We were hunting for the perfect place for a rich boy's funeral. It was a particularly hot day in Los Angeles. Two crows perched on a Styrofoam plate in a trash can, and the cement seared the hemp-shoe soles of passing hipsters. I was on foot with several crew members doing a location scout for the film I co-wrote and was about to direct, Paint It Black, based on the brilliant novel by Janet Fitch. We passed a parked car on the street with a young girl curled up like a shrimp in the passenger seat, her face covered by her hands. Her father sat in the driver's seat reading a magazine quietly.
Ms. Fitch's novel tells the story of a young punk artist named Josie who, after her boyfriend takes his own life, falls into a twisted relationship with the young man's wealthy, famous pianist mother, Meredith. It is a story of loss and grief but also a story of class. The funeral is one of the most gripping moments in the book, and I wanted the scene to be equally as visceral in the film. It would be the audience's introduction to Meredith, played by the singularly brilliant Janet McTeer.
The girl in a car. Curled up in the front seat. Head in her hands. Her father.
I love films with brazen emotional intentions, the kind that err on the side of heightened truth. I love films that allow you to feel something diametrically opposing without taking you out of it. Why am I laughing at this brutal murder? Why am I crying while watching some guy eat soup? I wanted this particular funeral scene to be different than most funeral scenes you see in movies. My cinematographer, Brian Rigney Hubbard, and I both knew we had to do something bold. We had to wrap our legs around the fine line between melodrama and drama and straddle it hard.
The girl. The car. Her father.
Brian and I agreed a funeral in a garish mausoleum would be a great place to showcase Meredith's wealthy world and make Josie (played by the magnetic Alia Shawkat), in her tattered fishnets and punk jacket, stick out like a sore thumb. In Ms. Fitch's book, Josie is attacked by Meredith at the funeral, an incredibly captivating and upsetting moment. It had to be equally as riveting in the film. In the book, the attack starts with a choke. In shooting the choking, I wanted the audience to feel both like the villain and the victim at once; to not just witness the violence but also feel themselves violent. The audience had to be Meredith choking Josie, and then be Josie, being choked.
After the choking, Josie, panting and out of breath, tries to run away. In my mind and in our film, Josie would fall to the ground on the red runner carpet that runs up the aisle between the chairs of funeral attendees. I imagined Meredith — with her expensive furs falling from her broad shoulders and her mascara drooling down her cheeks — down on all fours like a wild animal, pulling the thin red carpet toward her like a long tongue, Josie still on it, desperately trying to crawl away.
On the day we shot the funeral scene, we started running out of time sooner than we'd hoped. We had a shot list a mile long, and it was becoming clear we would need to cut close to a third of them. Cutting the rug-pulling sequence of shots seemed like the logical and rational thing to do. They could be perceived as luxury items, the types of shots you do after you get what is considered more important shots, like close-ups and wides. But my instinct told me not to cut them, that I had to see this concept through.
Women are taught from a young age not to listen to their instincts. I've been acting for twenty years now, since I was eleven years old, and I have been told many times that what I was "feeling" was wrong. So this decision was a difficult one for me. But I knew that if I got what I had in my head right, it would be the most impactful part of the whole scene and, potentially, the film. No close-up, or wide, swooping crane shot, or insert shot would matter if I got the rug-pulling sequence right. A big if for a first-time filmmaker.