Dreams have often become practically indiscernible from reality during this quarantined era where our days have blurred together like never before. It’s coincidental yet entirely fitting that filmmaker Jaclyn Bethany’s work is finally receiving well-deserved attention this month, since it demonstrates just how adept she is at reflecting this precise, bewildering feeling. In her debut feature, “Indigo Valley,” which will be released digitally next week, Bethany stars as Isabella, a troubled woman who tags along with her estranged sister Louise (Rosie Day) and brother-in-law John (Brandon Sklenar) on their honeymoon, as the narrative jumps back and forth in time. Bethany is equally impressive both in front of and behind the camera on her six-part web series, “The Rehearsal,” where she plays Anne, an actress who becomes so immersed in her role, it begins to distort her sense of reality a la David Lynch’s “Inland Empire.” Tina Benko earned an Emmy for Best Supporting Actress in a Digital Drama Series for her riveting portrayal of Helen, the ex-wife of Anne’s boyfriend, Tate (Adam David Thompson).
After taking small roles in such major releases as “Get on Up,” “Trumbo” and “The Big Short,” Bethany began directing several accomplished shorts, including 2018’s powerful “The Delta Girl,” starring Isabelle Fuhrman as a Mississippi teen in 1964 who begins to question her worldview upon learning the forbidden secret of her friend. A week after Bethany completed filming on her latest directorial effort, “Before the World Set on Fire,” she spoke with me on the phone late last month about her unorthodox approach to storytelling, her desire to keep an audience intrigued and the strength she finds in ambiguity.
I noticed that one of your earliest credited acting roles was in 2016’s “Miles,” directed by Nathan Adloff, who is the first person I ever interviewed for this site. What led you to begin directing your own work that same year?
My background is in theatre. I went to college for theatre, and for those first couple years after graduating in 2011, I was just figuring it out. I did some acting, some writing and I worked in fashion for a little bit. Once I started work on a Tennessee Williams scene showcase, I was directing some of these Southern Gothic one-acts and that led me to write a short film in 2014. It was based on an experience that I had, and I reached out to a friend to direct it. We filmed it at my family’s home in Mississippi over one crazy weekend, and it became my first real film experience at age 24, though I may have been an extra in something previously. I’m not someone who came out of the womb with a camera and have been documenting everything ever since. That wasn’t my journey.
I loved making that first short, and it inspired me to figure out how I could keep making stuff. At that time, in Mississippi and Louisiana, there were a lot of things filming, and because I knew local casting directors, I was able to have small roles in some of the big films that were shooting nearby. After “Miles” was filmed at the tail end of April 2015, I wanted to take these onset experiences and apply to some kind of training program for film. I knew that I wanted to direct eventually, but I had trouble completing projects or figuring out how to get things going as a director. I was good at getting people together, but I didn’t feel confident enough to direct. The next fall, I went to the London Film School for a year to study screenwriting. I wanted to live in Europe and experience a different lifestyle and approach to art. From there, I directed my first short, “Between Departures,” when I was in London and used that to apply to the AFI. I met a really great group of collaborators in London, some of whom still work with.
What attracts you to exploring the uncomfortable, often unarticulated dynamics between people, and why are silences important to you as a performer?
I think I’ve always been interested in ambiguity, bewilderment, and the fear of failure that we have as humans. The main female characters in a number of my films each face a different dilemma, but they’re all grounded in this very confused and confrontational reality. In “Between Departures,” my character is confronting her ex-boyfriend with the news of her pregnancy. “Indigo Valley” is about a very fractured sibling relationship that involves a man. “The Rehearsal” centers on an actress who is grappling with her reality, the complexity of her role and the company that she’s working with. I like things that are sort of split in the subtleties that can be explored within a visual medium, and I think that also comes from my experiences in the theatre, which is very actor-driven, dialogue-driven and performance-driven.
I realized that I could explore a lot on film that I couldn’t in the theatre. I think that was what propelled me first to write “Between Departures,” which is fictional, but based on a relationship that had a lot of miscommunication. That was what I was trying to portray and it carried over within my work because I also have struggled for a long time—though not so much anymore—with being really introverted. We’re often used to seeing a lot of extroverted, over-the-top characters in cinema, and I’m really attracted to European films that aren’t afraid of utilizing silence or honing in on things that we tend to miss. Just being an observer into a situation is sometimes more interesting to me than being a super-active protagonist, although that is kind of unorthodox, in a way.
The same could be said of Isabelle Fuhrman’s character in your short, “The Delta Girl.”
Absolutely. She is kind of an unreliable narrator in the way that she’s a party to this story and situation, but she’s also a passive protagonist who doesn’t have a lot of dialogue. Many things are unfolding around her and she is watching, observing and forming her own opinion. Even at the end, you know what she feels, but you still feel like she is kind of stuck, so it’s interesting. That was something that I got a lot of flack about at the AFI. I don’t know if it’s in regards to the final result of the film, but I remember when I was developing the script—which they make you develop forever—we were going back and forth between the two girls, and they kept asking me whose story it was. The approach I ultimately went with reflects more of my personality and what I find relatable.
