It would be accurate and all too easy to describe “Lace Crater” as the “ghost sex” movie, as many have since its debut at the Toronto Film Festival. Indeed, the moment of supernatural coitus that takes place between a vulnerable young woman (Lindsay Burdge) still reeling from a bad breakup and a spirit draped in a burlap sack (Peter Vack) is a signature moment, but not the defining element of Harrison Atkins’ distinctive feature debut, a film that’s in on the joke of its bizarro premise, but uses it to push an otherwise uncomfortable audience into considering the way in which failed relationships can linger in the air with the same foreboding as a poltergeist.
Although not explicitly an expansion of Atkins’ short “Chocolate Heart,” which featured a similarly outlandish sexual encounter, “Lace Crater” does seem like an extension of its ideas – genuinely curious about the emotions wrapped up in the physical act of intercourse and the psychological residue ripe for consideration after that connection is lost. All of that can be seen on the face of Ruth, who as played by one of most cerebral actors working in Burdge, titters with anxiety as she receives text messages from an ex (Joe Swanberg) during a weekend retreat with friends. Atkins amplifies her mood with Alan Palomo’s evocative score and a constantly shifting camera, disciplined but still unsettled much like the film’s lead character is, following Ruth as her one-night stand with an apparition begins to have noticeable effects on her daily life.
Following the film’s premiere at Toronto, Atkins and Burdge spoke about how the director’s longhand appreciation of ghost stories led to telling one of his own, negotiating a most unusual sex scene and the on-set game that almost screwed up the film.
How did this come about?
Harrison Atkins: The idea had been cooking for a long time, maybe two years in various iterations, but the actual apparatus of the film started only like six weeks before we shot. I had made a couple of shorts that had a little bit of festival traction, then had this opportunity to be pitching a feature. Joe [Swanberg] just came on board and we were able to fund it through his company, Forager. We were shooting really soon after that.
Harrison, you said at the Q & A after the premiere that you had a long time interest in ghost stories.
Harrison Atkins: Oh yeah, for sure. I’m interested in ghosts as this formal or narrative element of films [because] what a ghost can be in a narrative I don’t think has been fully explored – having a character that feels simultaneously outside a coherent system or context of reality, but also is able to interact with other characters. That’s formally interesting.
Lindsay Burdge: I don’t know. I think I’m just a ghost-y kind of gal. [laughs] I guess I’m kind of spooky.
Harrison Atkins: When I met Lindsay, she really scared me. I thought that she was perfect because I was terrified.
Lindsay Burdge: But in fact when [Harrison] met me, we were on a set of a short film and I was off to myself in the grass staring up at the trees. I think maybe I’m a weird person. And that’s why people- (laughs)
Harrison Atkins: I’m a weird person too, and I related to whatever Lindsay has going on, so when I met her on that short film, we hit it off and I knew that I wanted her to be in the movie.
This may be an odd observation, but Lindsay’s hair in the movie is really effective. It appears almost like a dagger when you first see her in the convenience store with one of the sides draped across her face. Was much thought put into that?
Lindsay Burdge: I started cutting my own hair randomly for an audition, a year-and-a-half ago and once I found out I was doing this movie, the haircutting escalated in this really weird way where I was getting in character, because that happens for a while before a movie – I’ll notice that I just start to dress a little differently. Next thing I knew, I had this fucking weird hairdo. Finally, I saw Harrison and he was like “Okay, maybe you could stop cutting your hair.” [laughs] But when I watched it the other night I was like “yeah, I think it might work,” this crazy, tangled, uneven, face-covering mop.
Do you actually live with these characters for a long time? I saw “The Invitation” and thought you must’ve needed a long vacation after.
Lindsay Burdge: I do actually and I get tired for a little while. Something I’ve learned more recently is I need to take breaks. When I was first doing a lot of movies, I would just do one after the other and that didn’t work out that well. So I’ve learned that there is a certain recharging period, but the [films] are all really different. And just because they all have these supernatural horror elements doesn’t mean that they’re the same. A movie with the genre elements isn’t necessarily more emotional than a straight drama.
