Described by its director as a “ghost story without a ghost,” the 40-minute film “Ellie Lumme” is one of those mesmerizing mind-benders that plays differently every time you see it. The titular heroine, played by Allison Torem, is clearly haunted by the overbearing presence of a seemingly infatuated stranger, Ned (Stephen Cone, who previously directed Torem in “The Wise Kids”). He insists on being a part of her life even after she shuts him out, and his pathological behavior ruptures her indifferent façade. Who is this man and to what degree does he exist in Ellie’s head? These are questions audiences are guaranteed to be passionately debating as they leave the theater.
This film marks the directorial debut of Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, the youngest co-host in the history of “At the Movies.” It is clearly the work of a man in love with the moving image, from its meticulous compositions and detailed production design to its breathtakingly nuanced performances. There are more memorable lines in this picture than in countless others three times its length. Cinephiles are encouraged to seek this film out at its world premiere in Chicago this weekend, as it contains some of the best acting and writing they’re bound to see all year. Here’s Indie Outlook’s in-depth chat with Vishnevetsky and Torem about their unforgettable collaboration.
Q: How did you first meet?
Ignatiy Vishnevetsky (IV): I saw “The Wise Kids” in an early version. I had met up with Stephen before the film was shot just to get lunch. He later invited me to a feedback screening of the film’s rough cut. That was the first time I saw Allison.
Allison Torem (AT): The first time that we actually met was at the Music Box.
IV: Yeah, because Stephen had asked me to moderate the “Wise Kids” Q&A. The first person I approached after starting work on “Ellie Lumme” was Stephen. I offered him the role of Ned and he suggested [that I cast] Allison.
AT: I didn’t know that! I had been familiar with Ignatiy from the talk back, and he asked me to meet and read the script.
IV: At that point, there were maybe ten pages to read. When Stephen agreed to do it, there were only three pages of the script, and none of them ended up in the final draft.
AT: The scenes may not have stayed, but the style didn’t change—the yellow nails and the close-ups of hands were already in the script at that point. You could tell just from reading it that this was the work of a very unique writer.
IV: Once we started rehearsals, I ended up rewriting certain things. I remember that I rewrote a lot of the dialogue between Allison and Mallory Nees [who plays Ellie’s roommate, Molly]. Originally the relationship between their characters was a lot colder, and then the two [actresses] got along so well in rehearsal that I ended up rewriting the dynamic of the characters. We kept much of the dialogue, but changed the intention behind it and the meaning of it. Originally Ellie’s curt and cold behavior toward Molly was meant to be a completely honest reflection of her feelings, but it became jokier as we worked on it.
The scene at the breakfast table was actually the first thing we shot, and it was originally the opening scene of the film. The scene opened with a backwards dolly through a doorway, and the focus changes from Allison far away then to Mallory then to Allison at the table and then back to Mal. It’s a very complicated camera move, and it took us 14 takes to do it. Over the time it took us to nail it, Allison and Mal got a little giggly. The warmth grew between them over the course of the takes, so we just ran with it. The fact that you’re flipping her off in the scene is something that grew out of those 14 takes.
AT: Yeah, it’s hard to flip off your [co-star] when it’s not written in the script and you had only just met. It would’ve been impossible to have done that on the first take.
IV: It was probably a bad idea to start with that scene because it’s supposed to be a relationship that was already in place, but then it ended up perfectly because the scene was so arduous to shoot.
Q: Would you consider it a necessity to mold your characters to the actors you’ve cast?
IV: Yeah, I think you have to meet people halfway. When you are writing a character, you are only writing half of that character, and the other half belongs to whoever plays that character. In some cases, once I saw the actors’ take on their characters, I ended up rewriting or adjusting certain things. They were seeing things in their characters that I hadn’t originally envisioned but that worked. We added several scenes during production. The fight between Ned and Ellie is not in the script. It’s something that we added halfway through shooting because it felt like a natural outgrowth. The scene after that where Ned tells Sandra, his girlfriend, about the fight was also added.
Once we decided that we had to do the fight, it was very clear that it had to come late in the film. There’s so much going on emotionally in that scene and it doesn’t have any dialogue, so the characters have to be fully realized. One thing I would’ve done differently is shift certain scenes later in filming because some of them benefited from technical mishaps. We had a small crew and we were shooting in a way that’s not how you’re supposed to shoot microbudget films. We have dolly shots and the camera’s mostly on a tripod and there’s no natural light anywhere, with the exception of a few exterior scenes. Some of the exteriors were bouncing light, but in interior scenes, even the lamps are not real. It was very artificial and very controlled, and all the credit goes to Cory Popp, the cinematographer, who did a wonderful job.
