IONCINEMA.com’s IONCINEPHILE of the Month feature focuses on an emerging filmmaker from the world of cinema. This April, we’ve got a first: two for the price of one. Husband and wife filmmaking team of Ron Eyal and Eleanor Burke premiered Stranger Things at such fests as Slamdance (Winner Grand Jury Prize Best Narrative Feature), Raindance (Winner Grand Jury Prize Best U.K. Feature), Woodstock, Karlovy Vary, and is now they’ve got a one week theatrical run (April 5 – 11) at the reRun Theater in Brooklyn. Here is our profile on the filmmaker team and worth checking out is our accompanying original/combined personal Top Ten films list.
Eric Lavallee: During your childhood…what films were important to you?
Eleanor Burke: I remember going to the cinema as a very young child. The ceremony of it all was impressive: the velvet curtains, the hush as the lights went down. I saw E.T. at the cinema when I was so young I’m surprised I could sit through it. It stuck with me, although a lot of it must have gone over my head at the time. In 1989, the centenary of Charlie Chaplin’s birth, I went with my parents and my sister to see City Lights and Modern Times on the big screen with a live orchestra and afterwards I got heavily into Charlie Chaplin and started watching other silent films. I had slightly odd tastes for a kid, I suppose. I liked animation, the films of Lotte Reiniger. Channel 4 used to play a variety of animated shorts during the night and my dad would video them for me.
Ron Eyal: A film that really stuck with me as a child was Harold and Maude. Before that I had mostly seen pretty mainstream films. I liked Back to the Future and Star Wars. Harold and Maude was the first film that moved me. It felt joyous to watch. I remember singing along to the Cat Stevens song at the end with my brothers. That was on VHS at home. I didn’t get to see it at the theater until much later, but it was even better on the big screen. Another film I discovered that made a big impression was Raising Arizona. I felt it was a different kind of story: quirky and engaging, with that great set-up of the convict marrying the cop. I loved the set piece where Nicholas Cage steals the diapers. I watched that over and over. My Life As a Dog was the first foreign film I remember seeing. That film was very beautiful, heartfelt and humorous. It was full of detail.
Burke: That’s interesting. There was a funny mix of films that my sister and I watched repeatedly on video, and both My Life as a Dog and Raising Arizona were among those. We loved those films too.
Lavallee: During your formative years what films and filmmakers inspired you?
Eyal: The film that made me want to be a filmmaker was Les 400 coups (The 400 Blows). I saw a lot of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh films, growing up in the U.K., and I looked forward to their new releases. I also liked Gus Van Sant and Jane Campion.
Eyal: There was an amazing arthouse cinema when I was at UC Berkeley called the UC Theater. I loved everything about that place including the No Smoking advertisement they played before every screening, featuring John Waters sucking in cigarette smoke. I saw Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher there and a lot of classics and noir films. Later on Eleanor and I watched all the Cassavetes films. The rawness of the performances just created a one of a kind cinema. Eleanor introduced me to Mike Leigh, and I was really inspired by his process with actors.
Lavallee: Your body of work up to your feature debut includes short docs, vids, commercial work — at what point did you know you wanted to become a filmmaker?
Eyal: I made some short films at Berkeley. They were just fun little projects I put together with my friends, but they planted the seed. I also made some little stop-motion shorts and then after undergrad I went to the Grad Film Program at NYU. That was where Eleanor and I met. We both liked each others’ work and we started collaborating on short films. Eleanor was doing a lot of cinematography and she shot some projects for me. When we worked together we would talk a lot about the storytelling and so then we started writing together. We made some shorts, but it wasn’t until we made our feature Stranger Things that we restarted officially co-directing.
Burke: As I child I enjoyed putting on plays with my friends. I wrote scripts for radio dramas (that I would record on a tape recorder) and I made scrappy hand-drawn animation exercises. I originally wanted to be an animator, but as a teenager I got more excited about live action. Before NYU I worked at a charity in London that helps train teens and adults (who have missed out on educational opportunities) to use video equipment. I was excited about the idea of coming to New York and getting to know the New York independent film scene. When Ron and I started to collaborate, I realized how much fun it was to bounce ideas around with someone who inspires you. Our collaboration grew organically.
Lavallee: What is the genesis of the project? Was the chosen backdrop part of the fabric early on?
