I first became aware of director Rich Newey’s work a few years ago when I caught his “Dreamland” episode of the sci-fi series Stitchers; working from an audacious script by Lynne E. Litt, Newey deftly juggled styles and tones with an inventiveness and confidence that led me to seek out his other episodic work on shows like Blindspot and The Fosters. I was consistently impressed by both his precise, expressive visual style and his sensitivity to dialogue and performance, skills on prominent display in his terrific new feature Killing Eleanor.
The film tells the story of Natalie (Annika Marks), an addict in and out of rehab who gets a visit from Eleanor (Jenny O’Hara), a terminally ill woman who has an IOU from Natalie that Natalie forgot about long ago. Natalie is surprised by Eleanor’s visit, and shocked by the form of repayment the old lady requests: she wants Natalie to help her die. Natalie initially refuses, but when she needs some clean urine for a drug test she makes a deal with Eleanor: Eleanor will pee in a cup, and Natalie will help kill her. As Natalie’s lies and Eleanor’s past catch up with them, the ramifications of their transaction become increasingly complicated, resulting in a deeply affecting and often very funny dramedy filled with spectacular performances. Marks, who also wrote the script and co-produced the picture, is particularly riveting in a role that requires her to play every note on the emotional scale; she does so flawlessly, and her scenes with the equally powerful O’Hara are beautiful and devastating. Newey’s camerawork is purposeful but unobtrusive, elegantly showcasing the actors’ exceptional work with clarity and force; in his feature debut, Newey draws upon years of experience shooting television and music videos to display a directorial control that grabs hold of the viewer in the opening scenes and never lets go.
Killing Eleanor will have its world premiere at the Savannah Film Festival on October 29 before moving on to other virtual fests; information about the Savannah event and other upcoming screenings can be found by following @KillingEleanor on Twitter and Instagram or via the movie’s Facebook page. I spoke with Newey this week while he was on location in Canada, where he’s currently directing a TV movie, to get the story behind one of the best independent films of 2020.
Filmmaker: Let’s start with the origins of the piece. How early did you get involved and what were your initial conversations with Annika Marks like regarding the script?
Rich Newey: Well, first off, full disclosure—Annika and I are married! When we first got together she was primarily an actor, but had been writing on and off for years and wanted to do more of it. Once I got the chance to read some of her stuff, I was really blown away. Clearly she was very talented and I encouraged her to write more. That’s when she told me about Killing Eleanor. It was just an idea at the time, something she’d been thinking about for over 10 years. We loved the idea of working together on something, but knew we’d have to test the waters before jumping into a feature.
We started with a short film that we self-financed called The Games We Play. As you might guess, working with your significant other can go one of two ways! Fortunately for us, it was magical right from the start. I come from an editing background and Annika comes from an acting background, so we see things really differently and complement each other really well. Our strengths are really the inverse of each other and that makes us a very strong team, I think. Annika starred in the short opposite Thomas Sadoski along with a handful of other awesome actors, all good friends. It did well on the festival circuit, won some awards—but mostly we just had a blast working together. So, Annika felt encouraged to write Killing Eleanor, with the hopes of being able to make it together.
The writing process lasted over a year. Annika shared some scenes with me as she crafted them. It was really gratifying to be a sounding board for her, that she trusted me. I was so impressed with how clear her vision was. I’m not sure when exactly I read the first draft, but I remember feeling so excited to get my hands on it. At one point I remember Annika really wanted a wall repainted in our house (I think it was the fourth time) and I said “OK, I’ll repaint it once you finish a draft.” A week later she was finished! So I got out the paint roller and we talked about the script. It was so good—the dialogue was phenomenal. We tweaked a bit together, but not much. We decided to hold a table read at our place in Laurel Canyon with a bunch of friends, including Jenny O’Hara, who Annika had written it for, so we could hear it out loud. That afternoon really inspired a lot of confidence for us and we decided to go for it.
Casting became priority one. Annika acted as our casting director and got these amazing actors to come on board early, including Jenny of course, as well as Jane Kaczmarek, Betsy Brandt, Thomas Sadoski, Camryn Manheim and Chris Mulkey. We then worked out a budget and a schedule, and that’s when we brought on our producing partners, Richard Kahan and Angie Gaffney. Angie had a relationship with the Chicago Media Angels, a wonderful group of investors who love filmmakers and indie film. We flew to Chicago to pitch and two weeks later we found out they were going to finance the movie. About a month after that, we were in pre-production. It was really a whirlwind—definitely not the normal way these things go. We got really lucky, meeting the right people at the right time, but the real key was that we had done the leg work to be ready with a compelling package. So, off we went—Annika and I road tripped out to Chicago and started location scouting.
