No matter where he was shooting his directorial debut “Bluebird” in Northern Maine, Lance Edmands always made sure at least one of the locals was standing just off-camera to preserve the integrity of the work and the place he knew so well.
“It was very collaborative, so we could get everything right,” says Edmands, before remembering there were reasons other than authenticity to have logging experts onhand for the scenes where John Slattery is operating heavy machinery to chop down trees.
“As well as safety obviously,” he adds with a laugh.
You could say Edmands has never wanted to be too far away from his home state of Maine, even when he decamped for New York to become an editor on such films as “Tiny Furniture” in recent years. With “Bluebird,” he’s allowing that experience to be shared in a tough-minded, emotionally wrenching drama about a near-tragic incident involving a young child who falls into a coma after a school bus driver (Amy Morton) and the boy’s down-on-her-luck mother (Louisa Krause) fail to notice he’s been left on the bus overnight in the frigid cold, bringing together two families already dealing with precarious emotional and economic circumstances.
Between Edmands’ familiarity with the region as well as the patience he practiced as an editor, it’s no wonder “Bluebird” unfolds as a series of caught moments that develop into something wholly cohesive and immersive as the film’s characters become more distant from each other, clinging onto the secrets they hold as if it’s what keeps them warm during the bitter winters, growing a bit chillier every time they’re forced to reveal one. Boasting a cast that includes the aforementioned Slattery, Margo Martindale and “Boardwalk Empire”’s Emily Meade and masterful camerawork from cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes that are both as fine and crisp as the ever-present snow, the film may be filmed at an observational remove but pulls you in nonetheless.
On the eve of “Bluebird”’s premiere at Tribeca, Edmands took time away from putting on the finishing touches to discuss how he was inspired by the place where he grew up, why everyone in his cast and crew wanted to hit the bar before work started and his collaboration with former NYU roomie Lipes.
How much of this come from a sense of place?
That’s actually really where I started in a lot of ways and the sense of place is really the inspiration for it. I grew up in the northern part of Maine, and there are these towns, much like the one you see in the film where they are a one-industry town, a mill town set on the edge of the great northern woods, this vast forest. The feeling that you get in these towns is this sense of calm, a sense of quiet, a sense of peacefulness and beauty of the natural landscape and at the same time, a deep loneliness and almost an almost existential sort of terror that you get being so isolated. I was always fascinated with this feeling of how could you feel these two contradictory emotions at the same time? It was really that emotional place that inspired the script and then the characters and the story and the way they’re all connected came through this landscape.
There’s a timeless quality to the story, but was there something about this particular time of economic uncertainty that inspired the story?
Places where there is a very distinct attitude and a very distinct way of life and a very specific worldview are interesting to me. A lot of these places in America are disappearing and part of my interest in setting a film in a place like that is because I don’t know if this kind of world and these kind of people in this town are really going to exist for much longer. Part of the inspiration is wanting to see some of that onscreen before it’s too late.
I don’t want to be too cynical about it because I care about the people there and hope everything continues to get better, but the truth is it’s 2013 and these single industry towns in rural America are becoming less and less relevant to the way global economics work. It’s almost like the sand after a wave crashes and it recedes and all of a sudden you see all of these things poking up from the surface. For a while, the world and the industry receded like the tide and you have these people left that are stuck there withering on a vine in a way. And [in] a lot of the way it looks and the beauty of it, it’s frozen in time, which is also a very interesting emotional space that people are in there, so yeah, that was definitely a part of it.
In a situation like this where you’re very familiar with a place and your collaborators in your cast and crew are not, is it interesting to see that interaction once they come into town?
That was definitely interesting because during the writing of the script, I was really spending a lot of time [in Maine] getting to know people and getting pretty intimate with it and it’s always such a strange thing then to have a bunch of people come in and all of a sudden, it’s like whoa, no one knows this place like I do. It [becomes] about bridging the gap. Particularly with the cast, their sense of wanting to be integrated and to understand it was really special and they did such a great job of integrating themselves.