Did you actually approach this as a straightforward drama rather than as anything having to deal with genre elements?
Harrison Atkins: Honestly, I didn’t necessarily feel like it was a genre film until now where it’s at a festival and we’re trying to talk to people and put the movie into a narrative, and it’s hard to categorize. I thought of it more as a comedy and a relationship movie than as a horror movie.
Was it tricky to find that tone? Because it goes into serious places, but you’re aware of the extremity of the situation as well.
Harrison Atkins: The tone was the primary consideration of the whole shoot for me. It felt like walking a tightrope, and it helped a lot to script it. The more dialogue that was written, the more of a signifier that was for people to understand the tunnel wave that it was on and by the time we were shooting, everybody was on the same page about the tone.
Lindsay Burdge: I feel like that was my biggest contribution to the whole movie was: “You should write more dialogue.” Because I read the treatment, and there were these little snippets of dialogue that were really good and funny and it appealed to me because even though it’s definitely not a straight comedy, and goes to some places that are really dark, there’s at least this comedic framework and then within that, we had to agree to take what was happening to her really seriously.
Harrison Atkins: Yeah, it couldn’t be arch or it wouldn’t work at all.
What was it like to figure out her encounter with the ghost? Did you work a lot with Peter Vack to figure it out?
Harrison Atkins: The costume and the makeup helped a lot. We really stripped down the number of crew that was on set for those scenes and created this little magic territory. We also rehearsed some of that stuff to feel out the tone and find the blocking. Then we just let it unfoldand made discoveries while we were shooting. I think the take of the sex scene we used is mostly one shot.
Lindsay Burdge: It was a hard scene and we weren’t necessarily getting it right away, but it was nice because the crew was very supportive. Everyone was down to keep going until we were all like, “Okay, that was it.” Then we felt like we could be free to go.
Harrison Atkins: Yeah, there weren’t any scenes at all in the whole shoot that we walked away from before feeling like it was definitely there.
Lindsay Burdge: I felt so bad for Peter. In addition to the fact that it was really cold in that room and he was just wearing burlap, but also he was wearing those contacts that cover his whole eye. He had to put them on before he went into makeup and I think they were extremely uncomfortable.
Harrison Atkins: There were all these warnings like, “Don’t wear these for more than four hours in a row or else you’ll go blind.”
Lindsay Burdge: Which added this weird extra element to where he was palpably uncomfortable, but then when we would try and do a take, he would just nail it every time. It was definitely a delicate thing to find what that scene was going to be and it took us a while.
Harrison Atkins: And to some extent, I think Peter usually gets cast in roles that are ‘heartthrob’, so he was really hungry for a role like this. I love Peter, and I don’t mean this in a pejorative way at all, but he’s like a weird guy and it was cool to give him the opportunity to explore a role that’s outside the range of characters he’s usually cast in.
The shooting style was also very intriguing because you seem to pan across the room back and forth – you can tell it’s handheld, but there’s a very measured quality to it. How did that come about?
Harrison Atkins: We were really inspired by Andrzej Zulawski and also Josephine Decker’s films, “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely” and “Butter on the Latch” — basically to have a camera that’s simultaneously subjective and rooted in the experience of the characters, but also removed and giving the audience information that feels outside, almost ironic [in a way]. Almost the whole movie was shot with a steadicam and there was someone on set pulling focus from a monitor. We decided early on in the process of the shoot to experiment with this tool of the follow focus to explore how focus could be a formal element that would be more than just showing clearly what’s in the frame, but also this rhythmic device. I encouraged Gideon de Villiers, the director of photography, to just react really impressionistically to what was happening and to trust his emotional experience, so we made discoveries of when to move the camera that were both chaotic and improvisational and also ultimately choreographed and precise.
Lindsay Burdge: There’s something really freeing as an actor about that. Knowing also that the camera’s not obsessively trained on you or something. You don’t feel like you’re being stared at. I always knew that Gideon maybe wasn’t going to be looking at me. [laughs]
Harrison Atkins: It allowed the actors to access a more naturalistic performance style, and in the early stages of planning the film, we made the decision to tell the story mostly through sound, letting the visual experience of the film sometimes just leave the sonic experience completely and show things on screen that were more obliquely related.
