Claudia Myers talks about her new film, ‘Above the Shadows’
Claudia Myers is a filmmaker, writer, producer, and teacher working at American University in Washington, D.C. Her latest film, Above the Shadows, is an official entry to the 2019 Pitch to Screen Film Awards, held in New York City on October 26th.
For Pitch to Screen, Myers sat down with film critic and screenwriter Michael Mazzanti to discuss a variety of topics. Their chat ranges from discussions of outlining and discerning message, to look book inspirations and shooting fight scenes during live MMA events.
Read the full discussion below:
Mike Mazzanti: When you’re writing, where does the process begin for you? Do you outline really heavily, do you just get images in your head? How does it start?
Claudia Myers: It really depends on each project. It’s usually based on some kind of premise that I want to explore. My last film [Fort Bliss] was about the tension of being a working mother, and about how to reconcile the work-life balance — but in a life or death situation. So basically, how do solider-parents recognize the work-life balance? Which is sort of the point of departure.
For this one, the springboard was my experience growing up and I’d had a personal point of departure. So even though it’s a supernatural, kind of magic-realist fairytale, it had a personal point of departure [for me], which is taking a feeling I had as a pre-teen or teenager and kind of transitioning into adulthood; this feeling of being overlooked, being really misunderstood, and really isolated. That’s a feeling I think a lot of people can identify with on some level, and [the idea with Above the Shadows] was to take that feeling and make it literal. Because sometimes, it felt like I wasn’t there, or it felt like I was there but people just weren’t acknowledging me in a really basic way, and it was sometimes surreal.
So that was the point of departure. So whatever the point of departure is for any of the scripts that I’ve written, I then map out the story. Before I even start writing the script. And that process can take weeks, sometimes months. I’m very focused on figuring out where it’s going. I think structure is a great roadmap, as is knowing that your first draft doesn’t always take you where you want to go. And so, that’s usually just the beginning of the process. I think anyone who’s written screenplays knows that writing is rewriting and that it’s a process of exploration and deepening your understanding of the characters and the story as you go. Above the Shadows changed a lot in the course of writing and rewriting.
That’s kind of an overview of my process. Getting a structural roadmap for your story, writing a draft, being able to step back, see what works, sometimes doing another outline or another beat sheet, and then jumping back into the writing and not being afraid to kind of toss whole sections out. Which I tend to do pretty liberally.
MM: The core premise seems like it stems a lot from adolescence and your experience from adolescence. Did you do any research — especially psychologically-based — in extreme isolation and loneliness like Holly has? Or did you have all the material you needed from your childhood? [Laughs].
CM: I had all the material I needed. I think that invisibility felt sometimes like a tangible state of existence for me, so I didn’t need to go looking.
MM: On the flip side of that, I find it interesting that — they’re kind of surface level — but parts of Holly’s situation are isolating but they’re also sort of freeing. But in very superficial ways; she can get right into a nightclub for free, she can excel at her job doing tabloid stuff. So, there’s these surface-level perks, they’re not hitting her deeply, but she can do certain things.
So when you were writing it, what was it like considering those angles, and did you set limitations on yourself? Because I feel like a person being actually invisible, you can take in so many different directions. So how did you decide what she was going to do and how much you’d lean into that premise without just focusing on it as an idea and not having the characters be a central focus.
CM: I know exactly what you mean. I did a couple of things. I would definitely brainstorm about, ‘what are all the things I would do if I were invisible?’ and what are all the directions this could go. I thought of the sort of Robin Hood potential for it, for her to right wrongs, and I actually think that is a lot of what many superhero stories are, so I actually pulled back from that. Because I felt like that was leading me into the wrong kind of territory. So, thematically, this is about someone who needs to see outside herself and see the world outside the prism of her own experience. And so I needed to have her experience invisibility and its perks in a way that true to her being locked in her own perspective. So that helped define which way I was going to lean — and that’s how she ends up being a tabloid photographer.
It’s sort of like, ‘what’s going to help me out?’ And not, ‘what’s going to serve the greater good?’ That’s not really part of her worldview.
MM: Right. That’s a flaw she has to grapple with.
CM: Right, that’s a flaw. And she’s been wronged, and that’s where she’s coming from.
