SXSW 2016: Writer/Director Joey Klein, Tatiana Maslany & Tom Cullen on The Other Half
Joey Klein’s The Other Half manages to be both a beautifully shot tone poem about grief and loss, and a deftly written drama about two people at loose ends who find in each other a glimmer of hope. The lead performances from Tom Cullen and Tatiana Maslany are outstanding, and writer/director Klein allows them plenty of room to experiment with the varieties of grief, hope and regret that each character struggles with throughout. There's also the work of a nimble and talented crew, including cinematographer Bobby Shore, production designer Chris Crane and editor James Vandewater, who allow Klein to mete out the details that have been driving Nickie (Cullen) and Emily (Maslany) into their respective spirals without relying on exposition. "I’ve become very obsessed with trying to take things out of the actors' mouths with dialogue, and with such great actors like Tatiana and Tom, you can show so much in their behavior," says Klein. It takes a while to know what has sent Nickie into such a spiral, or to glimpse what Emily is struggling with. Yet it’s one of the film’s great strengths that by the time you do become aware of their problems (Nickie’s brother went missing five years ago, Emily suffers from RCB1—rapid cycling bipolar one), you're already solidly in their corner. You know a film has had an effect on you when a dinner with Emily's father and stepmother is so fraught with tension you find yourself praying, please let this work out.
We spoke to Klein, Maslany and Cullen down in Austin, where The Other Half premiered at SXSW, about how they pulled off this dark, ultimately moving portrait of lives in extremis.
The film is filled with evocative shots that help fill in a lot of emotional detail that the characters themselves withhold for as long as they can—was this designed at the script level, or was this something you created in post?
Klein: Because of an experience I had during my second short film, it was about really moving away from the script with editing, and to be honest, just having worked on it on and off for so long, I was just tired of the script I think. And my DP Bobby [Shore] and producer Nicole [Hilliard-Forde] really encouraged me and helped me to take a breath, remember the script was something that I worked on for a long time and that we all got behind, so I really trusted the script as a skeleton. I’d say the shot list and the script really guided the way the beginning is structured.
So when the film opens, before we move five years into the future, this is the moment right before Nickie’s life is changed forever…
Klein: Right, so the beginning starts in a way where something is changing for him that he doesn’t know yet is happening—his brother’s obviously just gone missing and he doesn’t know about it yet. So in the filmmaking it was important for me that something changes for us, the viewer, that we don’t quite register, so we speed-ramped it just slightly…I know I’m getting tech-y and nerdy here…so, as he’s walking, it just gets incrementally slower and the music in his ears changes into what I called our grief motif, and this incrementally goes over the score and becomes the soundtrack until you’re in those emotional memories. Then it’s a hard cut into to Nickie at the club, five years into the future. And the club to me is how I’d rather deal with exposition, as a viewer, I don’t want everything to be explained, and the hard cut on that dark techno music and that dark club, to me that’s got exposition pregnant in it. You’ve just seen a guy in the sunlight with a normal sweater on, and now he’s in this hellion, dark techno club, where we linger on that first shot a bit too long, and Nickie's dancing in a certain way where he’s not really dancing, he’s kind of like giving off this very negative energy that’s going on with him. And then he sees her (Emily), and it’s a little shift. Everything in the beginning is hard cut, hard cut, hard cut, abrupt, like violence is abrupt, like a boy who goes missing is abrupt, and everything is like that until Emily comes into his life. Then things slow down. The takes are longer, they stand together, and it’s in the present tense.
There are a lot of great lines in the film that are so true to life; Emily saying, “If you’re seeing anybody else, I’ll throw you in a volcano,” and then when she assures Nickie that she doesn’t go number two in the bathroom…were these written or improvised?
Klein: The first one was written, that second one was just Tatiana doing some lovely riffing.
Tom, can you talk about the moment in the film when we finally find out what’s going on with you, it’s very visceral, the way you can’t stop pulling at your hair, almost like you’re trying to pull it out the pain…
Cullen: What was great about working in the environment that Joey created was that there was a lot of safety in the work. It created an environment where we were very much able to let ourselves go, there was no judgment whatsoever. That goes from Joey to the art directors and set directors, there was a real passion for the project. What that allowed was a lot of room was for us to go very deep. To be honest with you, I have no idea what was going on with me in that scene. I can’t really remember it, and I didn’t even remember pulling on my hair afterwards. Whatever was coming out physically was a reaction to being very much in that moment. Working with somebody that I trust and love so much [Cullen and Maslany are an item off screen], because it’s a very vulnerable place to go. Strangely, I’d lost a friend who was due to be in the film earlier that year, and I was also playing another character…we shot this film in the middle of me shooting a TV show, I had a hiatus, and that character whose brother went missing…so it was all kind of sitting there, and I think pain and grief and guilt, we all carry it with us, it feels like a very dangerous place to access, and I think this was a physical manifestation of those feelings, and not wanting to let them out, to bury it, the pain of talking about. I don’t think that Nickie had talked about it to anybody, and the physical pain of letting that come out, I think that’s what that was.
Maslany: I remember watching the film, because we’ve seen a few versions, and I remember there was one time we watched it where I did notice that there was this thing that Nickie did, which was the pressing and pulling of his hair, the grief was like here [points to her head], and he just wanted this to feeling to be gone, it was so interesting to me that that came up a few times for Nickie.
Klein: It’s so specific. I gotta say that’s the best thing I learned from theater school is specificity, and I found that everybody, from the set decorators to the great production designers, we talked about my major concern was, ‘Is every scene just a big scene, therefore nothing matters because everything’s this huge set piece?’ And it’s a credit to Tatiana and Tom, as a lot of actors I think might always go for the homerun. It's really exciting for me to watch Tom and Tatiana do that specific thing, because it’s so f**king truthful. He wouldn’t just be sobbing away there, because he’s never spoken about it to anybody, and we have these kind of conversations and everybody’s so prepared, you can try things.
Tatiana, in the scene where we finally see Emily's bipolar disorder flare ‘up,’ your physical performance, your movements, it was so visceral…where did that physicality come from?
Maslany: Just a lot of research. Joey was so awesome about supplying so much research and so many people to talk to in terms of the behavior. I think that was the main thing for me, the behavior of it, and the feeling of it, and how that manifests physically. Because it is a physical thing. It’s an emotional experience, but it’s also super physical. She could be going for hours in that state if she wasn’t sedated. That boundless life, there’s something I actually find super beautiful about it. It’s sex, and it’s enlightenment, it’s up, right, it’s joy and it’s rage and it’s all the things we normally say we shouldn’t feel in any kind of extreme way, but she feels them all at the same time, and they’re all from him, because of him, in spite of him, and all this stuff. I find it beautiful actually. As painful as it is. There’s something amazing about the human emotional life that it can reach those volumes, it’s wild.
Cullen: I came to set to watch, and I was watching something extraordinary. It felt like a celebration of life and humanity in a very odd kind of way. That’s an odd thing to say, of course, in the context of her being bipolar, but it was an extraordinary thing to watch.
Maslany: And working also with Suzanne Clément, who’s an insanely amazing actor, whose playing my stepmother, and Henry Czerny, who plays my father, so we had these amazing actors who I got to do that scene with, and Joey and Bobby, and knowing Tom was there, just allowing for playing and experimenting, there was no judgment.
Cullen: On set watching it, I kept thinking, ‘This is ethereal, there’s something very special happening right now.’ I’ve never seen anything quite like it.