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Ross Partridge doesn’t harbor any illusions about the controversial nature of his feature film, "Lamb," a project that he deems both "troubling" and emblematic of audiences’ desires to box emotionally fraught stories into easily consumable boxes.
The film, which has played around the festival circuit since first debuting at SXSW last year, even has a poster that boasts of its hard-to-pin-down nature, including pull quotes that hinge on its "intensely provocative" nature and even a rallying cry to "let the controversy begin." But that’s not why Partridge was compelled to the make the film, which he wrote, produced, directed and starred in. He just loved the story, and maybe that will be enough for audiences to take a chance on it.
Based on Bonnie Nadzam’s novel of the same name, "Lamb" features Partridge as David Lamb, a down-on-his luck 47-year-old who forms an unexpected connection with the equally as hapless Tommie, an 11-year-old girl played by the remarkable Oona Laurence. As the pair become more involved with each other, the film edges closer and closer to some very complicated situations that are likely to put more than a few people into the throes of some serious unease. But what’s really playing out on screen? Is it, in fact, a controversy worth getting worked up about? Or is Nadzam and Partridge’s story just something different? Partridge has some ideas.
Ahead, the multi-hyphenate digs into how he found "Lamb," why it took him 15 years to direct a feature after his first outing ("Interstate 84," which premiered at TIFF) and how he feels about the very words that are being used to market his feature.
It’s basically just a psychological thriller, really. It’s about two lonely people who randomly meet in a parking lot and happen to both be really sad and broken and somehow take solace in one another, one happens to be a 47-year-old man and the other one’s an 11-year-old girl. They embark on this journey together, it unbeknownst to anyone else, but it’s their journey, hopefully to a better place.
It’s a love story, but it’s broken down and it’s not a romantic love story. It’s obviously riddled with complexity and [David’s] own sense of morality and what is right and wrong. It’s unusual, but it’s a love story about two people in search of the love they never had when they were kids.
It’s a shame that movies have to be so simplified. And that people have to immediately assume it’s "this" or "that." That’s not all that interesting to me. This movie asks a lot of people. You have to kind of endure what are some really small complexities of life, and yet those things are actually really large.
[People] immediately want to go, "Oh, this is like ‘Lolita,’" because that’s what they know. It’s easy to identify. To me, this story, like love itself, is way more ambiguous. It’s way more complex.
It’s so hard to put this type of movie into the world and get people to see it and respond. For me, because I’ve lived with it for so long, the provocative nature of it there and it exists because of the dynamics of a young girl and an older man, but the overall theme of the film doesn’t have that quite of an impact [to me] anymore, maybe because I’m used to it.
The book had the same nature. You’re feeling something that plays into our own insecurities and our own fears about what this could be. Certainly, when you put it out in the world, you have to find a way [to market it] that makes people stand up and say, "Oh, let me look at this."
[David’s] logic is so trumped by his need. He lives in a state of need all the time. There’s been other characters in movies who, whether they are alcoholics or whether [they’re addicted to something else], you see that, that’s okay. But this, because you can’t identify it, it’s extremely uncomfortable. He puts you in uncomfortable places, of course, because he’s working it through and we’re watching him in the process of working it out.
In every character that you play, you have to find that there’s a human being inside of this who is a loving person. When I read the book, I was completely conflicted. I couldn’t figure out "what am I feeling right now? And why am I feeling this?" and I felt devastated in the end. It was tragic. It made me have to look a little bit further and say, "Well, oh, I can easily, from my own experience, write this guy off. My sense of morality says this is wrong, and don’t do this, and that’s okay."
We can watch movies all the time where people are shooting each other in the head, that’s fine, that’s okay, but this... It’s so troubling to people, because I think, more than anything, they don’t know where it’s going. For me, as a moviegoer myself, that’s kind of what we hope to ask for sometimes when we go to the movies, like, "I don’t know where this is going."
I live near Skylight Books in Los Angeles, and I was just looking [one day], and "Lamb" was a "Staff Pick." It was a random thing. I found it on the shelf, started leafing through it. An hour and a half later, I was still standing there. Then I bought it and went home and then I finished it immediately. I was kind of just mesmerized and blown away and really affected emotionally.
I think every director, when they’re working with a kid, goes into these situations thinking, "Well, if we don’t find the right kid, we’re not going to make this movie." The good news is, somewhat of good news, is that it’s such a low-budget movie that we had that luxury where like, "If we don’t find the kid, we won’t make the movie."
I had a casting director in New York, Allison Estrin, and she kind of laid it out and was like, "Look, there’s only a handful of girls at 11 years old who are going to be able to play this part." "So we can see a bunch, but it’s really only going to come down to a few." She had worked with Oona before. There was another girl who we had looked at, who is another wonderful actress, and she fit more of the description of the character in the book.
But as soon as I met Oona, it was just…she’s just an incredible actress. It doesn’t really matter at 11, you look at this role, even for a 40-year-old woman to play this role, or any age, this is a really complex role. She’s just phenomenal. You can feel it.
It’s been the best experience I’ve had with another actor. It was such a gift. We’re all family now, it’s been a great, great experience.
We made this film with 12 people. Literally, a crew of 12 people in 18 days. Every single person who came on to make this believed in it the way I did and all had the same experience and were there for the same reasons.
I made my first film, and it came together very easily, and I was only 29 or 28 when it happened, and I hadn’t really considered what I was saying in the world. We premiered the film at the Toronto International Film Festival, and I remember watching it, and I felt this sense, all of a sudden, of responsibility. I was showing people my film school. I had the sense when I wanted to make the next one, I really needed to feel it. Unfortunately, it took a long time and I wish I had pursued it more, because the experience was so great.
This film, as troubling as the material is and as complex as it is and hard to bring into the world, as soon as I decided to do it, there was never any self-doubt. It was one of the few experiences you have where you’re completely confident and you knew what you had to do and there was nothing that was going to stop me from doing it. That’s a rare thing, I don’t know if I will get that again.
I can’t just do something for the sake of doing it. I kind of go in a more instinctual place, and sometimes that takes longer.