Linda Cardellini in Liza Johnson’s Return
Liza Johnson’s feature directorial debut Return stars Linda Cardellini as a young wife and mother who struggles with civilian life after returning from war to her small Ohio town. Plenty of films have captured the horror of combat, but fewer deal with the ongoing aftermath experienced by the people who fight and even fewer still explore the experience of women who are an increasing part of the wars we wage. Less a story about war, Return is more a sensitive character study of an ordinary young woman trying to reconcile two very different sets of experiences.
In anticipation of today’s theatrical release of Return, I recently had the pleasure to chat with Ms. Johnson by telephone. I was eager to find out what her experience as a first time feature filmmaker was like, how she managed to get such a gifted cast and how her experiences in the Sundance Writers and Directors Labs helped the process along.
Craig Kennedy: You come from a background in the visual arts. What was the transition like from that to making your first feature film?
Liza Johnson: I’ve always done film and video work. In art school a lot of the work that I did would probably be considered more avant-garde, but in recent years the work that I’ve been doing has been very cinematic. I’ve been working with non-professional actors where they work out versions of themselves, but the idiom and grammar has been very much like narrative film. In a lot of ways the forms of what I’ve been doing and the themes are organically similar to Return. The big difference for me was to try to do something that has a plot and has professionally trained actors.
CK: Speaking of professional actors, you put together a terrific cast that includes Linda Cardellini, Michael Shannon and John Slattery. How did you mange to pull that off your first time out?
LJ: I sometimes ask myself that same question! They were so awesome, you know? Actually Michael was the first person that we attached. He read a very early draft of the script and he introduced us to our casting directors (Rich Delia and Allison Estrin) so that was great. I think he’s just a really strong and super interesting actor. He’s always interesting to watch
CK: I would imagine having an actor of his caliber on board makes it more attractive for other actors to sign on.
LJ: I do think people really wanted to work with him because he’s just awesome. It was also a special challenge for me because I really had to find co-stars who could give it back to him. I met Linda through the casting process and she’s a just very warm actress. I could tell we thought the same way about the character. I knew some of her work from Freaks and Geeks and I also vividly remembered her from Brokeback Mountain. I left the first meeting with her thinking that she was probably my girl, but that I should look at more of her work. People think this is funny because it’s so unlike my film, but the thing that really put me over the edge was seeing her in Scooby Doo 2. She’s amazing and I just thought, “ok if you can be this person in Brokeback Mountain and you can also be Wilma in Scooby Doo, then you can do anything!” (laughs)
CK: The character of Kelli is a tough one in a way. She’s a pretty ordinary small town girl. She’s not a war hero, but her experiences in war sort of make it harder for her to deal with her mundane home life.
LJ: Linda’s performance is special because it is a tough character. She’s not hyper-verbal and the actions that she takes are pretty miniature, but Linda is very compelling to watch all the time. I think she really just took on the challenge of trying to register the character’s small decisions which she makes quietly and kind of all alone. I was really grateful that she wanted to take it on.
CK: What kind of research did you do to help you understand what it’s like for soldiers returning from war, especially female soldiers which is a story that hasn’t really been told before.
LJ: It started with one friend who told me about his experiences trying to stay married after he got back from his deployment. I was really intrigued by the intimate version of that story which I don’t think most of us get to hear that much. If you’re not in a military family it’s sort of hard to hear an intimate account of that sort of thing. Through him I met a lot of friends and I specifically tried to talk to female soldiers. But even among the female soldiers, people were so different from each other that I had to commit to a fictional character. It didn’t take me very long to realize there is no one representative soldier or even a typical female soldier. People’s experiences are so different and their reasons for joining the military are so different. I felt though like I learned enough to get a range of what might be plausible for my character, but also enough to know I had to make some decisions about who she was because there was no way to make her like everyone.
CK: You grew up in Ohio like your lead character. How much of that experience went into building the character?
LJ: I haven’t lived there for a while but I did do some work there a couple of years ago. I live in New York now, but I guess where you come from is always an important influence. I remember I was shooting a different project in Ohio right during the 2008 economic crisis and it was just really funny because no one there experienced it as a crisis. It had already been economically depressed for 40 years. Still, I felt very inspired by the ways that people find ways to keep their life interesting and to keep hope and get by when there’s not enough meaningful work and also by the texture of everyday life in that place where I grew up. I value it I guess and it’s also not something that you hear about all the time.
CK: It’s interesting you mention the economy because a similar thing applies to the war. You’re in New York and I’m in L.A. and we’re sort of in this media bubble that doesn’t quite experience events the way the rest of the country does. Many of us don’t even know anyone who has been in Iraq or Afghanistan, but it’s a fact of life for people in towns all around the country.
LJ: For the film I talked to a lot of people who work for social service organizations for veterans and many of them were quick to identify the problem that military and civilian culture are so separated. A huge part of the country doesn’t even feel touched by the war.
CK: I’ve talked to a number of filmmakers and seen a number of films that have come through the Sundance Writers and Directors Labs as you did. Tell me a little about that process and how it helped you get Return made.
LJ: It was really awesome for me, partly because I’m coming out of a different background. It was just so helpful to be in an environment where people were speaking in the vernacular of film culture. I felt like I became bilingual in how film people talk. That was really helpful. Also, for the screenwriting lab they put you through several critique meetings in a short amount of time. I really enjoy other peoples’ feedback, but if you have resistance to that it would be really tough. You get so much feedback all at once it makes you very open to shifting and changing the work that you’re doing. In the summer they invite you to bring a few actors and put scenes up and shoot them. It’s really focused on working with the actors and I guess the main effect it had on me was that it gave me a lot of confidence in the actors. They’re so good at reading your story and thinking about what happens to the character and what happens within a scene and helping you specify who the character is. It gave me a lot of respect for actors. Then you can rewrite your script based on the feedback you get from them, so that was also really helpful.
CK: What was it like finding out that your first feature film was doing to debut at the Directors Fortnight in Cannes?
LJ: It was pretty shocking, yeah. It seemed so very unlikely. We shot in October and November (2010) and it wasn’t until March (2011) that we had a cut. I thought it was so unlikely they’d show the film at Cannes that I was fighting with my producers saying we should just extend our schedule because they weren’t going to show it anyway. Why should we rush for a festival that isn’t even going to show the film? (laughs) My producer Ben Howe in particular was just like “Just shut up and finish the film!” (laughs) That proved to be very good advice.
CK: Looking back, did you enjoy the process your first time and do you plan to continue?
LJ: I did. People describe it as stressful and all that, but I really enjoyed every moment of it and I’m already working on some new projects. One of them is an adaptation of Alice Munro’s short story Hateship, Friendship, Courtship and Loveship written by my friend Mark Poirier. We just finished his rewrite and we’re about to start casting. That’s exciting and I also just shot a short film. I went straight from Cannes to northern Australia to shoot it and I’ll be at Berlin with it.
Filed under: LiC Interview