Slow Machine is at once elliptical and allusive. It opens up worlds of poetry, downtown theatre and music, yet holds within it a satisfyingly solid narrative. To a point. At a time when contemporary independent cinema is polarised between worthy content-driven, social issue films with seemingly little regard for form, and nebulous, moody dramas churned out to tick boxes for national funding bodies, co-directors Paul Felten and Joe DeNardo fortuitously achieve a seductive balance of a mystery thriller (or is it a hellbound rock’n’roll romance?) and 16mm experimentation in one of the best films of 2020.
Out of nowhere, Stephanie (Stephanie Hayes) turns up at the idyllic upstate-New York home of musician Eleanor (Eleanor Friedberger) and her band as they record an album. Little by little, Stephanie opens up about her story, as the household members variously regard her with curiosity, wariness and desire. Back in the city, she finds herself in the environs of a cop-hating but downtown-theatre-loving counter-terrorist specialist (Scott Shepherd), igniting a somewhat mutually-intriguing interconnection between the two that chips away some more at what (we think) we see in this mysterious creature. Before a surprising and tender coda, the film fills in some blanks about who Stephanie is – wait, she’s close friends with Chloë Sevigny?! – and, more importantly, offers some commanding dialogue-driven scenes, showcasing the immense talent of lead Hayes, who co-devised the script with Felten, and like Shepherd (also impressive), is a firm presence in New York City’s downtown theatre scene.
Woven amidst the film is an atmosphere of fear and paranoia, a uniquely urban sense of explicit dread and distrust, of people and institutions that are “out there”. It is an atmosphere that feels even more alien in this post-COVID world as many of us turn down the dial and make earnest attempts at self-reckoning. Yet this undercurrent, charged as it is with conspiracy theories, supplies the film with a gauzy humanist and romantic aura. Moreover, the full-blown allusions to artistic expression, whether it’s Stephanie reading from a well-thumbed Philip Larkin poetry book or indulging us in an impassioned monologue from her acting audition, or the near complete recording of Friedberger’s song, lend the film a warmth and openness, an invitation to consider what it means to be an artist today. Perhaps this openness in approach comes from the fact that this is the first feature by the two directors, who have backgrounds in writing and music videos, respectively.
This conversation took place over video shortly after its world premiere at this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam.1 It recently screened at New York Film Festival, and rolls out to other international festivals including the Viennale in the coming months.
You have complementary backgrounds – Paul, yours in writing, and Joe, in cinematography and music video. How did you first meet, and how did you decide to make a film together?
JDN: We met as undergrads 20 years ago or so, at Evergreen State College, in Olympia, WA. So we’ve been friends a long time and through our own interest in film and seeing so many movies together we had over time talked about making something together. The first iteration of that was the short film, She’s A Mirror .
PF: We also knew that we would each bring things to a collaboration that the other person wasn’t as strong in. I knew that Joe was making movies on 16mm just by himself with very small crews for a while and I wanted to write something that would be shot that way. And I come from more of a writing background, and I think we knew there would be something complementary about the collaboration, and that we would give each other the kind of space, and the people we were working with the kind of space, in order for the thing to function.
Did you direct the actors together in Slow Machine, or divide up the filmmaking roles?
JDN: I was definitely more behind the camera and Paul was more working with the actors, although there was some overlap. We all did a lot of stuff, as there was basically a three-person crew. It was an interesting process because it was low-budget and a lot of the film was unprocessed for a year.
PF: And one of the other things we wanted to do was to make sure the actors felt attended to. They were real collaborators with us because it was such a small space. I mean physically, we were usually working in very small spaces. So one of the things we did was make a plan for each day with the caveat that they would be able to rehearse and block their own bodies. And we would then amend our plan based on what we saw them do. And really wouldn’t shoot until we had that rehearsal time. So that was built into the day and they got to help us build the scene once they got there.
Also as your two leads, Stephanie Hayes and Scott Shepherd, come from experimental theatre (and also have done film). They could bring so many interesting ideas to their performances, they are not just some blank vessel for the directors to fill.
PF: They talked about it being more of a correlative to the theatre work they had done than it was to the film work they had done, because of the way that we had had time to rehearse, and that way we got to use their suggestions. And because we did long takes. It was insurance too because we’d never done this before, so it was great to have these people who were much more experienced, and who had a lot of confidence in what they could do, working with us.
Stephanie Hayes, the main actress, is so central to Slow Machine. It concerns an actress called Stephanie, who lives in Brooklyn and is some sort of foreigner. Can you talk about how you encountered her and how she inspired your film?
