Interview: Amber Tamblyn – Director of "Paint It Black"
A twisted tale of love, loss and betrayal between a grieving mother and her deceased son's girlfriend bound together in the wake of his suicide
July 8, 2016
The Santa Monica Observer had an opportunity to speak with Amber Tamblyn, an over 20-year veteran of the film and television industry (Joan of Arcadia, 127 Hours, The Ring, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants), about her stylish directorial debut "Paint It Black".
Paint It Black is a twisted tale of love, loss, and betrayal between Josie, a nude model whose live-in boyfriend, Michael, commits suicide, and Meredith, an extremely successful concert pianist who is the deceased's grieving mother. The film stars Alia Shawkat, Janet McTeer, and Alfred Molina.
The film premiered at the LA Film Festival on June 3, 2016, and was recognized with a "Special Mention for Visual Accomplishment" by the Festival jury.
OBSERVER: How long did this labor of love take from buying the rights to the book to the film's festival run?
AMBER TAMBLYN: In totality, I think it took about 7 to 10 years -- that would be including the three years it took to get Janet Fitch to give me the rights. She was not necessarily interested in having another one of her books turned into a film again. That in and of itself took three years. The script took a couple months to write, and then shopping it in the way that shopping all movies is hard, especially this type of film which is not a romantic comedy - it's not a genre film - so that took its time, too. So I would say, in total, it took about 10 years from the beginning to right now.
OBSERVER: What were your inspirations from a cinematic perspective? Were there any other films or directors that inspired you in terms of the look of the piece?
AMBER TAMBLYN: I'm an 80's kid, so I grew up on movies with arch vilenesses like Angelica Houston in The Witches or Legend or Labyrinth or The Dark Crystal. I really loved films like that growing up. I grew up watching a lot of David Lynch movies. My dad was on Twin Peaks, so I grew up watching Twin Peaks when I was very young. Other films... there was The Hunger and Ingmar Bergman's Persona. Anything that goes into a less traditional way of telling the psychological/emotional damage of a female protagonist. A lot of the look of the film didn't find itself until we were in the editing room. The color palates and the tone of it... both the black and white stuff and then the black and white with color. Those are all things that we, for lack of a better term, f***ed around with when we were in the editing room, trying to mess with the psychological point of view of the protagonist.
OBSERVER: I read online that you had initially optioned the book to play the lead. What changed?
AMBER TAMBLYN: Because of the length of this project as mentioned earlier, I got older. I still looked pretty young, but I definitely couldn't play someone who was 21 to 23-years-old anymore. Originally, when I had optioned the book, I started writing the script for myself and for Ben Foster to play the young guy that kills himself. A couple of years went by and by the time we came back to the project we were like, "We're too old for this." The directing part of it was never the next phase. I didn't then go, "All right, I will cast an awesome actress in it and then I will direct it." I never had an intention to direct it. There was another director attached for the better part of a year - Courtney Hunt - who directed Frozen River. Courtney and I had very different visions about the type of film that was to be made from the script. After many conversations, both she and my producing partner, Ren Arthur, went, "I think it's very very apparent that you need to direct this. We're not sure what you're waiting for, but just do it." The two of them really got it in my head.
OBSERVER: When did Janet McTeer get involved?
AMBER TAMBLYN: Janet was the last piece of the puzzle before we started shooting. We had the project fully financed and Alia was ready to go without [casting the mother] for a moment. That was just a circumstance of talking to multiple actresses, and not finding anyone I was fully interested in or who I thought really understood the very fine line that the character needed to play between archness and sincerity. Someone that understood how to play such an awful person, but could still be loved for their faults because of what happened to them. That's a very difficult type of actress to find. And also someone that wants to do that with a first-time filmmaker. Janet was on my short list of women that I wanted to work with. It just was immediate. In fact, after we had met, I spent two hours just talking with her, and showing her my lookbook, and discussing the character. I remember calling my producer and saying, "If she doesn't say yes, I have to put this movie away even though it's financed. I don't know who else could play this character. Now I can't unsee her in this role." We had several conversations... I kept pushing all of the work that I had done on it. How it was going to be a different type of film. It was not going to be a straightforward story about grief. I intended to play with it and definitely find a tone that felt different than stories about, "Two women overcome grief." She finally said, "Okay, I'm in. Let's do this." And not only that, she wanted to be a producing partner in it and wanted to be a part of the creative process.
OBSERVER: You mentioned you had a lookbook. Who did the artwork?
AMBER TAMBLYN: Well there were two lookbooks. There was one that I did in Adobe which was images I had pulled from the internet and from film grabs and things that I loved that almost told the entire film frame by frame. I found things that were people looking in the direction I wanted them to look in, so you can see what kind of shots those would be. That was a 90-page lookbook. That also had music so people can hear the music - the sounds - of Josie's world. The music - the sounds - of Meredith's world. And when those two worlds also collide. We also did - unfortunately it was never finished because we got financing and I had to go - but we did more than half of a lookbook by a wonderful graphic artist and drawer and she did a frame by frame storyboard of the first 3/4 of the film. Literally frame by frame, everything you saw in the film she drew.
