“By turns endearing, unsettling, and ultimately moving, ‘A Light Beneath Their Feet’ is a triumph of empathetic filmmaking. There are no heroes and villains in this story, just ordinary people struggling to create a sense of normalcy in their day-to-day existence.” That’s an excerpt from my synopsis for Valerie Weiss’s coming-of-age drama, which was published in the official Chicago International Film Festival catalogue. It was the last of the films I screened especially for the catalogue, and it was easily my favorite of the bunch. Madison Davenport turns in a vividly nuanced performance as Beth, an Evanston teenager torn between her potential future at UCLA and her demanding role as a caregiver for her mother, Gloria (Taryn Manning of “Orange Is the New Black”), who suffers from bipolar disorder.
Weiss spoke with Indie Outlook about her background in science, her love of actors and her allergy toward clichés.
Your path to filmmaking has been an unconventional one, considering how you earned a PhD in Biophysics at Harvard.
When I was really young, I had gotten an awareness of how short life is. The idea that you only get one chance freaked me out. I realized that by having a career in acting, you could maximize the number of things that you could experience in your finite time on Earth. I thought that it seemed like a very sensible career choice at that age, and I remember telling my parents about it. My dad said, “That’s great, but you’re going to be a doctor.” And I was crushed. But they were still very supportive and took me to acting classes every Saturday. In tenth grade, I had an amazing Biology teacher, Mr. Charambura, who would saunter around the classroom, talking about science like it was the greatest story ever told. He had been in the Peace Corps and had malaria twice, and it was clear that he had a very personal relationship with the things that he was teaching.
It was kind of the second epiphany of my life, where I was like, “Wow, given that we have this one chance on Earth, science is a pretty incredible thing to understand.” That’s where the two parts of me intersected for the first time—an intellectual curiosity and an innate desire to understand things that are intangible. From that point on, I decided to study science and theatre simultaneously. When I was an undergraduate at Princeton, I would spend every waking moment either in the lab or in the theatre. In my second year, somebody asked me to direct a Christopher Durang one-act play, “‘Dentity Crisis.” It was so much fun that I instantly knew that this was what I wanted to do. I applied to Harvard for graduate school, and decided that by the end of my time there, I wanted to know what I would be pursuing professionally, I wanted to learn how to make films and I wanted to write a screenplay, since I felt that a first-time director should have full control of their material.
I started the Dudley House Film Program at Harvard for graduate students, and we had guest filmmakers come in and teach for a night on a volunteer basis. Either they were already teaching at the school, like Hal Hartley, or they just happened to be passing through Boston, like James Toback. All these people were so gracious, and I stayed in touch with them, which gave me great contacts for when I moved to Hollywood. I made my first film [“Dance by Design”] while I was writing my thesis, and it cost $5,000. Making a big-budget dance movie has always been a dream of mine. I would love to do a movie with Misty Copeland or something like the original “Fame.” A very realistic, gritty approach to portraying a beautiful art form is exactly what turns me on. Anyway, it was clear that I needed to commit to being a filmmaker. Soon after we married, I convinced my husband to move with me to LA. He left his career as a lawyer to pursue acting, and I left science for directing.
Had your interest in science and brain chemistry inspired you to take on this project?
I’m sure it did, and at some level, it wasn’t something that I was conscious of. I look at the world as a scientist whether I’m aware of it or not. When I take on a project, if something is unclear or confusing, I don’t buy it. Everything must feel consistent—logically, artistically, aesthetically and thematically. As a scientist, you can’t present data with any bulls—t without someone calling you on it. It’s just engrained in me to be very thorough. I read some great memoirs that my producer, Jeffrey [Loeb], had culled for me, and it became apparent to me how bipolar disorder is truly a brain chemistry issue. You can’t ignore the physical component, and once you’re aware of it, you can’t fault anyone who is suffering from it. I needed the audience to live in this very uncomfortable place between the two characters without judging them. Oftentimes films will manipulate you into siding with one person over another, and I didn’t want that.
My model for understanding bipolar disorder involves this idea of energy. Someone who is suffering from this disorder has a finite amount of daily energy. When they take pleasure out of something like a manic shopping spree or a really flirtatious, exciting tryst, they use up more energy than someone else would’ve in that scenario. After that, they have no energy left. They can’t bring themselves to get out of bed or cheer themselves up.
How does this film differ from your previous feature, “Losing Control,” which you scripted?
“Losing Control” probably doesn’t feel as sophisticated a piece of filmmaking, but it’s based on very personal observations that I dramatized. It’s not easy to take the world of science and make it acceptable or understandable without losing what is very unique about it. With “Losing Control,” I had a lot of ideas that I wanted to get out there, and “A Light Beneath Their Feet” was sort of the opposite. In terms of an idea, it is so simple. What I wanted to do was create a mood and go about capturing it in cinematic terms.
