It’s less than a minute into “Love After Love” that Russell Harbaugh’s debut feature takes you by surprise, as a room thick with emotion (not to mention the static of Super 16 film grain) is cut with the resplendent laughter of Suzanne (Andie MacDowell), stuck with her son Nicholas (Chris O’Dowd) as her husband is staring down death a few rooms over. Suzanne is delighted to find Nick so deep in thought that he’s distracted from being able to converse with her, letting out a chortle that feels as essential in the moment as breathing, indicative of how vividly the film shows how the passing of the family’s patriarch will affect them so profoundly yet so inexplicably.
Inserting audiences into a situation where the first instinct is to run, “Love After Love” sprints forward in unusually exhilarating form, channeling the sensation of the way in which life never stops even as time may stand still in the wake of a loved one’s death. Checking in on Suzanne, Nick and his brother Chris (James Adomian) periodically as they return to lives that suddenly feel lacking, Harbaugh and co-writer Eric Mendelsohn (“Judy Berlin”) judiciously hone in on scenes that make the strongest impression on its characters, breaking through the fog of grief in moments big and small that you intuit will inform how they’ll reclaim some sense of normalcy. While the family gradually ekes their way towards a rhythm they can become comfortable with, with each working out their issues at their own pace and in their own distinct way, “Love After Love” makes the rewards of doing so plain to see as it arouses the senses so pungently of the world that threatens to pass them by.
Managing to be bold and delicate at the same time as it retools cinematic language around the raw power of the fearless performances from MacDowell, O’Dowd, and Adomian, who don’t hide how vulnerable or selfish they can be in mourning, or struggling with guilt once joy starts creeping into their lives once again, “Love After Love” becomes as rare and elusive an experience as the feeling it’s chasing and it’s a truly astonishing introduction to a new filmmaker in Harbaugh, once an All-American quarterback in his native Indiana who has translated his skills to lead a different kind of team to greatness. As the film opens theatrically across the country following its celebrated premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival last year, where Harbaugh and Mendelsohn took home a screenwriting prize, the director spoke about the collaborations that gave “Love After Love” such vitality, the influence of his own experience with death in the family, and keeping an audience engaged with a slippery narrative.
If I could ask even before the film, I read that you had parents that were theater professors and a brother in the literary world, so how did you gravitate towards film as a medium?
Kind of by accident. My undergrad school didn’t have any film classes, but my college had Final Cut Pro down in the library and I got a little bit into it, so shooting stuff and making little things and I applied to grad school on a whim and got into Columbia and that’s really where I fell in love with film. That was directly after my father had passed away and I moved out to New York a month after that, so my first serious relationship with film was happening at the same time as I was moving through the experience of having my dad die.
One of your professors at Columbia was Eric Mendelsohn, who you wrote the script for “Love After Love” with. How did that evolve from a student-teacher relationship into a feature collaboration?
He was my thesis advisor on a short I made called “Rolling on the Floor Laughing,” which was my first attempt [at] many of the ideas for “Love After Love” formally, thematically or narratively [in telling a story] about a widow who had begun to date again and brought her new boyfriend home to a birthday party where her two grown sons are. The short played Sundance and then the Sundance Institute asked if I had a feature, so I was doing work to try and get a script into shape and I was bringing the pages to Eric, whose dad was very ill at the time. We would meet at this Polish restaurant on the Lower East Side called Little Poland several times a week and eventually, we moved our conversations into his apartment, so it just grew naturally into a collaboration where for the next several years, we worked really hard to figure out how you could write a movie that felt somewhat accidental.
We wondered if we could do on the page what some of the movies that we looked at – a lot of Maurice Pialat movies – do in the edit room, [but] start the whole project on the page, trying to make it feel like a story that’s made up of those moments of like how did they shoot that? How did they happen to have the camera lens cap off?
That seems particularly true of the group scenes, where there’s a lot of action happening, but you’ll find moments inside of it just through where the camera decides to pan. What was it like devising those scenes where there was so much going on?
We knew going into those scenes that the camera was going to carry the burden of navigating the audience through a very chaotic situation, and that the camera was going to have to ground an audience in the dramatic situation by telling them, “Pay attention to this…now pay attention to this. Now, see how those things are connected?” teaching an audience how to watch the movie. The structure of the movie is unusual and demands of an audience to fill in these gaps, so when we would shoot those big scenes, we would often have very loose camera design, but the cameras would be very specific in some ways. Like at the brunch [at the start of the film], we had this big circle dolly and we knew that at some point, we’d need to get [shots] X, Y or Z, but let’s just have the actors eat brunch and we’ll just shoot on the circle dolly and let them find the lines as they want to. We did several takes of that, and eventually, you get enough pieces that you can build a scene out of and hopefully build it in a way that includes some of the accidental stuff that you weren’t really planning on.
The camera movement doesn’t only direct an audience’s attention, but here could be interpreted as an extension of time passing, feeling exhilarated in some scenes by how it could pace around in a scene or still when time was slowing down. How did you and cinematographer Chris Teague work out that language?
Everything demanded a different approach and I know Chris from film school – he’s one of my closest friends outside of our working relationship – so we have a real shorthand together and we also push each other to really take risks with what we were doing. We talked a lot about wider shots and longer takes and this quality that was so important to us of making a movie that accumulates scenes that feel accidental until all of a sudden you realize everything I’m watching is essential and necessary.
One of the things that makes that happen is that sometimes the camera isn’t in the right place [for an unexpected moment], but it’s the only set up you have of that scene, so you have to problem solve in the edit, and we pushed each other to not be scared of that – to have strong ideas of each scene and not be worried if we were only doing one or two set-ups of a scene. We just trusted that if we didn’t totally cover what we needed, the gap between what we have and what we need was going to have a personality to it that we would accept as being in the direction of our initial interests.