MM: Keeping with that premise, the kick-off point is losing her parent. So the idea of losing someone close to you and then, having the sensation of that, or just going through that experience, causing you to cease to exist. It’s something that I’ve personally thought about a lot — just thinking, once I lose my parents, I don’t know how I’m going to keep existing. So, I know you said the idea of being invisible comes from adolescence, but what about this concept from the other perspective? The catalyst point. What does that mean to you? How did you choose that as the catalytic point, was it because it’s the only person that cares about her?
CM: In a story sense, it’s the person that gets her. [Her mother] is everything to Holly. She’s the person that looks out for her, she’s the person that protects her, she’s the person who guides her and so without that support system, everything falls apart. Rather than reaching out, Holly retreats from the people around her.
In terms of the seed of that idea in my own experience, my mom was really sick when I was a teenager. So, the way illness and loss can sort of shape family dynamics is something I’m pretty familiar with.
MM: So, Holly is invisible — literally — to everyone. Something I noticed is that there’s also the notion in the story of her mother being with her in spirit.
MM: So, there’s this double-layered meaning of having someone around but not being able to see them. So, that gets into a lot of ideas around presence and being. When you’re writing, how are you layering those in? Did those two ideas come organically, or did you think, I need the thematic cohesion to be there for her loss and then how she sees the world? Was it a very natural process to link those things together?
CM: Yeah, I think all of that was always of a piece. This notion that her mom is always looking out for her is both a comfort but also a source of disappointment at times when she needed it to manifest in a particular way. There’s something kind of childlike about that whole belief.
It’s an interesting question, I don’t know that I’ve really answered it in a way — I don’t know if I’ve deconstructed it quite the way you did.
MM: I mean, I’ve found this with the few things that I’ve done, too, is that when other people look at your work — you see every component of it at all times, and so it’s hard sometimes to zoom back and look at it from certain angles.
CM: I think it just depends, right? Because some things are very consciously decided and then some things are just fed by your subconscious. I think that’s one idea where I didn’t design it in quite as conscious a way.
MM: It just comes naturally.
CM: Yeah. I think because there was different iterations where the mom’s presence did come back in a certain way, and so I played with all the different permutations of that without really questioning how I brought that in.
MM: Another of the primary themes in line with that is the power of connection and relationships, and very predominantly, what it does to someone when those are missing. When you’re zooming out, do you write with a theme in mind? Or do you come at it from the premise and from the characters, and then whatever sort of conclusions you reach, that is the message?
CM: That’s a really good question. The answer is, for me, after a certain point of exploration, I feel like, to have a conviction that this is a story I want to tell, I need to know what it is that I’m saying. I need to know what the film is about beyond the plot.
When I’m further along in the writing process, in order to figure out the ending for this movie, I really had to decide what the moral of the story is — or what the underlining meaning is. So, I needed to know that in order to write the end.
MM: That kind of goes perfectly into what I noticed, and what one of the most important themes seemed to be — and it’s one that really resonated with me — was recognizing that events that feel very singular to you, and feel like, in some ways, feel like you’re the only person impacted by it, that is actually one that has an impact on a bunch of other people.
I think that speaks to coming from a place of empathy when you regard other people, and you know, recognizing your own experiences, but also being sure to leave room for how other people are coming at things, and how other things have impacted them. Can you talk a little bit about that? I think that’s just such a great, important thing to put out there.
CM: It’s something that I believe strongly. The core of the movie is that, to be seen, you have to see others, and you have to step outside yourself. In a way, this is counterintuitive — and that’s the very point of the story.
It took me a long time to arrive at that. Because my instinct was to answer that question differently, and maybe in a way that was more obvious? I think it has a lot to do with me wanting to mine what I feel is a time when we are increasingly entrenched in our own points of view, as a society. There’s a reason why Holly communicates by phone, and media shapes our perceptions, and it’s obviously done in a stylized way and it’s extreme, but it came from a deep-seated belief that I think we are really siloed; we seek out other similar viewpoints, and when somebody doesn’t agree, we shut it out. I think we’re losing our ability to see outside of ourselves.
I also think that’s, in a way, a core part of what growing up means. Children see themselves as the center of the world, and I think that’s actually healthy, up to a certain point. And when you became an adult, you’re not dependent anymore, it’s more about inter-dependence. You start to see where your place is and — like you were saying — where other people are coming from, and expanding your perspective. It’s hard in a way, because it creates a situation where, if you’re not the center of the world, maybe you’re not always right about things, or it challenges your assumptions and you may be forced to recalibrate in ways that are uncomfortable.