What was your collaboration like with screenwriter Moira McMahon?
It was wonderful, which is why we are doing another movie together and hopefully many more. Finding Moira was one of those blessings in life where you meet somebody who is very like-minded, but has a different enough experience that enables you both to collaborate. Her script was very well-formed when we met, but there were some thematic inconsistencies in it. I don’t even want to start doing the work until the theme is crystal-clear, because everything comes out of theme. We ended up changing the third act of the film after I challenged her and said, “This is a neat movie ending, but this is not what you set up. You are proposing one thing but you’re paying off something else.” I really needed to encourage her to go deeper because the script was based on a personal story and I didn’t know her very well. We had this one phone call that was scary for me because I realized that I was pushing boundaries, and I didn’t know how she would respond to it. But she remained really open and thanked me for the call. Then she went off and wrote a totally different third act, which is what the movie has now. I feel like that encapsulates our relationship. I was respectful of what she put down in the first place, but I also was relentless in making sure that it lived up to what it needed to be and what I knew that she could do.
How did Evanston become the film’s setting?
Moira went to Evanston High School and she worked in that ice cream shop, Hartigan’s, where Beth works in the film. I actually worked at Baskin Robbins when I was in high school, so I could picture a lot of those scenes as well. Beth’s choice between Northwestern and UCLA is so critical. She wants to leave the unpredictable weather of the Midwest and find peace and openness within the predictable climate of California. I wanted this movie to be set in a real place, and Jeffrey did all of our location scouting. I like how Evanston High School is very mixed racially and socioeconomically. There’s more to the town than just beautiful mansions on the lake.
How did you approach directing Taryn and Madison?
They are fantastic. Since I started out as an actor, I have a good feel for what their process is. I also just love people, and I enjoy the experience of figuring out how to communicate with them, because everyone is so different. Taryn’s process is almost the polar opposite of Madison’s process. Unlike in science, there are no concrete answers when it comes to direction, and there should be no judgment in how you get a performance from somebody. When we filmed the hospital scene, which is such an important and emotional moment in the film, I had been away from my two little girls for seven weeks. Something heartbreaking had happened to one of my girls, and she was missing me. I remember pulling Taryn and Madison really close and telling them this story, and I just started crying. They started crying too, and then we shot the scene. I asked them afterwards if it was okay for me to share that story, and if I was transgressing on their process, and they were like, “No, thank you for that.” That’s what I love about actors. There aren’t a lot of social conventions that you can’t at some point find a reason to break. So much of our time in society requires us to put up filters and barriers because we’re nervous that we’re going to be penalized for being honest about who we are. That’s not natural, and it’s nice to let that go when you’re working.
We cast Madison based on a chemistry read she did with Taryn over Skype. Madison was shooting Robert Rodriguez’s “From Dusk Till Dawn” series in Texas at the time, and we couldn’t get her in person. Then we ended up having one in-person coffee in LA when she and Taryn were both in town. We didn’t talk about the film, we just bonded as girls, and then we did a lot of Skype rehearsals before we got to Chicago. What was really amazing to watch was Taryn’s process because she is such a giving actor, she is such a good listener, and in those early rehearsals on Skype, all she did was be present and supportive of Madison and her character. They were building a foundation for their mother/daughter dynamic without the struggles that they would have to face later on. Taryn was portraying a healthy version of Gloria, and I think it was great for building trust. Gloria was the right mom for Beth at some point. Beth would never have gone back to her if she didn’t feel safe or supported in the past. Their rehearsals reflected the lifespan of their relationship but in a more condensed period. I worked with Taryn separately to fill in who Gloria was. Madison is not a big fan of rehearsing, so Taryn and I often rehearsed together prior to shooting.
The film’s central dilemma is an extremely difficult one to portray, since every solution involves tremendous sacrifice.
That’s why it was so important for me to get to the thematic heart of the movie, which essentially asks, “Is it okay to leave someone that you love?” When you love somebody and you know that you will not only break their heart if you leave, but they will potentially be worse off at the expense of you being better off—what do you do? Do you stay or do you leave? It’s such a hard question, and I haven’t seen any films offer helpful advice other than the quippy moral of, “You’ve gotta do what’s right for you.”
Or the “love conquers all” cliché.
