makes her feature directorial debut with “Runoff
,” a drama about a desperate woman forced to make choices when she isn’t even sure what the right thing to do would be. The eco-themed film follows the Freeman family, who are struggling to keep their farm and business intact in the wake of corporate farming and an economic recession. Joanne Kelly
plays Betty, a wife and mother who must make a decision with potentially life-changing repercussions for her future and her family.
We spoke with Levin, who also wrote and co-edited the film, about the making of “Runoff”: applying her biochem degree to her first feature, the difficulties of filming on a working farm, the necessity of collecting pig and cow sounds and the impact she hopes the film will have on audiences as it releases this month.
“Runoff” opens June 26.
W&H: You have a background in biochemistry, which obviously has some impact on the film’s subject matter. What about your fieldwork informed the inception of the film?
KL: I was testing stream water in Kentucky, where I grew up, and I literally got to see how runoff affected life downstream. I wanted to make a film that explored the tension between the urgency of the present moment and legacy. Legacy is this abstract concept that we project to some distant time in the future — until it isn’t. A choice we make today catches up with us a little faster than we thought it would.
W&H: The focus on the farm and natural environment shows both its beauty and its brutality. Watching the film, the cycle of seasons seemed to mirror Betty’s desperation, with crops wilting and leaves falling. You also co-edited the film — was that something that came together in the editing room? Or was it a deliberate tactic from the beginning?
KL: It was scripted and part of the design concept from the get-go. The ground shifts under Betty’s feet — her way of life is coming to an end. Her journey is charted from the verdant green of August to the dry wasteland after Halloween, after the harvest. The challenge was shooting sequentially, so that the early scenes are lush, you get the fiery reds and umbers of fall in the middle and by the end, the ground is barren. We had the good fortune of finding farmers who believed in the film and were willing to in some cases hold their harvest until we could shoot, which helped us to capture this visual metaphor onscreen.
W&H: You don’t rely on much expository dialogue, which was refreshing. Was it important to you to follow this story in a natural, unforced way?
KL: I’m interested in telling stories that give just enough. When you don’t spell everything out, it creates space so the audience puts the story together. It forces the audience to personalize Betty’s journey and leaves room for nuance and interpretation. The experience of the film has the aspect of a mirror, in that the story interacts with the viewers’ own narratives and the ultimate meaning is personal.
W&H: You once told us that “glass ceilings are for target practice,” which is a great attitude. What were some of the difficulties you faced in bringing this story to screen as a debut feature director and writer?
KL: The locations were a big deal because so much of “Runoff” is set on farmland. With the budget limitations I faced as a first-time director, we couldn’t buy our way into locations or CGI anything. We needed access to real, large-scale working farms, and we knew it was going to be really tough. We had to gain the trust of the farmers and owners, many of whom were skeptical about having cameras around their operations.
And then there were the challenges of shooting scenes with lots of animals where the real work of the farm couldn’t be stopped — inside a dairy where cows were being milked, on a turkey farm where the birds are pecking at the sound cables and the crew is disoriented from the ammonia, or in a hog pen where the animals can be pretty aggressive. We were shooting intense narrative sequences where we had very little control. There is a certain energy that came from this lack of control and the authenticity of the environment.
W&H: I keep coming back to the word “natural” to describe so many different facets of “Runoff,” from the narrative style to the dialogue to the family dynamics. Even the crisp, cutting sounds of nature serve as a sort of soundtrack. Tell us about how you achieved that feel throughout the film.
KL: I wanted the film to have an observational quality. The way that we shot, with long, choreographed takes, allows the audience to watch things unfold and gives you a sense that you’re experiencing them in real time.
It was important that the Freeman family’s relationships were complex, that they had secrets from each other, some of which are resolved and some of which aren’t.
We used sound to establish the key themes and tensions, from the first frames of “Runoff,” between the natural and artificial worlds. In the early edit of the farm scenes, we realized that something wasn’t working. The scenes didn’t feel the same way as being in those spaces — the smells and the heat and the claustrophobia of the animals weren’t coming across. The sound had to express these things, so we went back to locations and spent days collecting extra sound: the river by day and at midnight, the cows’ hooves on concrete, the sound of the hogs’ feed running through PVC pipe.
W&H: You’ve said that when you see any film, you think of it as a “series of small victories.” What do you feel was your biggest victory in making this film?
KL: Getting it into theaters and out to a wider audience. Still being excited about making the next one.
W&H: In our interview with you when the film made its festival premiere, you said, “We finish our work and then have no control over how each person will experience it, and that is the beauty.” Do you have any larger hopes about how the film will be experienced by a wider audience?
KL: I made the film in this way in the hope that it will play both in the art-house scenes in cities and also resonate with audiences in the middle of the country. In the screenings we’ve had so far, we always get kicked out of the theaters because the Q&As run so long, and I hope the film continues to ignite that kind of passion.