Interview: Writer-Director Sabrina Doyle (Lorelei)
On the day her feature debut, the magical and haunting Lorelei, would have premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, writer-director Sabrina Doyle gathered her team on a Zoom call to reunite, reminisce, and celebrate the best way they could.
Two weeks later, Doyle joined me on the phone to discuss working with child actors, respecting the agency of her characters, and finding ways to be visually creative on a tight budget.
Note: the transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity and continuity.
Zach D’Amico (Rough Cut) How are you doing? Sabrina Doyle (Writer-Director, Lorelei) Good, good. Super disappointed not to be doing this in person, and not to have screened the film to be able to gauge response in person, but obviously there are much more serious things happening. ZD I think most people I know feel badly feeling bad for themselves because of everything else going on, but at the same time, it’s [COVID-19] still having such a huge impact on people even when it isn’t life and death. But I saw you all got together for a celebration on the day that would have been the premiere? SD Aw, you know, the thing I’m most disappointed about is how these kids were so excited to come to New York, none of them have ever acted before, this is their first film…and it was just such a big deal for them. My heart broke a little bit that we couldn’t do that for them, so we did this nice zoom party, where we played little acting games, and shared reminiscences of being on set. You know there are certain experiences in childhood that you remember your whole life, and I think for these kids, doing their first movie is going to be something they never forget. ZD One of the things that I wanted to talk about was the children. As you said, they were all first time actors. And all three characters were extremely distinct, in not only their personalities but even in their relationships to their mother and to Wayland. I think you often get an amorphous blob in movies, you know, sort of “these are the child characters,” so I’m wondering how you went about writing children to make them feel so fleshed out and distinct even in supporting roles. SD I really hate movies where secondary characters feel generic. And that comes out of necessity a lot of the time, because you’ve only got so much screen real estate, and you have to spend it on your leads. But I really tried hard not to do that, especially with the kids. I did various passes of the script, I’d do a pass where I’d focus on Wayland, and I’d do a pass where I focused on Dolores, and then I did do a pass that was focused on the kids. And our producer said something really nice to me, which was a really nice way of thinking about the film, he said “I think this is a love story between 5 people.” ZD That’s a great way of putting it. SD Those kids, I just feel so fortunate. For budget reasons, we had to limit our search to a very small geographic area, and we spent a lot of time looking, we went to acting camps, we went to any sort of schools. We’d do street casting, and it was quite creepy, you know, “hey do you want to be in a movie,” and the parents would be like “who the hell are you?” I’m British as well, so it’s doubly weird. But we got so lucky. None of the kids had acted. We spent time in preproduction getting them to know each other, we played little acting games, we sort of hung out together. When we started filming, they were already feeling like a family. The two younger ones really looked up to Chancellor, he was acting like a big brother. And part of it is also that you need some great scene partners as well to pull that kind of thing off. So there were two scenes I can tell you where Pablo [Schreiber] and Jena [Malone] gave everything they had to those kids to get them to perform the way they did. So there was the scene where Denim spits at Dolores— Jena was key to that performance, she walked Parker through everything they would do, she gave Parker permission to spit, she said she would not be upset, she encouraged Parker [Pascoe-Sheppard] to spit harder, she made it fun. And then Pablo, in the scene outside the dive bar where Dodger punches him, even when he was off camera, and we were shooting Chancellor [Perry]’s coverage and not Pablo’s, Pablo gave everything, because he knew that to get that performance from Chancellor he would need to give everything. So it was a team effort, everyone working really hard It was the thing I was most nervous about, because they’re so important to the screenplay, and a lot of kids are just sort of, they’re just cute, they’re like Disney kids— nothing wrong with Disney, but that’s not right for this movie. ZD And these aren’t necessarily easy roles for children. Wayland is walking into a family with half-siblings of different skin tones and gender identities, but other than one or two scenes, there’s not a central focus on these issues. They’re just facts of life that exist, and we all go through life and deal with it, and so the