When “The Face of Love” makes its Los Angeles debut Monday at the LA County Museum of Art, director Arie Posin will have a case of déjà vu and he won’t be the only one.
“It feels like kismet in a lot of ways,” says Posin, who shot much of the film on the museum’s grounds, not far from where the story was inspired by an incident he heard about from his mother. In an equally remarkable twist of fate, her birthday is on the day of the premiere, March 3rd.
Although that in itself might sound too good to be true, it pales in comparison to the story Posin’s mother told him about seeing a man at a crosswalk on Wilshire Boulevard with an uncanny resemblance to her dead husband. While it became nothing more than a funny anecdote for his mother to share with friends, the incident became something of an obsession for Posin, who with cowriter Matthew McDuffie, subsequently turned it into a love story about a woman (Annette Bening) constantly questioning her attraction to a new man in her life (Ed Harris) because he looks exactly like her deceased beloved and decides to pursue a relationship with him, not telling him about his connection to her past.
Fittingly, there’s something a little old fashioned about “The Face of Love” even as it’s set in an ultramodern Los Angeles, a romance that’s ever so slightly tinged with the notes of suspense that often used to accompany the women’s films of the 1940s and 1950s, anchored by truly committed performances from Bening and Harris. Shortly before Posin takes the stage of LACMA’s Bing Theater with his cast, he spoke about pushing past disbelief to tell a story, how he cleverly used sound to accentuate the film’s performances in a crucial scene and the influence of “Vertigo.”
So this was based on a story your mother told you?
It was a big touchstone during the making of the movie because Annette and I talked a lot about [how] her character goes mad over the course of the story, but the big question was always how we chart that and how sane is she at different points? We always went back to that story because my mom was not crazy at all. She’s entirely sane when she told me that story and when she saw the double, so it became a touchstone for how real and authentic to make it.
When you’re telling a story where the audience has to overcome a certain sense of disbelief to lose themselves in the story, is there a point where you have to overcome that yourself?
It was definitely an enormous consideration, considering when you have a premise like this, which on the surface certainly has an emotional truth but could be seen as absurd —that within the world of the movie, Ed Harris is two different characters who both look remarkably like Ed Harris. The biggest factor in filmmaking in general is suspension of disbelief. Can you get the audience to suspend their disbelief long enough to get engaged emotionally with the story?
Early on, when I first started thinking about it, I felt I needed to have two really superb actors in those lead roles in order to buy the emotional truth of what was going on. It’s not a movie that has immense special effects and to engage with the story you have to believe that what’s happening is real. Even before we cast the movie, and then I would say all the way through making it, all of our discussions were always about what would really happen here? What’s the truth here? One of the things that had surprised me since I’ve been doing a whole bunch of Q&As with various audiences is how common an experience it actually is. People say similar things had happened to them.
There is an incredible moment in the film that you actually think only Annette Bening could pull off, where she’s started the relationship with the doppelganger, but she’s confronted by his past for the first time in form of a wall of photos on his wall and you can see the entire story on her face. Was it difficult to get to such a place where there’s a conflict between how much she’d like to live in the past and discarding what’s convenient to move forward?
For sure and I think that’s why Annette connected to the story and the script. There’s just the formal challenge of the complex situation that she finds herself in, where at one level it’s a love story. She meets a man and she begins to fall in love, so there is that layer to play. There’s also the layer to play that because he reminds her so much of her late husband, it has reawakened her feelings of grief and of love for her husband, and the confusion of she is falling in love but she is also falling into the miasma of the past and of memory and of loss.
You bring up the scene with the photo wall at Ed’s apartment. There’s probably at least half dozen places over the course of the movie where she’s similarly wrestling with “How much am I here in this moment” and at the same time, thinking about the past? She’s kind of stuck in two timezones between the present, which carries all the feelings of love, and the past [where] you have so much emotional memory.
One of my other favorite moments in the film is a scene in a car where Ed Harris and Annette Bening are in a car when it’s raining outside and you use the swipe of the windshield almost as if it was their heartbeats racing. How did you come up with that effect?
