Friday, June 14, 2013

SFF Selections 2013: "Red Velvet" Review & My Interview With Director Aude Cuenod

Red Velvet * * * *

     With the popularity of film's like Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive or Christopher Nolan's... well anything, the "film-noir" is cinematically in vogue. A staple of all great noir conspicuously absent from many "neo-noirs" of late is the femme fatal: the beautiful, mysterious, powerful woman who lets noir's men think they hold a good set of cards when she in fact holds the whole deck. With DePalma-esque eroticism, Aude Cuenod's masterful genre short Red Velvet not only finds noir's seemingly lost femme fatale, but its small cast of essentially three is almost entirely made up of women (subverting the genre's archaic gender dynamics in much the same way the Wachowski's Bound did).

     Her apartment bathed in an Almodovar-ian red glow (just like Kim Novak's green-lit room in Hitchcock's Vertigo) and her nerve on the brink
Kim Novak in a still from Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo
of coming undone, repressed Mary hypnotically pulls the first thread to her own unraveling by making a phone call to the icy and volatile Alice. Hoping for a way inside her suppressed memories of what drove them to estrangement, Mary invites Alice to meet. As truths are revealed, the palpably charged friction between the two women comes to a startling head enshrouding the open-air cafe where they sit in claustrophobic tension. Cuenod's use of sumptuous visuals, saturated color, and an ambient score perfectly choreographed to sync with and propel forth the short's action allow her to unfold a story that evokes cinematic traditions while still distinguishing itself as something original.

     I had the privilege of meeting both Red Velvet's director Aude Cuenod and producer Tyler Byrne at its official world premier screening at this year's Sarasota Film Festival. She is clearly a director to watch as she has written and directed a brilliant genre short in Red Velvet and is currently writing her first feature. Gracious as she is talented, Cuenod agreed to an email interview with me. Her infectious passion for film in all its intricacies and her reverence for the medium as an art form are immediately apparent in every word of her thoughtful, thorough, and insightful responses. Our interview is as follows:

     Can you talk about your background in film? According to IMDB, you did camera work on both Higher Ground and Beasts of the Southern Wild (two films I have nothing but praises for), how did those experiences impact or lead to Red Velvet ?

     I came to film through interests in several different artistic disciplines: I studied theater from an early age, had a passion for still photography and creative writing and played the piano since I was 5. But it wasn’t until I became a film major at Wesleyan University and started making short films that I fully understood that all of these interests could coalesce into one discipline. The Wesleyan Film Studies program is a unique blend of analysis, theory and practice and by the time I finished my 16mm senior thesis film, I knew that I wanted to dedicate myself to writing and directing films.

     After graduating from college, my aim was to get “real world” experience working on sets and observing how directors interacted with their cast and crews. I was an assistant for documentary filmmaker, Peter Friedman, then moved to Louisiana to work as a carpenter and camera PA on Beasts of the Southern Wild and then to upstate New York to work as a camera PA on two union films: Higher Ground and The Last Keepers. Each of these experiences built on the last and gave me a deeper understanding of film-making and the film business. I had the opportunity to observe several directing styles and I started to form an idea of what kind of director I wanted to be. I knew that the independent film world and its technology were rapidly changing and I wanted to understand the entire process of making a film—from writing to gaffing and color correcting. Film is a craft as well as an art and a successful director, in my opinion, understands every step of the process. A director doesn’t have to know how to physically do everything, but in order to best communicate with their cast and crew, they have to understand what steps are being taken and why.

     I made it a point while directing Red Velvet to be as hands on in as many parts of the process as I could. I was very grateful for the experiences I had on feature film sets which made it possible for me to direct my short film with confidence: I understood how much time a lighting and camera setup could take, for example, and I knew how I wanted to communicate with my actors on set.  Even more important than the practical training and building an understanding of the film business, however, are the things that attracted me to film in the first place and that continue to inspire me: storytelling through images, performance, and the musical processes of editing and scoring a film which both enhance the story and transport the audience into the emotional world of the film.

