Interview: Sara Driver

Photo by Jim Jarmusch
Photo by Jim Jarmusch

You might not know Sara Driver, but you should. Her body of work thus far is small, not overly long, artful, and deeply powerful. You might know her partner and frequent collaborator Jim Jarmusch more, but Driver’s filmography includes some of the most underseen and vital films to come out of the New York art scene in the 80s and 90s.

For her Toronto retrospective at the TIFF Bell Lightbox – Magic, Realism: The Films of Sara Driver, starting July 24th and running to August 5th – Driver finally gets her due with five of her works being showcased for the first time locally. She also gets to share with viewers the multitude of artists that have influenced her eclectic career.

Recently restored after long being feared lost, her debut work You Are Not I (July 24th at 6:30pm, with Driver in attendance) is a twisty psychological thriller based on the work of Paul Bowles featuring gorgeous cinematography from Jarmusch. It’s trippy, black and white tone brings to mind David Lynch almost immediately, but actually has a lot more in common with John Cassavetes, one of her biggest cinematic influences. Her next feature, Sleepwalk (August 5th, 8:45pm) takes inspiration from Chinese fairy tales, Takovsky, and Rivette.

Then there are the more ghostly stories of her career. The feature When Pigs Fly (July 25th at 6:15pm with Driver in attendance) comes packed with personal stories, a great cast, and is dedicated to the people in her life that still follow her despite having passed away. Her short film The Bowery – Spring 1994 (screening alongside You Are Not I) has taken on the ghosts of an entire neighbourhood, documenting life on the streets of one of New York’s previously seedy neighbourhoods and exposing the warmth that lies below the gruff exterior.

We got a chance to chat with Driver about her career, the influences that made her want to make films, and keeping your ghosts close to you.

Dork Shelf: I actually hadn’t seen any of your work until recently, so this is all really new and fresh to me, and I love what you’ve done. I know there have been a few retrospectives of your work around the world recently, and I know you’re really tied into the New York City art scene, so I was wondering if there was anything different for you when it comes to having your work showcased in New York versus elsewhere?

Sara Driver: I don’t feel any differently. I think I talk to audiences the same way. I think a lot of us in the New York film scene early on were so influenced by French New Wave cinema and (John) Cassavetes and anyone who was interested in reinventing cinematic language. That was a challenge for all of us during that period and I think that’s why we often get talked about together.

You Are Not I
You Are Not I

DS: That desire to create a new language and the influence of Cassavetes is definitely present in You Are Not I, which I think has an interesting kind of generational psychology to it. I read that it was just something that “came out of you” while you were making it, but I was wondering if you were expressly thinking about gender roles throughout the years while this was coming together?

SD: Well, in many ways it’s my very precise adaptation of the Paul Bowles short story that I read. It was only seven pages long, but it blew my mind because of the twist at the end. When I directed the film, I wanted to direct it the same way, with that same kind of freshness that I read the story with. You know, without looking too deeply into it.

I do, however, remember taking a lot from A Woman Under the Influence from Cassavetes, which was the movie that in a lot of ways made me want to make films. The timing in that film is so off among the people who love each other and interact within that film and it influences how they perceive each other. I think to a certain degree I was taking some of that.

DS: What was it about Cassavetes in general and how he dealt with femininity that you took from that film?

SD: When I direct actors I tell them something totally different from what I think the other actor is thinking. I think as humans we often try too hard to assume we know what the other person across from us is thinking, and quite often we don’t. That causes problems. (laughs) And I think Cassavetes addressed that a lot in his work. In Woman Under the Influence I would always say “Tell her you love her! No! Wait! Don’t tell her that NOW!” (laughs) That timing of everyone always being off was something that I always liked to take with me and remember.

DS: And that kind of timing really builds towards the twist in your film.

SD: Yes, and the way that the camera is designed is very much a part of that. The camera moves more and more inside her head until we’re completely inside there. (laughs) That was very formally designed to have that effect.

