Rachel Lambert on Breathing Life Into “Sometimes I Think About Dying”

Cottage cheese is all Fran (Daisy Ridley) can think to come up with when asked for her favorite food in “Sometimes I Think About Dying,” wanting to be part of the office offering warm welcome to a new co-worker named Robert (Dave Merheje) by playing get-to-know-you games in the conference room, but when others list rib eye steaks as fish, what’s good for gut health can’t help but sound a little bland. It’s how Fran seems to prefer it, not having yet found much to live for beyond her desk job at Port Authority, which gives her satisfaction because she’d good at it more so than actually enjoying it, but it seems like only a matter of time when that won’t be enough, occasionally descending to the basement to stare off into space for longer and longer periods of time.

Robert’s arrival prompts Fran to become more social than simply speaking up at his introductory meeting, sharing with her alone that he’s never actually held a job before in spite of being in his thirties and a curious courtship starts to blossom in Rachel Lambert’s bewitching third feature. Having previously blown the doors off of any theater playing her explosive debut “In the Radiant City,” a searingabout a family conflagration starring Marin Ireland and Michael Abbott Jr., the gently surreal comedy comes as something of a surprise, though no less accomplished as it observes Fran begin to receive what energy she puts out into the world as she starts opening up to Robert. They make weird jokes to one another over the office Slack and eventually start watching movies with one another that Fran begrudgingly starts to like, but with her house requiring a long walk up a hill, you sense that reaching happiness will require quite a bit of exercise and with a keen turn from Ridley, Lambert is able to dig into all the reasons that have prevented Fran from getting there just yet.

Even if it’s work for its lead to find joy, “Sometimes I Think About Dying” delivers it in spades for audiences, having a game cast including Meg Stalter, Marcia DeBonis and Parveesh Cheena to make the most of its absurdist humor and visually dazzling cinematography from Dustin Lane and an eerie score from Dabney Morris to bring out the strange sensations of being unable to break from mundane routine. No one could accuse the film of being ordinary and on the eve of its release in theaters after premiering at Sundance last year, Lambert kindly took the time to talk about how she could design it to set it apart, working with Ridley, its slightly unusual path into her hands to direct and the location she lost sleep over securing.

I know this is an interesting one because the original writers of this did a short of their own and then you came on to direct the feature, which is pretty unusual. How did this come about?

Yeah, they had made a project with Fran [at the center] and then as a team, they expanded [the short] into a feature script that was then sent to my producer Alex Saks, who I’d worked with on “In the Radiant City.” She put it together as an agent, but she was still in my life and this script was sent to her and I think I was someone that she really wanted to do it. I was very lucky because I liked it so much right away, and I haven’t seen the short or read the play. I’m sure I’ll do it at some point, but I didn’t before I made the film and I knew not to do it almost immediately after I read it because I knew I wanted to make it and I didn’t want to stand before my film and at any level not be able to honestly say these are all my choices. I know for a fact these are mine and I’m sure there’s so much great stuff in their work that I just knew I was going to remember it, so I thought for the sake purity and ethical artisanship, I will abstain. So there’s a separation I think is cool between their piece and mine, using so much of their ingredients that they generously put together in this way. And then right after that conversation with Alex, I said, “This is Daisy Ridley’s part. That’s who I want to go to.” She said yes, and it was off to the races from there.

What made you think of her so immediately?

I’d always been a huge fan of hers for so many reasons and then on top of that, she had seen “Radiant City” and liked it. [If] actors, particularly at her level, see [a project] that they like or there’s a director they’re curious about or interested in, they can submit, “Hey, this is a list of directors that I’m interested in. I’d love for you to consider them,” and I would then get a list [of projects] she’s attached to and [I’m told] “the producers would love you to read it and come in and if it interests you to talk about it.” I didn’t have a chance in hell of getting a lot of these jobs because they were so enormous, but what it did offer me generously was a window into Daisy’s taste and I realized she really loves strong, deep, subtextual writing and she’s really attracted to these really challenging, complex women. And she’s funny. So I was getting all these pieces that were in addition to what I had enjoyed from her as a performer, and when you know someone’s taste through what they attach [themselves] to, you get a real interesting picture. So I just had a sense when I read [“Sometimes I Think About Dying”], I just feel like this is something she’d like and I knew she would kill it, and if those two things are true, let’s go. Let’s make this happen. Hopefully she likes it. And then, wonderfully, she did.

I’m not sure how many, including myself, would see the connective tissue between a searing drama like “In the Radiant City” and a slightly surreal comedy such as “Sometimes I Think of Dying,” but you use a very similar camera style in terms of these often stationary frames and whereas it drew you into reality in the former, it’s used to create a sense of ironic distance in the latter. Was it cool to be able to employ a similar style for a radically different effect?

There was actually some handheld in “Radiant City,” and this was really stationary, dogmatically and wonderfully so. Maybe that approach that might be native to me, but making the stationary camera like central to the language was key. Also the fragmentary frames were a language tool that we folded in and our aspect ratio, working in that size and that shape, did a lot. I did a lot more in terms of compositionally deliberate staging, so you can feel that intentionality in a different way. It feels sculpted and it can also feel like a fairy tale in that way. There’s just these little shifts and moves that can showcase a particular taste moving towards another kind of material.

