Doing Bad Things for the Right Reasons: Director Thomas Rennier on 'The Weight'
"I've always been drawn to stories about people that got into a circumstance, but had good intentions when they started," says Rennier.
After Julie's (MJ Brackin) ex-husband Thad (Clayne Crawford) goes missing, she is pulled into a small town crime ring. When the local sheriff, who is in love her refuses to help find him, Julie is forced to hire a private investigator to find Thad.
Rennier's description is apt, here the crime story bleeds into the drama, the former provocation for the couples personal angst, as Thad finds himself a prisoner within the cycle of cause and effect. The small Missouri town setting as a stage for the drama to play out is a reminder of the aura of the intimate setting versus the hustle and bustle of the urban space. In spite of the presence of the law, The Weight echoes the spirituality of the western, of that greater independence for man to shape his own destiny and confront the consequences of his actions in a waltz or struggle with fate versus free will.
In conversation with PopMatters, Rennier reflects on the difficulty of not crafting a straight genre picture and the pressure on filmmakers to make a singular choice that compromises their creative voice. He also discusses the process of discovering the film by way of breaking it and then rebuilding it, the advantages and disadvantages of knowledge and awareness, and experiencing frustration with the film's audience.
Why film as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
There wasn't necessarily an ah-hah! moment where I watched a Stanley Kubrick film and decided I wanted to be a filmmaker. My brother made films when he was younger. He's six years older than I, and when he was in High School he was always shooting films with his VHS camera around the house. I always hung around and he'd put me into some of them as an actor.
When I was the same age I just did the same thing -- picked up a camera and went to shoot with my friend. It was more of an innate thing that happened as opposed to something that I decided I wanted to do. I had a lot of fun doing that growing up and then I continued that into college and afterwards I decided I was going to keep on going and try to make more movies.
How has you appreciation for the craft of filmmaking changed from film to film?
The way I view and think about films has changed a lot since I was younger and as I make films, the perspective is always changing. I first started to make films simply to make people laugh, and I think there's huge power in that. But the films never lasted. We'd look back on them five years later and feel like we have no relation to the film anymore. It didn't last the test of time, even five years.
So one thing that's evolved for me is trying to understand why a film lasts. What makes a film hold up ten years later? And that's always going to come down to theme; making people laugh isn't quite enough. When you look at a film like Superbad (2007), it's full of penis jokes and curse words. But the heart of the story is about two friends coping with going to different colleges, and moving to different points in their life. It's a real struggle and that's why I can still watch that film. At the heart of Inception (2010), behind all of the amazing VFX and mind-bending plot is a man that just wants to be with his wife and see his kids again. It's about love. So as I progress and evolve I'm hoping I can also find those themes and put a real heart in the story that will back up an interesting plot.
What was the genesis of The Weight and why should this movie exist?
Well it started off on a more superficial level. I just wanted to shoot a feature in my hometown of Missouri and that's how the idea started. I have always been influenced by the Coen Brothers, so I drew from Blood Simple (1984). I wanted to make a thriller, to make something like that and represent this area, to show people my world.
On a deeper level of why I think the movie should exist, the story is about a guy that's doing bad things for the right reasons. We pick up the story after he has been divorced. I've always been drawn to stories about people that got into a circumstance, but had good intentions when they started. In this movie for example, he's trying to make money and get a second job, he's having infertility issues and then it [blows up] into something much worse than that, like a Breaking Bad (2008-2013). I've always been drawn to these characters, and seeing the juxtaposition, here for example of the voiceover, hearing one thing that Clay is thinking, then seeing his action and him trying to reconcile that and decide he wants to go back to his ex-wife. Then he's in over his head and this is all a bad idea.
How do you look upon the place The Weight occupies within the context of the crime film?
Well I wouldn't say it's a straight crime film or a straight genre film, which has been a little bit of an issue. I actually got a note from somebody that said it's a combination of the Coen Brothers if they made a film with Terence Malick, because there's a lot of drama involved and there's a voiceover. That might be a slight problem for us. I love drama so much and all these distributors are looking for straight genre pictures. I love the noir thriller, but I don't think ours goes through it that way, it's almost more of a drama.
