May 2, 2005
You may recall I mentioned the pleasant surprise I got when seeing former grad school colleague Rachel Clift onscreen in the fabulous Mutual Appreciation. So I decided to get back in touch and conducted an informal IM interview of sorts, which I have pasted below. There is *so* much more that can be talked about in this film, this is just a taste…and the transcript was already 10 full pages long, so this should be enough for now. But the more I talked about the film the richer it became to me…that’s the best kind of film, the kind that keeps you thinking long after you’ve left the theater.
I could only find three pictures to go with the text, so this is not the prettiest formatting, but I’m working on that. I have kept in much of the extraneous, small-talk bits that are not necessarily pertinent to the film. That’s not completely true, because I did cut a lot. But bits that are pertinent to readers of this blog, such as mentions of Serpico and immature Americans, I kept in. And I guess in the big picture they ultimately do relate to the film (and it’s in keeping with the improvisational/conversational tone of Andrew Bujalski’s films, of course).
One warning–you might say this interview has spoilers. If that can be said about a film with a plot as loose as Mutual Appreciation, that is. But you have been warned, read at your own risk. I’ve marked the spot where spoilers start.
cupcake: hi there
rachel: is that cynthia?
cupcake: that’s me, sorry
rachel: I was like, “oooh, cupcake – that’s intriguing”
cupcake: I tend to have a cupcake fixation
rachel: well it’s very coy
cupcake: ha–yes it’s my secret IM flirting identity
rachel: I should try that
cupcake: so how do you like new york?
rachel: (the guy near me just said “he’s a douche”)
rachel: New York…it’s wonderful and awful all at the same time
cupcake: awful because it’s so expensive?
rachel: no…awful because it’s a constant struggle to craft a good life, which I don’t think is just about the money, although that’s a huge part of it
cupcake: yes that’s hard to avoid
rachel: I suppose the rent does getcha, but it’s also about finding meaningful work in such an image-based, competitive city
rachel: it can take a very long time to find your niche
cupcake: image-based meaning the way people look?
cupcake: would you say boston is less difficult in that way?
rachel: boston…yes, it’s less difficult because boston is a less blatantly capitalist, money-hungry town
rachel: there’s a crunchiness to boston that feels comforting in comparison – when I think of boston these days, I think of walden pond (but I also think of their winters and then I stop thinking about boston)
rachel: mind you, this is my view from mid-town manhattan, at a temp job where i deal with tv salesmen
all day. when i do my own thing, or spend time with friends, new york often feels like paradise
cupcake: that makes sense–I’ve only ever visited nyc, never lived there, so have not felt the full impact I guess
cupcake: I like that–crunchiness
rachel: I hear you
cupcake: do you live in williamsburg? [serpico] lived there for awhile, do you remember him?
rachel: serpico……was he really tall and shy?
rachel: (I live in park slope)
cupcake: he lived there last year, now he’s teaching english in korea
rachel: woah, that’s something different from williamsburg
cupcake: yeah he wasn’t very happy in ny
cupcake: just as you noted, he had a lot of trouble finding a social circle
cupcake: he said he lived among lots of hipsters but didn’t know how to talk to them
rachel: oh geez, i relate to serpico’s experience
rachel: oh my gosh! yes!
cupcake: I’ll have to tell him someone else shares his misery
rachel: I wonder about your take on andrew’s film(s) given that hipster factor…..
cupcake: actually I almost didn’t want to see it because it seemed so hipsterish
cupcake: but then i heard great things so i went anyway
rachel: you mean “mutual”?
rachel: very interesting
rachel: had you seen funny ha ha?
