IndieWire’s Springboard column profiles up-and-comers in the film industry worthy of your attention.
Rachel Lambert started with the truth. For her narrative feature directorial debut — she’s previously helmed a short film and a feature-length documentary — Lambert and her writing partner Nathan Gregorski dove into true stories of families marked by tragedy, though not in the way people typically expect. Initially inspired by a New York Times article that chronicled the fallout of publicized tragedies on the families of the perpetrators (think: David Kaczynski, who helped bring his brother Ted, the so-called Unabomber, to justice), the pair started working on a feature that would tell that kind of story, built as a sensitive family drama with secrets to spare.
The result is “In the Radiant City,” which features a stellar cast of actor’s actors, including Celia Weston, Marin Ireland, Paul Sparks and Michael Abbott, Jr. as the small-town Yurley family, marked by hideous events and struggling mightily to move on. When prodigal son Andrew (Abbott) returns after many years away, Lambert’s film neatly hedges between intimate family issues and larger questions about violence and the justice system. As the film unfolds, some questions are answered, but “In the Radiant City” traffics in murky morals and stunning silence, and the film is easily one of the festival’s true hidden gems.
IndieWire recently got on the phone to speak to Lambert about her inspiration, how she turned real stories into fiction and her incredible cast. Read on to see Lambert’s story in her own words.
There was an article in The New York Times, and it was called “Killers’ Family Confront Fear and Shame.” And it wasn’t like a firebrand, scorched earth kind of testimonial, it was profiling four families of murderers of some great note. I just had never read anything that painted with such humanity something that I think is typically seen as inhuman.
It really frustrated my natural inclination to divide things up “black and white.” I was so challenged emotionally and intrigued, I felt the need to call the journalist. I thought something was there, but I wasn’t sure.
There was one profile of a family where a sister had turned in her brother for a series of murders. She was systematically excommunicated from her family for this blood betrayal. That, to me, created this really interesting soup of conflicting emotions and these moral frustrations.
[The journalist] put me in touch with David Kaczynski, who turned in his brother Ted for being the Unabomber. I spoke with him at length. Not to do a biographical rendering, but to just get some emotional truth, to truly understand the greater nuances of this emotional landscape. And he put me in touch with more people in his life.
Nathan and I stepped away, and thought, “Now we can look at that whole emotional landscape, and decide what kind of fictional story we want to tell.” It started from kind of over here in left field, and moved its way to becoming the story we ultimately ended up writing, which is a piece of fiction. We just explored all the different things we were learning at that time.
We begin from this research, investigative period, and then at some point, you have that creative moment, where you are in touch with the characters that you’re trying to create. It’s beyond the academic. You start to really think about your instincts. “What’s provocative?” “What’s interesting to me?”
You just let the characters talk to you. We don’t do outlines or treatments for our stories. We tend to start from a place of, “I see this person doing this thing, and I know so much about him.” From there, make instinctive decisions. As you continue to do that, a world starts to develop. We tend to try to write more than we’d ever need.
We make a playlist for every single movie we’re writing. We watch movies that [our characters] would have watched as kids, what they would have watched as teenagers, what they would have watched as adults. We try to live as these people in a way, at least mentally. We’re very character-driven.
I feel like moving in [to a script] from structure is counterintuitive for us. The people make the decisions, more than the writers. I feel like when you can see the hand of a writer, it feels imposed or it feels manufactured or a little too clever. Than you’re going beyond what the characters are wanting. Then you’re really just writing for yourself, rather than what your characters want.
I remember walking in and seeing this big, tall Southern guy in this bar, drinking a Bloody Mary through the thin little straw, hunched over the drink. And I thought, “Oh, my God, it’s a boy in a man’s body, that’s perfect.” I just immediately saw Michael Abbott, Jr. as the character.
We wrote the character of Laura for Marin Ireland. We wrote the mom part for Celia Weston. Celia, I sent her the script and she just said yes, because she’s a brave woman. She just responded to the material. I got Marin, because I had secured Paul Sparks, and I had mentioned to him during our meeting that I wanted Marin, so he wrote Marin on my behalf.
“In the Radiant City” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.