Her Skin and Her World: an interview with “Gravity” filmmaker Pamela RomanowskyMay 9th, 2012 | Posted by in IndieFlix filmmaker | IndieFlix in the Media | Interview | Movie Reviews | New Releases | Short films
ames Joyce defined epiphanies as “little errors and gestures—mere straws in the wind—by which people betrayed the very things they were most careful to conceal.” I think of an epiphany as that unexpected moment of clarity when things you didn’t even know you were thinking about come together in a whole that’s usually much greater than the sum of its parts.
Pamela Romanowsky’s “Gravity” is a film about an epiphany. Mae and Ed live in a cabin in the woods. We never learn why they have chosen this life, although we suspect that once there was a child in the story. They live a wordless existence. Again, we never learn why; Romanowsky leaves much of the story to unfold in each viewer’s imagination. Their silence might suggest that their lives have become so intertwined that speech is no longer necessary for communication, or it might suggest that they simply have nothing left to say to each other.
Their life is simple, even stark. Mae is the provider. In fact, we first see her silently stalking, and then shooting, a deer. Mae’s silence, and the gestures of ritual with which she harvests the meat and cleans her knife, color the process with a sense of worship rather than violence. The same silence takes on an ominous tension when Mae carries it with her into the kitchen, where Ed carries his own silence like a shield.
Into this life comes a third. Mae’s routine takes a dogleg turn one day when she stops herself in the act of killing a rabbit captured in a trap. The rabbit becomes a pet. At least, it becomes a comfort to Mae, who holds the rabbit to her like a child as she sits in silence.
Mae’s quiet moments of revelation grow, until, in the new light of an early morning, she comes to a new understanding of her life, and herself, and her choices.
My interview with Pamela Romanowsky is below.
Charley Cvercko: Usually I start with the obvious questions, like how did you get into filmmaking. But the question that keeps coming to mind is about the music in your film “Gravity.” How did you choose the music?
Pamela Romanowsky: The music had a lot to do with the development of the script. This character, Mae, had been rolling around in my head, and I knew that I wanted to make a film about/for her. A big part of the early character research was finding her music: I wanted to get into her skin and her world, and listened to a lot of the music that came with her. My grandmother (to whom I owe quite a bit of this character and story) grew up in dustbowl-era Kentucky, and I think my love for old southern traditionals and blues music comes from her. I particularly love “Wayfaring Stranger,”  which kind of became Mae’s theme song. It’s fascinating to me how many times that song has been recorded, across generations and genres.
CC: The question came to mind I think because you’ve mentioned Jim White’s film Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus as well as your working with Barbara Kopple, who won an Oscar for her documentary Harlan County. Music is crucial to both of those films: Hazel Dickens’s songs add a whole layer of meaning and texture to Harlan County, and Wrong-Eyed Jesus could be described as a musical documentary. I get a similar sense from “Gravity.”
PR: Thank you! Those two films inspire me to no end, so it’s an honor to be in their company.
CC: Is music always a part of the process from the beginning? or is “Gravity” unique?
PR: Yes, I definitely like to have music early on.
CC: Was the prominence of the music in “Gravity” a result of the lack of dialogue? Or vice versa? Or not related?
PR: Hmmm. That’s a good question. Having such a solid emotional backbone in the score certainly lent me some confidence to leave that degree of space. The two things, the lack of dialogue and the music, developed together. The first couple of drafts I wrote, I was genuinely surprised to see that I hadn’t written any dialogue. I knew that it was going to be a quiet film, but I didn’t know it was going to be entirely dialogue-less. I had already chosen a playlist of songs to write to, and for each scene, I had the song sketched in. I listened to it every time I worked on the script, so it was very much present during the writing process.
CC: At first the lack of dialogue seems to suggest that the couple is so close they don’t have to speak; but eventually the silence seems to become more of a barrier than a connection.
PR: Yes. It’s funny how the quality of silence can change so drastically like that. It can be incredibly intimate or deeply alienating. The context changes everything.
CC: When he kills the rabbit, the silence is a weapon; an act of aggression; “I did this and I don’t have to explain it.”
CC: When I first watched “Gravity” I interpreted it as feminist. Did you have that in mind?
PR: No, I didn’t intend to make an overtly political film. What I had in mind was this character, Mae. I wanted to see her particular kind of strength and courage on screen. And it’s a quiet, slow-burn kind of strength, so it’s a quality that doesn’t get as much screen time. Although creating complex and subtle female main characters is certainly an agenda of mine as a filmmaker. Male characters, too. I don’t want anybody to get two-dimensionalized.
