How did the story for STILL BREATHING develop?
A I think it came from a lot of places. Part of it came from the fact that I had been frustrated for too many years trying to make my first feature film. I think I was at a point where I was finding myself writing scripts that I thought would be "commercial" in the marketplace -- but I was really betraying myself as an artist and I was getting nowhere. My first short film, MUSIC BOX, was pretty successful, and looking back on that, I thought that it had succeeded because it was made from my heart and had a sense of magic to it, and it was a film that I wanted to SEE as opposed to a film that I thought I could SELL.
So I set out to write STILL BREATHING as a film that would be one of my favorite films, even if I hadn't made it. (That may sound obvious, but thinking like that is easy to get away from in the competitiveness of the film business). My favorite films have always included the great romances, dramatic romances like WUTHERING HEIGHTS and comic romances like THE LADY EVE, as well as great European films, so I set out to make a romantic film like those, but twisted up and around in a modern way.
I had recently moved to LA from San Antonio, and both are cities that I really love, and I wanted to create the two leads as a kind of human embodiment of what the two cities mean to me. I moved out to LA right before the riots and fires and earthquake and all of those things I know made a big impression on me and on the writing of this film -- especially the LA riots, which occurred all around my neighborhood.
More than anything else, I wanted to say something about the epidemic of cynicism that I saw all around me, and also inside of myself at the time. I wanted to see, if you created a character that had essentially given up on herself, if there was a way back from the abyss. And I thought it would be interesting to mix that kind of modern dilemma with the oldest romantic fantasy ever -- that somewhere out there, a perfect mate is waiting, just for you. It is that mixture of modern despair and old-fashioned romantic-fantasy that seemed so interesting to me. I wanted to wind them up and watch them collide.
Q How would you describe the main characters in STILL BREATHING?
A I think of Fletcher as the last of the True Romantics, and of Roz as a product of her times -- a kind of romantic anti-heroine.
In most traditional romances, the heroine is looking for love, or thwarted in her desire to gain love. With Roz, I wanted to create a modern character who AVOIDED falling in love.... In fact she sees love as a sham and a weakness, and when she starts to feel something, actually RUNS from it. I think Roz lives in a topsy-turvey world -- gender roles are all twisted around and confusing these days, so that Roz's world becomes all about control, trying to control her world. I've noticed that desire in women today. It seems that all the old rules -- "grow up, look pretty, find a man, get married, have babies" -- seem to have been tossed aside and mixed up. And in their smoking ashes, all that is left is the desire to control what small things you can. That is accentuated, I think, by living in a city like Los Angeles where EVERYTHING seems out of control -- the crazy guy on the corner, the city a mess, the justice system a joke, the very ground under your feet shaking you to bits. In Roz's case, "control" means dominating the idiot men who pursue her. She sees men as predictable and easy marks, and the very fact that she can control their heads as she does, makes her despise them. That's why when she meets a guy who ISN'T predictable, who in fact is wildly unpredictable and doesn't follow the script, it drives her crazy... and both scares and excites her.
Beyond all of that, Roz is essentially an artist who has somehow betrayed her artistic soul and lost it. I think once she started to us her passion for art as a lie to control men, she lost something very dear and central to her heart. So Fletcher's making art out of everyday items and making an art out of the very act of living, is like a foggy, distant and disturbing memory to Roz. It shocks and terrorizes her, because the heart of Fletcher is what she wants back for herself, the child-like heart of an artist, but she sacrificed it all on that modern, hip altar of cynicism and self-loathing.
Fletcher's no fool or wide-eyed innocent -- he knows enough of despair and cynicism as all adults do -- it's just that he has built a world for himself where he puts those things away and chooses instead the life of the artist. He lives to create, whether it is a stack of rocks or cut up pictures or the sound of his cornet bouncing off the surface of a still river. I see Fletcher as a person who 'creates' -- not just objects of art but A LIFE -- a distinct life that he's chosen for himself -- which is of course such a fantasy in this modern world because life just seems to happen to most us -- there doesn't seem to be any control or plan or sense to any of it. Both characters are dealing with this issue of control, Roz controlling what she can in a sea of chaos and disillusionment, and Fletcher being in more complete control, staying out of the rat race, building a world for himself where materialism is irrelevant but lying in the ivy staring up at the trees and listening to the cicadas buzz is VERY relevant.
Most importantly, Fletcher has CHOSEN to love Roz, and he does so partly because he comes to believe that this is the woman that was created just for him -- but also, because he just plain chooses to love her. Roz is not such an easy person to love after all; she essentially despises herself, and what she has become, and that has covered her with prickly thorns. That kind of person is VERY hard to love, but Fletcher has this ability to see the Roz that was... and that ability and faith in Roz is what is ultimately redemptive for her.
Q What was making the film like?
A I knew I was going to be a filmmaker most of my life, from the moment I first made my little neighborhood movies with my folks' old single-8 Bell & Howell home movie camera, so the process itself was very comfortable for me. But at the same time, nothing can prepare you for actually making a real-live feature film except doing it -- so there was a lot of dancing along the way. I mean, I was directing one actor who had been nominated for three Oscars! We had an unbelievable amount of challenges, not the least being that San Antonio experienced the second-most severe drought of the century while we were filming there... it was very, very hot and every shot was on a real and usually un-air-conditioned location.
What really happened was that every day we would struggle and fight and pray to make our day -- and then we we would sit in dailies and just cry because the movie was so beautiful and it had such a real, live beating heart inside its chest. That heart was willed into the movie by a cast and crew that cared so incredibly deeply about what we were doing -- as a work of art and as a statement and as entertainment. It was a glorious and exhausting experience. There were many people who helped make this movie that I believe did the most beautiful and thoughtful work of their careers -- both in front and behind the camera. It was a very humbling and satisfying thing to be a part of.
We all trusted each other, for the most part, and because of that trust, we felt confident and free enough to be open to a lot of great new ideas. For example, I remember Joanna and I looking at Pat Hammond's (one of the owners of the location of Fletcher's house) home-made books of important times in her kid's lives. That made a big impression, and it resulted in my quickly writing two new scenes for the movie between Roz and Ida, just days before we started shooting -- now a key part of the film. I wrote those scenes in an hour and a half while we also did a fitting for Joanna's costumes. Now, that is one of my favorite scenes.
The real miracle of the movie is that we had an Executive Producer, Joyce Schweickert, who more than anything else, wanted to make a beautiful and meaningful film. She is a person who is a true film lover and a person with great vision. It was due to her faith in me and in the movie, (and the tenacity and creativity of producer Marshall Persinger), that we got the amazing cast and crew we did, and made a film that we are all so proud of.