Thinking about production design was actually part of the writing process. My wife [Theresa Vishnevetskaya] is the production designer on the film and we would go to thrift stores together and look for objects that we thought the characters would own. We decided that most of the things in the apartment would be Molly’s, not Ellie’s. Though you don’t really see this in the final cut, the production design is meant to [illustrate] that Ellie is not Molly’s original roommate. If you look on Ellie’s wall, it still has the other girl’s stuff on it. There’s a shot of Molly clicking on a lamp with two lights, first the top one and then the bottom light. That was just something that we found in a store, and then I essentially wrote a scene around it. The same thing happened with costuming. We had multiple rabbit fur coats.
AT: There was a black one, wasn’t there?
IV: Yeah, but we decided on the white one because it had a coffee stain on it and I thought there was a certain charm to someone who would wear it. It shows some kind of emotional attachment. And Stephen’s blazer had a ripped up sleeve.
Q: What distinguishes a well-ordered low-budget film set?
AT: You don’t feel like your time is being wasted or taken for granted. I think Ignatiy surrounded himself with artists that he trusts. He might not have the answer to something as an actor because he’s not an actor or as a DP because he’s not a DP, so he surrounded himself with people who know what they were doing. One time he was directing me in a scene and I said that I couldn’t do what he was asking because, as an actor, I needed to do something else in order to get where I needed to be, and he said, “Oh okay.” He was very open to learning but also created a very specific aesthetic emotionally and physically for the film so that it was a great working environment.
Michael Castelle was basically the main PA for the production. He’d pick me up from Hyde Park, drove me to set, he remembered that I got a Chai Latte and brought me one on the last day of shooting when we did the fight scene. It was 8 at night, it was cold, we were totally beat up. Actors need a certain amount of space and warmth shown toward them in order to be able to do certain things on film. The things we put our bodies through to be able to perform those sorts of scenes are really difficult. As long as you have good people there and are working in pretty good conditions, then it’ll work out great. Ignatiy did a great job on this film and Stephen did a great job on “The Wise Kids.”
Q: What influence did Stephen and Allison’s work in “The Wise Kids” have, if at all, on casting them?
IV: After seeing them in “The Wise Kids,” I wanted to cast Allison and Stephen completely against type. I thought that they were both very sweet and open people, and they play that very well. As I was writing Ned, I realized that he’s really a d—k, and if someone plays him who comes off as a d—k, he’ll just be one-note. I had to cast someone who I thought was naturally likable. Stephen can be that onscreen, and he is that in real life. Allison had showed this vulnerability in “The Wise Kids,” I thought it would be a great counterpoint to work off of that and give her dialogue that is the complete opposite—it’s very thorny and flinty and also kind of aggressive. Ellie is more aggressive in the script than she ended up being in the film. I think she became softer over time, which is a good thing. Both characters became less black and white.
AT: There is the temptation to become detached and removed and apathetic about things because that’s sometimes an easier way to get through certain moments in life, but fundamentally it goes against who I am. I’m very transparent in a lot of situations. It was very difficult for me to instantaneously be the words on the page. The character puts on a persona so she can seem detached and cooler than every situation she encounters. She doesn’t need anyone, she doesn’t need anything, she doesn’t have any questions.
She’s just does what she wants to do and judges you in the process. She’s trying to be that person because she’s so freaked out by her place in life—that post-adolescent “what the hell am I doing here” period that I happen to be in as well. Just beneath the surface of her armor, she’s just as vulnerable as I am. It’s not just that I use parts of myself in every character, I also find pieces of myself throughout the process of building a character, and so there’s pieces of me sort of waiting for me to find them.
I’m a student in a class where everyone is really concerned with trying to sound smart and invincible, and as soon as I raise my hand, my heart starts beating a million miles an hour. I don’t want to forget my train of thought. I found more empathy for other people through relating with Ellie because she reminded me of how I act in class. I don’t like how I act in class and I try to fight it, but the temptation is there as soon as I walk in the classroom. It’s the challenge of fighting these things that actually are imposed on us by cultures and pressures and social environments that we have to try and strip off. They’re not always intentional choices.
IV: As a writer, it’s very easy to write characters that you don’t like, but you can’t really play a person and think that they’re a bad person.
AT: I think I always understand my characters and their experiences better in retrospect. I love them all the more, too, with that distance and perspective, just like how you can look back and love that girl you [once] were for trying so hard, for putting her fists up and fighting the good fight in the dark. I understand Ellie and see the positive value and potential in her disturbing experience much better in retrospect, so maybe she will too.
I probably like Ellie more than I did when I was playing her, and it’s because of the perspective that Ignatiy gave through putting the story together. I see her as this person who is deeply vulnerable and doesn’t want to be. Ellie sees Ned and he’s everything she wants to be: distanced, protected and always has the clever, apathetic response. This paralyzing and painful experience he puts her through for his own sick entertainment and validation does exactly what she needs: it engages her.