A shot from Red Velvet

     The director who most inspired me was Benh Zeitlin and his family-style of film-making. Benh and his producing team put together a crew hell bent on creatively working through any obstacle that came our way and I think that Beasts of the Southern Wild was all the more authentic and beautiful because everyone working on it approached the process as an adventure and a challenge. One of Benh’s strongest virtues as a director was his ability to keep his unique vision of the film clear while inviting the creativity of his crew to be an active participant in making the film. As a director, you set the tone for how other people work on your project. Benh’s unshakable faith in his story, style, cast and crew and his determination and drive inspired how hard everyone else worked.

     In every film that I make, I want to collaborate with driven, creative and adventurous people who are as passionate about making the film as I am and I want everyone involved to be creatively participating in the making of the film. I hope for all of the members of the crew to challenge and inspire each other during the process. What I enjoyed most while making Red Velvet were all of the wonderful collaborations. I discussed my idea for the film with everyone and their creative feedback was what made the film come alive for me.

     Can you speak as to the genesis of  Red Velvet? Was it always conceived as such a visual story or did the film-making process transform it from its original state?

     All of the short films I have made in the past have had very little dialogue and were focused on the images. Red Velvet was different because it began as an exercise in writing dialogue. I had been a part of actress and acting coach Alice Spivak’s scene study class for almost a year in NYC when I wrote the script for Red Velvet. My study of classical theater heavily influenced the script which is essentially built around one meeting scene between two characters who have very different objectives: Mary is seeking comfort from Alice and has come to learn a secret that she has suppressed in her memory and Alice has come to find out if the secret has leaked out and to try and bury it forever.

A still from Red Velvet

     Although cinema most interests me as a visual art form, I also wanted to get more experience directing a dialogue-heavy script so I gave myself parameters to start off: one location, two characters, one shared secret and an emphasis on dialogue. After writing the entire conversation in the café, I started to re-work the script and the mostly silent and very visual beginning of the film began to form. I added two new locations, Alice’s office and Mary’s cluttered bedroom, that function to give the audience a sense of who the characters are before they confront each other in the café. I also added several flashbacks at the tail-end of the conversation which visually show the traumatic event in their past rather than just "tell it" through dialogue.

     At Wesleyan, one professor presented us with the idea that cinema is the “Art of Omission.” What you reveal and what you conceal are what makes a film and that is true of every piece of the puzzle-- from the compositions of the images and the camera movements to the dialogue, the editing and the music. The function of dialogue, I believe, should be exactly the same as the function of all the other devices in the film -to further the story and establish the style and tone of the film through what is said and what is left imagined. What we shot during our 6-day shoot was very close to the final draft of the script. I think that short films should be very tightly wrought and carefully planned out in advance because there isn’t enough screen time or material to make up for sloppy writing in the edit. This was especially true for the Red Velvet script because of its non-linear narrative structure and use of flashbacks. I knew how visual I wanted the film to be before we started shooting and the fact that it was dialogue-heavy never detracted me from trying to say as much as I could with the images.

     Even in the dialogue-heavy part of the film, the details of the colors, the compositions and the camera movements were all  devised in advance in collaboration with my production designer, Mimi Bai, and cinematographer, Zoë White, so as to further the story and allow the audience to delve deeper into Mary’s subjective memory. Mimi Bai and I established a changing color palette for the café scene -as Mary engages Alice and starts to relive the memory of her past, more and more red objects invade the frame. Zoë White and I also devised ways to slightly change the camera angle, movement and placement so as to visually represent the power-dynamics

A scene from Red Velvet

between the characters, build tension and establish Mary’s subjectivity. Although the beginning of the scene in the café is static and the two characters are almost never in the same shot together, when Mary begins to unravel psychologically, the shot-scale pushes in, thereby eliminating the distance between the characters.  The camera crosses the line then begins to move freely. As the conversation reaches its climax, the faces of the actresses fill up more and more of the frame until we dive into Mary’s subjective memory of the event. All of these devices, although subtle, are deliberate and visual strategies which, in conjunction with the dialogue and all the other elements at play, are meant to function to tell the story of Alice and Mary’s encounter and its aftermath in cinematic terms.

