Director Amy Redford on Her New Thriller “What Comes Around” | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Thursday, May 23rd, 2024  

Amy Redford

Director Amy Redford on Her New Thriller “What Comes Around”

Morality Tale with a Twist

Aug 17, 2023 Web Exclusive Photography by Courtesy of IFC Films Bookmark and Share

What happens when a teenager befriends an older man on the internet? This scenario is every parent’s nightmare and in What Comes Around, a psychological thriller that unspools inside a family drama, director Amy Redford eschews old tropes, allowing the narrative space to tread down unexpected paths even as the online relationship takes a sinister turn. The result is a terse film that keeps the audience guessing while Redford explores themes of grooming, gaslighting, and how the pervasiveness of screens and social media allows our past to easily catch up with us.

It begins with Anna (Grace Van Dien of Stranger Things), a day before she turns 17, chatting about Emily Dickinson’s poetry online, to Eric (Kyle Gallner)—a college student who she believes is living 900 miles away. Anna lives with her single mother, Beth (Summer Phoenix), who has just gotten engaged to Tim (Jess Garcia), the town’s Assistant Chief of Police. When Eric then turns up at their door the next day, with a birthday present for Anna, she is initially shocked. Eventually, she lets her guard down and is so charmed, that before long she is willing to go anywhere with him.

The film, while easy to watch, never does shake its provenance as a stage play and has a certain static-ness to it. Both Phoenix and Van Dien have an awkwardness to their portrayals that somehow suits their screen characters, but when an actor like Reina Hardesty, who plays the supporting role as Anna’s best friend pops up, we get a glimpse of how much stronger this film could have been if all the characters were as clearly drawn and confident in their stride.

What Comes Around might have its failings but it’s also well worth a watch once you settle into its unpredictable yet probable narrative twists. Its surprising denouement is a brave attempt by Redford to bring some complicated themes to the big screen and hopefully, prompt audiences to reflect on social mores and our gendered morality.

Redford is the daughter of actor/director/Sundance Film Festival founder Robert Redford and historian/activist/producer Lola Van Wagenen. Her last foray as a director was 15 years ago in her directorial debut, The Guitar. As an actor, she’s appeared in The Sopranos, Sex and the City, and Maid In Manhattan. More recently, she helped produce the 2017 film, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, which tells the true story of the creator of the celebrated DC Comics female superhero and the women that inspired the character. It too deals with thorny themes through a feminist lens but impeccable casting steers it off potential pitfalls.

A mother of three daughters, Redford admits to being in what she describes as a “den of motherhood” over the last decade but had been on the lookout for a project to direct. We spoke to a relaxed Redford via Zoom, from her hotel room, the day the film opened in theatres, kicking off the interview asking her what about the script made her interested in making this film.

Grace Van Dien as “Anna” in Amy Redford’s "What Comes Around."
Grace Van Dien as “Anna” in Amy Redford’s “What Comes Around.”

Amy Redford: I was sent the play by my friend Scott [Organ] who wrote the movie and I thought it was a really great play. And a good way to Trojan Horse some ideas that I was curious about that I wanted to explore as a human being. I thought it was a great way, in a contained universe, to not only get back into the director’s chair but give light to some dynamics that I thought needed to be discussed. When you are making a decision to leave your family and you’re telling your kids, “I’m not gonna be around for this amount of time,” it sort of has to be worth it. You have to be able to look at them in the eye and say, “I’m doing something for a reason.” And you know, Scott and I just decided, well, let’s do this! Let’s make this film and let’s make it by this date for however much money we have. And that might mean we’re gonna do it with finger puppets in an iPhone or have proper actors and an actual DP [Director of Photography]—and somehow, that gave it its own momentum. Then people just very generously started jumping on board, which felt really good to me because it was a really wonderful collective of humans that came together to do this.

At that point were you happy in your mommy bubble and then this project came along and you felt compelled to do it?