kids don’t get to speak these things out loud— they have to show it in their physicality and on their faces. Was that purposeful the way you treated those issues? SD Yeah, it was very purposeful, and I put a lot of thought into it, and to be honest I’m still very nervous about it because I can see a world in which people want more. They might see it as sort of undercooked or under-baked or glossed over. But here’s the thing, if you’re a trans or queer child, or if you’re a person of color, do you only get to be in movies that are about those issues, or do you get to be in movies that are about other issues and just happen to be those things as well? I didn’t want to assume that this family was a family with just white kids or just straight kids. I didn’t want to pretend that that wasn’t there, but on the other hand I didn’t want to make that the focus of the movie, so it was a really tough balancing act. But a lot of thought went into it. ZD Another thing that stood out was the way the film seems to have an immense amount of respect for every character in it. I’m wondering how much of that comes from the time you spent in Oregon meeting people, meeting the real-life versions of these characters. SD Part of what I wanted to do with the movie was to dismantle binaries of what it means to be a good mother, a good father. I feel like we allow fathers to screw up in cinema, and mothers can’t, and I thought that it was important to try and show a complex maternal character, that was a great mother in some ways and a very loving mother, but who also wanted something for herself That was important to also give men permission to expect a different side, and have a film that shows a softening there, and a relaxing. And I just have enormous empathy for flawed characters. I like bad people in film, and I wish that there were more women who were…not bad people, but you know, anti-heroes. And I like the fact that in this film Dolores is the antagonist in some ways. I think part of it is that we did do a lot of research, we went to Oregon, we spoke to people in biker communities and at motorcycle pubs and to people in the criminal justice parolee community. Cinema for me is a medium of compassion and connection. I feel the function of cinema is served in my life when I go into a film and I feel the pain of another character, and I see the struggle and I see the screw-up and that’s normalized, that makes me so relieved. For me that’s the function of cinema, and so I don’t want to dismiss bad things. I want to show the fabric of life and the human. ZD And I think you get that emotional response when you get as close as possible to the characters' truths. It was clearly important to show that Dolores, despite everything she’s gone through, has agency and can have some control to make choices. There was a moment when a lot of things seemed to be happening to her, and I think a lot of people have felt that way, where life is just happening to them, and it’s a lot of bad things. When Dolores says to Wayland, “we’re better than that,” and she takes control of her own life and quits her job, that moment felt very cathartic for both her and for me as a viewer. SD I think sometimes in certain films, if it’s a film that’s really hard to watch and puts you through the ringer, I think that’s considered to be a virtuous thing, especially when showing the lives of disadvantaged and marginalized people. And I get that, but I think that cinema is also [more]. I wanted to show what they experience from the outside, the indignities, but also the inner life, and the sort of life that nourishes them, the daily lives of these characters. I wanted to have scenes in the film for no other reason than to enjoy life, like the karaoke scene… ZD Yes, love that scene SD And that was really important to me, I didn’t want people to feel miserable. I don’t want it to be a miserable film, or a sentimental film, or one that tells you everything will be okay, cause I’m not sure everything will be okay, but I do think for the characters, seeing their mother floating above them like that at the end like a sea angel... ZD And the camera gazing down at them as they look up... SD Yeah I think that’s a moment they’ll [re]play again and again for their entire lives, a moment they’ll always carry with them, something that out of all this hardship is really positive. ZD I wanted to talk about the visual aspects of your filmmaking. Even though Lorelei deals with heavy subject matter, it never feels heavy, it never feels like a slog. One aspect of it is that you captured motion and movements in this ethereal way — in the karaoke scene, for example, or even the simple movement of the tire swing. And I’m wondering how you managed to capture this sense of magic in such a grounded, realistic movie, especially with an independent production and a tight budget. SD Yeah, there’s a lot you can get out of visual contrast. We have moments in the film where the camera is pulled back and looks at the characters in a very still way, and gives you a breath and a