Writing is Writing: An Interview with Annie Howell and Lisa Robinson

Current VCFA MFA in Film faculty member, Annie Howell, along with her co-writer and co-director Lisa Robinson, discuss their film CLAIRE IN MOTION (now available to stream on Showtime), their co-writing process, character development, and how film can be vehicle for change.

Aja Zoecklein: How did you first meet and when did you begin your collaborative teamwork?

Lisa Robinson: We met at NYU grad school, but didn’t actually make any films together there. After we finished school we had both written our own features and were trying to get them made but financing was taking a while…we had a conversation about an idea and decided we should make a web series together. It was called SPARKS and was eventually syndicated by the Sundance Channel, which was great. We had fun with it. We would each write an episode and kind of piggyback off each other. From there, it kind of naturally evolved into making a feature, SMALL, BEAUTIFUL MOVING PARTS, which was partly based off the series.

Annie Howell: When we made CLAIRE IN MOTION, I was living in Athens, Ohio and teaching film full time at Ohio University. As soon as I landed I was like “oh, this could be a really interesting place to make a film.” Lisa visited, and I would send her pictures, and that was one of the jumping off points, just thinking about this interesting town that is not as often seen on screen.

 AZ: What is your writing process like? How do you structure your writing as collaborators—together in a room, separate, both?

AH: We typically write independently, swapping and sharing ideas. For the two features, for example, we would have this really long running text/blast email conversation that never stopped! (laughs) Which is great because it’s what the writer’s brain does anyway, but you are just sending it off to another person. We both like having our assignments, agreeing on what that is, and then coming back together with the results. We had a couple of times when we would sit in front a whiteboard together to figure out whatever challenge was in front of us.

AZ: Do you write differently knowing that you will be directing the work?

LR: I don’t think we write differently because we’re directing. The script has to communicate to not just us, but to our actors and to the rest of the crew. It needs to be just as transparent in terms of what we’re trying to do as it would be otherwise. The prep is actually the really important partwhere the writing is changingbecause you are starting to manifest the stuff, physically: you’re picking locations, costumes, actors… It’s such a crucial part of the translation; it’s at that moment the writing gets pulled into the directing space.

AH: I agree, the writing doesn’t deferwriting is writing. We probably have our producer’s hat on a bit: Is this possible? Can we write for a location that we already have? But, consistently, the writing has to work first.

AZ: The characters in CLAIRE IN MOTION are so well-fleshed out. I never felt like anyone was behaving inauthentically or outside of their spectrum of responses. As writers you get the fun task of people-ing your world, how do you go about writing your supporting characters?

AH: For this film, again, it was really informed by this particular town, and also our shared knowledge of the world of academiaa lot of that world is the personal and the professional mixed togetherand so we brought those instincts, impressions, and experiences to the table. Often it’s so challenging and difficult to understand your protagonist and to keep searching for that thread or theme. Supporting characters can often come much quicker, which helps to build that confidence in the writing. In this case the place that she is in and the people around her are just such an important part of the story…

LR: Since Annie was teaching and living there she had a lot of interesting encounters and specifics to bring to it. Since I was further away, I brought a more abstract mental state to it, more along the lines of, what is Claire going through and what kinds of characters would trigger her or bring out parts of her psyche? Those two things combined helped create some of these character.

 AZ: While part mystery/thriller, CLAIRE IN MOTION really tells the story of a woman who is faced with the reality that, in truth, you never can know somebody entirely, and that, perhaps even more importantly, that lack of recognition extends to yourself as well. What prompted you to explore this subject matter in the way you did? Did you know going in that you wanted Claire’s evolution to start at x and end at y?

LR: We knew we wanted her to go through a tragedy and have to grapple with that uncertainty, and letting the viewer grapple with it as well. We weren’t quite sure how we were going to do it, or even what the tragedy was going to be,  but we were interested to see how that uncertainty shifted her identity. We set out to explore a character in a place in her life where she is comfortableshe’s a little bit older, not in her 20s anymore, has a sense of who she is and what her life is going to beand we wanted to upset that, let that run out, and see how she shifts and changes.

AH: We also had some time in the writing process to really chew on a number of different scenarioswe played quite a bit with it in terms of plot, running a lot of what-ifs. We have a strong shared value that we want our audience to have their own experience, so we weren’t going to wrap everything up neatly. The persistent interest in theme being: the not knowing of life and how that can surprise you; what you learn from it and how you might be damaged by it; and inevitably, how you have to just keep going.

AZ: In light of the current state of the world, how do you see filmmaking as an art form shaping and/or informing us as humans?

LR: There’s a lot of exciting films out there right now. GET OUT is a really amazing example of a film that is surprising and exciting in terms of genre, subtext, and choices…So, I’m still really excited about stuff I’m seeing every year. Film is such a powerful medium because it hits people on multiple levels at once. Unfortunately, that means film is related to propaganda, to Facebook, and to all this discussion about fake news. It is just such a powerful force that spreads out in all these different mediums, but, I still think it’s a great tool for change. We see films like MOONLIGHT or LADY BIRD, these are very particular voices that are getting widespread attention. It’s so great.

AH: A well-crafted visual story provides this opportunity for identification, empathy, complication of stereotypes, and personal introspection that’s unlike or dissimilar from the other other ways in which those things happenwhich is, through actual physical relationships with other human beings. When you have the ability to silently interact with othersby that I mean, the charactersit’s a totally different process of growth. These stories are important for any person who is interested in evolving, and I am glad we can do that in different types of waysthrough literature, through cinema, through just observing and watching.

