Rich Newey on killing Eleanor
I first became aware of the work of director Rich Newey a few years ago when I saw his "Dreamland" episode of the science fiction series Stitchers. Working from a bold script by Lynne E. Litt, Newey skillfully juggled styles and tones with an ingenuity and confidence that led me to seek his other episodic works on shows like Blindspot and The Fosters. I was consistently impressed by his precise, expressive visual style and his sensitivity to dialogue and performance, skills that are featured prominently in his great new feature film, Killing Eleanor.
The film tells the story of Natalie (Annika Marks), an addict in and out of rehab, who receives a visit from Eleanor (Jenny O'Hara), a terminally ill woman who has an IOU from Natalie, whom Natalie forgot long ago Has. Natalie is surprised by Eleanor's visit and shocked by the form of repayment the old lady is demanding: she wants Natalie to help her die. Natalie initially refuses, but when she needs some clean urine for a drug test, she makes a deal with Eleanor: Eleanor will pee in a cup and Natalie will help kill her. As Natalie's lies and Eleanor's past catch up with her, the implications of her transaction become more and more complicated, resulting in profound and often very funny drama with spectacular performances. Marks, who also wrote the script and co-produced the picture, plays a role where she has to play every note on the emotional scale. She does this flawlessly, and her scenes with the equally powerful O & # 39; Hara are beautiful and devastating. Newey's camera work is purposeful but unobtrusive and elegantly shows the extraordinary work of the actors with clarity and power. On his feature film debut, Newey draws on years of experience in recording television and music videos to display a director's control that captures the viewer in the opening scenes and never lets go.
Killing Eleanor will have its world premiere at the Savannah Film Festival on October 29th before moving on to other virtual festivals. For information on the Savannah event and other upcoming screenings, please visit @KillingEleanor on Twitter and Instagram or the movie's Facebook page. I spoke to Newey this week when he was on location in Canada, where he is currently making a television movie, to learn the story behind one of the best independent films of 2020.
Filmmaker: Let's start with the origins of the play. How early did you get in and how were your first conversations with Annika Marks about the script?
Rich Newey: First of all, full disclosure – Annika and I are married! When we first met she was mostly an actress but had been writing back and forth for years and wanted to do more of it. When I got the chance to read some of their stuff, I was really overwhelmed. Obviously she was very talented and I encouraged her to write more. Then she told me about Killing Eleanor. It was just an idea at the time that she had been thinking about for over 10 years. We liked the idea of working on something together, but knew we had to test the water before jumping into a feature.
We started with a self-funded short film called The Games We Play. As you may have guessed, there are two ways to work with your significant other! Fortunately, it was magical from the start. I come from the editorial team and Annika from acting. So we see things very differently and complement each other very well. Our strengths are really the other way around and that makes us a very strong team I think. Annika played in Thomas Sadoski's brief opposite with a handful of other great actors, all good friends. It worked out well at the festival, won a few prizes – but mostly we just had fun working together. So Annika felt encouraged to write to Killing Eleanor in the hope of making it together.
The writing process took over a year. Annika shared a few scenes with me when she was making them. It was really gratifying to be a sounding board for her that she trusted me. I was so impressed with how clear her vision was. I'm not sure when exactly I read the first draft, but I remember getting so excited to get my hands on it. I remember Annika really wanted a wall in our house to be repainted (I think it was the fourth time) and I said, "OK, I'll repaint it as soon as you finish a draft." A week later it was ready! So I got out the paint roller and we talked about the script. It was so good – the dialogue was phenomenal. We tweaked a bit, but not much. We decided to read a table in Laurel Canyon with a few friends, including Jenny O’Hara, for whom Annika had written it, so we could hear it out loud. This afternoon gave us a lot of confidence and we decided to do it.
Casting became priority one. Annika acted as our casting director and brought these great actors on board early on, including of course Jenny as well as Jane Kaczmarek, Betsy Brandt, Thomas Sadoski, Camryn Manheim and Chris Mulkey. We then worked out a budget and schedule, and then we hired our production partners Richard Kahan and Angie Gaffney. Angie had a relationship with the Chicago Media Angels, a wonderful group of investors who love filmmakers and indie films. We flew to Chicago to be unlucky, and two weeks later we found out they were going to fund the film. About a month later we were in preproduction. It was really a whirlwind – definitely not the normal way these things go. We were really lucky to meet the right people at the right time, but the real key was that we had done the legwork to come up with a compelling package. So we went on our way – Annika and I stumbled into Chicago and started looking for places.