cupcake: no i still haven’t seen it, but plan to
rachel: ok, well it will be interesting for you to compare the two – i’d like to hear what you think
cupcake: just from the description of the film (mutual apprec.) it sounds very hipsterish, you know, a musician in nyc, slackerish, the jarmush comparisons, etc
cupcake: but i was very pleasantly surprised
rachel: yeah…..so did it surprise you
rachel: ah – we are on the same wavelength
rachel: what surprised you about it? (i know you’re supposed to be asking the questions, but i’m tapping into my journalist character now)
cupcake: although i probably would have hated the film if your character and justin’s did actually get together
rachel: wow! that’s so cool, what a great thing to point out
rachel: haven’t heard that one yet
cupcake: ha–interesting. i was starting to get a feeling of dread near the end, but was relieved
cupcake: it was actually a surprise ending for me
cupcake: I’m a little bitter about male-female relations at the moment though, so that probably colored my feelings about it
rachel: hey, I totally understand that
rachel: yes – it’s as if the characters, who seem like they’re dangling between adolescence and adulthood, are trying so hard to make the right choices
cupcake: yes, i really loved that the film is about people who act with integrity–so much of film today, especially indie film, seems to be about celebrating human weakness
cupcake: like that’s the only way to be real
cupcake: and it was very refreshing to see people really trying to do the right thing
cupcake: and succeeding
cupcake: I have had a running theme on my blog lately about americans being immature, and i think films that celebrate this kind of weakness contribute to that
rachel: I agree. it’s fascinating to hear this because andrew and i talked a lot during production – and to some extent during post when he was back on the steenbeck day in day out – about whether this would end up being some dark comedy or a warm film…
cupcake: so there was a chance that they were going to end up together?
rachel: it was really hard for us to gauge whether the characters were, in fact, doing the right thing
rachel: no – the script never changed a bit, but the energy during scenes certainly did, and andrew’s style is so open to his actors’ interpretations or moods – he allows himself to run with it…which means the sort of emotional realism you get could go in many directions
rachel: the actions never changed, but the emotions were shifting constantly
cupcake: ah you mean whether staying in the relationship really was the right thing or not
cupcake: so it could have seemed to be a tragic ending rather than an uplifting one, depending on the take
rachel: and I believe this is what makes his films so brilliant – his willingness to be open to those subtle shifts. he doesn’t insist on a level of control I imagine a lot of other directors do
cupcake: it is probably an indication of how brainwashed I was during grad school that all of this of course makes me think of carney
rachel: well, you can never escape the ray-nator
rachel: once he gets in your blood, it’s all over
rachel: yes – exactly (what you said about a possible tragic ending)
rachel: like who knows if that was a happy ending or not? or if ellie and alan are total jerks for even letting it happen at all?
cupcake: yeah that’s true, it is ambiguous
cupcake: and it’s still slightly ambiguous about whether anything will happen between them in the future
cupcake: I assume andrew is aware of carney?
rachel: between ellie and alan – yes, absolutely
rachel: I don’t think the group hug is a real resolution
cupcake: yeah definitely–and the ending is rather abrupt
rachel: well – you should see funny ha ha’s ending! this one is far less abrupt….
cupcake: though I did walk out thinking that if she did go for the rockstar guy he’d end up breaking her heart and it would turn into the same old story
cupcake: as it stands, she maintains control, the options are hers
rachel: I have a hunch you’re right about that
cupcake: but if she were to go for the rockstar, it would turn out very differently
rachel: it’s a pretty common pattern with rockstars
rachel: although I’m not sure ellie feels too in control
rachel: did you feel any conflict between her and Lawrence in terms of how their relationship was operating?
cupcake: definitely from her end, not much from his though
cupcake: I was actually a little surprised when she tells him about their little “moment” and then says she still wants to be with him–in some ways I didn’t believe her
cupcake: but I wanted to
rachel: well, yeah, I think that’s why the film doesn’t offer up any real resolution…plus, alan is very sheepish about his encounter with ellie and barely takes any responsibility.
cupcake: yes, typical male
rachel: of course
cupcake: I also walked out of the theater thinking that if the roles were reversed–if it were a guy in a relationship and a single woman–they would have slept together
cupcake: a bit bitter, I am!
rachel: my favorite, favorite scene in the movie is when lawrence grabs a beer with alan at the beer garden knowing that something has happened between his girlfriend and his best friend, and his listening to alan go on about his rock star life and the camera stays on lawrence, listening to his friend with that look on his face, that shift – it’s hard to contend with a friend who betrays you and I’m not sure alan and lawrence would get over it with just a hug
cupcake: yes that’s a great scene
rachel: your previous comment – do you think alan would have slept with ellie if she’d let him?
