When Daryl Hannah joined boyfriend Neil Young and his band in the Colorado mountains ahead of a concert, she never expected to leave with her first feature as a director, let alone a future Netflix property that the streaming service would premiere as a SXSW headliner.
A whimsical 73 minutes, “Paradox” stars Young as the Man in the Black Hat, a musical clan’s standoffish patriarch. He watches as his real-life Promise of the Real collaborators, including Micah and Lukas Nelson — sons of Willie, who has a cameo — pass time with penny poker and treasure foraging (a montage accompanied by the song “Diggin’ in the Dirt”). One character takes an outdoor bath while wearing red, head-to-toe long johns. The end credits possess a “critters” section, acknowledging non-human actors like a marmot, owl, and grasshopper; their natural habitat doubled as an impromptu set.
Courtesy of Netflix
Billed as a “long poem,” so far “Paradox” is confounding critics. Hannah — best known for acting in ’80s staples like “Blade Runner,” “Splash,” “Wall Street,” and “Steel Magnolias,” and who recently revealed past harassment from Harvey Weinstein — spoke to IndieWire about how her “home movie” got worldwide distribution, and the best mindset for watching the unconventional film.
Your short “The Last Supper” won a Jury Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival 25 years ago. I’m sure people encouraged you to make a feature back then and perhaps you thought about it, too. Why such a long wait to direct a full-length film?
I’ve actually been making lots of shorts. I’ve directed lots of music videos, I’ve made lots of documentaries, and I have been working on a narrative film for a while, like a real one. That’s based on an old Irish folktale that has been adapted by [W. B.] Yeats. And a couple other stories that I’ve got in development as well as a producer. But this movie wasn’t really intended to be a feature length. Not only was this going to be a short, I only wrote a 10-page script, then everybody just started riffing, as musicians do. And so it grew. This isn’t a real movie in the normal sense. We did it by ourselves. We didn’t have a crew, we didn’t get a budget. We just made a movie. I used my cellphone, I used a Super 8 camera, [cinematographer Adam] CK [Vollick] had a Sony camera with a microphone on it. And that was it. That was our entire crew.
How long was your shoot?
Three days! [laughs] Neil and the band were preparing for a short tour before the Desert Trip [October 2016 music festival in Indio, Calif.], and their tour started up in the Rockies. The last time they played together in the Rockies, they played at Red Rock[s Ampitheatre, in Morrison, Colorado], and almost all of them passed out and had to actually get oxygen [from] tanks at the side of the stage. So during songs they’d go and take a huff of oxygen so they could keep playing. This time they were wise about it, and realized that they were even going [to a] higher altitude, so they decided to spend a few days at altitude to adjust before they had to start playing. I figured if they’re going to be sitting around for three days — the only thing they had to do was spend an hour each day learning a couple of new songs that Neil had written — let’s just take advantage of that time and [laughing] make a movie! They all are incredibly creative and playful guys and they’re so fun, so they were all really game. It was like a grown-up version of kids putting on a show in the backyard.
How much detail were you able to fit into a 10-page script?
We don’t say, ‘You’re going to sing this song and you’ll play it this way.’ I would be talking to CK about what we’re going to shoot next, and I noticed the guys were sitting around the campfire playing, and we’d run down there and catch it. It wasn’t something that we had scripted or planned. Every song that they play, that was the only time they played it, they never did a take two. When they played “Angels Flying Too Close to the Ground” I was still putting microphones on them. It’s kind of a spontaneous film. It’s not really plot-driven.
Writers are having trouble describing the film when publishing links to the the trailer. Labels are constricting, but Netflix is a platform of convenience: “Does this sound like something I want to watch right at home right now?” What should viewers know going in?
Most people, when they make a real film, they get a budget, they get a crew, they’ve been working on it for years. This was completely different. This is just a spontaneous creative expression of a bunch of people having fun together. Take it in that lighthearted spirit where [you] just let it wash over you, don’t try to make it fit into a box — sci-fi, murder mystery, western, psychological drama. It’s just a good vibe, good feeling, fun, silly, lighthearted dream. If you let your expectations go, then I think you can really enjoy it; but if you want it to fit into any kind of formal serious filmmaking category, it’s just going to be a disappointment. [laughs]
Neil Young has been directing movies since the ’70s, often under the pseudonym Bernard Shakey. Were you intimidated at all to show him “Paradox”?
A lot of his movies are sort of similar, like he just shoots them with his friends and family and that’s the same way we did this one. So he’s used to working in that way that is just a little homespun kind of thing, a little abstract. I think even some of the films that he’s done are even a little bit more production quality than this because they actually had sets built and minimal crews. But still, they were very inspired and freeform. We edited it on the computer at home. The whole thing was like a home movie [laughs]. So it wasn’t a surprise.
Photo by Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images for Netflix
How did Netflix get involved? It’s such a massive corporate entity, and everything they put out feels like the opposite of a home movie.
Completely. That was a total surprise. I had been working with Netflix for the last three years doing “Sense8.” On the last day, one of the executives who’s in charge of our show at Netflix said, “I would love to see the film you’re working on,” because they knew that I went straight from filming “Sense8” to shooting this movie. And I’m like, “Oh my God, it’s totally not for you guys, it’s not that kind of thing, but I’m happy to show it to you.” So we went over there and they just thought it was really fun. They didn’t know what to expect, and I think they just enjoyed themselves. They told me they felt like they were floating after they saw it; they didn’t want to go back to work [laughs]. Then they made an offer right away. Most of their films are bonafide productions. So this is [laughs] very different. And I think that’s cool because if Netflix can show little personal creative expressions as well as big studio things, then that would open up maybe a new route for independent filmmaking to get some exposure.
Last year, only eight of the 100 top-grossing movies were directed by women. Do you feel like a pioneer?
I definitely feel like it’s time for change, on all fronts. I didn’t go get financed. I think that’s the part that women have a hard time [with]. Anyone can make a film like this, because this is just made on my phone and on Super 8. But in terms of people who stand behind women, we’ve still got an uphill battle.
Who have been your directing mentors?
I’ve been really, really fortunate to work with some of the greatest directors of all time, including my last director, Lana Wachowski [on “Sense8”]. One of the things that’s so great about Lana is she keeps her input flowing throughout the scene. Like she’ll talk during scenes or stand behind the cameraman and walk with him like they’re one body, and she is constantly taking inspiration from whatever’s happening in the moment and incorporating it into the scenes. So I just did all of those things; but unfortunately she has a much bigger budget and more professional set-up, so she can remove her voice from scenes a lot easier than I can [laughs]. That caused me some problems in the end.
I’m going to go look up this Yeats story you’re adapting — what’s it called?
I don’t want to tell you: what if someone else tries to steal it from me? [laughs] I’m a game inventor, I’ve invented numerous boardgames. I’ve learned from the toy industry that if you tell your ideas they can easily get stolen.
You’ve invented boardgames?
Oh, yeah. I’ve invented four boardgames that have come out on the market [including Famous Last Lines, Liebrary, and Love it or Hate it], but I’ve invented lots of toys, things like that, too. There’s a lot of espionage, and there is in the film industry as well.
Interview has been edited and condensed.“Paradox” debuts on Netflix next Friday, March 23. The film will also have a limited theatrical release.