There’s a gunshot at the start of “As You Are,” an ominous sound to the trio of teens that are at the center of Miles Joris Peyrafitte’s feature debut – Jack (Owen Campbell), a loner who is emboldened when he’s befriended by Mark (Charlie Heaton), the son of his mother’s boyfriend, and Sarah (Amandla Stenberg), who begins to sneak out of school with the both of them, as eager to be anywhere else as they are. But to an audience, the piercing sound actually winds up signifying something invigorating as it cuts through any sense of artifice you might expect of the film to reveal the raw emotions that the three experience as they work through a time of great transition in their lives.
Joris-Peyrafitte, just 23 when “As You Are” premiered at Sundance last winter, isn’t far removed from the characters he follows, but he shows a wisdom well beyond his years in sneaking in a generational study under the guise of a slow-burning whodunit, with the police interrogations that are peppered throughout the film far less probing than where Jack, Mark and Sarah are willing to go themselves in terms of understanding what they’re feeling. Set during the ‘90s where changing ideas of masculinity and family are in the air as Jack and Mark are seduced by the kimono-wearing Kurt Cobain as their respective parents Karen (Mary Stuart Masterson) and Tom (Scott Cohen) fumble towards giving romance a second chance after both being clearly wounded from the past, the film presents the crumbling of past domestic ideals giving way to a renewed and occasionally reluctant trust in personal instincts, for better or worse, to live life on their own terms, if only they can extract themselves from their circumstances.
Joris-Peyrafitte allows the naturalism of a radiant cast to shine through, gently observing them from enough of a distance to draw your own conclusions while still exuding an uncommon intimacy. After a celebrated run on the festival circuit, “As You Are” is coming to theaters later this week and to make the occasion, the writer/director spoke of his experience of bringing his first feature to the screen, how the film’s visual style and score evolved and making a period piece free of nostalgia.
How did this come about?
There was a lot of luck involved, as is generally the case on any movie, but particularly in my case. My best friend Madison [Harrison] and I started making movies when we were six, basically to impress my brother Joseph, who was 12 years older than me and going to film school. We grew up in Albany and when I was a senior in college, studying film at Bard College with Kelly Reichardt, So Yong Kim and Peter Hutton — these incredible filmmakers — it started dawning on me that if I really wanted to make films, my senior project had to have some kind of staying power, something that could be pushed further into a feature form.
I’d been an actor in some B-horror movies and stuff like that for a while, but I really wanted to make films, so I made this short called “As a Friend,” which was a more simplistic, 20-minute version of this, where Madison played the character of Jack. It was fun. It was really hard. We didn’t have any money to do it, but it was kind of an incredible experience and from it, we realized, there is a story here that needs more time. When I graduated college, I was asked to be in this horror movie in Washington state and I befriended Brent Stiefel, the financier and producer on that film. As we started getting to know each other, I started to realize he had financed “Obvious Child” and “The Truth About Emanuel,” a bunch of films that I knew and were in the circuit that I hoped my first film could get into. He asked if I had a script for the feature [“As You Are”] after I showed him the short and I lied to him. I said, “Definitely, and it’s amazing,” not thinking he would ever be interested. When I got back to New York, he called and said, “I’d love to read the script,” so Madison and I had to scramble to put together a script in a week, and then he read it and said, “Great, let’s make it.” So it was an insane dream how quick everything started happening.
If you’ve been making movies with a close-knit group of collaborators for a while, is it interesting to expand that circle for a feature?
Totally, and honestly one of the scariest parts of it because we had always made movies on our terms. We were kids making movies with kids and no one was going to judge us for that. There was very much a feeling – [Madison] and I were both 22 when we shot the feature – and it was like, “Oh okay, now there’s a film crew present.” [laughs] There was money present. So now I need to not be like some cocky little kid who’s like saying he’s going to make a movie and it’s going to be great. I actually have to do that and then have to communicate to the people around me and make them believe in the project.
In that sense, we got really lucky with the people that we worked with because they were all in it for the same reasons and really felt passionately about that. After we shot the first scenes with the kids, there was [a feeling] we’re dealing with real fucking artists here in terms of the actors, and they know what they’re doing. Realizing how good they were and how they were inhabiting the world and how well all the pieces were coming together made people comfortable and say, “Okay, this is going to work.” It was incredible. I always dreamed of having a cinematographer who knows how to light and grips and gaffers – you know, an actual film crew, where it’s not my mom holding a floor lamp and my brother holding a piece of duvetine by a window.
You seem to really revel in the possibilities – I was interested in the overhead shots that you create a motif out of, in particular the shot of Mark and Jack going into the school after you’ve established that birds’ eye point of view at the start. How did that evolve as a visual idea?
A big part of the film for me was to make a movie that doesn’t feel like a lesson in morality or [suggest] this is what happens [as a result of this] or this kind of relationship leads to this, but instead just live in the complexities of [Mark and Jack’s] relationship and never trying to justify it or overexplain it, but learn how these people feel about each other as they’re learning. So I had this very clear image that I wanted to watch these kids walk into the woods [at the start of the film] in as objectively a way as possible because a lot of the film is about these dividing lines — the line between their generation and their parents’ and the line between friendship and love. And the idea of them walking across that field and crossing that line into something else is something that for me felt really evocative. It’s an image I really wanted to create and see and give the audience the time to be there with the kids and walk through this space and feel the weight of everything they’ve seen leading up to this.