I was looking for something. I mean my kids sort of put their foot on my butt and said, “get on with it, mom!” But I felt like I needed to bring something else to the table. I had to change my words with my children. I had to change my narrative from “I have to work” to “I want to work” because it’s very true of who I am. And it’s an essential part of how I move through the earth, you know? So, I had to I guess kind of reveal myself to them a little more about what I was needing, I was feeling a little bit anemic, and missing parts of myself that I had jettisoned for a lot of different reasons. So it was like one of those, as so many things are, it was one of those like very natural collisions of circumstance where it just started to feel right. The financiers were people that I really liked. Summer Phoenix coming on board as an actress was perfect. You know, there were just all of these different things that came together that enabled me to say go.

I was struck by something Summer Phoenix had said, during, I think, the Toronto Film Festival, that “it’s a film about what deep shame does to honesty,” which I feel is so true because at no point can we talk about this relationship that happened when her character was a young, school teacher. We can’t seem to talk about these things with nuance. Did you always have Summer in mind for the role or were you considering other actors?

She came to me by way of Bobby Bukowski, my director of photography, who I collaborated with on my first film, The Guitar. I sent him this script and when he read it, he said, “I think I have somebody really wonderful.” And then I watched her work and then I talked to her. And we have a lot of shared, lived experience. And I really like how she distilled what the essence is of her character. And a lot of the themes of the movie were what I got from her. And she too had spent some time in this sort of den of motherhood and felt like it was a great time for her to get back at it again. So, she was sort of my gal from the beginning, which I was incredibly grateful for.

Similarly, how about Grace?

Grace has a very clear mission to portray young women with a kind of agency and intelligence that is more aligned with what she knows of young women than often what you find on the screen. And I was lucky that the film team had allowed me to cast—and not just imposed different actors on me. And so she read for the part by way of my casting director, and I just loved her. I loved that she held all of these truths at once. She’s of course incredibly beautiful and the camera just loves her. But she also has a kind of restraint and she’s like a little bit nerdy and she’s really smart and very protective of her character. And I just knew that she would do right by Anna in a way that I don’t think anybody else could have.

I understand the film’s original title, Roost, is from the play—and that sort of idea of chickens coming home to roost.

That’s actually the second title. The Thing with Feathers is the original title—

Oh, from the Emily Dickinson poem, “Hope is the thing with feathers.”

Yes. Exactly. It was the Emily Dickinson reference and there were a lot of films out there that had very similar titles and I think we were trying to access a little bit more of the suspense. But I know it was a quite a journey getting here to this title, which I actually like.

Part of seeing a film before anyone else is sometimes you can be fumbling in the dark but I thought with the new movie poster, there was real clarity.

Yeah. Good. I’m so glad to hear that.

So it’s not unusual for changes to be made for a story when it makes that leap from stage to screen. But how do you kind of negotiate any changes as a dramaturg, to bring context to bear in a production? How do you make it not feel like it’s a play? When I was watching the film, there were moments where there was a sense of like static-ness to it. Then when Kyle’s character goes out and is driving out in open spaces, it kind of opened it up for me. And I wondered if a lot of this was done during the pandemic and maybe that also added to it. Maybe, you can talk about some of the challenges for you.

So it is in its essence a contained thriller. And it was meant to get on the inside of that home. That you can be on the inside of what looks like a very loving, accessible home, and so much can unfold. And so much can unfold by way of your devices. You can have a disconnect from your child in the room next to you. And the landscape of the mountains, for me, the mountains have always implicated me. And whenever I’m not being my authentic self and I’m slip sliding around the truth, I kind of go outside and I’m like, “Oh wow, I really need to up my game, level up,” you know, in terms of my honesty. But the play itself was, a really interesting exploration of the human dynamic and the, the downstream effects of gaslighting. And that we can look at somebody’s behavior and we can easily demonize, but why not look at the genesis of that behavior and understand how they were sort of primarily failed in their early lives. And so all of that, I think was very much contained in the play. But then it was being able to go outside and take a breath, right? Go outside and expand, what the characters are experiencing. And part of that is just introducing the character of the camera. So immediately you have certain kinds of efficiency and there’s things you know, beautiful words of Scott that we cut because the camera took its place. And the camera created connective tissue where there hadn’t been in the past. So it was a little bit of work chopping, that introducing the character of the camera changed a lot of what we were gonna do with the play.

