To celebrate the NYC theatrical premiere of Lynn Shelton’s (“Humpday”) rediscovered debut feature “We Go Way Back,” which hits the reRUN Gastropub Theater theater this Friday for a week-long engagement, indieWIRE asked Shelton to reflect back on the 2006 Slamdance award-winning film and dissect one of her favorite scenes from the drama.
On her 23rd birthday, Kate opens a letter that she wrote as a precocious adolescent to her imaginary grown-up self. “Are you happy?” the letter asks, and at first it seems that she is, or should be anyway, having just nabbed her first plum stage role as an actor. But it soon becomes clear that Kate is in the habit of working ridiculously hard to please everyone around her while assiduously avoiding the question of what it is that she actually wants for herself. As her awareness of this state begins to dawn on her, the more unfocused and unmoored she seems to become, and the more the voice—and, soon, the apparition—of her much more assured 13-year-old self haunts her. Eventually, the young Kate shows up in the flesh, in an attempt to gently show her older self the error of her ways.
I wanted the camera work, editing style, and sound design of “We Go Way Back” to reflect the inner state of the main character. When Kate is feeling isolated, detached, and numb, the scenes are shot static and wide. Jump-cuts and close camera work are used to reflect those moments when she is bombarded and overwhelmed with sensation. And, as she progressively loses her grip on her own reality, shallow depth of field, a shifting in and out of focus, and an eerie, gut-arresting sound-scape are employed to match the blurriness of her state of mind and of her very boundaries.
This is one of my favorite scenes in “We Go Way Back.” I get a catch in my throat to this day when I watch it. And I think it best exemplifies the kind of subjective filmmaking that I was aiming for when I set out to make this movie.
The “bathtub scene” presented here takes place about two thirds of the way through the movie. Kate has hit the bottom of her downward spiral and, in an attempt to kill off the tormenting voice of her younger self, she opens and drowns each of the letters that she once wrote to all of the Kates-yet-to-be. I wanted every element of this scene to blur out in a reflection of Kate’s emotional state: the camera lens, the edges of her body in the water, the inky words floating off of each page, and the sweet, clear voice of her younger self, overlapping, layering, and finally drifting into oblivion.
HOW I DID IT
We shot “We Go Way Back” on 35mm film over the course of sixteen days in April of 2005. My filmmaking experience up to that point had been as an editor and as a maker of small-scale experimental documentaries. This was my first experience directing narrative film as well as my first time working with a full film crew. I have collaborated with the key crew from that set ever since. One of the things I love about cinematographer Ben Kasulke (who won a couple of awards for his work on this film) is his incredible sensitivity. It was he who suggested that we find a female DP to shoot this particular scene so that Amber Hubert, our lead actress, would be more at ease working in such close quarters with no clothes on. Luckily, my Assistant Director, Megan Griffiths (director of this year’s Sundance film “The Off Hours”), happens to be an incredible cinematographer. There were three of us in that hot, tiny bathroom: Amber in the bathtub, Megan in charge of the camera, and I, wedged next to the toilet with the slate, doing double duty as director and clapper. Tania Kupczak, our production designer, had done tests with an assortment of pens and paper to make sure that the ink would lift off the page in the most satisfying manner. She added milk to the bath water to help blur the edges of Amber’s body. At one point, I remember Megan balancing directly (and precariously) over the scene, her bare feet gripping the edges of the tub, to get the overhead shot I so badly wanted. (The Moviecam SL we were using weighed about a kazillion pounds so it was no small feat to do a hand-held tilt-down without crashing into the actress and water below!)
There was one shot that I saw very clearly in my mind’s eye but that we never ended up getting. I’d wanted the camera to be right down in the water itself, so that we could watch the ink lift off of the page, and float upwards across the frame. But the practical ramifications of this shot (building a Plexiglas tub or one with a see-through window, and finding the appropriate studio space to get messy and wet in) proved too ambitious for our small budget and short schedule. As it turned out, the footage we did obtain worked beautifully for the film’s purposes and I didn’t feel that the scene was compromised at all by giving up this shot I’d originally been so hell-bent on obtaining.
As with so much of the film, this scene really came together in post production. I had invited our sound designer, Vinny Smith, early into the editing process because I’d wanted the sound to influence the picture as much as the other way around. The scene was looking great when Michelle Witten (my co-editor) and I initially put it together, but it never packed the emotional wallop I was hoping for until we added in Maggie Brown’s voice-over. The combination of both seeing and hearing Katie’s youthful words disintegrate into oblivion is what makes this scene feel like the ultimate act of self-betrayal—and of self-annihilation—that it really is. (I remember trying to describe to Vinny the effect I was looking for in the sound design and getting a chill up my spine when he perfectly articulated it: “You want the words to blur out just like the picture does.”)