“Return,” the feature film debut by visual artist Liza Johnson, shakes up the traditional soldier’s story by centering on a female protagonist, as she adjusts to her home life following a Middle East deployment. The film stars Linda Cardellini (“Freaks and Geeks,” “ER“) as Kelli, a woman who has trouble adjusting to the typical civilian life she left behind. Instead of finding comfort, she’s more at odds with her environment, unable to enjoy the quiet moments with her husband Mike (Michael Shannon) or fall back into the easy routine of the job she left behind. Unable and unwilling to convey the despair within, Kelli soon finds her relationships and sanity crumbling without any idea of how to return to normalcy.
Scripts like these tend to rely on a structure that find their troubled protagonist either able to neatly come to terms with their situation or explode into a histrionic breakdown, but impressively, “Return” does neither. Johnson finds the disoriented stasis of her character to be interesting enough and refuses to tack on any familiar beats, the result being a compelling film and story that feels much closer to reality. We recently spoke to the director and stars of the film, to discuss making the indie feature. “Return” opens New York and Los Angeles on February 10th, with a VOD release following on February 28th.
How They All Got Involved
With a background in visual art and plenty of short films under her belt, the filmmaker felt ready to tackle a longer form subject, and the unique perspective of “Return” came from a conversation with a chum. “A friend of mine told me about his efforts to stay married when he got back from his military deployment,” Johnson explained. “Military and civilian culture are very separated and I felt like that was a story that wasn’t told. You often hear statistics or policy fighting, but as far as that gap of empathy that opens up between one who has been in an extreme experience and another who just lived the everyday American life, that felt unfamiliar to me in a way that I was very interested in.” The next step, of course, was to find the right person for the job.
“After I was on ‘ER’ I had worked so consistently that I felt that I really wanted to step back and do something different. I got sent this script and thought it was such an amazing role,” said Cardellini, impressed with the amount of subtlety contained within. “I thought it was a relevant issue. There were tiny details in the script that would never have been on anybody else’s shot list, things that would never be totally realized on screen but would inform me as the actress for the character. It just felt different to me, and something I really wanted to be part of.”
But before the “Brokeback Mountain” actress had come on board, Michael Shannon had already agreed to play the part of Kelli’s husband, a man thrust with the responsibility of being “Mr. Mom” while his wife is in the military. Some have said that it’s a different kind of character for the “Boardwalk Empire” thesp to play, but he didn’t see it like that. “I have a very different perspective on my canon of work than most people. I understand peoples’ tendencies to lump everything I do together, but I can see a lot of variety in my work. I do play characters who have internal struggles or conflicts, but to me that seems to me to be the essence of drama, the kinda whole reason for the stuff to begin with,” he stated. He too found Johnson’s script to be brilliant and understated, intrigued by the “invisible dilemma” that plagued Kelli.
The Difficult Situation
Throughout the film, Kelli consistently states that she had a fairly easy time on her tour — there were no gruesome bodies or bloody battles that she engaged with — but even so, her time there still seems to have shaken her up. It’s an excuse she uses whenever people are brave enough to inquire about her year overseas, refusing to open up honestly regardless of her supposed lack of trauma. “I think that peoples’ experiences deserved to be valued, even in the absence of acute drama. They don’t need to be justified with severe agony, it’s still hard to be away from your family and in this destroyed world. It’s something that’s nearly impossible to narrate when you return home — a destroyed world is not a story you can tell, it’s really just a condition you’re living in,” Johnson stated. “A lot of times people that are close to soldiers think they’re ready to hear certain stories, but they’re not. What I speculate is to just be close and available to people, to ask can be a problem and to not ask can be a problem.”
A Tight Shooting Schedule Became Advantageous
With a tiny budget and a limited amount of shooting days, the team managed to find a way to use their lack of time in a positive way. “We used the speed problem as method, a way to bring ephemeral performances out that might shift or change. We really didn’t even have time to rehearse,” the director explained, “so we happened to capture chance variations between actors during takes.” Being on a network drama show for many years, Cardellini was game for the hard work that the schedule demanded. ” ‘ER’ taught me to very diligent. The usual was a 12-14 hour day and we had really long, dense scripts and it gives you a certain work ethic, for sure.”
Freaks and Geeks Memories
It was inevitable that “Freaks and Geeks” would come up given Cardellini’s prominent presence in the the Judd Apatow/Paul Feig dramedy. Canceled much too soon, the show helped launch the careers of Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, and James Franco among others and the cast recently held a reunion at the Paley Festival in Beverly Hills, CA. The actress recalled a charming anecdote involving her little brother co-star John Frances Daley, the young writer responsible for the lucrative summer comedy “Horrible Bosses.”
“He’s so talented. Even as a little kid, he used to have this video camera on set and in between takes or when he had a break he’d go out and shoot movies with the stand-ins or extras, making tiny movies. And I was like ‘Man, that kid is going to wear all kinds of production hats when he grows up.’ I’m so proud of him, and everyone, really,” she said. Even though Apatow productions try to find room for everyone, Cardellini has been unfortunately absent from his recent takeover of the comedy genre. When asked when she would crop up in one of the productions, she comically exclaimed, “That you would have to ask him, he’s in charge of that decision!” but she did note that she would be down if he’d have her.
Johnson’s New Film
With the film now hitting theaters, Johnson is already looking ahead to her next project, an adaptation of Alice Munro’s “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.” “It’s perhaps a better name for a book than a movie,” she declared with a laugh. “Mark Perrier is adapting it, and it’s about a woman who is a home healthcare worker. She moves into a house where the teenage children trick her into thinking that their estranged father is in love with him. Originally she doesn’t seem to have a lot of desire or ambition, but once those teens put one over on her she lights on fire and has to have him.” She does liken it to “Return” in terms of it being a very female-driven story set in the middle of the country, but there are also plenty of differences. “It’s a bit more comedic, but I wouldn’t exactly call it a comedy. What I really like about Munro is that it’s in everyday life but it’s so dramatic, it’s always forward moving in these little emotional ways but you’re on the edge of your chair the entire time because you’re always wondering what’s going to happen in her desire. I think it can be a really beautiful piece, it’s definitely a performance vehicle.” Casting calls are out for this one, and it’s a film she hopes she can make sometime this year.