On an afternoon in March, it felt as though a screening of “6 Years” at the SXSW Film Fest in Austin, Texas was the center of the indie film universe. Even disregarding the fact that writer/director Hannah Fidell’s regular cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo had a directorial effort of his own playing across town (“One & Two”) and her editor Carlos Marques-Marcet was coming off his triumph at the festival the previous year (“10,000KM”), it was an unusually starry occasion that necessitated the film’s producer Mark Duplass to part the sea of people gathered in front of the Alamo Ritz on 6th Street in order to make his way into the theater.
It was also quite a moment for the film’s two young stars Taissa Farmiga and Ben Rosenfield, who play a couple that is seemingly far too young to be engaged in a relationship with the duration alluded to in the title. As Mel and Dan, they find themselves in over their heads as opportunity beckons for the high school sweethearts caught between craving the stability of a relationship such as theirs, but not necessarily the responsibility that comes with it. In reality, the two couldn’t be more poised and yet still may suffer from the same commitment issues as their characters, not because of their personalities, but rather their all too busy schedules.
“I was like running around and trying to remember who am I doing this interview for and which movie is this?” said Farmiga of her SXSW experience, pulling triple duty at the festival with the short “Share” and the horror satire “The Final Girls” also premiering in Austin. “But I loved seeing people so excited to see the movie.”
Adds Rosenfield, who could be seen earlier this summer in Woody Allen’s “Irrational Man” and will soon appear in James Schamus’ much-anticipated directorial debut “Indignation,” “I was actually doing a play [“The Nether”] and the artistic director [of the theater] was nice enough to give me a night off. I flew to Austin, saw the premiere, got back on the plane, and had a show the next day in New York.”
However, thanks to their ability that has kept them so in demand, they’re able to freeze time in “6 Years,” vividly capturing the joy and frustration of being young in a film that like Fidell’s previous effort “A Teacher,” pulls no punches in exploring the darker impulses of its characters. As the film makes its way into the larger world through an innovative staggered release through iTunes and Netflix, the two spoke of the process of creating a foundation for Mel and Dan, who according to Farmiga met at a Wilco concert that’s left unseen in the film, that the two could work off of with Fidell for the semi-improvised drama, and translating the intimacy of the small-scale production onto the screen.
How did you get interested in this?
Taissa Farmiga: I was in the middle of shooting season three of “American Horror Story,” and my manager sent me this half-script/half-treatment for this project. I loved how it relatable it was – these two young kids, it’s their first love and kind of their first heartbreak too, and learning how to figure out how to be in a relationship and how to be selfish. They’re not fully emotionally developed yet, and sometimes you don’t even know what you’re feeling at that age, so it’s hard enough to talk about it if you don’t know what it is. Mel is very frustrated and it was interesting playing a character who’s close in age to me that I could relate to that frustration of being young and just trying to grow up and figure out who you are. I was just excited to portray that. I had come to find out the producer was Mark Duplass, and I just was honest with him. I told him how much I loved it, I related to it, and it went well.
Ben Rosenfield: Yeah, I had a similar experience. I thought it was very relatable, but it was really exciting that it was more of an outline then a script and that we were going to be doing a lot of improv. The script Taissa and I were sent had a lot of photos in it for reference to give you a sense of the visual tone in the movie. That’s really important to me, to see the film maker has a visual sense and the pictures certainly expressed a lot, so those were things that made me really excited about it.
Hannah supposedly has some secret stash of photos from Tumblr.
Ben Rosenfield: She does. Part of what was exciting was a lot of them were photos I had never seen. They were pictures of couples and …
Taissa Farmiga: …Sweet intimate moments, just like a hand on the cheek or something like that. There’s party photos too, just like kids having fun.
Ben Rosenfield: Yeah. Like if there was a scene at a party, there might be a picture of rooms at a party, or someone waking up hungover. There’d be a picture of some guy laying in bed, the sun hitting him in a certain way. You could really see the tone that she was going to be going for in those pictures.
Is it true you went to the Berkshires at Hannah’s parents house for a week to hash out the details of your characters’ relationship?
Ben Rosenfield: It was really fun. We got to know each other, really. We talked a lot about the history of the characters, what their life was like in the six years before [you first meet them], and even before that — the families they come from, what music they listen to, stuff like that. It was also about starting to build some trust because we knew we were going into emotionally challenging territory with this project. We didn’t want to just show up, first day, and build from there. We wanted to have a foundation to work off of.
