Sara Driver

On October 6, 2011, the Walter Reade Theater of the Lincoln Center was occupied by a few fortunate cinephiles. The occasion was a reminder that the world of cinema is full of some strange magic. Sometimes, this magic manifests in the unanimous laughter inside a dark theater and the dilated cornea of a curious child. At other times, it evinces in the impatient line for tickets or the watering eyes of an old man as his glasses reflect that stirring scene. But this time, the magic was the occasion itself. The crowd which included Steve Buscemi, Willem Dafoe, Amos Poe, Tom DiCillo, and Jim Jarmusch, was celebrating You Are Not I, the resurrected debut film of Sara Driver based on Paul Bowles’ short story of the same title.

Telling the story about this cinematic resurrection requires telling three stories. Doing so chronologically is perhaps most appropriate as time itself is a major character throughout the tale about this film. In 1948, Paul Bowles, an acclaimed American writer and composer who lived and worked in Tangier for over fifty years, wrote a short story he called You Are Not I. The story is about Ethel who escapes from an insane asylum, while everyone else is watching a train wreck that occurs nearby. She quietly exits through the gates and approaches the site of the accident only to see dead bodies lined up in the grass. Systematically, she picks up stones and begins to stuff their mouths with them. When the ambulance arrives, the doctors assume that Ethel is one of the victims. She gives them her sister’s address and they agree to drop her there. The sister is unpleasantly surprised to see Ethel back and immediately phones the asylum to confirm her release. The director of the asylum explains that she somehow quietly “got out.” He sends people after Ethel and they arrive shortly but before they take her back, she approaches her sister and attempts to thrust the remaining stone in her mouth. This is “the turning point” thinks Ethel and closes her eyes. Then everything changes; instead of Ethel, the men drag out her sister to the car. Ethel remains in the house and pictures how her sister counts gas stations on the way to the Home; and how on a quiet rainy day, she is sitting in a small asylum room writing down this story.

You Are Not I had a profound impact on Sara Driver. She knew it was going to be the story for her debut film after her first read. With help from Jim Jarmusch, she adapted a twelve-page screenplay and started collecting money to finance the project. As with most independent films, this was not an easy task. After receiving some grants, however, Driver eventually made her first film in 1981. It was critically successful and enjoyed festival circulation in Europe. Cahiers du Cinéma considered it one of the best films of the decade. But shortly after, the physical life of the film ended when its negative was burnt during a fire in the warehouse, where it was stored. After the fire, all that remained was a festival copy which soon deteriorated. The film screened no more. This story stops here and does not continue for nearly thirty years, until a gentleman named Francis Poole travels to Morocco.

It was in 2008, while in Tangier to present a paper at a conference, that Poole was contacted by Abdelouahed Boulaich, Bowles’ heir and assistant. He wanted to show him the remaining belongings of the author in which Poole was particularly interested, as he had worked with Boulaich before on acquiring Bowles’ personal items for the University of Delaware’s library collection. This time it was an abandoned apartment containing additional possessions. Poole was amazed by the find and began to photograph scattered letters and other items. Among them, all covered with insecticide, he noticed a square cardboard case which Boulaich explained contained some film. Poole photographed the case and later, without knowing exactly what was inside, brought it to the United States. In 2009, at the University of Delaware, he finally screened the film and realized what he had found.

In October, 2010, Sara Driver received a phone call from Francis Poole, who told her he had discovered a copy of her first film, You Are Not I, which apparently she had sent to Bowles, but had forgotten doing so.

When the Walter Reade Theater crowd simmered down, there was a brief introduction from the New York Film Festival’s Richard Peña, who included the film in the Masterworks section. Then Driver expressed her gratitude and presented us with You Are Not I.

*****

You Are Not I being your first film after graduating from NYU’s film school, did you have other projects to choose from and if yes, what made you decide to shoot this particular film and not something else? What was it about the story that particularly attracted your attention?

The film told itself to me via the story. So, it was clear to me that this was what I had to do. The idea of making it came from the moment of shock reading the story. I remember sitting in this tenement apartment on Prince Street, reading the story. I finished reading it and thought “what happened?” due to the switch in the story. So, I guess because of the clarity of how I saw the whole story visually.

There were complications with financing it.

Well, I kept running out of money. That is why I had to stop editing, but then I got the Louis B. Mayer grant, and I got the Helena Rubenstein Fellows grant that helped me finance it. The film cost $12, 000, and probably $8,000 was spent on sound. I wanted to put money into the mix.

What was the preparation like? Did you storyboard? Did you have a shot list?

We all stayed at my parents’ house in Hackettstown, New Jersey. I cooked meals for six nights and put everything in a freezer. So, each day, I would take some food out so I could feed everybody. I went to a car wreck place because I could not afford a train wreck and they sold me three cars for 50 dollars each, and they towed them to the fire school. The firemen used their training field and they were happy to blow them up. I brought a keg of beer for the end of the shoot too. So they did it as their training program. And that night I got a call from the ambulance and they wanted to be in the movie too, so I had to write another scene for them. The accident scene took two days. We were in the house I rented for four days. The house was already art-directed and we didn’t do anything to it.  I remember sitting by myself in the fire school field visualizing the accident, and then I wrote down my shot list. Then I went to the house by myself and wrote down my shot list there; angles, positions and how the choreography was going to get closer to Ethel, eventually entering her head. And we rehearsed a little bit.

