Interview: Annabelle Attanasio on the Role Reversals of “Mickey and the Bear”

Five years ago, Annabelle Attanasio had traveled to Anaconda, Montana to interview veterans about their experience reacclimating back into civilian life after their tours abroad. She could’ve expected stories of disillusionment and opioid addiction to combat the pain and PTSD, though to be there her DSLR camera and a microphone would no doubt pick up details that often go undetected in general reportage from the region, but Attanasio had heard something different when she asked a question few had thought to ask before, shifting from wondering about the burden that the former soldiers feel to what they’ve passed onto their friends and family who still love the person who was sent off to war, yet are unsure of who they are when they get back.

Even though the resulting film “Mickey and the Bear” is Attanasio’s feature directorial debut, it’s an ability to take what she knows in order to find a new perspective on it that proves to be a great strength, as much formally as narratively. An actress-turned-director, it isn’t surprising that “Mickey and the Bear” allows the space for strong performances from its leads Camila Morrone as the titular teen Mickey and James Badge Dale as her father Hank, but in shifting the focus from the Afghan war vet to his put-upon daughter, charged with keeping an eye on his meds and his drinking as she deals with stress of finishing her senior year of high school, the writer/director finds an unexpected tale of codependency as Mickey is asked to take on the role of being a parent she shows a proficiency for, even if it’s well before the age she should have to consider such responsibilities.

While Morrone and Dale are able to convey the ways in which this rearrangement of traditional roles has made things uncomfortable, Attanasio is able to put the audience in their shoes with a drama where there’s considerable tension in the constant feeling that something’s going on beneath the surface as life just keeps rolling along in Anaconda, whether it’s what’s left unsaid in conversations between Mickey and Hank, the often vibrant lights that are left on in a small town that mostly goes dark around nine, and a simmering soundtrack that sounds ready to be brought to a boil at a moment’s notice.

That explosive energy extends back to Attanasio’s winning comic short “Frankie Keeps Talking” and runs throughout “Mickey and the Bear,” which feels like a blast of fresh air even in taking on a time-old tale and after bursting out the gate when it premiered earlier this year at SXSW, the film is now out in theaters and to mark the occasion, the writer/director spoke about how she was able to achieve such cultural and emotional authenticity for the story at hand, finding her breakout lead Morrone, who previously wowed in “Never Goin’ Back” and what took her by surprise on her feature debut.

Is it true this all started with a research project in Anaconda?

I am of the opinion that you find the best little gems of details within either research or real-life observation of people, so when I knew I was wanting to explore this father-daughter narrative and that I wanted him to be a veteran, the next step for me was to go to Montana. I happened to go to NYU Gallatin where they have lots of wonderful grants that support interdisciplinary focuses, so the fact that I was going to do a research project on veterans that would later culminate in a narrative film about a young girl and her veteran father was something that was very up their alley.

When you had an interest in veterans, was it obvious that this was a story you wanted to tell from the perspective of the daughter of one?

She always was because I’m always interested in the way complex women or people who are othered have to deal with patriarchal systems, so my focus was never going to be the Hank, necessarily, though I must have 100 percent compassion for that character. The focus is always going to be the person who possibly is silenced or oppressed in a larger system that they’re in and what they do to break through that system.

You’ve said the character of Mickey had remained somewhat incomplete until Camila Morrone walked in – what did she bring to the role that wasn’t there before?

I think Cami is disarmingly present in her acting, so she doesn’t get ahead of the narrative. She was able to balance the knowledge that her dad might not get better with the kind of innocence of a young girl who really believes the best in her father. No one else had that kind of maturity and innocence at once, and then when Cami came out to Montana to test for the project, that was where I learned that we had similar processes. She’s very behaviorial in her acting. She’s very open in terms of trying things a lot of different ways. She can improvise and that’s my style too. I don’t want to lock an actor into anything. I want them to feel free and she was very much on the same wavelength as me.

I understand there were five days of rehearsals – does anything come out of that process you may not have been anticipating, but you could incorporate into this?

Things did change, and certain scenes I was really nervous wouldn’t work and they worked beautifully, like what we call the Beef-a-roni scene where [Mickey] says, “Where is my money?” I really thought it wasn’t going to work, but then it flowed beautifully during the rehearsal, so I didn’t have to change much. But even with scenes like that, I knew it could be better – it could be more scathing.

I feel like actors are just brimming with incredible ideas, so whenever other actors had those instincts about changing things or I would say, “This isn’t working for me. What would you say?” we would workshop things, and Cami is so fearless I knew she could go there, so I [asked her], “What would you say to drag your dad through the mud? What would you say to really, really hurt him? What would you bring up?” And she spitballed the monologue that comes towards the end of the scene and that became the scene.

Is it true you also made a point of rehearsing in the locations where a given scene would take place before shooting?

Yeah, because it helps the actors. It helps them to actually sit in Hank’s bed and be able to have that physicality, rather than be in a rehearsal studio, which we did not have. We were fortunate because of my dear friend Macgregor Anderson, whose family has been in Anaconda for over a century, his grandparents had this incredible garage that they lent us for the summer where we were able to have our production office. We were able to have our table read there, and to use it as a multi-purpose space. But I knew it would be more meaningful to the actors to actually go to where they were going to go, especially for scenes like the lake – to feel the ricketiness of [the dock] and how cold that was going to be was important – so it almost just feels more like they’re these actual characters in real life more than performing. I wanted the movie to feel quite cinematic, but also [have] performances that we’re quite honest, so that’s why I wanted to bring them to each place whenever we could.

