Sophie Lane Curtis had come of age on film sets, appearing in such films as “Arbitrage” and “At Any Price” as a teen, but it wasn’t until she was in college that someone suggested that for as much talent as she showed in front of the camera, she might have a future behind it as well.
“I didn’t really think of it as a possibility until a professor sparked the idea that it was,” recalls Curtis. “But working with different directors as an actor, I was always honestly more interested in what was happening behind the camera than the acting part of it all and I was really excited to step into a different role on set.”
The opportunity would arise unexpectedly when she learned that the French hideaway of longtime friend Micheál Richardson, son of the late, great Natasha Richardson and Liam Neeson, was about to be put on the market and sought to capture the magic while she could in the enchanting locale, even getting Richardson’s grandparents Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero to appear in what was initially intended as a short keepsake. However, it had become obvious Curtis was onto something bigger in what would become her feature directorial debut “On Our Way,” telling of a heartbroken filmmaker (Richardson) attempting to make something meaningful out of a recent loss. If the emotions in the film seem especially visceral, it goes beyond how vividly Curtis renders them as Richardson’s tortured auteur Henry fights to make his vision a reality against all odds when it feels as if the writer/director is going through it herself, stepping into the role of his muse Rosemary when she planned to stay behind-the-scenes and provocatively considering on screen how much one decides to give of themselves to a piece of art before it threatens to consume them whole.
Cleverly, “On Our Way” will often surround Henry in his artistic project in a tactile way, with rooms shrouded in storyboards and memories brought up on televisions that sit on the beach outside his hideaway, always beckoning even if he needs a respite and although the film plunges audiences inside a script at the start, superimposing its stage directions onto the frame, that gradually ebbs away as Henry starts to rewrite his destiny, digging deeper for inspiration less to craft a narrative than to ensure it’s properly told at no small cost to himself. It makes one appreciate all the more what Curtis and Richardson have poured into the feature, giving shape to a flood of emotions stirred up with the need to process them and after premiering at Tallinn Black Nights, the film is arriving on American shores this week in theaters and on VOD and recently Curtis spoke about how life and art collided as “On Our Way” actively documented the experience she had making it, the magic that found its way into the production and how a rising tide could lift all boats when it came to working with a number of artists who were working on their first film.
How did this come about? I understand it began life as a short.
Yeah, it started as a kind of experiment with Micheal Richardson, the lead of the film who’s been one of my best friends since I was younger, and the short was [comprised of] the parts in France. After shooting there, I was introduced to a producer named James Tomlinson and after he had seen the short, I had talked about how I was feeling during the process of making my first thing and he [said], “You should turn that into a feature and use the parts that you already shot [for a foundation]” so then over the next two years, I laid out a script that would start in France and pretty much end in France, but then in between there would be all the experiences and feelings that I think a lot of young people feel when making their first film — the seeds of doubt — and [that] people feel in their mid-twenties in general [in terms of] relationships and career.
We were one of the first films to shoot our main production at the height of the pandemic, and making an independent film a really rewarding, but also grueling process [already], so in general there was a lot of questioning life and questioning our futures and I think that got ingrained into the film and I just really wanted to tell a story about somebody who’s scared to tell their story because it requires you to relive your past and you wonder if that’s going to make you feel worse or actually set you free. During the process, I think we felt all the emotions — I did especially — but now finishing it, I can confidently say it helps heal trauma to tell your story and put it out there.
One of the things that I was so impressed by was how you’re able to visualize this experience of feeling trapped inside the art you’re making – particularly the TVs on the beach. Was that difficult to figure out?
Yeah, I’ve always been so enamored with magical surrealism and those kinds of films that I really wanted to create a film where the past, present, and dream world all collide because I feel like you work in film, you’re constantly living in a state where you’re thinking about your past when creating stories, but then you’re thinking about the present and then about your dreams, so it’s this whole mishmash world that you live in. We wanted to create this beach that was very surreal, but also brought things from real life onto the beach and the TVs were definitely one of the hardest things to shoot. It was November, and it was freezing cold on a beach out near Montauk and [it was difficult] to get that many TVs there. They were turned on when we were shooting and setting that all up was a crazy process, but it added to the whole effect of the movie and [that idea of] a filmmaker’s mind, having a vision and trying to execute it as impossible as it might seem.
There’s a scene where you and Micheal end up kissing underwater that’s beautiful but had to be enormously challenging to film. Is that the kind of thing where you wonder as an actress why the director insisted on shooting it?
