People who seemingly have the most fulfilling lives can often times experience the most despair when they discover their existence has been built on a lie. Disillusionment arises when secrets that threaten their pristine presence in both their homes and society can ultimately lead them to question their relationships and sense of identity. What begins as a wife’s frantic search for her seemingly perfect husband who has gone missing, eventually exposes the harrowing revelation that he’s not as noble as everyone once believed, in the new psychological thriller, ‘Claire in Motion.’
Filmmaking team Lisa Robinson and Annie J. Howell reunited to make the compelling ‘Claire in Motion,’ which marks the second movie they worked on together, after they previously collaborated on the 2011 comedy, ‘Small, Beautifully Moving Parts.’ In addition to writing the script for, and directing, their new drama, the two both also served as producers on their upcoming film together, much like they did on their first feature.
Breaking Glass Pictures will release the thriller in select theaters and On Demand this Friday. The nationwide theatrical and On Demand distribution comes after ‘Claire in Motion’ was honored with the Narrative Spotlight Audience Award at last year’s SXSW, and was also chosen as an Official Selection in the New American Cinema section of last year’s Seattle International Film Festival.
Set three weeks after the mysterious disappearance of a Ohio professor, Paul (Chris Beetem), ‘Claire in Motion’ follows his wife, the title character (Betsy Brandt), as she becomes upset that the police have ended their investigation. But Claire slowly and painfully realizes that it may be time for her and their son, Connor (Zev Haworth), to accept that the family’s patriarch may never come home, and begin their grieving process.
But Claire remains the only person who hasn’t truly given up on finding out what happened to her husband. However, she starts to question if she ever truly knew the father of her son, as she soon discovers his troubling secrets. One of the biggest mysteries that Claire, who also works as a professor at the same college, uncovers about Paul is that he has formed a close bond with an alluring, yet manipulative, graduate student, Allison (Anna Margaret Hollyman). As Connor grows fonder of Allison, and more weary of his mother’s determination to continue looking for his missing father, Claire begins to question her own identity, during an emotional time of uncertainty and loss.
Howell and Robinson generously took the time recently to talk about writing and directing ‘Claire in Motion’ together during an exclusive phone interview. Among other things, the filmmakers discussed how even though they aren’t personally connected to a mission person case, they felt they could still realistically capture and showcase the dire situation that Claire is experiencing with the disappearance of her husband. The directors also mentioned how they felt that Brandt was the perfect actress to portray the title protagonist, as she could naturally understand the character’s diverse range of emotions, including the pain and confusion of her husband’s mysterious choices.
ShockYa (SY): ‘Claire in Motion’ marks the second time you co-wrote a script together, after the 2011 comedy, ‘Small, Beautifully Moving Parts.’ Why did you decide to work together on another screenplay together? What was the process of creating and penning the story for your new film together?
Annie J. Howell (AJH): We were basically inspired in the very early stages by our location. I live in New York now, but for six years, I lived in Athens, Ohio with my family. It’s a really beautiful and strange, but in a good way, area. It’s a Gothic-inspired town in the Appalachian Mountains of Southern Ohio.
Athens has these amazing locations, as well as this insular culture. It provides a context that isn’t on the screen all that much. Some professor stories are told in this context, but they’re not set in this part of the country. So we started to think about what would be good to set here.
Having a university there, and making (Claire) a professor at a certain time in her life, was something we found to be appealing. She thought she knew everything, as it seemed secure. She was coping in her relationships and her job when this tragedy upends that.
We didn’t have any experience with any kind of missing persons scenario personally. But we knew it was a dire enough situation emotionally that we could do it. We knew we wanted to do the work to create suspense. But we also wanted to give her some internal reflection on who she is, and who the people around her are, and we thought that might be able to resonate universally.
SY: Speaking of setting the film in the world of the Appalachian Ohio college town, the story’s distinct setting includes lonely streets, manicured homes, imposing rocky cliffs and dark forests. The settings are all filtered through Claire’s slowly destabilizing mind. What was the process of finding locations that would reflect the title character’s deteriorating mindset throughout the story?
Lisa Robinson (LR): For the scenes where (Claire’s) walking around the town and looking at places, we would look at photos. We would also discuss all of these amazing locations that she would stumble upon, and the experiences she would have. She went to the roller rink for somebody’s birthday party, and we thought it gave such a good feeling.
So figuring out where we were going to film was an ongoing thing. Finding the locations was always a big inspiration for us. It may not be our starting point when we’re creating the story, but it comes close. I don’t feel as though we have our story until we know our locations well.
So I went out to Ohio and location scouted with Annie and our DP (Director of Photography, Andreas Burgess). I actually went out there twice, and looked at places with Annie.
I think what was great about our relationship at the time was that Annie was there (in Ohio), and I was in New York. I was the outsider, so I would look at (the location scouting) a little bit differently. Since Annie was the insider, she had such amazing access to places, and had unique perspectives on them that I didn’t have. So I think that contributed to our interest in making the film feel like a dream, in a way. The locations were being used as if we’re as much in her mind as we’re in her world.
SY: In addition to penning the script, you also co-directed the drama together. How did working on writing the screenplay influence your directorial approaches? How did working on ‘Small, Beautifully Moving Parts’ together influence the way you approached making ‘Claire in Motion’ together?
AJH: We had developed a pattern where we do a lot of conferring in the moment. So we don’t have any set rules that say things like, only one person talks to the DP, and the other person only does XYZ.
So it’s more that the actors are talking to a representative, so they’re not talking to two directors all of the time. (laughs) That may happen at certain times, but we pre-discuss what’s going to happen, and how that may go.
