Trying to find a stable balance during an off-kilter period of life can initially appear to be a harrowing ordeal to some people, but others can truly appreciate the experience. Reveling in the process of learning from a seemingly difficult challenge are both the lead characters and filmmakers of the new drama, ‘Paint It Black.’
The two main female characters, who normally take drastically different approaches to life, are unexpectedly and courageously drawn together by their joint shock when they lose a mutually important person. Emmy Award-nominated actress, Amber Tamblyn, also bravely formed new bonds when she embarked on the new stage of her life, which included making her feature film writing, directional and producing debuts on ‘Paint It Black.’
The new filmmaker co-wrote the movie, which is based on the 2006 book of the same name by author Janet Fitch, with Ed Dougherty. Imagination Worldwide is set to release the film adaptation in select theaters this Friday, May 19.
‘Paint It Black’ is set in the aftermath of the death of Michael (Rhys Wakefield), a Los Angeles artist who was struggling to find his true identity and purpose in life. He was torn between his recent change in lifestyle, as he had moved in with his bohemian girlfriend, Josie (Alia Shawkat). She’s unable to accept the fact that he committed suicide as she tries to hold onto the world they shared together.
As Josie searches for the key to understanding her boyfriend’s death, she finds herself both repelled and attracted to Michael’s affluent pianist mother, Meredith (Janet McTeer), who holds Josie responsible for her son’s torment. Soon, the two women find themselves drawn into a twisted relationship reflecting equal parts distrust and blind need.
Tamblyn generously took the time to meet and talk about co-writing, producing and directing ‘Paint It Black’ during an exclusive interview on Monday morning, before the movie had its New York City premiere that night. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed how it was a natural progression for her to go from working in front of the camera for most of her life to working behind it as a first-time feature film scribe and helmer, particularly since she had such a clear vision on how she wanted to adapt Josie and Meredith’s stories for the screen. She also mentioned how she instantly knew that Shawkat and McTeer were the perfect choices to play the two main characters in the drama as soon as she considered them, as they organically understood the women’s pain.
The conversation began with Tamblyn discussing how she first heard about Fitch’s novel. “Amy Poehler actually gave me the book about 10 years ago as a friend to read over a summer,” the director revealed. “I remember exactly where I was when I was reading it. The story had such a profound impact on me. I thought the author, Janet Fitch, did an incredible job writing about the violent minds of women,” Tamblyn also revealed.
The filmmaker also appreciated how the novel’s story “shows how grief is multi-faceted for us. It shows how it’s not just about crying, which is the way that women are constantly represented in films. When (female characters) are sad and angry, they cry, and there aren’t many layers to their grief.
“So Janet really wrote this book in a way that shows how these two women have strong interior lives. They’re of two very different ages in the book; (Jose’s) a younger woman, and (Meredith’s) an older woman. So they experience grief in very different ways,” Tamblyn explained. “It’s hard to know what kind of film you’re going to make, especially as a first time filmmaker. But I wanted to try to make the movie that I had in my head. With a lot of work, I think I did it.”
The helmer also exclaimed that she feels that “One of the great things about this book is that these women are out of their minds! I didn’t want viewers to be sad all of the time. It’s definitely a sad film, but it’s not without humor. I think that’s also what grief is like,” Tamblyn admitted. “We process things in our own ways, so I wanted to know what that real process is like. Sometimes that meant the characters were incredibly violent or dressing up in somebody else’s clothes and stealing their belongings…So I wanted the film to represent grief in a way that people would leave the theater thinking, that was a f*cked up movie, but I loved it.”
Tamblyn then further spoke about her experience of co-writing the script as she adapted Fitch’s novel for the screen. “I did the adaption with my friend and writing partner, Ed Dougherty. We actually wrote the script pretty quickly, and it went through a couple of drafts after that,” the screenwriter shared.
“One of the things that kept coming back to me as a note from investors was that they wanted to see Michael, the young man who takes his life, more in the movie,” the filmmaker revealed. “But I really pushed back against that. I really didn’t want to make the film about his backstory and why he did that. I really wanted the audience to not know the reason why; that was a larger theme of the movie.
“His story is told through the eyes of these two women. The story is really about their obsession with each other, and the psychotic state that they go into after he passed away, and I wanted the screenplay to reflect that,” the scribe also confessed.
Josie and Meredith’s fixation with each other truly began during the scene in which they attend Michael’s funeral. “I always pictured it the way that it came together in the film. I wanted it to feel over the top, and the antithesis of what a funeral scene usually feels like, which is sour. I really wanted this scene to feel like it came out of a Quentin Tarantino movie; I wanted it to be this wild, shocking and upsetting scene that makes people gasp,” the filmmaker further admitted.
