Before one of the most intense scenes in “No Light and No Land Anywhere,” writer/director Amber Sealey makes an unusual decision. After following a British expat named Lexi (Gemma Brockis) around Los Angeles over a lost weekend, days after leaving behind her husband and other vestiges of her life across the pond in search of her father who deserted her at the age of three, the film sees its protagonist head home with two men from a local bar for a night of intrigue, made even more so by Sealey’s choice not to show how they met, but instead only the facade of the bar, encouraging the audience’s mind to wander.
“I wanted people to piece things together themselves,” Sealey says of the scene, which if actually filmed might’ve looked like a million others that have been in films before, but with its absence makes “No Light and No Land Anywhere” unlike any other. “We all have our own rich inner lives that we bring with us when we go to watch a movie, that help us fill in the gaps and I like having those little gaps, leaving space for the audience to make their own emotional choices.”
That’s one of the reasons Sealey’s third feature is so electric, as well as Brockis’ fearless performance as Lexi, who wouldn’t have needed to travel thousands of miles from home to feel like a stranger in a strange land. In Sealey’s native city in real life, “No Light and No Land Anywhere” weaves a bewitching tale of Lexi’s misguided search for acceptance, looking for it outside when she’d be better off seeking within, leading her to a reckoning with her put-upon half-sister (Jennifer LaFleur) who takes care of their ailing mother while working on call as a nurse. The filmmaker not only engages an audience mentally, but asks them to feel almost physically as well, investing heavily in small, tactile moments such as a hand grazing hand across the water at the beach or watching in wonder at the frost that accumulates along the screwhole of an airplane window at 10,000 above ground that suggest adventure in ordinary spaces with all the inherent uncertainty and potential danger.
A day after the provocative film debuted to acclaim at the Los Angeles Film Festival, Sealey and Brockis described their own adventure of making it, using a semi-improvisational approach, a mix of professional and nonprofessional actors and finding evocative locations.
Amber Sealey: Yeah, she did. We’ve been friends for almost 20 years now, and we worked together in the London theater [in a] company called Shunt that Gemma’s still a member of. We really admired each other as performers and clicked immediately. We did a lot of little weird performance art together, then when I moved to LA and I started making movies, over the years, I’d say “I want to put you in a movie one day,” and she said, “I want to be in one of your movies one day.”
At the same time, Gemma’s father passed away when she was quite young, so as friends we’ve had these conversations like, “What would your life have been like if your dad had been around?” I took that little grain of an idea, and then turned it into something completely fictional, so there was the fact of wanting to work with Gemma, this weird thing about the dad and then just also funny little things that she did when she came to visit me in L.A. and I was like, “Okay, let’s merge all that together.”
So for Gemma, does the script just arrive at your doorstep and you see where that inspiration led Amber or did you develop it together?
Gemma Brockis: [Amber] came up with the idea. We had the conversation of “I really miss you and I’d like to do something. What could we do? Can we do a movie?” She suggested that, and I was like “Of course. Yes!” Then she’s like “Okay, I’m going to think about that.” Then she came back with this idea and it was all Amber who expanded it into the story. When I came over to film, because of course [the film] was improvised, then some of my stuff then fed into and responded to her stuff.
Amber Sealey: We’d definitely talk about things, and it was the same with the other actors as well, we all have an input into that…
Gemma Brockis: But the story’s definitely Amber’s.
Besides the dialogue, did you talk a lot about the physicality of the characters? It seemed like Lexi’s a character who wants to crawl out of her own skin.
Amber Sealey: We never phrased it that way exactly, but this was a woman just completely at the end of her rope when she’s got nothing left to lose. Her marriage has crumbled and she’s left her husband and her country. There’s no dialogue saying it, but the idea is that her career also isn’t really thriving. She’s just hit this wall in her life where she feels like, “Oh, this missing piece is my father. Had I had my father in my life all this time, things would have been different. Maybe I wouldn’t be depressed.” So she puts all of her problems in life in this one little “I didn’t have a dad” bag, and she carries that around. Certainly, it’s a woman who’s definitely in a bad place and like you say, [with] the hand washing, she’s definitely not at ease with any part of her life really.
Since this is Gemma’s first movie role, was screen acting something different?
Gemma Brockis: Of course, but I work mostly in the kind of stuff that has the audience all around it – it’s immersive theater, back in London. There’s quite a lot of people quite close up to you in the audience, so in a strange way, I’m quite used to having some people right here and some at a distance and it’s not quite like coming from the stage. The experience of being in the film, everybody was working with what was happening in the performance in such a fluid way that I didn’t really experience it as a big shock.
Amber Sealey: She’s just so good. Gemma can do anything.
Gemma Brockis: Amber and Catie [Goldschmidt, the cinematographer] particularly on the camera, it was such a special environment that I never felt like “Oh my god, I’ve got to get this thing right and then do it again in this way.” It was very friendly.
You can sense how strongly the locations make an impression on Lexi. What went into choosing them?
Amber Sealey: Some of it was just simply [asking] “Okay, when a foreigner comes to Los Angeles, what do they do? They all go to the beach. They all go to Hollywood Boulevard and they all want to see the view from Griffith Park.” We actually used Elysian Park, but there are these basic things that make a huge impression on a visitor coming over here that are such iconic things, [speaking] both as someone who lives here and cinematically [where] you know you can just plant a camera anywhere and you have some stunning image. These were things I thought this character Lexi would seek out.