DS: There’s one shot in the film that Jim (Jarmusch) helped with that I think is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen, which is when Ethel is getting a ride home and they drive in front of that horse farm. It’s gorgeous, but it also feels like the main pivot point for the film to become something darker. How did that shot come about?

SD: It’s actually kind of funny. Luc Sante, who was a writer friend of ours, he told me he could drive and he didn’t know how to drive. (laughs) So that’s actually being shot in a parking lot because we had to show him how to hit the accelerator and stop with the brake. So that was designed just because Luc really wanted to be in the film, but he lied about knowing how to drive. I mean, those things happen. (laughs)

I remember we had to put the camera on the car and then show him where the brake was by putting it on film so we could show him how to actually stop the car. That was something where we had to think spontaneously and it just worked out. You try to plot things out too much in advance, but then your actor lies!


DS: When it comes to the creation of Sleepwalk and When Pigs Fly, did you ever fear that a single style would overtake your own artistic life? I look at your films and they’re all very different in terms of how they feel and resonate. Were you ever afraid of reaching a sense of sameness?

SD: I don’t think I ever really feared that, and I think part of that is because I take a lot from a lot of different influences and I love to admit to the influences others have left on me. With Sleepwalk, I showed my cast and crew (Andrei) Tarkovsky’s Stalker and (Jacques) Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating to get them in the mindset of what I wanted to accomplish with that. I had also read a series of essays by Carl Dreyer.

When you write anything it is going to affect the audience and yourself psychologically, so I was playing with a lot of theoretical concepts with that one.  I was also trying to art direct that one as if it were a black and white film because colour increases detail and black and white elimnates it. I was trying to get a lot of high contrast between the shadow and light in that film.

And When Pigs Fly was really influenced greatly by my love of ghost stories, and particularly The Canterville Ghost by Jules Dassin. That was something where I was really interested in how to do effects in camera, and that one was very much about the process. There were enough books about that. We used a bit of front screen projection, which is a very old technique. I wanted to avoid all optical printer stuff if I could to give the film a fresh feeling with the ghost, and at that point I definitely didn’t want to do anything with green screen or anything computerized which was so bad and costly.

But getting back to your point, I never thought that I would ever have a sense of sameness because there was so many different things that would influence me. I never worried about anything like that.

DS: That comes out really well in When Pigs Fly because you really tap into the fact that there’s really no wrong way to tell a ghost story. When you talk about ghost stories, how do you define what a ghost is? Is it the actual absence of a human presence or form, or a loss of self, or could it be more abstract like a memory of a place and time that has gone by but still resonates?

SD: I think with that film it’s a lot of all of those because it was really influenced by the AIDS crisis. We lost seven friends in one year. It was my way to deal with how these friends still travel with me and they helped make me who I am. I feel a very strong presence from friends departed. They’ve seen me through my lifetime and they’re all sort of around me.

Even having lost Joe Strummer even nine or ten years after that film was made, I can still hear him going, “GO! Fuck! Sara, go ahead! Don’t let ’em stop ‘ya!” And I think the people like that in your lives are like guideposts for you. That’s why at the end of that film I dedicate it to “the ghosts that walk with us” because they walk with us.

When Pigs Fly
When Pigs Fly

DS: It seems like when you talk about losing someone like Joe who had such an influence on the film, it seems like the film itself starts to accumulate its own set of ghosts in a way. The film becomes a bit of a standing monument.

SD: Right. Well, it’s really eerie when people watch When Pigs Fly and then they watch the little Strummer movie about Joe composing the music, especially since he’s a ghost now. He gave so much and he was just such an incredible life force. The fact that he died of a congenital heart disease that should have killed him when he was six years old and he ended up giving so much to the world and lived such a full life inspires me every day.

We have a dear friend, Howard Bruckner who died of AIDS and he made one of the best films ever made about William Burroughs, and he was someone else that I really take with me and who comes through in this film. I recently contacted his nephew recently to talk about finding that film, and now it’s actually going to be put out by Criterion and it’s going to be playing at the New York Film Festival.

