As a way of celebrating this year’s nominees for the Spirit Awards in the weeks leading up to the ceremony, we reached out to as many as we could in an effort to better understand what went into their films, what they’ve gotten out of the experience, and where they’ve found their inspiration, both in regards to their work and other works of art that might’ve inspired them from the past year. Their answers will be published on a daily basis throughout February.
Being a director can be a lonely profession, which is why Bradley Rust Gray is clearly onto something. A year after his wife So Yong Kim was nominated for the John Cassavetes Award at the Spirit Awards for the drama “Treeless Mountain” (on which he was a producer), Gray returns to the same category this year as a director with “The Exploding Girl” (a film that naturally his wife produced). However, the theme of isolation has been very much a theme of the Gray-Kim household, whether it’s in a foreign country (like Kim’s “In Between Days”) or abandonment (“Treeless Mountain”) and so it continues with “The Exploding Girl,” a beautifully wrought character study of a young woman (Zoe Kazan) afraid to reveal her true emotions at the risk of triggering her epilepsy during a summer in the city.
Gray’s nomination for the John Cassavetes Award is an allusion to the film’s sparse budget, necessitating stolen shots on the subway and a primary cast of just two. But in that famous New Yorker’s spirit, it could just as easily be a reference to how the director presents the metropolis, not necessarily in the gritty style of Cassavetes, but nonetheless a side that isn’t often seen on film. Yes, the commotion of the sirens and the constant construction can be overwhelming to a fragile soul like Kazan’s Ivy, who also finds herself at the mercy of that staple of urban panic, the cell phone, awaiting the call of a boyfriend who seems to be drifting away. Yet in Gray’s Manhattan, she can take shelter in the darkness of a dimly lit street where the plastic sheets covering a corner bodega float in the night or sit atop a rooftop with her friend (Mark Rendall) and bask in the wonder of flight of the birds overhead. In “The Exploding Girl,” the experience of growing up needn’t be an ugly one, and Gray summons the full power of cinema to demonstrate why.
Why did you want to make this film?
I was at the end of my rope.
What was the best piece of advice you received that applied to the making of this film?
“Dude, just make it.” from my wife.
What was the toughest thing to overcome, whether it applies to a particular scene or the film as a whole?
The schedule was a bit tight in that we had a 17-day shoot and our actor, Mark Rendall, was unexpectedly available for the first seven days. But everyone made this work to our advantage. The main actress, Zoe Kazan, and I got to really spend time with her character and the crew fell into a good rhythm. It was a pleasure to shoot the film, despite the obstacles. For example, it took two hours to mount the camera on the hood of a car for the opening shot, and just when we finished, the battery died. So we had to spend another two hours re-doing it. In turn, [we] had to cut two scenes out of the film in order to shoot the opening and closing scenes that day. But I haven’t missed those lost scenes since. And I’m happy with the beginning and end of the film. We also lost all of the financing about four weeks before starting and had to make the film on a fifth of the original budget. But I feel this helped focus our intentions, not that I’d like to repeat that approach.
What’s been the most memorable moment while you’ve traveled with the film, either at a festival or otherwise?
We showed the film in Ljubljana exactly when the Slovenian national team was playing their qualifying match for the World Cup. The game ended about ten minutes before the film did and I found out that a small cheer spread through the film audience over Slovenian’s victory. (I was watching the game during the screening.) I’m not sure how they liked the film, but it was the most excited I’ve ever seen an crowd after a viewing.
What’s your favorite thing about your film that’s been largely uncommented upon?
There’s a scene in the film where the main character, Ivy, finds her friend’s tape recorder in a suitcase he’s left at her mother’s apartment. When we shot the scene, I asked Zoe to just pick up the recorder and press play. I had no idea what was on the tape. I figured I’d just record something with Mark later on that would fit the scene. Unbeknownst to all of us, however, he had recorded a song that was cued up. It was a wonderful found moment for all of us on the crew and for Zoe. But no one ever really comments on it, because it’s unlikely anyone would think it was a surprise.
What’s been the most gratifying thing to come out of this film for you personally?
I’m very happy that the actors were well-received.
What’s been your favorite film, book or album from the past year?
We just saw a rough cut of a new film by Romanian filmmaker Adrian Sitaru called “Best Intentions” and it’s incredible. The film has locked itself in my head. The acting is mindblowingly naturalistic, he’s doing something I’ve never seen before with the camera (unique and simple, but extremely well executed), and the film has a very honest heart. It focuses on a family relationship on the level of Ozu. I’m a big fan.
This is going to sound biased, but I’m also very excited about my wife’s new film, “For Ellen.” We’ve been editing together for the last two months, so I’ve probably seen the film over thirty times recently, and I still fall into it. I’m very inspired by her work.