When Anna Margaret Hollyman got the part of Suzanne Barrington, a real estate agent who spends 11 months out of the year looking forward to Christmas, only to have her husband die right before the holidays in Zach Clark’s “White Reindeer,” it wasn’t long before a stack of DVDs came her way to get her in the mood.
“‘Jeanne Dielman’ was very helpful because I think that something I was really interested in was a woman alone, not having a ton of dialogue and how that can be one of the more interesting things to watch,” says Hollyman, shortly after the comedy’s premiere at SXSW. “He also gave me ‘Scrooged’ and [turning to Clark], then you gave me that swingers video too, right?”
“Did I?” Clark asks innocently enough about something that came from his collection of ‘50s erotica. “Did I give you ‘Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer’?”
As you might surmise, when “White Reindeer” opens with a weatherman opining, “Anything goes this Christmas,” he’s not kidding when it comes to introducing the latest film from the director of SXSW discoveries “Modern Love is Automatic” and “Vacation!” An idiosyncratic, sharply funny and surprisingly moving character study of a woman left to her own devices after realizing both the life she had with her late husband and the joy she takes from her favorite time of year are artificial at best, it is not surprising to learn Clark was working on three separate ideas for scripts – involving swinger parties, his favorite holiday, and a chance encounter between two women from opposite ends of the spectrum – before blending them all into a movie as harmonious and warm as an experienced trio of carolers at your doorstep.
Hollyman, who is quickly becoming a Moveable Fest favorite after her light comic turn at SXSW two years ago in “Small, Beautifully Moving Parts,” returns to give yet another strong lead performance, hitting darker notes here as the heightened emotions of the holidays uncover an underbelly to her suburban neighborhood she wasn’t privy to while with her husband, full of cocaine, strippers and sex parties. While in Austin, she and Clark took the time to reflect on a production that was occasionally as tricky practically as it was tonally, the film’s evocative use of lighting and whether they’ve had their fill of Christmas cheer after all the gallons of egg nog consumed on the set.
How did you both get started on this?
Zach Clark: Christmas is my favorite holiday, and I made a little short film in film school that was a Christmas movie and really wanted to do a feature-length one. Three other ideas that I was having for movies congealed into one and that became what the script was going to end up being. I wrote it to cost not a lot of money by any movie standards, but a lot of money compared to the amount we made the last two for and [after] trying to get that amount of money for about a year and not finding it, [we] hit a point where I was either going to keep waiting for another year or pull the trigger and do a Kickstarter and make it on the scale we had made the last two movies. I’m not super-patient. I’m a firm believer in doing things over talking about them, so I just decided to pull the trigger and make it that way.
Anna, how did you get involved? You’re always playing solitary women!
Anna Margaret Hollyman: I think you’re right! I was going to say …
ZC: And pregnant women.
AMH: And pregnant women. It’s so true. I think this is my fifth movie where I’m pregnant or possibly pregnant. I was talking to this actor recently who is a little bit older who said you really have to find your type. You have to find a connective thread in order to really understand how marketable you are. And I was like what’s a connective thread through all these ladies? They’re all ladies on a journey by themselves.
But I met Zach briefly at an Anthology Film Archives screening, then we met at our friend’s screening when Aaron Hillis ran ReRun and I put two and two together that he had directed “Vacation!”, which I had seen a year or two before. Then I saw “Modern Love is Automatic” and I really loved that film. What drew me to it was kind of the balance that he has between humor and dark [material] and also being able to get these very real, emotionally charged [performances] from all the actresses that I saw. I liked how the two could co-exist and I think it’s a very rare thing. Also, it’s very rare to find scripts that have interesting female protagonists and a predominantly female ensemble. That doesn’t happen unless you’re Pedro Almodovar, so that was really interesting to me as well.
One of my favorite aspects of the film was the lighting because since it’s so evocative. What was involved in creating a color scheme for the film and did it impact the performances at all?
