Jagged Lives: Director Russell Harbaugh talks about his incisive debut drama, 'Love After Love'

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With multiplexes inundated with one special effects-driven extravaganza after another, it’s not uncommon to wonder where all the adult dramas have gone. The answer, at least this Friday (March 30), is your local art house, where moviegoers will have the opportunity to catch Love After Love, one of 2018’s absolute triumphs.

The story of a middle-aged woman named Suzanne (Andie MacDowell) who’s struggling—alongside her increasingly detestable grown son Nicholas (Chris O’Dowd)—to cope with, and move on from, the death of her husband, it’s a fractured tale of grief, dysfunction and survival, and heralds a sterling new cinematic voice in director Russell Harbaugh. Making his feature debut, Harbaugh brings a bracing measure of formal daring and psychological and emotional insight to his material, in the process suggesting that his fantastic work is merely the first of many to come. On the eve of Love After Love’s theatrical premiere from IFC Films, I sat down with the filmmaker to discuss the origins of his story, his artistic inspirations, his phenomenal leads and the current independent film landscape.

What are the origins of Love After Love’s story? Was it born from personal experience?

The short answer is yes. I lost my dad in 2006. I was 22, and I was moving to New York to start grad school. I’m from Evansville, Indiana, my parents were theatre professors, and otherwise my relationship to movies was that my brother and I loved Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes movies and big Hollywood stuff. And I still love that stuff. But when I moved to New York, I really didn’t know the movies everyone else knew. My time in film school was spent fumbling through bad versions of writing about my dad who had just died, and also simultaneously exploring where I wanted to belong as a filmmaker. I needed a model, I think. So the process of film school was a process of experimenting with what I thought a movie was. And it involved lots of bad scripts. [laughs]

Then my mom started dating again, around the time that [Love Is Strange director] Ira Sachs gave me Maurice Pialat’s À Nos Amours, and that totally changed my life. I became totally obsessed, and started writing about my mom while I was literally transcribing his movies into script form so I could look at how they were put together. His movies have this thing in them that I recognized in my life as the years built up behind my dad dying. That period was a huge blur/whirlwind/hurricane of change where my brother and I moved here, I was in film school, he was trying to get a foot in the literary world, we both got girlfriends, we both moved in with girlfriends, he got married while I was breaking up with a girlfriend who I had cheated on, and my mom’s sister died. I recognized in those Pialat movies this feeling that I definitely had in my life at the time—that I couldn’t catch up with my life. It was one event after another after another, and his movies had that as an organizing principle. His movies are famously jagged with regards to time, and puling audiences from one thing to the next, and I loved that feeling. It felt purely cinematic to me, and it seemed to express one of the main qualities of my life.

I made a short film as my thesis at Columbia that played at Sundance, that was pulled from the first draft of Love After Love. After I made the short, I thought I was done, but then the idea that you could make a movie to get at this feeling—about not being able to catch up to your own life—started to seem like a way to jump in again to whatever was going on with my family at the time.

At the time, Eric Mendelsohn was a teacher of mine at Columbia, and my advisor on my thesis film, and I was taking him pages and talking to him about the movie, and that turned into longer discussions and a more formal collaboration, which blossomed into writing the script together. We did that for several years—his dad was dying at the time too, actually—and it went through the Sundance Labs in 2013.

The question of happiness is raised in the introductory conversation between Suzanne and Nicholas, but is that what you feel the film is ultimately about? I feel like that’s part of it, but that it’s also about survival in its many forms.

I don’t know. [laughs] With the first scene in the movie, what was most important to me was producing a feeling of being under the covers together with these two people. We’d talk about this tender intimacy between them that bordered on the romantic. The dialogue is always secondary to me. I wanted the movie to be such that you could almost watch it with the sound off and still be gripped by it. So we paid very careful attention to how characters were introduced, and who they belonged to in the beginning of the movie—who you’re seeing them with. Because so much of the movie’s engine is the juggling of these arrangements. We kept saying, even as we were writing and on set, that the movie is driven by new arrangements. This feeling of introducing loyalties and then tossing them in the air—doing that, we thought, would create an inherent tension.

