David Gutnik on Letting Life Take Its Course in “Materna”

The premiere of “Materna” had not gone the way David Gutnik had planned, though the director had known this for months leading up to the first time he’d be seeing it on a big screen with an audience. After the film’s debut at Tribeca in 2020 had been waylaid by the COVID-19 outbreak, a drive-in screening was set up later in the year where Gutnik couldn’t have possibly been prepared for the torture he was about to endure after so lovingly fussed over every frame, with the frigid cold of a fall evening leading people to turn on their cars for heat and their headlights obscuring the projection, making constant trips up to the projectionist’s booth himself to ensure that the film would be shown in its proper aspect ratio and the well-intentioned honking feeling like an inadequate substitute for the reaction he could get from a crowd under pre-pandemic circumstances.

“I really should’ve not been there,” Gutnik laughs now, knowing it might not have gone quite as badly as it went in his head given how close he was to the film. “But it was still a privilege to be able to have that experience and I’ll always remember it. I [also] had a kid who just turned one and he was there, so the first film he’s seen is mine.”

Surely “Materna” deserved better, but it was too fitting that after a difficult birth, all that was left was a beautiful child and Gutnik, who has long pulled together disparate pieces into a satisfying whole as an editor, found himself doing it once more to screen the film as he did to make it. His feature directorial debut was always set to come together in an unusual way by design, developing the film with Jade Eshete and Assol Abdullina after meeting them in an acting class and digging into personal experiences for inspiration. In talking it out, the trio conceived of a quartet of stories, two of which Eshete and Abdullina would star in alongside others featuring Kate Lyn Sheil and Lindsay Burdge, tied to a subway ride that brings the main characters to the same place yet the ground constantly shifts beneath their feet.

All dealing with pain only they can process for themselves, the film gives each the space to figure it out as it visits an expectant mother (Sheil) unaware of how she’s become pregnant when she leads a life in isolation, connecting to the world with the latest virtual reality technology, an overbearing mother (Burdge) whose prejudices are threatening to have an affect on her young son, an actress (Eshete) who strains to retain a bond with her devoutly religious mother, and a daughter (Abdullina) who returns home to her native Kyrgyzstan as her mother and grandmother grieve the family’s patriarch, though she isn’t entirely welcome. Just as what’s passed down between generations isn’t always obvious, “Materna” is smartly set up so that only when the women in the film are confronted with an extreme circumstance — both as their own lives unfold and collectively when an encounter with a belligerent passenger (Sturgill Simpson) on the train appears as if it could tip into violence — that the connections make themselves known, offering the experience of revelation to those on screen and off at the same time.

After a long road to release, “Materna” is making its way to theaters and VOD and Gutnik spoke about making a film of considerable power that he let take shape on its own terms, guiding strong performances from actors who were intimately familiar with the material when they wrote it themselves in the case of Eshete and Abdullina and a shoot where filming one section could build on the next.

From the start, I understand there were four stories. Were there any ground rules or did you all go off in your own directions?

There weren’t really any ground rules. There was a lot of variation on similar themes — the fundamental, underlying thread was addressing pain directly, the feeling of loneliness and isolation — and the way I think about it is they were little drops of water that come together and form one and gravitate to each other of their own accord. Or depending on your film background, if you’ve seen “Terminator 2,” the way the villain would come together after his pieces were torn up. [laughs] So we didn’t know what form it would take at the start. We just knew we had things to address and it was not so result focused. There was an openness to what form it would take and at some point, it told us and that’s the film you see.

When these were filmed one section at a time, did one influence the next?

On a subliminal level for sure. There was an overall strategy going into each of them that expressed itself differently within each of them. The central visual preoccupation in question was how do you photograph absence because each of the stories is dealing with some kind of invisible force that is weighing on the characters and something that they’re wrestling with dramatically, psychologically and emotionally. Each of [the sections] were shot in such a way as to be as subjective as possible, so every shot is an extension of the characters’ psychology and interiority, so each of them are very different, but there was still that overall approach that we applied to each of them. As far as how all of that evolved over the course of it, I find myself seeing a lot of echoes and rhymes in some of the individual shots, use of mirrors and reflections. I don’t know how conscious some of those choices were, but I can only assume or imagine that a lot of that was informed by what was happening. Everything was happening so quickly, there wasn’t too much time to rewrite the visual canvas. [laughs]

When you were editing, were there connections coming to the fore that you may not have seen before getting the footage?

Yeah, there was a lot of that and I would hope that there would be because the edit is a place where you rewrite/rediscover the film and if you don’t then something’s wrong. Structurally, the movie found its form. The order of the vignettes was very different from what we had on the page, but even just little things — there’s the presence of bathrooms and how important those scenes are. The movie was always conceived as this collection of intimate spaces where we can see people in a little more of an exposed way.

There are obviously practical purposes for using three different cinematographers, but in hiring them, were you actually looking for a diversity there?

I was looking for diversity in as much as each was going to have to have their own feeling and tone because while there was a unifying texture, each of them had to have their own point of view. Aside from how to capture this idea of something that’s not there, [we were] slavishly devoted to the perspective and point of view of the characters, so there had a little bit of sensitivity to who is lensing that individual’s story. When you’re hiring, you’re trying to find that synergy between the cinematographer and the subject in the film and each of [our cinematographers] could’ve shot the film themselves and done a beautiful and brilliant job, but it just felt like we needed to be extra precise.

When Assol and Jade are connected to the material as they are as writers as much as actors, what’s it like directing them? It must be difficult to figure out when to push them versus standing back.

I would say more of the latter. Going into it, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned about this question, like, “How do you write and then act without being too in your head? How do you write all these things that are so personal to you and then do the thing that all your favorite actors do, which is surrender and be present in front of the camera?” It’s the craziest and most courageous thing for a person to do — to expose themselves like that. But they came in so full because it was so raw, there wasn’t really much emotional [preparation needed]. In acting class, you learn how do you bring that life into the scene so that you can perform? None of that was necessary because they were all so prepared and there was very little I had to do.

There’s a great little interview I read with Philip Seymour Hoffman where he talks about how when he’s directing, one of the main directions that he has to give is to remind an actor the difference between themselves and the character. That little nugget was probably the most useful, especially with there’s a little bit of a time difference between where they were and where they are now, so there’s a little bit of a difference and the occasional reminder of where they needed to be versus where they are now was something that was useful. In my mind, I would rather not have to say anything than to do something or say something. You’re there when you’re needed and I hope that I was there when they needed me, which was very infrequent. They’re the pro. They’re the master. Not you, so there’s only so much you can try and micromanage and in my experience, the less you do, the better.

“Materna” opens on August 6th in Los Angeles at the Lumiere Cinema at the Music Hall, New York at the Cinema Village, where Q & As will accompany the August 6th and 7th screenings, and Dallas at the Texas Theatre. It will be available on iTunes on August 10th.

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