As soon as everyone got there, all the cast wanted to do was go to the bar and talk to people [since] there’s a big social dynamic that revolves around the bar and church – these are the major hubs. I [also] had Amy Morton, who plays Lesley, hang out with the bus driver and get lessons about driving the bus and John Slattery talked to loggers to learn how to actually use all the logging equipment. We spent time going through all that and getting a sense of what makes them tick.
One of my favorite things about the film is how you unpack information – not just within the span of the film, but right down to individual scenes – in terms of both the story and learning about the characters. You never give more information than necessary upfront. Is that something you’re conscious of and if so, how did that style of parsing out information come about?
I’m glad you liked that. Yeah, that is very much my personal style and one I respond to in films. From a storytelling perspective, I talk about a lot, even with my [cinematographer] Jody Lipes visually, about hiding certain things and saving things to reveal later. It helps the storytelling in the sense that it’s weaving together all of these different things that are going on, which are all happening all the time. By the end of the screenplay, you need to allow different things to react off different things at certain times, so it’s just a delicate way of distributing all the nuances of the conflict in a way where you can see each segment of that conflict in a different light at a different time.
I’m interested in complicated, emotionally and morally ambiguous situations where you feel maybe a little bit one way and maybe that’s right and maybe that’s wrong and maybe that shifts. These subtle gradations in the emotional landscape are in a lot of ways what the movie is about. But on a much simpler level, I like movies that have mystery and [where] you don’t necessarily understand everything all at once and something comes to light or never thought about before suddenly shifts the way you’re feeling about it, so there’s a constant reevaluation of the events that are happening. It’s the same way there’s a lot of density in just the image and the look of the film and the way that there’s a lot of shadows. It’s the same idea of holding something back and always wanting a little bit more information.
Speaking of Jody Lee Lipes, I recently spoke to the guys who made “Simon Killer,” who were slightly crestfallen when their longtime collaborator wasn’t able to shoot their film since he’s been working on a feature for himself to direct. So how were you able to pull him away from his busy schedule?
He’s been one of my best friends for a really long time. Jody and I both went to NYU and we met there very early on our freshman year and we became fast friends and we’ve been really close ever since. He’s incredibly selective in what he shoots and he’s trying to get his own directing project off the ground, so he doesn’t want to commit too much of his resources to [anything else], but I was pretty lucky that he had some time last winter to do this. We have the secondhand thing going on and it was a lot easier for us to jump in and work on it and not have to talk about look or what’s your favorite movie or all these questions that you would have with another person because we literally grew up watching the same movies through film school. We don’t have to have this whole drawn out conversation before every shot. We can instinctually just go for it.
There’s some really aesthetically daring shots that really pay off – I’m thinking in particular of a beautifully composed scene where Amy Morton’s character looks at herself in the mirror of a bathroom in her daughter’s high school after leaving a concert in the nearby auditorium in tears. You feel like you’re peeking in on this intimate moment since the door’s ajar, but there’s a long, dark, empty hallway that dominates the frame.
That’s one of those things that comes from just knowing each other and being there. In the script, it’s written Lesley’s in the bathroom and she’s washing her face and kind of has a moment of solace where she’s escaped the situation of being surrounded by all these people she feels that are judging her. We got to our locations and we found our bathroom and it just felt like, how about the camera is outside the bathroom? And we really feel the emptiness of the school and we can hear the sound of the band reverberating in the hallway.
It was a serendipitous moment where it just made sense as we were looking at it. I love that shot too and it’s funny because it’s one of those things where we’re like [here’s] our lead actress and if you were to break that down percentage-wise, it’s like the sliver of the screen she occupies is 1/20th of that frame, but it just works so well. Just color correcting it and seeing it on the big screen, I realized just how perfect the size of her is there. It’s such an extreme little piece, but it works so well to squish her in there in the claustrophobia of it.
“Bluebird” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 18th at the SVA Theater 1, April 20th and the 22nd at the AMC Loews Village and the Clearview Cinemas Chelsea.