AZ: Thank you Annie and Lisa!

 

Annie J. Howell is an award-winning screenwriter and director. Howell’s first film, co-written and co-directed with Lisa Robinson, was SMALL, BEAUTIFULLY MOVING PARTS, followed by the duos second feature, CLAIRE IN MOTION. In 2016, LITTLE BOXES, a film written by Howell and directed by Rob Meyer premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it sold to Netflix. The script for LITTLE BOXES is the recipient of an IFP Emerging Narrative Award for Best Feature and a San Francisco Film Society/Kenneth Rainin Foundation grant. Howell’s other credits include a short for the vanguard ITVS series FUTURESTATES, as well as the web series SPARKS, also created with Robinson and licensed to the Sundance Channel.She teaches in the MFA in Film program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, as well as City College, and has also been a member of the faculty at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, Ohio University’s MFA in Film, and at The New School, where she was the Founding Director of the Graduate Certificate in Documentary Media Studies Program.

Lisa Robinson is an award-winning screenwriter and director. Her credits include the feature films CLAIRE IN MOTION and SMALL, BEAUTIFULLY MOVING PARTS, both written and directed with Annie Howell. Robinson has directed several episodes of television, including the Emmy award-winning A CRIME TO REMEMBER and the series FUTURESTATES, that had its series premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. Robinson has written and directed several award-winning short films. She also works as a screenwriter and wrote MIND BLAST, an IMAX film for the Blue Man Group. She is the recipient of the Martin E. Segal Prize, the Mitsubishi Digital Media Lab Award for Excellence, and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship. Robinson is currently  Associate Professor of Film at LIU. www.lisarobinsonfilm.com

Student Spotlight: Lex Lybrand’s thesis film, MAYBE SHOWER

Current MFA in Film student, Lex Lybrand, just dropped the trailer for his thesis film project, MAYBE SHOWER. Written and directed by Lybrand, MAYBE SHOWER stars Kelsey Thomas (SUMMER LEAGUE), Rachel DeRouen (GLASS), and Megan Simon (INDOOR CAT). With Carlos O’Leary (THE TROLLS), Jeff Pearson (HOME REMEDY), Nathan Ehrmann (THE TROLLS), and Caitlin French.

Ash, Shannon, and Wendy are all late. You know… LATE. As their collective anxiety grows, they band together to face their fears, confront the potential fathers, and egg a car or two. All part of the world’s first MAYBE SHOWER.

On October 26th, 2016, Lybrand wrote the following on the “Maybe Shower” blog, and we just had to share it here because, well, it brings us great pride:

I’m sitting in a dorm room in Montpelier, Vermont just a couple of days before Halloween. There’s snow on the ground, I can see my breath in my room, and I’m almost out of coffee. I haven’t been this happy in a very long time. 

This is the last day of my first week at VCFA’s MFA in Film residency. I entered this program with no idea what I would work on while I’m here… but now I know. I’m excited to announce that I have begun work on my next feature screenplay, and I plan to take it from conception to reality during this 2 year program… This is gonna be fun.

MAYBE SHOWER will screen this April at our spring residency and will be hitting the festival circuit soon. Visit the MAYBE SHOWER site to learn more. We can’t wait to see this one! Congrats Lex!

Check out the trailer below. (See if you can spot another one of our talented students in the film, Mr. Kris Atkinson. We love to see our people crewing for each other!)

(Lybrand photo courtesy of George Nicholas)

Faculty member Annie Howell’s film, CLAIRE IN MOTION, now on Showtime. Howell’s LITTLE BOXES also available to stream on Netflix.

Annie Howell’s 2016 film CLAIRE IN MOTION, co-written and co-directed with Lisa Robinson and starring Betsy Brandt (of Breaking Bad), is currently available to stream on Showtime. The film premiered at SXSW. Annie Howell is a faculty member of the VCFA MFA in film program.

CLAIRE IN MOTION is the second feature film from filmmaking team Lisa Robinson and Annie J. Howell. Exploring a short period of time inside one woman’s life-altering crisis, the story begins three weeks after math professor Claire Hunger’s husband has mysteriously disappeared, the police have ended their investigation and her son is beginning to grieve. The only person who hasn’t given up is Claire. Soon she discovers his troubling secrets, including an alluring yet manipulative graduate student with whom he had formed a close bond. As she digs deeper, Claire begins to lose her grip on how well she truly knew her husband and questions her own identity in the process. Claire in Motion twists the missing person thriller into an emotional take on uncertainty and loss.

Lisa Robinson and Annie J. Howell have crafted a transfixing, thoughtful thriller — where the directors’ deft maneuvering around the intimate performance of Betsy Brandt keeps you glued to the screen.
— Oakley Anderson-Moore, No Film School

What can one say about a film as perfect as Claire in Motion? With a script that subtly explores the realm of emotional conflict, and powerful performances from its ensemble of actors, the movie is a gentle tour-de-force about trauma and healing …. One emerges after its brief 80 minutes as if from an intense, cathartic dream, haunted and challenged by its raw truths, perhaps, but made all the stronger for them.
— Christopher Llewellyn Reed, Hammer to Nail

Howell also wrote the screenplay for LITTLE BOXES (2016), starring the late Nelsan Ellis and Melanie Lynskey. LITTLE BOXES can be viewed world-wide on Netflix. The film premiered at Tribeca and was the largest sale out of the festival in 2016.