As for that scene, we shot it on day one, and there’s not a word in that scene that’s written in the script—which was to my great dismay, since I didn’t intend to improvise it. We shouldn’t have shot the scene on the first day—I’ve never done this before, and for a first scene like that, it was just such a fragile time to do it because everyone was still nervous and they didn’t know what the movie was. We built that scene in the edit, out of these little shards of talk. And to Andie and Chris’ credit, they both had takes where they did enough that connected that we could build this feeling of being under the covers together. I didn’t really care what they were talking about; I knew that what Andie was saying, and what the conversation was, harmonized in some way with the movie, without thinking too hard about what it meant.

How closely did you stick to the script—and how much was improvised?

Ninety-nine percent of it is written. But to take it away from kind of a percentage, we had this idea of the crinoline, in a dress. We would always remind ourselves of this crinoline, and what we wanted to do was create boundaries around an event that were dramatic enough that the actors weren’t asked to do anything but just respond to what was happening. And whatever they did was going to be what the scene was about. The quality of the movie, of feeling like you’re just jumping in and out of scenes, and stacking scenes up on top of each other like a deck of cards—most of what was said in the movie was written, but we could always play on top of it, because most of the scenes were about reacting to a new tension. Like, after your dad’s dead, now you’re at a Christmas party, and it’s also an engagement party, and your son is getting engaged to this woman that he was sleeping with while his dad was dying, and yet everyone’s treating it like it’s normal, and really trying to celebrate it as if it’s not so transparently energy that’s misdirected. Those kinds of scenes are so juicy.

My favorite scene is Nicholas’s blowup at the birthday dinner, because it has that quality of numerous emotional layers piled on top of each other. Do you thoroughly script a scene like that, or does it develop while you’re shooting?

That scene needs to happen at that point, and you want it to happen. Those scenes are fun to shoot because you can start to be a little bit more deliberate with the camera, and you can make a more pronounced feeling at that point. There aren’t many big scenes like that in the movie, and there really isn’t another scene where I felt like you could burrow in and be a little bit nasty.

It was the hardest scene to write, because the short I’d made is built around a scene like that. The short is about the birthday party, so that was the one part of the script that I hated writing, because I felt like I was having to redo what we’d done in the short. Some of the camera design in the scene was also affected by that, where I wasn’t able to be as loose and playful as I wanted to be, because I’d already done it once, and I’d really liked how we’d done it in the short, but I didn’t want to replicate it.

Still, Chris had a lot of freedom in that scene, and there’s some nice unwritten stuff in it. We would shoot a take, and then Chris and I would go off and talk. That scene was very difficult for him because it’s hard to put into words where it comes from, in a way. Chris is a real intellectual, very smart, and a very serious actor. We talked a lot about every scene, but that scene in particular was difficult for him to grab onto what exactly had produced this. And I kept saying, “Don’t worry about it, the movie produced it.” [laughs]

I hope Chris gets a lot of attention for his work in the movie, because it’s really risky. Especially right now, when the history of white men as being awful human beings is being discussed very openly. [laughs] His character is obviously very difficult in that way. But he threw himself into the role and was very game. I think it’s kind of a vile performance, and terrific. It’s so against what people expect of him—it’s a risky thing to do.

For all his awful behavior, Nicholas seems like someone who can’t help himself. In some fundamental way, he’s lost control—which makes him vile, but not innately horrible.

I don’t think he is either. And we would talk about that on set too. It is a big ask to have a character come in and just be abjectly bad. So Chris, as a performer, kept looking for ways to indicate the good side of the character, and I would often resist those impulses. What I found myself saying was that it’s not that Nicholas doesn’t have good qualities—it’s just that they’re not in the movie. The movie is with him traveling this path of a poor decision that gets doubled-down on, and that he can’t accept. There’s something he can’t accept, and I’m not sure we had a clear idea of what it was when we were writing it. It’s just like, dad’s dying in the other room, the wires get crossed, I’m sleeping with this student, and that’s OK, right? Now I’ll prove that that’s OK by marrying her! And I’ll prove that that’s OK by bringing her home and saying. “See, Ma, isn’t everything good now?”

Maybe his cruelty in the movie is connected to something that’s very human, and is about someone trying to survive a set of emotions that they’re not willing to fully investigate, or feel. There’s something very stubborn about that which I recognize as human.