CC: You make sure to set “Gravity” in the present day. This suggests a backstory to me, that they chose this life together, but she chooses to leave it herself.
PR: Yeah, Chris Morris (the production designer) and I had a lot of fun with that. I wanted to be a bit withholding about exposition. I think part of the experience of watching “Gravity” (or at least what I hope it is) is trying to figure out who these people are, what kind of circumstances they’re in, and how hard it would be change them. The suggestion that their isolation and lifestyle is purposeful is what opens the door a little bit for Mae to choose something else. In the same way that the quality of silence can change so drastically depending on context, I think that isolation can be deeply comforting and intimate or soul-crushingly lonely.
CC: You’ve studied addiction. Is that relevant to “Gravity”? Mae’s life seems to be made up of a series of rituals, and her awakening has its beginning in a detour from habit.
PR: Yes. They’ve worked out a routine. Lots of rituals.
CC: Is that related to your understanding of addiction?
PR: Definitely. The power of habit and ritual is incredibly strong. Sometimes the rituals and habits we set up can be deeply nourishing and beneficial when we form them, and then later, when the context has changed, the same habit can be toxic. An entrapment.
CC: “Gravity” contains a lot of what Japanese filmmaker Yosujiro Ozu referred to as “pillow shots”: quiet moments when the camera turns to a view of the forest or a running stream.  A moment to let the audience imagine Mae’s thoughts.
PR: Yes. I think a little breathing room is important. I think the essential contract of filmmaking, that you’re asking the viewer to be led through an experience by proxy, is a whole lot more to ask of someone than we usually consider. There’s some necessary digestion time that I think is important to respect the intensity of that experience, inhabiting another person.
CC: You’ve spent time as a vegetarian. Was that important in choosing the killing of an animal for food as Mae’s moment of epiphany?
PR: I suspect that the hunting affected me quite a bit more than it would affect Mae.
CC: Does your vegetarian history give the practice of hunting for food more emotional power?
PR: Yes. Definitely. There’s also this kind of subtle suggestion that Ed (the husband) can’t do the hunting. I didn’t give much exposition, but hopefully there’s a hint that he is reliant on Mae in this very primal, essential way: providing food.
CC: That adds to his final act a certain passive aggressiveness; that he feels a little bit humiliated, or at least defensive.
PR: Yeah, I think the feeling of impotence is a pretty strong motivator. I know it’s one of my top five least favorite emotions.
CC: Does that make gender, or at least assumptions about gender, an important part of the story? Or would the feelings be similar if the roles had been reversed?
PR: Hm. That’s a good question. I wasn’t thinking consciously about gender there, but I would agree that gender assumptions are on my mind quite a bit.
PR: I think they both are suffering over role adjustment. Neither is comfortable being a full-time nurturer or a full-time hunter
CC: The films you’ve mentioned are documentaries. Are there more documentaries on your list of influences than narrative films?
PR: There are usually some of both. I think that because my introduction to documentary filmmaking came before my intro to narrative filmmaking, I will always be looking for documentary influences. But like most of us I’m exposed to a whole lot more narrative film than doc. I really love being able to see real people reacting to their worlds. One of the best (and most entertainment-ruining) pieces of directing advice I’ve gotten was a simple observation about how people cry. My directing teacher showed us a documentary and he kind of off-handedly said, “See, that’s how people actually cry. Despite your best efforts not to. When I see crying in narrative film, I almost always see an actor trying to cry.” I was thunderstuck. It seems like so much of real behavior happens in spite of real effort to do the opposite
CC: Yes. So many cinema clichés have become so ingrained that audiences expect them; the cliché seems more “real” in that context than reality does.
PR: Yeah, I think the appeal of docs is the verisimilitude.
CC: I spoke to another filmmaker about the difference between character docs, portraits of interesting people, and “this is how things work” documentaries. I tend to gravitate toward the character studies.
PR: And I don’t think the majority of us know how anything works with that kind of certainty. Total confidence in just what the hell is going on here seems pretty artificial.
CC: Maybe that’s why those turn me off; a sense of dishonesty, or at least arrogance.
PR: Yeah, I agree. There’s nothing that makes me like someone more than their admission that (like me), they have so many more questions than answers. I like to have company in my state of earnest confusion and curiosity about life.
CC: Yes, I’ve always said that films that leave you with a question are far more interesting than films that try to give you answers.