She’s so distraught by this power imbalance and this manipulation that she stops pretending not to care about life and people and herself. When Stephen’s character says, “I’m a kind of monster,” he’s unintentionally offering her the consolation that she has the freedom to break out of her persona while he remains trapped in his. But she isn’t mature enough to understand that it’s better to be human than this sort of monster.
IV: That tension is something that we talked about when we were costuming. The clothes weren’t necessarily a representation of the characters as themselves but of what they want to project. We were very conscious of Ellie’s ill-fitting shirts and this kind of “f—k you” attitude. One thing that you unfortunately never really see is this wonderful necklace that Allison wears throughout the film. It’s a scorpion encased in lucite.
AT: I wore the exact same kind of necklace when I was 14. I can relate to little things that Ellie does and big things that she desires to do. Oftentimes as artists embodying a character, we ask ourselves, “Who is this person?” For this role, it was just as important to ask “Who is this person trying to be?”
IV: We always wanted Ned to dress like a writer. In the film, you never find out what he does for a living, but in the script, he’s a substitute teacher. It was an explanation for how this guy seems to have so much time during the day. We gave him this look that suggested a desire to project a writerly intellectualism despite the fact that there’s never any evidence of this.
Q: Allison, you do a great deal of writing and painting as well. How have those artistic pursuits enhanced your acting?
AT: It enhances my work as an artist to be a human being who exists in more platforms than creating art. I go to a liberal arts school and it’s got a very different culture than I’m used to in the arts circles that I travel in. I’m subletting right now and am roommates with an Econ major. He’s a dance person and he’s emotional and he’s sensitive and all these different things in one person. It’s important to have empathy, but empathy to a large extent is actually intellectual. I was thinking this morning about what it takes to not judge someone and to a certain extent it really is realizing that other people are not the same as you.
If I met Ellie, I would not like her. Though Ignatiy said that he cast me against type after seeing me in “The Wise Kids,” I was also cast very intentionally against type [as Laura] in “The Wise Kids” as well. I’m not a fundamentalist Christian, and I don’t have those beliefs. We all have multiple identities in the world. Laura’s a fundamentalist Christian and she’s also a human being. Ellie’s not just trying to be cool, she also has the same fears as I do. So being an actor does help me be more empathetic. Being a full human being operating in many different circles is very good for me. People stop being ideas and they become real. At school, I’ve met people who are only studying math because their parents want them to, and people who are incredibly excited and passionate about math. As a storyteller, those details are very important.
The art is a really nice balance for me and it’s very creatively energizing most of the time. Sometimes it’s frustrating when I don’t live up to my goal of capturing a person. I don’t need it to be technically perfect at all, and in fact, I prefer it not to be. What I’m trying to capture is an essence of that person. There’s no one watching me, though recently I started taking commissions. A performance does not matter or exist without the people who want it to be happening. Acting is a very social art and painting is a very solitary art, though in both cases, you don’t think, you just feel and follow your instincts.
Q: Ignatiy, you once told me about your love of French director Claire Denis, and her revolutionary “anti-psychological” films. Was her work in the back of your mind while making “Ellie”?
IV: I think of the film as kind of a 30s-style drama. At least that’s how I felt when we were working on it. A big reference point was a film from 1930 called “Her Man” directed by Tay Garnett. It’s a hard one to find, and it’s really great in terms of its construction and pacing. I thought of “Ellie” in psychological terms, but not in terms of how the initial ideas came together. I wasn’t really thinking about character psychology or who these people really were. It really just started out as a bunch of images. My imagination doesn’t work in terms of literary narrative. It’s much easier for me to think of a visual detail like yellow fingernails and work from there. Looking back, there’s so many obvious points of obsession and fixation in that film—the hands and nails and lamps, how many glasses of water somebody poured, how many times people are drinking in the film.
There are all of these points that I latched onto as I was building it and then the psychology came as a lattice over it. Once the actors came in, the film became more and more cohesive and psychological. When we got to the editing of the film, we didn’t feel that we needed to drive a psychological point home because the actors’ faces were doing it, even though so much of the film takes place in characters’ heads.
You can construct an interpretation that beyond the four-minute mark, nothing is real up until the very very ending. The film is not intended to be ambiguous. It was meant to be more of an imagistic dreamlike narrative, but then once you start talking about it with people and you start turning these characters into something that resembles real people, everything changes. It was much less psychological when we started out and it became more as we progressed, also because you adjust style in order to suit performance. We got looser as we went along, and the rule of thumb is that if the shot is handheld, it probably came from somewhere later in shooting.
AT: Toward the beginning of the process, I met Stephen at Ignatiy’s apartment and we rehearsed some of the scenes. I had never done that for a film project before. Ignatiy wanted him and I to have a certain rapport with each other which was also contingent on having individual ways of getting on in the world, ways of speaking. I guess I do affect my language to emphasize things, but the way Ellie does it enables her to step back while driving a point home and getting out of there as quickly as possible. But she’s very engaged with Ned and has a real conversation with him. He’s one of the few people she meets that knows what she’s trying to do and is much better at it. It’s much more natural for him, so she’s intimidated. It’s exciting but it’s also scary.