pause, and you’re not necessarily feeling what the characters are feeling but you’re reflecting for a minute. And I think we tried to build a visual structure that would have moments of visual contrast, so we used different shooting styles a lot, we really mixed and matched. It’s really hard to do camera movement on a budget; if you do handheld that’s fine, that’s easy to do on a budget, but any other type of camera movement is really hard. We didn’t have money for a Steadicam, we didn’t have time or space to make dolly track, but we did some Movi work with a Movi rig, which served us well. I love camera movement, but it’s not camera movement for the sake of camera movement, it’s camera movement in the service of the moment and the story. So we went through the script, scene by scene, and talked about what we wanted to do in terms of camera movement and placement and lensing for that scene. I feel like as a filmmaker, you need to have a distinctive style and a signature type of shot that you do or something, and I feel that it’s a lot of pressure on a filmmaker. This film has quite a varied toolbox, and used everything where it was needed to be in service of whatever that scene wanted emotionally. So that’s camera movement, or there are certain bits of the scene where we use imagery where the characters are trapped in frames within frames. And the movement is important in anything around the kids and Dolores. ZD Yeah, the scene in the car where she’s talking about her dream, she’s in the passenger seat, and it’s a handheld camera — it was entrancing, and you were glued to what she said. SD And the background is moving, the wind is moving in her hair, there’s a kind of energy in that scene even though they’re just sitting in the car. And the light is moving, they are moving in between tree cover, so you’ve got the lights flickering, you’ve got a lot of light in that scene, that’s one of my favorite scenes. ZD You mentioned what you can do with juxtaposing various imagery and visual style, and one thing I noticed was two of the early scenes when Wayland spends the night with Dolores. The first time, you sort of use a series of jump cuts that almost matter of factly show the two getting undressed, and the camera is a bit further away. But then the second scene is much more visceral and emotional, and had what may have been the sun shining through a window, but it essentially looked like a spotlight on their bodies. They were shot so differently, and it was such a stark contrast, and they created such different feelings. SD The first attempt is a failed and stilted attempt, and that was intended to reflect where the characters are emotionally, and the second time, they’d just gotten really angry with each other, the anger spilled out into passion. The jump cut — which was a decision we made, some people are jarred by it, but it felt so right to me for the moment — it’s an editing style that we don’t often see these days. But I love that kind of cutting, I wish we did it more. It’s nice when you have two moments in a film that are similar, but you shoot them differently. I do this because I see films that do it and I appreciate it so much and it makes me so excited that I try and emulate it. Because when you see that in a film, that inner logic in a film — things recur, things repeat, but they’re not quite the same — that feels so exciting to me as a filmmaker because it shows a visual and emotional evolution. It shows there’s something alive in the film and the characters. That was also the idea behind the beginning and end of the film: you have bookend scenes that have Dolores in the water, and in the beginning she’s in the fetal position, and by the end of the film she’s grown into this mermaid, this half and half creature. And that last shot, my composer Jeff Russo, we had such an interesting conversation about what the music should be for the very last image, and he said, I want the audience to lean forward, so they’re leaning forward and they’re leaning forward and then it ends, and I don’t want them to relax or breathe out or feel that things are resolved. It would be easy for a film like this to kind of make you feel settled and resolved at the end and I really didn’t want that. And that’s not to say it’s not a hopeful ending, I think it is, but it’s not a definitively hopeful ending, and that’s what I wanted, I wanted the audience to be leaning forward at the end. That feels like it’s a win. ZD It’s the type of ending where you feel like this is where you stopped watching their lives, not where their lives stopped. SD Yeah, that’s a really nice way [of putting it], I might steal that. ZD Thank you for taking the time after a long day of interviews and starting to lose your voice. SD It’s nice to connect. We missed out on doing this at Tribeca, so obviously it's nourishing and soul-soothing, it’s great. It makes me happy. You make a film in a bubble, you don’t know how people will respond to it, and it’s just really nice to start getting feedback and responses and hearing what resonates.