For a film that lurks in the darkness, there’s a clarity to Andrew Dosunmu’s stirring third feature “Where is Kyra?” that gets underneath the skin. In spite of its title, you don’t have to look far to find Kyra (Michelle Pfeiffer), presented without fail at the center of the screen, but still distant as she hardly recognizes where life has taken her, after a full-time job at an an income tax center dried up two years ago and she’s been trying to make ends meet ever since while taking care of her wheelchair-bound mother Ruth (Suzanne Shepherd). Neither has anyone else to rely on, which makes the drama excruciatingly tense in following Kyra in the immediate aftermath of Ruth’s death, freeing up the time and energy she had poured into her care to pursue her own life yet desperately searching for work when Ruth’s benefits check, that the two had come to rely on to make rent, is about to disappear.
As Kyra slides into those places where we often avert our eyes, Donsunmu ensures we can’t look away, once again drawing on longtime collaborations with cinematographer Bradford Young and screenwriter Darci Picoult to craft both a compelling and compassionate thriller, watching one of the fiercest actresses of our generation fight off the dark with tooth and nail. While Pfeiffer smolders onscreen, it is in a way that we have never seen her before, her command of the screen obscured by Kyra’s devastating circumstances yet all too recognizable in conveying the dizzying swirl of emotions that accompany her plight, and after conveying the struggle of immigrants attempting to gain and maintain a toehold in America with his previous two films, “Restless City” and “Mother of George,” Dosunmu illustrates how easily one can become an outsider to the society they were raised in, especially in an era where the inequality gap is ever-widening and the capacity for empathy appears to be diminishing. Yet the filmmaker offers light, not only in bringing attention to a character like Kyra in the first place, but in telling her story with such bold originality, and as “Where is Kyra?” makes its way into theaters, he spoke about creating a cinematic experience that allows one to see the situation anew, the implications of casting a world-famous actress as your lead and making a film in the dark.
How did this come about?
After “Mother of George” I wanted to do something else. Living in New York, seeing the situation of the country and [hearing] all these horrible stories about people being unemployed, looking for jobs [after] they’ve worked at the same company for 30 years and they can’t find work, that triggered something for me. I wanted to talk about the diminishing human value in our society, the fact that we’re not observant about things around us, whether you see a homeless person or a drug addict or the elderly and [how] we’re very dismissive of those things.
Is it coincidence that the central characters have faced obstacles in living in the city have gotten older in each successive film of yours or something that’s been of interest as you’ve gotten older?
It’s a coincidence, but they all have this idea of the search for the American Dream and how a city like New York, the city where I live, could be very, very welcoming and at the same time, it could be very cold and lonely when things are not right, especially when I think of the elderly. We don’t have the patience for them. We don’t want to be behind them on a queue, and that intrigued me. [With] “Kyra,” a woman of a certain age begins to not be found desirable because she can’t even get a job at a bar because they think she’s too old to be a waitress, so I really wanted to talk about those values that we’re missing in our society that we should be observant of.
After working with her on “Mother of George,” was it an obvious decision to reteam with Darci Picoult for the script?
I’ve known Darci for about a decade now and she knows what I like and what I’m like as a filmmaker and the kinds of films I want to make. I want the audience to experience things. I think cinema is a visual language and she’s a great screenplay writer in that sense. She [thinks], “Let’s feel the characters. Let’s not hear them. Let us be in their shoes.” I don’t want the kinds of films I make to be lost in translation. I want everyone around the world, whatever language they speak, to connect with the characters. Sometimes films get lost in translation because there’s so much dialogue — it’s translated in a different language and you miss the nuances. So Darci and I have a shorthand when it comes to that, and I’m a male filmmaker and it’d be obnoxious of me or arrogant of me to think I understand the female experience, so getting the female perspective has been amazing and crucial, especially when we have to tell those stories.
You’ve said in other interviews that you’ve been really drawn to WPA photos as an influence, not necessarily visually, but just in terms of mood. What did they give you?
I’m a photographer, so [what] I love about those era pictures [of] Walker Evans or August Sander or any of those WPA photographers is the fact that they were able to capture human emotions through a portrait of them. You get all these famous Depression-era pictures of people’s faces and you understood what they were going through — the pain, the poverty — all came across in their portrait. And I try to do that in my films. In “Where is Kyra?” you have this portrait of Michelle and I really wanted the audience to relate to that person. She’s a woman next door, she’s your mother, she’s your auntie — I think portraits do that. It goes into one’s soul. There’s that African expression that people avoid being photographed because they think it reveals their soul. I really believe that. [laughs] It reveals so much about them, and those portraits from the WPA era were brilliant at doing that. One understood what they were going through in those eras because the pain was revealed.