Filmmaker: What was your personal connection to the material that made you want to direct the film?
Newey: In the movie, Eleanor is 80 years old, terminally ill, alone and stuck in a nursing home. She wants to die on her own terms instead of withering away, kept alive with the assistance of machines and medication. I very much related to that because I had recently lost my dad. He, too, was 80 when he passed. He suffered a very bad stroke and it basically rendered him unable to care for himself, something my dad would have never wanted. He had just beaten cancer and before that went through open heart surgery, which was difficult to recover from. But he was a warrior and determined and worked hard to maintain his independence and quality of life. So, when the stroke hit it was devastating, to say the least. We found him a nursing home to help him recover, the best one we could afford. It seemed quite nice, cosmetically speaking, but in actuality it might have been the saddest place I’d ever seen. In that time I got a glimpse into another world hidden from society, filled with our parents and grandparents who are completely dependent on strangers. Fortunately, my dad didn’t endure his debilitated condition too long and was able to pass peacefully. But that experience—seeing how someone like Eleanor was “living”—left an indelible mark.
When I read that first draft of Killing Eleanor, it brought up a lot of emotions. This idea, dying with dignity, it’s complicated. Not for the person who wants it—for everyone else. But it has nothing to do with anyone else, does it? Everyone deserves autonomy, right up until the end. So, with this movie, we got the chance to share that perspective and I believe it’s an important discussion we all need to be having.
Filmmaker: Obviously this is a movie that’s really dependent on strong performances. What kinds of conversations did you have with the actors before shooting, and was there any kind of rehearsal process?
Newey: We had this great base camp set up at Sonesta Suites in Lombard, IL., and they had a conference area they let us use for the movie. Every Sunday we had a family dinner of sorts where we would rehearse for the coming week. Not so much to nail anything down, but more to have a discussion about the story, the characters’ intentions, stuff like that. I’m not a huge fan of rehearsing, I much prefer to play while we are shooting and get as many variations as we can. I chalk that up to my background as an editor—choices in the edit are paramount. Also, I’m a big believer in the magic that can happen on set. That’s why I try not to say anything before the first take. I want to see where the actor is going to go with it, how that is going to inspire me and how it feeds into the prep work I’ve already done on the script.
More than anything though, I did what any good director does, I surrounded myself with brilliant actors and let them do what they do best. That starts with Annika. I may be labeled as biased here, but she’s a director’s dream. Jenny, too, was really wonderful to work with—she has such an enormous body of work and her experience was invaluable as we crafted Eleanor’s arc, which was very complicated to say the least. And our amazing supporting actors—every single one of them, right down to the day players—are all theater actors and that was indicative of the wonderful performances I was able to capture. I’d right the ship when it needed a course correction, making sure they hit all the beats, come up with ideas for them to try in the moment, but they all showed up so prepared, with strong, specific choices. As you know, there is a trust that needs to happen between actor and director and we needed to trust each other in order to play, to discover the unexpected. And I think we did. I like to create a warm, inviting, playful space, no matter how heavy the material may be. There are no wrong answers. There is no right way. That extends to the crew as well, from my DP to the on-set PA. We’re all creative people, right? That’s why we got into this business—I hope, anyway. So, I like to create an environment that nurtures that sentiment. I have a vision, I know what I want, but I love collaborating with my creative partners, and I know that in the collaboration I have the most to gain.
Filmmaker: How did you decide on your cinematographer, and what kinds of conversations did you have with her about the overall look of the film?
Newey: My DP was Jessica Young. We went to film school together and have known each other for well over 20 years now. She is basically family and there was no one else I even considered for the job. We can kind of finish each other’s sentences on set and I think that was pretty trippy for everyone to witness as we shot the movie. She’s shot a lot of projects for me over the years, including the short Annika and I made. Jessica’s background is in documentaries, shooting projects like Foo Fighters’ Sonic Highways for HBO and the world famous “Gumball 3000” car rally. She’s fearless and a total badass, but more than that, she’s an expert at capturing the complexities of humanity, both the beauty and the scars. Her artistry with the camera—finding those extraordinary moments that tell the story—is unparalleled. I knew Jessica was going to steal moments for me whenever she could. She has a way of finding these magical frames that were a real treasure for me once I got into the edit.