It takes some time to do that, but we pretty much have the rhythm down before we get to the set. We may decide how certain things will happen in the moment on the set, but we do spend a lot of time conferring before that, during the script-writing and pre-production. That way, we have a pretty strong idea of the values we want to put into the decisions.
SY: The drama features a talented group of actors, including Betsy Brandt, Anna Margaret Hollyman, Chris Beetem and Sakina Jaffrey. What was the casting process like for the film?
LR: As we were looking around for somebody who we could imagine embodying Claire, Betsy stood out to us, because we knew her from ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘Masters of Sex.’ So we knew she could play a character who was very vulnerable. Seeing those two roles next to each other in our minds, it felt like she would be amazing for Claire.
We also had an amazing casting agent named Emer O’Callaghan, and she was very helpful in getting the script to Betsy and her agent. They both loved the script, so that was really what sparked her interest.
Betsy was great to work with, but we didn’t have that much time to collaborate on the film together. She was able to start her new show, ‘Life in Pieces,’ so we had to fit the movie into a very tight schedule.
That was not only challenging for us, but it was also challenging for Betsy, because she’s in almost every frame of the film. She worked so hard, because it took a lot to play that character. So it was a really intense experience.
SY: Were you able to rehearse with Betsy and the rest of the cast before, and while, you were shooting ‘Claire in Motion,’ in order to build their backstories and relationships?
AJH: We didn’t have any time to rehearse before we began shooting. For this particular story, I’m not sure if Betsy really would have wanted to have much rehearsal time anyway, but I can’t speak for her.
Our sense was, from what she did tell us, being in the moment throughout this whole story was going to be the most helpful thing for her. Since this character is making all of these discoveries, I think Betsy wanted to use the power of doing that for the first time on camera. I don’t think that would be the case for every project, as some directors really like to have rehearsal time.
We did continue to talk about the character as we were shooting. But in terms of rehearsal, I think it was a situation where actually feeling that discovery for the first time on camera was beneficial.
SY: There are several scenes in the film where Claire and Connor are watching family videos that were shot before Paul disappeared, as they remember him. What was the process of working with your Director of Photography, Andreas Burgess, to not only tape those family videos, but also highlight how the title character’s world is spiraling out of control through the camera movements?
AJH: We wanted to show their lives before Paul left, so we questioned how much we needed to show. But I think it was important for us to show that there were moments in their marriage, just like in many marriages, that they regret. There are moments where they’re not quite listening or paying attention.
So we wanted to see them in those moments, as well as other different kinds of ways in the past. We wanted to show moments that rang true to all marriages, in that not everyone is always as focused as they can be. So we thought it would be interesting to show those moments in the video.
We also wanted to show that Claire’s really searching for what happened, and also looking at herself in a different way. So I think looking at herself in the video was like looking at her past self in a different way, which was important to us.
In terms of working with our cinematographer, Andreas Burgess, he’s incredible, and really understood the film. We talked about how the film felt like a bad dream on a certain level. We also spoke about how we felt close to Claire and what she was experiencing.
So we decided to show her experiences by having the camera hover over her shoulder. We really wanted to get close to her, so that we could show what she was thinking and experiencing. It’s almost like the world around her goes out of focus sometimes.
We also worked an amazing production designer, Emmeline Wilks-Dupoise. She brought a lot of texture, especially to the space of the house.
We also framed the town in a special way, in that we didn’t show everything. We tried to focus on the parts of the town that were helpful in showing (Claire’s) mental state.
SY: In addition to co-writing and directing ‘Claire in Motion,’ you both also served as producers. Why did you both feel it was also important to produce the drama? Also, what was the process of shooting the psychological drama independently?
LR: We were able to become so involved in the filmmaking process by also being producers, which helped us shape the movie into the that we wanted to make it. This was the second time that we’ve done that. We were able to do that, as we also worked with a great local producer, Jenny Deller, who lived in Columbus, Ohio. She really round out that team. I don’t think we could have done that any other way.
SY: ‘Claire in Motion’ won the Narrative Spotlight Audience Award at last year’s SXSW film festival, and was also an Official Selection of the New American Cinema section of last year’s Seattle International Film Festival. What was the experience of bringing the movie to the festivals, and having it be so well perceived by audiences?
LR: The film premiered at SXSW, and our last film also premiered there. We love the festival, and Janet Pierson (SXSW’s Director of Film) has been a great supporter of our work. So we were excited to go back to the festival with this film, as it’s such a big festival, and there’s always so much going on.
I think it’s always both an exciting and nerve-racking moment when you show your film for the first time. It’s a great experience. We love festival audiences. Our time at SXSW was different from when we went to Seattle, because the audiences were very different. We also enjoy going to the festivals as much as we can, and connecting with the audiences. Hearing what the audiences have to say, in terms of their experiences with the film, is something we really appreciate.
AJH: One of the great things about festivals is that you get to build relationships with the audience. You really get to spend quality time as you watch the film with them. Watching people watch your film is very satisfying.
SY: The drama is set to be released in theaters and On Demand (on Friday). Do you think the VOD platform is beneficial for independent films like this one?
AJH: I think it’s great. I have watched other films do day-and-date distributions, but to experience that with your own film is really exciting. You can harness the energy we traditionally are used to expending for a wider theatrical into the day-and-date release. We cherish the theatrical release, but also being able to access a film right away at home is very beneficial.
Watch the official trailer, and check out the poster, for ‘Claire in Motion’ below.