The director and star of this intriguing whodunit based on Martin Amis’ “Night Train” to the screen and exposing its world-weary gumshoe exposed to new horizons beyond this earth.It feels as if the stars have aligned seeing Patricia Clarkson suit up as the world-weary Detective Mike Hoolihan in Carol Morley’s “Out of Blue,” yet something is off about the universe in the wake of the murder of astrophysicist Jennifer Rockwell (Mamie Gummer). While Hoolihan has long inured herself to the sight of a rotting corpse, even one as relatively young as Rockwell’s, there’s something different about her latest case as she investigates the researched of black holes to find herself drifting into one herself. The New Orleans gumshoe is faced with a coterie of curious characters involved in the case whether it’s Rockwell’s overeager mother Miriam (Jacki Weaver) or her mysteriously reserved father Tom (James Caan), but more intriguing to Hoolihan is getting caught up in Rockwell’s studies, beginning to question herself about the point of trying to solve a murder when one human life may seem rather insignificant in the grand scheme of things.
Intertwining personal soul-searching with a crime procedural may have always been part of Martin Amis’ intention with “Night Train,” the novel that “Out of Blue” is based on, but Morley creates something one of a kind in watching Hoolihan edge closer to catching a killer and losing her sense of self in the process. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to those who have followed Morley’s career, showing a knack for subverting familiar genre trappings to touch the subconscious in films such as her arresting 2011 documentary “Dreams of a Life” and her chilling 2014 drama “The Falling,” and in crossing the pond, the British filmmaker casts a fresh eye on New Orleans, employing its proximity to the Mississippi River to channel Hoolihan’s emotional currents and enlists one of its finest homegrown artists in Clarkson to give a shattering turn as a woman who gradually comes to look at everything in her life – the places that she knows by heart and the people she felt she had sized up for quite some time – in a completely different light. Just as Hoolihan has an epiphany looking up at the skies after having kept her eyes to the ground for so long looking for clues in whatever case was in front of her, “Out of Blue” has a similar revelatory effect and shortly after the film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, Morley and Clarkson took a moment to talk about their collaboration, how the production landed in New Orleans after a brief dalliance with Atlanta and what the local culture brought to the film.
Carol Morley: One of the producers, Luc Roeg, is the son of Nicolas Roeg and years ago when the book came out Nic wanted to do it as an [adaptation], and Nic saw “The Falling,” and really loved it and wrote me a letter about it, so he kind of gave his blessing for the book to be passed down to me. I never knew what he was originally gonna do, but I read the book and I was just really absorbed by the themes of cosmology and detective work. It had a female cop called Mike, and I didn’t know what I could do [with it] and then I met Patricia Clarkson. But the themes of the book just really drew me in more than anything else, and I think Mike in our film is a very different Mike to the Mike in the book. The book has a sensibility all of its own and our film does [too].
Patricia Clarkson: They’re companion pieces, but Carol is a very singular voice and a very specific, unique voice, and so is Martin Amis. They compliment one another, but that’s best [that] the book stands alone and the film stands alone because they’re not in competition.
Patricia, something I’ve always wanted to ask since I’ve discovered so many great filmmakers from around the world through you, whether it’s Ruba Nadda or Isabel Coixet – do you go out looking for them?
Patricia Clarkson: I’m lucky in that I think work begets work in this industry and I’ve been fortunate enough to do a certain kind of work that brings great filmmakers to me. I’m going to knock wood that it continues to happen, but I’m always flattered and humbled and appreciative that this great filmmaker saw me as this character. I don’t think I am exactly who you would think of as Mike, but I am, and I think [Carol] knew this, and that’s what was alluring and stunning to me.
Carol Morley: Patricia’s body of work…I was a fan of “High Art” particularly, and “The Station Agent,” and she has such a depth to her performances [where] she’s so perfect at bringing a character to life but you feel undercurrents of other things. You believe her so much, so she was perfect for Mike for me.
Patricia Clarkson: The character was on the page, and something that we wish for and dream about as actors is to get a complete character that’s there. So as I read it, I remember I got flushed, and something entered me in a way as I read this character. I read it again and then I said, “Yes, of course, I’m doing this.”
How’d you figure out what Mike would wear?
Patricia Clarkson: That was our costume designer [Abby O’Sullivan] found that. It’s a great jacket.
Carol Morley: Yeah, and she was very much working with you. Patricia was very keen on creating a look that felt very connected with Mike, but also the costume person really understood that and she was very good on the fine details, like there’s got to be enough pockets in it…
Patricia Clarkson: Pockets and lacing. She found these great articles because Mike only has six articles of clothing. She has a little bit of a Joan Jett past and that’s the only key to her, a little bit of punk, funk, rock and roll past. And that’s it.
When working with a genre like the detective mystery, are there certain areas you can learn into to unlock the more interesting aspects of it?
Carol Morley: I suddenly realized just today that Mike is both the investigator, [as you would] traditionally see in a film noir, and the femme fatale because in the film noir, the tradition is the puzzle to be solved, and [that’s] usually the woman, but the woman in a film noir isn’t really the agent that carries the story forward, and in this Mike does carry the story forward, so I like that it’s acknowledging film noir, but it’s not depending upon it. Although at first it might seem Jennifer is [the femme fatale], because [Mike is] caught up in the puzzle [of solving her murder], ultimately, the puzzle is herself.