Some of the look for the movie was baked into the script, like in the day spa for example. It was described so clearly, all the way down to the pink room where Eleanor shows Natalie the IOU. I knew exactly what I was looking for when we were scouting. Other sequences we conceptualized in prep using this amazing lookbook Jessica put together. Some things we discovered on the tech scout, once I had a good idea of the blocking. To that end, Jessica and I knew very early on that the movie would be shot mostly handheld. We wanted to be immersed in the world of our characters—with them on their journey, hopefully creating an authenticity that complemented their arcs and a visual style that served the story in a non-flashy way. And I just have to say here, Jessica shoots some of the best handheld I’ve ever seen.
Filmmaker: Expand on that a little. What were some of the visual principles you and Jessica decided on to create the visual language of the movie?
Newey: Shooting handheld was one of the first things we decided, but we didn’t want to draw attention to specific camera movement, so we steered away from unmotivated moves and instead tried to only move the camera if the characters were moving. We also tried to rely on a subjective point of view and utilized diopters to capture these extreme close ups of Natalie and Eleanor, to get inside their heads when the story called for it. It isolated them from their background so we could literally be in their face and the world around them felt more disjointed. I also tried to use framing to capture the mindset of the characters, short siding them when it was called for or framing them within frames, things like that. We used mirrors and reflections a lot throughout the movie to symbolize Natalie’s struggle and the duplicitousness of addiction, while playing with the truth being subjective. We also knew there were times when we needed to sit on a shot longer than the viewer might be comfortable with, because our leading ladies are uncomfortable, and we wanted the audience to be on this journey with them.
In terms of color palette, pink became the enemy for Natalie. We implemented it during times of distress or self loathing. The day spa is literally drowning in pink, for example, and we carried that through the movie when it made sense for Natalie emotionally. On the other end of spectrum, we steered toward hues of blue for Eleanor’s arc. In terms of lighting, we talked a lot about using as much natural light as possible in the first part of the movie, as we met our heroes. But then, as we tipped the scales into emotional turmoil in act two, we took more liberties, like the juxtaposition between Natalie at the bar bathed in red light and Eleanor outside at the motel against blue.
Filmmaker: What kind of camera did you shoot on and how was it chosen?
Newey: We shot on the ARRI Amira. The most honest answer is: this is the camera my DP owned! Really helped with our budget, of course. But more than that, I do think it was the right camera for us because it’s such a great tool for a handheld style of filmmaking. We had two cameras for the family intervention scene as well as for the driving sequences, but everything else was shot with one camera and it almost never left Jess’s shoulder—all 35+ pounds of it. Jess and I are also both suckers for film, so we pulled out her Bolex and shot 16mm of the flashbacks, which we used during the credits. Originally I was going to use film for the actual flashbacks in the movie, but Jessica captured some really gorgeous stuff with the Amira and ultimately it was the better way to go.
Filmmaker: Where did you shoot?
Newey: We shot mostly in the Chicago suburbs along with a couple of days in Champaign, Illinois, as well as some second unit in Indiana and Michigan. Originally the script was set in Washington and Oregon, but when our financiers came on board we decided to rewrite it for Chicago. CMA works hard to bring as much film to the city as it can and we were very happy to be a part of that. You couldn’t ask for a richer local talent pool then Chicago! The western suburbs, areas like Burr Ridge and Downers Grove, made the most sense for the movie, giving us the diversity of locations needed to capture the majority of the road trip elements.
Annika and I came out a few weeks before official prep started and drove endlessly looking for the right locations. We also did the road trip our heroes take all the way to the Upper Peninsula, because we wanted to know what that felt like. I’m pretty sure I complained a lot about all the driving, but Annika was sure it would pay off and it really did. We found a good portion of our locations in that time, then worked the rest out in prep.
For the second unit days we went down to a four-person crew along with Annika and Jenny, and of course the Chevy Spark, for the road trip. Because we sort of scouted during prep we had some idea of where we were going, but there was no shot list really. We just drove north to Michigan and stopped to shoot where it made sense. In that way we really did take on a run-and-gun documentary approach and shot a ton of footage. We also had a drone for a couple of days. I knew I wanted to capture the road trip from above and initially thought we’d cut to those shots throughout the movie, but it turned out to be much stronger to save them till the end, once the characters’ worlds finally opened up.
