Director Maja Vrvilo began her career as an editor, and her former job is consistently manifest in her economy of visual expression, impeccably calibrated pacing and use of montage to convey interior states. I first became aware of Vrvilo when she was directing on Hawaii Five-0, a series that made me sit up and take notice of her kinetic action staging and lively handling of actors. That led me to her episodes of Blindspot, MacGyver and other procedurals that all exhibited the sophisticated blocking and precise compositions I quickly realized were hallmarks of her filmmaking. Last year Vrvilo helmed two superb episodes of Star Trek: Picard that revealed she was as adept at contemplative science fiction as she was at contemporary urban crime, and she has continued to orchestrate impressive large scale action sequences on S.W.A.T.
Vrvilo’s finest work to date, however, is her pilot for Clarice, Alex Kurtzman and Jenny Lumet’s take on The Silence of the Lambs heroine Clarice Starling. Set a year after the events of Jonathan Demme’s film, Clarice follows its title character as she returns to the FBI while still dealing with the trauma of her recent past—trauma Vrvilo skillfully conveys via an effective and intricate use of isolating long lenses, subjective editing that has more in common with the films of Nicolas Roeg than a typical network drama, and meticulously composed frames that find the perfect visual corollary for the shifts in power Kurtzman and Lumet’s script elegantly explores. The entire pilot episode, which you can watch on demand or via streamer Paramount+ (subsequent episodes stream there and air on CBS on Thursday nights), is a clinic in using cinematic tools to represent point of view; from the opening scene on, Vrvilo plunges the audience into Clarice’s feelings of anxiety, empowerment and empathy and orchestrates our emotions as deftly as Demme did in the series’s source material. I spoke with Vrvilo by phone while she was taking a break from shooting an episode of the Paramount+ series Star Trek: Strange New Worlds to ask her about the visual grammar of Clarice, her approach to building trust with actors and how her background as an editor informs her approach to directing.
Filmmaker: How did you get involved with Clarice, and what stage was the series at when you came on board?
Maja Vrvilo: I first heard of the project from Jenny and Alex around Christmas in 2019, I believe. They called and said they wanted to discuss it with me, so I went over to Secret Hideout [Kurtzman’s production company]. They outlined the pitch and said, “We want to do Clarice post-Silence of the Lambs.” At the time there wasn’t a script, just a few paragraphs, and they were talking about what the story would be. They asked if I would be interested, and being a huge Silence of the Lambs fan I was both freaked out and super excited. I said absolutely yes, and they made it clear that I would still have to pitch myself to the studio and network. I started talking to Alex about what we could do visually—what is Clarice going through post-Silence of the Lambs, and how do we tell the story from her point of view? How do we communicate her trauma and everything she has gone through without having to explain it all in words?
Because I was an editor, I thought the best way for me to show what I was thinking to the studio and network was to cut a trailer, so I cut together three minutes of footage from different movies with music that I felt set the tone, brought that to my pitch and it seemed to be a huge success with both MGM and CBS. I’m not going to say it was easy, but I would say that the vision came across and everybody was on board from the beginning.
Filmmaker: Do you remember what movies you pulled clips from?
Vrvilo: Everything from Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster—for the opening rain sequence with her coming out of the Justice Department—to Sicario, Shutter Island, Arrival. There was nothing from Silence of the Lambs aside from a few quick cutaways to Buffalo Bill similar to what we did in the pilot, and the last shot was a closeup of Clarice walking towards the camera in a sequence where she approached her father’s casket. We also used images from the BBC show Sherlock, because they had a lot of long lens shots with shallow depth of field that I felt would be good to keep you inside Clarice’s head, and there was some Chernobyl in there too—I liked how beautifully the shots there were linked to point of view. The trailer ended up being a nice visual tool that I could show each department to explain, “This is what we’re looking for” when we started official prep.
Filmmaker: Well, what you were saying about point of view gets at what I loved about the pilot, which is the wa you quickly put the audience in Clarice’s shoes and convey her perspective. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what your philosophy was about how to do that in terms of the camera, lens choices and editing.
Vrvilo: I always knew that in order for the story to work it had to be a story of duality. In the opening scene with Clarice in the therapist’s office, we’re telling the story twice. At first, it’s the story of confident Clarice sitting in the therapist’s office, not revealing anything about herself. It’s shot very traditional, studio mode. The only little giveaways are bright shafts of light coming in from the outside that are in contrast with her being comfortable in the dark spaces where she’s hiding. But then juxtaposing that with really quick, jarring cutaways shows us her real state of mind—even though she’s pretending to be somebody who’s confident and unbothered by the events that occurred with Buffalo Bill, I believe the cuts and those long lens, extremely tight closeups help us see how she really feels. Add to that some jarring sounds, sounds of camera flashes that trigger her symptoms and bring her back into a place where she doesn’t want to be. The footage of Buffalo Bill’s basement is something we used not as a flashback, but as a false memory; it became clear that it worked better that way than as linear storytelling.
