Liz Manashil was having a case of writer’s block when things were about to get worse in the winter of 2016.
“David Bowie died and I was a fan of his and I was really bummed out,” recalls Manashil. “So on a whim, I was going to write his death into the script because it’ll make me feel better and then I thought I’ll cut all of that out once I break out of my writer’s block.”
The writer/director had been working on a horror film, but as she thought of Bowie, it became a love story with, naturally, a bit of an otherworldly element and she couldn’t stop writing. As a result, “Speed of Life” spans multiple generations (though it runs a tidy 76 minutes), using the “Life of Mars” singer’s passing as the ultimate tribute to his power when it appears to break the universe apart for June (Allison Tolman), who’s debating the merits of “The Revenant” with her boyfriend Edward (Ray Santiago) just before learning of Bowie’s death and sees him wander into a wormhole just after, as if a hole has been torn in the fabric of the galaxy. By 2040, June (Ann Dowd) has found a companion in Samuel (Jeff Perry), but is unable to wholly give her heart to anyone following the loss of Edward, making it particularly awkward when the wormhole reopens to allow Edward back into her life.
While Manashil doesn’t concern herself much with quantum physics — though she does let her imagination run wild thinking about what the future looks like, “Speed of Life” becomes a fascinating rumination on time, with June wondering if she’s passed through her life as uneventfully as sand through an hourglass and Edward, appearing as if no time has passed at all, feeling the pressure of knowing that his disappearance has been a burden on her all these years. June’s daughter Laura (Vella Lovell), not much younger than June when Edward disappeared, is also feeling the weight of expectations as the time to make commitments that her mother largely evaded but has now come to wonder if she regrets is nigh. But the film wisely resists defining moving at one’s own pace as ever being an issue, instead slyly criticizing a society that often imposes a clock arbitrarily by placing the elder June at a senior citizens facility where no matter what her health is, she’ll be retired at 60.
If “Speed of Life” seems unusually ambitious for an indie, it’s because Manashil, a distribution expert for the likes of Sundance and Picture Motion, afforded herself such opportunities with a savvy sense for production, and shortly before her sophomore feature becomes available digitally after a successful festival run, the writer/director spoke about overcoming the intimidation factor of both sci-fi and casting name actors, looking for multiple actresses to play a single role, and balancing being a filmmaker with being a parent.
The goal was always to have a female protagonist over the age of 60 or around that age range because I felt like I really didn’t get to see that character onscreen a lot. If I did, she was always relegated to the side or she was this offensive archetype, like a doting mother, but it was never a fully fleshed out character with a sexuality to her, so that was always really important. In the horror film, the lead character was a woman being visited by the ghost of her husband and then it just completely changed.
It seems like such a clever way into a genre movie of any type because they’ve lived life, so they’re unfazed by some of the more fantastical aspects of a story like this – but for you, was the sci-fi element something that was difficult to wrap your head around?
It’s very difficult. Very often I refer to the film as a romance or a sci-fi dramedy because I don’t want to upset fans of hard sci-fi who may watch it and say “We’ll, this cultural commentary is not obvious enough” or “There’s time travel and there’s a dystopia, but it’s not ‘Blade Runner’ or it’s not ‘Primer.’” I became an accidental sci-fi writer and director. [laughs] And what was hardest for me was having no limitations. I come from the micro-budget world, so I’m used to writing to my resources, but when you add in visual effects into the arena, there are a lot more options and that’s actually really scary for me.
My brain has a hard time conceptualizing what is possible in a 2D and 3D visual effects world, and my visual FX supervisor James Blythe was so wonderful and helpful, but we did probably what you don’t want to do, which was we designed the effects around the action in a scene rather than cementing the effects and blocking around them. For example, there’s a scene where Ann and Ray go back to 2016 and he leads her into the wormhole and we built a wormhole to open at the exact spot he puts his foot in at post-production. But we probably should have better communicated the limitations of the wormhole [to the actors in the scene] and the look of the wormhole changed a lot from preproduction to post-production. Originally, I really wanted it to look like a vagina and it doesn’t look like a vagina. [laughs] So things change and you have to roll with the punches. It’s one of the parts of visual effects that’s so exciting, but also really terrifying.
It was amazing because they’re truly two of my favorite actresses. When we reached out to Allison, I’ll admit I wasn’t looking for someone who looked exactly like Ann. I was looking for someone I wanted to work with because I don’t get to make a movie every year, and it’s an exciting event, so I just kept thinking, “What is this opportunity and who do I want to work with?“ Somehow they look similar enough that it sells, but it was never the intention to find clones of each other. It’s just really amazing serendipity that they both signed on and I know a large reason Allison signed on was to work with Ann, [which is why] a majority of the cast came on, so we were very lucky that Ann said “yes.”
I understand you work as your own casting director. Is it difficult to get it to people that are of this caliber?
Yeah, it’s very hard, but it seems to get easier. My first film I cast as well and I don’t think I even knew I wasn’t supposed to write the agent or manager myself and just say, “Would your client be in this movie?” It was very foolhardy of me, but we didn’t have a casting director and I had done some casting in film school, so I thought, “Why not?” I’m a control freak. Let’s just go with it here. And for “Speed of Life,” more people were answering my e-mail and doors seemed to be opening the more I have underneath my belt. And I love casting directors – I never want to disrespect the amazing profession – but sometimes there can be miscommunications between the director, the casting director, the agent and the actor and I think what offer is the honest perspective of your client is my first choice, so much so that I’m reaching out to you directly. You will know that I’m not going out to 15 other actors at the same time because we have this one-on-one interaction and I think reps can trust that.