     Your short seems to draw on genre archetypes, do you consider it a genre film? What genres and even specific films (if any) did you draw inspiration from?

     Red Velvet was inspired by the film noir genre and psychological dramas. The use of flash-backs and an emphasis on subjectivity are staples of the film noir genre as are the themes of being bound and defined by one’s past. The characters in a film noir are, from the onset, doomed to be caught up by their past. Mary and Alice are film noir archetypes with Alice resembling a femme fatale and Mary most resembling the hapless hero unwittingly manipulated to be a part of the femme fatale’s twisted plans. Jacques Tourner’s Out of the Past was a big inspiration for Red Velvet. Psychological dramas which explore the subjective experience of a character and blur the line between reality and dreams/hallucinations were also inspirations such as Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, Darren Aronofky’s Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream and Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries. I studied films outside of the genre I was going for as inspiration for specific strategies I wanted to try. Sidney Lumet’s Twelve Angry Men and Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder, for example, were great inspirations for the use of subtle changes in composition, lighting, camera movement and angle to dramatize dialogue-heavy scripts locked in one location.

     The technical aspects of your short coalesce so coherently to unify around its clear and singular vision: from its Almodovar-ian use of saturated colors (most sumptuously the reds), to its ambient score perfectly timed to and propelling forth the action (not to mention its cinematography, production design, and editing), can you talk about your creative and collaborative process with your technical team? Did you have a pre-existing directorial vision of all these elements or were "of-the-moment" decisions made consensually with your team throughout production?

     The most exciting part of making Red Velvet was opening up the script to collaborators and working with them to make the story come to life. The writing process is very internal and solitary and incredibly rewarding in its own right but the externalization and realization of a film with collaborators is almost magical. Red Velvet is the product of the creative impulses and drive of several very talented people that I had the wonderful opportunity to work with.

     The collaborations started in pre-production when I scouted out the locations with creative producer Tyler Byrne in NYC and upstate New York. We spent many weekends talking about the film and knocking on doors and looking for the perfect river on a property that would allow us to shoot overnight. I also had meetings in pre-production with all key crew-members to discuss the idea and style for the film as well as the psychology of the characters and their story. Mimi Bai, production designer, and Brooke Bennett, costume designer, and I met to discuss the use of costumes and props that would help define the characters and propel the story forward. Mimi and cinematographer Zoë White and I also scouted all of the major locations together to discuss the geography of the space and the blocking of the action in advance.

Robyn Rikoon in Red Velvet

     The color palettes and general "look" of the film needed to be discussed by all departments well before the shoot-- the use of stuffy reds, browns and blacks in Mary's room were coordinated to offset the bright yellow, grey and white in Alice's office at the beginning of the film and everything in the frame, from the props to the costumes and the makeup, had to harmoniously work together to achieve the desired effect. Zoë White devised her lighting to create a mood and carve out the action in accordance with the characters' personalities, states of mind and where we were in the story. Zoë and I also spent many hours discussing Mary's subjective experience of the confrontation in the cafe so that, when it came time to make a shot-list, we knew why we needed to keep the camera static or use a push-in at different points. We also decided to use a hand-held camera to shoot the flash-back sequences as opposed to very controlled camera movements for the present. All of this prep-work was also necessary for purely technical reasons-- we needed to know which days we would have to rent different types of equipment such as a dolly and a jib arm. We shot listed every single take, action, insert and line of dialogue.

     The great thing about making small films is that you get to work with people who are just as driven and invested as you are in the story and their participation at every step of the process is what propels the entire project forward. People wear many hats and creatively work their way through difficulties. Since our AD had to leave on the 2nd day of the shoot, producer Richard Peete stepped up to be AD on set and I remember a long night between shoot days when Tyler, Richard and I stayed up drawing schedule scenarios on a white-board to plan out the shot-list for the next day in the most strategic way.

