A screenwriter, journalist and filmmaker, Julie Talen has written for such publications as the Village Voice, American Film and the Los Angeles Weekly, and was a contributing editor to Channels Magazine. She assistant-edited an award-winning Merchant/Ivory documentary and worked as a researcher and assistant producer on the original reality series, Unsolved Mysteries. Her studio screenwriting assignments began in 1991, on the strength of a spec script – A Simple Wedding – which was eventually sold to Douglas Wick at Columbia Pictures and was selected by the LA Reader as one of the ten best unproduced scripts of 1992. She has since written adaptations and original screenplays and worked with such directors as Gillian Armstrong, Paul Verhoeven and Robert Altman. She shared credit on the 1996 Paramount film Harriet the Spy, starring Rosie O’Donnell and directed by fellow New Yorker Bronwyn Hughes. For Altman she is currently writing Mata Hari, starring Cate Blanchett and produced by Donna Gigliotti (Shakespeare in Love [John Madden, 1998]).
Talen’s directorial debut, the digital feature Pretend (2003), premiered last July at the Lincoln Centre’s New York Video Festival and was instantly the topic of discussion for those who managed to see it. The story is about what happens when an imaginative young girl, Sophie, stages a kidnapping of her little sister in an attempt to keep her parents from splitting up. But what sets Pretend apart from almost all other narrative films is that from the first frame to the last the story is told through a symphony of constantly shifting pictures and borders. At any one time on the screen there can be anywhere from two to 48 different moving images.
On a recent Saturday night I trudged my way through this year’s first snowstorm to meet up with Talen at her Broome St loft, with the intention of asking her about the making of Pretend. What I discovered was that her passion for “the multichannel” could fill – no, already has filled – hundreds of pages.
Cara O’Connor: Before making Pretend you were a journalist and a screenwriter and still are, you did a story adaptation of Harriet the Spy, you did spec scripts for Hollywood studios, you did all this stuff…what happened that made you want to make Pretend?
Julie Talen: I always wanted to have the financial freedom to make a multichannel film. I loved movies so I started writing screenplays; I always had it in mind that I wanted to write about multichannel cinema, or make the work myself. But I had the wrong “if-then” in my head, I thought, “When someone green-lights one of my studio pictures then I will be a produced screenwriter, then I will make multichannel narrative. So for almost ten years I walked around with this idea. Every time I sold a script I thought, OK, this is going to be the one, then I’m going to make Pretend, and it kept not happening and not happening and I finally realised that this was the wrong equation – I was never going to make my multichannel work this way – but that I had achieved the thing that was my original goal which was I was making enough money as a screenwriter to have the budget to make an experimental film and it was up to me to just pull the plug on Hollywood and go off and make it.
CO: And was Pretend the particular story you had earmarked for that project?
JT: I had several stories and many ideas for multichannel narrative; it was a whole realm that I wanted to be making films in. Pretend was actually just a story that I thought of that was originally just a kids’ story – the pitch, the slug line of it is really simple, “a few kids do this thing and scare their parents into staying together”. I had the story idea and I had a number of things that I wanted to try as multichannel projects. There were three things that happened. One was that I, out of sheer frustration, started to work every day on something multichannel. I started to consolidate all of my ideas into one document – there are now seven of these notebooks down there [on the shelf].
CO: This was when?
JT: This was when I was at the height of my screenwriting. The mid ’90s. This was while I was still thinking one of these things is going to click and it’s gonna get green-lit and then I’m gonna be ready.
CO: So you couldn’t devote all of your time to multichannel projects.
JT: First thing in the morning, last thing at night every day I’d write something, I’d try to go to see something. It’s just like having a day-gig. When I was first becoming a screenwriter I was a journalist and I wrote my screenplays at night and on weekends. Having already done it once I was doing it again, kind of piggybacking. And when I was in Hollywood I could talk to people, I met the director of Boston Strangler (Richard Fleischer, 1968) and interviewed him at length, and I talked to John Frankenheimer about Grand Prix (1966) before he died, I rented the Warner Brothers projection room and saw Wicked, Wicked (Richard L. Bare, 1973) which has never been put on video and…
CO: Wait a second, when you say you know more about multichannel then most people…
JT: I’m not kidding. I know all about it, and that’s just the studio part. I also know the history of it from silent films; I also know the history of it from the projections. The reason I’m learning French is because the only scholarly work I’ve found [on multiple screen projections] is in French. I have been researching this, and as I have said [making fun of herself] the reason I’m so self-taught is that there was no one to teach me.
CO: Your fascination with the form took off in 1981 after you saw a Juan Downey piece – I don’t know which one it was…
JT: Yanomami Healing (1977). He didn’t make it in ’81, I saw it in ’81 – I saw it on three monitors at Brown University.
CO: And that was 22 years ago, and you were like, this is an amazing way to work.
