“X-Men” and “Goldeneye” star Famke Janssen makes her screenwriting and directing debut with “Bringing Up Bobby,” a family drama starring Milla Jovovich and Bill Pullman that cuts close to home for the Dutch-born actress. Below, Janssen opens up about her personal ties to the film and shares a scene exclusively with Indiewire readers. “Bringing Up Bobby” opens at the Beekman Theater in New York Friday, September 28 (go here for showtimes).
What It’s About:
“Bringing Up Bobby” follows Olive, a Ukrainian-born con artist, and her 11-year-old son Bobby as they blithely thieve their way through Oklahoma.
I wanted to make a film that was both serious and comic, eschewing a single genre in favor of something more complicated. I wanted to marry ’70s Hal Ashby with a strong, iconic female protagonist from films of the ’30s (many of my favorite films are from these periods), aspiring to combine disparate genres into a moving mother/son story.
My protagonist, Olive, is a woman deeply affected by the steady diet of classic American films she consumed in the Ukraine growing up. She has, consequently, a distorted view of the American dream: films — which she references throughout her Oklahoma journey — shaped her understanding and informed — or misdirected — her moral compass. She sees herself as a character in a movie and models herself as a star, embracing a persona that ranges from Scarlett O’Hara to Bonnie Parker. In the first half of the movie, Olive is a woman who is play-acting for her co-star, best friend, partner in crime and the love of her life, who happens to be her son, Bobby. They are having fun and in love, on a romp through a conservative and religious heartland. This can’t last. The ride comes to an abrupt halt, and the movie turns more serious: Olive’s life as a character in her own movie can’t sustain itself, and she is forced to embrace America for what it really is.
Why I Made It:
I am Dutch by birth and after living in New York for twenty years I thought I knew America. But when I visited Oklahoma for the first time I felt like a stranger in a strange land. I was struck by how much the landscape reminded me of movies like “Bonnie And Clyde” and “Paris, Texas.” I was intrigued by how different the people were from where I grew up. The visit inspired me to make the film: I wanted to tell an immigrant’s tale in a way that appears simple but incorporates more complicated themes.
How I Made It:
To help me craft the look and the story, I turned to still photographers and novels. I found inspiration in the iconic photographs of Robert Frank’s “The Americans,” the analog beauty of William Eggleston and the thematic exploration of the role of cinema by Cindy Sherman, especially her “Untitled Film Stills.” They inspired me visually (some of the scenes are reproductions of their images) and, in the case of “Untitled Film Stills,” guided me with Olive’s character. Henry James’ exploration of Americans in Europe and Europeans in America also helped frame the storyline.
The scene begins with Olive and Bobby in a car. Olive starts the classic mother lecture, telling her son he can do whatever he wants in the future; it ends with her stealing a dress and fleeing with her son, bookends for her character: loving mother on the one hand and thief on the other, an irreconcilable conflict. It is a tale of the American Dream gone wrong. Olive comes from a poor, Ukrainian background. She is like a kid in a candy store in America. Everybody dreams big and things are there for the taking. She hopes to provide her son with better opportunities than she ever had. I set the story up so that the audience knows from the beginning that the characters are sitting on a time bomb and we are waiting for it to go off. But all the while hoping that we enjoy their escapades in the way of the classic road/con-artist movie.
Why This Scene:
I chose this scene because it exemplifies the juxtaposition between what someone says and then does. Olive tells Bobby that he can be the President of the United States, and then moments later she steals a dress because “she has a date tonight and nothing to wear.” This is Olive, a contradictory character with a big personality, loud clothing and a baby-blue Cadillac. She is at odds with her surroundings — an outsider who chooses to live large rather than blend in.
The scene also gives some sense of the relationship between Olive and Bobby, loving but dysfunctional: Olive as a mother, an actress and a criminal, but also Olive as a foreigner in a strange land. She is an immigrant who comes from limited means and wants what she believes is best for her son. Her idea about America is a very skewed one, however, one based on films rather than reality. I wanted a highly stylized and visually interesting feel for the movie, aiming for something Baroque rather than a stripped-down realism. We start the film with strong, saturated colors and change the color palette once the story takes a turn. We see the film through Olive’s eyes. Her America in the beginning of the story is an artificial one and the colors reflect that. After her arrest, she starts to get a sense of what the place and its people are really like and the color palette becomes somewhat more realistic.
I like the music in this scene and the soundtrack throughout the film, oscillating between Americana folk/country and classic Ukrainian songs, starting with Milla’s rendition of “Proud Mary” in Ukrainian and culminating with the Flaming Lips singing “Amazing Grace” phonetically in Ukraine.
Behind the Scene:
I wanted to shoot on film, which I managed to do. But not without considerable effort, as the film’s budget worked against me. I wanted the look and feel of something timeless, closer to a fable than stark realism. Oklahoma and its landscape inspired much of the story and reminded me of “Bound for Glory” and many of the films that I grew up with and loved. I made so many scouting visits to Oklahoma before we even had the financing and that saved time and money when we finally did go into production.
The scene in the car was shot on the first day of a 20-day shoot. It was murderously hot in August and we were toward the end of the day. The first day jitters were, by that time, somewhat gone and I had a good sense that Milla and Spencer were finding the characters, even though they had only a few days with one another before the film started to prep. I knew that the story could not work without that relationship, it’s the heart of the film. The other element that was really important to me was the foreigner aspect. Milla wasn’t sure she wanted to do the film with a Ukrainian accent at first. To me, personally, the story wouldn’t work without that. To Milla’s credit, she dove in and did it. And seeing Milla and Spencer together that first day was a dream come true. All that prep, all those years of trying to raise the money and putting the movie together (which ultimately happened with the help of my producing partner, Sofia Sondervan!) came to fruition. It was a glorious feeling, albeit fleeting as we were on a very, very tight shooting schedule and there wasn’t a moment to dwell.
The baby-blue Cadillac took some effort. We couldn’t find one that color and we weren’t allowed to paint the original one we used in the opening scene. We ended up finding an almost identical one, which we had to buy and paint in the color that I had envisioned. I had an image of a Christmas tree from a Diane Arbus photograph in my director’s book. A tree too big to fit the room it was in, with the top cut off. Dina Goldman, our production designer, recreated that photo almost to a T. That image was very telling to me about who Olive is; this ostentatious, larger-than-life woman who lives in the moment and doesn’t worry too much about the future — a woman who will do anything to spoil her son.