Patricia Clarkson: I’ve spoken about this often, but the most important work I had to do to enter Mike [was] to have Mike enter me, which is really the better way around. I had just finished “Sharp Objects” and I had one month to get home and transition from Adora to Mike. But in a way, it was a relief because Mike is so unadorned, so simple, so plain in her exterior with such a complex and fraught interior that I realized [when] I got home from Los Angeles, I had to just spend a lot of time by myself for the next month before I traveled back home to New Orleans to to plant the seeds and to have the emotional life buried but yet able to be called upon in a flash, which is what is happening to this character. That’s just homework. That’s something a director can’t give you, your fellow actors can’t give you. And I used all of it — I think the city aided my emotional journey because it is my home and my family was there, and my mother was sick at the time, so I used all of it. As actors, we use everything that we have available to us because my life is Mike’s life. I might not look like Mike, but Mike is me.
It was interesting to hear Carol say that she saw Mike as an extension of the city, following the film’s premiere and given the fact that you switched cities shortly before production started from Atlanta to New Orleans, did it change the character?
Carol Morley: What was strange was that shifting the city, it chimed even more. It was quite a powerful thing [because] there was a motif of water in the film and the beads, and of course, New Orleans has Mardi Gras…
Patricia Clarkson: Martin Amis’s novel is set anywhere USA, but to me, this movie feels New Orleans. It just made sense. [Carol] had originally set it in Atlanta, and there are some similarities [between] Atlanta and New Orleans, but once we got to New Orleans, I [couldn’t] imagine shooting this movie anywhere else.
Carol Morley: Things do happen for a reason and the one thing about filmmaking is you don’t resist change. Patricia phoned up and went, “I’ve been in Atlanta, it’s really over subscribed for crews and independent films.”
Patricia Clarkson: It was just hemorrhaging actors, crews. I was there shooting “Sharp Objects” just for a week, and it was like who’s who, and I thought [for “Out of Blue”], “Oh my god, what are we gonna do?” That’s when tax credits in New Orleans had just been reinstated and we hadn’t even checked.
Carol Morley: And within a week we’d changed…
Patricia Clarkson: That also says a lot [about] a filmmaker who is flexible. Carol has a very distinct, strong and beautiful vision that no one else has, and no one else will. But within that, she is visceral and emotional, and we realized, I am New Orleanian, that city is my life. My life is that city, so let’s just use it.
This may be an aside, but I had to ask about shooting at the local haunt Franny’s Place, because when you hold on the [shot of the] woman behind the counter, it suggested there might’ve been a bigger story there.
Carol Morley: There’s two [women behind the counter] at times in the film, Franny’s the taller one, and that’s Garnet, the smaller one. And when we were location hunting, we went in Franny’s Place and they were working there, so I went, “You’ve got to be in the film.” They just had this character fullness. So they are the real people that work there.
Patricia Clarkson: She was genuinely funny and frightening, this little [woman] … she just stood there, and it was quite powerful. She’s not an actress, she’s been a waitress for 50 years. But they were stunning. They were really quite delicious people.
Carol Morley: And that’s another thing, when you’re looking for locations, you see something like Franny’s Place, and you’re like, “This is extraordinary, and the people that work there are extraordinary,” so you’re using it. You’re trying to have your eyes open all the time. I might’ve envisioned a different kind on location, but once you see that, and you’re like, “No, this is gold.”
Patricia Clarkson: But Carol also used all parts of the city. The whole city is not the French Quarter. There’s suburbs in the city, there’s highways, there’s strip malls, there’s strip bars that aren’t on Bourbon Street. The city is vast and it’s multi-textured. There’s a whole other city there.
Was there a particularly challenging day of shooting on this?
Carol Morley: Every day. The luxury of time…
Patricia Clarkson: …we did not have.
Carol Morley: You never get enough time, and in a way, that’s the beauty because the challenge creates an energy all of its own. So you don’t get complacent, you have to push on. I don’t think we ever did many takes of anything. It was probably around three. You can’t do a Kubrick and do 180 takes, so you have to be on the ball, but then there is something that manifests that’s very exciting about that. It certainly was never a challenge to work with Patricia because it was such a joy to work with her and the rest of the cast, but within a film, it’s a high anxiety because all the actors are frontline and they want to do the best job possible, so my job is to make them feel that all the anxieties around time can dissipate. I never like actors to know how much time they’ve got for a scene. I might’ve been told they’ve got 10 minutes, but I would never let an actor know that. Patricia would be like, “How much time we got?” I’d go, “It doesn’t matter. Let’s do it.” Still, Patricia would always sneak off and find out sometime. [Clarkson laughs] The set feels very calm, and the priority is not the camera or the sound. It’s the performer in their space that they live in it. That’s my priority.
What was the premiere like for you?
Carol Morley: It was a beautiful night. It was great for it to meet its audience.
Patricia Clarkson: It was a large crowd that showed up for this film, and it’s a quiet film, a film that’s introspective and a film that requires your mind and your heart, so it was beautiful to have the sense that most people did take this journey. Mike is a very complex character. This film is a very complex film, mixing homicide and the cosmos, and who else could do that but Carol?
“Out of Blue” opens on March 22nd in New York at the IFC Center.