The lavender farm was the hardest location to find since lavender doesn’t really grow in Illinois in the fall when we were shooting! Fortunately the farm needed to be old and run down for the most part, with just the flashbacks showing actual lavender, so we shot those back in California. But the farm itself was a very special location. We found it when we were scouting in Champaign. It’s called the Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery. There were all these goats roaming the property. Jessica and I walked endlessly through the vast property and after about an hour we found ourselves in front of this lone tree in the middle of a field. I kid you not, it felt like sacred ground. The wind whistled through the tall grass. It was peaceful. And we just knew, this would be the final set piece of the movie. When we got back to the main farmhouse, we told the owner about the area and how special it felt and he said, “Oh, yeah, you must have felt the goats.” We looked at him quizzically and he continued, “That’s where I bury all my favorite goats when they die.” We all got chills.
Filmmaker: How many days did you have to shoot?
Newey: We shot for 17 days, then two additional second unit days, then a half day back in California to capture the flashbacks. It’s always a crunch, right? More time, more money please…but you make it work. I come from the world of television and before that music videos, so I’m used to moving fast. Prep is hugely important for me as well as having an editing background—knowing what you need, when you need it. There’s just no time to go back if you miss something, so you really need to be dialed going into things. I think our biggest challenge was shooting in Champaign. It was really tough to get the whole crew out there and the resources were limited. To top it off, we got caught in a snowstorm in the middle of October! They were some of our bigger days too, so we couldn’t afford any hiccups…but inevitably there were. You just roll with it and figure it out.
Also I have to talk about the car we used in the movie, an electric blue Chevy Spark. It was the exact same car Annika owned when we met. Her name was Pierre and I refused to drive in it because it was so small. I really didn’t fit in it! Annika was determined, maybe more than anything else she had scripted, that we needed to have that car in the movie. By chance we happened to spot one parked outside a salon we were scouting and marched inside to find out whose car it was and cut a deal. The guy was so confused: why would we be willing to pay to drive his crappy little car? And it was: it had no heat, we had to replace the brake pads because they basically didn’t exist and the tires, because they were bald. And most importantly, we had to get it deep cleaned because it was covered in a film of cigarette smoke. But it didn’t end there. We needed two of those cars, exact copies, because of the driving sequences. There was no time to rig and de-rig the same car. Do you know how many electric blue Chevy Sparks exist in Illinois? Not that many! I think it was about two days before we started shooting that we finally found the second one. To Annika’s great joy, not only did I have to get in the car for the driving sequences, I had to make myself tiny in the backseat to avoid being seen on camera. I still remember the leg cramps. And then we drove that thing all the way to the Upper Peninsula!
Filmmaker: So those were some of the challenges. What were the biggest pleasures on the shoot?
Newey: They are really countless. One particular highlight for both Annika and me was casting Jordan Arredondo to play Dillon. Jordan is a newcomer and just an awesomely talented guy. The character was written to be 19 and we wanted to cast an actor who really looked and felt his age. We knew finding the right actor with the right depth might be tough. When Jordan came in to audition, we instantly knew he was the one, and it was so great to give him the opportunity. Another highlight for me was getting to work with my friends—Jessica and our first AD Jenn Wilkinson. Jenn did us a huge favor coming on board because she is in such high demand, doing gigantic TV shows like Utopia for Amazon. But I knew making our days was going to hinge on a stellar AD and couldn’t imagine the movie going as well as it did without her, not only as an AD but as a creative sounding board. Jenn was so in tune with the story and the characters and had so many brilliant ideas that made their way onto the screen. We also got the chance to give our crew opportunities to level up in their departments, and they all brought their A game. For example, this was the first feature for our production designer, Chelsea Daly, and she absolutely killed it with her all-female art department team. All in all, this was truly the best filmmaking experience of my life and I give all the credit to my amazing wife. Her script was a director’s dream, her performance was mesmerizing, her determination to get the movie made was the thing that powered our journey. It was so fun to get to work together and we found out we do it incredibly well!
Filmmaker: What have you learned from your work in episodic television that helped you on this movie?