What was the most difficult point in the making?

I think stopping and starting, because I would run out of money and then I would get more money, but in a way it was helpful to stop and start the editing.

Did these breaks give you time for reflection?

Yeah, and I think that’s actually helpful when you are editing. But I think learning how to do sound is too, because when I arrived at the mix, it was costing me $275 per hour and it was more than my rent for one hour of mixing, I had lined up all the tracks wrong. Because I did not know how to do it, the mixer had to realign everything, which took more time, costing money and maybe that was most difficult.

It seems like you recorded sound on location.

Oh yeah, it was done with a Nagra and we did a lot of the ambient/wild sound.

Did Phil Kline compose music before the film or did he base it on the visuals? What was your direction for him?

He had already composed the elevator music collage piece that is heard during the driving scene, and we were and are friends, so I asked him to use that. I think he looked at the footage, but I actually put the music where I wanted. Basically, he gave me just a lot of different variations of music I could play with. I work with all my composers this way.

While in the pre-production, what were the cinematic or otherwise aesthetic references that inspired your decisions?

I had been seeing a lot of foreign films, learning that it’s OK to let things reveal themselves on their own time.

Hence the unusual length of the film.

Yeah, I got into a lot of trouble; people were telling me “Sara it’s not a feature, it’s not a short, what are you doing?” I said “Well, that’s how it cut. It just felt like that.” I was just not thinking in ambitious terms. I was not thinking about my audience or market or whatever.

There is evidence of German Expressionism in the film.

Very German Expressionist. It still is a big inspiration; shadow and light is my thing. I think black and white is a mysterious form. I always saw the film in black and white; it was never colour to me. That was a definite decision, because colour enhances detail, and black and white minimizes it. In films, if you dimly light something, it’s more psychologically disturbing.

What were your visual guidelines for Jim Jarmusch, who was the director of photography?

I think probably really bad drawings, but I only use stick-figure drawings just to communicate. Some cinematographers get really annoyed, but I like to set up shots and of course they adjust it, but I am kind of controlling with that stuff and you have to find somebody who is OK with that, it’s not always easy. Jim did not have a problem, because he is not a cinematographer, but he studied photography, he knows a lot about light, his films are beautifully done, he is also controlling with his frame, but he was not with mine.

Were you intending to create something new, unrepresentative of other films?

I think so, I mean because I got so much of my film education from going to the movies, I think that idea of telling stories in new ways and setting up new structure, like poems, was always something interesting.


Was there perhaps an unconscious intention to epitomize the cultural and artistic spirit of the so-called No Wave at the time? Did you want the film to be recognized as part of that movement?

There were a lot of movies about the scene, but I was not interested in that kind of representation. In a way, the film was part of the No Wave movement because we all worked on each other’s movies, we were all in the scene together, but I never liked the kind of cliquish, who’s cool and who’s not setups. It’s not my thing. So, in a sense, it was very much of that time, but so was Spike Lee. He was doing the same thing, and it’s strange that he is not brought up when talking about the No Wave movement in NYC. When I made Sleepwalk in 1985, Spike was just finishing his first film and we were trading crew and equipment. But we were not thinking of the scene as having any kind of longevity. We were not thinking about what people would think of the scene in the future. We were all celebrating each other, seeing each other’s work.

Jonathan Rosenbaum writes that you asked Melody Schneider, who plays Ethel’s sister, to bring her own precious items to the set in order to make her house and space more personal. You also rehearsed her off-screen daily routines so that Ethel’s arrival would be felt as intrusive. What were other kinds of directing tricks that you implemented?

I had forgotten, but what’s interesting is that Suzanne Fletcher, who plays Ethel, said that I had kept her isolated; she really did not have contact with anybody else for the period of shooting. I also told Melody stuff that I said Suzanne was thinking but she was not. I do that a lot with actors, because as humans we always think we know what people are thinking and often we don’t. So, it’s sort of helpful with actors to tell them what the other character is thinking even though it may not be what they are actually thinking. Melody and Suzanne really did not have contact until we started shooting.

Some say the story makes us question our notions of insanity and it is a play between real and dreamy; others think the story is simply about depersonalization and identity confusion. Bowles himself explains that the story came from a dream state: “a second between waking and sleeping, or sleeping and waking” – Was there any particular theme or idea in the story that you wanted to point out in the film?

I’m very boring, it was very pure. It was very surprising because I found out it was being shown to a group of psychiatrists as an example of schizophrenia (laughing). But I think in their early twenties, a lot of women go through this; they sort of have a little bit of obsession with women and madness – you go through your Sylvia Plath thing, and you go through your Zelda Fitzgerald thing, but I did not look at madness that closely. It was interesting with the academics, because they said it was a strange story for Paul Bowles to write, because it reminded them more of Jane’s, his wife’s stories, who was involved with hallucinogens.