For as much intentionality as there is visually, I understand you allowed a lot of leeway for the actors. I heard a great story of how you asked them to bring their own items for their desks in character – what was it like to get the right feel for the office in terms of your ensemble?

Almost every single person that’s in that office had a comedy background, and Daisy’s hilarious and is great at improv. At first, she might not have believed that about herself, but I hope she believes that now. She’s a killer when it comes to that stuff and I certainly wanted to surround her in an ensemble with people who had a lot of facility with working in either improv or comedy because those kinds of performers have a lot of comfort built in to try things and throw them away. I like the way those brains work, so I think that choice was important. I also worked very closely with the production designer to make that set incredibly interactive. We’d look in the windows of other offices around town and take pictures, and we would try to build these desks that would reveal character just by looking at them and then knowing that an actor is going to see that and hopefully it’ll spark imagination and they could bring their own pieces, where it’s almost like a dialogue through prop and set and atmosphere.

Because their desks were totally interactive, sometimes I could just call them and they could use their computers, they could e-mail, they could call, they could do spreadsheets, they could do all kinds of work. It was 360 set, so they could wander around and do whatever they wanted and I would encourage that. We created an atmosphere where there were scenes that had to be very deliberate, but then there was plenty of times where, even in the Slack exchange where Daisy’s got her thing, life is happening around her, so there was a lot of trust within the ensemble that I think allowed for everyone to say yes to those opportunities around each other.

Just generally, you make the most out of this fabulous location in Oregon. What was it like to find such a setting?

Astoria has had a lot of movies shot there for a reason. It is cinematic. And I was very lucky that the production designer I was working with was going through and finding what buildings in the area might be up for lease or rent, just get us our feet wet. There was this office at the Port Authority of Astoria that had office space and it was completely empty. There was like a random desk and some ripped carpet, but I went in there and I was like, “Beautiful.” They even said, “Oh, we have a brand new renovated office.” And I was like, “No, no, no. I want these offices. These are great.” [laughs] And there was like a palette in there already that was matching some of the palette that I wanted and was seeing in the area. Then there are those windows [from the office] out onto that bridge and that port and that water and the birds — the whole environment was right outside those windows and I remember just freaking out after we left the tour, I was so excited.

I was losing sleep about whether we would get this location, and we did. Then we got the apartment for Fran [by] looking who’s leasing spaces and seeing what’s out there. “Let’s meet people” – that’s the way to get started, like cracking open an egg and seeing what’s inside. And a homeowner in the area had listed another property [we looked at], and he [asked] “Well, what are you looking for?” And I described the kind of character [of Fran], and he said, “I think I have the exact spot for you.” And he brought me in and I [thought], “Oh, dear, yes.” It just felt so right, this doorway on this slanted road and I think the lesson is I love casting locations. It’s just as important as casting actors and I love doing it on the ground myself. If you can, every filmmaker [should] live in the space and just work the area and meet people. You can find really lived in gems, and we were so fortunate.

From what I understand you were driving around listening to Hawaiian ballads as you were location scouting, which seems to be echoed now in the film’s score. What was it like to work with Dabney Morris on the film’s soundtrack?

With every film, I’m always trying to find my team and when I made this one, I had some people who were legacy partners and I collected even more off of this film. When we were getting ready to make “Sometimes I Think About Dying,” Dabney, my composer and I had just made another film and he was someone I was like, “Oh, yeah, you’re my person,” so we were able to begin work very early, as I was with Dustin [Lane, the cinematographer] and Ryan [Kendrick, the editor] and we talk a lot about theme and world early on. Then we try to just follow that channel and you just try to be open to the creative process.

Knowing some of the themes and motifs, Dabney and Ryan had that conversation and I’m driving around and listening to Hawaiian ballads, mostly from the ‘50s and I’m loving it. Then I was in L.A. for a weekend and [Dabney and I] met and I was telling him this, and we talked a lot about the film being very classical in terms of how it would be shot and in its root structure as a piece of cinema. We were watching a lot of Billy Wilder and things like that, so we had old Hollywood in mind, and he was [suggested] Henry Mancini, but something that’s sea creature-y and then he dipped into 1960s lounge exotica, [like] hyper-composed. He found this album, [which has] an unfortunate title “Mr. Lucky Goes Latin,” a film that was made in the ‘60s that Mancini made an album for, and there’s a song on there called “Lujan,” named for the instrument and it features a lot in the song. And I [thought], “This is it!” And that became a kind of anthem.

From there, other ideas sprouted. Nelson Riddle came out of that. “Moon River” came out of that. All these kinds of pieces, and they all worked their way into the final score. In terms of how it was implemented, the script had wall-to-wall voiceover that we were not going to use in the film, so Dabney and I like to think of the score as Fran’s voiceover. It’s her inner life. It’s what’s going on inside of her, so that’s the story of the soundtrack.

“Sometimes I Think About Dying” opens on January 25th in New York at the Angelika Film Center and January 26th in Los Angeles at the Grove before expanding across the country. A full list of cities and dates is here.

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