How important was your collaboration with editor Selinda Zhou in terms of balancing the past and the present in “Indigo Valley”?
It was challenging, and we had a lot of discussions about how we were going to shoot it and make it different. The past deals with Louise more than it does Isabella, and we wanted to differentiate the time periods visually, so we shot the past in 16:9 and the rest of the film in 4:3. When we started editing, I had so many breakdowns about whether things made any sense or if anyone would understand the film. We ended up doing an initial cut where the events were ordered chronologically, but when we did a feedback screening in the fall after we shot it, everyone seemed to like the film the way it had been written. So we changed it back and the final cut became a hybrid of the feedback and how I had originally envisioned the film. When we showed the events in a linear order, it lost the sense of surprise as the story unfolded. It was much more effective to gradually reveal what happened in the past.
Selinda was also the editor of “Delta Girl,” and her father is a very prolific Chinese visual artist. She’s also a musician and a singer, and her approach to editing is both visual and rhythmic. The film that won the student Oscar this year, “Miller & Son,” was also edited by Selinda, and though it is nothing like our film, it has a similar feel. It’s a slow burn that further illustrates how she has an eye for what feels right. “Indigo Valley” was the first feature she edited, and it was my first time directing a feature, so we were sort of figuring it out together in this super-collaborative but also challenging environment. The question of how much we wanted to reveal about these characters and when was fascinating to figure out together. I also kept going back and forth about the length. The script was 75 pages, and the movie is 74 minutes, so it worked out in the end.
Speaking of ambiguity, the ending is haunting in a way similar to Kelly Reichardt’s “Meek’s Cutoff” in how its lack of closure gives the audience plenty to chew on.
That’s a personal preference. I played with so many different endings when I was writing that almost made it cliché. I think the storytelling lends itself to that feeling of mystery. The latter half takes place in the desert where time starts to meld together and you don’t know what’s real or what isn’t, and you begin to question where these people really are. The choice to leave my character where she began, in a way, but worse is interesting because it suggests that the story could continue, though I wouldn’t want to do that. It’s always interesting when that is a possibility and you’re affected by the ending in a surprising way. I recently watched the movie “Luce,” which has so much strength in its ambiguity. You take away something different from every scene, and that was the sort of tone and feeling I was aiming for “Indigo Valley.” I like an ending that leaves the audience intrigued.
To what extent did this shifting of timelines mirror how you approached blending fiction and reality in “The Rehearsal”?
It’s interesting because I shot them back to back, and they were really different. “The Rehearsal” was originally a lot more psychological, but once I got all the actors in the room and we were working on it, I saw how much fun the relationships were and how relatable it was. I realized that I could into play into all of that more than when I had originally written it. Like “Indigo Valley,” “The Rehearsal” is about the struggle of the human psyche to determine what’s right and wrong, real and imagined. Is Anne just behaving this way because she’s in a play, and sometimes that gives her the license to be wild?
When we are working on something, we can easily lose control of our own lives as artists, and I think that feeling is pretty universal. It is so wild to me that these two projects have gotten traction around the same time because I made them in Fall 2018. It’s crazy thinking back on all the time that has passed in between, and all the work that went into getting them seen. None of the recurring themes you mentioned were intentional similarities. They exist in both simply because they both came from me.
How did you go about directing Tina Benko to an Emmy-winning performance? You really allow her face to tell the story with minimal cutaways in episode four.
I’ve known Tina for a long time, and I’ve actually gotten to know her better since we made this because she was actually my teacher. I had always admired her as an actor, and I remember when I was writing that scene, she was the first person that came to mind for it. I sent her a really rough draft and that character was only in that one scene. We met and talked about it, and I told her that I would keep her posted if I actually planned to make it. She ended up being one of the first people to come onboard and that helped anchor the rest of the cast. When we shot the scene, Tina and I went back and forth with ideas because she works in the theatre. Her character is basically an artistic director of a prolific off-Broadway house like The New Group or the Signature Theatre. She’s obviously a very good mother who is fighting for her daughter, but she has also felt responsible for her husband and his career.
It was really interesting to have a woman confront a man in that kind of tight space. It’s a mix of emotions for me because she’s clearly strong and she’s going to be fine whatever happens, but she’s had all this inner turmoil and fear of her life falling apart. She’s risked it all, in a way, for this relationship that let her down, but she’s figuring it out and just comes out to him about it and confronts him. I felt like that wasn’t something that we’ve seen a lot. We did maybe five or six takes of the scene. Tina came in with a very direct approach of how she wanted to do it, and she nailed it every time. When we were editing the scene, we looked at her and Adam, and as scene partners, their performances really elevated each other. She was doing so much but so little, in a way. She’s just really being truthful and by the camera being so close on her, we are with her and can see how she grows with her emotion. You just see it all in her face, and I wanted to cut to him minimally because he isn’t interrupting her. He is actually letting her speak, and I think that does a lot for him too in a sort of indirect way.