Is the industry's inclination to package films in a simple way, rather than acknowledging genre mixité problematic for filmmakers?
It's a huge problem to be honest because they want everything packaged exactly in a certain genre. It has to be romance or thriller, or action, and all the marketing of film forces us as filmmakers to pick one. Instead of just saying I'm interested in making this story that should be told or I can relate to this story personally, you have to be thinking: Okay, does this have gunshots in it so that Lionsgate will buy it? Does this have enough sex in it? Does it have enough horror elements? I'm afraid it makes people sacrifice their art in order to appease distributors and sales agents in order to pay their investors down the road.
With the pressures and restraints that confront the filmmaker, do you ever sense a disconnect between critics and the audience, specifically the failure to take these considerations into account when appraising a film?
No, I don't think that's as big of a problem as far as critics go. It's ultimately our jobs as filmmakers with those restraints from a distributor or executive producer to still make a good film. And if it is a little unfair, it's that a guy like Christopher Nolan for example, or somebody more established like the Coen Brothers do have creative freedom to do what they want, and no one is going to tell them no. But they have also earned that over the years by making a ton of money at the box office for distributors. I don't think there's any disconnect as far as the film critic and not understanding our restraints. I just think that's something we have to deal with and to make the best product possible.
Robert Leeshock in The Weight (courtesy of Prodigy PR)
Filmmakers have told me that editing is the best training ground for a director. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on how your experiences of how editing has influenced your approach to filmmaking?
It definitely changed my approach on set. I've been an editor my whole life, that's what I trained for at school. I'm still an editor and when I'm not making films, I edit for television shows. I edited this movie as well. So the beauty is that it does influence what's on set in good and in bad ways. The good way is that it saves a lot of time. I know exactly what's going to work and I can picture the cut coming together as I'm shooting. I do so many one takes because of that. The downside is you know all the tricks you can get away with, and so sometimes you cut corners while you are on set directing because you know you can cover or fix that in VFX, instead of just taking five minutes to get the shot correctly. [Editing] can be a pro, but sometimes it can be a con.
Is the process of learning to make films structured around honing one's instincts so that you are able to eventually function instinctively?
Oh yeah, you have to trust your instincts all the time. You can't be indecisive on a film set whatsoever. You'll lose the respect of everyone around you if you're not sure what you want, or you're overanalysing and want to shoot it five ways. Usually you have to trust your gut instinct, and usually the first gut instinct is the right one.
There are a few moments when you are not absolutely sure what you want to do, in as far as is the scene working?, did the shot or line work?, because sometimes when you see it, it's a lot different from how you imagined it. You have to take those few moments every once in a while to talk to your assistant director, talk to the cast and work through it. But 95 percent of the time you've just got to trust your instincts that you chose the right shot, that everybody did their job right, and it's going to work because there's no time to second guess.
Interviewing Alice Lowe about the editing process of Prevenge (2016), she explained: "…in the edit you've got to make the film worse before you can make it better. You have to explore every avenue and say, 'Okay, now the film is as bad as it is ever going to be, we have to not be scared to pull it apart again and reassemble', and actually that's a normal part of the edit." Would you agree with this idea and is it in the edit that the actual film is made?
Yeah I agree with that. I do think there are three phases where a movie is completely made. You always think it's done, but it never is. The first one is obviously the script -- you are working on that for months. Then you think you have a perfect script and you get onto production, meet your cast and all the people come to life. Then it's the second time of: Oh, this could be better, or if I have a little bit of collaboration maybe we could improve this. But the edit is the ultimate and final one. You have to say everything and I tried the movie so many different ways – well maybe we should make it straight linear… No, lets keep it non-linear.
In my opinion you just have to keep breaking it over and over to know what the best version of it is. That's how I like to do it. It's not because you think you didn't write it correctly, but you just want to see whether it makes it better. I read that Damien Chazelle on La La Land (2016) literally tried to cut every song out of the movie, to see if they were necessary, and he put them back in. That's kind of the same way I feel, and I ended up cutting 14 scenes. So I do think you have to break it and to put it back together for sure.