cupcake: and yes a hug probably wouldn’t cut it–though having it all out in the open helps
cupcake: I think so
cupcake: (about alan sleeping with ellie)
rachel: and what makes you think they didn’t? just because her clothes were still on in the morning….
cupcake: yeah I thought about that too
cupcake: it’s ambiguous
rachel: that’s one of andrew’s all-time favorite words
cupcake: ha–I’m not surprised. it definitely allows for many interpretations (that scene)
rachel: he’ll be like, “it’s ambiguous whether or not we are actually meeting at this bar, or the other one, to get a drink tonight”
cupcake: haha. the fact that her clothes are on and they’re in some sort of chair (am I remembering correctly?) are clues, but definitely not definitive evidence
cupcake: too many definites there
rachel: nothing is for sure, but certainly the only thing that is not on her person in the morning is her sweatshirt
rachel: although maybe she’s not wearing pants
rachel: but in my heart of hearts, I think she kept them on
cupcake: and when she says hello to the roommate it’s that awkward morning-after moment, even if nothing happened
rachel: always awkward with those roommates, damn them
rachel: like there’s some omniscient presence you will forever have to deal with whenever you do something naughty like almost have sex
rachel: maybe someday I’ll be able to afford my own apt
cupcake: yes it’s a moment we all know
cupcake: even coming home to your own place if you have roommates becomes one of those moments
cupcake: also, even if nothing happened, they both downplayed what happened when they talked to lawrence
cupcake: neither said she actually spent the night, they only acknowledged a ‘moment’
rachel: yeah, “the moment” – they don’t say “we slept in the same bed”
cupcake: how did you meet andrew, by the way?
rachel: well that’s a good story
rachel: I came home from a movie at the coolidge (Pennebaker’s concert film “Down From the Mountain”) and was parking my car on the street in JP where I used to live…
rachel: ….and as I was walking the rest of the way to my house, I saw this low-budget shoot going on, so of course I had to stop and say hello
cupcake: of course
rachel: turned out it was andrew, shooting an exterior for funny ha ha, and we started chatting (while his crew was working….of course)
cupcake: this says a lot about random connections
cupcake: talking to strangers etc
rachel: yes, I’m a big believer in talking to strangers
cupcake: and he lives in ny now too?
rachel: nope – he’s still a tried and true JP resident – he moved there after funny ha ha was out
cupcake: wow, I assumed he was a new yorker now because the film seemed to live there so authentically
rachel: you felt it was authentically new york?
rachel: authentically brooklyn?
cupcake: yes–though I don’t live there so I suppose I wouldn’t know
cupcake: it seemed to me to be, though
rachel: a bunch of his friends live in brooklyn – most importantly, justin, who he wrote alan’s character for, so it made sense to shoot there and try and work around justin’s real life musician schedule
cupcake: makes sense
cupcake: why does he stay in JP then?
rachel: I ask him that all the time
cupcake: ha well I guess loyalty is good
rachel: I think ultimately it’s cheaper, more nurturing, and more manageable. he gets to visit new york enough for his own taste, I think
cupcake: that makes sense, if you know enough people there and visit often you don’t really need to live there I guess
rachel: I think that’s true
cupcake: have you done much film work since your thesis film?
rachel: not nearly as much as I would have liked
rachel: I shot and edited a film for habitat for humanity, and I’ve started producing a feature doc, sort of personal memoir film
cupcake: is documentary still your main interest?
rachel: absolutely – can’t get enough of it
cupcake: I really liked your thesis film by the way
rachel: oh thank you!
cupcake: I was just complaining the other day about docs that don’t attempt to go beyond their subjects, docs that are just journalism
cupcake: but yours did
rachel: oh…that’s nice to hear
rachel: it’s a fascinating, never-ending conflict in my mind…how to make non-fiction film that’s art, not just “document”
cupcake: yes it’s rare these days
cupcake: it seemed there was a heyday in the 60s-70s for that but not so much any more
cupcake: now it’s all reality tv, people just trying to get the best/weirdest story, which says nothing about someone’s artistic capabilities
rachel: (ugh, don’t get me started on reality tv)
rachel: have you seen ross mcelwee’s new one?
cupcake: I haven’t yet–bright weeds?
cupcake: I see him all the time at harvard, I’m a little startstruck
cupcake: I see hal hartley too
rachel: is hal teaching at harvard???