PF: This was written with her in mind. It began with conversations with her, about this story I was interested in, and it went from there. I had seen her in a Richard Foreman play (Old Fashioned Prostitutes, staged at the Public Theater) and we became friends from there. We started talking about doing something small. She didn’t conceive of the story with me but I wrote it in a way that incorporates aspects of her personality that are very strong and that make her a really interesting person to watch and spend time with.
There are some very strongly expressed ideas and explorations in the film. I’m thinking urban paranoia and anxiety, what drives an artist and performance. Were there any particular ideas that influenced the script?
PF: The biggest influence was my own anxiety (laughs), around trying to live in the city and make things and what that seemed like it was starting to mean. I didn’t want to have to start to think of myself as a “creative”, or as my own brand, or other things people were starting to talk about, an artist as just another cog in the gig economy. I was also interested in the soft power of an American surveillance state and how that might manifest itself if it was personified and had to talk. It was written from a very anxious place.
Was the script written in a chronological way? The chronology of the story is not certain, as you watch the film, which adds to the mystery and intrigue.
PF: The sequence as it was written was no sequence at all. I sat down and wrote a scene that I was interested in seeing and finished it when I felt it was intuitively done. And then I wrote another scene the next day without worrying about cause and effect, but knowing they would be part of the same thing.
JDN: Structurally and narrative-wise it was an interesting process because while the screenplay was written to be non-chronological and puzzle-piece we did have to take it all apart and assemble it in many different ways before we came to the sequence that the film is, as it is now.
We wanted the time-space to feel pretty cut up and more akin to the way that you remember your own past. It’s not always linear and sorted out, it takes these weird shapes and sometimes there is some inventiveness involved so you don’t always know what’s the real story.
The two scenes of that song being played are really striking. How did musician Eleanor Friedberger come to be involved in the film?
PF: We had talked to her about having her involved in something like this. So when we actually did go and do it, she became a real fulcrum for getting things started. Everybody stayed at her house in the scenes in upstate New York. It was the perfect space to film in and for people to sprawl out in because we knew we wanted something that approximated whatever the living situation was that’s depicted in the film, while we were actually filming.
Her presence in the film is really purposeful, it doesn’t feel tokenistic at all, as sometimes musician “cameos” can feel.
PF: I had no idea how good her timing was until we got the footage back. She’s a really strong presence on screen. And her lack of affect is in such contrast to the energies around her that she ends up being this weird grounding force, for the scenes that she is in with Stephanie.
Similarly, Chloë Sevigny’s presence in the film is so crucial to the story, even though it is just one scene. Stephanie, “she’s a mirror” to Chloë in that scene, with the way she is dressed, her nice blond hair with the middle-part, her minimalist make up. But that scene is so “edge of your seat”. I wanted so badly to know how Chloë’s story was going to end.
PF: I think there is a lot of frustration built in, intentional and otherwise, to the ways in which stories never get finished in the usual satisfied ways in this movie. People get interrupted. As much as people talk, there is always something that is not quite graspable about the story being told or what people are saying. I realised as I was writing that that was part of a pattern that I was going to continue to use.
Was there much improvisation with the actors? Two scenes stand out with Stephanie, one at the AA meeting, and the other when, during a drinking game with Eleanor Friedberger’s musicians, she suddenly breaks out into song (in Swedish!). Did Stephanie bring any additional elements to the performance that was not in the script?
PF: She brought a lot of experience with text to the set, so she came and always knew her lines when she arrived and performed those for the most part the way they were written, although there was always a caveat that if she wanted to she could use whatever words were more comfortable, she didn’t have to use the words exactly as they were written.
And that she did except this scene with the song that you mention. That was totally Joe’s idea. It really happened while we were shooting, it wasn’t planned into the day. Joe was looking at the script and said he thought there might be a beat missing, where her mask comes off in this context. We talked with Stephanie about this and she came up with this song, which is about an impotent rooster, a folk song. It’s kind of smutty but kids sing it in Sweden. She was really game for that and I think it’s a really important scene in the movie.
JDN: I don’t think we even told everyone in the room what she was going to do. There was a fair amount of shooting the room and everyone was playing this drinking game. I remember being so excited by the process at that point. Being up there in that house, with a bar and a barn. It seemed so idyllic to be shooting up there and so I wanted us to keep shooting and getting more material.
There are a number of inserts throughout the film, shots of different characters’ faces, that only through repeated viewings does it become evident are from later parts of the film. It made me think of a film like Out 1, which also has these random shots that only after viewing the whole thing you realise are extracted from a totally different section of the film.
PF: Rivette is really important to both of us. We would always go see his films together in New York in the time before we made this film. He’s someone who was an aesthetic godfather for us. He also had this weird intersection of shadowy power figures and people who worked in the theatre.