You know, you have to keep resurrecting your ghosts through your work. (laughs)

DS: The cast of When Pigs Fly is also interesting in that it gives people a chance to play with roles that they might not otherwise get a chance to play, specifically with regards to Alfred Molina and Marianne Faithful. How did this cast come together?

SD: I had actually met Marianne and Alfred about another project that I had wanted to do, but I couldn’t get the financing for, which was an adaptation of Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles. Then when I met Alfred I just fell in love with him, and the same with Marianne.

Marianne told me an amazing story about when she had OD’d on drugs while she was in Australia and she went into a coma and how she was brought back to life. The colours that she described that she saw influenced how the colours ended up appearing in the film.

While I was waiting for the funding for that other film to get made and I had met with Alfred and Marianne, my friend and co-writer Ray Dobbins and I started talking about ghost stories, and he had this story about how his grandmother wanted to send him to college with this rocking chair. He knew that his grandmother had talked to his grandfather in the rocking chair, so he didn’t want to take it. That’s where the rocking chair idea came from and everything came full circle and it became a part of the film’s cycle of birth and death. Then Ray and I talked about the story, and I wrote the story and he wrote the script. Then because of Marianne and Alfred, the movie was finally formed.

Then Robby Müller, the great cinematographer who I was so lucky to work with, were such effects geeks that he became a great collaborator. We love to tell stories with shadows and light, and we loved finding ways to do dissolves in camera and things like that. Then we had Strummer, who was just, like, an archaeologist of music. You could get so many different things from both of them.

Everything with that one came together really quick and out of something that we never fully planned at first. Ray wrote the script, and we were able to get this one financed pretty quickly.

DS: You speak like someone who likes to accumulate stories and this film seems to have come from that.

SD: I would say that’s true. Even talking about how the picture came together is like that. Even the story of how about a month before we were supposed to film, I thought we were going to shoot in Massachusetts and suddenly the financing came from Germany, so we had to shoot there. We could only shoot in this section of East Germany, and for the opening section we shot in a location where Murnau actually shot Nosferatu, which I didn’t know until after we shot there.

There’s a film history of ghosts in there, too, and when you see people that they’re passing in the streets, those were actually Russian soldiers that they couldn’t afford to send home yet! They were very happy to have a job and food.

DS: In its own way, The Bowery – Spring 1994, is also a ghost story especially when you look at how technology has advanced from when you made it, but more specifically in terms of the neighbourhood gentrification that The Bowery has undergone. Would you consider it a ghost story?

SD: I would now, yeah. The Bowery was once very poignant to me and you could see thousands of different things every day. Now with gentrification you don’t get those gifts anymore. There was a real genteelness among the men who used to live in The Bowery. there was a kindness. I felt much safer on The Bowery then than I do now.

It was also the last kind of gasp of a particular culture that I would realize. A lot of the older homeless men there would save up their Social Security cheques and go to Florida for the winter and then around the time that I shot the film they would all come back. I think I captured the last spring where I noticed that kind of flow of homeless back into The Bowery.

There are still some shelters left because they have covenants on them and developers can’t get them out, but it’s not their universe anymore. It was at one time. This was their street.

And it was funny in that Chinese restaurant where that guy was mimicking that he was going to shoot a gun at the camera because that was a restaurant that had two different locations. They were owned by the same person. There was one specifically for non-Asians and you couldn’t go into the Asian one if you weren’t Asian. There were rules, you know?

DS: Do you look around there now and remember where things used to be and how different they are now?

SD: Yeah, definitely I do. It was pretty fascinating back then. You could have been a ghost who came back from a hundred years before and you would know where you were at the time. If that same ghost came to today, you wouldn’t know where you were. You wouldn’t have your bearings in the same way. And now we have bars back on The Bowery. When I shot the film, the last bar on The Bowery had just closed.

I mean, cities change, so I think we were kind of fortunate to have New York kind of preserved in this sort of deteriorated kind of fashion for a very long time. (laughs)

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