Film Scouts Interviews

Rebecca Miller on "Angela"

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Where did the idea for "Angela" come from?

Rebecca Miller: The characters of Angela and Ellie were in an earlier screenplay that I'd started in 1986. That screenplay remained too imperfect to take into the world, but those characters were so real and so lifelike that every scene with them was wonderful. It was actually the composer, Michael Rohatyn, who read yet another attempt at another screenplay in which these two characters appeared and said, "you know, the ones you should be writing about are the children," who were minor characters all the time. And the moment that I started to focus on them, my own childhood started coming back to me very strongly, and the story really started to unfold.

What were the qualities of the characters that made them real and appealing to you?

Rebecca Miller: I've always been fascinated by the way that children and animals suffer stoically in a way that I don't think adults do. Very often children get the worst news or feel the most pain and you can't really see it on their faces; there's something -- it's not a toughness, but its a very special way of displaying emotion. Deeper pain, I think, is often internalized, and they don't express it.

Angela, as a character, fascinates me, because she has so much nobility and she is deeply conflicted as a character. She wants on the one hand to achieve spiritual grace, inner purity, and on the other hand, she has a sadistic element to her character that pops up and makes her do things that she knows are cruel. She is continuously fighting her nature. What moves me most about children and remembering being a child is that phenomenon of children feeling guilty and responsible for things that happen in the world around them, which is on the one hand a kind of egotism, because they think they're the center of the world and control everything, and on the other hand, such a sad fact because they take on a lot of guilt for death around them, unhappiness around them, and strife in general. One aspect of Angela was modeled on a little girlhood friend I had, whose name was Angela who was a wonderful, tough, sensuous kid, amazingly physical, and the kind of kid that everyone was afraid of. But she was also a very vulnerable person who had suffered a lot in her life, and she was very fascinating to me. I was Ellie to her Angela. The other, mystical aspect of Angela is based on my own experience of being transfixed by Catholic religion when I was very young. I myself became convinced that the devil lived in my house. I mean, I really thought it, and it was a secret. That's the other aspect of this. This is really a movie
about the secret spiritual lives of these two children, especially of Angela's life. And that's secret.

Do you think imagination is dangerous? When does it become dangerous?

Rebecca Miller: It becomes dangerous when there's no longer that little voice somewhere in the head that says, 'this is not real.' Even children playing, as frightened as they can get, for the most part, still have a little part of them that doesn't believe it's real, or that flickers in and out. They'll believe it's real for a moment but then there's another part of them that believes it isn't real. Where you step over completely into seeing, feeling and hearing the voices and the images of your imagination with no sensor, then that's when it becomes dangerous. I think the movie's really a celebration, on a certain level of the power of the imagination. Yes, it's almost a cautionary tale of a little girl who went too far, and on the other hand, it's saying that the imagination is amazing and glorious and powerful and it's so powerful that it can even be deadly.

Ellie is also able to see visions...

Rebecca Miller: Ellie at one point says to Angela, "How do we know we're not dreaming right now?" And Angela says, "You are dreaming now. Don't worry, nobody can tell the difference until they're seven." She's manipulating Ellie, but there's also an element of truth to it. Up until the age of seven or eight, the world of the imagination and the world of fantasy is much more real to those children. Ellie is a six-year-old child, a real six-year-old child. Angela, being ten, in a way is living in that other realm, in a much younger realm, because I think it's hard for her to live in her own life, and that's part of the difference. Ellie is a healthy person, who's in a very difficult relationship with Angela and being controlled by her, as much as she loves her. In a way, their relationship is almost like a romantic relationship, in which one person has tremendous hold over the other person. Ellie has an ability to find peace in herself, through music and singing to herself, and Angela takes the burden of the world on herself. Character is fate, I really believe that. And I think that's true of those children.

What was your experience of reinterpreting your own script as a director?

Rebecca Miller: I think you write a film many times. You write it once at the computer, and you write it once when you cast. You rewrite those characters, just by virtue of the people that come in and play them. They're different than what you had in your mind, no matter what, and then you write it again, when you shoot it, and then you write it again when you edit it. In a sense it's continually being reworked. The biggest difference had to do with the personas of the actors I was dealing with. They brought their own specific idiosyncrasies and qualities to the film. I think that film tends to penetrate the actor and distill the inherent quality in them that no matter what character they're playing, the film registers that quality that's sort of their essence, their soul. And I think that Miranda has a very specific sensuality and toughness and cruelty and also vulnerability that's her own which is something different from what I originally wrote Angela as. In many ways I think she's a more subtle character than what I wrote. Charlotte's tremendous life-force gave strength to Ellie, gave her a strength as a character that I don't necessarily think she completely had on the page. Johnny has an almost animal quality to him, a sexuality and a danger that I think enhanced Andrew tremendously, explained a lot of what he was doing in the relationship in the first place, made him more complicated. Anna, her Mae, is I think even more deeply troubled than the Mae that I originally wrote, who I think was more cruel, in a way, than the magnificently troubled person that Anna portrayed. The freedom to come to the kind of emotional collapse that Anna was able to come to in the film is I think a very rare thing. Very honest. I think that's really where the differences lie, and of course there are all sorts of changes you have to make as the shooting dictates, but for the most part I think it all got better, that's my feeling, better than my script.

Is there anything that surprised you, that you hadn't yourself understood in your script?