Part of the joy of having actors this good in a movie is that you want every nuance of what they’re doing. So often in movies, it’s the performance’s fault. You’re doing everything you can to draw your attention away from a performance that maybe doesn’t feel real. I find in movies where the performance is strong, where the actors are as good as Annette Bening and Ed Harris, you want to capture as much of that as you can. There’s a lot of breath and little sounds that they were making in thought, in speaking, or in hesitation that we were always trying to capture.
That scene we’re talking about in the car is a big turning point in the movie where she has to decide whether she’s going to back out [of the relationship], which is her initial instinct, yet like an addiction, which a lot of people often compare falling in love to, she’s being pulled deeper into this adventure because it just feels so good. They’re in the car and it’s raining, so of course you have the sound of the rain, the sound of the engine, and the sound of the street, but then he turns on the turn signal and the windshield wipers are going, and you have all of those rhythms going on.
One of the things that we thought would be fun to play with is, exactly as you say, that those are sounds that are mimicking their heartbeat. The other thing that we did as well is as they start to shift in that scene, the rhythm of all of those sound effects converges, so when the scene starts, they’re all separate. They’re all off rhythm of each other. Once she’s made a decision to move forward with him, everything converges and then it dissolves into the sound of the rain. It’s something we gave a lot of thought to and one of those great treasures of filmmaking when you actually move out of the phase of planning a film and you’re actually making the movie.
This may be a crazy coincidence, but I couldn’t help but notice the integral role water and pools in particular have played in both this film and your first, “The Chumscrubber.” Is there a connection?
[laughs] It’s not intentional, but each one kind of grows out of an organic place. In suburbia [the setting for “Chumscrubber”], the pool is this physical thing [for the kids to gather around]. This movie came from a totally different place which is once the husband has died suddenly, tragically, then the pool became a token, a physically ominous [place] where it’s something she doesn’t go near. It becomes a physical way of being reminded of what happened to her husband without having to hit the audience over the head with it.
It’s perfect that the film will have a screening at the L.A. County Museum of Art since you shot there. Was it exciting to be one of the first productions after the recent remodel?
It was great. I live in Los Angeles and I’ve fallen in love in Los Angeles, so I wanted to see the L.A. that I live in. There’s a side of L.A. that is beautiful and romantic, and visually almost like another character in the movie. “Vertigo” is one of my favorite movies, and of course, Hitchcock is the master, so when I was thinking about that movie and what a role San Francisco played in it, I wanted L.A. to play a big role like that for this movie.
We’re actually the first movie that was ever allowed to shoot so extensively at the museum and we shot on days the museum was open, so we were right there in the middle of it all. In so many ways, it’s at the heart of the story and also the city. It’s a major cultural institution and when we were writing the script, Matthew McDuffie, my co-writer, and I had dreamed that it would be L.A. County Museum, but you know how these things go when you’re shooting an independent film. You write LACMA in the script and you end up shooting at a little gallery at Glendale. It was so amazing to actually be able to pull it off on a very limited budget, a shoot there and to have the museum be so generous to let us in.
Since you just mentioned Hitchcock, there’s a suspense element to romance in this film that feels like a throwback to the films of the 1940s and 1950s. Was it an influence?
Yeah, I love the old Hitchcock movies and I think that this movie has a lot more suspense than people expect, given the concept and the genre. It was definitely something that I wanted — to combine the feeling of romance but also suspense — and the movie lends itself so well to that because the main character has a secret that she’s keeping. From the moment that she does not reveal with this new man that he looks like her late husband, we all know that the movie is headed towards [the fact] he’s going to find out. But you’re hopeful and you’re sitting there watching the movie and wondering “Well, how is he going to find out, and when, and what’s the fall out going to be?” That really became the fun of the movie. It was the tying that knot as tightly as possible. [Once] it comes out, hopefully it comes out in a way that both fulfills your expectation but it also surprises. When I go to the movies, that’s what I’m looking for. If the movie can deliver to you what you know what’s coming but do it in a way that is surprising, I find that to be the most rewarding film experience for me and I was hoping to accomplish to the degree that I could.
“The Face of Love” opens on March 7th in Los Angeles at the Landmark and in New York at the IFC Center.