Director Carol Morley and star Patricia Clarkson discuss the genesis of this cosmic thriller, and their process for bringing to life its unusual central character.
The investigation thriller is practically a genre unto its own, a staple of film culture from the very beginnings of cinema. Dealing with themes of justice, order, and necessary violence, it is rich in fascinating and perpetually relevant ideas that directly interrogate human nature.
In her fourth feature, English director Carol Morley approaches the heart of humanity from a completely different perspective: that of the stars. When Mike (Patricia Clarkson) investigates the murder of a renowned astrophysicist, the victim’s research into the mechanisms of black holes and alternate dimensions triggers vivid flashbacks. Images and moments from Mike’s own past, long ago buried and forgotten, come to the surface and shake the usually placid investigator to her core.
Events of a personal, microscopic, or astronomical scale all blur into each other, and the usual tropes of the investigation thriller are morphed into barely recognisable shapes: the rhythm is slow but focused, as though the film was thrust into a black hole; each character is unique and magnetic, like so many planets orbiting around Mike. It’s an engrossing and hypnotically odd experience, obscure yet rewarding.
In Toronto, I caught up with Morley but also with Clarkson, who proved to be just as eloquent about the film as its director. They told me about getting the green light from Nicolas Roeg (director of the classic Don’t Look Now), creating the character of Mike, being compared to David Lynch, shooting in New Orleans, and much more.
Patricia Clarkson (PC): Okay, here we are, baby baby.
Seventh Row (7R): (laughs)
PC: Is this your bag? Is this your Berlinale bag?
PC: I love that, I was there this past year. I love them. Although we haven’t gotten a TIFF bag yet.
7R: Okay, I’m going to start. Can you tell me how this project came about?
Carol Morley (CM): Our producer on The Falling was Luke Roeg. His dad, Nicolas Roeg, saw The Falling and wrote me a letter that said, “There aren’t really words enough to describe a film that brings so many emotions to the fore. I want to congratulate you on a very original film.” He gave his blessing for me to look at this book that he’d wanted to do since it came out, for 15 years. Luke gave me the book to read, and I read it, and I was immediately drawn to the themes. I didn’t really process what it would be, or how it would be. I just liked the themes and the main female cop character Mike, and then I said, ‘I want to do it.’
I’d read the book twice, put it aside, never saw it again. An adaptation is really a translation of the book; it’s not a description of a book, and you should be free, I think, to make it for the screen. I think it’s very different from the book, but someone came to see it who loved the book and said, “Oh, I really connect that to the book.” It was strange because I found it was such a radical adaptation it might anger the people who loved the book. I think it’s a companion piece, and it’s very different.'An adaptation is really a translation of a book, it's not a description of it. You should be free, I think, to make it for the screen.' -Carol MorleyClick To Tweet
In a way, the book is a starting point, and then the theme of it, the characters, and the character of Mike, began to just take over my mind.
PC: Mike became Carol. Martin Amis was a catalyst and the diving board, but then she took it somewhere.
CM: I began to own the characters. And I think then, as a filmmaker, you’re just in another world, “This is inevitable. This film will be made, and this life has come to it.”
7R: How did you approach creating this character together?
PC: It was on the page. It was beautifully drawn and beautifully written. Mike is powerful for what she doesn’t say as much as what she says. It is this insular, silent, stoic character. It’s unusual, and that was there when I read it. It’s what drew me to it. I love Carol as a filmmaker, but the part had to be there. But I don’t want just the part to be great, I want the film to be great. And it was all there. It fascinated me. It moved me. It stirred me. I wasn’t sure if I could do this. I knew immediately, viscerally that Mike was in me. But I just had to make sure I could tap into that and bring it forth in a way that was loyal to the beauty and the vision of this script.'I knew immediately, viscerally that Mike was in me. But I had to make sure I could tap into that and bring it forth in a way that was loyal to the beauty and the vision of this script.' -Patricia ClarksonClick To Tweet
CM: But I think when Patricia starts to own Mike, it enriches it and takes on dimensions that you can’t even imagine. It’s a privilege to work with such a great actor because, for me, the frontline is the cast, and your lead is taking you through that movie. Patricia is in every scene. The whole film is seen through her eyes, though you don’t necessarily always know that. And when you see a film that’s beautiful, and it’s well-edited, and the acting is surface, it’s always so disappointing. Patricia owned Mike, and she took her places I never even imagined.
