When Kelli (Linda Cardellini) steps off a plane into her Midwestern hometown in the opening moments of “Return,” it might as well be into the great unknown. After a tour of duty in Iraq, she receives an immediate embrace by her husband and two young daughters, only to settle into a routine where she’s routinely unsettled by such mundane things as watching “America’s Funniest Home Videos” after dinner and her work cutting sheet metal at a local factory. She doesn’t stand out in a town where the deterioration of her soul appears to mirror her surroundings, a dusty burg fighting its own battle with irrelevance as jobs leave and apathy rises.
One could hardly say the same for Liza Johnson, an acclaimed filmmaker and video artist who grew up in such parts and whose narrative feature debut is no typical coming home story. While being told from a female perspective automatically sets it apart (as does a deeply compelling career turn from Cardellini), “Return” doesn’t indulge in the inevitable point where anxieties spill over into tragedy, instead finding Kelli at a precipice where her natural fragility has been heightened by her overseas experience, but she isn’t defined by being a soldier. In fact, she doesn’t know what defines her. On the eve of its release in the U.S. following its premiere at the Directors Fortnight in Cannes last year, Johnson spoke about making the transition to a more traditional feature, the disservice of conveying a common veteran experience, and the new short she recently completed that’s premiering soon at the Berlin Film Festival.
Since your background has been primarily working on video installations and shorts, what attracted you to a more conventional narrative feature?
It actually was pretty organic for me. The recent projects that I’ve done have been with nonprofessional actors in what people normally would say are in a documentary environment. But they’re acting and they have pretty conventional film grammar, or at least a very cinematic grammar. People like those works because seeing everyday people do acting is surprising — I feel like when people are on reality TV and you go an interview them, they already know what they’re supposed to say to be on TV, and so when everyday people are acting, they don’t know what they’re supposed to do. Then it feels interesting and really real. So the work that I’ve been doing in this other context thematically and even in its forms is actually not that different from doing this film, but the way I wanted to tell this story is so performance driven I thought it was important to do really with good actors who can sustain their work over a long period of time.
Many of your films seem to grow out of environments rather than from a specific story or character. Was that the case for “Return”?
I think that it did. I grew up in a town like the one that’s in the film and I spent some time there recently and I shot a short film there that’s called “In the Air” with some amazing people that I met there and one of the main things that made me want to make “Return” was that context, the sort of everyday life of the place I grew up, which is the industrialized steel town in northern Appalachia. Just seeing people determined to figure out some kind of future in that world was very interesting to me.
It’s a coming home story, but it touches on many elements of American life right now including the economy, so did it feel like when you were filming it the ground was shifting beneath your feet?
Yes and no. We started trying to finance the film exactly during the financial crisis of 2008 and during that moment, I thought alright, this is an important shift for us. [laughs] But in another way, in the town where I’m from, if you tell them it’s an economic crisis right now, no one knows what you’re talking about because it’s been like that for 40 years. The idea that it’s a new crisis doesn’t feel like that on the ground there. But the way those things relate to each other is really important.
Where I grew up, people certainly find a lot of ways to make their lives very interesting and wonderful and bring joy into a world that doesn’t have enough meaningful work, but it can be really hard too. There’s a lot of drugs and violence and not enough money. So it seems very reasonable that [you’d have] a shifted perspective to be removed from your world and to be put in an extreme environment and then return to your world and you might have to notice that those things are really hard. I just felt motivated by that.
Obviously, you didn’t need to do much research within your hometown, but the press notes suggest you did plenty regarding soldiers who have returned home. Surely, it’s helpful, but is there a point where you simply have to drop all that and tell your story?
Totally. The first thing I found out when I met people and talked to them is that they have nothing in common. Every woman joins the military for a different reason, everyone has a different experience — people do have some threads in common, but there wasn’t really any possibility of making a representative character [of everyone]. The more people I talked to, the more it became clear that I just had to create a very specific character and I wanted her to be plausible, like oh that woman could exist and it could be like that for her. But I wouldn’t want her character to seem like she’s making claims for how that experience is for everyone.
Since there’s an entire genre dedicated to coming home films, was having a female character a way to separate yourself with a different set of issues?
I think so. Yes and no. I talked to men and women and there are definitely a lot of threads in common too, but a lot of women would tell you that there are a lot of specific things about their experience of the military that are very different from men’s experience. For [the character in the film] when she is home, what people expect from her is different than what they expect from soldiers who are men, both in practical terms and also emotionally.
What I was struck by was the amount of restraint in telling this story when there must’ve been an urge to veer towards the melodramatic, given some of the circumstances. Instead, it’s presented as a small accumulation of frustrations.
That was really interesting for me because of course there are stories in reality of people behaving very dramatically sometimes if they’re war veterans and sometimes if they’re not. People would tell me like if they got a speeding ticket or it’d be like their brother would get six speeding tickets and they would think it’s because he got back from his military tour and he would think that it’s just normal. Sometimes it’s not so clear what causes your decisions.
Everyday life is very dramatic and has lots of intriguing tension in it and for me, it’s interesting to try to feel the story on that level of the everyday. I feel like most of those stories when they’re made into films or the ones that circulate the most sometimes are the more melodramatic ones, but the ones that are very everyday are also very important.
You actually have an adaptation of the Alice Munro short story “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage” in the works for your next feature, but I understand you’ve already completed a new short film called “Karrabing! Low Tide Turning” that’s premiering in Berlinale. What’s it like to be so busy?
It is busy, but it makes me really happy because I love working. Sometimes it’s hard to put yourself in a position to be working, so it’s kind of great. This new short is a collaboration with a friend who’s an anthropologist, Beth Povinelli, and this very intriguing group of people who she works with in Northern Australia who wanted to act in a movie about their everyday life. I would say they made a movie that shows the sense of humor they have about the bureaucracy of their poverty and it’s pretty winning to see someone have humor about their hardship. They’re pretty charming. At least to me, their performance reads that way and I hope other people will think that too.
“Return” opens at the Village East Cinema in New York and the Monica 4-Plex in Los Angeles on February 10th before becoming available nationwide on VOD through Focus World on February 28th.