By Junsui Films | April 2012
Writer/director, Liza Johnson, talks exclusively to Junsui films about her journey from shorts to features, working with Michael Shannon and tells us all about her debut film, RETURN…
Junsui Films: Let’s begin with your background in the arts and your journey into filmmaking.
Liza Johnson: I went to art school. Even at that time, though, I was always working with media and performance. When I was starting out I made a series of essay films, and then gradually shifted towards the grammar of narrative cinema, which I have been using now for a number of years in films with actors and non-actors alike. This shift has been helpful in transmitting the things that most interest me: the force of atmosphere, the tiny gestures and pulses of emotion that take place between people and within groups of people, the ways that subjective feeling relates to the environment and landscape.
JF: How did you find the transition from shorts to features?
Totally interesting. I really like being able to sustain an idea over a longer duration, tell a longer story. It’s also very helpful to have a professional crew. It was a big revelation to me to see so many talented people bringing their knowledge to bear on my ideas. I still like the accidents and curious things that happen in the very small films I have made, but it was also exciting to see what is possible when the film has the support of a lot of smart people working.
JF: How did Return come about?
It started when I was talking with a friend about his efforts to stay married after a tour in Iraq. At least in the US, military culture and civilian culture are very separate. I live more in a civilian culture, so this kind of intimate account of war is not that available. Our media talks mostly in terms of policy stuff, or reports on specific events, but you don’t hear that much about this kind of personal, subjective response. It made a big impression on me.
JF: The film adopts a patient, reflective approach in its depiction of soldiers and their struggles to reacclimatise to civilian life after a tour of duty; focussing more on battles with apathy rather than dramatic traumas, how important was it for you to express such a realistic portrait of soldiers returning from war?
That was my main interest, so I’m glad that you see it that way! Of course I understand why a lot of the genre does focus on traumatic events and they’re important. And also, I think people wish that they had a perfect, transparent way to communicate that kind of intense event to people who were not there with them. I think that’s why the genre usually uses a lot of flashbacks, as a kind of wish-fulfilment for that very understandable desire. But the problem that I wanted to engage with in the story is that you really can’t share things perfectly with people who radically lack your experience. And that in itself creates conflicts and dramas that are really really important, but outside of a military context we don’t hear that much about them.
JF: Tell us about your decision to opt for a female protagonist.
I’m not totally sure how I made that decision, but I did have the feeling that people have not heard as many stories about female soldiers. As I have been showing the film to civilian audiences, I notice that it does make a difference in how people perceive the soldier’s experience. For example, many viewers really feel the impact of her separation and reunion with her children. Of course, male soldiers also leave their children, but somehow because the female story is less familiar I think it allows people to feel that fact in a way that surprises them.
When I did decide, I met a lot of female soldiers, and very quickly I realised that it was my obligation to make the character as specific as possible. The women that I met had wildly different reasons for joining the military, and very different experiences while they were deployed and upon their return. I wanted to meet people to get a sense of what would make a believable character. But I knew very quickly that there was no such thing as a typical or representative female soldier, so I tried to make a protagonist who was really her own thing.
I do think that there are some things, though, that are specific to female soldiers. Mostly I think these things have to do with what U.S. culture expects of them, emotionally and otherwise, when they return to civilian life. Kelli is a reserve soldier, too, which means that when she comes home she’s right back in the middle of civilian culture, and not living on a base with her unit.
JF: The film features a fantastic cast including Linda Cardellini, Michael Shannon and John Slattery. How did you go about casting and was it difficult attracting and working with such established actors as a first time director?
I think they did a wonderful job. I had an amazing time working with them. We actually cast Michael first. He’s such a strong actor, and he read a very early draft, and his interest was really helpful in having people take me seriously, because everyone wants to work with him. I met Linda through our casting directors, Paul Schnee and Kerry Barden. I knew almost immediately that she was the right person. She’s a very warm performer, and because the character is so interior, I wanted to make sure that I got an actress who is very aware and responsive to the world around her. Otherwise I thought the character could be completely impenetrable.
We had time to get to know each other during the financing process, so we really were able to trust each other, and I think that was very helpful. We also did a lot of background work for the character; we went to a military base, and I took her to learn to shoot guns, because all the women I met were really proud of their ability to handle weapons. None of that appears in the story, but it seemed like stuff her character would know. And I think that gave us confidence while we were working. Perhaps it’s part of why her performance feels so layered.
JF: Tell us a little bit about your decision to set the film in your former hometown of Ohio, a place, which much like Kelli almost feels disconnected from the rest of the world.
Places like that are very important to me. There is a tone that I think is really impressive, where people do amazing things to keep their lives interesting, even though it’s rough and there is not enough meaningful work to go around. I think part of the protagonist’s problem is that she comes back having been working with an intense sense of purpose, and she’s lost her appreciation for the very impressive ways that people get by when they’ve been abandoned by economies that offer meaningful work or dreams of a progressive future.
JF: How has the film been received in the military world?
Quite well, actually. A lot of the soldiers I met when I was researching don’t really go to see fiction films, especially about war-themed stuff. I can totally understand that, so I didn’t know if they would actually take an interest in the film. I have been really pleased by the responses. A lot of groups who advocate for soldiers have been very supportive, and they think the film is helpful as they try to bridge gaps between military and civilian culture. And I’ve heard a lot of really generous personal responses, and I feel very honoured by people who feel that I’ve taken their experience seriously.
Of course, because Kelli is a very specific character, she cannot begin to reflect every person’s experience. The reaction that was most important to me was that of my very first friend who motivated the story, who was very moved by the film and said it was “like a documentary” of emotions.
JF: What were your experiences on the festival circuit?
They have been great. We were very lucky to be able to show it right away after we finished it. We premiered the film at Cannes, and it was a huge surprise to be able to show a pretty small film on such a big platform. That was very helpful. It was also exciting to show it in London in the fall– I came there with Linda when her pregnancy was beginning to show, and it was the first time we really showed it to an English-speaking audience.
In the U.S. we showed it in a series at the Museum of Modern Art right before our theatrical release, and that was very wonderful for me, because I got to show it to my friend who inspired the story, as well as a lot of the people who inspire me artistically and intellectually.
JF: And finally, what next for Liza Johnson?
I’m working on several new projects, and I think probably the next one to shoot will be an Alice Munro adaptation, written by Mark Poirier, who is himself also a beautiful literary writer. It’s another performance-driven film, and I’m very excited about how the cast is coming together.