TIFF ’19 Interview: Odessa Young and David Raboy on Working Towards Something Major with “The Giant”

“I wonder if our dreams go on after we wake up, like [they’re] parallel lives while we sleep,” Olivia (Madelyn Cline) muses as her friend Charlotte (Odessa Young) rustles out of her slumber, likely inclined to believe her when she finds it difficult to distinguish between the two in “The Giant.” A string of deaths – conspicuously all young women – has brought out a touch of the poet in many in Monroeville where describing the profound feeling of dread is difficult to put into words, but it seems to come as a natural extension of the grief Charlotte has felt around this time of year when she once came across her mother hanging herself in the backyard. The summer could be the last she spends in the town where she grew up now that she’s graduated high school, but she’ll never be able to leave mentally as David Raboy so vividly captures in this waking nightmare that combines a beguiling performance from Young with such a rich expression of Charlotte’s tortured somnambulism that you suspect neither you nor her will get a good night’s rest anytime soon.

Narratively enigmatic, the film plunges one into Charlotte’s consciousness so fast and thoroughly that it undoubtedly replicates the experience of picking up the pieces after one’s world has been shattered with shards of memory spliced into the present. It never needs to be mentioned that it’s an especially hot summer in Georgia and Raboy often uses the reflected light from oily skin as the only defense against the dark within the frame, with Charlotte needing the reminder of her flesh to recall her humanity. Deep blacks are used relentlessly, and Raboy revels in its shapelessness, finding tension in where Charlotte wanders around within it when there’s no clear path and without any really to walk with her, much as some want to. Her father, having thrown himself into work long ago either to keep a roof over his head and Charlotte’s or maintain a distance from her after her mother died, can’t keep a conversation with her, and she’s revisited by her ex Joe (Ben Schnetzer), whose conspicuous return coinciding with the mysterious deaths in town raises red flags.

Even when Charlotte can firmly find her footing in reality, it’s hard to tell what’s real as far as what she can trust, but if the situation that unfolds in “The Giant” seems bleak, the fresh way Raboy expresses her disillusionment is nothing less than exhilarating, slipping under her skin for a vaguely corporeal march that can externally appear zombielike while a hurricane of synapses are firing within, trying to make sense of a world that stayed the same when you’ve been changed radically. When time stands still for Charlotte, the intense experience that grows out of the writer/director’s collaboration with Young, one of the most exciting actresses of her generation since her debut in “The Daughter,” proves extremely moving and during a busy Toronto Film Fest, the two took a moment to talk about stepping into the darkness and coming out the other side stronger for it.

How did this come about?

David Raboy: There was these two rather tragic things that happened in my hometown – two girls that I went to high school with were murdered, separately and years apart, but for a long time to everybody, there were no answers. For years, that just shocked my understanding of where I was from, so that was the initial jumping off point – this sudden contrast that I had previously been unaware of between this potential for enormous darkness, but also the beauty of my life to that point, which had been quite idyllic, so this began as a way to reconcile these things. But then a lot of things happened in my life in the time since, and I was trying to just figure them out and push them into a proper lens, trying to understand this thing that connects these tensions in life. There’s a part of the script process trying to find that, and then we were putting it together, and Odessa was the first person our casting director pulled out of the hat.

Odessa Young: I said “No” at first because I received an earlier draft doing a script, which was still good, but when David and I had a meeting, he thought I’d read the latest draft, and when I was reading off these [notes I made], he was like, “I think it’s in the script,” and I thought he was being a dick. [laughs] But finally, I got the right draft and realized it was all a mistake.

It’s an elusive story, so was there something you could hold onto?

Odessa Young: There was, and I think intuitively we have very similar ideas about film and character and story, and obviously, it was a collaboration to get her to where she ended up being for the movie. At the end of the day, I actually think that being an intensely emotional character and not necessarily existing in [specific] events or behaviors was easier in a way – well, maybe not easier, but actually a little more fulfilling.

David Raboy: We spent a lot of time talking because there’s really a vacuum that we could fill in. That was the most exciting part, finding out how we wanted to fill these things in and what these silences meant. That was something we could draw up together.

I understand that you were working on the style for years. How’d you crack it?

David Raboy: I work very closely with my cinematographer Eric Yue, who is like my brother, and when we were making the shorts, he was my roommate, so all we’d do is talk about movies and what images make our hair stand up. We were just trying to find a way to build our own vocabulary, so we were building these shorts and I think we were both quite unhappy making everything because he’s just like, “Argh, you’re close to something, like you’re poking in the dark.” But we just talked for years and did everything together, cooked together every night and that was the process, just trying to figure it out.

Odessa Young: The thing that really threw me for a loop, which we found this out pretty early, was that I had a problem with being shot on film because I’d never worked with film before, so the idea that you could literally hear the money rolling away from you as you’re doing nothing or doing the wrong thing was so terrifying to me. That was really a challenge at first, but in terms of the language of the camera, it’s a really delicate balance because if you’re too aware of it, then your acting becomes machinistic, but if you’re not at all aware of it, then you have no technique, or you end up messing a lot of the performance up. The shots were pretty designed before each one, and we worked it through a bunch of times and there were a lot of rehearsals because, after the first time I [got out all the] bad acting on film, David was like, “You know what? Maybe we should figure out what we should do.”