Could you highlight maybe one thing that we wouldn’t have noticed?

The end of the movie is very different, and that was revealed in the process of adapting it. And it was an opportunity for Scott to keep evolving the characters and the story. And a lot of it was, ‘what is it that we want to leave the characters with?’ Because in the end, you are left with yourself—and that was the most important thing. For somebody who has to take responsibility for their past actions, that’s the most important part. And Anna goes through this rite of passage and her role switches. She comes into it really looking up to her mom and then realizes that, actually we’re all fallible and that her mom really had to step in. And she loses some of that innocence by way of people not telling the truth. So for me it was just sort of being able to see what the downstream effects of all of that really are. And having actors that were possessive over the dignity of their characters, whether they did good things or bad things—that we could recognize ourselves. We all hold multiple truths. We’re all fallible. So having people to create with, that were not gonna look away from that truth was super important.

Grace Van Dien as “Anna” and Summer Pheonix as “Beth” in Amy Redford’s "What Comes Around."
Grace Van Dien as “Anna” and Summer Pheonix as “Beth” in Amy Redford’s “What Comes Around.”

How does music feature in filmmaking for you? Because I understand you asked your cast to make playlists for their characters and some of them made their own anyway.

They did, they made their own playlists! I feel really strongly about the role of the composer and so I brought Craig Wedren [of Shudder to Think] on from the very beginning. And he started creating themes right out the gate that I actually was able to give my actors to start to think about, almost, like a pulse that was gonna be in the film. And I did want the actors to create their playlist. What is it their characters would default to when they need some emotional affirmation? Right. It’ll tell me a lot about who they are. I know my own playlist and sometimes I really want people to know what I’m listening to, and sometimes there’s no way that I would ever reveal myself that much, you know? But I do feel like the role of the composer is vital and so critical. It makes it easier when you don’t have to work with a temp track and you get addicted to something that is actually not appropriate for your movie at all. Then you bring in a composer whose, whose toolbox is to weave together character and space and place and story and music, and sound and breath… and Craig is delight to work with.

There were part parts of the film when I watched it, that I thought, the scoring was so loud. It kept pulling me out of the story.

That might be the mix. How did you listen to it? Because I know that we did have to balance it so that it wasn’t overwhelming.

I just watched it on a normal TV at home, but I could go back and listen to it again as well. That can sometimes happen with first viewings. And I also do audio stories so I’m hyper attuned to sound. Also I read an interview where Craig Wedren talked about blending elements of Hitchcock and teen romance.

I don’t think that was deliberate because I do know that especially with Craig’s intent, it was to create an invisible sort of aura around things. I mean, he definitely is a musician. But certainly in the scenes, it’s really about the engine of the scenes and not to come in over the top. So that could be a mix issue? Yeah of course, it’s sending me into a mild panic right now. [Laughs]

Oh, I’m sorry.

Well, I went to another theater and like, apparently half of the theater couldn’t hear the movie so… [Laughs] And then on my first film when I premiered it, I was in a theater and I had seen it so many times, I was like, “Oh, I don’t wanna watch it, I’m just gonna go have a drink while movie’s screening.” Then I came back for my Q&A and this lady raised her hand and she was like, “Your use of silence was so interesting.” And I was like, “Silence!” [Pulls a quizical face.] They didn’t turn the sound on for the first 10 minutes of the movie after I had like gone, you know, gotten the rights to a Pattie Smith song/poem and I was like, ‘Oh my God, okay.’ So, I definitely talk to people and make sure that it’s our intent.

Okay. Well thank you. I’m sorry to have sent you into a mild fit.

It’s okay. Thank you for your time. I’m glad that you watched it and wanted to talk about it. I really appreciate it.

I will tell everyone I know to watch it as well. So thank you. And you have a wonderful rest of your press schedule.

Thank you.

(What Comes Around is in select theaters now via IFC Films.)

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