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.
“I wrote this film with my co-writer, probably about six years ago,” explains Kramer, “the attitude at the time was to try to create eight pieces that felt like aspects of the female psyche.” Pain. Fear. Leadership. Villainy. Violence. Sexuality. Sensuality. Activity. Fertility. Frailty. Tenderness. These distinct characteristics in an ensemble come together to form a complete picture of what the writer/director calls “one woman’s mind unraveling.”
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.”
Although they did not have the ability to rehearse prior to shooting, they did spend a lot of time on set blocking and talking about where the camera would be before the rolling on each scene.
“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?”
One scene in particular, as the girls try to pick a leader, over the remnants of a birthday cake, really brings to mind Davinci’s The Last Supper. “Of course, we’re referencing all that kind of theatrical, painter-ly notions,” she says, “because if you were eight people and you went to sit at a table, you’d sit on both sites. Obviously. But this idea that you sit like a council. You sit like an arc of dictators, like a nation, or something. We wanted a visual of that. It also means you can’t look each other in the eye.” In fact, when someone does turn their head, from one person to another, it really becomes a huge moment.
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.”
Adding to the tension that continually threatens to to suffocate the film is a truly inventive score from Callie Ryan. An oppressive cacophony of voices, layered on top of each other, remind us that this not a traditional film. “Those are all her voices,” Kramer says of Ryan’s score, “and that’s every range of voice. She watched the footage. She was on set a little bit. She tried to create vocal sounds for each character. I said to her people should have themes that are manipulative, that make you feel, that give you fear. When themes reoccur, we understand through repetition.” In fact, the music manages to manipulate the girls as much as they manipulate each other, becoming, like the house, another character. “She’s the voice in all of their heads,” the director says, “I realized the female voice was all we needed. We didn’t need excess music. We didn’t need strings and keys, plus other manipulating forces in composition. We just needed this one voice. We would know when to fear and when to hide and we would know when to exalt, by her guiding voice.”
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.