David Raboy: That is not even true. [laughs] In terms of the claustrophobia, we were all living in the same motel and we would shoot mostly overnights. Then we would spend the sunrise at the end of the day drinking in a parking lot of a motel in Georgia, so it was very much a family affair. My favorite shot of the film was actually Odessa’s idea. She pitched me a shot and we did it, and it’s my favorite image in the film, so we tried to be as multidisciplinary and collaborative as we could across the different departments.

Odessa Young: Yeah, there was this one day where we were trying to figure out how to get a scene particularly hazy, but the propane hazer was too noisy for the scene, and [this is generally] a quiet movie in terms of the way the characters speak, so I had a terrible idea, which we ended up doing, to throw fireworks along the dolly track where I was walking, and these were the kind of fireworks that just came up in puffs of smoke. I ended up having to walk through a war zone of sulfur to do a scene, and it looks like I’ve been crying because my eyes are burning, but it’s in the movie.

David Raboy: Don’t give away the magic! [laughs]

Odessa Young: It felt like a collaboration [where] we were all trying to elevate it and to make each little moment just as family style, like you’re sitting down at a table and there’s something to that. It creates a really valuable vibe for the whole thing.

Is it true the lightning storms were real?

David Raboy: There’s some real lightning. Some of the lightning in the film is real, some of it isn’t. I can’t say which is not, but summer shooting in Georgia is beautiful, because you’re just surrounded by all these acts of God, where all of a sudden out of nowhere there’s like a light show in the sky. It’s incredible, but it also makes it very difficult to shoot because you can’t shoot during lightning and we lost a lot of time to that. But it just really felt like we were in the tempest.

Odessa Young: It was biblical because every day at some time between 1 and 5 pm, there would be this absolutely torrential rainfall and you just have to stop and let it happen. You couldn’t do anything about it, and you kept on.

David Raboy: There’s something really beautiful about that, and the movie itself is very concerned with the ways that weather can be a projection of internal turmoil. So there’s something beautiful about doing it on set where everyone has to stop and just regard nature [where] there’s nothing you can do, [except] just sit out, maybe smoke a cigarette and just watch lightning. There’s something so serene about it. I wouldn’t have done it any differently at all.

Anything come as a surprise that’s in the film that you now really like about it?

David Raboy: I edited the film, and even I am surprised by some of the changes. The biggest was that Odessa has a very natural acting style, but my directing style is a little more affected, and there were things that she’s just doing because she’s so purposeful about her choices as an actor that I didn’t really understand how valuable they were until the editing room, and there’s a major scene that was dictated by a performance choice that she made that ended up being the emotional anchor in the film for me, and I couldn’t see its value on set, but in the editing room I was like, “What she did there was incredible.”

In an impressionistic film like this, do you find yourself surprised by how the performance turns out after the edit?

Odessa Young: We talk about this a lot, and I find it really hard to watch my performances in general with any kind of objectivity, not because I’m looking for things that could be better, but just because I remember too much about it, so it’s just too close and it’s a little too raw. But, with this one, and it might be a good sign, that I could watch this movie and be objective about it. I didn’t feel too close to it — not in the way that it didn’t matter to me, but I felt like I was so luckily involved in the conception on set that I didn’t have to just focus on the performance and it was really nice to be able to feel like I could see the whole thing, which is a rarity for me.

I had an immense amount of trust in David, and because I knew that he could see things that I couldn’t see, I was preoccupied with going for it and getting as lost in it as I possibly could, which meant that I could not step back and see exactly what he wanted. The way that he directed me was to mold what I was giving him, and I think that because of my trust in him and how specific his vision is and how true and pure and honest it is — his style is not a put-on thing, it’s something that comes from the heart and everything was justified — I don’t need to have an opinion on my performance, or really even understand it, because I know that he has my back and I was just lucky to be there.

The score for this is so integral to the character. What was it like to work on?

David Raboy: Ari [Balouzian] and I have worked on everything. He did my two shorts before [this], and the way we work together is I send him the first draft of the script and he started working it then in April 2016, so we were shooting a lot of the scenes with the score on set, and I gave the score to Odessa to listen to, and I think that was part of her process as well. We listened to it all the time.

Odessa Young: The first day I got into Georgia I went for a drive, and David had sent me the songs that Ari had completed and we found this little backroad that we later found out was called like Sorrows Lane, which is just so [perfect], and I was driving through this cathedral of true Georgia gothic trees, listening to this soundtrack. And, it was just so palpable [where] you could feel the entire movie in one stretch of road, so that became a ritual that we would do, where every time someone new would come in [to the production], like a new cast member, it would be like, “All right, let’s get in the truck” and take them onto Sorrows Lane and play this score. You understand so much about what it is, just hearing that, being in a location where it’s quiet and nothing’s happening that you just feel it. So, aside from the fact that I think it’s just some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard, it was also super effective for making a time and place. It’s also naturally nostalgic — his music comes in these loops.

David Raboy: The way he makes the music is he has a string instrument, be it a viola or a violin, and he just records loops. And, each time he goes through the loop he adds something new or he degrades, so he doesn’t write the music, the music just happens. It’s like an ocean, and I feel very lucky to have been introduced to him so early. He’s wildly talented and the movie owes a huge debt to him for his contribution.

“The Giant” will screen at the Toronto Film Festival on September 14th at 3:30 pm at Jackman Hall.

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