OBSERVER: You said that you did not want this just to be a film about grief. Did you intend for it to be a film about power?
AMBER TAMBLYN: Yeah, absolutely. I think one of the things that was so interesting about the book is that it is a story about class which is exactly that - the power dynamic and certainly the class differentiation in Los Angeles, specifically. You've got people up in the mountains that are multi-multi-millionaires. Huge movie stars and musicians and things like that. And not less than a quarter of a mile down on Sunset and Echo Park and Alvarado, you've got people who are literally nude models for a living and going paycheck to paycheck. And that's kinda the dynamic of Los Angeles. It is very much a part of what it's about. So yes, absolutely, a part of the film is about emotional power, and who caries the true memory of somebody after they are gone, but also what's it like to have everything and what it's like to have nothing, and what's it's like to have those two things collide. It shifts back and forth, the power between the two women.
OBSERVER: Was there any version of the script that actually showed the death of the boy or gave of an explanation of why he killed himself?
AMBER TAMBLYN: No, I always knew that Michael was barely going to be in this movie. The point of the film was not about why he killed himself because no one ever gets to know that answer with suicide. Taking your own life is only understood by the person who took it. Why they did that. Certainly in states of grief and states of shock you want to know why, you want answers, and you want to be close, no matter what a bad idea that is, with anyone else that knew that person as intimately as you did. Which is part of why these two women are drawn to each other in the first place. They are the only ones that knew Michael and loved him. And unfortunately it turns into a very sick relationship but I think that that, to me, it was very important to stay as vague as possible. I wanted people to ask the question you just asked. I wanted to get under people's skin.
OBSERVER: What was it like working with a established stage actress like Janet McTeer?
AMBER TAMBLYN: This was going to go down as one of the greatest creative experiences of my life. Both because she's British and she's trained from the theater world, so she came extremely prepared and always game to try whatever. "Janet, we are going to throw you in the pool now." "Janet, can you get down on all fours?" There is a sequence that ended up in the film where she's drunk and crawling around on the ground and at the very last moment you see her. It's not in the script, but we had an extra ten minutes of shooting time and Janet was like, "You know what, I've got this silk robe that I haven't worn in the film yet that I love. Let's just throw that on and do something." So I said, "Ok, go put it on." She put it on and my DP set up this long lens shot, and I kept saying things to her like, "Crawl around, you're trying to find a ring that fell under a... just be drunk... yell at the polar bear." She was just game. And I think that's part of the wonderful experience that Janet brings. She was always interested in making sure that we had something different. We would do a take of a scene one way, and she would say, "You want to do it again? I will do it a little more with a smile... less sad." She was always game to experiment and make sure that we had different options which is how I like to work as an actress and I think it's the best thing you can do - to not stick to - too hard to your own methodology, and to be open to the process of whatever happens in the moment of the scene. She was a godsend. There was nothing about her that was divaish or difficult or not completely on point.
OBSERVER: What was the budget for the film?
AMBER TAMBLYN: It was at one million dollars. Just under. It was really cheap.
OBSERVER: It doesn't look like that. It looks like ten million dollars.
AMBER TAMBLYN: That is the work of our DP, Brian Rigney Hubbard. He is a master of color palates and tone, and certainly, specifically, with films like this. He was very much a part of the reason why we were able to get those looks and I've never seen somebody in my life that fast either. Just so quick. So he was able to save us time for shooting, which is a large part of why we got the result that we did ultimately from it. And again, doing lots of prep for it is hugely important, and he and I were completely on the same page when we were shooting.
OBSERVER: What were the cameras used to do the shoot?
AMBER TAMBLYN: We shot on the Arri Alexa [film-style digital camera]. We wanted to shoot on 35mm and we had all kinds of amazing deals in place with Kodak but ultimately, it's a pretty sad reality, but the processing of film nowadays is so expensive that it's more expensive than getting all the cameras and the actual film itself. So we ultimately couldn't work it into the budget. But it was fine because the Alexa is a beautiful camera and we were able to get a lot of the same texture from the footage that we wanted. But then we also had Siggy, who is one of the head colorists at Company 3. We are so fortunate that he gave us a lot of his time. We could never have afforded a colorist like that in a million years if it weren't for his relationship with the producers and the DP. So he went in and was able to create deeper and darker texture and more dimension into the film than I ever thought possible. It was pretty incredible.
OBSERVER: Where was the location used for Meredith's estate?
AMBER TAMBLYN: The main house was in Echo Park in a place called The Paramour, which is actually a historic LA house which used to be a nunnery in the 1920s. A really incredible woman, Dana Hollister, bought it a very long time ago and restored it. A lot of things have been shot there. This is not a place we could have afforded unless Dana helped us out. She loved the script. She believed in the vision of the film. You couldn't do a fancy, midrange, Brentwood apartment. It had to feel old. It had to feel ridiculous that a person lived alone in a place like that. It had to feel over the top. And you just can't find those places in LA unless you're paying a lot of money to rent them. So the minute that I saw that house, I remember calling my producing partner, Ren, and saying, "We have a movie. It's official!"
OBSERVER: Yes, you do! Thanks for taking the time to talk with us.