7R: What’s really striking about the film is that, as you say, it’s her perspective, and we are with her all the time. But at the same time, the editing and framing are so peculiar. It made me thing of David Lynch — you’ve probably heard that before.
PC: Where are you from?
7R: I’m French. I live in London.
PC: Your accent is just so beautiful.
CM: She is beautiful! Your accent is beautiful!
PC: Life is good!
CM: I never really think about David Lynch — I like his work but I never think of him when I’m making a film, or even particularly reference him. But other people do, and I think we’re similar because we’re tapping into the unconscious. So I’m not copying his style. What I’m trying to do with film is that tapping into the unconscious he does. He’s interested in dreams because dreams are a manifestation of the unconscious. I’m interested in this idea that our reality is very fragile, and that our realities are constructed through our perspectives. That’s why film is so cerebral: you can play around with that in film even more than you can in a book. It’s not so much the style, the comparison, but more this desire to tap into the unconscious.'I never really think about David Lynch, but other people do. I think we're similar because we're both tapping into the unconscious.' -Carol MorleyClick To Tweet
7R: The film seemed to deconstruct the TV Cop archetype. How did you work on this?
PC: I met with a female detective. But I think that’s all external. The key to Mike was the deep emotional trauma and life that she had within her. You think she’s this tough, masculine, unadorned woman — which is also a beauty to play, as the dichotomy of playing a woman that does not care about beauty, doesn’t have frills and extras. She’s a very plain woman in a way. It’s refreshing to work every day on a set, and I have no crutches. I don’t have heels, hair, makeup. I don’t even have a damn purse! (Laughs)
CM: You have pockets!
PC: You’re stripped every day when you show up on the set. But you have to carry that emotional baggage. That’s what I had to have in order to play this part. And that was me doing my homework in the wee small hours of the night, by myself, just the preparation connecting my own personal life to the character. I’m lucky I’ve never suffered the catastrophic trauma that Mike has, but I’ve certainly had trauma and heartbreak and sadness in my life. That’s what’s most important in this character: you realise this woman who seems so stable and sure-footed, is deeply fragile and is falling a part in front of your eyes.
7R: The setting of New Orleans is such a viscerally powerful place. How did that inform your work?
CM: As a filmmaker, you plan and plan and plan, and then the important thing is to embrace the things that occur. Being in New Orleans, there’s just things that you feel. When we filmed by the Mississippi River, you might have an idea of the shot. But then you get there, and you reimagine where you’re going to be, where you’re going to look. There was so much going on at the time. Making a film, you have to bring everyone with you. Everyone has to feel connected to the film. They have to love it as much as Patricia and I loved it. Everyone began to feel that things were happening — somehow, supernaturally making us feel part of an energy. Although it’s a struggle and difficult to make films, an actual film is a manifestation of a group of people’s energy coming together and forming something that their power just pushes forward, and things you couldn’t anticipate come together. So New Orleans gave it.'Shooting in New Orleans, everyone began to feel that things were happening - somehow, supernaturally making us feel part of an energy.' -Carol MorleyClick To Tweet
PC: I was born and raised there, did you know that? So that city lives in me. It is a very deep part of me, and it’s essential to my soul. It’s my birthplace. My whole family still lives there. It was quite poetic to go home and to play a woman who goes home at the end.