Filmmaker: What was your personal connection with the material that led you to make the film?
Newey: In the film, Eleanor is 80 years old, terminally ill, alone and stuck in a nursing home. She wants to die on her own terms, rather than wither, keep alive with the help of machines and drugs. I have a lot to do with it because I recently lost my father. He was also 80 when he died. He suffered a very severe stroke and it basically made him unable to take care of himself, something my father would never have wanted. He had just beaten cancer and had previously undergone open heart surgery from which it was difficult to recover. But he was a warrior and determined and worked hard to keep his independence and quality of life. When the stroke hit it was devastating to say the least. We found him a nursing home to help him recover, the best we could afford. Cosmetically it seemed quite nice, but in reality it was perhaps the saddest place I had ever seen. During this time I got a glimpse into another world that was hidden from society, filled with our parents and grandparents who are totally dependent on strangers. Fortunately, my father did not endure his debilitated condition for too long and was able to exist peacefully. But that experience – seeing how someone like Eleanor "lived" – left an indelible mark.
When I read this first draft by Killing Eleanor, it aroused a lot of emotion. This idea, which dies with dignity, is complicated. Not for the person who wants it – for everyone else. But it has nothing to do with anyone else, does it? Everyone deserves autonomy until the end. So with this film we had a chance to share that perspective and I think it's an important discussion that we all need to have.
Filmmaker: Obviously this is a film that really depends on strong performance. What kind of conversations did you have with the actors before filming, and was there any kind of rehearsal process?
Newey: We had this great base camp set up at the Sonesta Suites in Lombard, IL, and they had a conference area that they let us use for the film. Every Sunday we had a kind of family dinner where we would rehearse for the coming week. Not so much to pin anything down as to have a discussion about the story, the characters' intentions, etc. I'm not a big fan of rehearsals, I much prefer to play while we're shooting and get as many variations as possible. I'm writing this up to my background as an editor – editing decisions are paramount. I also believe in the magic that can happen on set. So I try not to say anything before the first shot. I want to see where the actor will go with it, how that will inspire me, and how it will feed into the prep work I already did on the script.
Most of all, I've done what every good director does. I've surrounded myself with brilliant actors and let them do what they do best. It starts with Annika. I might be called biased here, but she's a director's dream. Jenny was wonderful to work with too – she does a tremendous job and her experience was invaluable as we designed Eleanor's arch which was very complicated to say the least. And our amazing supporting actors – every single one of them down to today's players – are all stage actors, and that was an indication of the wonderful performances that I was able to capture. I would fix the ship if it needed a course correction to make sure they all hit the beats, come up with ideas for them in the moment, but they all seemed so prepared, with strong, specific choices. As you know, there has to be trust between the actor and the director, and we have to trust each other in order to act and discover the unexpected. And I think we did. I like to create a warm, welcoming, playful space, no matter how heavy the material may be. There are no wrong answers. There is no right way. This also applies to the crew, from my DP to the PA on set. We're all creative people, aren't we? That's why we got into this business – at least I hope so. That's why I like to create an environment that encourages this feeling. I have a vision, I know what I want, but I love working with my creative partners and I know that working together gives me the most gain.
Filmmaker: How did you choose your cameraman and what kind of conversations did you have with her about the overall picture of the film?
Newey: My DP was Jessica Young. We went to film school together and have known each other for over 20 years. She's basically a family and there wasn't anyone I even thought of. We can kind of end each other's sentences on set and I think that was pretty trippy for everyone we saw on the set. She has shot many projects for me over the years, including the short one Annika and I did. Jessica's background lies in documentaries, filming such as Foo Fighters' Sonic Highways for HBO and the world famous "Gumball 3000" car rally. She's fearless and a total ass, but beyond that, she's an expert at capturing the complexities of humanity, both the beauty and the scars. Her art with the camera – finding those extraordinary moments that tell the story – is unparalleled. I knew Jessica would steal moments for me whenever she could. She has a way of finding those magical frames that were a real treasure to me when I got into editing.
Part of the look for the film was burned into the script, such as at the day spa. It was so clearly described, right down to the pink room where Eleanor is showing Natalie the IOU. I knew exactly what I was looking for when we were looking. Other sequences that we conceived in preparation using this amazing lookbook that Jessica put together. We spotted some things on the Tech Scout when I got a good idea of the blockage. To that end, Jessica and I knew very early on that most of the film would be hand-made. We wanted to immerse ourselves in the world of our characters – with them on their journey, hopefully to create an authenticity that complements their arcs and a visual style that serves the story in a non-flashy way. And I just have to say here, Jessica shoots one of the best handhelds I've ever seen.
