Following the release of her original film RUNOFF, The Young Folks was honored to sit down and talk with director Kimberly Levin about the film, her influences as a filmmaker, and the trials, tribulations, and rewards of independent filmmaking. Our review for RUNOFF can be found HERE.
Nathanael Hood: I’ve noticed the interviews with you that I’ve been able to find have zoomed in on the fact that you’re from Kentucky and you were a biochemist before you started making [Runoff], but I’m more interested in the actual filmmaking and your influences as a filmmaker.
Kimberly Levin: Awesome.
NH: I was reading in your interviews that about a year before you started production on Runoff you worked with theatrical companies in New York City. Correct?
KL: After the transition from biochemistry I went directly into the theater. And I was working in the theater before I went into film.
NH: Would you say your filmmaking was more informed from your theatrical experience or from other filmmakers?
KL: I really would say that it’s a composite of both of those things and there’s much overlap in terms of my take on theater and filmmaking. The toolbox is much the same—the size of the wrench is a little bit different between theater and filmmaking. When you’re talking about making sure that you have a sound script in terms of its structure and dramaturgy, that’s the same kind of thing in terms of theater and film. When you’re talking about things like character arcs and intentions and how to work with actors, it’s very much the same kind of language; the expression of those intentions and the actor onscreen versus onstage, the calibration of that is a bit different, but the way that you help the actor manifest and find that stuff is also very much the same in theater and film. Mise en scène is very much the same in theater and film. The way that you express that and the way that you build that is a little bit different. But a lot of the foundations of what helps you create an experience for the viewer in theater and film is very similar. The intricacies of how you pull that off are a little bit different.
NH: Which directors, both living and dead, have influenced you the most?
KL: Oh God, that’s a really hard question…so, [Cristian Mungiu’s] 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2007) was a real influence for me in the making of Runoff. Not that the subject matter or even the ways that the film ultimately came together you would necessarily see a lot of parallels between the films, but when I saw that film I was so incredibly moved by the creation of these long choreographed master takes which are an intersection of these brilliant performances by the actors and very intricate camerawork—that was very inspirational for me in terms of something I was hoping to achieve in Runoff. Because with the subject matter of Runoff, I really wanted to present the viewer with an opportunity to experience the film in an observational way, a kind of fly-on-the-wall way, so that I’m not telling them what is the most important thing all the time—I’m not telling them where to look, I’m not manipulating the viewer to such a degree. I’m actually allowing them space both pictorially and in terms of the story to create a more personal narrative with Runoff whereby the viewer’s life experience can interact with the film and have a kind of refractory relationship so that everybody walks away with a deeply personal experience.
NH: Would you say that you’re more in favor of using subtlety in terms of stylization or using more overt, in-your-face stylization?
KL: I think it depends on the demand for each particular story. So, for Runoff, with its subject matter and thematic territory, I felt like subtlety was the more appropriate choice. In another film I may want to explore making things very over-the-top and very robust. But I really think for me it’s gonna depend on the story and the needs of the story.
NH: Going back to your influences, you mentioned 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days as being being very important to the development of Runoff. Are there any specific filmmakers that you think have particularly influenced you?
KL: Well, I would say Mungiu really did influence me as a filmmaker…I would say he’s representational of a style of filmmaking that I think is incredibly powerful, so it’s not just that one film. But there’s also Michael Haneke, for sure. Asghar Farhadi—A Separation (2011), that’s probably one of the most complex and brilliantly executed films that I have ever seen in my life. I love [Jacques Audiard’s] A Prophet (2009), [Joel and Ethan Coen’s] A Serious Man (2009)…these are some kind of touchstone films for me.
NH: Are there any American filmmakers you particularly admire?
KL: I do have a lot of international influences. But I love the Coen Brothers. In terms of their tonal complexity—they are really interesting filmmakers. They can acclimate their filmmaking style based on the requisite needs of any given story and the characters in the story. So, they have a lot of range in their filmmaking. And another American film that was very influential to me, I guess in terms of a feeling, was The Last Picture Show (1971), Peter Bogdanovich’s film. Because that film was really about a way of life in a point of time in America that was passing by, y’know, that is extinguishing as the film is taking place. That was something that I was trying to achieve: that feeling of an American way of living, a very traditional way of living here, that’s coming to an end. And really, there’s a real rawness to that film that I was interested in reflecting in Runoff.
NH: One American director that you really remind me of is Ramin Bahrani, the director who did Chop Shop (2007) and Man Push Cart (2005).
KL: Uh-huh. Sure!
NH: You both have more restrained style and an emphasis on using real-life subjects as much as you can—
NH: —you mentioned in interviews that Runoff was shot on real farms with real farmers. Likewise, Bahrani shoots on location with non-professional actors. So, he is one director that you very much remind me of.
KL: Yes, I think that’s an accurate comparison.
NH: Are there any shots or scenes in Runoff that you are particularly proud of? You mentioned in your interview for moveablefest.com that that shot where Betty sits in her car and considers Scratch’s offer while the windshield wipers flapped back and forth was particularly notable. But are there any others?