Tamblyn then shared why she decided to make her feature film directorial debut with ‘Paint It Black,’ and how the fact that she’s been acting since she was a teenager influenced her helming style. “It was a pretty natural progression, once I finally said yes. But to get to the yes was really hard,” the helmer disclosed.
“I had another director attached for awhile, and she and I didn’t really see eye-to-eye about the type of movie this was going to be. She was seeing it as a very different film. Not to say her vision was wrong; neither of us was wrong, and both of us were right” in the way they hoped to adapt Fitch’s story to the screen. “Both versions would have been equally powerful,” Tamblyn conceded.
“But the more I would say, ‘I see things this way, and the film really has to feel like this,’ she’s the one who finally said to me, ‘You have to direct this. You have to accept the fact that you have a vision, and have to direct it.’ I said, ‘No, I’ve never been to film school,’ and she said, ‘So what? Do you think half of the directors in Hollywood have gone to film school? They haven’t, and that’s a fact,'” Tamblyn also revealed.
“So I really had to ask myself, why wouldn’t I give myself this opportunity and try it? If I fail, at least I’m failing with my own vision. That’s better than saying, ‘I gave it to somebody else to fail,'” the filmmaker further explained. “So once I said yes, I really started to take hold of everything, and everything started to come together.”
‘Paint It Black’ features a diverse cast, including McTeer as Meredith and Shawkat as Josie. Tamblyn then disclosed what the casting process was like for the main performers in the drama. “I was supposed to also star in it, as I originally wrote it for myself. Once I decided to direct the film,” the filmmaker began to reconsider playing Josie. “I also felt that I was too old to star in it anymore, and I really had to accept that fact.
“So I knew that I had to get somebody who was really good and real. I wanted to cast an actress who feels like someone who you can hang out with, and is a cool, punk-rock party girl. But there’s just not a lot of that,” Tamblyn noted. “I saw a lot of actresses for the role, and there were some really great ones out there.
“Then Alia Shawkat came in and read, and she really blew me away. She really is the living embodiment of Josie. She has these gorgeous freckles on her face, and she wears these little skinny jeans and leather jackets. She also has this wildly beautiful, curly black hair,” the director divulged. “She’s different, and I think there’s a preternatural quality to her that comes across on screen, and I wanted that. I wanted someone who, when you see them in a room, you think, that person’s different. Alia really feels that way.
“Of course, with Janet McTeer, to me, she’s one of the greatest living actresses, both in film and on the stage. I knew that whoever played Meredith needed to have this statuesque quality, which is very hard. There are very few actresses who have it, and Janet is one of them…She’s one of the most sensual women I’ve ever seen. She’s sexy, and is attractive to both men and women, and that’s what Meredith really had to be,” Tamblyn then explained about what drew her to cast the Tony Award-winning and Oscar and Emmy-nominated actress. “She had to be someone who everyone kneels at her beautiful feet. So when Janet wanted to do it, I was just thrilled.”
The filmmaker also discussed what her collaboration process like with the actresses once they were cast in their respective roles, particularly on building their respective characters’ backstories, emotions and relationships. She mentioned that she wasn’t able to have much rehearsal time with them, but “I got to talk a lot with Janet independently. But Alia came in at the last minute; I think she signed on about three days before we started filming.”
Tamblyn added that she “had seen all of their work, so I had a pretty good feeling that they were going to be great together. Also, Alia has been doing this her whole life, since she was a kid, like me. So I know what level of actress she is, and knew she was going to be fantastic to work with as an actress, especially on a small, independent movie like this one. She was able to find beats very quickly, so I didn’t need to do a lot of adjustments.” In terms of working with McTeer, the helmer pointed out that “Janet comes from theater, and British theater actors are so professional. They’re always on time and always know their lines.”
In terms of working with the actresses on their physicalities during filming, Tamblyn declared that they “had a lot of fun working on the wardrobe. For Janet, we knew for a fact that we wanted a lot of velvet robes and outfits that were reminiscent of Joan Crawford. We wanted things that were extremely expensive, and maybe belonged to (Meredith’s) mother and were passed down, just as the house was passed down. She’s so wealthy, we wanted to feel that,” the director admitted.
“In terms of Josie, we wanted the opposite-we wanted it to feel as though she’s a thrift-store diver. She would go into places and grab things with crazy prints that didn’t match, and fishnets that were ripped,” Tamblyn disclosed. “But Meredith didn’t wear anything with patterns. So we had very specific looks for them.”