Was it daunting to know that you’d be doing this much improvisation once you did get to set?
Taissa Farmiga: Ben actually comes from an improv background, but I’d never done any real improv. I’ve done a few lines here or there while working on stuff, but nothing that actually required a lot of energy and work. I was a little nervous, but it’s excited nervousness. I’m scared to do it, but I wanted to do it because I wanted to accomplish it, so it was a positive thing.
Ben Rosenfield: Yeah, my first acting class was an improv class that my mom taught, so I love improv, and it was the first opportunity to make a feature film that way. I love “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” too — I love the results of an improvised project. I didn’t realize how much I was dropping the F bomb and stuff like that, but I’m into it. It was so much fun for me. It’s risky, of course, but I trusted, especially after that retreat, everybody that I was working with.
Taissa Farmiga: There were so many conversations before we got to set, too. Hannah really wanted to play to our strengths, and going through the scenes, she wanted to make sure we felt comfortable doing everything and that we could do a good job with it and handle the emotions of what was there. She just felt very open and she took our opinions into account.
There’s a wonderful montage that opens the film with you riding around Austin on bicycles and generally having summertime fun. Did you have as good a time as it looked?
Taissa Farmiga: Honestly, we did. Austin is so cool and in our first two days of shooting, we shot all that montage stuff where you see Mel happy with her friends. We had difficult times ahead — just emotionally challenging scenes — so it was nice to start off on such a light note and just genuinely have fun. It was just more bonding for us.
Ben Rosenfield: The food, music, and atmosphere [in Austin] is amazing. It’s a great film town, too. We had this awesome crew — all Austin locals who work incredible hard, so it was really special to get to make one down there.
Was working with a crew of this size in a fast and loose style something different?
Taissa Farmiga: Yeah, it was very intimate because there weren’t that many people. Everyone got to know each other, and a lot of us lived in this one production house that was actually Mel’s house in the movie. The wardrobe designer and the production designer, who was the same person, was downstairs in one room, Hannah was in another room, Ben was in the back house, and I’m upstairs. You wake up, you finish work, you have dinner together. You go to sleep, you wake up, you have breakfast together, and you start working together, so we spent so much time together.
Ben Rosenfield: It was great because the crew were just as invested [in this] as Taissa and I, or Hannah, or Andrew [Droz Palermo], the cinematographer. Everyone down the line, I think, had a personal relationship to the story and were working accordingly. That’s such an exciting thing to be a part of. In terms of the pace of the film, it’s great because there wasn’t a lot of time to look back. At the same time, they did allocate time to do things over if we needed to and add scenes if we wanted to because of the improvisational quality of the film. [Hannah] also had one of the editors on the film assembling as we were going, so she was able to look [at what we had done] and have a sense of, “Okay, we got what we needed to get.”
I imagine the visual style she’s created with Andrew Droz Palermo must also put you in an interesting situation – from the second I saw the crown of Taissa’s head as you walk into a party, it resembled “A Teacher” and I wonder what your relationship to the camera might’ve been like if they’re capturing those angles where it seems like you might not know it’s present.
Taissa Farmiga: It was kind of great, with all the improv too — the camera followed us around. We weren’t stuck to a certain blocking and we didn’t have to hit our mark so much. We had the freedom to physically express ourselves, as well as verbally. That really helped to find those moments when, as you say, we may have not even been conscious of it happening.
Ben Rosenfield: There’s a certain messiness to it, which I really like in terms of that style. We had two cameras shooting usually at once and it made that improvisation quality extend to the physicality of it as well. We were free to do, within a very small amount of restriction, all kinds of stuff, so it was very much about not being concerned about the camera, trusting that Andrew was capturing us, and just being in the moment.
Was there a particular day of crazy shooting?
Taissa Farmiga: Yeah, you have the more obvious, physically and emotionally exhausting days [of shooting the more dramatic scenes towards the end of the film] that are just so long, but for the most part, it was all pretty positive. It’s hard work, so you feel depleted at the end of the day, but you also feel accomplished. You could tell on set that we’re making something special.
Ben Rosenfield: There’s also this quality when you shoot a lot in three weeks, working six days a week, that it all become a bit of a blur. But after a year, the whole thing is just one, big, amazing experience.
“6 Years” is currently available on iTunes. It will be available on Netflix starting September 8th.