IV: That’s part of what we worked on in rehearsal. It wasn’t just developing character, it was developing speech patterns.
AT: Without having done that rehearsal, we would’ve been playing characters closer to ourselves, and that wouldn’t have worked.
IV: We actually kept a flubbed take of the first scene because it was better than the others. Allison does this stumbling thing but it’s charming, and we kept it. It seemed to say a lot more about the character—a little moment of weakness early on. We didn’t look at the script while editing the film. It was generally the idea to construct the best movie that we could out of the material we shot. The opening scene of the film is on page 15 of the script. Originally Ned doesn’t show up until about 15 minutes into the movie. Then I realized that it was better to establish him before going into Ellie’s story. Originally we established Ellie, then brought in Ned, and then for the film’s last half, it’s just Ned’s story.
The last few scenes fall exactly in sequence as they are scripted, but then everything else underwent quite a bit of revision. There are big chunks that got cut out because had we used every line of material, we would’ve had a 60-minute movie. I didn’t want it to be a feature, I wanted it to be medium-length. But then the other thing is, we were at kind of a crossroads. Either we went completely in this supernatural direction or we went completely in this realistic direction, and we ended up picking the latter. There used to be legitimate supernatural elements in the script. We shot a bunch of stuff with an actual ghost.
AT: Ned represents this extremely cynical, removed person. Ellie entertains Molly’s suggestions with the tarot cards and is scared by her friend’s line, “This ghost is going to live in your head, and one day he’s going to kick you out and live in your place.”
IV: That became more effective once we cut out the ghost.
AT: Because she doesn’t necessarily believe in it.
IV: But that also meant cutting out a lot of material with Molly, which was a shame. There are a lot of great scenes with Mal that got cut out.
Q: You’ve cited the work of authors M.R. James and Sheridan La Fanu as key influences for this picture.
IV: They’re both late 19th century ghost story specialists. I was reading a lot of supernatural fiction and that became the model for the film as well as a book called “The Jinx” by Théophile Gautier. These stories were about the conflict between the narrator’s rational mind and this completely irrational horror. Ned started out as this totally irrational supernatural force, but obviously once we actually started working on the characters, he became more of a rational and psychological being. He was more of an exterior force when I began working on it, and then became something very different when we were filming and editing it.
We were trying to find what were the strongest undercurrents in the material rather than getting it to fit into a certain plan that we decided on beforehand. That’s why there are so many jarring cuts. The first three scenes are Ellie and Ned meeting on the rooftop, Ellie checking her phone and Ellie’s breakfast with Molly. After Ned finishes giving Ellie his number, there was originally 90 more seconds of dialogue in that first scene. When we were editing it, it seemed to make sense to cut the scene short.
We connected it to the scene of Ellie with the phone through the use of sound. The background sound of running water in the first scene fades into the sound of coffee being poured in the next. My editor, Shane Simmons, did a great job. I never let him see the script, by the way. When we got to the final scene, we had been editing for weeks, and he had no idea that’s how the film was supposed to end. I wanted to use people as a filter that allowed me to see something in a different way.
I don’t feel that our main goal was ambiguity, it was actually just being straightforward. There’s a difference between using ambiguity as an end—which I think is usually bad and a way of dodging answering certain questions—and using ambiguity as a means—to get at a certain answer or to help build a certain statement. The reason that we ended up cutting the supernatural elements was because they spelled out certain things too much. The original opening of the film is Allison’s character moving into the apartment. It opens six months before the action in the film takes place. That was the only time you really got a good look at her bedroom.
You got to see the bookcase that shakes and the many genre references such as an “X-Files” poster and noticeable books by Sheridan La Fanu and M.R. James. For a while, the movie was called “The Ghost.” It’s so much more effective if viewers “discover” these details instead of being told what they signify. When you’re constantly showing close-ups of people’s hands, they eventually start watching what the characters are doing with their hands. When you are constructing a film, you are conditioning viewers over the course of time to get used to the fact that characters talk in metaphors or make particular gestures that have certain meanings. You’re sort of conditioning them, and the end result is they’re able to come to conclusions on their own.
Q: Without feeling like they’ve been manipulated.
IV: It’s just suggestion and trickery. That’s what movies are all about, when it all comes down to it. It’s magic in close-up.
“Ellie Lumme” will screen at 2pm Saturday, April 5th, as part of the Chicago Underground Film Festival’s “Shorts 4: Nineteen Ghost Hills” showcase at The Logan Theatre, 2646 N Milwaukee Ave. For tickets, click here.