True! When he died I was so sad because I didn’t know who was going to make these sorts of films anymore. Which is why it has been so exciting to encounter your film. I feel, in it, his spirit lives on.
Another Rivettian theme is that of chance. Stephanie’s life in the diegetic world of the film seems to be guided by chance. As well as chance, I feel like “danger” in the broad sense (risk, precariousness) is also hovering around these characters. It seems (for the majority of the film at least) Stephanie is interested in some sort of idea of danger and drama that fuels her artistic expression. But she is also trying to move past that need for constant drama. It’s a tension.
PF: I don’t want to sound like someone who has the luxury of saying that people should subject themselves to danger, because there are a lot of people who are in danger who shouldn’t be. That said, I think that there are ways in which people who make things have internalised the standards of power and commerce in ways that create a lot of mediocre work. And I’m not interested in that work. Or making it. This didn’t feel dangerous to make, it felt unpredictable because we didn’t know if we would finish it and it felt like a genuine experiment because we didn’t totally know what we were doing. But I’m not interested in work that starts with too much insurance in the bank.
Indeed. Maybe “danger” is too pointed a word but I saw something in Stephanie that expressed some sort of relationship to this feeling of impulsiveness or peering over the edge that can drive artists.
PF: One of the things I like about that character is that everybody makes her curious and suggests a different kind of life. And she is at a time in her life where she can pursue those types of interactions, to the point of maybe even being in danger. And that is part of what I wanted this movie to be able to convey, this particular time in somebody’s life that is productively reckless.
JDN: And Chloë’s character is someone who is attracted to the danger of that situation and who relates to her friend that this was the best audition of her entire life. All the rules were gone, she didn’t know what was going to happen and she was in this crazy place. Maybe that is some reflection on what we were looking for, hoping for, trying to get to, but maybe also a little afraid of.
Gerard (played by Scott Shepherd), the NYPD counter-terrorist specialist, brings in a sort of neo-noir element. He’s the “straight” counterpoint to the bohemian, unhinged life Stephanie lives; both seem intrigued by the other’s life. Have you yourselves had any encounters with people working in the counter-terrorist field?
PF: I don’t know anyone personally who works in this field. Unless we know people who are undercover and haven’t told us. But I don’t know that I know anybody that works in intelligence. But I love the idea of a sort of avatar of American geopolitical power and mischief, as someone who is also an avid downtown theatre fan and fancied himself as something of an artist. That was part of what drew me to this character. Because I was writing it for Scott, I knew he would do that so well, because he has that sort of unhinged energy. He’s the straight guy but there’s a lot boiling underneath that, he seems pretty dangerous to me. I think a lot of people think of artists as “speaking truth to power” or being in some sort of consistently oppositional relationship to it. But I am also interested in ways that artists have proximity to power. And I like the idea of them meeting in this place where they seem to understand each other. There was something quite creepy about it that seemed vaguely sexual, but never really detonates that way. It was something to explore.
Can you talk about the use of 16mm, which I think Joe you have always worked in?
JDN: I was a touring musician for a long time and when that band stopped touring I had a lot of time on my hands and I always wanted to turn my infatuation with film into something, at some point shoot on motion picture film. So that was when I started getting into 16mm as a medium and some friends lent me cameras. I didn’t have any intention of making films on video formats. But [16mm] is the way we wanted the film to look and why use some other medium when you know exactly how this one’s going to function for your story and what you want to make.
It does obviously put a set of limitations on the project. But I think knowing that ahead of time we did a good job to plan ahead and it works in our favour, I think.
PF: And the actors also felt like the stakes were higher because we were shooting on film and we weren’t shooting a bunch of coverage and shooting unlimitedly. They remarked “we can hear the camera, we really have to bring everything to this.” And they were all great at it.
JDN: It’s more interesting. It’s more adventurous, it’s more mysterious. “What did we get? I hope we got it…” It feels magical. The film is moving very fast through the camera, you think, “you’re catching all that light? That’s pretty insane.” Even though you may have done it a bunch of times, it still feels like that. So it’s more fun in that way too.
I think we shot about 8 or 9 hours and the ratio was 7:1, so it was a very low ratio of footage to final product. I don’t know what I would do if I had 100 hours of footage to edit down, that seems to me like a heart attack in waiting.
The Kickstarter funds got us enough to buy the stock and to process about an hour’s worth of footage and we made a selection of scenes that the producers could watch, but that left many, many rolls of film that were sitting in my fridge for a year before we got the rest of the funding to process and scan it all. Film is resilient.
- I disclose here that I work for the IFFR, though only since June 2020, so had no involvement in the film’s selection at this year’s edition. ↩