cupcake: for the past 2-3 years
rachel: those harvard kids are lucky
cupcake: I walked into the classsroom where I t/a and was reading, waiting for class to start, and these two guys walk in and put in a tape and start screening it, and the super-tall one comes over and asks if they’re disturbing me
cupcake: and as he walks away I said “oh, that’s hal hartley”
cupcake: and he was looking at a rough cut of his latest film
cupcake: which also screened at iffboston, by the way, but I couldn’t catch it
rachel: amazing – and this is happening quietly in the halls of harvard, in a town which has suffered such a lack of vibrancy in production for a while now
rachel: who woulda thunk it?
cupcake: indeed. well maybe there’ll be a renaissance with hal and andrew
cupcake: and ross
cupcake: anyway do you plan to do more acting?
rachel: I’m not planning on it, but if someone asked me to play a role I liked, I’m not saying I’d turn it down either
cupcake: I hear you–and filmmaking is still your primary goal?
rachel: yes, but I’d like to combine filmmaking with the more general field of communications – from journalism to media relations to pr for the non-profit, NGO world
cupcake: definitely more job options that way
rachel: the goal being to enjoy my day job, maybe even travel a bit, and earn enough money to buy a nice little editing system of my own
cupcake: ah the american dream…
rachel: speaking of which, I really need to get the new bruce springsteen album
cupcake: ok one last question–probably a standard one, as everyone talks about the seeming-improvised nature of Mutual Appreciation–was there a full script before shooting started, did the script come out of improvisation, etc?
rachel: there was a full script indeed, and a fair amount of rehearsing
cupcake: so to quote carney, the script wasn’t improvised but the emotions/tone may have been
rachel: yes, and some of the conversations too…
cupcake: so there was a script but andrew was open to changes
cupcake: serendipity, frisson, all that
rachel: yes — I would say he was pretty clear about where he wanted to story or the scene to go; but allowed us the freedom to get to that place in a natural way
cupcake: and do you prefer working that way?
rachel: which was scary at times
cupcake: yeah I was going to say
cupcake: you definitely can’t phone in that kind of performance
rachel: I can’t say that I know what I prefer, since I haven’t done much acting for film. there were definitely scenes where I was yearning for more direction – days when I was hungry or cranky
rachel: (aw, geez, thanks!)
cupcake: well you were great, as was everyone–it all fit together very well
rachel: ….and just wanted andrew to tell me what the hell to say or do, but of course he wouldn’t, and he pushed, gently, to get authenticity every moment, and that wasn’t always easy
cupcake: that does sound scary, and very challenging, but it’s interesting to know he’s actually such a hardass!
rachel: it can be hard for everyone
rachel: yes, he really does know what he wants, when it all comes down to it, and I suppose you must – that’s the difference between wanting to just hang out and make a film versus actually having a vision of some sort about what it is you want film – as a language – to explore or say
cupcake: yes when watching the film it does seem like it’s just a bunch of people hanging out, but when you think about it, random people hanging out is never that interesting so there has to be some hand shaping it
cupcake: btw I really loved the scene with the three girls in wigs
rachel: oh, yeah? it’s pretty classic!
cupcake: so great
rachel: what did you like about it?
cupcake: I think it’s mostly just an emotional reaction–knowing that kind of situation,
cupcake: late night party, few people there, all a bit drunk, and sharing moments with strangers
cupcake: random connections etc
cupcake: and it is completely extraneous to the “plot”, also the fact that it’s giving the characters life, beyond the plot…I just love it.
rachel: I love pamela in that scene, the one who begs him to put on a dress and then calls him “little lord fauntleroy”
cupcake: yes that’s great
rachel: that’s also the scene where kate dollenmeyer, star of funny ha ha, makes a cameo, which I find extremely comforting in the way that familiar people are
cupcake: which one is kate?
cupcake: is she one of the sirens?
rachel: yes, she’s the one that puts eye make-up on alan
cupcake: ah yes
cupcake: now I see it
cupcake: ok well I have taken up enough of your time
rachel: no worries, have enjoyed it
rachel: really glad you enjoyed the film!
cupcake: yes I loved it–I look forward to more from andrew
rachel: me too