Filmmaker: Do you think your background as an editor informs your approach to a scene like that, and to directing in general?
Vrvilo: Definitely, though it’s a completely different skill set. Everybody approaches directing differently, but when I read a script I see the cut version in my head, then reverse engineer to figure out what I need to do to get to that. I don’t think in terms of shots that cover a scene from beginning to end, unless I’m planning on shooting a big, complicated oner; I think of the pieces I can use to tell the story and the best possible way to put them together. That’s something that is familiar and comfortable for me. I love to go to the space where I’m going to shoot, hide there by myself for a while, walk around and embrace the space. As I’m walking, I ask myself, “How do I move through the space? What do I look at? What do I see? How do I want to shoot this?” I work better from that perspective than sitting at home with blueprints.
Filmmaker: And when you made the transition from editing to directing, what was the learning curve like in terms of working with actors? Was that something that came easily to you?
Vrvilo: It was a steep learning curve, I’ll tell you. With everything that editing prepared me for, working with actors wasn’t one of those things. I read every book on directing actors that’s out there, and I probably made every beginner’s mistake you could possibly make on my first directing job. But you learn quickly and it is quite intuitive—and, ultimately, incredibly rewarding. As you learn to communicate your needs and translate them into language actors can use, all of a sudden a whole new world opens up.
Filmmaker: Staying on that subject, let’s talk about casting. Clarice Starling, as played by Jodie Foster, is such an iconic character. What were your criteria for the actress you were looking for to play Clarice and how did you ultimately decide on Rebecca Breeds?
Vrvilo: I have a feeling that we saw pretty much every actress in United States, Australia and Great Britain, and I’m not exaggerating. As far as criteria, Jodie Foster had an incredible vulnerability, so we knew it had to be somebody with similar qualities, to be such a strong feminist hero and be vulnerable at the same time. There were a couple of actresses we tested along the way that we thought would be really, really good—and then, at the end of the search, Rebecca Breeds showed up. It was one of those cases where we thought, “Let’s do one more push. Let’s see if there’s somebody out there that we haven’t seen yet.” And she walked in and spoke up and it was her. It just had to be her. I’m not comparing her to Jodie Foster. I hope no one is comparing her to Jodie Foster. She’s got her own strengths. She had something that pulled me in instantly—it’s hard to say what that something is, but looking at her through the lens, for me she just became Clarice.
Filmmaker: How many people have to sign off on a choice like that, when you’re casting the title role on a major series and are dealing with a studio, producers, network, etc.?
Vrvilo: The list is seriously long, but interestingly enough, with Rebecca, everybody was on the same page—it wasn’t a hard sell. There had been choices that some of us felt more comfortable with than others, there were choices that some people agreed with and some people didn’t. Somehow with her, everybody responded the same way and it was a very, very easy decision to make.
Filmmaker: All of the performances on the pilot are really strong, which is something I’ve found to be generally true of your work. Do you have any general principles you follow when it comes to directing actors?
Vrvilo: For me, it comes down to trust. They have to be comfortable to present their vision. They have to be comfortable to fail. They have to be comfortable to try again. I usually start the day just reading the lines. I talk a little bit about the story and what I think the scene is about: what happened previously, where are we going? Then we put it up on its feet and I let people choose what they want to do, where they’re going to stand, just to see what they bring to the table. Then we adjust. I come in with a very specific plan and sometimes that is how the scene ends up working, because you can gently nudge and suggest instead of telling people where to stand. There is a way that you can offer something, and most of the time, if it’s a better idea, people say, “Sure, why not?” Sometimes you see that their choices make the scene better. And then I adjust, adapt and go with their choices. I learned early that forcing people to do things that don’t feel organic to them does not help the performances. And if the actor believes that you are making the wrong choice, that you’re hurting the performance, you’ve lost their trust. Things tend not to go well after that.
Filmmaker: Is establishing that trust between you and the actors more difficult on a preexisting show where you’re a guest director, as opposed to a pilot like Clarice where you’re establishing the tone and style from the beginning?
