Joel Edgerton and Noomi Rapace in the secrets we keep
Four of the best performances I've seen so far this year are all in the same movie, Yuval Adler's suspenseful thriller The Secrets We Keep. Noomi Rapace, who also co-produced the film, plays Maja, a Romanian immigrant from America after World War II who leads a quiet life with her doctor husband Lewis (Chris Messina). Her quiet existence is upset when Maja is convinced that her neighbor Thomas (Joel Kinnaman) is a Nazi who tortured her years earlier during the war. When Maja kidnaps Thomas and locks him up in her basement, the film becomes a morally thorny and extremely exciting thriller in which the balance of power between Maja, Lewis and Thomas is constantly shifting in a fascinating way. When Thomas & # 39; wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) tries to find out where her missing husband has gone, the situation becomes even more of a pressure cooker, and director Adler skillfully plays the audience like a piano, shifting our sympathies from one character to another We are constantly forced to recalibrate our assumptions and expectations. Rapace, Kinnaman, Messina and Seimetz are all fantastic in the film. They play out their characters' moral complexities and ambiguities in a natural and honest way, but leave the audience (and the other characters) guessing, and Adler masterfully maintains the point of view of where it should be in each scene for maximum emotional and intellectual strength. Given the uniform excellence of the performances, I was excited to speak to Adler and ask about his actors and his way of working. We spoke on the phone on the opening day of the film (it is currently in theaters and will arrive on all major VOD platforms on October 16) and first discussed the origins of the project.
Yuval Adler: Noomi Rapace brought it to me. I knew Greg Shapiro, another producer on the film, from something I almost did with Kathryn Bigelow. He said, "There's this script. It takes work, but it's a good premise. Naomi has seen Bethelehem (Adler's first feature) and she wants to talk to you." They already had a start date – they came to me in December 2018 and the film should be shot in April. I was a little reluctant at first because I was exhausted. I had just finished another film, and while the premise for this script was fruitful, it had to be rewritten very aggressively. Naomi saw it the same way and said, "Let's talk about it. Let's meet." She's a very powerful personality and she really wanted to make this movie – and when she wants to do something it's almost impossible to say no. So we met and talked about what we liked about the script, what we wanted to change … and we had that start date in April. Now in Hollywood everyone says, "Oh, we're shooting that day," and they never take it seriously. But this time they were really ready to shoot in April. So I rewritten page one during preproduction and well into production. It was very intense.
From a cinematic point of view, it was interesting to find the nooks and crannies in this genre piece that would elevate it so that it's not just things that we've seen before. And I've had this wonderful opportunity to work with great actors. Noomi and Joel were already there when I walked in, then we cast Chris Messina and Amy Seimetz. Also, the movie I made earlier was The Operative, some kind of international spy thriller. Every day we moved to a new place. And I liked the idea of making a movie that would take a lot of time in one place so I could focus on acting. That really attracted me.
Filmmaker: Well, in terms of working with the actors, you are dealing with movie stars here, one of whom is the producer. How was that different from what you had experienced on something like Bethlehem?
Adler: It couldn't be more different on paper, because in Bethlehem my three main actors were non-actors. Her job with me was her first job. Basically, by the middle of the movie, they believed they could get fired. They didn't understand how this worked and I encouraged them to have that belief. (laughs) Not that I need it. I'm just saying they didn't know anything. They were people who were just grateful to be there.
With Naomi and Joel this is of course a different ball game. That's the cool thing about this thing. There are four actors here and each one was very, very, very different. Naomi was one of those people, you meet her and instantly feel like your family, like you've known them forever and can tell them any shit you want. They can be tough with each other and it's not a problem. I had that with Naomi right away. It was very strange. As I said, this was her passion project, and as a producer, she pushed me to do the film and pushed the other producers to let us take the film in any direction we wanted. And we took it in a different direction than originally intended. Then when we got on the set, she suddenly stopped being a producer and became an actress, which scared me because I was used to her being a producer – in a good way. She was my partner to get things done, and now when I needed something she suddenly said, "I'm not doing this." "What do you mean that you don't?" “I'm not doing that. I'm the actress now, I'm not the producer.” That was really very smart of her because as a producer you think of everything you need to keep this thing moving, but as an actor there are limits – you have to be able to get what you need as an actor and you don't care about what it does to the production. You know, she's been making films since she was a fetus. She knows everything and she was great to work with because I could be very hard with her, I could be very loving – whatever it took because she was instantly like family.