JT: “This is the future of story-telling”, is the exact phrase that came into my head. I started to get ideas in that form, but you know I felt like I was an insane person, a little bit.
CO: And then the next thing you asked yourself was, “what kind of stuff is out there like this?”
JT: I’d somehow read the phrase multichannel narrative, which is a very clunky phrase…
CO: Yeah, we don’t really have really good terminology for this…multichannel implies more than one TV monitor, and then there’s multi-frame, split screen…
JT: Multi-frame gets very confusing because framing is not just a shape, it’s a unit of measurement in all filmmaking, you know, “the frame”. I don’t like “split-screen” because it seems to imply only two.
CO: At least “multichannel” works, it has some flexibility.
JT: Yeah, what I find is that I think it’s a bad word and then I find people using it …because they’ve been around me! But we were talking about the chronology: I had been doing practice shoots from ’96 on, and so I committed to Pretend being my first multichannel project because it was simple, because it was clear, because it was parents and kids. I had also become this erstwhile historian to satisfy my own frustration at not making anything in this form. I went to the Venice Biennale in ’99 simply because I had read about Dieter Roth’s hundred-screen piece and I just knew that I had to see it. I saw the Juan Downey retrospective in Spain. I can get on a plane, fly overnight, stay for three days and fly back; I call it the five-hour subway in the sky – it’s just like going over to Chelsea. I needed to see this stuff, I was in a very big learning situation. I discovered those split-screen movies from the late ’60s, by talking about this obsession with everyone I could. That’s how I found out about things – that’s how I found out about Boston Strangler, that Richard Fleischer was just down the street, north of sunset, lives in O.J. Simpson’s neighbourhood. One of the people I was trying to do a project with knew Frankenheimer and sent me over to him. I realised that my need to explore in this realm was so overwhelming and I was in such pain not being able to do it that even if I was the only person ever again in the history of the world to make a movie like this and nobody saw it I had to do it. By ’99 I had walked away from all of my Hollywood stuff, and ironically that fall, Mike Figgis’ movie came out – Timecode. He was shooting Timecode the very same week that I was shooting my first serious multichannel scene with real actors and professional camera people, in a kitchen in Brooklyn.
CO: One of the things about your movie is that the characters’ memories, fantasies, and realities are layered in a way that’s never synthesised completely – and that is what excites me about what you’re doing and also what seems new to me.
JT: I did always feel that it was going to become a new form, but you feel a little silly saying that when you’re doing your 10th rewrite of Harriet the Spy. So, when Figgis and a handful of other people like Soderbergh [started working with the form] these things all sort of coalesced; my frustration with nothing getting made, the golden handcuffs sort of thing, and finally getting fed up.
CO: It’s true that what you are looking at and discovering is a kind of a genre and there’s definitely something important in that connection, but in my research – which has nothing on you! – what I found was that there was some reason that Pretend felt unique to me. I’ve articulated why that is to myself, but I don’t know if I’m alone in my thinking. For example, to me, a movie like Timecode, except for the fact of splitting the screen, is diametrically opposed to Pretend. I’d like to know what you think about how your use of multiple frames may be different from that of Figgis or others.
JT: If I was ever to sit down and write the proper essay, this is one of the things I would talk about. What you have when you cut up the frame, the simplest level, the most obvious, is that you’re seeing more than one thing at a time. So the big switch there is that the illusion that film is your eyes – the illusion of single-channel filmmaking – is broken. That in itself is a rare enough event that I put everybody who does that into the category of multichannel and you can still count them on two hands basically: De Palma, Figgis, Peter Greenaway, the big studio guys who did one, you know Frankenheimer did one, Fleischer did one and Norman Jewison did one, Godard, but then he’s kind of shading over into experimental, but in terms of my pantheon, I also include the multiple projector people, so I go right into Andy Warhol and less well known people where I think there are still narrative elements to their multiple projector work. Jud Yalkut did an amazing piece, and this is where I have my 800 pages of notes because you know there are so many different little examples of it all over the place. So you have your big tent.
That’s the big tent, but it’s still such a little tent – “Here, come on in!” I’m completely not exclusive about this form, and that is something that’s been clear to me from the beginning because I felt so isolated thinking about [the form] and wanting to know about it that I’ve been delighted whenever I’ve stumbled on whoever it is. You know, Pages of Madness (Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1926), Abel Gance, Lois Weber in 1913 putting divisions of triangles into the first phone [call] – I could do a whole history of just phone calls and split screen starting in 1913 with Lois Weber and ending with Stephen Hopkins who did the pilot for 24 and made that design.
CO: All movies with designs that break up the screen.