Vrvilo: It’s tricky—I refer to it as being the new kid in school. If I’m going on a show, I try to watch as many episodes of it as I can, because the worst thing you can do is suggest something that isn’t possible within the world that has already been established. Also, I watch all those episodes just to see what the performances are like, how the actors are portraying those characters, to make sure that whatever I’m offering is within the bounds of the character they created. If I offer something that I feel fits the character, but it’s not how they portrayed it before, as long as it works for the story they will go along. But if they feel that I just came up with something because it’s a cool shot, they will fight me, and for a good reason.
So, for me, that’s part of the homework. I have to know the characters. I have to know the story arcs. Sometimes I can ask the showrunners questions, and that’s an important resource because I can’t always watch five seasons of a television show if I’m coming on late, but I can ask about story arcs. I can ask, “Is there anything in this episode that started as a story arc two seasons earlier, what do I need to know?” The more details I know, the better prepared I seem on set and that makes actors trust my choices. But yeah, it’s tricky when you show up and people already know their characters and you’re an outsider in their world. You need to show them the respect of doing your homework. Man, they can learn quickly if you’re not prepared. It’s amazing how fast that will backfire.
Filmmaker: Going back to Clarice, I wanted to ask you about a specific scene in the pilot. I really liked the phone conversation between Clarice and Catherine, the character Clarice rescued from Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs. I love that fragmented look that you gave it. I was wondering if you could talk about how you arrived at that choice?
Vrvilo: I knew early on that Catherine would be in a very dark room. Talking with my director of photography, we discussed lighting her only from the fireplace that she’s sitting on. We wanted her to still be in a basement, it’s just that basement is now in the shape of a house. And I wanted to make the audience understand how she sees herself, which I felt we could do through the broken mirror. Interestingly enough, the mirror was something that got forgotten, and on the day when we started to shoot we walked in and an unbroken mirror was there. We’re like, “Oh crap. Now what do we do?” So we literally went in and broke the mirror the day of the shooting, and it broke in this strange and weird shape that worked out really, really well for the scene. Then it became about balancing how many times we could use it. How much can we get away with it? When do we reveal Catherine? We played with versions where we didn’t see the full view of Catherine until the end. Do we introduce her earlier? It was an interesting device to show how emotionally damaged the character has become.
Filmmaker: When you’re playing around with the different versions, is it just you and your editor working on that? Or do you show it to different people to see how it’s playing to outside audiences?
Vrvilo: It was me and my editor. Alex was involved fairly early on, anytime I felt like I needed a sounding board for something. That’s one of the scenes that I did want him to see, just to see how he responded. Having a fresh pair of eyes can come in very handy. It’s easy to go down that rabbit hole where you’re watching something 50 times and feel like you do not have the right answer anymore. You can end up with five versions and just keep trying different things. I feel like initially we were playing the mirror too much, then we slowly pulled it back to the place where we felt it wasn’t just a device, it’s a powerful moment to see her through the mirror. The less you used it, the better it became in my opinion.
Filmmaker: What was your feeling about carrying things over from The Silence of the Lambs? Were there images or techniques you wanted to continue, or was it more about letting this stand on its own?
Vrvilo: The only true carryover that I wanted to see was Buffalo Bill’s basement. The shots of Buffalo Bill were framed as identically as I possibly could have framed them. And that low shot of a camera pushing in towards him from the back when Precious rushes through, I felt that had to be recreated. That tattoo, in my mind that had to look exactly the same. But I wasn’t trying to recreate Silence of the Lambs aside from little things—we knew we wanted the green coat. We knew we wanted the scarves that she had in the movie, just as a little visual reminder. We wanted the Pinto from the movie.
Something Demme did that I absolutely loved is have men subtly look at Clarice every time she would walk through the scene; every time she exited, he would stay on the shot just a tad longer to show men looking after her, and we did that a couple of times in the pilot to show that male gaze. I also wanted to keep Demme’s idea that she was always the smallest person in the room, surrounded by men. I tried to frame her in a way that she was not part of the team—she was always a little to the side. It was more about subtle nods like that than trying to overtly copy Silence of the Lambs.
The movie was such a profound statement about sexism and female empowerment, and yet it managed not to be excessively overt—it was very welcoming to both women and men, and I wanted to keep that. I felt a lot of pressure—self-imposed pressure, because Secret Hideout, MGM, and CBS were all incredibly supportive and hands-off—to really do Silence of the Lambs justice. I loved the movie, and I love the character. I didn’t want to mess up this opportunity.
Jim Hemphill is a filmmaker and film historian based in Los Angeles. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.
Jim Hemphill2021-05-04 17:04:44filmmakermagazine.com