CM: I was very interested, as well, in the way that the city was Mike. Mike is burying her past, not necessarily consciously, and so is the city of New Orleans; their statues are being taken down, and there’s this whole problem with the past. There was this advertising slogan from the turn of the 1900s or so — “the city that care forgot.” It was meant to be all laid back, but actually, it got forgotten. That’s why we have city hall in the story, the relationship to the politics of the city and Mike — a city burying its past just like a person.
7R: We can actually feel that energy in the film. Even in the slower moments, there’s always this tension. Through the story of the stars, and the very metaphysical and scientific threads.
CM: I’m not a studied astrophysicist, but people are getting more and more interested in astrophysics and cosmology, so I approached it like an innocent. I hadn’t even studied it in school. I didn’t know that we were all stardust! As soon as I found out that we’re all carbon — we’re all related to each other — I got very excited. The double-slit experiment, this idea of parallel universes — it was not that complicated to introduce it into the film, because it was introduced into the film via Mike. She doesn’t know anything either, to start with!'There was this advertising slogan from the turn of the 1900's - 'the city that care forgot'. New Orleans was meant to be all laid back, but actually, it got forgotten.' -Carol MorleyClick To Tweet
PC: What’s her line, “’I’m kind of a down-to-earth girl,” you know?’” “Whatever that is, the cat in a box, it’s dead. That’s what I know.” There’s beautiful humour in Mike, too. She’s wry. She’s dry. The trauma has shut so much of her life down, but she’s a really rather wonderful person that hasn’t really had a life.
7R: Usually when you have a bad cop who experiences trauma, they become bad people. But she’s not at all.
PC: What I think is beautiful, and which comes through in the film, is that there are beautiful moments. (slipping into Mike’s perspective) “My chief knows I’ve struggled, knows I’ve been an alcoholic, and knows that I have a kind of sad, simple life, and the way they look at me, at times, I forgot just how much my co-workers really are invested in me.” It’s not overstated; it’s not played up. It’s just the way Aaron [Tveit, who plays her co-worker] looks at me sometimes, and the way Yolanda looks at me. They’re all such fine actors — truthful, lovely. And they’re also really gorgeous. Thanks for putting two really gorgeous people around me!
7R: Films about detectives are usually about men, and usually in a very macho way. This film isn’t like that. How did you approach this?
CM: I was excited by having a woman with an investigative gaze. That’s why Mike has that magnifying glass throughout the film, to emphasize the gaze. Of course, the history of cinema, and writing around it, especially from Laura Mulvey on, it’s looking at the female gaze and why that’s problematic for people. For me, Mike was somebody who was looking, for the first time, in places she hadn’t looked before. So she’d looked for clues all her adult life, but not for clues to do with herself. That was very exciting, and when we see what she sees, we’re sometimes not sure what we’re seeing, because she isn’t sure what she’s seeing. I didn’t think, “Oh, I’m doing a female cop,” but “I’m doing an experience.” And I can understand this experience.'I was excited by having a woman with an investigative gaze. For me, Mike is somebody who is looking, for the first time, in places she hadn't looked before.' -Carol MorleyClick To Tweet
7R: Can you tell me about the music in the film?
CM: We didn’t want to do a kind of…
PC: Dixie jazz. Lot of trombone, lot of slide.
CM: But some of the instrumentation is inspired in a very subtle way by New Orleans music. And the sound design uses electrical currents. But through the sound design and the music, we were always very conscious of “This is Mike.” We’re not imposing anything on Mike — this is somehow coming from inside her.
It’s great to work with Clint Mansell, because he’s done so many films, so you don’t have to labour the point about that. He understands the fine line between enjoyment of music, where a film has music, but you don’t want to just take a character’s emotion away by overpowering it. It’s a difficult balance.
On Memory, Trauma, and Genre
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Ben Foster made a career of playing characters whose trauma affects them in different ways, across a broad range of films spanning many genres.
Alice Winocour’s Disorder is a meditation of trauma, but also a heartpounding home invasion thriller.