Slamdance 2011: Interview with Directors of “Stranger Things”

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Slamdance Film Festival, Park City’s celebration of truly independent filmmakers, came to a close this past Thursday, January 27th.  Here at Sound on Sight we’re wrapping up our interview series with 2011 Slamdance filmmakers. Today’s interview is with husband and wife duo Eleanor Burke and Ron Eyal whose film Stranger Things won Slamdance’s Grand Jury Sparky Award for Best Narrative Film.

Check out our interview with Burke and Eyal  conducted before the Slamdance awards were announced. You can read all the juicy stories about what it’s like to be partners in both matrimony and directing: the disagreements, the drama! Just kidding. It seems they get along smashingly, and as filmmakers, work really well together. Enjoy.

Synopsis:

Oona, a young woman dealing with the loss of her mother, reaches out to a stranger: Mani, a mysterious homeless man of Middle-­Eastern origin, whom she invites to stay on her property. Despite the space between them, Oona and Mani gradually form an unusual intimacy.

This delicate and compelling film, set on the south coast of England, explores themes of friendship, loss and human vulnerability.

To begin, congratulations on getting into Slamdance, and from what I’ve read, on winning best picture at the Woodstock Film Festival.

Burke & Eyal: Thanks so much! We’re both very excited to be a part of Slamdance and have had a brilliant time here in Park City.

Can you name some of your favorite films/directors? Would you say you have the same taste in films?

Burke: It was Truffaut’s 400 Blows that first made me want to make films. As a Brit, I’ve always loved Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and the 60s kitchen sink films.

Eyal: We have a lot of crossover in our favourite films. We’re both into Cassavetes, Agnes Varda. Also, contemporaries like Kelly Reichardt, the Safdie Bros and Andrea Arnold. I do have a thing for horror films that Eleanor doesn’t entirely share.

How did you both get into filmmaking?

Burke: When I look back I can see that I grew up constantly creating stories. I would draw with my sister and we would make up stories about the characters in the pictures and act out plays. I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker as a teenager.

Eyal: Eleanor and I met at NYU in the Grad Film Program. Neither of us had studied film before that, although I did make a lot of short films during my undergrad time at Berkeley. I was a co-founder of a filmmaking group there called Robotmedia.

You’ve worked on other projects together, but this was your first time co-directing a film. Do you think this will become a trend for you? Or will co-directing be more of a rare occasion thing?

Eyal: We really love working together and on set it felt very natural to co-direct. We had previously co-written scripts and Eleanor had shot films for me. We already had a very close working relationship. We will continue working as a team.

From the synopsis, it seems there’s a strong link between the loss Oona is experiencing and the “foreignness” of Mani. Can you talk about why those parallels were drawn if they were at all?

Burke: The film is about a young woman who invites a homeless man to stay in a shed on her property. She gradually lets him in, in many senses of the word. We were interested in the idea of “inside” and “outside” and both characters are outsiders isolated in a particular way. Oona’s loss of her mother is part of that.

Eyal: The film explores the experience of reaching out. These two very different people find each other and gradually find companionship together.

You boast “untraditional” directing methods for this film. Can you give an example of how you directed your actors? And why you chose to do it that way? How well did the actors take to your methods?

Eyal: We wrote “Stranger Things” for the two lead actors, Bridget Collins and Adeel Akhtar.We’d worked with them before and knew how subtle and powerful their performances could be and how committed they were as actors. Before the shoot, we workshopped the characters and backstories with the actors. During production, we gave them the script in segments. This meant that the actors only knew as much as their characters would for any particular scene.

Burke: Bridget and Adeel knew our directing style well already, so I don’t think they were surprised by the way we work. They had a lot of freedom. Many of the very touching moments – the small, delicate moments that really stick with you – were created by the actors. We put the actors at the center of the way we work. We had a very intimate set: we worked with a small crew and because we used natural light we avoided cluttering the set with equipment. People often comment on the sense of intimacy in the film itself, and that came from the way we worked on set.

The setting in this film seems to play a big role. Why was it so important to film on the English coast?

Burke: Although I grew up in London, I spent a lot of time in East Sussex during my childhood holidays, and I’d always loved that area. The countryside is lovely and full of wildlife, but the seaside town of Hastings, by the village where we filmed, is run-down and attracts a lot of down-and-outs. It’s a place where people from different walks of life live in very different worlds from each other.

Eyal: We were lucky enough to be given access to the house in the film and we wrote the script for the location. During the shoot Eleanor and I lived in the house with the actors. We really fell in love with the place.

How was the film received at its first Slamdance screening? Did you participate in a Q&A session?

Eyal: Our Slamdance premiere was incredible. There’s nothing like sharing the film with an audience. We had a great Q&A afterwards. There were lots of questions and people told us that they really connected with the film. We seem to get a lot of questions about working together as a married couple and about whether we fought over directing choices during the shoot. We didn’t, so we don’t have any funny stories to share about that unfortunately! We were on the same page and had a really creative collaboration on the set.

Are you currently working on any projects?

Burke: We’re developing our next feature. It’s about an estranged father and daughter. It will be in a similar vein – a character-driven drama. We refined our techniques a lot of the course of making “Stranger Things” and we’re excited to expand our actor-centric methods even further on this next one.

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