And so, I think that’s what I was trying to get at underneath the story. I feel like it’s something we need to work to overcome.
MM: Yeah, there is a real myopic focus on an echo-chamber that’s happening right now.
CM: Totally an echo-chamber.
MM: It’s sort of fetishized to find like-minded people, and that’s what I love about movies, I’ve gone through such a change myself. Growing up watching war movies, then going to college and getting other experiences and then for a little bit being like, I don’t want to watch those, they’re too jingoistic or xenophobic. But then, coming to another point where you can say, no, these are three dimensional pieces of art, and you can engage with things you find troublesome in some ways, but you’re still going to engage with it and not write it off.
Because that’s kind of what’s such a huge problem right now, is writing things off. There’s no wiggle room to engage with something and pick out the things you find interesting. It’s either a thumbs up or a thumbs down, in a lot of ways.’
CM: Exactly, yeah. That’s a really good way of putting it, and that’s exactly what Holly has done. Essentially, she’s disengaged from certain things in her life, and she’s made a judgement that this is the way things are. Until she’s at a place where she can actually see past what she’s assumed, or what she has determined, even.
The internet is obviously a wonderful thing in so many ways, just an invaluable tool. But I think it does also facilitate isolation.
MM: Definitely. I took a note of this but I didn’t turncan it into a question, but I just made a note watching the movie because I thought it was very funny — but also in kind of a biting way — that someone in the 21st century can have a job, and not just a job but a very successful one, without existing. Because if you have the internet and you can work remotely, then you can make a living for yourself.
I think it’s interesting that no one can see her but she can make a living.
CM: She’s totally fine, yeah! That was one thing that I felt was really interesting to me as well. There were versions where there was a lot more of that, but then it was just taking too long for the story to get going. But it was fascinating to me, because I thought okay, she can’t drive because you know, there would be a driverless car and everyone would freak out.
CM: So, that would be no good. But she can totally take public transportation, and anyone can go on Booking.com and click on an extended-stay hotel and just keep renewing and renewing it. Everything can be delivered; I think I read an article by a reporter, I can’t remember if it was for The Post or The Times, but they spent a week at home, and they wanted to see if they could live their life normally just doing everything online — the drycleaning, grocery shopping, everything. And they said it wasn’t that hard, and I thought, “exactly!”
That’s exactly my point: you don’t have to interact if you don’t want to. In her case, she obviously wants to but can’t. And when she says, “I live a relatively normal life,” by some measures, that’s not wrong.
MM: It’s funny because, if this came out in the ’70s, the whole idea of having the internet and being able to function that way would be a whacky idea. But nowadays, the only part that feels weird is that no can see her, but all the other components of how she gets along in life is completely normal.
MM: Jumping back a lot, when do you first remember telling a story or picking up a pen or a camera? What felt like that first spark for you?
CM: Oh, I was little. I remember putting on plays in my living room as a kid; I think I did the history of the world and I was dressed in a sheet as a toga, [laughs]. I had long hair and I would braid it and put a strainer on my head and be a Viking.
CM: I mean, it was really low-production value. But I think I’ve always been drawn to storytelling; I wrote stories as a kid, I’ve always been drawn to literature. I didn’t immediately go into film because I didn’t know what that path looked like, but I’ve been drawn to stories as long as I can remember.
MM: Thinking back on some of those early stories you wrote or plays you put on, what do you think the Claudia Myers who just shot and directed Above the Shadows, what would you say to yourself?
CM: Oh, man. I think the thing that was driving me to tell stories as a kid was just pure love of expression, without necessarily having something to say yet. I think, as you develop as a filmmaker, my perspective now is that it’s all about what you’re trying to say. At least for me. I think there is certainly something to be said about films that are just pure entertainment and maybe there is no underlining meaning, but I don’t think that’s the way I approach filmmaking.
Maybe that’s because I’m an independent filmmaker and because it’s so hard, but I think that if you don’t have passion and conviction, it won’t sustain you. Whereas, if you feel you have a story that needs to be told and you have something to say, that’s going to motivate you and hopefully convince other people this is something worth taking a chance on. The motto here at American University, where I teach, is “Media that matters,” and I feel very much at home here because I believe that so strongly.
I think films in general are an incredibly powerful medium and we have a responsibility for what we put out there. So, I think a lot about what I’m putting out into the world.