The film could be described as claustrophobic, but it’s because of how you use darkness rather than the frame, which is a wide 2.40 aspect ratio. How did you think about space in that way?
I really believe personally that there’s something that shadows and darkness does to reveal the pain in situations and my cinematographer Bradford Young and I wanted the film to feel that all the light and sunshine in [Kyra’s] life are disappearing. The fact that she can’t get a job and that every time she goes out there, she knows what to expect, so she’d rather stay at home. Then even at home, the beauty and the lightness and the sunshine, all that is disappearing in her life and we wanted the audience to be in that room with her. Often when you watch films, the camera is so much on the character, but in this film, we wanted the audience to understand what it’s like to be in this post-war tenement building, [with] the sound of the radiator. We really wanted you to feel that, so that’s what we tried to do with this. In the frame, you see her framed to the side of the [screen], so you’re a part of the room.
Did Michelle Pfeiffer come to mind relatively early in the process?
Yeah, I met Michelle about a year prior to the project. She saw “Mother of George” and she really liked it and it was really interesting to work with Michelle because we all know how beautiful she is, but I always felt that she had so much range that a lot of directors have not really tapped into unfortunately. She’s always cast for her beauty and she’s got way more range than that, and she is [also] someone that we all know and it’s through knowing her, she’s [relatable] to everyone. Everyone can understand that this could happen to them. This could happen to their sister, their mother, their relatives, because we’ve all grown up watching her in films, so [I thought] why don’t I take someone like that to go through this experience because that way the audience can relate to that. We’re like, “That’s Michelle Pfeiffer, oh my gosh,” you know? There are other actors that you would normally expect that [of, doing a part like this] because they do artistic films and I felt like that was going to short change it. I really wanted the audience to relate to that person and Michelle did wonderful work of stripping that beauty [away] and showing the ugliness and the pain that Kyra’s going through – that’s how we all started. We met and she was excited about it.
Given how you subvert expectations with that casting, did that spirit of shaking up what people know about film run through it? I’m thinking of how you bring up the title card 20 minutes into the movie.
Yeah, that’s a creative decision because we do know what happens at the beginning of the film – the mom passes away and then what happens? And I wanted the audience to feel like they were watching a certain movie and all of a sudden, the title comes up and the next thing after the title is something else. Obviously, I don’t want to give away [what happens] but [with] the title, it feels surreal, and I really believe that’s how it must feel when you are so desperate and your back is against the wall. I’m sure being unemployed [or] being a drug addict is horrifying. It’s not one’s wish. When someone’s a drug addict, it’s a sickness. When you’re homeless, it’s because you’ve tried and situations happen. It becomes surreal because you don’t really believe this is happening to you, which comes through even in the title “Where is Kyra?” You become invisible to the world, you even become invisible to yourself and you begin to ask yourself what happened to me? Who am I? Where am I? Who is this person that I used to be? So that’s what really prompted that credit being there.
You mentioned the sound of the radiator helping to establish a sense of place, and there are sounds throughout that really give a sense of Kyra’s condition, whether it’s how you’ll hear the repetition of walking with a cane or the drip of an IV. How did you go about creating the soundscape?
Living in New York, I always felt like the city [exists in] frequencies. It’s like changing radio stations, almost like you walk down the streets and you’ve got a subway going, the police or the ambulance siren and music coming out of a store. Everything is just constantly hectic and I really wanted to create that, especially within your own world, [when] those things become so irritative. The cane is something [Kyra’s] used to, she’s trying to escape becoming her mom and the cane becomes so repetitive constantly because she’s so focused on what she’s doing. I really wanted us to understand that experience of being isolated in this 8-million-person city and still feel alone. You’re so conscious of every sound, but people are not conscious of you, the human.
In the year since this premiered at Sundance, it seems like attention around income inequality has grown, even as the gap itself has widened. Does the film mean anything different to you now than while you were making it?
I knew the sort of film I wanted to make and after the premiere, we had quite a few people interested, but we knew the kind of film it was and we wanted to wait for the right distributor. Paladin has been amazing, understanding the kind of film, putting it out in the right time and the right place [with] the right packaging – I think that was so crucial and when you do something, it’s like your baby, so stepping back a little bit, I think it actually means more than ever, much more. The other day I was reading in the newspaper [about] some elderly woman who passed away and she was alone in her apartment. She wasn’t discovered until three or four days later, it reminds me of how important it is that these stories get told. For me, there’s no resolution at the end of [“Where is Kyra?”]. What I hope is that when the audience steps out of the film, the resolution is really asking questions [of] what happens if this happens to me or the next time we see someone homeless we begin to think well, how did that person got to that stage? And not just be oblivious to those situations.