Confined spaces. Plight and fear. Lack of leadership. These are things that bring out the character, and all elements of play in Writer/Director Amanda Kramer’s film LADYWORLD. Co-Written by Benjamin Shearn, the film plays out like psychological, female-centric version of Lord of the Flies as eight teen girls are trapped in a house after an earthquake.
Every filmmaker wants their film watched on the big screen, but for me, watching this film on my monitor with the headphones, the claustrophobia that engulfs the victims of the film was overpowering. The eight girls quickly divide into two camps, led by the mostly rational Olivia (Ariela Barer) and the mostly carnal Piper (Annalise Basso), alliances are made, broken, back-stabbing occurs, plans made, and defeat resigned to. It’s the perfect metaphor for growing up, and the fact that the earthquke occurs during a birthday party only drives the coming of age story home. I had a chance to chat with Amanda Kramer before the film’s premiere at Fantastic Fest.
Still, it’s not over the top. It’s not purely representational. Every character feels like they go through a little bit of their character arc, even if the house as a whole makes the biggest change. The characters feel human, although the performances could never be called naturalistic. “I’m not a realist,” she says, “I’m not looking for natural performances and I’m not looking for them to create real teenage girls. I was looking for them to be something more operatic. I think they were able to find that pitch, and evolve, and devolve, and took on really beautiful, haphazardly naturalistic ways.”
Before shooting, the director had conversations with the actresses about each of their characters, and what they were trying to do together. “I really wanted to hit one tone across the board with all of them,” she points out, “I wanted them to act with each other and act off each other, but that requires a lot of discussion of what the film will look like. What it will feel like.” Reference points included A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE, where Gena Rowlands is going nuts, and encouraging the actresses to have same kind of abandon. “They were used to playing female characters that were very ‘teenage’ and insecure,” she explains, “whatever those trait characteristics of the teenage girl is — everything from being a quote-unquote ‘bitch,’ a ‘nice girl,’ a ‘slut’ or whatever. I was like, ‘we’re going to abandon all that.’ I think they immediately understood, even though I’m sure that’s not what other directors ask of them.”
“I asked them to really ‘stick the acting,’” Kramer says, “which means don’t hold for close-ups. We’re getting it all in the wide. If you wanna cry, there’s no close up coming. Cry now. If you want to drop to your knees, do it now. I think that provided these very wild moments where there was no holding back. It was a little bit of harsh blocking and training and chorography, then a lot of spontaneity and a lot of fresh attitudes toward the scene.”
With the cinematography so planned, most shots feel like moving portraits, rather than bits of cinema. Patrick Meade Jones lets most of the scenes play out in the long, uncomfortable wides, giving the audience the experience of being in the theater – their eyes can go where they want to, watch what character they want to. “What you’re able to see,” says the director, “is a full performance. You can see it unfolding in real time, a two minute up to a 7-minute scene of unbroken acting. It’s real. It’s not letting the audience off the hook. These girls can’t escape — why should you be able to?”
The final scene of the film, which I won’t reveal, plays out in the longest uncomfortable single shot I can remember, and filming in such a small space meant Kramer could not even be in th room. “I have to get pretty far away from away, go to the monitor,” she remembers, “and all they’re looking at is this giant white light. They can’t see anything. They can’t see out into the world. They can’t see my cinematographer. They can only see this light. I just sat at the monitor and started to cry. It was just beautiful.”
Kramer is very aware that the movie is going to upset some people. “I know that’s a bit dystopian,” she admits, “I know that’s a bit upsetting and I know people are looking for something a bit uplifting, especially when they’re discussing female friendships, but that was a note I just had to hit. It’s too complex.” In fact, despite the reference point of Lord of the Flies, LADYWORLD is very different. “I think the thing about William Golding” she says, “and what he was able to do with Jack and Ralph and Piggy and Simon and his main characters —something far more didactic and straightforward. He’s able to say here’s the good boy, here’s the bad boy, and I’m like, ‘meh, women are more complicated.’ Kramer didn’t want a total hero, a total villain. She wanted eight villains. “What does it look like when you’re looking at eight selfish, bratty teens who are essentially out for themselves, creating alliances and shifting allegiances due to the fact that they want to survive,” she asks, “I don’t think it’s communal. … I think these are eight people in self-preservation mode. That’s what makes it different potentially from other female friendships. That feeling that everyone else is a link on a chain, providing safety and security and then breaking all the links in the chain and saying, ‘if they potentially could have linked together, something good could have happened.’ But it wasn’t possible and that’s human nature. Sorry everyone.”
There you go. LADYWORLD, sure to divisive, but certain to be one of the most memorable films of Fantastic Fest 2018.