I know it has been a while since you read the story for the first time, but given that it affected you profoundly, can you recall what your initial interpretation was and how it was reshaped upon further reading? What were your main questions about the story?

I’ve never reread it since. I remember sitting down with Jim and we just went through the story and put in little dialogues, lifted right from it. I did not want to interpret the story. I wanted to be like the reader. I wanted to keep it very true, much like the first moment, when I read the story and was stunned by it. I did not want to dissect or investigate it too deeply.

It seems that the most difficult moment to express visually is “the turning point,” as Ethel describes it, i.e. the change in the point of view. Did you have a hard time deciding how to approach this switch? Did Ethel’s closing her eyes guide the fading out in the moment of the twist?

We slowed down the camera when she gets closer to her. I think the black came from seeing La jetée [Chris Marker, 1962]; the eyes close and then it changes. I love that moment of motion, when she opens her eyes.

Speaking of La jetée, what was the idea behind using the still shots in the beginning?

Stillness, the slow walking out of her real world into this other world.

It appears as though the story deals with a certain kind of identity confusion; Ethel seems to internalize and then separate her sister from herself to engage in a distanced self-observation. Was there any moment in time where you thought about Norman Bates and his psychological struggle? Was there a point of comparison?

No, you know, I really think I did not want to go too deep. Suzanne and I talked about the stillness of the character. She is very brilliant and a Bowles freak, like me. I remember why I cast Suzanne; I kept seeing her wearing men’s shoes. I remember thinking she would look very good in men’s shoes (laughing), and she picks up men’s shoes in the story.

How did you direct Suzanne Fletcher?

I think we kept it very simple. We just talked about her goal and her methodical way of establishing and achieving that goal. Also I tried to shoot in sequences for Suzanne’s sake and my own sake, so as to build up that tension.

Were you conscious of being accurate to the original? Was there a fear of not living up to the story or doing it justice?

I just wanted to tell the story. I was interested in telling stories in a new way. My only intention was to make something that I thought Paul Bowles would be proud of and I would be proud of. And also make a movie that would get me to the next film, which I did. I mean, I think I felt so strongly about the story and what I was going to do, that I did not think what impact it was going to have. Paul Bowles was so unbelievably generous; I think he was just thrilled that a film was made. His letters made me burst into tears. I could not believe how this man, who did not know me at all, was so supportive. He and I had a correspondence for over a year. It was very moving, and after seeing the movie, he was enthusiastic, but he also said what he thought. I felt like he was almost like a mentor.

Was there a reason why you excluded the nurse and later Steve Schultz?

I probably could not feed another actor (laughing). I don’t know why I left out the nurse, maybe because it was not a train wreck. I don’t know. That would have been one more tension point.

What was your experience in terms of the reception of the film in 1981 and its reception now?

Well, I just feel like… It’s weird, people ask me how I would make the film differently now, but that’s not my world anymore. I feel like fairy dust was sprinkled on me, and I’m glad that the film had longevity and interest. I’m happy I met all the people, like the Bowles scholars. My big regret in life is that I did not make a pilgrimage to see him. I wish I had met him, but I did not have the money and I never got there. When you make a film or any piece of art, you want it to get to people, and now that it has an opportunity to get to them, I feel like that’s why I made it. People get to see the signal, to see something that I put my heart and soul in. It also feels great to have gotten money from New York Women in Film and Television, which will let me restore the film.

Are you changing anything about the film in the restoration?

We just had to boost the sound.

Will the film be available anytime soon?

It will be released in March, 2012 by a Canadian distributor filmswelike as a box-set, which will include my other films.

What are some of your current projects?

I do have a new project. I was at Küstendorf, Emir Kusturica’s film festival. He has this wonderful festival for students, it’s fantastic, and it’s mainly the kids from the Middle East and the Balkans, and I was on the jury with Marjane Satrapi, who did Persepolis (2007). When I go to countries that I don’t know anything about, I read their mythology, and that way I have some kind of connection with the culture. I read a fantastic story. It was only two paragraphs long. On the night the festival ended, I was sitting in the back of a car (the festival is five hours from Belgrade) and we were being taken back to the airport. It was four in the morning. And I was sitting in the back of this car with my head hanging down, bobbing around. Marjane told me “You sleep really weirdly” and I said “No, I just had a whole screenplay being told to me in my head,” and she said, “You gotta call this project ‘Tales from the Hanging Head’”, so that’s the name of the project.

I understand this is going to be an anthology.

I adapted seven stories from all over the world, and now we are getting seven directors from different parts of the world, which will participate. The only challenge is that they have to do the effects with light and shadow, in camera, without computerized images. It can be animated, but not generated by a computer. It has to have a handmade feeling. I had an idea of doing a film based on folklore, for both children and adults, because folklore is so metaphoric, and I feel like children are lacking in magic and stories from the imagination, not knowing folk tales. Maybe too, because I taught at NYU and felt like my students did not know some basic archetypes of mythology, the basis of all storytelling. I felt like they were sort of swimming around without an anchor. You know, imagination could be a religion.

All images courtesy of Sara Driver. All rights reserved.