For our latest Sunday Spotlight interview, Fiona had the fantastic opportunity to chat with director Jaron Albertin, whose feature-film debut released earlier this week (9th November) in New York and Los Angeles after debuting it Zurich Film Festival last year.
FU: I want to ask you about the casting of Alessandro Nivola first of all, I notice that you saw him in the production of The Elephant Man in London (with Bradley Cooper and Patricia Clarkson), I also saw that production, what was it about that performance that led you to want to cast Alessandro?
JA: There wasn’t really anything in that performance at all, but we met afterwards and I did research, I watched everything I could find of his. My producer linked us up and she really rated him – he just got the character. I had never seen him in a role like this, so there was some hesitation there, but I just think he’s a wonderfully underrated actor [FU: I agree]. He was really into the idea of taking it on. What he had to say about it and his approach to it. I knew that, in a way, this film is so sparse, there’s not a lot of dialogue and the nuance that he had to get a hold of – I feel like he did a great job. He’s just a great guy too.
FU: What about Johnny Knoxville – I have to ask you how that came about?! I think it’s so interesting that he’s playing the voice of reason in the film and that’s not something you often connect with Johnny Knoxville.
JA: I thought he did a great job, actually. He’s from the South, he’s playing this foreman – working class, blue collar, I think he can pull it off – it’s kind of his world. He was the last person to come on board. We were having a tricky time with our financing, they needed somebody with a name. My producer knows him and knows that he’s been wanting to do more dramatic roles, so we put it in front of him. Initially, I was like (snorts incredulously) “Johnny Knoxville?! From Jackass?!” I was 14 when that came out and I was crashing balls over my head. But he was part of the reason why the movie got made, really. That was the primary reason, but then when we started to talk about it … he sucks you in, he has gravity.
FU: One of my favourite scenes in the film actually is when Ed (Knoxville) is talking to Joel (Nivola’s character) at the leaving party and he’s comforting Joel and kind of addressing themes of toxic masculinity, by saying “it’s OK to feel your feelings, it’s OK to give into them” and then the next second Ed is off getting a lapdance…
JA: It’s kind of rough, it’s off-the-cuff – it’s not an eloquent speech, but there’s something parallel to the end lines, about sleeping and waking, there’s something about him, in a backwards way, gets what Joel is feeling. It’s a direct line in to Joel and I think it works.
FU: And what about the kids – there is obviously an amazing performance from Eli Haley who plays one of the central roles – Will, but I also really, really liked his friend Carla (Phoebe Young) who talks to him about superheroes and says she wants to be the huntress. How did you go about casting but also working with the kids, with what are quite mature themes, I always wonder when you’re working with kids in a film that’s designed for adults, how do you not traumatise them, basically?
JA: I think you try to cast kids who inherently get it or understand it, it’s just an organic thing – the more they start to “act”, or they get a sense of what acting is, the more it starts to feel false. It’s got to be natural, as a kid, it’s the only way. You can’t look at a kid and see them as professional actors, I mean you can if they’re singing, dancing, jazz hands, Mickey Mouse Club. But when it comes to something like this, Eli I don’t think he’d ever read the script, I think it was day-to-day to him. His relationship with Alessandro – he was a little afraid of him and I think we just kept it as natural as we could. You don’t want too many takes, you try to get things quickly. But over the course of the film, new dynamics start to take hold and then people become your peers, then you feel like you’ve got to project something else onto these people, new relationships build and that directly manifests itself on screen, those natural relationships that you try to have. Particularly when the kids were together, with who is the alpha kid or whatever, you have to implement that feeling in a certain way because of the dynamic of the kids, which has nothing to do with the roles at all. It’s tricky – you never know what’s going to happen. Not a lot’s said. Eli doesn’t speak for the first 20 minutes of the film.
FU: I think the first time Will speaks is when he has a paper bag on his head and that gives him the confidence to use his voice…
JA: Yeah and he doesn’t really move a lot either. He’s basically placid and sat or in a corner the entire time. There’s only two scenes where he’s walking. I was trying to cut out any part where he was walking or moving because it gave a different perspective on him, which is kind of strange to think about, that he’s just this mass, immobile.
FU: I really loved the cinematography, particularly the overhead shots, like the ones that were from the POV of a bird’s wing. I’m wondering how you achieved those shots and why you used them – what were you trying to say with them?
JA: I think I have a perspective on depressed realities alongside nature. Where you have the claustrophobia of the internal, you live without stepping back and looking at the bigger picture or the magic of what the natural world is. I grew up in a small potato-picking, hick town in Northern British Columbia, I went to school with First Nations kids and everyone would be drinking or huffing glue and living in this beautiful environment, but really repressed. But if you step back and look at the world, the reality of nature is so beautiful but we were sort of stuck. So Eli being trapped in his own body and the claustrophobia of that and then seeing this bird, it’s this idea of being able to project yourself onto nature, with the magic up and there and the freedom – it’s that contrast. Nature is unknown and random and scary but it gives us answers. We had a helicopter to shoot that, my producer has a relationship with one of the guys who does commercial shoots – a cowboy renegade helicopter pilot came up and I think we had an hour and a half, which in a way really lifted the film, kind of opened it up, we put the wing in afterwards.
FU: So you shot in upstate New York?
JA: Yes – two hours out of Albany, small town called Johnstown, an old gambling town, a beautiful old town, but there’s nothing there. They’ve got a great old town hall, but it’s all boarded up. It’s strange, you’re outside of New York, but you have communities that have nothing, they’ve sucked the industry out of everywhere and there’s no respect for anything. I mean, that’s a little depressing, but that was the case in Johnstown.
FU: I can think of 8 films that have come out in the last year dealing with rural poverty in America and I’m wondering if it’s subconsciously to do with trying to understand Trump voters or if that was far from your mind?
JA: It’s an interesting question, because to me: No. The rural poverty wasn’t something that was one of the themes for me at all. It’s more relatable for me, I wanted to shoot this film in the interior of BC in Canada and we just couldn’t do it because of practicalities. It’s where I grew up. And there, it doesn’t have the same social, political connotations. Things are rural, things are depressed, but it just is.
FU: I really liked the music, particularly in a scene where Joel stops his truck and goes off into a field to have a slash, there’s this haunting, almost choral music over it and I’m wondering what choices you made about the music and why?
JA: That song is by Julianna Barwick and I had that song in mind when we cut the scene, so that song was always in there. But I wanted at times, the music to be meditative, almost a contrast to what we are seeing. There’s a lot going on in that shot, the telephone poles warp and bend. He’s walking and disappearing – something is compulsively driving him on. That’s a metaphor for a feeling of being isolated, not being able to communicate, to not be understood, to feel like you’re alone.
The music changed over time. I wanted something sparse, I wanted the music to be in situation for most of it, but there’s some abstract stuff. We find this kid called Clem Leek who lives in Chicago, he’s actually English, he’s brilliant. His piano music, it just connected, it just fit. The music is always tough, trying to limit it, trying to tell the story without it as much as you can without it and see how that works.
JC: Especially when you’re from a music video background?
JA: Yeah I moved to London in 2007 and made music videos there for 8 years, that was my background. Then I moved to New York about 5 years ago. But for this, it wasn’t easy – it’s not a film that actually demands music, in a way. So, for me, it was finding a certain type of music that matched and that took a while.
Weightless opened in New York and Los Angeles on Friday 9th November, and we’ll have a review up on our site in the very near future – but for now, take a look at the film’s trailer below!