KL: Yeah. The couple of opening shots in the film of the crop duster were, as a filmmaker working on a fairly low budget, very complex and intricate. They involved choreographing a moving plane, a moving car, a moving camera, and actors. And being on such a low budget, we didn’t have access to any walkie-talkies or anything like that for communication between the ground and the air. The pilot only had 45 minutes worth of gas in his tank and we had three different set-ups and, obviously, we had to do multiple takes of each one. I spent a great deal of time with the pilot the day before going over the shots, drawing pictures for him and explaining the look and feel that we were trying to achieve. I only had a red and a green flag to communicate with the pilot with—red was “do another take,” green was “go to the next set-up.” That was it. This was a pilot I had never worked with before—he was literally a crop-duster and not a stunt pilot. In one of the moving shots Betty is going throughout the countryside looking for Sam when he’s gone missing. She’s in a panic and driving through country roads, building up the tension. Suddenly you catch her eye-line and you follow it and then, from the opposite angle, the crop-duster crosses over the truck windshield and the camera pans over the cornfield…that was quite an achievement. Since we couldn’t directly communicate with the pilot, we had to rely on his skill to fly the plane where it needed to be when it needed to be there. Even worse, we shot it near the crest of a hill so that we couldn’t see the plane coming until it was literally right on top of us. We had to rely on our hearing the plane coming instead of just seeing it coming: so the plane sounds like it’s x-distance away and if we get the car moving at 35-45 miles per hour at this moment, then hopefully we’re going to perfectly intersect as the crop-duster crosses over this rolling hill and over the windshield, allowing the camera to pan over the cornfield. And we got that on the first take, we got that on the second take, and we got that on the third take.
KL: And that was our first day of shooting.
NH: First day of shooting?!
KL: Yeah, looking back I have no idea why we did that, why our most complex and intricate shots were saved for the first day. But in a way, because it worked out so beautifully, it was a real gelling experience for the crew, a kind of triumph to start the long journey of production on. That felt like such a huge achievement, especially since it was on the first day.
NH: Definitely. How do you feel Runoff would have been different if you had gone into the film with a giant budget, custom-built film sets, and a small army of professional extras instead of real-life locations and real-life farmers?
KL: Well, I definitely think that I would have had more control, particularly in scenes involving livestock and animals. At times when you invade a location like a dairy farm where you have half-ton animals everywhere with a film crew and cast working on intense, dramatic scenes…it’s just really chaotic. Sometimes, in the back of your mind you dream or wish that you had more control over the circumstances. But for me, the chaos heightened our energy in those spaces. The authenticity that was captured onscreen as a result of working in real locations, real working farms with real working farmers, far out-weighed any kind of benefit that could have been had from building giant sets and bringing in professional extras. In fact, I’m deeply grateful that those options weren’t available.
NH: Alright. Now I have a two-part question. First, do you have any future projects in mind? Second, do you see yourself in 10-15 years working steadfastly in the independent circuit or would you like to eventually make the move to Hollywood?
KL: I do have a new script that I’m working on. It’s in a very nascent stage. It’s about a young woman whose brother has gone off-grid and she catches up with him in a small village in the Yucatán Peninsula. When she finds him, she discovers that he’s at the center of a young woman’s disappearance. So, that’s the next film that I’m working on right now. In regard to your question about independent filmmaking versus Hollywood…reflecting on my experience making Runoff, at times making a film in such a fiercely independent way is incredibly challenging. It asks everything of you. Sometimes you question how you are going to continue on. But reflecting on the process, I cannot tell you how grateful I am for the creative freedom that I had with this project. I don’t know if I’ll ever have this much freedom again and I’m deeply, deeply grateful for it. Especially considering the subject matter of the film—it wouldn’t be the same film had I not been able to give myself the freedom and time to tell the story properly. Hopefully in the future I can have access to a little bit more money: more money for mise en scène; more money to pay my cast and crew. If I get to have a little bit bigger budget, I want it to go towards what goes onscreen. But I would also want a bit more money for reaching out to audiences after the film is made. I hope to find a space where I can balance creative freedom with a bit bigger budget so that I can take care of the people who help make the film with me. But the ultimate answer about going to Hollywood is…I’m not sure.
NH: Now for my last question, the question I end all of my interviews with: what is one question you have always wanted to be asked during an interview but have not yet been asked?
KL: What is the background for the look of Runoff?
NH: Will you tell us about it, please?
KL: Sure, I’ll tell you about it! Usually when I set out to make a film, I have a concept for the kind of look that I want, a visual motif. Often times, once I have that idea, I go and look for a painting or a collection of paintings that can be a concrete reference point for the design team, for the costume design team, for the cinematographer, even for the colorist. So in this case I came across a Paul Gauguin painting called The Siesta. It’s a very pastoral setting featuring a bunch of women reclining on a veranda. There are these incredible colors in the frame: purples and yellows and pinks and blues. There’s a real vibrancy to it. So I took that painting, put it in photoshop, and desaturated it. I wanted to suggest a world that was at one point incredibly vibrant and self-sustaining. But it’s lifeblood has faded. So instead of choosing grays and browns and that kind of palette—which to me suggests a stasis, a world that has always been like that—I wanted to create a sense for the viewer that this was a place that used to be vibrant; a place that has faded and faded and faded and continues to fade. In doing this, I wanted to create a nostalgia for the current moment because the world that Betty and Frank live in—this pastoral world of farming—is extinguishing before their eyes.
NH: Well, I believe that wraps it up. It was lovely talking with you.