CC: You mentioned a directing teacher. Can you talk a little about why you chose film as the medium that best expressed the stories you wanted to tell?
PR: I was not one of those child genius types who had a video camera and made films from an impressively early age. My first film class was through the psychology department: a Lacan-based analysis of Hitchcock films. I read Laura Mulvey’s essay  on scopophilia in Rear Window and was blown away.
CC: Wow, I thought I read too much into films.
PR: Ha. No one reads more into films than the Lacan-based analyzers. What really blew my mind was the suggestion that Rear Window knew that it was a film; as in, the film itself is the author. And it knows that it exists.
CC: My favorite Hitchcock is The Birds because it’s his most emotionally unhinged. All his other films are so cold and controlled, but The Birds is a screech of sexual hysteria.
PR: Yeah, I agree that the degree of control is a lot to handle. Especially for those of us who grew up with cameras light enough to be handheld all the time. But the flip side of that control is precision, and that is something I really admire. The Birds is amazing. Agree.
CC: Do you think that origin, that exegesis of Rear Window, is still an influence? Does it make you more aware of the subtext of your projects?
PR: Definitely. What made me really fall in love with Hitchcock was the breadth of his knowledge and expertise. There is so much information in that film, in an incredible range from overt to extremely sub-conscious. And tiny manipulations to each of those layers has an emotional effect. I’ve always been a dabbler, so I feel like I have little bits of experience in all kinds of distant places. I love directing because it really requires and rewards that kind of dabbling nature
CC: What do you mean? that you have to “wear a lot of hats”? or that you draw from many sources?
PR: Both. I like stretching myself, and I’m always curious. Filmmaking allows, and requires, a lot of stretching, I think. And a lot of empathy for how each hat feels.
CC: So presumably you have a lot of ideas simmering.
CC: Any you can share? any dream projects, ideas you’d like to bring to fruition some day?
PR: Sure. I’m finishing up cool project right now. That really foregrounds the collaborative nature of filmmaking. My friend James Franco taught a course this fall at NYU about directing adaptations of poetry. And because he’s a generous and ambitious guy, he decided to make the product of that class a single feature directed by ten people. I moonlighted so I could do one of the shorts, and it was a wonderful experience. The film is called Tar, and is based on a poetry collection by the same name by C.K. Williams. Each director adapted one of the poems therein, and we worked together to make the pieces work together as a whole.
CC: I don’t think I know C.K. Williams.
PR: I hadn’t heard of him before the project. James studies poetry quite seriously, so he brings all kinds of great art to my attention. (If you’re interested in C.K. Williams, his TED talk is fantastic.)
CC: That’s another thing that “Gravity” and Hitchcock and Sirk have in common: that thing about poetry where surface and subtext are not always the same thing; where conscious phrasing suggests subconscious images.
PR: Definitely not the same thing, and I would argue that subtext and text are often antagonists to each other. Or at least often in conflict.
PR: Me too. A) That makes for such good drama, when the subtext is in opposition; and B) it feels like a more honest representation of the human experience to me.
CC: Things are rarely what they seem. At least that’s rarely all they are.
PR: I agree. That’s what makes things interesting. And funny. And tragic. I’m giving away all of NYU’s secret curriculum here, but another of my favorite pieces of wisdom from grad school came from a sound teacher, who said that the picture provides logical understanding and the sound provides emotional understanding. I think the same thing applies to text and subtext. The subtext is almost always what drives our emotional understanding, and thus most of our behavior.
CC: Right. Sirk said the camera angles are the director’s thoughts, and the lighting is his (or her) philosophy.
CC: To touch on something I’m sure you get tired of talking about: being a “female filmmaker” as opposed to “filmmaker”—how big an issues is that for you?
PR: Well, as the great Joss Whedon said recently, it’s important because it’s still a question. I hope that someday being female will not be a particularly notable adjective, but right now it is. In the context of being a filmmaker I mean. But I’m incredibly grateful to have a personality that lends itself well to loving my job, and a big part of my personality is being a woman. So . . . I am thankful that I’m a lady, and a director, and it’s fun to put them together.
CC: One thing I’ve noticed, speaking of gender and filmmakers, is that all the filmmakers I consider great filmmakers—Hitchcock, Sirk, Verhoeven, Von Trier, Dreyer, Bergman—Whedon—almost all of their protagonists are women. What do you think? Am I overcategorizing?
PR: No, I think all of those guys would agree with you. Almodovar, too
CC: I wonder why that is. A degree of remove? Or that women often face more obstacles, and thus make more interesting protagonists? It’s probably about their mothers.