Rebecca Miller: I think that I didn't really understand the obsessive return of the male figure in the film. The father is very important in Angela's life, and they have a very intimate relationship. Then she goes out and she meets Tom, and she interacts with him, and then the Man in the Fair, and that relationship, and then the Preacher, at the end, and the Devil. In a short amount of time, you've got five male figures that this child is conjuring up, or finding, or running into, that to be honest with you, I don't even understand. There were lot of things about this movie that were very conscious but this aspect of the dangerous, alluring and mythic male presence in all of these different disguises was not. I was certainly conscious about Andrew and the relationship with the father and the devil, certainly, but these other characters, these echoes of the male presence were something I hadn't been aware of, and it disturbed me.

How would you describe the female characters?

Rebecca Miller: Mae is a complicated character. You can say on the one hand, she's just completely insane, and on the other hand you can say she's being driven insane by the fact that she can't do what she wants to do more than anything, to be in this band, and to have that life. They're sort of exiled to this tiny town and she's got these kids, and she can't do it, she can't be what she wanted to be, and it's clear from the way she's dressed and the way she acts that she has a certain ideal of glamour about who she is in the world that's sadly wasted on this street in Catskill! She doesn't fit in with her life. She hasn't made peace with her life. It's clear that she feels that a certain phase in her life is ending and she won't have done what she wanted to do. So it's not clear that we just write her off as crazy, but I do think that she's a complicated person and a very emotional person. Darlene is a kind of comic echo of Mae. She's Mae's shadow, but without any of the pathos. She's just selfishness, in a way, personified. I say selfishness, but she's a completely comical character. Darlene's completely oblivious to anything and anybody; even what her fiance"s sexual orientation is.

The Sleepwalker is a figure of alienation. She's the nightmare aspect of Mae, which is the mother that can't be reached. Everybody's worst fear that the person they love the most is completely unavailable to them and when they speak, they speak in tongues and you don't know what they're saying and there's no way they'll ever really understand you. Then, the mother at the farm and the Virgin are both parallel ideals of motherhood that are both equally unrealistic in some ways, but through the children's eyes, they're these perfect female beings that are going to transport them, or could transport them.

Did your background as a painter and sculptor make you more aware of the visual look you wanted for the film?

Rebecca Miller: I was very specific all the way down the line, but at the same time open to what came to me. I always knew that I wanted patterned wallpaper but when we walked into the old house on Division Street in Catskill which had amazing old wallpaper that was faded and spectacular that became, of course, the wallpaper, and then from there I started to talk to Todd Thomas about what the costumes should be like because really, all the color choices in the movie are pretty carefully done, but also done so that they don't feel careful, so that it all feels like an accident, but there's a pretty narrow palette that I worked with inside the house. It was planned, but planned as things went on. I took in all the existing, the found objects, and brought them into the mix.

What was your short film about?

Rebecca Miller: My short film, FLORENCE, was an absurd allegory, really, about a woman who is so empathetic with other people that she takes on their symptoms, and at one point inherits someone's amnesia, and forgets who she is, and forgets that she's afraid of sex, and wanders into a neighborhood with no idea of who she is. She wanders into a particular neighborhood and happens to sit down on the stoop of a man who hasn't really left his apartment for months, only to get groceries, and is terrified of women because he's been so heartbroken by one woman. Florence has a chronic wish to fix and heal everybody around her and is most attracted to people who are somehow wounded or sick. When she perceives that he's very sad, she makes her way into his bedroom in the middle of the night, completely naked, and decides that she's going to fix him. So he becomes erotically healed, and does in fact start to get some of his vigor back and names her Jane, and they live together for about a week, and she accepts this name of Jane and this other identity when her husband appears. She doesn't recognize him but she leaves with him when he bursts into tears, displaying the one weakness Florence finds irresistible. The film is really about the great fear that I imagine maybe everyone's had once in their life, that love is random, really only a cloud of complexes that floats from one person to the next. But it's very different in tone from ANGELA.

In comparison to FLORENCE, ANGELA was an extremely ambitious script. I don't think I really even understood that until I directed it. Dealing with such deep emotional issues, especially in children, and then also making the surreal aspect work, and trying to meld these two styles together... I was also trying in a way to have the inner aspect of the character and the outer aspect of her world meet at the point of her fate, so that it would be a complete portrait of a person.

Did you like directing children?

Rebecca Miller: It was wonderful. The key was the casting. Cindy Tolan, Pam Reese and I cast for really a long time before we started shooting. We started casting in January, when we were going to be shooting in July. By May I had cast them. We cast Charlotte very early on. Then we finally found Miranda, and I really felt I needed to put Miranda to the test. I made her do a lot of emotional work in a very blunt way. I was pretty tough on her because ultimately I knew I'd have to be and I didn't want to find out later that she wasn't capable of doing certain things. I feel more comfortable with those children than I do with anyone I know. I feel completely at home. Children are fascinating to me. They ask themselves the biggest questions, about God and fate and sin and sexuality and reinvent them before the response is adultered by the kitsch of what we think we're supposed to feel about things.

What about future projects?

Rebecca Miller: I have a first draft of a new script. Danny Talpers, our Production Designer, is out there now, looking for locations. He's an optimist! I'm hoping to be able to direct something quickly because I feel that I've found the place that I'm really the happiest that I've ever been in my life in terms of work.

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