London Film Festival 2011 Interview: Return Director Liza Johnson and Actress Linda Cardellini

Linda Cardellini and Liza Johnson: Mayfair Hotel 20/10/2011

You can read my review of Return HERE

Before anyone had even got a real question out in this roundtable interview [I’ll indicate my questions as FRR, while others will just be labelled Q] a brief comment before the recorders were switched on prompted this discussion of actors who direct…

FRR: [To Linda Cardellini]: Is that you announcing an ambition for the future, a move into directing?

LINDA CARDELLINI: No, no I’ve got no ambition to direct, because I’m so focused on my own acting that I don’t think I’d be generous enough to other actors to direct

LIZA JOHNSON: I think you could totally direct, but as a director it’s awesome that you don’t want to.

LC: I’d like to write, and I’d like to produce; get things to run a certain way and use what I’ve learned being on sets to figure it out, but I don’t know how move a camera or how to do any of those things, I think that should be reserved for people who naturally know how to do those things.

LJ: I don’t know how people do both actually, acting, being inside your body, seems very specific, and very different from directing. Sometimes you see people direct themselves and sometimes they’re good at it. I don’t know how they do that.

LC: I understand the impetus though, because it is your vision, and to hand that over to somebody else, nobody ever can hear or see the same things that you do.

FRR: Talking of directing, Liza, I understand that you’ve made the move into features from visual art. That seems like something that connects quite easily to directing, how easy did you find that shift?

LJ: I thought it was pretty great. The artwork I’ve done has been in film and video, and it’s usualy involved performance, in recent years I’ve done projects with non-professional actors, but it has a pretty cinematic feel, and I have been directing them as actors even though they’re not actors. So in fact it’s been very organic.

Q: Are you going to continue making films, or are you going to go back to the art world?

LJ: Yeah, I have several active feature projects in development, and I did also recently shoot another gallery piece, so hopefully I can continue to do both, but yes, I’m excited to do more feature stuff and more work with professional actors.

Q: This was you first feature, how was the experience?

LJ: I loved it. I understand why people say it’s stressful, and it is stressful and chaotic, but I had a great time and I think because we got to work together a long time before shooting it was fun for us to get to finally do the work we had been trying to do for a year. It felt satisfying to get to do it, and we had a really good ensemble of people, it was very chaotic and working with an economy of means, but people decided to approach that as fun, and try to make it an opportunity. There were a lot of things we didn’t have that can be useful in making a movie, and we all just tried to take that as an opportunity. We had to shoot the film in 25 days, so we tried to find those beautiful accidents, and make it be a good thing instead of a problem.

Q: You didn’t know each other before the film, so how was the casting process?

LC: I read the script and I came in and met with Liza, and we talked about the role and the script; her vision for it, my ideas about. It all seemed to just work and there was really a feeling in the room, and I really wanted to take this journey with her. I was just so impressed with the role she had written, for an actress, I’d not really seen anything like that, and I wanted to be the person to bring it to life.

FRR: Linda, obviously with a lot of time between seeing the script for the first time and getting to do the film, gives you a lot of time to work on the part. Did you do any research for the part, and what did you end up doing and finding out for the role?

LC: We met all kinds of people, both together and separately, but we met men and women who served overseas, we met some who had returned, some who had returned and then redeployed. I met other people who were suffering form PTSD, I met people who weren’t, I met with psychologists, who counselled people when they returned, and asked what those people were like, and what it was like to be with those people, and where they think their psyche is at. Everybody’s story is very different.

I did things that weren’t in the film, and were never going to be; learned how to clean a rifle and shoot a gun. There are a lot of silences and a lot of unanswered questions in the film, which are some of my favourite things, and really a gift as an actor because that’s meant for you to fill in the blanks. So I just tried to learn as much as I could and have as much stored inside me, that she would know, so that during those times I could think her thoughts.

FRR: The unanswered questions are something else I want to ask about. All that Kelli will say about her experience in Afghanistan is that a lot of people had it worse. But do you know what she went through, and how important was that to your process, both of you?

LC: Yeah, I do. I know what I think she went through, and Liza and I talked about what she would and would not have gone through,and then I filled in the blanks myself. There were things that I took from everybody I met, form the people who wanted to talk, and from those who did want to talk, I still learned something from them. There were details I kept with me, from lots of different people’s stories, as things that were part of her experience. But I love that we don’t tell you what to think and how to feel.

Q: How did you decide on this topic for your film?

