There’s something fitting about finding Anja Marquardt tucked into the busy Driskill Hotel bar during SXSW, at the center of the throngs of carousing filmmakers and hangers-on but likely to be unnoticed by anyone passing by, even with one of the film’s stars “Homeland”‘s Marc Menchaca at her side. Just as likely, they hadn’t seen her debut “She’s Lost Control” yet.
“I did not want to play it safe with my first feature,” says Marquardt, her voice rising above the din of the crowded room.
In spite of her youth, Marquardt has had a world of experience, growing up in Berlin and settling into homes in Laos and Granada before eventually reaching NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. It was in New York where she would conceive of “She’s Lost Control,” a stirring character study of a a woman named Ronah (Brooke Bloom), a sex surrogate tasked with nursing often damaged men back to healthy levels of self-esteem, raising the spirits of her clients while limiting her own emotional exposure until she comes across the case of Johnny (Menchaca), a particularly disturbed individual who turns into the riddle she most wants to solve. While Bloom and Menchaca both deliver ferocious turns as the professional veneer of their relationship is stripped away to become dangerously personal, Marquardt shows a steady hand and a sharp eye as the film spies Ronah in psychological freefall, no longer able to keep the emotional disengagement in all aspects of her life that has made it all work up to this point.
Despite the shaken character at its center, “She’s Lost Control” is an unshakeable experience, one that’s bound to launch its core creative team into the limelight, a glare that’s deservedly intensified as the film has made its triumphant bow at this year’s Berlinale, SXSW and at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s New Directors/New Films, where the film will be coming home this weekend. Before it does, Marquardt and Menchaca spoke about the effort that went into the film’s intricate structure, how casting Bloom at the last minute paid positive dividends and how being a filmmaker is an extension of the writer/director’s early thoughts of being a private investigator.
Anja Marquardt: I wanted to get something off the ground in the near future, so I wrote the script to be produced for a minimal amount of money and I had heard about the world of surrogate partner therapy. It was very new to me and seemed weird at first, but also [had] a deeply human core to it that I was intrigued by. Then I became really interested in this idea of telling a story about someone who is professionally intimate with people – strangers, essentially – and take that to an extreme within the set up of a therapist who is also having physical interaction with their clients. Our executive producer Oren Moverman came onboard pretty early on and was ready to help make it happen and one thing came after the other from there. It was really a very organic process. We spent a lot of time casting.
Mark, how did you come onboard?
Marc Menchaca: I got a call from a casting director and I had to make a quick trip back to New York over the holidays for a chemistry read. That’s when I first met Anja and I responded to the script right away and…”
AM: Yeah, I was pretty impressed by the fact he flew back during the holidays for a chemistry read because you want the actors to want the part.
I’d think a “chemistry read” might be a little different for a story like this where there’s no romance. What would you look for specifically?
AM: My original strategy was to cast the female lead first, then attach the male lead and see how they would work together and [these reads would have] very much the framework we had in creating the movie. There are scenes that have this controlled setup where two people meet in a room and they get close to each other emotionally and physically and within that space, a lot of things are possible that are not possible in the outside world. So casting was almost like a mini-experiment for that story.
I had another leading lady attached at that point and Marc and her were reading together and for different reasons, I had to recast the lead role in the new year. Marc stayed on and I ended up recasting with someone he never met, so it all came together very differently and they had never read or rehearsed together, but after going through the process, I decided maybe it is what this movie needs to have — Brooke and Marc actually came together for the first time on that first day of shooting that [first] scene together. The movie was an 18-day shoot, so obviously we didn’t shoot the script in order, but the way we did shoot it chronologically were the scenes between Ronah and Johnny. We started with the very first scene of them together in the hotel room and they really hadn’t met before. We had drinks together one night, but [Brooke and Marc] had never played together, so that was great for me to see and a learning curve for all of us to see what is the language we all speak. Some of that freshness and not quite knowing how to do this transpires into the scene to make those scenes stronger.
Did that give it a different energy for you, Marc?
MM: Yeah, it did. Brooke and I, in a sense, got close very soon because we knew what we had to do, but saying that in just a conversation is one thing and then being in a scene together is a different thing. I feel like it did help that we had to overcome those boundaries that we just automatically put up as human beings to shoot it.
There isn’t a lot of backstory given for the Ronah’s clients, but did you actually have a history that you could draw upon?
MM: Yes. I won’t go into it. But yes. [all laugh]
AM: It was very important to us that there was an authenticity to where the characters come from and what the emotional baggage would be. What’s interesting in this story to me is to look at how does it manifest specifically in the interaction, like what is the behavior of someone can’t or doesn’t want to interact. It’s not so much about what happened when you were five years old or [a specific] incident that derailed you or made you the way you are now. I think it’s always a little silly when a movie tries to boil it down to one event and explain everything with it because we’re so much the product of a sequence of events.
One of my favorite things about the film is the way the camera hones in on Ronah, in particular, but to people in general, and often lets the rest of the frame fall away. It seems obviously, but how did that aesthetic come about?
AM: My [director of photography] Zach Galler and I definitely had a very specific visual language in mind to isolate Ronah from the rest of the world at certain moments and make her be part of it in others. When she’s working with her clients, there’s definitely a focus, an intention that she gives to them, almost like she’s making them feel like they’re the only ones in the world right now that matter. So Zach and I used longer lenses for the scenes when we have Ronah with a client. Or when Ronah is alone at home, there’s a lot of either physical walls in the city or emotional barriers between people, so we tried to find a visual way to try to underline that.
Speaking of which, there’s a sly and fairly remarkable transition the film makes from its first to second halves – in the first, you know what Ronah does for her profession and while you see her interacting with clients, there’s little physical contact yet it’s as if a switch is flipped when you see her in a vulnerable position in her personal life, even using a little nudity as a visual signifier. Was it difficult to come up with that structure?
AM: The idea was definitely to have the structure be a spiral and to start out where we look at the character [of Ronah] as someone who could be our neighbor. There’s something very normal about her, very down to earth and unspectacular. She’s everything but the typical sex worker that you might have in your mind as the cliche, then you realize there’s some aspects of her life she really does control [while there are] others shifting that she doesn’t even realize. There’s an acceleration and I do think the nudity as a visual element in the movie does flip a switch, like you just said, so in the cinematography and the sound design and also in the way we color-graded, for example, it’s definitely a progression of pace.
I’ve read before becoming a filmmaker, you were interested in becoming a journalist or a private investigator. Does film satisfy those urges to be a bit of an explorer?
AM: Oh yeah. I consider myself very lucky that I get to research and explore other people’s lives. It’s almost like as a filmmaker you have a window into any world that you’d like to explore, thematically or psychologically. Because I didn’t know anything about surrogate partner therapy initially, what drew me to this story was that when I started to research it, I understood it wasn’t some weird ’70s thing. It’s actually something that’s very much alive now and there’s individuals out there who take it very seriously and dedicate their lives to it, so I was curious to talk to them about it and see what it feels like for them to expose themselves in such a way because it’s a very vulnerable position to be in. You can’t be intimate with someone and pretend. You have to give and be open and be vulnerable and I thought okay, wow, there’s something dangerous about it because we go through our lives and we try to protect ourselves from getting too damaged. At the same time, we can’t really always do that. We have to go through things to grow as people.