Because of the inherent elliptical nature of the style of this, did it require things to be more specific in fashioning scenes after the fact in editing or was it freeing to possibly move things around?
It’s a mixture. The finished film is very close to what was written on the page in terms of structure of scenes and what goes next to what. But I love to play. We cut the film for a little over a year and we definitely messed around and took things from places where we didn’t intend them to be and tried them elsewhere. One of the organizing principles of the whole movie was [the question of] can you make a movie that feels like I can’t catch up to my own life. [That] was a sensation that was familiar to me in the years after I lost my dad. It felt like one event after another after another were piling up on top of each other and before I had time to process the last thing, the next thing would happen. And that struck me as a cinematic idea, that you could make that feeling with a movie, so what that meant was the movie cuts out time – these big gaps of time get taken away – and an audience has to fill in what’s happened.
In each stage of the process, we were having to flirt with this very fine line of how much information can you remove and have an audience be propelled through the story by having to fill in the gaps [because you can] overstep that line and ask for too much [to the point where] an audience throws up their hands and says, “I don’t want to play with you anymore.” So the edit was definitely a process of getting as close to that line as we could.
One of the most beautiful sequences in the film is wordless, as Suzanne makes her way from her hotel room where she’s had her first sexual encounter since her husband’s death downstairs, where there’s a sense of delirium, both out of exhilaration and trepidation. What was the origin of that scene? And since David Shire’s score is such a key part of it, was he involved at a fairly early stage?
Yeah, that sequence to me is always the one that moves me the most in the movie, and it’s one of the few that has a direct relationship to a story that my mother told about having sex for the first time after my dad died and not being able to sleep and wandering this resort hotel in the Midwest. Something about that struck me as a very strong expressive image of what that time must’ve been like for her, and [in some way] what that time felt like for me – how the feeling of sex can change when what’s motivating it is the loss of something and trying to fill something, which I think both characters [Suzanne and Nicholas] are trying to do. The high school dance [where Suzanne ends up in the hotel lobby], that’s fiction, but that was a way of punctuating this alien walk through this odd, desolate, lonely hotel.
As far as David Shire, we had used his “Conversation” score as temp [music] in the movie and at some point, solo piano felt like it really belonged in the movie, so we looked at Dollar Brand, Abdullah Ibrahim, and Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, this Ethiopian nun who cut an album of really unusual jazz piano tracks during the ‘60s. We were unable to afford that music, and the movie was locked at this point, so we were in a bind. We found out that a friend of a friend knew David Shire enough that he could pass along a letter. So I wrote David a letter, just saying how important his work was already to the movie and I asked, “Would you watch the movie and consider working with us?” I put my number down at the bottom and he ended up calling me later that week and I was very excited to be talking to him because he already meant such a big deal to me, but he was so kind. He [said], “I’m doing a musical in Toronto and I won’t be able to work on it, but I’m very flattered by the letter. And if you’d like me to watch the movie, I can recommend a friend or two to work on it.” So I thought, “That’s amazing. Thank you.”
We sent him a link and the next day at 10 in the morning, I get this phone call and it’s David Shire, [who said], “I watched the movie twice and I want to make it work.” And it was so incredible. He did very delicate, beautiful work and it changes the movie. When I heard the main theme for the first time, it was as if someone had watched the movie and translated it into music. It was really stunning.
Another extraordinary sequence is when Chris, Nicholas’ brother, does a standup comedy set relatively late in the film and it doesn’t feel out of place, but you create this moment for yourself narratively where you can talk about the themes of the film of grieving and death in a very raw and emotionally naked way. What was it like figuring that out?
I remember when we came up with that idea for the script and Eric and I were both just really excited because it felt like such a natural progression – that this movie has this real magic trick in it that I love [where] it makes you look at this dying man in a house and you experience this death, but then it doesn’t talk about the death or this person, the dad, for an hour. There’s all this behavior in the wake of this event that has meaning because it was next to this thing that happened, but nobody’s talking about it. No one’s saying, “I’m so sad” or “Here’s to Dad.” No one’s doing any of that. You’re just following this series of behaviors and double downs and misdirected energy to descend into a real kind of mud pit. And it felt great to us that at that point after Nick gives that toast [to his father] at the birthday, [it was like] from the back corner of the theater, out from the shadows walks this character that you’ve maybe already written off and [he] confirms the movie that you’ve been watching and very kindly takes your hand and says, “Follow me to the exits.” That’s whole part feels, to me, very kind.
So we wrote a draft of the jokes for the standup routine [with] the structure of the set – the movement from these jokes about Jesus and his shortcomings and relationship to his father to becoming a set about Chris’ relationship with his father and the experience of his death. Then James [Adomian, who plays Chris] and his writing partner revised that and then we shot James doing the set twice. He would improvise jokes in the middle of the routine as he would do any kind of new routine and many of my favorite jokes in the set are jokes that he’s finding in the moment.
After carrying the idea of this movie around for so long, what’s it been like putting this into the world and traveling with it?
It’s really special to me. We just had to wait so fucking long, man. We shot it in 2015. I’ve been writing it since 2010. I waited tables for four years while I was writing it. I lived in 10 apartments in 10 years in New York. It was just a real grind. So this past week [when the film has been released theatrically] has been pretty incredible, to be quite honest, and unexpected, even to the degree to which people are responding to the movie. I’m really enjoying it and I feel a deep sense of pride for the work that all of these artists did together to make a really unusual, unique movie. American drama at the movies has become kind of a laughingstock. They’re all the same and no one wants to see them and no one wants to make them, but I think we made a really strong new American drama and I’m really proud of that.