Filmmaker: Expand that a little. What visual principles did you and Jessica use to create the visual language of the film?
Newey: Recording from handhelds was one of the first things we decided to do, but we didn't want to draw attention to certain camera movements. That's why we stayed away from unmotivated movements and instead tried to move the camera only when the characters were moving. We also tried to rely on a subjective point of view, and used diopters to capture those extreme close-ups of Natalie and Eleanor and get into their heads when story demanded. It isolated her from her background so we could literally be in her face and the world around her felt more disjointed. I've also tried using framing to capture the characters' mindsets, to put them briefly when needed, or to frame them within frames, things like that. We have used mirrors and reflections frequently throughout the movie to symbolize Natalie's struggle and the duplicity of addiction while playing with subjective truth. We also knew there were times when we had to sit longer on a shot than the viewer might like because our leading actresses were uncomfortable, and we wanted the audience to be with them on that journey.
In terms of color palette, pink became the enemy for Natalie. We implemented it in times of need or self-hatred. The day spa, for example, is literally drowning in pink, and we carried that through the movie when it made emotional sense to Natalie. At the other end of the spectrum, we were headed towards shades of blue for Eleanor's bow. In terms of lighting, in the first part of the film we talked a lot about using as much natural light as possible when we met our heroes. But then, when we put the scales into emotional turmoil in the second act, we took more liberties, like the side by side of Natalie at the red-lighted bar and Eleanor outside in the motel against blue.
Filmmaker: What type of camera did you shoot on and how was it selected?
Newey: We shot Amira on the ARRI. The most honest answer is, this is the camera my DP owned! Very helpful with our budget, of course. But beyond that, I think it was the right camera for us because it's a great tool for handheld film style. We had two cameras for the family intervention scene as well as the driving sequences, but everything else was shot on one camera and it almost never left Jess's shoulder – all over 35 pounds of it. Jess and I are both dumbbells for movies too, so we pulled out their Bolex and shot 16mm of the flashbacks we used during the credits. Originally I wanted to use film for the actual flashbacks in the film, but Jessica did some really great stuff with the Amira and it ended up being the better way.
Filmmaker: Where did you shoot?
Newey: We shot mostly in the suburbs of Chicago, along with a few days in Champaign, Illinois, and a second unit in Indiana and Michigan. The script was originally set in Washington and Oregon, but when our financiers got on board, we decided to rewrite it for Chicago. CMA is working hard to bring as much film to town as possible and we were very happy to be a part of it. You couldn't ask for a richer local talent pool than Chicago! The western suburbs, areas like Burr Ridge and Downers Grove, made the most sense for the film, giving us the variety of locations required to capture most of the road trip elements.
Annika and I came out a few weeks before the official preparation began and drove endlessly in search of the right places. We also did the road trip our heroes took to the Upper Peninsula because we wanted to know how it felt. I'm pretty sure I complained a lot about driving, but Annika was sure it would pay off and it really did. During this time we have found a good number of our locations and worked out the rest in preparation.
For the second unit days we went with Annika and Jenny and of course the Chevy Spark to a four-person crew for the road trip. Since we kind of researched during the prep, we had an idea of where we were going, but there really wasn't a shot list. We just drove north to Michigan and stopped to shoot where it made sense. That way we really took a documentary approach and shot a lot of footage. We also had a drone for a couple of days. I knew I wanted to capture the road trip from above and initially thought we'd cut these shots throughout the film, but it turned out to be much stronger to save them until the end once the characters' worlds finally opened up .
The lavender farm was the hardest place to find as lavender doesn't actually grow in Illinois in the fall when we were shooting! Fortunately, the farm had to be old and mostly shabby, only the flashbacks showed the actual lavender so we shot this in California. But the farm itself was a very special place. We found it while doing research in Champaign. It's called Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery. There were all these goats roaming the property. Jessica and I walked endlessly through the huge property and after about an hour we were in front of this lonely tree in the middle of a field. I'm not kidding you, it felt like holy ground. The wind whistled through the tall grass. It was peaceful. And we just knew that this would be the final set piece of the film. When we got back to the main farmhouse we told the owner about the area and how special it felt and he said, "Oh yeah, you must have felt the goats." We looked at him questioningly and he continued: "This is where I bury all my favorite goats when they die." We all have the chills.
