The Tribeca Film Festival wrapped up this weekend, and we’ve caught quite a few great films at the fest this year. One of our favorites was “AWOL,” from Deb Shoval, making her directorial feature debut. The film stars Lola Kirke as Joey, a young woman from a small, economically depressed town in Pennsylvania, who has dreams of escaping for a better life through the Army. Her plans get complicated when she becomes entangled in a torrid love affair with the married mom of two, Rayna (Breeda Wool), which lead to life changing decisions. Our review called the film an “arresting love story,” that’s “thematically rich, and confidently directed with a clear point of view, set against a backdrop of relevant socioeconomic and cultural issues.”
We had a chance to sit down with director Shoval and star Kirke during the festival to talk about the film, including an exploration of the characters’ internal motivations, the cultural background that informs the love story, and their future plans. Kirke also shared one of her acting tips, and what Shoval’s got on deck for her next project.
The Playlist: Deb, what was the initial spark for this movie?
Deb Shoval: I made a short film, which we shot during this blizzard in January in 2010, which was also called “AWOL,” about the character Joey coming home from the Army for a few days at Christmastime, with big dreams of running away with her married girlfriend. It was very much an exploration of what became the feature. I was just doing a small project looking to tell a story to capture this sense of place, the world that I’m from, which is this post industrial meets rural part of Pennsylvania.
I started to research young women in the military, with questions about why young people are still joining the military all these years after September 11th, and then why are some of them choosing to leave before their time is done. I started interviewing people, so fictional Joey is very much based on some of the people I interviewed.
Lola, what was it that drew you to the role when you read the script?
Lola Kirke: I’d never read a character like that, particularly a female character. It’s a role which is generally reserved for boys, but I think that there’s also something incredibly feminine about Joey. She’s not simply just a tomboy, and that’s what I liked about her. She’s very dynamic.
I really connected with her on the level of her music. I really wanted to sing in a movie without being in a musical, because I don’t like musicals. I’m really glad this isn’t a singing soldier film. It was the character, it was that she was a musician, but also beyond that it was the socioeconomic and political landscape the film is set against that I found really compelling. I too was very curious to see why someone joins the military, and what you make of your life when you have very few options and there are limitations around it.
One of the things I love about the movie is that it’s not just a lesbian story, but it also has all these other elements — the economy, the political landscape, where they’re from — that influences their decisions. How did you try to establish a sense of place?
Shoval: We did shoot in and around Wilkes-Barre, PA. For me, it was more than anything about authentic locations. If we get the right locations in the first place, first of all it makes the production designer’s job much easier. Also, sometimes people would say when they read the script, how are you gonna show this? We just need the authentic locations and it’ll be very clear. Outside of New York, people love having you shoot in their ice cream parlor or country fair.
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Lola, what was it like to shoot there and be in that town?
Kirke: Being in that town, it’s very evident that it’s the remains of a booming coal industry. It’s either strip malls or very old fashioned little village streets. The people were really, really welcoming, wanted us to be there, and excited that we were making a movie. I’m from New York City, and I’ve never lived in a place like that, but getting to shoot there was incredibly helpful because it was very immersive.
What’s your take on the characters’ internal motivations as the story progresses, with the love story taking a turn?
Kirke: Joey wants to do the right thing until she falls so in love that doing the wrong thing becomes really appealing. That’s happened to me and everyone I know, because the most important thing, suddenly, is this other person and not herself. I was so happy that we got to do that in a film because I think lots of people can really relate to that experience. She wants Rayna more than she wants herself for awhile. It’s so first love to me. You forget that you’re 21 years old and you’ve got so much else to do.
Shoval: Joey is through and through a good girl, she’s so loyal. Once her loyalty becomes to Rayna, she has to do whatever’s the most helpful thing in the situation, which is something I love about her. Growing up in a place like that, she knows that there’s something better for her, being in the band with the older guys is her first wave of trying to get out, and then joining the Army is another attempt. Ultimately she is a character who is gonna get out of that town and be something more.
With Rayna, she’s a very complicated person. In that little 900 person town where she lives, she’s definitely the most beautiful girl in the town, everybody knows her, everybody had a crush on her at some point. There’s something really safe in that — the idea of leaving is petrifying. So she tries to create situations that lock her into a certain reality.
How did you create the on screen romantic chemistry?
Kirke: There’s an inevitable bonding that happens between people on a film set. Breeda and I really get along, and I love Breeda, so that helps, as far as establishing a romantic connection. We didn’t really do anything to do that — you do what’s in the script. We were lucky to actually love one another. If the script says run you run, if the script says fuck, you pretend to fuck.
Deb, what other kinds of films do you want to make? Do you want to continue in a personal vein?
Shoval: I’m working on an eco-thriller love story. It’s also very personal for me, I did a lot of environmental activism, and it’s very much set in this world. The main characters meet in the tree tops, they’re tree sitters fighting the bulldozing of old growth forest. It’s very much about landscape and really beautiful, but I am excited to challenge myself to something that’s faster-paced, and much larger in scope, many locations.
Lola, you’re such a chameleon in your film roles. What’s your approach to getting inside these characters and inhabiting them in the very specific physical way?
Kirke: I don’t have anything specific, and I want to. I’m working now on a way of going into work and spending time with myself and my instrument — my body and voice. I want to find a way to ground myself when I go to work because it’s a very un-grounding thing, in different locations, it’s 4:30 in the morning and you’re pretending it’s not.
I try and be as faithful as possible to the text, and collaborate with the other actors, collaborate with the director. If there’s an accent or a very specific place, doing research about those places and listening to accent tapes. There are accent tag videos on YouTube, they’re amazing. I highly recommend watching them. I’m very grateful to all of them. Shout out to the accent taggers.