Was that a real street fair that you hit up?

Yes. We wanted it to be a real fair with real fairgoers, but we also wanted it to be a little bit larger, so we invited people to show up as well. Each week in Anaconda in the summer, they have a wonderful street fair called Alive After Five and everybody comes out. There’s lots of street vendors [including] a group called the Grumpy Old Men, a group of veterans that cook pork chop sandwiches, and it was this amazing thing [where] everybody had to sign waivers and they knew we were filming, but we wanted to be as unobtrusive as possible. [It’s actually] part of why I shot that opening shot of the fair from the roof of a building is because it’s the most observational angle.

That’s what actually suggested to me that you shot inside a real event instead of staging it.

When she gets the lemonade, that was an actual lemonade stand, but the pie-eating contest, that was us, and then the circular dolly shot toward the end of the sequence was during the real fair and somehow people were quiet. People were really cooperative and it was a hodgepodge of lots of different set-ups. Somehow it actually came together.

It really did. Something that really stood out the second time I saw the film is the neon lights you see on the dance hall where Mickey and Hank share a dance seems to inform the color palette for the rest of the film where you’ve got these vibrant colors that break through. Did that location actually inspire how you would design the lighting throughout the film?

That is Club Moderne, which is a really old bar in Anaconda and I loved the pink light outside, which I think you see once and then it’s green, and it’s like a scene in “Paris, Texas” where Harry Dean Stanton is on his back at the doctor’s office that has that kind of same lime green as the strip in Club Moderne. It’s almost like watermelon colors in that scene, and I think you’re right it was our instinct to really embrace that. Then I’m a huge fan of Nan Goldin, whose photos are so raw and so unwavering, but at the same time, their use of color is so vibrant and stunning to look at, so whether it’s blues or pinks, I really respond to that. Also in “Fish Tank,” I loved the way Andrea Arnold used pink and yellow light in these night scenes, so Conor Murphy, the DP, and I really wanted to embrace those rich colors.

I also think there’s this idea about movies set in smaller towns or communities that it all needs to look grey or washed out, but that’s not just my experience. Anaconda is incredibly vivid, like the Club Moderne sign or the scene where Watkins [played by Rebecca Henderson] and Hank are at the bar and it’s that fuchsia light, and there is this incredible lime green street light in town as well. Those are the colors that are there already, so I didn’t want to fight it because that is what it naturally is.

The other thing that struck me is the camera’s relationship to Mickey – when you’ve got an actress as strong as Camila where you can really tell a story with just her face, what was it like figuring out throughout the distance you’d want to have?

Because of her modeling background, she’s so aware of how to work with the camera. Some actors don’t like to know where the camera is, but I think it’s a real asset for Cami that she’s so good at dancing with the camera and Badge comes from an athletic background, so he’s quite physical too. Both of them were really interested in knowing the frame size, how the camera’s going to move and how to best serve the image because they both know it’s a visual medium. So with certain scenes, like the scene where [Mickey] and Hank are in bed together and she’s singing him to sleep, she knew that would basically be one size and then we added the close-up just to have a cut point essentially, but that scene was actually just going to be in that wide shot, so she knew she’d have to give it all. Scenes where she knew it would inch closer to her, she knew she would be able to give a variety of performances and maybe save the emotion for the closer shots.

You’ve had plenty of experience on set before this, so it may not have been much of an adjustment, but was directing your first feature what you thought it would be?

It was so much different. I had so many ideas of what I thought this movie might be because I’m a hopeless planner, [wanting] to know every step of things and basically set myself up for success. And so many things I wanted to happen didn’t, but even better things happened. That’s what I learned – I didn’t know how to just trust in the process and trust that when you can’t license your dream song, there’s another song that’s even better. For instance, “If Loving You is a Crime…” by Lee Moses was not the song in the script, it was “You Send Me” by Sam Cooke, but it is such a more powerful and relevant song for the story that I didn’t even know when I was writing the script. That was one of a million instances, but I genuinely feel like each thing that didn’t go my way necessarily led to something better and led to more creativity and more intention to the decisions.

While we’re on the music, how’d you work on the score?

I love music, and when I was a kid, I did so much musical theater and dance, so I’m moved by it and I know I wanted to have a lot of music, but I never wanted the music to underline the emotion. I wanted it to contradict the emotion in order to create a sense of dread or discomfort in the audience, so with Brian McOmber and Angel Deradoorian, we wanted to create something that would make the audience’s skin crawl whilst being somewhat playful because there’s so much playfulness in this soundtrack, from the Tune-Yards track and all of the country western music that’s all very lighthearted. I think [Brian and Angel] composed for three weeks, and we came up with this unusual synth score. I had a lot of Cliff Martinez in there as the reference because when I did “The Knick” [as an actress], I became obsessed with Cliff’s music and I thought it was the perfect thing for that show because it just instantly brought it to the present, so I put tons of his music in the temp [score] and we just played off of that. We tried to be spare. We tried to save the moments where the music would really support the moment for the end or these hyper-emotional moments, but for the most part, we wanted it to feel uncomfortable.

“Mickey and the Bear” is now open in limited release. A full schedule of cities and dates is here.