ZC: Daryl [Pittman], the cinematographer and I – this is our third feature together and he’s one of my best friends in the world, so he knows what I like and I know what he likes. He was there from the inception, so we talked a lot about a sort of balance between warm and cool and balancing warm and cool images in the same shot because that feels very evocative of the ‘50s melodramas. There’s [was always] more stylized stuff in the script [such as] the swinger party, which would be all blue with like a pink lit Christmas tree and the nightclub stuff would be all red and the way that the TV light plays blue in some scenes. Daryl and I had a general talk about how we wanted light sources to play with Christmas tree lights and that sense of the movie having a bit of a warm glow to it, which is also evocative of Christmas cards and fireplaces and that sort of thing.
Zach has cited Douglas Sirk as an influence and I thought it was great because it was lush as Sirk in some places, but ambient.
AMH: Yeah, [Zach] gave me a pile of Christmas movies to watch as reference points and the cornerstone was “All That Heaven Allows.” As an actor, you’re supposed to be hyperaware of the light, but it’s the first time I understood it as I can see the palette change a lot in how the scenes would reflect her inner world versus the outer world. That’s very apparent in Sirk’s work in a way I think is very subversive and so graphic and jarring and ahead of its time, so I understood that in terms of his concept.
Is it true the film was shot somewhat sporadically over the past year? If so, how did that play out in Anna’s performance?
ZC: We were cutting while we were shooting, so we shot in December a little bit, then I was putting it together while we were prepping the other stuff. A lot of it just came out of budget. Our Kickstarter budget essentially got us through the first two-thirds of production. We shot an initial two weeks and then we were supposed to just do one more week, but we really only had enough money to get us through another three days, which meant that we just had to do those days because we needed to do them and then literally save up money to shoot the last little bit. Then we put it all together and lived with it for a while and like we really could use a scene here of this or a shot here of this or shoot this again, but change this about it.
AMH: Not to get too Daniel Day Lewisy, but pragmatically, you try to keep in contact with where the character is at whatever juncture emotionally she is in the script because you need to know where to go when you’re going to pick back up. But then there is a part of that that she’s incredibly lonely, sympathetic character, so I remember we were shooting a pickup where she’s just crying. It was the last thing. We shot it in August. And it had been eight months since we first started shooting and I just remember we were shooting that scene where [Zach] was like, “We need to get a shot of Suzanne just in her kitchen with the candy canes, just crying, just having a private moment.” It was one of the first things we shot [that day] and I started crying and then all of a sudden, I just remember suddenly tapping back into Suzanne’s sadness and really crying and really feeling that devastation.
It sounds silly, but it does feel like your feeling for a friend or something and you come back in contact with her and where she is and you’re instantly reminded of her situation. I just felt nothing but incredible sympathy for her, so it brought up all these emotions. You really have to create like a familial relationship with characters, I think. They almost have to be a sibling or someone you really truly care about just so you can access and reinterpret those feelings.
Did you get sick of Christmas by the end of filming?
ZC: My love for Christmas is eternal and undying.
AMH: That is very true. Zach and his sister each…well, his sister really, but he helps produce a thematic Christmas album each year that is available online. “Colleen Clark’s Christmas.” The two of them have themes like…what was it this year?
ZC: International. Around the world.
AMH: They will drink banana daiquiris Christmas eve as an homage to the Prince song, “Another Lonely Christmas.”
ZC: But as an example, when we had to decorate the tree in the movie for Christmas to get that scene, we played Christmas music and everyone on the crew decorated that tree together as a spiritual bonding thing to get in the spirit. It’s my favorite holiday and I love it with all my heart. But in making a movie, you do work through things and get things out of your system. My last movie was shot entirely at the beach and I still like going to the beach, but my enthusiasm to go to the beach has been significantly reduced. So it’ll be interesting to see how I feel about Christmas this year. The last two Christmases have been very low-key for me because I have been getting a lot of Christmas cheer throughout the year. But I’m not sick of it. It’s subdued the intensity of my actual Christmas.
AMH: I definitely can’t wear red sweaters anymore… [pause] for a while. And I did not have any candy canes this year. Because I binged boxes and boxes of candy canes. That and egg nog. During one of the takes, I think I finally said, [feebly] “I don’t really like egg nog. I’ve never liked it. But it’s fine…”
ZC: You’re a trooper.
AMH: I’m a trooper. I’m a real trooper.
“White Reindeer” does not have U.S. distribution yet. It will play SXSW once more Thursday, March 14th at 9:15 p.m. at the Rollins Theatre at the Long Center.