I joked—literally joked—onset that Tina could win an Emmy. And then she did. We filmed the episode in this tiny New York apartment where people were working and trying to move things, but when we shot that scene, it was silent. People were so engaged by her work, and it was a really beautiful moment. I am so glad that she was recognized because she has been working for so long and she deserves it. I’m a really good observer of people, and there was something about her when she was my teacher that stayed with me and made me realize that she would be perfect for the part.
I’d love to hear more about your upcoming film, the impeccably titled “Before the World Set on Fire,” that you managed to shoot during the pandemic.
When I began making the film, it was even worse. Now I feel like people are sort of figuring out how to do things. I started preproduction in May, and the first half of it takes place in a Zoom class. We didn’t send the cast high-tech cameras because I wanted it to feel really realistic. It takes place in a college philosophy class and they’ve been quarantined for a reason that has nothing to do with COVID-19. The setting is a small liberal arts school in northeast U.S., and there’s been a leak on-campus that is possibly making people sick. I had a script that served as an outline, and got the involvement of a casting director that was going to work for me on a project that ended up being delayed because of the pandemic.
Once we cast the roles of Anya and Wilder, who are the two leads, the cast really started shaping up. People were fascinated by the project and wanted to work with them—Brooke Bloom and Samuel H. Levine—because they are great actors. The film’s first half was so actor-dependent, and our cast members were recording their own sound, dressing themselves and had so much responsibility. Since the scene took place in real time, everyone was in this class, following the events of the seminar. Having to figure out how to stage a scene in this new medium was draining. My DP would kind of jump in between takes and give the actors adjustments, while the production designer would tell them how to situate their rooms. It was intense because the subject matter was very complex, and allowed for a lot of opinions, so it was really meta at times. I felt like I was leading this class as we figured out the moments that needed to be highlighted.
We completed all of that in July, and then we did an actual shoot last week in New York, which comprised the second part of the movie. There’s a scene where the dean addresses the student body that will hopefully bring together the two halves of the story. Anya is a young professor who loses control of her class. An incident happens over Zoom that she is blamed for by the institution, and she is brought in front of a standards committee in an eerie but very beautiful college. The dean and an investigator are all trying to pin this blame on her, and the film is about her coming to realizing her freedom. It’s inspired by Nietzsche and it’s really intense. The final part of the movie is set in nature.
One person I was excited to see in the cast is Julia Sarah Stone, who I believe is one of the best actors of her generation.
Since I’ve been to a bunch of festivals, and I follow a lot of different filmmakers, I had seen Julia in different stuff. She was on our radar for the role of Anya’s daughter, Hannah, and she actually had a huge response to that character. We had a bunch of people tape for it, and I was really excited when she auditioned. Julia looked similar to our Anya and she’s petite, so she was a perfect fit. I just found her from watching Canadian indies, and she’s also on a Quibi show that I saw, “When the Streetlights Go On.”
In light of platforms like Quibi, what inspired you to make “The Rehearsal” a web series as opposed to a short or feature?
It actually started out as a 46-minute pilot. Eventually I decided to chop it into six different episodes to see if it worked as a web series, which I had never made before. I would love for it to take the form of a series comprised of eight 46-minute episodes, but at the same time, it could also work in this smaller format. It’s not something that I set out to do, it was something that I discovered along the way, after seeing other artists’ success with these short form digital projects.
You have some other intriguing projects coming up, including another feature, “Highway 1,” and “Under the Lantern Lit Sky,” where you collaborated with director Michelle Bossy as both writer and star.
“Highway 1” is my second feature and it’s currently in post. It is a little similar to the movie I just made because it was half-improvised. It takes place all over one night at a New Year’s Eve party and it’s very nostalgic. It’s kind of an unrequited love story between two girls. Basically one girl is in love with her best friend who left the town years ago. They cross paths at this party where a lot of stuff unfolds. It’s really fun and makes you think about those college or high school parties that you went to with your crush. It has a great up-and-coming cast, and we’ve got some really cool stuff happening with it that I can’t talk about yet. Hopefully in the next couple months, you will be hearing more about it.
I actually wrote “Under the Lantern Lit Sky” as a play. I had a director come on and we were going to develop it as a play because I haven’t done theatre in a long time, but then it evolved into a film. I’ve actually been on the other side at the AFI, where I was directing other peoples’ scripts. I didn’t feel like I could play the role that I was going to play in this script and direct it. I thought it was going to be too much, so I’m very grateful to Michelle for coming on to direct. I’ve moved away from projects that specifically have to do with the South, but that movie was heavily based in the South, and we filmed part of it in New Orleans. It was a really special film to me, and I honestly don’t know what’s going to happen with it because I did not direct it. I am curious to see what happens with it.