MJ Brackin in The Weight (courtesy of Prodigy PR)
The idea of choice is interesting as to how it pertains to the film. Whilst you have spoken of your creative choices, within the film itself the character makes choices that become for him a prison of cause and effect.
Speaking specifically to that, it did come off that way a little bit more than I wanted, especially in the original cut, which you probably never saw. I felt like he was reacting too much and when we went in to do a little re-edit, that was when I decided to add his voiceover. We changed a little bit at the end to have him leave the voicemail on Julie's phone because I wanted him to make that decision to leave the motel room. That was really important to me because the original cut were things just happening to him for the whole film. They still do, and 80 percent of the time he's just dealing with the choice he made before the film started. But that's why I wanted to change the current cut so that he made the choice to leave his motel room and to go get his life back, because I didn't like the idea that he never made that change before the end of the movie.
I wish I had a little bit more of him making that change at the end, but I think it still works. The good thing about having Clay in the movie playing the character of Thad is he comes off really well as a vulnerable character, and I think the voiceover helps.
Silence is an essential attribute of an actor, the value placed on presence and body language over words and action. Clayne creates that sympathetic connection, but it is one forged through his silent vulnerability.
That's definitely his skill. He's an incredible actor and I'm surprised he hasn't been in some bigger things. He's in Lethal Weapon (2016-) right now on TV and he does a good job with that, but to me he should be one of the biggest stars. I was cutting lines while we were on set. We would look at it together and he'd say: "I don't know if I need to say this exposition right here." I'd be: "Are you sure?" And we'd run the rehearsal and I'd think: Yeah, he can cover that subtext with just his eyes, or a look he gives Julie. He definitely has that skill set and that's one of the reasons I wanted to cast him after I saw him in the TV show Rectify (2013-2016).
A common idea is that there are only a limited number of archetypal stories that are being retold time and again. As a filmmaker, are you able to use the cinelitéracy of the audience to tell the story?
Oh yeah for sure, and that happened throughout the movie. There are times where you realise that maybe I don't need to show this scene, maybe we can cut this line at the end of the scene because the audience can connect the dots on their own. They know the story, they've seen these angles and they may not know it, but subconsciously they can connect: Okay, so you're going here, that makes sense just for him doing that. So you don't really need to give them the exposition because it's overkill.
Speaking with Carol Morley for The FallingThe Falling (2014), she explained: "You take it 90 percent of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves: their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it." If the audience are the ones that complete it, does it follow that there is a transfer in ownership?
I do think that the audience completes a film. I've noticed this even through focus group testing, that people already have preconceptions and certain ideas based on their life and previous movie experiences, of what will and should happen in the movie. At our premiere the audience frustrated me! 100 people were dead silent and really into it, and then three people would laugh where I didn't want them to laugh. I didn't know what was wrong with those people. So yes, an audience member is going to interpret and complete a film, each in their own way, which I think creates a transfer of ownership. As long as the film is in my edit bay, it's my baby, but once it's released into the world, the audience owns it, and they're going to make it, break it, and interpret it however they see fit.
Interviewing filmmaker Christoph Behl he 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?
Is that referring to making the story or the actual physical process of making the movie? Because the stress of making a movie will definitely change you. As far as the story and going through the process of making this world, seeing these characters, I don't think that changes me, before or after. I'd say more the actual physical 24- hour days of non-stop working, the way you pour your heart and soul, your sweat every day for two years into something... I'd say yeah, it does change you [laughs], especially living with this film for two years. It changes a lot of things.
Do you find the process of leaving a film behind difficult? Does it linger with you or are you able to move on quickly?
No, it's a long process to leave it behind in my opinion. Maybe not for bigger filmmakers because they have so many people helping them on post and everything, but on my level it's really hard. It's your baby, and it has been my baby for three years if we are talking about the script, pre-production, production and post-production. We premiered at a film festival and I saw two little things, but eventually you have to just let it go and say: This is it, this is what the world's going to see. So you do have to move on, but it's a really long process. Fortunately, I'm working on a new script right now and starting to finally let go and make that transition.