An assured aesthetic, the unblinking naturalism of a tabloid subject, and an excellent lead performance from Lindsay Burdge marked 2013’s “A Teacher” as one to watch, alongside its director Hannah Fidell. “A Teacher” was picked up by HBO to expand into a series, while Fidell’s latest film “6 Years” was developed under by the Duplass Brothers.
Tracking a half dozen years in their relationship of a couple played by Taissa Farmiga (“American Horror Story”) and Ben Rosenfield (“Boardwalk Empire”), “6 Years” takes steps toward authenticity with a largely improvised approach and low-key cinematography by Andrew Droz Palermo. It’s a result that we found to be an intimate effort with two excellent central performances. I sat down with Fidell at SXSW earlier this year to discuss exactly how she pulled it off.
You’ve said the film is mostly improvised, so how did you build up the treatment into a vision for the narrative?
I had a lookbook but then I also threw in some images in the scriptment, like a 40-page outline that had some key dialogue. Some of the scenes were completely written out, and then I threw in the images to remind me what I wanted.
What were those images?
I pulled hundreds of images from Tumblr and put them into a Word document. I have a lot of secret Tumblr sites where I just pull images and post them up.
How did you communicate your plan of heavy improvisation for the film to Taissa and Ben?
Mark [Duplass] and I got on a Skype call with each of them individually — they were both our top choices — and we said “here’s how we’re going to shoot this: we’re all going to live in a house together, and it’s going to be improv, and it’ll be like summer camp. So if you’re into doing something totally different than what both of you have done before, then great.” Luckily they were both into trying something different.
What was the prep of them living together like?
I did some prep with them where I went to my parent’s house in the Berkshires and we hung out there and bonded. But it was clear from the start that they really wanted to dig into some meatier roles and push themselves, and I was lucky enough to be able to help facilitate that.
It’s clear that you place a heavy emphasis on music in your films: how did you build the list of artists and songs for “6 Years”?
I started with a playlist of music that reminded me of college —what I would’ve listened to had I gone to college now, and also Urban Outfitters catalogs [laughs]. That was my starting point.
[SPOILERS] How did the film’s thread of violence come into play?
When Mark initially called me to make a movie with him, it was to do a YA domestic abuse story, and so we knew that we wanted to hit a certain number of “fight scenes” within the film. But I didn’t want to make it really about that. It’s an extension of a larger problem within the relationship, obviously. And I’ve never experienced domestic abuse, so I wanted it to be relatable and yet still subversive and crossing the line. [END SPOILERS]
“A Teacher” was distinct in the way that it didn’t over-explain the situation; it just plunged the viewer in and left details a bit impressionistic. How have you found expanding the story for HBO in a more concrete way?
Well, I’m just writing the pilot now, but it’s very much about the entire community, not just focused on Diana the teacher’s perspective. So it ups the stakes quite a bit in a way that’s quite exciting. Honestly, it feels both the same and incredibly different. I felt like I had to adjust quite a bit to make it work under that ensemble story. So it’s fun and it’s exciting to dive into this, and there’s almost this “Friday Night Lights” aspect to it now. I love that show —I feel like there should be more of that stuff on TV.
High school drama, but with a cable twist to it. It’s about family, love and Texas.
When you’re writing these films, how do you find your instincts sway? Is it towards drama, and having to inject these moments of levity into it? Or is it perhaps the other way around?
Looking back, I feel like a problem with “A Teacher” was that there wasn’t enough comedy in it, because life can be funny sometimes. And I took that to heart making “6 Years.” There are some light, funny moments that we definitely made sure to put in.
I actually want to do a comedy, like a real comedy, so I’m working with a friend now, Carson Mell, who wrote on “Eastbound & Down” and currently writes on “Silicon Valley.” It’s going to be very different to anything I’ve certainly done as well, set in the Southwest. He’s from Arizona, so I think I’m going to perhaps venture a little further west.
“6 Years” is now available on iTunes and On Demand. It hits Netflix on September 8th. Watch the first seven minutes and a clip below.