Burke: My grandmother was itinerant at various points in her life and so I was interested in homelessness. Ron and I wanted to make a film that looked at what it means to be an outsider and we wanted to explore what it takes to reach out to someone whose life is very removed from your own.
Burke: We wrote the film for the house and the surrounding area, which is the village of Pett in Sussex in England. It’s a beautiful part of the country on the south coast. It’s also near a town called Hastings, which has a seedy side to it and which attracts a lot of people who are down on their luck, so it’s a place that accommodates great contrasts.
We stayed in the house for a little while when we were writing the script and then during the shoot Eleanor and I actually lived there with the two lead actors Adeel Akhtar and Bridget Collins. Being there helped inspire the soundscape of the film. We decided that the natural sounds of the environment should be the soundtrack and score.
Lavallee: What characteristics/features were you looking for in your protagonist (Oona) played by Bridget Collins?
Burke: We wrote the part of Oona for Bridget Collins. Ron and I had worked with Bridget before on a short film and we knew she was a fantastic actor. We also knew she was open to collaboration and brave with her choices. The character of Oona is something of an outsider. She’s very isolated. We knew Bridget would be able to convey her inner world subtly but powerfully, even when she was working without dialogue.
Lavallee: How did you prep for the performances (was there a rehearsal process?). How did you prep for each scene – specifically in capturing true emotions by way of facial expressions.
Eyal: We workshopped the characters and back-stories with the actors before production, but at that stage we didn’t show them the script and we didn’t rehearse any scene from beyond the first moments of the film. During production we shot in script order and we gave the actors the script in segments, so they would only see the story up to a certain point. They never saw pages for scenes that didn’t involve their characters. For a film that is about two people gradually discovering each other, I think working that way kept that discovery fresh.
We also gave the actors freedom to find their own pace and to create moments between themselves during the scene. Those little moments and gestures that bring the story together come from them. We wanted the set to feel intimate and so we put the actors at the heart of what we were doing and kept the production very simple. Eleanor shot the film and she worked handheld and with natural light, so they didn’t have big lights and stands to contend with and Eleanor could follow them intuitively.
Lavallee: What ideas did you have for the style of the film? What inspirations (other films, location, paintings).
Burke: Ron and I had worked on other films where we used natural light and that was something that we knew we wanted to do in Stranger Things too. Some of that aesthetic came from my documentary work. Ron was also very taken with the British light. The British weather means the sky is very often overcast and the light is soft.
The landscape where we were shooting influenced us too. Not just the beautiful seascapes and fields, but also on a smaller level, the way the house was crumbling and insect life was moving in –– the whole texture of the place.
We wanted the camerawork to have simplicity to it. We felt that we got so much from just showing the faces of our actors.
Eyal: – In terms of stylistic influences, Ken Loach’s films tend to have a very natural sense of light and landscape. We had also seen So Yong Kim’s In Between Days at Sundance, a touching portrait of a character which was shaped with simplicity. We also were inspired by Dreyer. There’s a shot in the film that we always think of as the Joan of Arc shot.
Lavallee: Can you discuss the collaborative process you had with your crew on set?
Eyal: Our crew was small on Stranger Things. There were essentially six crew-members on location including Eleanor and me. Everyone who helped us make the film was awesome. We were able to work flexibly because the crew was so small. We could change plans and re-shoot a scene if necessary. There were times when we needed the set to be very intimate and so we would clear room and the crew would be on standby. Overall we felt like a family. At dinner our AD Lindsay Mackay (who is also a director) would ask us all what the highs and lows of our day had been.
Lavallee: Can you discuss the collaborative process you had with your editor, Michael Taylor?
Burke: Michael Taylor is a fantastic editor. He came on board after we had done a rough cut and at that point we really needed fresh eyes on the project. Ron and I trust his instincts so much. He has the ability to let the material speak and become the film it needs to be.
Lavallee: Can you discuss the collaborative process you had with sound designer, Daniel Pagan?
Eyal: For this film, as we weren’t using music, sound design was really important. Daniel with his team – including Matt Para who mixed the film – all did great work making the sound design into a kind of soundtrack. It may seem like a very quiet film, but the soundscape is always present underscoring the drama of the narrative. There is also a playful element to the sound because Oona is always recording and playing back her recordings, which sometimes draws attention to the particular sounds of the house and garden and sometimes masks them.