I had an interesting arc with Joel because he had a different deal and arrived when we were already shooting. He got into a very intense situation where he had to make 80% of the film bound. This is very difficult for an actor to do, not just physically, but because it takes half of your expressiveness away. You literally can't even move your hands. So it was frustrating for him. And I sometimes like to do 15 takes and I like to do takes in a row. Joel had to be tied up for all of this and he didn't know me. He got there a week later and all of a sudden had this guy with an accent he doesn't know and told him to do all this shit. So we had some clashes on the first or second day. Then it was a weekend and we sat and talked and it really changed. Now we're looking for common activities, are best friends, and share subversive media on WhatsApp.
Filmmaker: What about the other two actors? Chris Messina and Amy Seimetz are really great in the movie too.
Adler: Chris Messina is a great actor. He's just a joy. He's so funny and a fanatic. He's on set all the time. He has a lot of ideas and he would come up to me and say things like, "Listen up Yuval, I know you probably want me to break down here, but I want to play it really cool." And for two hours he would nag me to death about what he wanted to do and I would always say, "Yeah, sure. Let's try. Do it." Then if I said "action" he would immediately do the opposite of what he tried for two hours to convince me! He said, "I don't know, it just didn't feel right." It was really funny. And he has this prep thing where he starts screaming before taking it and it would drive all the other actors crazy. But when you say action he's in a nutshell and does things in so many different ways. Very different from Joel, who is like a laser. He has to know what you want, he has to agree and then boom, he gets it. While Chris are just raw emotions. You channel it that way and then direct it another way and whatever.
Amy is very precise, very smart. She has to play someone who always has something in hand and doesn't like anything to show, but is in a difficult position to let out something that she shouldn't be showing on the outside. She played that beautifully. The script was written all the time while we were shooting. I had to write, write, write, write, and at one point there was a big scene with Amy that I wasn't happy with. So I met up with Amy and Noomi over the weekend and they improvised. I just transcribed what they said and I brought it to my room, edited and created this scene. I love things like that. We did the same with the last scene of dialogue between Naomi and Chris; We changed it until the last minute and postponed filming until the afternoon so we could still work on writing it over lunch.
Filmmaker: What did you think about the visual style of the film? I thought you did a good job keeping things from getting monotonous in the confined space in the basement, where so much of the story is set.
Adler: That was our DP, Kolja Brandt, a German. I shot The Operative with him in Germany and then brought him here. He was constantly thinking about how to easily adjust the lighting to match the physicality of the room and not make it monotonous. Aside from important genre shots – you know, a big shot with a gun or whatever – we didn't list them because we usually just wanted to follow the actors. I wanted to shoot with the widest possible lenses and just dance with the actors. The actors would rehearse it, we would see what they were doing, then he would basically set it on fire in two directions. Every time you shot you had 180 degrees of go anywhere. We did that, then we changed direction. Yeah, I think he did a very good job on the lighting and made the movie dark but not monotonous.
Filmmaker: How were the Louisiana locations selected?
Adler: The location was chosen based on the tax credits you receive as they are typically chosen in American filmmaking these days. At first I didn't want to be far from home and they said, "Oh, but we're shooting in New York." Then, when I was too deep to withdraw, they said, "Look, we can't shoot in New York. It's too expensive. We're going to be moving to New Orleans and there's nothing you can do about it." loved going to new orleans. I didn't want to leave home, but I loved going to New Orleans. There is a lively community there with many experts. We never shot in New Orleans, we shot in the suburbs because there are a lot of suburbs that look a lot like the 50s. When you watch the movie, the houses are raised so you can tell it is New Orleans. At first we asked ourselves, "Oh, should we fix it digitally?" We talked about it and then just let it go.
Filmmaker: One of the things I love about the film is how it really impresses audiences in terms of how they identify with the characters. It really makes you question them all and constantly reevaluate where you think you stand on their actions. And I'm curious, did you find in the editing room that it was difficult to find the right balance?
Adler: It's amazing how much character there is in editing. We had a screening where people felt, “Oh, the husband is too passive. He feels weak. “The editor, Richard Mettler, and I sat for a week and passed down this character that we changed it on. The next time we saw it, people said,“ Oh, he's such a tough guy. ”So you can take any character Completely change the editing process and try to create a balance of power between them. In the first few cuts, Joel's character was too evil, so we made a cut that was much more ambivalent. Then we wanted Naomi to make her feel totally safe at the beginning and later starts to doubt herself. We got that in her acting but put more pressure on editing. It's remarkable what you can do in this type of movie that is about people's faces, with just rhythm and pauses and by choosing the right settings, you can really recreate the character.
Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD and streamed on Amazon Prime. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.