Once we made the decision of that being a motif, the film started opening up in other ways. The idea of how do we draw these lines in our culture, whether they’re physical or emotional or political lines became really important. And that shot of them going into the school was about those lines. They’re entering this institution, this place that has this rubric and escaping it. Everything existing in the frame for me echoes [how] they’re running in the opposite direction as they’re going into the woods and ultimately what the two forces and powers that they’re being pulled between that they’re trying to navigate. So that’s where the motif came from and also, there’s something about overhead shots — hanging, letting whole scenes play out in those shots that I find really exciting and stimulating as a new perspective on a scene in general.
It’s interesting to hear you talk about generations since knowing your age, you fall outside the two depicted in the film. Why set it during the ‘90s?
Obviously, this was a small film and the choice to make it a period piece wasn’t the most budget- friendly idea we had, but when you’re looking at a story that you want to tell, you should look at everything around the story, whether it’s the people or the costumes or the way the camera moves or the colors or the time period or the location. You look at [those] as the tools to talk about the scenes in your film and highlight the things that are going on with these characters. [Since this] was a movie about people finding each other — this moment in adolescence where you’re trying to navigate all of the different feelings you have — that’s still very much real [today], but the difference is that now we have very different ways of coping with that. Now we have message boards or Instagram or [other] things where we can, in a way, be attached to communities we feel more understood by. But inherently there’s still a pretty intense and intrinsic difficulty that comes with that age.
What I wanted to make a movie about is two people looking at each other and navigating those things together [and] in order to tell that story in the way I wanted to tell it, it became obvious it couldn’t exist in a world where we had these different devices, just because I wasn’t sure totally how to show that experience through that. Another filmmaker – maybe a better one (laughs) – would be able to very well, but for me, that wasn’t the interesting part. Also, it’s a movie that is about memory, but it’s not about nostalgia. The ‘90s have a lot of nostalgia that it carries with it now and I thought wouldn’t it be interesting to make a movie that takes place at this time that has Kurt Cobain dying and these moments that you know mark this era, yet never feels like it’s romanticizing it, but placing it within a cultural purview that influences everything that’s going on.
You co-composed the score – was that actually something you could build ideas off of before shooting started?
I dick around in music – it has always been a big part of my life, whether it’s playing it horribly or listening to it, and it’s how I begin to visualize different scenes or places or characters. I had done the music for the short film myself, just because budget-wise, I didn’t have anyone that could do it. While we were shooting and prepping and writing [the feature], I had different chord patterns going through my head for different scenes and that started influencing the tone and the language and the seeds that the film would take. When it came time to do the soundtrack, I knew I wasn’t good enough a musician to do it on my own, but I knew I had ideas that were specifically tailored to what we had shot.
We only had 15 days to do the first cut of this movie for Sundance, so it was also a matter of let’s just get it in and do it. My friend Patrick [Higgins], who’s just an unbelievable musician and composer who’s in this band Zs, has this recording studio in Hudson called Future-Past and he and I took five days and he rewrote [some ideas I had] and we wrote other pieces – some by himself and some by myself, and we wrote, produced, recorded and performed over an hour of music in these five days. It was like the easiest part of the whole thing to a certain degree. We had all these ideas and [Patrick] would be like, “Oh, this is great. We can do this here and this can come back here in a different key,” and [he] had a real understanding of creating logic. So it was definitely something I was thinking about, but then was elevated by getting to work with Patrick Higgins.
There’s a great scene I had to ask about where Mark and his father Tom move in with Jack and his mother Karen and you punctuate it with drums…
That was one of the most exciting scenes to make because I had this very simple piano thing and I showed it to Patrick and then he started blowing it up. We were in his recording studio and I play the drums a little bit, so it was like “go try this and we’ll put it together and see how it works.” We didn’t actually score any of the movie to the film. What we would do is watch a scene and then we’d start playing music and then build a piece and see what parts of the piece would fit, and where we could cut it up to make it fit. We had this idea for a [piece of music] that was going to work nice in that scene and then we just made a song we would want to hear and it ended up working, so it was very organic in that way.
[But shooting that scene] was a crazy day. We only had 20 minutes to do that shot because it happens right during magic hour. It’s a long scene – everything was going wrong and we had three takes to get it. For a one-shot scene, it’s complicated and we were not ready. Somehow, magically, we were able to pull it off in the last take we had before the sun was completely gone, so that was a moment I’m actually really proud of, more because we were able to do something that seemed like it was never going to work.
What’s it been like to travel with this?
It feels like it’s been the missing part in a lot of my life because I’ve always been making things, but there’s never been somebody on the other end, besides the professor or my parents or my grandparents to see it. This has been the first time that I had dissociated the aspect of filmmaking from the audience because there was never an audience, so it was really coming from a place of “I don’t know who’s going to want to see this movie. But I have the opportunity and we’re going to try and make a movie that we want to see.” So it’s been incredibly uplifting and supportive to hear from the people that the movie has affected.
Going to Sundance with it was obviously an exciting experience that was not something that I ever expected to have, and hearing people coming out of those screenings that really responded to it and hearing the reasons why has been amazing. It’s really, really exciting and making me feel like the movies that I want to make, other people want to see. Even if this is a much smaller film being released in a smaller way, the fact that there is support and there are people that care about it and want to see it and think that it has something valid to say is like really the biggest gift I could ask for.
“As You Are” opens on February 24th in New York at the Village East Cinema and Los Angeles on March 3rd at the Laemmle NoHo 7.