In making his directorial debut after rising quickly as an in-demand director of photography, Andrew Droz Palermo receives one question more than any other.
“The first question everyone asks is what was it like shooting with another [director of photography], being a DP yourself? And I actually was rarely involved in anything with lighting or a camera,” says Droz Palermo, who joined forces with another celebrated, up-and-coming cinematographer in “Palo Alto” lenser Autumn Durald.
Instead, Droz Palermo was concerned with raising far more provocative questions with “One & Two,” a family drama that fuses together the adventurous coming-of-age films he enjoyed in his youth with the unflinching sense of heightened realism that has defined his work as a cinematographer on such films as Adam Wingard’s “You’re Next” and Hannah Fidell’s “A Teacher.”
Droz Palermo may not be the first to employ metaphysics to describe the abstract feeling that one has coming to terms with the power they have growing up, but he does find a particularly unique setting for it in the tale of Eva and Zac (Kiernan Shipka and Timothée Chalamet, respectively), a brother and sister living in a strict religious household who discover the ability to teleport. Set on a farm in Droz Palermo’s native North Carolina, the seemingly endless acreage can become oppressive, particularly as the children’s father Daniel (Grant Bowler) behaves more erratically when their mother (Elizabeth Reaser) takes ill. Yet Eva and Zac can only travel so far, even with their special powers, and “One & Two” becomes a striking meditation on how it’s their bond to each other rather than their capability to pull away that enables them to survive.
As the film makes its way to theaters and VOD after premiering earlier this year at the Berlin Film Festival, Droz Palermo spoke about why despite the move to the director’s chair, he’s still just one of many who made “One & Two” a special experience, the inspiration for the story and why you shouldn’t expect him to be repeating himself.
There were a lot of different seeds, and it started primarily from my time living in Missouri and being around a lot of Amish and Mennonite communities. My cousin was working with them a lot and I just started thinking about the way that they were living, and pushing that further and further, so that they might be entirely detached and start attacking their culture a bit. I was also reading a lot about feral children, and my co-writer and I were watching everything we could find. There’s some scenes about that – once these two children [found out they] were fish out of water, there was something almost feral about them, I thought, so it was a random soup of ideas like any film comes to fruition.
You take the unusual tact of listing your co-writer Neima Shahdadi in the “A Film By…” credit, and he doesn’t seem to come from the film world. How did he get involved?
Yeah, Neima and I grew up together in the same town and we met each other in high school [because] we both had a budding interest in chess. I wrote a draft [of “One & Two”] somewhere a few years ago, and it was just formless. You get to a place where you have too many ideas and you just don’t really have a map for it to come together. I really needed a sounding board to help get a good structure and I really love hanging out with Neima. He’s an English major, so he really helped me pull it all together.
As far as the crediting goes, I have this thing against the way directors will often take the credit to say “A Film By…” Maybe it’s from my days as a DP, but when someone says “A Film By,” I feel like it so discredits all of the other people’s work. All these other people put in so much time and energy and creativity, I just really want to encourage the culture where we all share and be thankful for those that really made it happen.
Looking at the Facebook page for this film, I was struck by the portraits of individual crew members, all taken in the same location – it suggested that you probably had a certain idea of how to run a set and make this feel like everybody was involved.
Yeah, it was an amazing location. The house at Horn Creek, they call a living museum. It’s this home you can actually go to and walk around in and we just had run of the place. Everyone was so generous. Our [digital imaging technician] Jack Caswell also took a lot of photos for us and had the idea to put people on this bench that was next to this tobacco drying building, which we actually didn’t use. I didn’t think that Daniel would ever allow them to have tobacco in the house. But I really like having this constant aesthetic throughout the film and it’s something I really strive for in all our [publicity] materials and everything [else] — to have some synergy.
Kiernan mentioned that you gave her a playlist and showed her some Andrew Wyeth paintings as inspiration for the mood. What were the influences?
For me, it’s a really great way to start a conversation that’s not “Hey, let’s watch all these movies together.” I really want to seek influence from as many places as I can. If I had my druthers, we would spend a month reading and watching the same things and going to museums. If nothing else, it’s a really great way to meet people and start to learn each other’s quirks and how to talk to each other. As far as the playlist stuff, I really write to music a lot, [typically] non-lyrical stuff — film scores, electronic music, or even pop songs. At one time, I was really trying to put pop song to a movie, but it never really worked out.
Was it difficult to find the right tone?
The writing process is largely based on imagery, and we found the tone very early. Achieving it was difficult at times, not that it was big in size, but it required some very specific production design, which Sarah [Beckum Jamieson] handled really really well. I wanted the film to be very fluid, and that’s expensive at a certain point, because you’re introducing steadicams and [camera] dollies, and we couldn’t afford that very often. Autumn was great about selecting the times when we would need a steadicam, which I think was only three times and I probably wanted it all over the place. Through music, imagery, and looking at paintings, it was all very clear what I wanted. I’m developing another film right now, and it’s in the early process of getting excited about different imagery, but remembering how it was with “One and Two,” I would just see a photo and be like, “oh my God, wouldn’t it be amazing to stage something around this lighting or this color?” That’s how it was born.
It sounds like you might’ve been shooting “Rich Hill” while you were developing this. Did that have any influence?
Yeah, both of them go back to my home and my childhood in a way. “One and Two” was influenced by my home state and the faces of the people. “Rich Hill” was filmed in my home state [of North Carolina] and really helped a lot for me to understand one aspect of [“One and Two”], which is the group home later in the film. That was definitely inspired by that experience [since] we spent a lot of time in development centers and watched kids who had come from really extreme situations try to talk about their feelings and experiences. I thought that was just an incredible place, I knew I wanted to do something in a place like that.
The special power possessed by the kids could’ve been anything, so how did you decide on teleportation?
In the very, very first draft, they were much more feral, and they were non-communicative. The very first scene I ever wrote was the two of them laying in the grass, singing the theme song or melody, but it was evident that they weren’t making the noises. It was just in their heads together [because] there was always some link between them. The core of the film to me is that they have this intense bond, but I realized that was going to be very difficult to achieve. I think the teleportation just came simply from the idea that they’re already so encircled, they can’t leave this environment. What if you give them the power that everyone would think you could just go everywhere and enjoy everything in a moment’s notice, but in actuality they still can’t get over the wall, so they’re stuck.
You actually seem to have a specialty as a cinematographer that extends to your work now as a director, which is the ability to visually convey high drama in a stripped down way. Is there a trick? Whether it’s Adam Wingard’s “You’re Next” and both of Hannah Fidell’s films [“A Teacher” and “6 Years”] or “One & Two,” there’s a naturalism around very high concept ideas.
I think that’s definitely true. Both Adam and Hannah have very distinct visions of what they want their films to be like and I just try to help them find what it is and help them hone it in and hope that we achieve something better than they were imagining. My interest for my own film is not dissimilar to that stuff, but some of my takes may be different — it’s interesting when I’m given free rein to do what I want and I love being able to do it all the different ways. I don’t really want to get stuck in some [specific] style or be known for some type of imagery. I really want to have a full language.
“One & Two” opens on August 21st in Los Angeles at the Arena Cinema. It is also available on iTunes. A full list of theaters and dates can be found here.
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