MM: Jumping back into the film, this is a question that gets asked a lot but I always find it interesting where people take it or if they even think about it at all: do you have any conscious visual references for the film, for the language of it? What was the process like of conceiving of its grammar?
CM: I spent a really long time pulling references and creating a look-book for this film, I think it was almost 50 pages. Because to me, on the page, I didn’t know if the script really conveyed what I had in mind; sometimes, people would read it and say, “Is it a comedy? What is this?” And I would say, “well, it’s a hybrid. It has many different elements.” Fundamentally, it’s a fairytale, it’s a fable.
What I was hoping to do was create a unique world that felt like something from a graphic novel. It had to feel psychologically grounded, but I didn’t want it to be a gritty, naturalistic film, because I didn’t think that would support the supernatural premise. The world couldn’t look like the real world. I wanted New York to feel more like Batman’s Gotham, I wanted Holly to be a kind of reluctant superhero.
So, I was intent on having it be stylized; we used certain tropes from graphic novels — like the stark angles, the dark alleys, the glittering city. Also the bird’s eye view shots of the city give a sense of scope and hopefully reinforce Holly’s sense of isolation as a lone figure in this bustling city. So, the visual approach, the color palette, the camera design, was very intentional, and I drew on a lot of references.
MM: Any primary ones that come to mind?
CM: The painter Edward Hopper, that was a big one, in terms of that feeling of isolation. Amelie, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), Jessica Jones. Jessica Jones was a big one. The producers that I worked with had optioned the film a year before Jessica Jones came out, and before it did, I kept saying, “it’s psychologically grounded, but it feels like a graphic novel.” And then Jessica Jones came out and I was like, “You have to watch this! This sort of feels like the movie, but it’s not quite that gritty.”
So, they watched it and they were like, “ooooh! We get it!” [Laughs]. So that was a really helpful reference. Also Watchmen (2009) gave me some ideas — if I had had $50 million dollars.
CM: For the fighting, I think Warrior (2011) and Fightville (2011) were two of my main references.
MM: That was actually what I was actually going to ask you about next. What was the prep like for the fight sequences, as opposed to the more domestic or gritty scenes in the city?
CM: As an independent film, the fight sequences were a huge challenge from a production standpoint. Just as I was really conscious of trying to create a world where all these elements could coexist to create a unified tone for the movie, the other big challenge I saw as a director was having to direct fight scenes on a low budget. And beyond that getting an actor who was not a fighter to convincingly play a fighter.
So, Alan Ritchson came on the project and he committed to doing six weeks of training before the shoot, in which he learned all the basics of MMA. We had an amazing fight choreographer, Emmanuel Manzanares, who worked with him; he works on really big budget movies (such as Logan, Iron Fist, and Divergent) and he helped me choreograph the fight scenes in the film.
Four weeks in, Alan was already learning the moves and the fights, and then when he came to New York, which is where we shot, he was paired with his actual scene partners and rehearse each fight; We were supposed to have two days of rehearsal for each fight though it ended up being less than that…Tito Ortiz, who plays the arch rival, he had a movie opening and so he was back and forth. So, we didn’t have all of the training time we’d hoped for, but Alan was really, really well-trained. It was pretty brutal for him. I mean, every day, six weeks — I mean, he is a really athletic guy, but I think if you talk to him, he’ll tell you it was very taxing physically and emotionally. It was just so intense. And he does all the fight scenes! We had a stunt double there, but we never used him.
CM: Yeah, never.
MM: Yeah, thought he was a fighter [Laughs].
CM: Yeah, and Tito broke his rib during the shoot.
MM: No way!
CM: To be fair, Alan told me it was bruised, although he was also saying, “it hurts to breathe!” [Laughs]. Tito just told me during a Q&A, though, “yeah, no, it was broken.” [Laughs].
CM: So that was interesting. But because he had been training so hard, I wanted to shoot the fights first and get them out of the way, so that we could focus on the more emotional scenes, the more nonfighting scenes. The other reason that we scheduled it that way was because we needed to get kind of crafty in terms of pulling off the scope of the film that I wanted.
The fights are supposed to get bigger as the story unfolds. Then, the finale is in an arena, so that you get the sense that his fame his fight world is getting bigger.