PR: Ha. Totally. Sexuality is a funny thing. Sometimes the people we’d most like to cast as our screen surrogates don’t match our own gender. And, of course, gay filmmakers and strong female protagonists go together like peanut butter and jelly.
CC: But I don’t think any of the filmmakers I mentioned are gay, which is perhaps why Almodovar didn’t occur to me specifically.
PR: Hmm. Was Sirk gay?
CC: Well, no way to tell really. He was married, but so was Rock Hudson, who was Sirk’s protégé. His films certainly have that exaggerated 50s diva-ness to them, but that might be a chicken/egg thing.
PR: Well, and I’m guilty here of doing that thing that filmmakers really hate, wherein I assume that Sirk was writing about himself in All That Heaven Allows.
CC: I read a beautiful book a while back, The Queen’s Throat: a kind of meditation on gay men and their divas; their identification with female characters.
PR: Sounds right up my alley.
PR: Who are your divas?
CC: I think I’m supposed to like Britney and Beyoncé, but I tend to gravitate toward angry women in my music.
PR: You have a great diva list. I’m stealing P.J. Harvey for mine.
CC: Plenty to go around.
PR: Um, can I refer you to the Beyoncé tracks “Diva” and “Ring the Alarm” for your angry diva needs?
CC: Thanks! I’ll check youtube.
PR: I think one of my truest coming of age moments was realizing that Cruella DeVil is about eight thousand times cooler than Anita.
PR: Yes. Yes, it is.
CC: And it’s not just a chick story: waaaay more universal. Although, the importance of female physicality—uterus as vampire sensor—can’t be minimized.
PR: Yeah, Buffy really possesses the savage/grace dichotomy that I admire so much and find so compelling. i think it’s the primal make up of women. At least good female characters.
CC: Do you feel any influence, as a storyteller, from The Buffy Cycle, as I like to call it when speaking to other intellectuals?
PR: I feel unworthy but honored to share storytelling DNA with Joss Whedon. Buffy is absolutely a storytelling influence.
CC: So to make sure we cover the interview clichés: any advice for young/novice filmmakers? Especially of course female filmmakers?
PR: I think my best advice is to know who you’re making a film for, and to honor that person with each choice you make. I made “Gravity” for my grandma, and that lent a pretty large degree of earnestness, vulnerability, and un-slickness that taught me a lot about directing.
CC: Is that a device for concentrating your focus? Or do you think it adds more value than that?
PR: For me, it’s a way to keep my focus on the story, not on myself. I think it’s really hard not to think about things like festivals, and marketability, and general coolness and being liked. But all of those things are deadly to heart, and heart is really all I want at the end of the day. When I fall in love with a film, it’s not because it’s cool. It’s because it’s real, and it breathes and moves and hurts in all the same ways I do. It’s really hard. It seems so odd that the desire to communicate and be understood causes so much hiding and fear.
CC: Thanks for your time, Pamela! Is there anything you’d like to add before we wrap this up?
PR: There’s a poem I love by the Sufi mystic Hafiz that I’m trying to find. Because it’s related to this idea about communication and fear. And also because that sounds very high brow and cultured.
All right, here it is. This poem, to me, beautifully summarizes why I will never stop wanting to make art and never stop wanting to hear what other people have to say. (It’s translated by Daniel Ladinsky, who is probably a genius.)
With That Moon Language
Everyone you see, you say to them, “Love me.”
Of course you do not do this out loud, otherwise someone would call the cops.
Still, though, think about this, this great pull in us to connect.
Why not become the one who lives with a full moon in each eye
that is always saying,
with that sweet moon language,
what every other eye in this world is dying to hear?
PR: In no particular order, here’s my top ten list. I never know whether to arrange “favorites” by “films that I want to watch a hundred times” or “films that altered the course of my thinking/life when I saw them,” so these are films that fall under both categories.
- An addendum from Pamela: In all the discussion of the music in “Gravity,” I forgot to say where it comes from. It’s all culled from a collection called the Archives of Appalachia, maintained by a very nice group of people at East Tennessee State University. I happened upon the version of “Wayfaring Stranger” (the singer is Horton Barker) that appears in the film, and then found the collection it came from. It’s an absolute goldmine for fans of Appalachian folk music and I highly recommend checking them out.↵
- A page of pillow shots from Ozu’s films.↵
- “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” by Laura Mulvey (PDF file)↵