You mentioned a Japanese artist that was a guide for that.
Harrison Atkins: Yeah, this experimental, electronic artist named Aki Tsuyuko. At one point, my friend who’s also a filmmaker sent me this track by Aki Tsuyuko and I just slowly became obsessed with this song by her, and through that found the rest of her music. She had an album out on Thrill Jockey in America, but most of the music we used was from her previous album, which was only released in Japan. In her work, she was accessing this tunnel range that I thought was completely in the pocket for this movie and [functioned] almost like this compass for the wavelength that we needed to find. When I was initially sending this script and some reference images to the cast or crew, I included a song by her that ended up being in the film.
Lindsay, were you actually privy to a lot of this?
Lindsay Burdge: Once we got more to talking about doing it, I remember [Harrison] sent a big e-mail with a bunch of video art and music that [this character] would be into, which was so fun for me. That was when I actually started getting really excited about doing this movie because I was looking at all this stuff that I never would have seen [otherwise] and it immediately plugged me into a sense of who this person was.
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting on this?
Harrison Atkins: Yeah. I love to talk about “Mafia.” Do you know the game “Mafia”? It’s a game where people sit in a room, they draw cards which are their roles and nobody knows what anybody else’s role is, but two people are the mafia and everyone else is trying figure out who they are before they kill everyone. Our crew got really into this game. We were playing every night. At a certain point, we decided to play a game over the course of multiple days.
Lindsay Burdge: On set. It was terrible.
Harrison Atkins: We started the game and the first death happened a day later, so it led to these days of shooting where simultaneously we’re shooting really intense, dramatic scenes and also, as soon as the camera’s not rolling, everyone’s suspiciously trying to suss out who’s lying. And Lindsay was the mafia.
Lindsay Burdge: I was the mafia. [laughs] And I was not only the mafia, but the only mafia on set because Keith Poulson was the other mafia and he wasn’t [there] those days, so it was this horrible thing where I was the only person on set who was doing this. I really love the game and I really like to win it, so there was this complex thing where I’m trying to concentrate on my character, but also strategizing and figuring out how to [win “Mafia”].
Harrison Atkins: When Lindsay and I were in this intensely, intimate mental experience of trying to figure out the movie together, I was the detective pin “Mafia”] and it was my job to figure out who the mafia was and convince everyone to kill them off. Immediately, I figured out it was Lindsay, so our dynamic became really weird.
Lindsay Burdge: And I knew that he knew that I was the mafia, so I was furious with him.
Harrison Atkins: We both knew exactly what was going on, but Lindsay was trying to tell people she was the detective. She’s really good at mafia, she’s brilliant. She’s an amazing liar.
Lindsay Burdge: And I stayed alive for days. It actually worked to my advantage as the mafia, because my only tactic to be like “You guys, I need to work right now.” It was in the last few days of shooting, which for me when I’m working on something, sometimes it’s just hurtling along and you’re just mentally checking off everything, and you’re seeing the script disappear and it’s all taken care of, so if there’s any last ditch effort you need to make to rescue the [dramatic] arc, then it comes in in those last few days.
But I was just simultaneously completely distracted, and in the end, they slaughtered me — there was cheating involved, so it was not fair, I just want to announce that I won, technically. Immediately after doing that, we had to do that scene with Jenn [Kim] where I call her up and tell her to come over. It was a really intense, dark scene, and everyone had just been screaming at each other in the kitchen really late at night.
Whose awful idea was it to even start this game?
Harrison Atkins: I don’t know, man.
Lindsay Burdge: It was probably mine. [laughs] But even though the movie goes to dark places, this was a really special set. Everyone was just so sweet and supportive and funny, so to introduce a game like “Mafia” didn’t seem out of place.
“Lace Crater” opens on July 29 in New York at the Cinema Village and on August 5 in Los Angeles at the Arena Cinema.