LJ: I guess the first thing was that I had a friend who told me about his struggle to stay married after he got back from deployment. I don’t know how it is here, but in the US when we have a public conversation about war it’s mostly about statistics. But when he talked to me – and he, as it happens, doesn’t have PTSD, his training made it possible for him to deal with the things he’d seen – but he still couldn’t describe those things to the person he was married to, and she couldn’t understand them without him describing them, and they just could never cross that gap. So, through him and through research I met a lot of different people and their stories were all radically different from each other.

There are also elements that are important to me, like the film is set in a town like the town I grew up in a lot of the people I met are from that town, so it’s a fictional character, but for me it started with how different it felt to hear about it through his account rather than the statistical register.

Q: Would you say that one of the themes of the film is that once you’ve lived war, when you try to go back to a normal life you still have this baggage you take with you?

LJ: I like that. I mean, I think that a lot of people find a good way to go forward, so I don’t think that in a hopeless way, but I think often people go forward in a different way, that they’re changed, that’s what I’ve heard.

FRR: I think for me as much as Return is a film about war, it’s a film about family, so I wanted to ask you about building that family with Michael Shannon – quite a different role for him – and how you and he worked with the children, both of you, building that very realistic family.

LC: Michael’s such a fantastic actor, and I was excited to work with him, and then when I met him, he’s really funny and really intelligent, and we had this great give and take, which I needed so much because before that I had spent so much time on my own without a real relationship in the film yet. When he came it was the first relationship I got to experience as the character, and we did a lot of our stuff together right away. In that time I shot so many scenes that I didn’t get much of a break, and Michael got to know the children better than I did, which really served our purposes well. He was great with the kids too, better than I was…

LJ: He has kid that age too, so he has an approach to a young child

LC: The little ones, twins, who had never worked in TV or film, they would call him ‘TV Daddy’. They were very cute, and their mom was great, she convinced the that it was play pretend time, and they were going to play with TV Daddy and TV Mommy, and they really enjoyed it. That’s really the way we should all fell about acting; making pretend. He was so great, that it was perfect for my character that I was a little outside it, because she really doesn’t know the children like he does, which I think is a really interesting dynamic a lot of men and women are facing when women leave the home, which they are doing more and more now in these wars.

LJ: I think that’s true too, what you said about this being a different role for Mike, and for me it’s really gratifying to get him and see him play it straight, cause he’s always like the psychotic person or the villain.

FRR: Yeah, it’s a different kind of intensity here, I think.

LC: And it really is about family, and thank you for noticing that, because it really is about a woman trying to return to her relationships Not only is she returning from war, she’s returning from somewhere her family doesn’t know her, and she doesn’t know them the same way anymore either, and that’s something that, even if you haven’t gone away like that you can understand on a human level.

FRR: I don’t think the film makes or is a definitive political statement, but, for both of you again, is there a message that you want people to take away from the film, or is it something you prefer we just take away for ourselves?

LJ: I think for me it’s most interesting if the film doesn’t tell you what to think or feel, and sort of throws you back on your own resources on that, and I don’t think that the film has politics in the obvious way that we talk about it in a public way, I don’t think it speaks in that way. But also, of course, I don’t think it’s outside of politics. I hope it can address something we see in the world in a different way, in a different register, and I hope that it stirs the account of these things that happen in the world in a way that is different than if I did tell you what to think, because we are used to that.

FRR: Is that attempt to not have an overt message something that came out of the films that have previously been made about the war on terror?

LJ: I mean, I think because of TV and policy conversations, but so much because the other fiction films.

LC: I think it’s one of the things that surprised me most about reading the script and then meeting Liza, I thought that behind it all there might be an agenda, that might be a secret between us (LJ laughs) and that really isn’t the case, which I really like, because when you’re going through some of the things she’s [Kelli, her character] going through, I’m not sure she’s completely aware of how she feels about the war. Having met people who proudly served, a lot times it wasn’t about policy, it was about brotherhood, or country, or duty, so I think we’re used to movies either telling us what they think, or posing a question and leaning one way, that I found it refreshing that I wasn’t trying to tell anybody how to think or feel.

Q: What’s your next project?

LJ: I don’t know which one’s going to happen first, but I’m attached to direct something I didn’t write, I’ve never done that, I have a script that I wrote before this one actually, so I have things that I’m working on but I don’t know which will happen first. It will probably be the one I didn’t write, because it’s written

FRR: Linda, do you have any upcoming projects, anything you’re working on?

LC: [Pats tummy] I’m working on this baby, I joke that both the movie and my child will be coming out early next year. In the meantime, as I’m entering into motherhood, I’m writing, I have something in development with a cable channel in the US.

FRR: Well, best of luck with both of those things, and with Return.

Thanks to Liza Johnson and Linda Cardellini for taking the time to sit down with us.

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