JT: Yes. So that’s just all a big category. Now by far the majority of these things if they are in scripted, narrative films are…I don’t want to use the word “linear”, I just realised today we need a different word…are united in terms of time; they are simultaneous. Simultaneity connects however many frames you are looking at. Because the truth is when you cut up the frame you run the risk of cutting up time. Most of the people who’ve worked in this form instantly squash that by saying “It’s Now on every screen, Now has not been cut, Now is one; Where is many, but Now is one.” So, when you start cutting up “Now”, that’s when the fun begins. I didn’t even do that much of it in Pretend; I think there’s much more that you can do. It’s what I call the breakdown of “Now”. And also…and this is a more subtle concept…What. The “What” of our filmed reality. [In movies] there are usually very clear rules about where you are in reality. What I discovered – and this is the one thing I didn’t know in advance, didn’t know how much of it I would be able to use – was that the “what ifs” and the “if onlys” and the feelings, all of that is what I explore in Pretend and I actually myself didn’t realise what a palette that was going to be until I had it in front of me. Even though I shot for it.
CO: When you say you shot for it, what do you mean?
JT: Well I mean, you have to plan these shoots. I knew for example that I wanted the little girl playing with her dolls and of course what she’s seeing is her family, and those [scenes] were shot on two different days.
CO: So you didn’t completely know how much freedom you’d have to play with the What If, the If Only?
JT: The If Onlys, the Regrets – of course I had to shoot for [them] – Like what we called “young love” where dad is in the bedroom with mom pushing him away, and with his fantasy that mom won’t push him away. That’s what I call a breakdown of What – for example, Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyalaman, 1999) is a “breakdown of What” movie, Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998) “breakdown of What”, Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarentino, 1994) “breakdown of Now”, The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, 1956) “breakdown of Now”, Elephant (Gus van Sant, 2003) “breakdown of Now”. This is an even bigger tent that we’re in right now: straightforward narrative has become so predictable, the warrior structure has become so uninteresting, that this is what people are looking at, this is what’s interesting; being in the world of a movie, and playing in that world. At the end [of Pretend] is that an obsessional fantasy? Is it [Sophie’s] version of a story that she’s telling? What are we looking at? We’re looking at what might have happened, what she wanted to have happened, and we can see both. Pretend is allied to the “breakdown of Now” movies, and in a much less obvious way, to the “breakdown of What”.
CO: What’s interesting is that the “breakdown of What” becomes one of the things Pretend is about, it’s not just a device used to further the story.
JT: That’s right; I guess that’s what I’m saying: I didn’t expect it to become so thematically important. I thought people were going to say “Oh my goodness, there’s the nine-part fugue!” you know, but nobody says that when they watch the film; they go, “What happened to Ellie?!”
CO: And it’s called Pretend.
JT: Yes of course. It’s about the power of imagination, and also your imagination tricking you. The imagination is neither the enemy nor the friend; it is the thing you can’t get away from. And obsession keeps the wound alive, keeps it from healing, keeps trying to fix the wound, is often what happens. Imagination keeps going back into this empty place.
CO: But how do you write a script like this for a multichannel movie?
JT: I’m actually only now addressing that problem for my next film. Because for this film, I just wrote a straightforward screenplay because I didn’t have to use the script as a selling tool – I just needed it so my camera people knew what to shoot and my actors knew what to say and we had a film. I didn’t have to make an act of translation. The challenge for my next project is I have to figure out a script that will incorporate storyboards, and then I have to break down the shooting script. What I learned with the Pretend shooting script was I had done a kind of edit in my brain, intercutting things. Scenes that were marked as five scenes were actually one long scene. So I will have to do two scripts: a planning, selling tool script and I will have to translate that into a shooting script – the one minute a page kind of deal. Because you are still just shooting scene by scene, it doesn’t matter if you have five cameras going. But what I don’t know is how to make this act of translation work without actually just shooting the film, which is why I wanted to be able to finance Pretend myself, because I knew I would never be able to explain [it] anybody, let alone get them to fork over the money for it.
CO: I remember you said you had 77 hours of tape, and it was an 80-minute movie in the end…
JT: 72 minutes plus three minutes of credits. You do have to shoot more for multichannel, obviously…
CO: So there you are, you’ve shot the whole thing, 77 hours of tape, and you’re planning these scenes where there could be two or forty-two things going on at once, and it’s in a narrative. Obviously this requires a different approach to editing. You’re sitting at the computer…then what?
JT: I had many scenes that I knew how to put together; dinner with the lazy-Susan – [two cameras on a lazy-susan recorded two rotating points of view of the family at dinner]; Dad’s poetry section, very elusive, one of the last things I solved; the section of the parents fight, [made up of] 14 takes, a series of technical experiments…As my friend Carol [Dysinger] used to say, [the difference between] watching a movie and making one is the difference between wearing a sweater and knitting one. Actually that’s not enough of a gap. So I had all these plans, and where I had a plan, that was the stuff I cut together most quickly. I just cut it together right away. I wanted to see if it worked, and I was so happy to see it worked. Two girls in their bedroom talking over their parents outside: I’d known that was a central image for me, that was one of the images that made me want to make Pretend multichannel.
