“So this is the good life…” Ellie (Haley Bennett), a guest of Walter and Clara Stackhouse (Patrick Wilson and Jessica Biel), says as she surveys the party going on at their house in “A Kind of Murder,” leaving the words lingering in the air as if waiting to see whether a question mark should be put at the end of them. With the faint cacophony of a jazz record being played in the background and martini glasses held all around, it is the type of gathering in the suburbs of New York City that makes the guests think they’re in Manhattan for the evening before the truth hits as hard as the bitter cold outside that they live upstate, living by the example set by their parents rather than following their own muse.
In the screen adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s “The Blunderer,” such confinement feels particularly restrictive in the case of Walter, an architect whose ability to work in between the lines is threatened considerably by letting his imagination wander as it does since his marriage is falling apart and the enigmatic Ellie is continually slinking around to suggest a world he’s missing out on. Taking an interest in writing crime fiction, he begins to fashion a narrative in which his wife is no longer a part and crosses paths with Kimmel (Eddie Marsan), a bookstore owner actually suspected of killing his significant other, and though they couldn’t be any more different, they start to resemble each other quite strongly to a detective (Vincent Kartheiser) investigating the disappearance of Kimmel’s wife.
“A Kind of Murder” is the second feature from British-born director Andy Goddard, who appears to relish the opportunity of getting his hands dirty with the nefarious plotting Highsmith is known for, but directs in a sharp, clean style that sinks its dagger in long before any crime is committed onscreen. As if making up for the monochrome in his last feature, “Set Fire to the Stars” about the formative years for the poet Dylan Thomas, Goddard uses vibrant greens and reds set amidst the shadows that would seem to follow Walter and Kimmel everywhere they go to suggest the lives they’re chasing if ever they should escape the morass they’ve brought upon themselves. Shortly before the film’s release, the filmmaker spoke about its distinctive visual style, navigating his way through “Highsmith country,” and taking on stories where audiences are likely to already have strong notions about the material.
The script came to me through Sierra Affinity, the sales company of the movie and my agents. I’d always been fascinated by that period of American history of the late ‘50s/early ‘60s, Nixon/Eisenhower era — that post-war period of optimism and aspiration, and yet there’s a dark end of that. I’ve also always been fascinated by Patricia Highsmith. I’d been a fan of “Strangers on a Train” and this script had all those Hitchcockian connections. [Screenwriter] Susan Boyd did a fantastic adaptation of the original novel “The Blunderer” — she had actually met Patricia Highsmith as well, so I felt that we had the inside track [because] in literary circles, Highsmith’s world is known as Highsmith country, like an alternate earth where good intentions are corrupted and Susan [hit] absolutely all the themes and the tropes and the motifs in Highsmith’s work. As well as being a fantastic page-turning thriller, I thought the core group of characters were fascinating in terms of themes of guilt and culpability and the way in which everyone is entrapped.
Did the fact that Walter’s an architect actually play a role in the design of shot selection?
It’s interesting you say that. It was one factor of many. I always liked the idea that in the script there’s a reference to the fact that he built the house that he and Clara live in, so he has this very sterile, disenfranchised marriage in this house. You also pick up on the fact there’s dolls [around the place] and it’s like this dollhouse that’s being played with, getting back to this theme of entrapment. Cincinnati doubled as 1960s New York in our movie and it has many beautiful art deco locations. It’s been used in a series [of films] that have been made in that era like “Carol” and [those] locations that Cincinnati offered helped influence the way in which we shot it.
Snow becomes something to be reckoned with in the film. Was it really snowing in Cincinnati while you were filming?
It was. We had a freak snowfall in November, three days into the shoot. And incidentally, we were drawn to some1950s photographs of New York in the snow [for the visual look of the film], so when it did snow, it was this happy accident. But then about three or four days after that, it thawed, and we were locked into that, so we had to get some snow machines and try and fill in the blanks. But I felt it really compliments a lot of the themes in the movie. I loved the idea of Walter and Clara as these beautiful people in this beautiful Westchester suburban world and yet there’s a darkness lurking beneath this perfect layer of beautiful white snow.
I worked very closely with a brilliant director of photography Chris Seager, who shot “Set Fire to the Stars” with me as well, and our references were like mid-period Hitchcock and those B-movie directors like Andre De Toth and Joseph H. Lewis — you look at the way in which they shot their movies and that was very much an inspiration for this Technicolor B-movie that would be of the time the story was set. Edward Hopper was another reference as well. Basically, we really pushed ourselves to make each frame as beautiful as we could and yet at the same time give the actors some elbow room to be able to do what they needed to do. It’s a deceptively simple style, which is you keep the camera style quite economic and yet whatever is in that frame, you want it to be as interesting and compelling as possible. The benefit is that it’s a very actor-centric way of working as well because by keeping the camera style quite simple, you allow more space to the actors to react.
I mean this completely as a compliment, but it felt like the performances are by actors completely aware of the movie that they’re in, where there’s a heightened style that doesn’t feel arch. Is it a challenge to get that kind of performance without going over the top?
Yeah, there’s something about these movies that do have a sense of heightened melodrama…they always draw back on things like Douglas Sirk movies or John M. Stahl, who directed “Leave Her to Heaven” is another director I like. We were definitely riffing on that slightly heightened style, which reaches a hysterical pitch, especially in the domestic scenes between Walter and Clara. I also like the idea that Walter is this [aspiring] crime writer, he writes these lurid and pulp stories as a way of exorcising all the demons in his marriage and what happens in the movie is that you see him live in one of the crime stories that he writes. Getting back to the way we shot it and the way we composed everything, there was deliberate theatricality to some of the scenes, which is something we planned out, but it’s a high-wire act. You have to be careful not to push that too much.
Something else that must’ve been a delicate balance, but works out nicely is the way in which the women may not be physically present as much as the men in the story, but you can feel them throughout. Was is interesting to balance that out?
Susan had done a lot of work to try and elevate Clara and Ellie from the book and we were both keen to make them both a little bit more [prominent]. The dynamic of those relationships between those women and men was absolutely key, and what we liked about both Clara and Ellie is that they were each representative of [something]. There’s something slightly “Stepford Wife”-ish about Clara and the idea she represents as kind of John Cheever/Richard Yates cocktail hour affluent [yet] suburban woman of late ‘50s, and Ellie is representing what’s around the corner.
It’s interesting to see that you took on Dylan Thomas with your first feature, and you’re working from Patricia Highsmith here and next you’re said to be working on a film about the Rolling Stones during the recording of “Exile on Main Street.” Is any of it daunting with the preconceptions or expectations that come along with it?
When you stand outside it, it is intimidating. But I don’t think about it super hard, taking on these icons. Sometimes after the fact, you become aware of the enormous influence of someone like Dylan Thomas and you do have to catch your breath of how to get into that world of this person and [that] you’re introducing them to new generations. I hope they can see what we’re trying to do. You just get drawn to a good story, good writing and to be fortunate enough to work with fantastic actors. That’s a gift to any director.
“A Kind of Murder” opens on December 16th in Los Angeles at the Monica Film Center, Lake Worth, Florida at the Lake Worth Playhouse and in Santa Fe, New Mexico at the Jean Cocteau Cinema. It is also available to watch now on VOD.