Filmmaker: How many days did you have to shoot?
Newey: We shot 17 days, then two more days in the second unit, and then half a day in California to capture the flashbacks. It's always a crisis, isn't it? More time, more money, please … but you make it work. I come from the world of television and, before that, music videos so I'm used to moving quickly. Preparation is hugely important to me and has an editing background – knowing what you need, when you need it. There's just no time to go back if you miss something. So you really need to be dialed up to get things done. I think our biggest challenge was shooting at Champaign. It was really difficult to get all of the crew outside and resources were limited. To top it off, we got caught up in a snow storm in mid-October! It was some of our bigger days too, so we couldn't afford the hiccups … but there were inevitable. You just roll along and find out.
I also have to talk about the car we used in the movie, an electric blue Chevy Spark. It was exactly the same car Annika owned when we met. Her name was Pierre and I refused to drive in it because it was so small. I really didn't fit in with it! Annika was determined, perhaps more than anything else she had written, that we had to have this car in the film. By chance we spotted one parked outside a salon we were exploring and marched in to find out what car it was and made a deal. The guy was so confused: why should we be willing to pay to drive his shitty little car? And it was: there was no heat, we had to replace the brake pads because they basically didn't exist, and the tires because they were bare. And most importantly, we had to have it cleaned thoroughly because it was covered with a film of cigarette smoke. But it didn't end there. We needed two of these cars, exact replicas, because of the driving sequences. There was no time to assemble and disassemble the same car. Do you know how many electric blue Chevy Sparks exist in Illinois? Not so many! I think it took about two days before we started filming and finally found the second one. To Annika's great joy, I not only had to get into the car for the driving sequences, but also make myself tiny in the back seat so as not to be seen in front of the camera. I still remember the leg cramps. And then we drove that thing to the upper peninsula!
Filmmaker: So those were some of the challenges. What were the greatest joys during the shoot?
Newey: They really are innumerable. A special highlight for Annika and me was the casting of Jordan Arredondo to play Dillon. Jordan is a newbie and just an incredibly talented guy. The character was written when we were 19 and we wanted to cast an actor who really looked and felt his age. We knew it could be difficult to find the right actor with the right depth. When Jordan came to audition we knew he was the one right away and it was great giving him the opportunity. Another highlight for me was working with my friends – Jessica and our first AD Jenn Wilkinson. Jenn did us a big favor because she is so in demand and doing gigantic TV shows like Utopia for Amazon. But I knew our days would depend on great commercials, and I couldn't imagine the film going as well as it would without it, not just as an advertisement but also as a creative sounding board. Jenn was so in tune with the story and characters, and had so many brilliant ideas that found their way onto the big screen. We also had the opportunity to give our crew a chance to move up in their departments and everyone brought their A game with them. For example, this was the first feature for our production designer, Chelsea Daly, and she absolutely killed it with her all-female team in the art department. All in all, this was really the best movie experience of my life and I give credit to my amazing wife. Her script was a director's dream, her performance was fascinating, her determination to make the film was the engine of our journey. It was so much fun working together and we found out we are doing incredibly well!
Filmmaker: What did you learn from your work on episodic television that helped you with this film?
Newey: In a word: efficiency. I've always walked fast, especially from music videos. And you need to move fast on television too. The tricks that allow you to move quickly – like backing up to take another shot before cutting, and flying in a quick direction because once you cut there are a thousand changes made – have become muscle memory for me. It's instinctive. If I do this three times, I have saved half an hour. When I do things like that, the creative side of my brain can steer the ship and be much more free to help the actors make those magical performances, or to run to the first alternating current and step into the foreground to capture a moment, that I want. Of course, being an editor is also very helpful in being efficient. I firmly believe that everyone should take an editing course, including actors. Takes don't have to be perfect. You just need perfect moments. I never stay in a setup for too long. I get what I need and move on. Don't shoot six times in the distance. You will use it once, go ahead. For me, too, I'm a huge fan of transitions and use them to figure out the flow of everything that the piece is. I don't know if this is a TV thing or more of an editing habit that I've picked up, but understanding how to get into and out of a scene beforehand is really invaluable.
Filmmaker: Describe how the film developed in the editing process and how you worked with the editor. What were the most difficult aspects of getting the emotional tone and balance right?
