Charlie Birns knows how to put someone in a trance, but this is to say nothing about his side career as a licensed hypnotherapist.
With his transfixing debut “Human Affairs” premiering this weekend at the Slamdance Film Festival, Birns offers up an arresting portrait of a young woman named Genevieve (Julie Sokolowski) who is having second thoughts about her decision to become a surrogate mother for a stage actress (Kerry Condon) and her playwright husband (Dominic Fumasa). Shuttled into New York for a week, where the couple is preparing for the debut of their Broadway show, Genevieve begins to experience a life that far removed than that on her humble farm up north and Birns seizes this moment to explore what she’s aware will be a defining moment in both her life and the couple whose baby she’s carrying, observing how past and future considerations roil around in her head. Yet as much as “Human Affairs” draws tension from Genevieve’s internal struggle, the film makes a point of showing how she’s been shaped by the world, opening up with a series of photographs in which she considers the circumstances that led her here with Birns dipping into a variety of different cinematic expressions of memory and perspective throughout the film.
The tactility of experience in “Human Affairs” may be attributed to just how highly Birns believes his own has molded him into the person he is today, picking up a wealth of skills on sets as a production assistant and an actor while compiling an eclectic variety of pursuits off of it, ranging from his hypnotherapy practice to once playing a defensive lineman on his college football team.
“Filmmaking has always the spine of my experience, ever since I was a child,” says Birns. “And branching off of that central core of making films in one capacity or another, has been a really surprising array of interests and experience which I think funnel back and inform my filmmaking, so whether it’s playing college football or being a hypnotherapist or doing acting work, whatever it’s been has just extended from an interest in kind of what is my purpose, how can I contribute and how can I be a better person?”
Birns does just that in encouraging empathy for each of the three central characters who find themselves with quite a dilemma on their hands in “Human Affairs,” aided by cinematographer Sean Williams Price’s sensitive lensing, and shortly before its premiere at Slamdance, the writer/director spoke of the film’s evolution, making the jump to a feature and some of the surprises it held in store for him.
How did this come about?
It came about really as the elaboration of an image, which was these three people [who had] a precarious bond with each other. I mean what’s more intimate than that? Than surrogacy, than someone’s child inside of you or having your child inside of someone else? I’m just endlessly fascinated by the implications of such a relationship. There are incredibly beautiful and miraculous implications as well as ones that raise concerns or questions and it wasn’t a process [of] let’s find a subject matter that I can squeeze a story into. It just appeared to me as very important to investigate for myself and through a broader social inquiry, what does it mean for the future of our reproductive strategies, the interpersonal dynamics when making life. It’s just so rich and fascinating. The process [of creating the story] was really an organic development over time through the writing, through the shooting, through the editing and it really became more complex and more integrated over time.
For numerous reasons, I was interested to learn of your work with the theater director Sam Gold, and wondered if you may have brought some techniques you learned there to the screen. Also of course, the theater serves as a setting for the film, so it seems like it’s deeply influential.
Yeah, Sam Gold is a highly intelligent director and I was fortunate enough to be involved in a production of “Uncle Vanya” that he directed. Annie Baker wrote the adaptation and it starred Michael Shannon and Reed Birney and a lot of other fantastic actors. I’ve been really lucky to be around really skilled directors and sort of what I’ve taken from that is really just a willingness to be present for the actors, just trying to be in the flow of where they are and what they’re offering in the moment and just support it as best as I can.
Was there something that you didn’t necessarily anticipate, but it started happening on set and once it did, it made the final product and you’re happy about it?
I didn’t anticipate the extent to which Julie Sokolowski’s inner life would be manifest in the image. During the shooting process, Sean Price Williams, the cinematographer and I became very interested in what was going on with Julie internally and sometimes to our surprise because the script or the scene didn’t always call for such an investigation of her inner life at every moment, but it was always so transparent and fascinating to us that we noticed an attraction to what was going on with this character. That led to more centrality to the character of Genevieve in the film. The same thing [happened] with aspects of Kerry Condon, what she was bringing to the character was so surprising that it really changed who the character was. I was so excited to see who Lucinda became as a result of Kerry’s work.
