A sense of relief washed over Brin Hill following the premiere of “In Your Eyes” at the Tribeca Film Festival. However, it wasn’t because the film played well, which it did. It was because he could finally talk about how the film would be released.
“Sometimes you didn’t even know what secret you were keeping,” laughs Hill now about the surprise decision to distribute the Joss Whedon-penned romantic drama on Vimeo coinciding with its bow in New York that caught much of the film industry offguard. “But no, it was a challenge. It was a surprise to almost everyone who was involved in the movie.”
It was a bold announcement, typical of the sci-fi tinged love story which tracks the relationship of Rebecca (Zoe Kazan) and David (Michael Stahl David), two strangers who discover they share the same senses of vision, smell and touch as they go through their very different lives in New Hampshire and New Mexico, respectively, and if Hill has had to keep his cards close to the vest for “In Your Eyes,” it has meant a movie that’s particularly close to his heart. Full of the clever turns of phrase and of genre to be expected from a script hailing from the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” creator, the film benefits from the tangible chemistry between its two leads and the sleek way Hill allows their relationship to unfold.
Given all the unusual elements at play, it isn’t a stretch to believe “In Your Eyes” could only emerge from Bellwether Studios, where copious creative control is afforded by low budgets and the benevolence of its bosses, Whedon and wife Kai Cole, who last backed the similarly envelope-pushing adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing.” Following the film’s premiere in New York, Hill spoke about having such freedom while still facing the challenges of turning the text written by such a beloved figure into something of his own and creating passion between two actors who are never in the same room together, not to mention why it’s always a good idea to accept invites to cocktail parties.
Joss Whedon made quite an announcement at the premiere. Did knowing how this would be released affect how you went about making the film?
It was great that we were only answering to [Bellwether as a producer and distributor]. The great thing about Bellwether and the vision that they have is just to be light on your feet and try to get stuff out to audiences in the smartest, best possible way for each movie. From the inception of this film, we were always talking about different ways to do it. We didn’t know exactly what it was, but we were all interested in exploring something cool and unique. The route that “Much Ado” went made sense for “Much Ado” in a lot of ways, and from those conversations with everybody, we ended up making the announcement the other day, but it was an evolution through the whole process of getting to that idea.
So you hinted that this all began for you at a cocktail party.
[laughs] Yeah, probably just a series of just social events. I know Kai Cole, one of the producers, socially, and she had learned about my work from a mutual friend of ours, David Rothenberg, who’s another one of the co-producers on the movie, and they were talking about what the next Bellwether thing was. They had this script of Joss’s that they really wanted to do and I think for them and for Michael Roiff, the other producer, the idea of taking Joss’s voice and mashing it up with my naturalistic sensibility was really appealing, in the spirit that Joss mashes up genres almost. So it really stemmed from conversations socially like, “Hey, what would happen if you did these two things?” and then it’s like, “Well, let’s do it.” For me, it was a lesson to always accept the invite to the cocktail party.
Is it daunting to get your hands on a Joss Whedon script and then have to make it your own?
I just wanted to make sure I service the voice as best I can, and I’ve made sure each step of the way to be like, “This is what I’m thinking,” to him and to the producers. “Here’s the aesthetic I want to bring to it. What do you guys think?” Joss would sign off on stuff or give his two cents, and I would go back and adjust. It was the same thing with acting, costumes, locations, all of those things — much like happens on any movie with all the creative parts and forces. We’d have the roundtable discussion of “What do we like? What do you guys think?” I’ve always been like someone who loves to collaborate with other people, so it was just how do I make something that everybody’s proud of.
You’ve spoken a lot in the past about how you’ve been interested in telling stories about socialization. Was the fact that these characters were from different backgrounds – Rebecca from a more upper crust environment than David, who served time – something that was appealing to you?
Yeah, I think so. My parents were both artists and I was blessed enough to go to prep school. I had this Little League team that was this band of kids from this Boston neighborhood [where] a bunch of them lived in the projects and yet I was going to prep school, and I was always trying to make sense of that. That was the beginning of my film career where I felt I was a little bit of an outsider who was always observing stuff how these different worlds interacted, and this movie set itself up perfectly for me as a director because I have been in both those worlds. I have cousins that grew up in an environment very similar to Dylan’s [in an abandoned trailer in New Mexico], and then I know that upscale New Hampshire world pretty well as well, so I identify with that in a lot of ways.
This may have been no different than cutting together another film, but was it a tricky proposition to match the performances visually so that they would play off each other?
It’s funny, the first time I read the script, I saw the film in two different color palettes. I knew that I always wanted to identify each environment by a colorscape. It’s much more subtle than, say, a traffic [light], but it’s there, and it was [there] to root them in the ground and know where they are at any given time. Then [there was] the intimacy of camera and having it move a little bit because there is a talking nature to this. It’s about two people who are exploring each other through dialogue, so there’s a challenge of how you keep that energetic. I’d like to think my style lent itself to that really well, but I also was blessed to have Zoe [Kazan] and Michael [Stahl-David]. Their dynamic and their chemistry is really, really great, and what makes [the film] so fun to watch is their discovery of one another.
You must’ve shot one of those actors’ scenes before the other, right?
Yeah, [we had to] logistically because we shot in New Hampshire, then California. But it was a challenge, and one mandate that I had was that [Zoe Kazan and Michael Stahl-David] needed to be on set for each other the whole time, so they always had someone acting opposite them. When we were shooting in New Hampshire, Michael was there the whole time, and when we were shooting in California, Zoe was there the whole time, so it was never like a monologue in a room by yourself. It was like you’re acting opposite somebody, and you’re not reading sides off of one of the ADs or a PA.
Since the characters share the same senses, did you actually concentrate on making that tangible to an audience?
Part of it was making sure that we identified that. A lot of that’s in Joss’s writing, but also just establishing rules was really important for both Zoe and Michael. When one of them joins the other one in their body, there’s a physical aspect to it. It’s subtle, but there’s a little hint of that. And I played with the notion of tinnitus, the [ringing] sound and what would that be like coming in and out.
There’s a lo-fi quality to it all that I really wanted to embrace, and maybe people will say, “Oh, this should have been a huge CGI effect,” but I always saw it as rolling film through an old film camera, like experimental movies where you’d take a Bolex and you’d shoot one way and then you would roll it back and shoot it again over it and [wonder] what would that image look like from two different directions? I felt like that’s how you would see the world and experience the world that way [if you were one of these characters].
There’s a danger in it because you could get really muddled if you actually did everything literally, so there’s a fine line of solving that, but I like to think we did a good job because I think you just lose yourself in it and you get enough of it that you’re feeling it.
What have the last few days have been like?
It’s been a little bit of a whirlwind. The public outreach on social media has been awesome, and it’s just really cool to see just the excitement worldwide about all of this. The movie played great in the theater, and I couldn’t ask for a better response. Hopefully, a lot of people go and watch it and fall in love with this movie.