Then the other part of it was just what made sense for the story and the character. I thought, okay, where does Tanya, the part played by Jennifer Lafleur, live? What’s her life like? Then you just go through the character and figure out what makes sense for these people. That seedy hotel [where Lexi holes up] I wanted to be really funky and run down and just kind of weird – I loved that the hotel had two sinks in it. This woman is at the bottom of the dollars she has left, so she really needs to stay in like a $20-a-night hotel.
You’re able to make the most of it too – that shot overhead on the bed with Lexi lying down against that same anonymous floral pattern you see in all those places becomes quite evocative.
Amber Sealey: Yeah – that hideous comforter that you’re like,” Really? You couldn’t just do like a plain beige?” Yeah. Who picks those designs? I love that shot, too.
Gemma Brockis: There really is the idea of feeling uncomfortable everywhere. You go to the beach because you know that you should, but even before you get there you know it’s not going to be what you might want it to be because you’re not with the person you might want to be with. You’re looking for your father, but you know you’re also just running away from something else. Every quest is a lost battle before you’ve started. That feeling of self-doubt all the time [was ever-present] – you go out, meet a guy, and you could have a great time but it’s like you can’t because you somehow decided that you’re not going to. That kind of uncomfortableness – the difficulty of settling anywhere – was what I was feeling all the time.
I’m realizing that’s probably one of the reasons I loved how you set up Lexi’s bedroom encounter with two strangers she met at the bar – you never see how they met, which might make the audience a little less anxious about what’s going to happen next because you’d know them a little better.
Amber Sealey: Completely. That’s always been my preference in – I really love when in a moment you don’t have necessarily the big reveal, but just the aftermath. I’m a big fan of the aftermath. When someone says, “I cheated on you.” that part is not so interesting to me, but the part when the people deal with the crazy things that happen. I just thought it would be much more interesting to see her going into a bar, and then you see her after when these guys show up [at her hotel room] and you’re like, “what?” It’s easy to figure out the story, and she’s clearly not in a good place. The guys are way bigger than she is, so [you wonder] what’s going to happen?
It was also really important in that scene to have a shift in the power dynamics in an uncommon way. By virtue of being a little weird, and doing things that are unexpected, she turns the tables on them, and that transition of us being afraid for her and then being like “Oh wow. She’s a little bit crazy,” was more important to me than showing the scene of her going into the bar, and saying, “Hi, I’m Lexi.” It creates more suspense. [This film] is not a thriller, but there’s a hint in there and I wanted people to be a little bit confused, like “Wait, what. Who is that? What’s happening?” Not so much that you have no idea, but I’m a believer in the audience being smart and putting things together in their own time. If we hit them over the head too strongly with the moral of the movie or what we want them to feel exactly, it does the audience a disservice. I like to leave it a little more open.
That scene is an exception, but part of the live wire quality of this is Lexi’s interactions with people who it would seem aren’t actors, whether in the encounters she has on Hollywood and Highland or at the retirement home. How did those choices get made?
Amber Sealey: Almost every human being is fascinating and if you find the right buttons to push, they’ll open up and give you something nice. The people on Hollywood Boulevard, we just found them on Hollywood Boulevard and just started talking with them. They were so interesting, and all of the old people except one are not real actors. They’re just real people. Since I work in a guided improv-style, [I feel] if you give people freedom, you find a way in.
Usually, I cast people usually because there’s something about them that I really like and find interesting. Then it’s my job to find the way to make the actor feel comfortable enough that they’ll show me that side of them that I’m really interested in and with non-actors, it’s mostly about enabling them to just be themselves. I’m certainly not asking them to play Lady Macbeth.
As a professional, is that a challenging thing to be thrust in to?
Gemma Brockis: Yes and no. There’s a challenge that you’re working with somebody who you want to take care of a little bit. If you’re working with an actor, you’ll throw stuff at them and expect them to be able to respond because they’re used to that, but obviously, if you’re working with somebody who’s 90 and hasn’t done this before, you’re not suddenly going to turn around and shout in their face as you might do were it somebody else.
It’s like you’re really meeting someone. Also for those scenes, we took awhile with them and it’s really about them getting comfortable with Amber as much as anything, and to some extent then with me, so they know what I’m going to do a little bit. But it’s brilliant because they’re just naturally talking – they’re improvising, talking about the things that are interesting to them, or telling their stories, so it’s really easy [for me] because I could just sit and be interested in them. It’s a really great thing to do.
Was there anything improvised that you were especially pleased with that made it into the final film?
Amber Sealey: Every day. Every minute. That’s why I love that process of because you get these brilliant little gems that you wouldn’t have thought of, though the scenes keep the same arc. Certainly, some of them completely went a different direction and when you start filming [you think], “Wait a minute. This is really cool. Let’s follow this path.” You want to make sure you’ve got all your narrative points that you need covered, so you’ll do some stuff from [your original] path as well because you want to protect yourself in the edit, but then you can go down this avenue, like a really quiet scene [where] they start yelling at each other and you think, “Well wow, that’s interesting. Let’s shoot the quiet way, so that we have that, but let’s also shoot this way, just to see it.” That’s part of the way I work, so you can make so many different choices in the edit because we’ve made so many different choices when we were filming. It’s why I hire really smart people because they come up with such good ideas.
Is it then a surprise to see what happens when you get to the premiere yesterday?
Gemma Brockis: It was amazing. Not surprising exactly.
Amber Sealey: She hadn’t seen it before finished. And the crew were all like, “Oh my god. I had no idea.”
Gemma Brockis: I didn’t know what it was going to be. At the same time, it felt so familiar, like a memory. The shape of it I didn’t actually know exactly how it would pan out. I was surprised how much I felt like I was just watching a movie rather than myself. But it was totally overwhelming and really exciting.