In a nod to the “whodunits” her narrative debut is clearly inspired by, Camille Thoman is fond of calling “Never Here” a “Who Am I?” For those who might be familiar with the writer/director from her kaleidoscopic documentary “The Longest Game,” about a group of retirees who reflect on their life in between sets of paddle tennis, the variation makes sense since she’s drawn to use the camera as an extension of gaze rather than as a filter, and while the sly and catchy descriptor may have been used to cut to the quick with the brave financiers who backed her vision for “Never Here,” it’s also a way of redefining the psychological thriller as a personal experience rather than an observational one.
Ironically, “Never Here” grows more intimate for the viewer as it follows a lead character as she gets further away from herself, tracking a performance artist named Miranda Fall (Mireille Enos), who seizes on an attack she learns of outside her apartment for inspiration for her work. Inserting herself into the active crime investigation claiming to have witnessed the attack, she loses perspective on the real implications her involvement has as she pursues an ecstatic truth who takes the shadowy form of man named S (Goran Visjnic), to the increasing bewilderment of her agent (Sam Shepard) and her college classmate now in law enforcement (Vincent Piazza).
As Miranda experiences an identity crisis, Thoman displays the opposite behind the camera, offering up a distinctive spin on film noir that defies easy categorization otherwise, plunging audiences into a world where the brighter neon signs burn in the dark of night the more obscure things seem to get. Anchored by a compelling turn from Enos, whose natural warmth makes Miranda’s gradual turn towards cold as she lets her occupation subsume her humanity particularly affecting, “Never Here” is unsparing in its ability to lead an audience into the depths of both the mystery at hand and what goes on in the human mind.
With “Never Here” making its way into theaters this week following its debut this summer at the L.A. Film Fest, Thoman spoke about wrapping her own head around creating such a cerebral potboiler, finding a fantastical world in the one we all inhabit and working with her longtime friend Enos as well as the late Sam Shepard.
You’ve said Paul Auster’s work was an influence for “Never Here.” How so?
I read the New York Trilogy when I was 20, 21, 22 and I was really amazed with how Paul Auster was really able to create a classic suspense tale, like real detective fiction [while] also reaching out and referencing me as a reader – it felt like my soul was contacted – and at the same time, I was invested in the fiction that was running parallel in front of me, so it was like there was a 3D exchange between the author and myself and at the same moment, there was like a 2D structure of the story going on. I was very inspired by that [because] this is what I want to do in cinema. I’m very devoted to trying to reach the spectator through subconscious channels, and having a story that titillates.
How did Mireille Enos come aboard? I’ve heard her say initially, she considered herself to be a sounding board?
I wrote the part for her, and actually, the name Miranda in my head was actually a wishful, hopeful reference to Mireille, not that Mireille is anything like Miranda. [laughs] But I gave her the first draft of the script in 2010, just to see what she thought. So she has been a sounding board – she had some thoughts, which I incorporated into the script I but she’s been a friend and a pillar of support for years and years and years and then it worked out finally that she could play the part, which was amazing for me and our whole team.
Is it true you met in acting class? Did you know even then you’d want to direct?
We met in acting class and I wanted to direct since I was six years old, but co-existing with that was always a desire to perform, which I did, into my twenties. Around the age of 25, I had to make a choice [about] what did I really want? Both fields – acting and directing – are so competitive, I felt like I had to decide which was more important to me and ultimately, I chose to direct.
Did you know from the start of “Never Here” that your lead would be an artist?
That was pretty much from the beginning. The story came first and I knew she was going to be an artist and then I thought, well, I want her to be a believable artist and I was a performance artist in my twenties, so some of the work that she does in the movie is based on actual pieces that I’ve done, and then [thought] we’ll do something interesting with the rest. Also, like Paul Auster’s novel “Leviathan,” he fictionalized an account of Sophie Calle’s work and I was inspired by the work of Miranda July and Tracey Emin.
How did Sam Shepard come into this?
Sam Shepard was such a gift. Quite late in the process, ICM became aware of the project and championed it. We got it to Sam and we didn’t think that he was even going to read it, let alone take the part, but then we got a call that he was interested in having a conversation with me.
When we had our initial conversation, I wasn’t sure what he was going to say. It’s like Sam Shepard wants to speak with you. And I was thinking, “Oh my God, what is he going to say about the script and what is the conversation going to be?l And I wasn’t sure how serious his intent was towards the role – serious enough to want to speak with me, but I didn’t know. So we got on the phone and he said, “Hey, okay, I’m Sam and listen, on page 84, I think my character should have a sketchbook because he’s a frustrated artist and he should be sketching. I [also] think he should be wearing glasses. And on page 120, I think there should be a nurse in the room that’s taking care of his wife.” I just was like, “Wow, he zoned right in on the character and had very specific ideas, all of which I was very happy to incorporate. When he decided to do it, it was amazing. Really amazing.