Christina Brucato in Red Velvet

     In post-production, I also had the opportunity to collaborate with incredibly creative professionals who brought their own touches and sensibilities to the film. Carmen Morrow, who edited the film, spent ten days with me in NYC for a marathon edit. Composer Phill Boucher and I spent many hours on Skype and over the phone discussing the film (he was in LA) and I would send him rough cuts during the edit and he would compose a piece, then send it back to me for notes. The score evolved along with the edit and I am so grateful that both Carmen and Phill were flexible and excited to work with a changing piece. Working with them over several weeks and "drafts" of the film allowed for the product to change and deepen until it felt right. I also had wonderful collaborators for the color correction process, done my Jeremy Newmark, and the sound design by Jeff Hinton.

     What I learned while making Red Velvet, and I think this is true both for short and feature film-making, is that the most important things are to understand your characters and story and to have done the prep work. As a director, your job is to have a clear idea of what kind of film you want to make and why, to discuss it in depth with your cast and crew and to have the flexibility and creativity to open up the project to fruitful collaborations. Of course elements of the unexpected and surprise always crop up during production and so the aim is to have thought in depth about every step of the process and for everyone involved to know the characters and the story so well so that when unexpected events occur, there can be elegant, creative solution thought up by the team. We did not have any major rearrangements to do on Red Velvet but we had a lot of unknown variables to work with (weather, river at night, live dog etc.) and we knew, because we had prepared ourselves, that we would be able to come up with a solution if anything did happen. That allowed for the process to be creative and flexible while staying on track.

An image from Red Velvet

     When directors achieve quality in short-film-making, it often acts as a springboard for future opportunities in feature-film-making. Do you have a feature on the way? Can you speak as to any projects you have in the works?

     I am in the process of developing a script that takes place between modern day Detroit and Tunisia in the 1940's. The script is a parallel narrative that weaves two stories together: the story of William, a 75-year-old artist and French immigrant from Tunisia  who lives in modern Detroit and strikes up a friendship with Justin, a gifted boy from a broken family, and the story of William's past growing up in Tunisia in the 1940's. The script is in its early development stage and both Tyler Byrne and Richard Peete, who produced Red Velvet, are attached as producers on this feature project. We are currently applying to labs to further develop the screenplay.

     Lastly, something I will always ask of every director working in America who I interview: can you comment as to your thoughts on the state of American cinema today?

     I am excited and optimistic about the state of American cinema today and that might be partly because I am new to the industry and continually inspired by the people I have had the opportunity to meet and collaborate with. I am constantly amazed at the many opportunities available to filmmakers, be that through grants or labs to develop screenplays or crowd-funding sources or new software and hardware that give us the ability to create films with smaller budgets and the flexibility to edit them on our laptops. With Red Velvet, my team and I are also discovering the US film festival world and the incredible access to films that they provide and the collaborations between filmmakers that they help foster.

     With Beasts of the Southern Wild this year, I think the film industry as a whole was strongly reminded that small movies crafted with passion can
find their way to audience’s hearts and it was also clear that it is not necessary to have a multi-million dollar budget to make an incredible film. I think that it is an exciting time for American cinema when the access to cheaper, leaner and more efficient hardware and software to make films has opened up the door for productions that could never have seen the light of day a few years ago. I think that the challenges in making a good film remain, as always, in learning how to craft a good story and in building the dedication, passion and vision that drive the making of a unique and important work. As a whole, I have found that the film industry is full of passionate, creative and active people who want to challenge and inspire themselves and others through cinema. I hope that filmmakers will continue to make films for reasons that are important to them and will continue to tell their stories, brave status quos and make us reflect on who we are through their work. Those are some of the reasons I am passionate about continuing to make films.

Thanks again to Aude Cuenod for her masterful short film and in-depth responses!

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