How did you team up with Sean Price Williams?
Sean Price Williams is the gravitational force binding all of New York independent cinema. Really, I think a very important film artist and a dear friend. I first met him in 2012 as I was preparing a short film I directed called “Weasel” and Sean’s a real cinephile. He worked at Kim’s Video in New York and he had a list of his favorite 1000 movies that’s always being updated, but when we met, we both said, “What’s your favorite movie?” And we shared the same favorite movie at that time, which was Bertolucci’s “The Conformist,” so it was a really lovely synchronicity. We’re both only children, so we just kind of instantly found a kinship that developed through “Weasel,” the short film and then I acted in a number of projects that Sean shot and he was onboard from the very beginning for “Human Affairs.”
I felt like there was this idea that the environments would become extensions of the characters’ emotions – was that pretty conscious on your part?
I think that’s true to our experience of life. Whatever emotional state we’re in in every given moment is projected onto our environment and that’s a dualistic relationship. All the time I experience that, I think depending on how I’m feeling, I go outside and the outside looks analogous to my inner life and vice versa. Sean is really sensitive to capturing emotional truth and one of his great strengths as a cinematographer is how [to] make this as emotionally authentic as possible, so we tried very much to bring whatever location we were at into the feeling of the scene. When you’re shooting as we were, you had to be creative because you can’t rely on the architecture or the design to always provide an emotional bolstering that it might otherwise, if there was a higher budget at play.
There’s one shot specifically of a street lamp with a halo and between the contrast of the blue of night and the bright amber light and how that halo radiates around, I thought it was remarkable.
That was a really special moment. It wasn’t planned and it came on a day actually that was very emotionally charged for Sean and I for reasons not having to do with the film. We were setting up a scene that was in some interior location in a parking lot and Sean and I were just looking up at the lamp, and we started zooming in. It somehow felt like some very spiritual moment when he was capturing that street lamp [which] I know it sounds grandiose, but it meant a lot to us.
Did the way you tell this story through the various formats that you do, whether it’s the still photos or the 8mm, was that inherent in the idea you had or did that evolve over time?
It was a process of evolution, which is to say I didn’t sit down to write the script with the intention of using all these different formats. At the same time, I did sit down and write with the intention to enter into a process where things would change and transform and intensify, so I didn’t know what form that would take. But I intended for it to be a long and arduous journey to discover what the film wanted to be and would be.
From the start, when you’re seeing photos from Julia Sokolowski’s real-life youth, it seems like this probably transcended the usual actor/director collaboration – what was it like working with her?
I don’t think Julie is capable of doing anything in any kind of partial way. She’s completely invested in every moment of her life, so her approach to the role was just as invested. So she was willing to really make it very personal in terms of opening it up to her family and her personal history. Her emotional availability just resonated with that willingness to go to very profoundly intimate places, so I was eternally grateful for that collaboration.
Was making a feature any different than your previous shorts?
Yeah, it’s extremely different. The scope of the film was much larger and as a result of that there are many more moving parts and much higher stakes. So in that sense, the pragmatic reality for me was very different than shorts that were intimate with crews of three to 10 people and very few expectations. In this case, we were trying to tell a broader story with really experienced, wonderful actors and cast and crew members, so for all those reasons, it was magnified. At the same time, the essential joy from being on a set and capturing a moment or creating a moment that feels exciting to everyone around is pretty much the same.
What was it like to get into Slamdance?
Slamdance is, I think, an ideal platform for this film and I have great reverence for the intention behind the festival and the mission, so premiering the film there is a really beautiful and special opportunity. To learn about it was very exciting, obviously, and since we learned of the acceptance, the festival itself has been so generous in terms of making the experience really valuable and creating an energy that feels very pure and good about putting the film into the world. So far, it’s been really meaningful and it feels good to share the film with people because that’s why we made it and we’re looking forward to seeing how people respond.