Yes, but I actually don’t know if she watched it. There was no time for Allison and Ann to get together [before shooting] and they were on different coasts to connect with each other, so we said “we’ll deliver footage of Ann’s performance to Alison” so if there are any quirks or any mannerisms, Allison could learn those. And ultimately, Alison decided these are two women who are in different stages of their lives and they’re separated by a major impactful event, so they may have different mannerisms and slightly different quirks in their performances, but the important thing is to be true to the character, which I truly believe was the right decision, so that’s the guideline that we had is both actresses operated independently in their interpretations of the role.
Was there anything that happens that you weren’t expecting, but it’s in the film and you like it now?
Actually, a few days before we shot the confrontation between Allison and Ann and Ray Santiago, the scene was a lot more wordy and complicated and I think I was trying to make it way more comedic than it needed to be. And Ann read the scene and said, “I want to talk to you about this. I think we can make it a lot more graceful and simple. What about this?” And she basically rewrote that scene along with me and my partner Sean. I always try to be open to that, and there’s a reason Ann was giving that suggestion because knows the core of the film being the entire spine of it, so we’re more than willing to pivot in the scene or in the blocking, if an actor or a set-piece makes its intentions known.
In the script, that deviates to a much darker moment where we find out that Phillip is actually working for this retirement program and has the intention of turning June in because it was more of a thriller at first. My editor Josie Azzam, who is just one of the best editors I’ve ever worked with, and I watched the full cut and thought this is not our movie. Our movie’s a love story, so let’s focus on the love story between Laura and Phillip and then the parallel love story between June and Samuel and how Edward’s reappearance affects [all of] that. So it was always the intention to be a younger couple, but they actually had a different purpose in the original script.
You originally planned to shoot in your parents’ house. Did that come to pass?
No, it ultimately was a budget question, the idea of transporting all of these amazing actors and housing them in Marin County, California, we wanted more money to go onscreen and we decided to find one location in Val Verde, California, so I could have the crew and the cast that I wanted. It’s called Delwood Place, and it’s an AirBNB, so like if anyone wants to stay in this fabulous estate where we shot “Speed of Life,” that’s an option. [laughs] I actually really enjoyed the challenge of how do we take this one location and turn it into many different locations. Our astounding production designer Marcie Maute, who basically was a team of one, had to design a 2016 set, a 2040 set, repaint rooms, flip the world and then figure out with our visual effects supervisor all these weird effects we had, so all the credit goes to her.
You’ve talked in the past about pulling off an ambitious shoot like this, you’ll often make very practical decisions like hiring crew that has their own equipment. How much does knowing the business side inform the creative side?
I do write to my resources and for instance, if find out I don’t get a location, I change to a new location and it’s allowed us to move really fast. I will write scenes on the day of if I need to, and a lot of that has been inspired by David Lynch and how he embraces accidents in his work. If a light is flickering in a scene, he may not call the electrician. He may write the flickering light in as a plot point in the storyline and I’m really inspired by accidents.
And I genuinely do hire the best person. I’m very cheap, but I never would not go after the one person I want to work with just because they don’t have equipment. In fact, Julia Swain, our cinematographer, we didn’t use her camera. I just said, “I absolutely want to work with you. How can I make this happen?“ And I think when you come at a craftsperson and say, “I admire your talent. I want you on this team more than anything. What can we work out?” doors open a little bit more than saying, “This is our budget. We’re not paying people what they deserve and this is take it or leave it.” It’s always an ongoing collaboration. I don’t know if I can out this person, but I’m going to – the person who cut our trailer is a professional trailer editor and the services he rendered us were probably worth $15,000, but ultimately I said, “I’m going to mentor your first feature.” So he worked within our budget and in exchange, I’m going to help him in any way I can to help him get his first feature off the ground, so it’s being flexible, it’s labor swaps and it’s telling people, this is the budget for the whole film. Everyone on the film is getting the same rate. That transparency goes a long way.
It’s been amazing. My first feature [“Bread and Butter”] played a lot of festivals, but I used to do drunk film festival submissions where you’re on Film Freeway or Without a Box and you have two glasses of wine and you’re like, “That one sounds good,” press submit and it’s already attached to your credit card. It was a really bad habit of mine. [laughs] So I decided to be incredibly strategic for this film, apply for waivers, and go to as many as I could, but life happens and I had a baby in February, and we premiered in April, so it’s also been hard to bring a baby to these festivals. You have to hang out in the lobby because you can’t bring a baby into a screening, so there’s been a lot of times where I’ve been at screenings with me and my partner where I’ll go in for the first 20 minutes, I’ll leave, I’ll go and hang out with the baby in the lobby and he’ll go in for the next 20 minutes, and he’ll come back in the lobby and we’ll bring the kid up for the Q & A as much as possible, just to shine a light that we are parents and it’s hard to be a parent and a filmmaker, [which I hope] gets easier if there’s an awareness that we’re out here.
But people have been coming up to me after the screening and there’s this one scene that tends to make people cry — and I didn’t know I’d love making people cry, but I do — and I’m very much enjoying hearing people’s stories of how David Bowie touches them. Having worked in filmmaker support and distribution, piloting out these one-off theatrical events, we’re really excited to do a cool event-ized hybrid distribution run for this film — we just did one at the Roxie in San Francisco and pairing [the film] with a David Bowie cover band and then working with a distributor who’s open to me doing the airline pitches and me doing theatrical and a BlockChain company to release the film [digitally]. Then we’re trying to document as much as possible — I’ve recorded a few podcasts where we break down with the DP or the producer or the production designer how we did what we did and then I’m the co-host of a podcast called “Making Movies is Hard,” so it’s been wonderful to hear people’s reactions, but we’re also trying to make it an educational piece to to support other filmmakers on how to make content within their means.