CO: So you’d had very specific ideas for how scenes could interact when they were shown on the screen at the same time.
JT: Oh! The Story Grid – this is so funny to me…
[Talen gets up and returns with a collection of drawings made with sharpie on slightly damaged 18 x 24 paper. She laughs somewhat devilishly in the process.]
I came up with the phrase “story-grid”, when I realised that I could have a grid… let’s see here, these were stuck in the rain at the shoot…
[Unlike a regular storyboard, in these drawings each frame is gridded, showing the different scenes that are going to be combined together. It’s not a literal facsimile of what I saw on the screen – the frames within the grid all carry the same weight; there’s no indication of difference in visual texture or color or variations in scale – but I am surprised to recognise on some of these pages the precise combination of scenes just as they were in the movie. And I also notice several combinations that must not have made the cut.]
It’s really not different in principle from shooting any film, it’s the same kind of planning, it’s just instead of planning for cutting sequentially within a scene, and it’s planning for what you’re going to see at the same time. [Pointing to a drawing] There’s Ellie and also The Unknowns, which we had to plan. For example, we had to plan for a bunch of different kidnappers because of the idea that as Sophie elaborates the story what you’re seeing is the onlookers guessing the identity of the kidnapper… [turning to another drawing] Here’s the doll scene, you see, originally I was going to have Ellie playing with her dolls while Sophie tells the story to her mom, but when Sophie told the story to her mom, Joan [Jubett, who plays the mother] gave such an unbelievable performance that I went to single channel. As with any film you put your pieces together, you start to get a sense of the rhythm… [looking at a third drawing] Here is one we ended up using, that’s [Ellie] asleep in the bottom corner and over here [in another section of the frame] her parents are hugging. This drawing was made five years before I ever shot this.
CO: Besides the storyboards, what were some of your other organising principles?
JT: Colour was a big organising principle – Mom’s got her palette, the reds and the oranges, Dad’s got his blues and greens, and Mom’s p.o.v. is one screen size, Dad’s is always wide. Sam [Schutz, the director of photography] and I had been playing with these digital cameras for a long time – to me it’s so much about the technical side and the ability to explore this form.
CO: So it was also a process of discovery, technologically.
JT: The editing process was such a process of discovery – It took two years door-to-door to make [the movie] but the actual cutting was March to March. In terms of editing, where I didn’t have a specific plan it took me a while to discover it. [For] every scene I wanted to have an organising principle and I had to do a lot of cutting stuff and then hating it – cut till two or three in the morning, wake up the next day and hate it. There was usually about three weeks of “cutting and hating” and then something would happen – I would go out and see something, and suddenly it would fall into place – that’s why it’s so important to have your “art days” as Julie Cameron would say; if you’re stuck just go for a walk, go see something. The build-up of the frustration is also a part of the process – this is another reason that people don’t finish their work; they can’t handle the not-knowing-where-you’re-going. So, I would discover a question that I hadn’t really designed…[Like] playing with the moving frame [and] the active border –where something in the story specifically is going on in the border – and that was where I learned to cut with dissolves. Also, some of this was learning to cut with a new kind of realism, where I could carry people through, even the frame was broken up, there are certain things that give people a sense that they are in a reality that they can believe with their own eyes. It has to do with lighting and focus. Our basic rule about the eye-line is fuck the eye-line…but there are certain scenes where we had to flip it because there was a directionality issue – and it was just intuitive – for months it just didn’t work, we couldn’t cut the scene together and then we realised that it had to do with the direction of the looks.
CO: Was it important to you for people watching Pretend to be able to suspend their disbelief in that way?
JT: I wanted them to be in the story, absolutely. I think there’s a very realistic mainstream vocabulary here. Obviously there is, that’s why 24 is using it.
CO: Okay, this is kind of a fun one. If someone were to program a triple feature that included Pretend – what would you like the other two films to be?
JT: In terms of stories about children, I would play it with Whistle Down the Wind (Bryan Forbes, 1961) and The Fallen Idol (Carol Reed, 1949). It’s funny; I could also see it with L’Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960) and Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1977). And in terms of what multichannel movies would I like to put it with? I tell you, I would like it to be Pillow Talk (Michael Gordon, 1959), Pretend, Pillow Book (Peter Greenaway, 1996). From Pillow Talk to Pillow Book.
CO: And finally, your next multichannel project?
JT: It’s about longing, and it will be an exploration of three in different shapes and sizes, I would like to do something that has more of a limit to it. It’s about a triangle – a love triangle, not the shape of a triangle, though maybe I should explore that!
CO: When do you envision it being done?
JT: Well, I would like to shoot it this spring. I have to write it next week.