From a production standpoint, that means it’s also potentially very expensive. In fact, the producers told me I couldn’t have more than 75 extras, so how do you want to do this? [Laughs]. What we did is we teamed up with an MMA league and we did a few really smart things from a production standpoint. One is that we actually shot during a live event.
It was a series of fight that was being broadcast and Alliance MMA had agreed to turn off the live feed for 12 minutes in the middle of the event. During that time they would run ads, and we would have 12 minutes in the cage. Alan and his partner, Thomas Canestraro, had rehearsed really well and we were able to run the fight twice in the 12 minutes. The crowd was really great, they knew what we were doing, they were really into it, and so the energy we got in that scene is pretty wonderful.
MM: Did you have to coach the crowd? Did you have any interaction with them?
CM: It didn’t really take much, we just basically said, “try not to look at the camera,” which was not always successful.
CM: And we also said, just react to the fight as you would — pick a guy you’re rooting for and then just go for it. So that was one way, and then we also able to do some filming at the Baltimore Arena and so we ended up using some of that crowd footage with our re-creation of the arena. So, again, with some crafty producing and some really good camera work and production design, I think we were able to give the movie the scope and the look that I was hoping for.
MM: When it comes to postproduction, how much are you in the editing room?
CM: All the time. Kathryn Schubert was the editor. But from the beginning, we watched the footage together. She has a really keen eye for performance and she has a great approach to story and scene structure, but I also had a pretty clear idea of what I was looking for in each scene, so it was a really good collaboration.
In terms of the MMA, it was not a sport that she knew very well, so when we were looking at the footage, I would point out a moment and say, “this is important,” or that this is the turning point in the fight, so we want to make sure we’re highlighting that, because every fight tells its own story, it’s not just a series of moves.
MM: Awesome. So, this is more of a general question, but it’s something I’m always curious about. Do you have any advice with balancing creative life with just paying the bills? Do you have advice or a summary of what that experience is like and how you function through it.
CM: I was freelance for a number of years and I personally found that very stressful. Because whatever I was doing, I was always thinking ‘what’s gonna be next? How am I going to make a certain amount to meet my obligations?” And the uncertainty was sapping. I actually had started teaching as a way to give myself some stability and to spend a few hours a week talking about what I was passionate about.
I had started doing these screenwriting workshops, and when the opportunity of a faculty position opened up here at American University, I was intrigued. I thought, if that gives me the stability to be a little more selective about what I do and allows me to hone my craft, that’s ideal. At the same time, making movies is not a conflict of interest with my teaching; the university considers it my research. They actually want and expect me to make films, so that’s kind of a dream come true.
Teaching allows me to write without the pressure of, ‘how quickly can I get this done?’ or “do I have to take this directing gig that I’m kind of lukewarm about, just because I haven’t done something in a while?’ So it does sometimes take me a little bit longer between projects, but I feel like it’s a really good balance.
MM: Lastly, is there anything you have in the works that you’d like to put on blast?
CM: Well, I’m working on several projects right now. I’m working on a TV show, I’m working on three other feature projects — in various stages of development, and like I said, sometimes it’s a really long road and you have to pick things you’re willing to stick with for the long haul. So, that’s my attitude: It is really difficult to get a film made, so I take on projects that I think are meaningful and they’ll take the time they take to come together.
I tend to be impatient [laughs], I want to immediately be doing something else, so if nothing comes together immediately, I’ll usually start writing something just so I don’t, ya know…
MM: Get stale [laughs].
CM: Yeah, get antsy! [Laughs]. I think it’s great to have a singular focus, but until you start getting momentum on something, you have to cast a pretty wide net. Because you don’t know what people are going to be receptive to and I think it’s a good strategy for independent filmmakers to have more than one project to get off the ground, because it just maximizes their chances of getting it done.
Above the Shadows will be released on Blu-Ray and DVD on September 17th.
iTunes Link: https://tinyurl.com/y3dumyh3
Amazon Link: https://tinyurl.com/y2ts7odz
Facebook: Above The Shadows — fka Shadow Girl
Michael Mazzanti is a filmmaker, critic and writer. He is the resident genre enthusiast at The Film Stage, and a lover of everything from the outré to the everyday. You can find him on Twitter @BeTheGeese, on Vimeo @MichaelMazzanti, on Letterboxd @RidleyScotch, on Instagram @Lionsgatepictures, and via email at MikeWMazzanti@gmail.com.