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Exclusive: Director Liza Johnson Talks Return

A lot of military stories ladle on audio-visual artifice, in an attempt to create an impactful audience identification with the disorienting nature of war or its psychological after-effects. “Return,” however, is a subjective document that plays out against the banality of everyday existence, wherein crisis unfolds in slow motion, and sometimes almost imperceptible strokes. The film stars Linda Cardellini as Kelli, a Rust Belt supply line soldier who comes back from a tour of duty and experiences a vague, free-floating sense of dislocation from her plumber husband Mike (Michael Shannon) and two young girls, and in the din of domestic homecoming dramas, the film is a striking, humane, low-fi offering. Speaking recently by phone with director Liza Johnson from her home in Brooklyn, ShockYa had a chance to discuss the 25-day shoot of her narrative debut effort, as well as her path to filmmaking, her planned next project, and the secrets of playing drunk on screen. The conversation is excerpted below:

ShockYa: How much of a benefit was your work-shopping of the screenplay, which took place at the Sundance Writers and Directors Lab?

Liza Johnson: It was really helpful. We work-shopped it there maybe three summers ago, and I actually wrote a whole new version of the script after that workshop. They bring in a few actors, and it’s very performance-focused. You shoot it and also think about the cinematic aspects, but unless you’re doing a film that takes place at a ski lodge the emphasis is really going to be on working with actors. I guess that’s when I found out that actors are kind of the best readers that you could ever have, as a screenwriter, because they are so intense about what the story is and who their character is. Anything that I had felt specified about those characters, I sort of realized that I needed to write that in the script or else the actors would do it for me. They would just insist that you know high-level detail about the characters, and that helped put a good sort of pressure on me as a writer.

ShockYa: I’ve worked with a lot of writers who enjoy placing some of that burden on actors — having them write character histories, or experiential paragraphs about, say, their character’s first kiss — but it sounds like you had to craft some fairly elaborate back stories.

LJ: Yes, and then when we started working on the film — which was of course with a different cast — I felt like we went through a lot of that process again with Linda, where she brought her own research to the project. She met a lot of people who’d had experiences in the military, and talked about their coming back from deployment. She also did a lot of things to specify the character. I think it’s a script that relies a lot on subtext, and her performance really maximizes things that are silent or quiet in the screenplay. So I guess what I’m trying to say is that what you’re saying is also true, in that she did a lot of work to create that character which became very important to the film, but that workshop process helped me really specify and shape the character in a way that helped me hone it and hand it off to Linda.

ShockYa: Tell me a little bit more about your background. You’re still a professor of art at Williams College, is that right?

LJ: Yes, we just had the first day of school yesterday.

ShockYa: Is that stressful or anxiety-producing at all for you? Or just fun, since you’re not a student?

LJ: I like it, it’s a good job. All the independent filmmakers that I know have another job, too. (laughs) So for me, it’s been a very supportive job, and I feel fortunate to have work that I find meaningful.

ShockYa: With an occupation like a dentist or many other jobs, there’s a much more rigidly prescribed career track, of which people have a sense. But I think there’s probably a lot of misconceptions in folks’ minds about what the life of a director or independent filmmaker entails. You have a background in visual arts, so how do you feel that’s shaped your work, if at all, and was filmmaking something that was a target, or rather something that was… well, not a happy accident, but a resultant [landing place], given your interests?

LJ: That’s so interesting, and a thoughtful question. I would say it’s definitely a place that I ended up, but in an organic way, as you say. It’s not an accident, but I definitely didn’t grow up as a kid thinking I wanted to be a film director. I was working differently for a while, doing work that might be considered more avant garde film, or you would be inclined to see in a gallery or museum. But it’s always been something that worked with performers. For the recent years I’ve done things that have a really cinematic grammar and cinematic feel, and are shot on film, but work in what most people perceive to be a documentary environment, with real people — or non-professional actors is I guess the more appropriate term. And so those works that have been functioning like more you would see in a short film context — they’re really related. It’s not hard to see how they relate in style to this film. But I guess it’s because the exhibition context and economic underpinnings between the visual arts and film [worlds] is so separate that it feels very different. And in order to come in and make this longer [piece] that’s realized in a different way and functions as a movie, I did have to make some new friends and introduce myself [in a] new context. (laughs) And Sundance was very helpful with that too, because a lot of my friends are more writers or art people. Sundance helped introduce me to a lot of people who worked in this other arena.

ShockYa: The simple word “return” has a relaxed connotation that the movie robustly embodies. A lot of military “coming home”-type stories could be categorized as stories of re-entry, with more dramatic flair. …This is a very laid back portrait of return in some ways, and one of the things that’s kind of enchanting [about it] is that we feel a disconnection that is in Kelli’s mind but don’t see her flashbacks or anything like that. Was that part and parcel with your first idea of the movie?

LJ: Totally. That’s a really thoughtful way to think about it. I like a lot of those movies that you’re talking about, and it comes from somewhere important, that they do show those flashbacks. But I also think it’s a sort of wish fulfillment, because I think when you’re a soldier or anyone who has a really different set of experiences from those around them, you wish you could transport people seamlessly into this other world that you would like to explain to them but can’t. That was the problem that was of interest to me for the film. I do find it very dramatically interesting, where it’s not staged through violence or melodrama, but it does create a lot of dramatic tension in Kelli’s life that she doesn’t have this perfect way of making the people around her understand what own experiences are. That is actually what her problem is in the movie — how can she be in her world and deal with the fact that she can no longer truly make herself understood to [those around her], and possibly herself? For that reason, I thought it would express her problem better if I didn’t show all these elements of the world that she can’t explain.

ShockYa: So this is a bit weird, but I also have to commend you on the film’s drunk scenes (with Cardellini and John Slattery) —

LJ: (laughs)

ShockYa: I’ve talked with many actors about this, and the consensus seems to be that the more authentic way of playing drunk is to outwardly portray someone who is trying really hard to play sober. Was there lots of research personal there? Or what precisely was your direction?

LJ: (laughs) I definitely think the actors in the film deserve the credit for having the skill to do what you’re saying. I can’t remember if Linda and John were among them, but I remember that people on our set did say the exact same thing you did, about playing sober rather than playing drunk. (pause) Sorry, I guess that I was just drawing on the fact that John’s character on “Mad Men” is drunk all the time too. (laughs) The only thing I really have to say to that is that it’s a testament to their craft, because it’s a complicated state to register and work out. Oh, and the other thing people told me that’s really hard is acting like you’re waking up — [that’s] apparently really hard.

ShockYa: Wrapping up, your next project is an adaptation of an Alice Munro short story (called “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage”), is that right?

LJ: Yes, it’s a really beautiful story and the adaptation is written by Mark Poirier, who’s also a really nice literary writer. I guess it has a few things in common with this film. It’s also a really performance-driven piece, very character-driven. That was my favorite thing about working on this film — working on the performances — and I feel like that script really presents an opportunity (to do that again). It’s an ensemble piece, but it really has one giant lead and is a good opportunity for a performer, which is the most exciting thing for me. Alice has serious plotting, and everything is always really forward-moving [in her work], but it’s also very everyday — it feels dramatic, but the drama isn’t located in some crazy outburst or melodrama, because everyday life is full of suspense and intrigue. We’re casting that now, so I’m excited and hopeful that it will work out soon.

Written by: Brent Simon

Liza Johnson

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A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brent Simon is a three-term president of LAFCA, a contributor to Screen International and Magill's Cinema Annual, and film editor of H Magazine. He cannot abide a world without U2 and pizza.

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