Exactly. Moira’s script was inspired by a romantic relationship she had with someone who became mentally ill. We were always aware of the specificity of this relationship, but also the universality of how it feels to be trapped and to need somebody so badly. We wanted to show how both of the characters are suffering. When you’re at that point in a relationship when somebody wants to leave, it’s not comfortable for either person. The elephant in the room is there in every scene, and so the challenge was, how do we still show the love that exists between them? The horrible version of this movie would simply have Madison be annoyed by Gloria, and have Gloria be needy and skittish and annoying. We wanted to show what was tethering them together. In that first scene where Beth puts out the pills for Gloria, Madison played it like she was humoring her mom, and when Taryn says that she can take care of herself, Madison looks at her to see if she’s telling the truth. She doesn’t want to delude herself. Everything is loaded and subtle at the same time.
Your film has one of the loveliest prom scenes in recent memory, beautifully lensed by cinematographer Jeffrey Waldron.
I loved working with Jeffrey. He’s my kind of DP, an artist with great sensitivity. In that particular scene, Beth just wanted to be normal for one night by going to the prom. So often we fixate on the thing that we think is going to be the answer but never is. She gets there and it’s terrible—she’s wearing all black, she’s borrowing her stepmother’s dress because she didn’t have time to shop because her mother is missing—it couldn’t be worse circumstances. The boy that she’s with is probably not a great choice for her either, especially since she is trying to leave home. And yet, this moment is her reward for being courageous. She came out of her comfort zone to pursue this boy who she is connecting with, and she’s making steps toward independence. Even though it’s an awful, uncomfortable prom, she gets to have this magical moment of respite with the song and the kiss and the light. Everything does fall away because none of it matters. She’ll look back on this and go, “Wow, I was able to get to prom, I was able to forget about what my mom needed for one night and think about what I needed.” That’s a beautiful memory cemented forever that will always give her strength.
What did editor Amanda C. Griffin bring to the film, in terms of molding the narrative?
Amanda certainly had a big influence on the film we ended up with. I wanted to hire somebody who was young, because this is a teen movie. I also wanted to hire somebody who was good with realism and authenticity. She had edited a fantastic movie called “Animals,” and I felt like it had a lot of qualities that our movie did—it was handheld and it had a lyrical quality to it. While editing our film, Amanda would call attention to anything she thought could potentially trivialize the characters’ experiences. After going through pre-production and production, you sort of get a little desensitized to things, so her perspective was very helpful. You don’t always get an editor who isn’t just thinking about giving you what you want. She loved the story and had strong opinions about what the characters would say or do. We didn’t always agree, but hearing them voiced made me feel more thoughtful about them.
I’ve recently talked to many female filmmakers about the sexism they’ve experienced in the film industry. Have there been examples that you have observed?
Oh wow, what an interesting question. It’s so hard to answer a question about sexism in the industry when you’re in it. I’ve been able to make a few feature films, and the process of raising money and getting them made was relatively straightforward. I do know that it’s very hard to break into the next level of opportunities that would make a career in filmmaking more financially sustainable. In terms of making independent cinema, I feel really respected by my cast and crew. Some male agents have said things to me that they probably wouldn’t say to a male director. This film would be so different if a man had directed it, or even if a director without children had made it.
One area where I have observed sexism is among critics. You are a godsend in how sensitive and enlightened you are. But there are many male programmers and critics who just don’t seem to “get” the films made by women. I remember seeing Jill Soloway’s film, “Afternoon Delight,” and I loved it, but the reviews were terrible. One male critic’s whole issue was the fact that she decided to make a film that was about white, middle class, Silver Lake privilege. But that’s the movie that she chose to make. How do you fault a filmmaker for making the movie that they made? Any woman who sees that movie regardless of her class is going to identify with the struggles that the characters are having emotionally, and also understand what is supposed to be taken with a grain of salt.
What has it been like screening your film for festival audiences?
The festival experience has been incredible. We premiered at Mill Valley and won the Audience Award there. The response has been really consistent throughout the country. Everyone is very moved by the film, and so many people have come up and shared a revealing story about their own experiences with mental illness. Teens are also loving the film. We did a screening for kids from three different South Side high schools during the Chicago International Film Festival, and that was amazing. Since the characters were racially different from many of the kids in attendance, I asked if the characters were relatable and they were like, “Absolutely, we want a sequel!” [laughs] Distributors are just starting to see the movie. I think this would be a great film for Netflix to pick up and piggyback off of with the success of “Orange Is the New Black.” Whatever way it happens, we just want the film to be released as wide as possible to as thoughtful an audience as possible.
“A Light Beneath Their Feet” screens at 10am Thursday, December 3rd, and at 1pm Friday, December 4th, at the Whistler Film Festival in Canada. For tickets, click here. You can also follow the film on Facebook.