Newey: I was the editor of the film so it was difficult to work together! Changing hats is always a challenge – being able to look at the footage objectively. The assembly took several months; between Annika and me we were finally allowed to spend our honeymoon (two years too late), which was a nice break in the middle of this process. I think my meeting lasted about three hours, which definitely freaked me out a bit. But of course there was a lot of air and scenes that didn't have to be there, etc. When I got into my director's editing, I refined it quite a bit.
The first thing I knew was that when Natalie felt the need to take a pill, I wanted something specific. At first I thought this was going to be some kind of metal scraping sound, but when I got into the cut I started experimenting with drums and suddenly it clicked for me. Music is incredibly important to my process too, and I've been fortunate to work with incredibly talented friends – composer Kevin Besignano, drummer Thierry Arpino, and music supervisors The Co-Stars, whom I know from my music video days.
The hardest aspect of editing was the first 10 minutes. I think I cut around 14 different versions. The original idea worked great as a standalone idea, but it didn't really support the rest of the film so I had to have an honest conversation with myself and Annika and we had to find other ways to get into the film. We also had to meet Eleanor much earlier than we did then. Annika and Richard and Angie were great soundboards. I think I almost gave up trying to find the solution, then it happened.
In terms of tone, we went into this movie thinking it was a comedy with a drama, but it turned out to be a drama with a comedy. The performances are so raw and so nuanced. We worked hard during filming to get the most honest depictions of each character to always prioritize the truth over laughter and that really set the tone for us. I was also very lucky to have Annika with me during the entire editing process – I edited the film in our small home office. Some directors may shy away from the idea that their lead / writer is editing, but for me it was a saving grace, especially as the weeks went on, and I needed perspective. It was really helpful to keep Annika's eyes on scenes when I cut her together.
Filmmaker: How has COVID changed how a film like this normally goes out into the world? How did you have to adjust your release / festival plan?
Newey: Virtual Festivals! Of course it's a bummer not being able to go to these festivals in person, but virtual gaming allows for a much larger audience and of course we want to have as many eyes as possible on our film. We're premiering at the Savannah Film Festival on October 29th, which we're incredibly excited about, and we're following the St. Louis International Film Festival, where I'm honored to be one of five directors nominated for the New Filmmakers Forum Emerging Directors Award.
We are now looking for the right home and were very interested. Ich denke, in der Zeit von COVID sind die Leute wenig hungrig nach Inhalten und fast alles wird direkt auf VOD veröffentlicht. Es gibt also viele Möglichkeiten für Indies, die so vollständig sind wie unsere. Darüber hinaus haben wir einen Film über die Würde am Ende des Lebens eines älteren Menschen gedreht, und wir glauben, dass wir diese Botschaft jetzt mehr denn je brauchen.
Filmemacher: Wenn es Ihnen nichts ausmacht, ein wenig vom Thema abzukommen, möchte ich abschließend fragen, wie es ist, jetzt einen neuen Film mit den neuen Protokollen zu drehen, die vom Coronavirus gefordert werden. Wie sind die Dinge anders?
Newey: Es ist gelinde gesagt interessant. Die Regeln sind hart, aber man gewöhnt sich daran. Die Produktion handhabt die Dinge gut. Ich fühle mich am Set sehr sicher, viel sicherer als im Supermarkt. Ich finde, dass ein Teil der Kameradschaft gelitten hat. Jeder versteckt sich hinter seinen Masken. Ich habe meinen Art Director neulich zum ersten Mal ohne Maske gesehen und irgendwie hat er sich spontan einen Vollbart wachsen lassen. Ich hatte keine Ahnung. Es war einfach komisch, etwas mehr als seine Augen zu sehen! Zu diesem Zweck scheint die Intimität zwischen Schauspieler und Regisseur etwas aus der Notwendigkeit heraus geopfert worden zu sein, um alle zu schützen, was natürlich von größter Bedeutung ist. Wir müssen also alle wirklich dafür kämpfen, um sicherzustellen, dass wir alle zuhören und uns verbinden, während wir Szenen durcharbeiten. Ich beende meine Tage immer gerne mit Dankbarkeit für meine Crew, daher denke ich, dass ich es am meisten vermisse, ihnen nach der Arbeit die Hand zu schütteln – jetzt muss ich einfach ein gedämpftes Dankeschön durch meine Maske schreien, zusammen mit einer Welle aus einer Entfernung von 6 Fuß.
Jim Hemphill ist der Autor und Regisseur des preisgekrönten Films The Trouble with the Truth, der derzeit auf DVD erhältlich ist und auf Amazon Prime gestreamt wird. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.