How tough was a movie like this to make, as your first?

When the film went through the Sundance Institute labs, it totally changed the project. When people would read the script before the labs, it would get a lot of puzzled looks of “What is this? This isn’t a movie.” Then after it had that Sundance stamp on it, it was “Oh, how original! What a real voice!” [laughs] But that’s not nothing—that’s how I got an agent, that’s how we got [production company] Parts & Labor involved. I think Eric and I, and Mike Prall—who produced the short and was a producer on the feature—knew from the beginning that the material was going to be vulnerable. That our ideas about how this was going to get told wouldn’t totally show up in the script pages, and needed to be protected very early. The earlier in the process you are, the more vulnerable the material is to changing, because people are like, “I’m interested, if you round the edges, if Nicholas isn’t such a despicable character,” or whatever those notes were. And we had a lot of them, trying to clean up the movie to make it more familiar.

From the very beginning, we were good about surrounding the material with people who we thought would help us protect it. My agent worked at the Sundance Institute when the film went through there, and when he left I was like, well, that’s someone who’ll protect the script. Then we started to accumulate enough support around the material that we got Doug Abel on, who’s one of the best casting directors in the world, probably. And he didn’t take any money upfront. That lets you begin sending the material to all these actors with these stamps of approval on it.

What was it about Andie and Chris that convinced you they were ideal for their respective parts?

Chris came first, and with Chris, I wanted someone physically big. I wanted to be scared of them, without them doing anything; I wanted some big bear of a man—I wanted a man. He’d just done Of Mice and Men [on Broadway, with James Franco] and he’d gotten a lot of attention for that, and he looked great for it—he had this big beard and he’d buzzed his head. He just looked great to me. And he’s so fundamentally warm and magnetic and funny that the mixture of all that, with the script and the behavior that he was going to do in the movie, just felt complicated in this fun way. I think you want to excuse him at the beginning of the movie, or ignore it or something because, you know, he’s so lovable. And that felt fun—and good—to me.

With both of them, I would watch red carpet and behind-the-scenes interviews. You can learn a lot about an actor watching those YouTube videos, because you get a sense of what they’re like in front of a camera when they think they’re being themselves. With both of them, I’d just go down these rabbit holes.

With Andie, she’s never totally shaken this perception of her as a model first. And in some ways for good reason, because she’s gorgeous and is a real movie star. But I think seeing her in front of the camera in these interviews was great, because she’s really natural. I could tell she was going into those interviews with a plan, and executing that plan, and leaning into her tender, silky smooth thing. It was fun to think of that character that way, because the character is kind of sharp—she has a blowup with a student that’s kind of awesome, and then can be quite biting to Nicholas. That mixture felt good—something about his bigness and her tender, silky thing gave me a feeling of being under the covers together.

When the film was at Tribeca last year, there was a lot of talk about Andie’s nude scene. How did that come about?

There was a lot of it in the script—the body. I actually wanted more of the body in the movie; it’s in the movie, but I wanted to see Glenn (Gareth Williams) when he was dead, totally nude, in a medium shot, and I had this image of Emilie (Dree Hemingway) naked on the couch one afternoon in the house. But that’s hard to do. Actors are protective of their bodies, as they should be, so some of that stuff had to go for various reasons. I would hear from producers, “One dick is okay, but two dicks is NC-17.” [laughs] As much as I want to say I don’t care about that, people say enough things to you that you start thinking, “OK, it doesn’t have to be this here.”

As for Suzanne, I thought it would be really fun to watch a woman that age going through this sexual expedition in anonymous hotel rooms. And that sequence came from something before the short. My mom was Internet dating in the Midwest, which meant she was dating lots of people in the area, but not from the same town, so they would meet in the middle. I asked her, very early, if I could interview her. My reaction to her dating again was complicated, to say the least, and was filled with lots of different competing feelings—I was simultaneously repulsed but interested, and angry for some reason. So hearing her talk about the first time she had sex in a hotel room, and really describing it in the way that you might describe losing your virginity—I found those notes recently, and that sequence with Andie is totally taken from this story that my mom told me.

