Lorraine Nicholson had found early success as an actress, booking roles in “Click,” “World’s Greatest Dad,” and “Soul Surfer,” but once she got out of school, she sought out another role on a movie set.
“The lifestyle for me just didn’t feel totally right and I was always writing throughout college,” says Nicholson. “I studied literature and I just realized the only way to take on writing and directing is to turn my focus totally towards it.”
Recently accepted into the AFI’s Directing Lab for Women, it’s clear when Nicholson puts her mind to something, positive results are never too far away. But even before enlisting in the prestigious program, she shows considerable skill with “Life Boat,” a tinderbox of a short premiering this week at the Tribeca Film Festival. Set inside a school where a group of troubled teens (including Moises Arias, Hopper Penn, Chloe Bridges, Kwame Boateng and BK Cannon) are assembled by a guidance counselor (Stephen Dorff) to work out their issues in an unconventional, confrontational fashion, the film culminates in a perverse game of musical chairs where the students’ will to carry on is expressed in how hard they fight for a seat.
“Life Boat” would be intense because of its subject regardless, but it is especially so because it drips with the authenticity of being inspired by the experience of its lead actress Elizabeth Gilpin, who attended a school with such practices in Southern Virginia, and the energy and intriguing ambiguities that Nicholson brings to it as the room starts spinning for those inside of it well before Dorff’s devil-may-care counselor Mr. Drexler asks them to imagine themselves in the middle of the ocean, battling for position on the vessel that could save them. Before Nicholson heads to New York, she spoke about why she was drawn to the idea of dramatizing Gilpin’s experience, how she shaped the story based on her own research and attending her first film festival as a director.
Elizabeth Gilpin, who’s the star of the film along with Stephen Dorff, went to one of these programs – a therapeutic boarding school — and she really wanted to tell the story of her experience there. We had worked together on a short film and she read some of my previous writing, so she came to me [with] an idea for this particular story and I thought it was really interesting. I didn’t really know that much about this world, but I started talking to her and reading books about the program and support blogs. What I saw was a really Machiavellian picture of these abusive facilities, a lot of which by now are shut down, but when I started interviewing people, I was really surprised because half the people shared [Elizabeth’s] narrative, which was that this is a very difficult time [for them] and the other half of the students said without these stringent methods, I would be out on the street or worse because I was a shithead teenager and I needed to be snapped out of it. So I took both of those stories and tried to tell them at the same time.
Did the research shape who you wanted in that room as characters?
I wanted to do justice to both those stories, so I created this narrative around this exercise that really does exist in real life, but even though this is a very serious drama, “The Breakfast Club” was actually an important reference for me because those characters immediately are people that we recognize. [Some of it is because the actors are] so famous [because of] all of these teen movies and I think in the short form, that’s really helpful where you have these people that we know from other movies, [but we recognize the characters] from our lives, so we can really get right into the story.
What was it like having Elizabeth as a collaborator on this, not just inspiring the story but ultimately having her star in the film?
She is a very raw actor and I think for her, it was difficult going back to that place, but I think it made her performance really honest and in that respect, she really was a leader on set.
How did you build the cast around her?
[For the rest of the cast] I just cold-contacted people. [laughs] That’s honestly one good part about starting as an actor is that you are completely fine with rejection. I had met Stephen [Dorff] once or twice and I thought he’d be perfect for the part. I wrote him a letter and on the page, the Mr. Drexler character comes off as a complete monster, but when I first met him about the part, I said, “Look, don’t look at this as an antagonist. If one person can leave the theater thinking this guy did the right thing, we will have succeeded.” And Stephen really brought out that moral ambiguity that I was trying to get across in the piece with the subtleties of his performance.
With Moises Arias, I’d seen him in “Kings of Summer” and I cold-contacted him through his agents. Chloe Bridges was friends with my friend AnnaSophia [Robb] — we worked together on “Soul Surfer” — so it just came together really organically. And then Hopper [Penn], I knew because we had worked together on a short the year before.
The script was pretty firm the whole time. We actually shot the whole thing in two days, so we rehearsed and it changed a little bit, but from the shooting draft to what we actually shot is pretty close. Stephen weighed in on [some of] his character’s lines because he has so many and he’s such an experienced actor that he was really able to guide what felt superfluous and what did not.
Was it a pretty intense set, given the subject?
Yes, [but it was] because we had such a short amount of time and it was challenging to figure out how to shoot [because] I really wrote the script from a writers’ perspective. I was mathematical as far as making sure each character have their moments I wasn’t thinking in terms of where people would be sitting or how it would actually work, so Jackson Hunt, our [cinematographer], and I really spent a lot of time mapping it out [after]. But I think because I went in without having shooting in mind, that’s why it has that organic documentary feel because we had two cameras and we would have to pan really quickly to find somebody whereas if I wrote it with shooting in mind, they probably would’ve been sitting next to each other.
Also because we were shooting in a circle, everyone was required to be on set for the entire time, which I think for the younger actors was ultimately really helpful because they were bored in real life as they were supposed to be in the short film. [laughs] So that lent an energy to it that was ultimately really helpful for us.
It’s a nice subtle touch, but you seem to take the “Life Boat” motif to heart in terms of some of the sound design and camera movement, even though you’re in this room. How did that come into play stylistically?
In earlier drafts, I experimented with doing something more literal, like actually [having] a moment when they start to fight [where we’d] go out [of the room] and add a magical realism element to it, but I realized that was so unnecessary. One of my favorite parts that actually came later on in the process is the sound design over the credits, which is just the sound of Lake Marsh. That did what I was trying to do with that original idea so much more poetically and simply, and our sound designer Adam Primack really brought a new level to the film [in that way], even though it is very quiet minus the needle drop moment, of course.
You’re referring to the climactic musical chairs scene – how did you decide on what that needle drop would be?
We really went back and forth with different songs. In Elizabeth’s experience, music was a really big part because you’re not allowed to have your own music at these therapeutic boarding schools, so when they would play music during these exercises, music would have this larger than life feeling and she would remember all of the songs in these exercises. They were all a little on the nose to try to get the point across, they were all famous, so they all had this gigantic, monstrous quality. I chose [the song that I did] because sonically it had this feeling where everything was really coming together — it has this build-up where you’re like “Oh, maybe it’s all going to work out. And then the music stops and just as the audience starts to move their head and stomp their feet, it’s pulled out from under them.
What’s it like to take this to Tribeca?
I’ve actually only been to a film festival once and that was when I was an actor as a teenager, so it’s my first film festival ever [as a director] and I’m really excited.
“Life Boat” will play at the Tribeca Film Festival as part of the Shorts:Disconnected program at 10 pm on April 21st and 24th at the Regal Cinemas Battery Park and at the Cinepolis Chelsea at 3:30 pm on April 28th and 9:15 pm on April 29th.