Garrett Bradley didn’t really know why she would take the bus from New York to Louisiana, but for two summers as a respite from her college courses, the film student would spend 37 hours on the Greyhound, looking for a way to pass the time.
“I just had this weird pull to go to the south. I don’t know if it was because I feel like a lot of my history is in the south being my father is black, my mom is white, but I have roots there,” says Bradley, who would often sit next to twentysomethings just like herself from various walks of life. “We were all really bored [on the bus], so it was like, ‘Let’s just talk about where you’re going, what you want, how you plan on getting it.’”
What Bradley got was an earful about the lack of opportunities that were out there for her generation and instead of being discouraged, she eventually pulled out her audio recorder to begin collecting their stories. Those conversations provided the basis for “Below Dreams,” one of the most unusual and provocative films to grace the screens of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, unraveling the stories of three people – a single mother named Leann, an unemployed father with a record named Jamaine and Elliott, a transplant from New York who came to meet a woman who never showed up – as they come to terms with adjusted expectations for their lives.
Yet rather than a languid lament of what could’ve been, Bradley captures the vitality around pushing ahead without direction, pulling authentic moments of heartache and hard-earned wisdom from the streets of New Orleans, where she now lives full-time. Still, she returned to New York this week for the premiere of “Below Dreams” at the Tribeca Film Festival and while there, she took the time to discuss the long, considered process of making the film, how much she worked on instinct versus preparation and why she has no interest in autobiographical filmmaking.
Did you actually always think that these conversations you recorded would be the basis of a film?
No, I really was just playing around in this weird, instinctual way. I didn’t even know I was doing research. It wasn’t until the New York Times article [“What is it About 20-Somethings?” from August 2010] came out that I realized that I had something in my back pocket that could really mean something. I had was tons and tons of transcripts of content that was in direct response to this dilemma that they were [describing of] everybody who had this great Ivy League education and can’t get a job. I thought, “Wow, this is a great opportunity to add diversity to this preexisting conversation and say, “Well, here’s the majority of people, also in their twenties whose dilemma is equal and valid and who also are struggling to survive but have completely different circumstances.”
I understand you largely assembled your cast from Craigslist with people who already fit the profile of the characters they play in the film. But would you share the raw transcripts of what you gathered beforehand to inspire them or did you hand them a script to work from?
It was a combination from scene to scene. I spent about six months rehearsing with our characters and that involved just spending a lot of time together. I was almost doing what I was doing on the bus, which was to just say [to the actors], “Alright. These are the issues we’re dealing with. How can we relate them to you in a more specific way?” Then writing dialogue for them to memorize.
Visually, there also seems to be a balance of things that might’ve been predetermined versus where instinctually your eye traveled. Was that actually the case?
It’s a combination. Whether you’re working with trained actors or you’re just on the street corner, you go in with a motivation and then what happens is what happens. What you see in the film [emerges from] a lot of us discussing and discussing and doing test shots of where we wanted our eyes to be, then really knowing when something is there, to shoot it.
Still, you have a long conversation that takes place entirely on a motorcycle as it goes down a city street in one long, continuous take. That must’ve been somewhat difficult to pull off.
No, it was really easy. We just got in a van and rode parallel to [the actors]. It was pretty straightforward. The only thing that was a little bit difficult was just making sure everybody was safe. But it was super janky. We had wireless [mics] on the two actors and we just opened the sliding door [of the van], kept the door open and filmed.
It’s funny because people talk a lot about liking the technique of these long shots and what I think is important to emphasize with that is I didn’t go into these scenes saying, “I want to have a single shot.” For me, it’s what’s in that single shot that’s important. We have a lot of these long shots and the point for me is the discussion that’s happening. We are privy now to a very personal, intimate dialogue that can be very universal and until that message is made clear between these two actors, we will not be leaving that space.
It is a fascinating conversation that takes place on the motorcycle, with an elder biker imparting what wisdom he has to the young Jamaine, who is looking for a job. There are a few other moments like that throughout the film and since it sounds like you mostly spoke with other twentysomethings, where did that older perspective come into the film?
I thought that was an important element to this conversation because it isn’t just about us seeing people struggle or just go through their life. All of us have people, whether they’re friends or strangers on the corner who want to give advice, which happens, who want to infuse some kind of insider mentorship to them. I felt like that was really just an essential part of getting a full-rounded idea of what it means to be searching. People who are lost are magnets to people who want to give advice and that’s where those scenes really come from.
The film has a very effective, repetitive rickety, clack-clack-clack sound embedded in the score. Where did that come from?
Brian McOmber, who comes from a rock and roll background, is a really wonderful composer. He was a drummer in The Dirty Projectors and we talked a lot about how one thing that we wanted to play with [in the score] was this idea of music that doesn’t change. Maybe it goes in these highs and lows, but it isn’t really involving in any kind of way and that it can become almost frustrating. That was becoming a metaphor for us of what was happening in the lives of the characters. A lot of times the clickety clacks and all of those sounds are in response to the camera work, shaking or panning or moving in these awkward ways, which I was very specific about keeping. I could have made a great slick, clean film, but once we were done with the shot and put down the camera and you can see that movement, I wanted to keep that in there as an experimentation, a new way of engaging that was part of the visual aesthetic of the film. When Brian and I were doing the score, I said, “These are movements that we need to respond to sonically.”
Even though you spent some time in Los Angeles in between, you made the journey from New York to New Orleans as these characters do in the film. How much does the film replicate your own experience or did you actually want it to?
In any of my work, I’m never interested in talking about myself in a direct way. I’m more interested in figuring out more of a public sphere that can feel broader so that people can connect to it better. Certainly being a woman — a black woman from New York originally who did have a good education — all of those parts of myself is what allowed me to shape shift and code switch when I was talking to each of different actors. It’s what really established the trust because we were able to both see parts of ourselves in each other.
Was this an easy film to find in the edit?
It took a long time. We raised the money on Kickstarter, then I really just got in my bedroom and cut the film for about two years. I’ve been by myself the whole time making this film, and had I had a different level of support, it may have been different. But that being said, I’m incredibly grateful to have had full creative control over the project. I tried to be as honest with myself as possible about what I was making and to really let it be me. It’s a great feeling to just follow your heart and your instincts and to get some kind of validation in that.