‘Paint It Black’ features distinct and diverse types of music in the scenes that feature Josie and Meredith on their own, as they’re coping with their grief in their own ways. There are several scenes in which Josie attends punk rock clubs and concerts, in order to suppress her pain. There are also several scenes in which Meredith plays her piano in order to help her deal with her heartbreak. So Tamblyn then discussed the process of working with the drama’s music department to find the right songs and score to conveys the characters’ emotions after Michael’s death.
“Mac McCaughan from Superchunk did the score, and he’s so extraordinary,” the director noted as she began talking about the process of finding the right sound for the drama. “I mentioned that I really love the sounds of films like ‘Labyrinth’ and ‘Dark Crystal,’ which have the sound of the weird ’80s era of synth. So I wanted something that was dream-like in that way.
“Even though the story in the book takes place in the ’80s world of punk, I didn’t want punk music or lyrics in specific songs. I wanted the sounds of classical music or the weird synth sounds of ’80s melodramas,” Tamblyn divulged. “So we worked to find music that could accompany the more emotional scenes. We then left everything else music-less. I felt like the performances worked on their own, and didn’t need to be backed up my much music.”
The actresses’ portrayals in ‘Paint It Black’ where also highlighted by the fact that the story takes place in diverse settings across Los Angeles, including Josie and Michael’s small studio apartment, Meredith’s elegant mansion, which the filmmaker previously mentioned, and the dingy motel where Michael checked in before his death. Tamblyn disclosed that the movie was shot in real locations.
The mansion that Meredith lives in is a real house in L.A., and “is called the Paramour. It used to be a nunnery in the 1920s. Then this amazing woman came in and bought it a couple of decades ago and restored it. It’s now a place where you can do photo shoots, and people also rent it out for weddings and parties. I’ve seen it in some movies before…but no one’s ever actually used it for the thing we used it for, which is one woman living there alone, and she’s wealthy and sad. To me, that’s such a great story!
“So once we found that location, the woman who owns it, Dana, who’s incredible, became supportive of us. Once she read the script, she said, ‘I love this movie! This is totally where you should shoot it!’ We didn’t have the budget to rent a huge place, so she really helped us out. Once I saw the house, I said, ‘We officially have a movie now,'” the filmmaker exclaimed.
Tamblyn then chronicled what the experience of shooting ‘Paint It Black’ independently was like. “I think if anything, it hindered the process a little bit. We shot this movie in 21 days, which is really fast for a film that’s so stylized. You normally need much more time to shoot something like this. So it was stressful,” the helmer confided.
“But there are also a lot of great things about an independent movie like this one. When people are on board and really believe in it and love it, they work twice as hard. They really use their imaginations to make things come alive and figure out how to do things when we don’t have the right budget to do them. Sometimes great things come out of those circumstances,” Tamblyn pointed out.
“For instances, the idea to shoot all of the scenes that take place in the L.A. river came from my DP (Director of Photography), Brian Hubbard. Originally, in the book, those scenes take place in another beautiful house that’s supposed to mirror Meredith’s house. But we didn’t have the budget to shoot in another beautiful house,” the director admitted. “So Brian was like, ‘What if we do this trashy garbage setting in the L.A. river?’ At that time, there hadn’t been any rain, so it was really dried up. So we loved the idea of shooting those scenes in this polar opposite world for Josie.”
Tamblyn also shared what it was like to serve as one of the producers on, in addition to co-writing and directing, the drama. “Producing is such a wild experience, because I hadn’t realized that what I had been doing was producing. That just means that you’re trying to put the movie together. It’s producing when you’re calling someone and asking, ‘Can we get this for free, because we don’t have any money?’ We did that to an extent with the lenses for the cameras, as we asked if we could get them at a discount, because we didn’t have the budget to pay as much as we normally would,” the filmmaker revealed. “We were also pulling favors for clothes. We were also putting look books together to pitch to investors. All of that is producing.
“But that felt like a natural thing that anybody would do to have their movie seen. So I hadn’t really seen myself as a producer until I realized that I was one. But I really loved it. It’s an exhausting experience, and it put me in awe of anyone who produces and directs a film,” Tamblyn admitted.
“It’s such a hard process. When you see a movie that has actually made it into a theater, which is so rare nowadays, it was a huge task and accomplishment in order to do that,” the helmer noted. “If anything, it made me fall in love with cinema again. It gave me a deeper appreciation for films.”