When you spoke earlier of the experience of reading Auster and being engaged with the mystery in an immersive way, you achieve something similar here in part with how you use the camera – I’m thinking of a moment in particular towards the end where you go handheld and you really feel the camera’s presence in the scene. How did you figure out how to shoot this?
The idea was to create and break safety zones, so that in one scene, you feel the camera and the performances are very naturalistic. The audience [reaction should] reflect Miranda’s journey. Miranda’s like, “Oh, I’m safe, I’m talking to my ex-boyfriend,” and the camera, the genre, the performance style is all very knowable for the audience. Then in the next scene, you’re in a different genre and the relationship of the camera to Miranda is very different, so the audience goes through a similar sense of unraveling as Miranda does [as] these camera tropes that are set up and then broken from scene to scene.
The camera is meant to be a predator [because] the character of Miranda is someone who is a professional predator. Essentially, she invades people’s boundaries, and then she gets her boundaries invaded upon and the primary entity that’s invading her is the camera.
You also seem to sneak into the subconscious with the soundtrack. How did it come together?
The idea was to again locate the viewer in a certain genre – classic Hitchcock, in many ways, and also bring the [audience] into other realms, so we had a classic piano score going on by the brilliant James Lavino, who actually composed as I was editing, so we had a really collaborative relationship that went on for over a year. Then there’s a singer/songwriter Elijah Ray, who then watched the film and based on his experience, did these otherworldly chorale arrangements, which he sung himself in different registers. That music also comes in and out of the film and there is a suggestion that all is not what it seems. The city is not exactly a real city and the characters are real in some scenes and seem less real in others.
If you took a year in the editing room, was that elusive feeling hard to come by or did you have a strong idea of what this would look like from the start?
I had a very good idea of what it looked like beforehand, and I remember about a month before we shot, I went up to Dorset, Vermont, where I shot “The Longest Game,” and meditated and I saw the whole film in my head. I took myself to the movies, basically, and I remember calling the producers afterwards and basically saying, “Yeah, his is going to be good.” But then when we shot it, what proved to be very challenging was getting the right blend right of genre and not genre, because if it went too far [in one direction], it became a B-movie and then if it went too non-genre, it lost any kind of momentum to the story, so it took a really long time to blend the whodunit with the “Who am I?” to a place that we were happy with. And it wasn’t a year, but still, it was a long edit.
And after what must’ve been a challenging production, if 20 of the 24 days of production had night shoots…
It was necessary that we shot it in the fall and the winter and it was necessary we shot it at night and that we shot it in the fall and winter because the fact that people were in long coats is really important to the film. The character of S [only] exists as a coat in many ways. He doesn’t make sense without his long coat, and Mireille’s character of Miranda is always in this trenchcoat and this visual of the coat is a quintessential noir staple.
That was part of the fun of the movie was creating those visuals and finding those places [to echo noir films from the past]. We scouted locations for ages because we wanted to be in a city that felt like an archetypal city, and we shot in New York, but it shouldn’t feel like a city we recognize as New York City necessarily. In some scenes, [it] almost feels like a city that’s inside her head where there’s nobody on the street, like it’s a dream city.
Chris Trujillo, who was just nominated for an Emmy for “Stranger Things,” was our brilliant production designer and it was so fun collaborating with him on our sets and then [our cinematographer] Sebastian Winterø was also fantastic, and it was so much fun creating this very specific world that the characters live in. Despite the fact that we were shooting nights and it was November, we had a great experience.
Was directing a narrative feature what you thought it would be?
Well, I didn’t know it would take eight years. [laughs] From the moment I started writing the script, I was thinking this’ll probably be 24 months of my life and it would be out, but it’s been a wonderful, very rich journey. It’s an unusual film [with] a female protagonist and a first-time female director, so it wasn’t like a shoo-in to get made right away. At one point, one of my producers said to me, “It’s not supposed to be this hard! This is the hardest film I’ve ever had to get made,” but the silver lining is that I got to just steadily work on the script and I think it got better and better. Every time the film fell apart, I would make an improvement.
And I love being on set. I’ve been working with Mireille for eight years and it’s been a phenomenal collaboration and it’s really been humbling to have worked with this crew of producers who’ve put this movie out in the world. We just worked and worked until we got what we were looking for, and that’s the most surprising element is that I found these amazing people to help me bring this vision to life. That’s also been one of the most satisfying elements of the whole cycle is collaborating with people that I respect so, so, so much.