Writer/Director Kimberly Levin Talks Runoff

“…I can say without hesitation that if you want to be able to say you were there when a great American filmmaker’s career kicked off, you need to see “Runoff.”

-Matt Zoller Seitz (RogerEbert.com)

Fortunately for me, I can say I was there at the advent. I was struck by this debut. It came out of left field and seemed too dense and shrewd in form to be cultivated by fresh talent. Runoff is a febrile farmland drama shot on location in Kentucky (though its rustic world building suggests any rural landscape). It stars Joanne Kelly as Betty, a female character a billion times more empowering than any scantily-clad female super-hero with a gatling gun or superpowers, and Neal Huff as a man whose husband and father titles (which propose some level of family provision) become increasingly vulnerable. With little interest in “Hollywood”, and a genuine interest in well-made, conscientious filmmaking, talking to Kimberly Levin is like my form of “Hollywood”, an excitement generated by seeing people who are authentically skilled in their craft. I was lucky enough to talk with her about the gestalt of her unified creative experiences (Biochemistry, Theater, now film) and how those elements went into making the film (With room for geeking about lenses and post color grading on the DI). 

runoff 2

You come from a background as a biochemist and Runoff is your directorial debut. But the film feels extensively versed in film knowledge and form. Can you talk about the experience you had with film prior to Runoff? 

I should say that there was a pitstop between biochemistry and film and that pitstop was in theater. So I did a year long one on one mentorship with John Guare at the Actors Theater of Louisville. And he’s a very famous theater director in the United States. While I was at Actors Theater, they have something called the Humana Festival of New American Plays. So a lot of plays that moved to Broadway and moved to the off-Broadway theaters like the Manhattan Theater Club, are actually workshopped at the Humana Festival. So when I was there, not only did I get to work with John, but I got to work with and become friends with people like John Patrick Shanley, Mark Brokaw, Doug Hughes, Anne Bogart, Lisa Peterson, all these incredible people in theater. So I got a real grounding in terms of the language of the script, and the structure, and the writing. So a lot of my background was built there. And also in the theater I got lots and lots of experience working with actors, directing actors. So those were things that were a fundamental part of my training that actually came from the theater. And that launched a moved to New York for me. And when I was first living in New York I was directing at established off-broadway houses like The Rattlestick Theater with Edward Albee. And then I was associate directing at bigger Off-Broadway houses like Manhattan Theater Club, and I was also the associate director of Closer which was nominated for a Tony… 

 So I really got an education about lighting, about drama’s physical/structural work on the script. A lot of experience working with actors in the theater, and a lot of things that translate from the theater in terms of, you know — blocking in the theater, is the way that we get to storyboarding. Those two things are kind of the right and left hand of each other. So a lot of what I learned in theater translated kind of beautifully into my understanding of how to work inside of film. But after – this actually all ended up around the same time actually – I ended up getting a scholarship for the NYU Graduate Film School, you know, which is an amazing institution. And that was my real education in filmmaking, but also the vocabulary of film and my knowledge of film from all over the world. When I showed up at film school, I didn’t know how to use a 35mm still camera. But I had been working on Broadway with actors. So I felt success and balance, when I first arrived at school, between my technical knowledge and the other skills that I had brought from theater. So most of the other students were much more advanced in terms of the technical aspects of filmmaking, but they hadn’t had all these incredible experiences I had on writing scripts, and working with actors, and improving scripts, and blocking actors, and all this other kind of stuff. All these things you navigate in the production of theater that translate well into film. So for me the most opening thing was to be exposed to films from all around the world. And then to work on my sort of technical skills, and find out how to marry all of those things beautifully together. The things I brought to the table and the things that I needed to work on. But having trained originally as a Biochemist I am a super-nerdy-geeky-techy-person, so I was not intimidated by the technical aspects of it at all. You know I can teach myself a program in a few hours, or you just pick up a camera and kind of figure out how it works. So all of that was very fascinating and fun for me, and not intimidating at all. I was very excited about that stuff. So it was a very cool time for me. And the journey into theater and then into film happened in a really compressed amount of time, and came right on the heels of me doing scientific research in the lab. So it was a kind of explosively creative time, that opened my eyes to all these cool things.