Newey: In a word: efficiency. I’ve always moved fast, especially coming from music videos. And you need to move fast in TV as well. The tricks that allow you to move quickly—like resetting to do another take before cutting, flying in with some quick direction, because once you cut there are going to be a thousand tweaks—have become muscle memory for me. It’s instinctive. If I do something like that three times I’ve saved half an hour. Doing things like that allows the creative side of my brain to drive the ship and be much more free to help the actors craft those magic performances, or run over to the first AC and rack to the foreground to capture a moment I want. Being an editor is also obviously very helpful in being efficient. I’m a big believer that everyone should take an editing class, even actors. Takes don’t need to be perfect. You just need perfect moments. I never stay in a set-up too long. I get what I need and move on. Don’t shoot the wide six times. You’re going to use it once, move on. Also for me, I’m a big fan of transitions and using them to figure out the flow of whatever the piece is. I don’t know if that’s a TV thing or more of an editing habit I picked up, but it’s really invaluable to understand beforehand, how you’re getting into a scene and getting out of it.
Filmmaker: Describe how the film evolved in editing and how you collaborated with the editor. What were the trickiest aspects of getting the emotional tone and balance correct?
Newey: I was the editor on the film, so the collaboration was dicey! Switching hats is always a challenge—being able to look at the footage objectively. The assembly stage took several months; in between Annika and I finally got to take our honeymoon (two years late), which was a nice respite in the midst of that process. I think my assembly was something like three hours long, which definitely freaked me out a bit. But of course there was tons of air and scenes that didn’t need to be there, etc. Once I got into my director’s cut, I refined it quite a bit.
The first thing I knew was that I wanted something specific for when Natalie feels the need to pop a pill. At first I thought that was going to be a metal scraping sound of some kind, but as I got into the edit I started experimenting with drums and suddenly it clicked for me. Music is also incredibly important to my process and I was fortunate enough to be able to work with insanely talented friends—composer Kevin Besignano, drummer Thierry Arpino and music supervisors The Co-Stars, who I know from my music video days.
The hardest aspect of the edit was the first 10 minutes. I think I cut something like 14 different versions. The original idea worked great as a stand alone, but it didn’t really support the rest of the movie, so I had to have an honest conversation with myself and Annika and we had to brainstorm other ways to get into the movie. We also needed to meet Eleanor a lot sooner than we were at that point. Annika, as well as Richard and Angie, were great sounding boards. I think I had almost given up on finding the solution, then it happened.
In terms of tone, we went into this movie thinking it was a comedy with some drama, but it turns out it was a drama with some comedy. The performances are so raw and so nuanced. We worked hard while shooting to achieve the most honest portrayals of each character, to always prioritize the truth over the laugh, and that really revealed the tone to us. I was also very lucky to have Annika with me throughout the edit—I cut the movie in our little home office. Some directors might cringe at the idea of their lead actor/writer being in the edit, but for me it was a saving grace, especially as weeks went on and I needed perspective. It was really helpful to have Annika’s eyes on scenes as I cut them together.
Filmmaker: How has COVID upended how a film like this would ordinarily go out into the world? How have you had to adapt your release/festival plan?
Newey: Virtual festivals! It’s obviously a bummer not to be able to go to these festivals in person, but playing virtually allows for a much bigger audience, and of course, we want as many eyes on our movie as possible. We’re premiering at the Savannah Film Festival October 29th, which we’re incredibly excited about, and we follow that up with the St. Louis International Film Festival, where I’m honored to be one of five directors nominated for the New Filmmakers Forum Emerging Directors Award.
We’re looking for the right home now and have had a lot great interest. I think, in the time of COVID, people are little starved for content and nearly everything is being released straight to VOD, so there’s a lot of opportunities for indies that are complete like ours. On top of that, we made a movie about dignity at the end of an elderly person’s life, and we believe that we need that message now more than ever.
Filmmaker: If you don’t mind getting off topic a bit, I want to end by asking what it’s like shooting a new movie now with the new protocols demanded by the coronavirus. How are things different?
Newey: It’s interesting to say the least. The rules are tough, but you get used to it. Production is handling things well. I feel very safe on set, much safer than I do going to the grocery store. I do find that some of the camaraderie has suffered. Everyone hidden behind their masks. I saw my art director for the first time without a mask the other day and somehow he spontaneously grew a full beard. I had no idea. It was just weird to see something more than his eyes! To that end, it feels like the intimacy between actor and director has been sacrificed somewhat out of necessity to keep everyone safe, which is paramount of course. So we all just need to really fight for it, to make sure we’re all listening and connecting as we work through scenes. I always like to end my days with gratitude for my crew, so I think what I miss most is shaking their hands after work—now relegated to simply yelling a muffled thank you through my mask along with a wave from 6 feet away.
Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD and streaming on Amazon Prime. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.
Jim Hemphill2020-10-22 15:12:55filmmakermagazine.com