It’s getting a lot of attention in this way that’s making me a little uncomfortable, because it’s such an easy headline or something. But it’s very brave on her part to do it. And it’s very brief.

It is—I barely remembered it until the headlines started appearing.

Yeah, there are going to be a lot of disappointed middle-aged dudes watching the movie on iTunes, going, “Wait a second, I just spent $4 on this?” [laughs] It’s one shot.

The film has a really unique editorial structure. Was that in the script, or did you develop it afterwards?

It’s very close to the script. We moved some stuff around, and I like to play a lot, so we did. But the way things came out in the wash was pretty much what the script was.

You also employ a really thought-out visual structure, which harmonizes uniquely with the tumultuous action. Were there inspirations for the film’s look—say, Hou Hsiao-hsien, with regards to your fondness for framing action through doorways?

Through studying Pialat, I’d read interviews with him and then watch everyone he talked about—Philippe Garrel, Jean Renoir, and then contemporaries like [Olivier] Assayas and [Arnaud] Desplechin. It was a lot of French filmmakers. I think in part because I grew up in a house in the Midwest where we had a garden outside, and spent a lot of time in the garden, I have a feeling of deep recognition about the stories the French tell when I watch those movies.

Pialat gets compared to Cassavetes all the time, but to my mind his visual sense with the camera is more sophisticated. He was a painter for all of his life, and he didn’t make a movie until he was 35, and what I love about him is that the images themselves are very deliberate and have real emotional ideas behind them, but the action in front of the camera is very chaotic and alive. I love the dissonance of chaotic action being met with a camera that’s really positing an emotional perspective on the scene. Because you can do whatever you want if you’re good at that part. You can lead an audience through a whole story of chaos if the camera is making them pay attention to the right thing or producing the right feeling at the right time.

So [cinematographer] Chris Teague and I came into the movie with some ideas. Wide shots seemed to feel really good and tender and fragile, like you can’t quite touch the action, because it’s just a little bit beyond your reach. We also found that a formal move mixed with something un-formal and really rough could feel great. We looked at Assayas for blocking a lot, Pialat for framing. Hou Hsiao-hsien wasn’t as big of an influence, but I know what you’re talking about. I love that stuff, and I saw A Time to Live and a Time to Die at Lincoln Center before we went into production, and I remember thinking, “Oh, there’s some harmony between that movie and what I’m trying to do.”

Love After Love is a mature adult independent drama—is there a place for it, and movies like it, in today’s marketplace?

I don’t have a good answer for that. [laughs] I have the same affliction lots of filmmakers have, which is that I feel like the cool kids are sitting at a different table. I don’t really feel totally a part of the independent film community. I have the people that I work with and love and admire. John Magary, who was an editor on the film [and whose directorial debut, The Mend, was written by Harbaugh], is a genius and someone I have a close relationship with. I’d say the same about Eric and Chris Teague and Mike Prall. The people that we made the movie with, we have our own community.

But I think you’re right, the independent film community has grown in such a way that there’s just so much out there—and it really was hard to get the movie made. It was much easier for us because we caught some major breaks. I’m really looking forward to the movie coming out, because I have this question of, “What are people going to make of this thing?”

And you must wonder if it has a chance to reach a large audience—especially given that even films on Netflix and Amazon seem to get lost in the shuffle.

I’m super-proud of the work, and the work on display—from everyone—is undeniable. I don’t doubt that it will reach people. I sometimes wonder how long we’ll have to wait. [laughs] I’ve settled somewhat into a good place where I’ve realized that, after ten years of being in New York, I don’t have to guess whether or not I’m going to make a movie. I’m going to keep making movies, even if I don’t know what the audience is going to be like, and I don’t know what they’re going to cost to make.

I’m really trying to hold onto this part of the process, because it feels so special to me. If you’d told me when I was 15 that this was going to be a part of my life, I mean, what a special thing to have. I’m really trying not to take for granted what this week [before release] is going to be, which is really cool. I made a movie about my family, and it’s going to be in movie theatres, and people are going to spend their evenings with it. I love that idea. Some of my formative ideas about what a story was happened on what felt like very special nights of going to the opening of, say, Dracula at the University of Evansville. So the idea that I’ve made something that people will spend an evening with—I love that, it’s so cool.