That’s interesting that everyone focuses on your background as a biochemist, I haven’t seen anyone talk about your theater experience. 

Yeah, it’s probably more unusual I guess, than going from theater to film, so I guess people tap into that. But, for me, whether you’re doing research science or you’re doing a film, the creative impulse behind scientific research is very much the same impulse that you have when you go out to write a story or to make a film. That impulse comes from an instinct to want to see connections between things that people haven’t put together before. Or, find out what’s beneath the surface of something that we don’t know about — to figure out the matrix behind a new world. So for me those creative instincts are very much the same and I can kind of slide back and forth between those in a very easy and facile way. 

I read in your interview with Indiewire, where you say that you literally studied how water runoff affected the lives of those surrounding? I’m wondering if you can put into layman’s terms how that works. 

I can tell you a little bit about the genesis of the idea behind the film, which is not what the film is about. But I think it will make sense when I tell you. So I was actually doing biochemistry field research in Kentucky, it’s where I grew up, and the film is shot entirely on location there. During field research, I was testing stream waters. And I helped to uncover that there was a textile plant that was dumping raw untreated pestilent, which is  just all the chemicals from the industrial process, into a tiny little tributary that was feeding into the state’s largest tourist attraction, Lake Cumberland. Where people get their drinking water from and fish out of and eat out of and all types of recreational activities. So this information was picked up by activists and attorneys and there was a long legal battle that ensued.And the factory was ultimately closed down.

It seems like that should have been a huge victory, but the factory was relocated. So for me it wasn’t a victory it was a relocation of the same problem to a different community. And I thought about the way that people make choices, who they think about and who they prioritize when they make a choice. How they prioritize when they make a choice. So I tried actualizing that question and thinking about, if my back were against the wall and the choices that I’m facing are bad or difficult choices, who is inside the circle with me when I prioritize how I make that decision. Is it me? Is it my family? Is it my community? And how wide does that circle extend around me? So that’s not the story of Runoff, but those are the kinds of things I was thinking about when I started to write the story. 

How much of Joanne Kelly’s character was improvisational and how much was already written into the script? There’s a lot of ways that we come to understand her from a purely visual perspective, did she have any input on that? 

What I can say that would be most interesting, and helpful to talk about her background and physicality of her performance, which I think is really unique– So Joanne grew up off of the coast of New Finland in this very rural fishing village. So she comes from a place where there’s a real connection to nature and economy much like there is in a film. So when I cast the film I knew that not only did I have to find a brilliant actor, but I had to find somebody you would believe is organically a part of this rural farming world. Someone you’d believe when she shoves her hands under the utter’s of a cow, someone you’d believe when she threw a 50 pound grain sack over her should and who’d square herself off and carry it and throw it back down. So because of Joanne’s upbringing and where she was raised, there were a lot of things that came very naturally to her in that performance in terms of its physicality. And things that she brought to the table, that kind of grounded it and gave a connection to the farming world inside of the film to [her] character because of her background. You know I think when people watch the performance it’s not just expressions on her face, and it’s not just the inflection of her voice, but it’s also the physicality of how she carries herself through the film. And I think that’s another part of her performance that makes it so unique and so believable. 

How did you manage to make Runoff so gorgeous so quickly and with so little money? 

Thank you so much for saying that… It was a real collaborative effort. The look of the film is a composite effect of the production design, the costume design, the mis en scène, the lenses we used. We shot on vintage Baltar lenses from the 70’s that have all sort of chromatic aberrations. So it has a real specific fingerprint to it. And we shot on the Arri Alexa. And I worked in deep collaboration with my D.P who I think did a remarkable job. But I think it was a combination of the costume design, the production design, his work, the lenses, the camera, and — not to get too nerdy and you can include this if you’re interested– but when we got to the post-production I worked with this amazing colorist named Nat Jencks who worked with Steven Soderbergh for a long time. And now he’s gone out on his own. 