Yeah, we shot that in France in a pool at nighttime and Micheal and I had all of our friends and crew [out with] fishing poles with jewelry at the end of them and masks [on], so it looks so beautiful on screen and then behind [the scenes] it’s like a bunch of people standing with fishing poles above you while you’re like drowning in the water trying to kiss. [laughs] It was definitely a very funny experience, but also such a magical experience because you’re [feel you’re] in this dream world and we had a strobe light underwater so I could only really like see Michael every other second and then it was pitch black. That was definitely one of the highlights of the process.
This seems so wildly ambitious in terms of the locations and camera setups, did you have a strong idea at the start of how this would cut together and get that hallucinatory feel?
I had ideas of how it would come together, but I don’t think it ever comes together exactly how you think it will, especially when you’re on your first or second film. There is this magic in filmmaking where you have you have it all set up to go the way you want and then movies have a mind of their own and they give you something that may not be exactly what you expected but sometimes it’s even better. That’s how I felt so many different times in this movie. France was really interesting because we shot it early on and that that house has actually been in [Micheal’s] family for a really long time and Michael and I always talk about how that house in France has a ghost-like quality and his family says that the mistral blows when the spirits feel something in the air and it wasn’t blowing the whole time that we were shooting. But then when we wrapped, all the trees at once started blowing like crazy and that’s something that we ended up implementing into the film, playing with trees and manipulating them.
And in France in general, it was shot to [have] a ghost-like quality, but then when we were filming, there were little moments where like a black cat would appear out of nowhere, or there’s a lot of rewind sequences in France as well, like when Vanessa Redgrave’s [character] spills the wine and [the film] rewinds — those weren’t necessarily planned in the script, but then when we were editing, we started to play with rewind and one of the things that was unexpected was working with Sofie Borup, our colorist at Company 3, who came up with this idea as it rewinds to have the color fade and fade more because when memories get more distant, the color fades from them, so that’s something that we played with a lot in the edit.
Michael and I say this all the time, that there’s some weird magical power in “On Our Way” because so many times when things fell apart, something would just strike and come together in a really unexpected way and within the edit, it was definitely a lot of experimenting, but also we did follow pretty closely to the script in the end. When you’re doing a nonlinear film with so many fantastical elements, you have to try to have a structure and ground it in something, but there’s definitely a lot of different worlds and different elements, so it was a puzzle putting it together, but the response that I’ve gotten from a lot of people it that it [connects to] how they feel in their daily life, which is just [getting] lost in this maze of what life is and that makes me happy when I hear that.
You’ve said that one of the things you enjoyed about this was it wasn’t only your first feature as a director, but for much of your crew and when so many different mediums are brought to bear on this, whether it’s music or the production of the art in the production design, what was it like opening this up for other artists to show what they’re capable of?
Discovering your passion with first-timers on set when it’s your first time is a really unparalleled feeling and that happened with so many people. We actually didn’t have a costume designer — I was just doing the costumes [myself] up until the day before shooting and then I realized, “Wow, we have a lot of costumes and this is going to be hard,” so I called one of my best friends from Berkeley named Coral Finnie and she had just been laid off during the pandemic, and I was like, “Hey, you’ve never really done costumes before, but is there any chance you’d want to get on a red eye tonight and film with us for the next four weeks?” Literally the next morning she showed up at my door in New York and we got to work and she was incredible. It was her first time doing costumes and it was my first time directing a feature and it’s been so cool because now she’s doing costumes for a bunch of projects since then and she’s been styling, which is not what she was doing at all before, so it’s been really cool that now that’s her passion.
Then our outdoor production designer Alina [Çelik] I had met when she was 19 and studying abroad in Berlin. We needed a production designer in France, and this was almost five years ago, and she came and did production design for the first time. Then two years later, when [“On Our Way”] got greenlit into a feature, I called her and [asked], “Hey, would you want to come to New York and finish doing the production design for the movie?” And she came and absolutely killed it. There were so many cool experiences of going to a junkyard in New York and getting all the old car pieces to put on the magical beach and finding the TVs in some weird guy’s alley. I’m excited for my next film, but I think there’s just something so special about making your first film and getting that first chance to express yourself, but then also to give others that chance.
“On Our Way” is now playing in Los Angeles at Cinelounge Sunset and will be available on VOD starting May 19th.