima could have the kind of career that Rachel has had.
Andrea remarks in one scene that her literary success happened during a dark period of her life, and having recovered she finds herself struggling with her next book. The discussion of creative expression and the creative individual is filled with romantic ideas. Do you consider it necessary to write what you know, in terms of emotion, and is pain and anxiety a motivation for storytelling?
… The things that I've written of value are always experienced through my imagination, and what I got to do with Untogether that felt really lovely was take some of my experiences and put them into other characters, including male characters…. Everyone was fluent and that was a really creative way to expand on my own experiences by saying: "Well this happened to me, what if it happened to him? Where would it take him?"
While your actors are prisms for your experiences, would you hope that your audience would be an extension of this act?
That would be such a wonderful thing because sadly, we all have books we've read where it feels like a character from a hundred years ago is describing something that you've felt and have never been able to properly put into words… With this [film] I think it felt like a song, that you have to let people hear it the way they want to hear it, and whatever you meant to say, if they are going to hear it and it benefits them, then I want that to happen.
Mulholland Drive is one of my favourite films, but I think you should leave that film when you think it ends. There are different endings in that film, and I wouldn't judge you for walking out 15-minutes before it's technically over. And weirdly, I don't mind what this film means to a connected viewer, so long as it means something.
As we tend to understand more fully in hindsight, has Untogether been a contemplative act that has offered you a different perspective on the experiences you put into the characters?
Yeah, especially since I used Jemima as my lead, and I didn't realise it at first until 15 different people said to me: "Jemima looks very much like you." When I look at her I can see that she looks like an incredibly beautiful, refined version of me. … There was a prettying up of past events because of the actress I had in the lead, but I'd say it's more of a drifting away. With a book, when you process something dark, you are literally closing the book on it and putting it on the shelf. With film it's different -- it's in the sky, not frozen on a shelf, but it's sort of drifted a way.
Jamie Dornan as Nick (official trailer screengrab / © Freestyle Digital Media)
Were the actors affected in any way by the interaction with this story that comes from your personal experiences and dreams?
… We didn't have that conversation, and I think they are all so skilled and professional that it's probably to some extent just a job. But I do imagine it was helpful for Jemima, who was going through her divorce at the time, and so to get to work on someone else's pain was probably something of a gift for her.
The camera is a powerful tool for the filmmaker. How did you employ it to communicate the ideas as well as the emotions that give the characters their impetus?
Well, Autumn Durald [Director of Photography] is a genius, especially at natural light, and what I wanted was the sunrise and sunset, the weather and the shapes in the sky to be a parallel narrative to the characters state of mind or not. So we did a lot of outdoor shooting and used a lot of natural light, pretty much exclusively in fact.
But Autumn is so experienced and I was self-aware enough to say: "Look, I do have a strong personal vision, but I'm completely new at this and I need a commander in chief, so that I can work with my actors." Autumn is a technical genius and I would imagine this is the last low budget film anyone's going to get from her for because I know she's really exploding. She also works with [Gia] Coppola and she has told me that she just likes to work with directors who have a strong personal style and vision, because they're not trying to pull something out of your head, where she's trying to understand what it is you want.
While a film exists in the moment it's seen by an audience, their discussion in which ideas and impressions are exchanged is also a moment in which a film exists. But as the filmmaker, is there a time when the film has felt most alive to you?
… It's sort of the equivalent of how music feels in headphones versus how it feels in a car with the top down, versus how it feels in a stadium. The film definitely feels different to me and useful in different ways when I'm alone in the edit room with my editor, Sophie Corra, versus in a packed screening, or in a hush-hush super secret preview screening with ten people I trust. But yeah, some of the loveliest times watching it would just be with Sophie and there were other times when it felt really great to give it away to an audience to connect with, to then walk out and come back at the end like Jemima and Jamie walking off into. It wasn't the sunset, it was the sunrise.