And Nat and I actually developed original LUT’s which are look up tables. And so that’s the algorithm that you run — you turn the Arri Alexa into and then through, and it tells you if the colors kind of pink. But you shove it through the algorithm it comes out the other side and it’s going to read as maybe red. Or it’s gonna be a different kind of pink, so it uses this information and can form the color in a certain way. So Nat and I worked really hard to create the original LUT’s to reinforce what we were going for in terms of production design. Another thing I should say: When I start out on a film and I have a concept of a visual look of the film. I generally have kind of a theoretical idea of what it should be, and then I look for a painting or a series of paintings. In this case it was a Paul Gauguin painting called The Siesta. And I took that painting into photoshop — the original painting is this beautiful pastoral painting of women reclining on a veranda. And their wearing all sorts of pinks, and blues, and yellows, and purples, and oranges, these very vibrant colors. So I took this painting into photoshop and I desaturated it, and I gave that painting and a couple other paintings that Gauguin did at the same time to my designers to work from. And I said “these are the colors of the palette that we’re going to use, so if you see a color that you see in any of these paintings we can use them in the production design or the costume design. 

If you do not see it in there than we cannot use it. And I tried to be very specific and regimented about that, which is tough on a low budget feature. But I really believe that you kinda have to commit to something and do your best to make a commitment to that look that you’re trying to build. So the theoretical concept behind that look was to create a world that felt like it used to be a place full of vibrancy that has now faded. I didn’t choose browns and grays and that kind of thing because to me that connotates stasis, right? So I wanted to give the feeling that this is a place that used to be incredibly self-sustaining and vibrant and now all of that has kind of faded and the life-blood is kinda sucked from it. So it was an effort to create a nostalgia for the present moment. So that’s the whole concept for the look of it because you know Betty and Frank occupy this world that is dying before our eyes. 

 paul gauguin the siesta

And also the music is very classical and foreboding. Is this an original score? 

It’s totally original. The composers are these two fantastic guys, Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, and they did Martha Marcy May Marlene, and they did The Wolfpack which is coming out now. They [also] did Enemy with Jake Gyllenhaal where they won the Canadian Screen Award, which is kind of like the Canadian Oscars. So they are super super talented, and just these beautiful generous collaborators to — so when I first started working with them I said instead of going to a tune and scoring the moment, I’d like to approach it differently so that it becomes an organic layer to the film that provides this different layer of complexity. 

So I asked them at the beginning [to write] an overture, because what I want to do is create a sound, a feeling for the film, and figure out what sort of instrumentation we want to use. And I want you guys to feel free in terms of exploring your expression of this before you feel hemmed into needing to score this moment. So I wanted them to have a lot of creative expression to try things out. So they were just amazing. And the thing I should say is that they played ever single instrument. Everything you hear is an actual instrument, there’s no midi or anything in it. They played everything themselves so they just go back and do all the layering and engineering of that. So it has a real unique fingerprint and a real kind of human feeling and quality to it because of that that I think works with all the other handmade elements of the film. 

It has this range of being tranquil and then very aggressive. 

Yes, yes. I mean one of things that I think we realized, probably halfway through working on the score, was that we had to calibrate a perfect balance between allowing the nature to be an expression of the beauty of nature and on the flip-side using the score to remind the viewer that something is just beneath the surface. To look a little deeper, there’s something bubbling up… And to use the score as a reminder of that. So we kind of go back and forth between using the score in two different ways. 

So you’ve created something I’m very envious of. Something understated, and something with superb sound and image. Do you have any future projects in mind, or that you’re in the midst of? 

Oh yeah! I’m working on a new script about a sister who goes and visits her brother when he goes off the grid. And when she catches up with him she finds him in a small village in the Yucatán Peninsula and finds that she is at the center of a woman’s disappearance. And there’s all types of science in it. And I think it’s going to be true of my work that the plots and the themes are related but not exactly the same. It’s an exploration of a relative state of sanity –[which] is what I got on the plate and am hoping to tackle. 

Runoff is currently playing in theaters in NYC, and I have no doubts that it will grow rapidly and garner wider distribution. It opened today (June 26) at City Cinemas Village East. Keep an eye out for it.

My review of the film here.