Filmmaker Amanda Kramer talks LADYWORLD — Alexandra Heller-Nicholas interviews

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American filmmaker Amanda Kramer’s feature-length directorial debut Ladyworld is a masterclass in how to do a lot with a little. Proudly lo-fi and not afraid of showing it, the premise of the film is at first deceptively simple. A group of eight teenage girls are unexpectedly trapped in a house after a sudden earthquake. Highly theatrical in nature, as the girls face the reality of their situation their psyches begin to fray in different ways, ultimately factionalizing into two groups defined by what they imagine (or do they?) is the presence of a man in the house, who embodies physical threat to many of them more than the reality of their situation.

Ladyworld had its North American premiere at Austin’s iconic Fantastic Fest in September, with forthcoming screenings at the London Film Festival set to equally electrify audiences there with Kramer’s clear, determined vision of what film is, can do and should do. With her debut short film Bark (2015), Kramer established herself as a fearless visionary of both content and form, and it is no understatement to say that few other contemporary filmmakers are as determined to bring to life through such overt theatricality the experiences and challenges of contemporary girlhood. Confrontational, challenging and certainly not for everyone, Kramer is a rare filmmaker who puts her money where her mouth is; uninterested in towing the line, she makes thoughtful cinema at a historical moment where we desperately need to be thinking.

I recently spoke to Kramer about Ladyworld and her approach to filmmaking more generally.

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas: I’m really fascinated that at the heart of Ladyworld – for me at least – lies some really fundamental fascination with femininity and performativity; I kept thinking throughout just how much work – real labor – is involved in ‘performing’ young womanhood, and how much conscious effort it takes to resist that demand to ‘perform’ in a way your broader community deem an appropriate way to ‘be’ a young woman. It’s hard not to engage with the film on this level as a microcosm in some sense – was that a conscious decision on your part, or was the project more a character study?

Amanda Kramer: The purely “performative” aspect of acting is where I live and thrive. I’m thinking specifically of the ever-operatic, highly created, arch character embodiments of actresses like Elizabeth Taylor, Faye Dunaway, Genevieve Bujold, and Gena Rowlands. Heights of expressionism that circumvent subtlety and naturalism; a clownish, garish, off-putting outsider acting art. In genre it’s less difficult to spot – Samantha Eggar in The Brood, Isabelle Adjani in Possession, Margot Kidder in Sisters – because there women are encouraged to be disturbing, ill, tasteless and overdone. Restraint is a contemporary acting notion. Portraying “the real” – as if that’s possible! I far prefer the made-up persona of an unforgettable odd-ball like Sandy Dennis (Walter Kerr said that she treated sentences as weak, injured things that needed to be slowly helped across the street… an unbelievably fucking cool legacy). I was looking for 9 performers, not really actresses prepared to portray honest teenage girls. Beyond that, conceptually, I’m absolutely intrigued by how women perform womanhood. It’s not as base as putting on make-up or high heels or lingerie (the drag of gender), but more of that post-Emily Post feminine ideal plus bullshit female friendship propaganda we’ve been fed for ages. I used to joke that young women weren’t allowed to be Holden Caulfield because he’s too punk, arrogant, cynical, just generally a hot shot – but I don’t think young men are allowed to be that way anymore either. Now nobody has it better.

AHN: There’s so many heavily idealized ways that women’s communities are reduced to sort of simplistic oaeses of agreeability and harmony which to me is so fundamentally gross: one of the things I liked the most about Ladyworld is how deliberately it reveals the complexities of the interpersonal politics between women – especially strong women – that for me at least is far more revealing and significant than a 93-minute film where a group of young women smile and nod and spout ‘girl power’ slogans until the end credits roll. The word “feminism” can mean so much to so many different people, but in terms of the relationship between gender and power I’m really curious how you conceive of the concept in terms of what’s going on in Ladyworld?

AK: Feminism is a word I’ve learned to full stop stay away from mainly because it’s not an agreed-upon term and I’m terrified to be lumped in with the wrong people, in a clubhouse I can’t escape. I have feminist icons that I read and regard highly and quote when I’m feeling particularly snarky. Women like Camille Paglia and Andrea Dworkin (who of course, in typical, poignant late 20th century feminist fashion, contradict each other). I love Helen Gurley Brown and her absolutely fine sentiment that women should trade incredible blow jobs for expensive jewelry, or keep the house clean so they can inevitably be left alone. Feminism, like other politics, begs that you respond to the time you live in. I don’t feel like a contemporary human, so I don’t hook onto a contemporary politic. My brand of womanism is admittedly rather nasty – women appear as disgusting, disturbed, manipulative, lustful, voracious, willful, over-attuned, vindictive… I could go on. Why? Because obviously we are, but also because I’m working in the surreal and abstract and dramatic and tragic. That’s my writerly playground and I prefer that dimension. I’ve sifted through enough Austenesque polite audible sigh longing, Tomb Raider-style middle finger badassedness, and tired richbitch/skinnybitch mean girl tropes. I’m going for something far more bizarre and unlikely with Ladyworld. I have no lessons to teach.

AHN: Of all the characters in the film, Dolly is for me at least the most memorable and in some way that I can’t quite put my finger on, the most haunting. Can you tell me how she fits into the broader vision of Ladyworld? She seems so fundamental and so central in terms of how she fits into the political terrain of the film that unravels so spectacularly throughout the film, and that she is the one that sparks so much of the films action and suffers the most explicitly, I’d love to hear more about how you and actor Ryan Simpkins brought her to life.

AK: Ryan has an undeniable presence, sensed immediately upon meeting her and fulfilled to epic results once on set. She was one of the first girls I cast, many years ago. I always knew she’d be my Dolly even as she’s personally grown, the script’s evolved, and I’ve mutated my expectations of the character. Throughout all that Ryan remained. What I was afraid of with initially casting the role was hiring a girl who saw Dolly as either a shy nerd, a smart nerd, or an innocent/naive nerd. But Dolly is actually horrible – a shrieking, petulant, cocky, judgmental, uptight boss in her right who certainly shouldn’t come across as a girl who’s dying to be liked. These are nuances that Ryan perfectly articulated; her Dolly is a very shaming young woman, a finger-wagger, an asshole. I loved witnessing that come out. Ryan is an actress you want to watch off-monitor, in the room. Her minute gestures and commitment to the perversity of the piece was an inspiration to me. That version of Dolly is not my creation, it’s hers. As for the character’s debasement and suffering in the final act – I always viewed Dolly as hardline reason, as married to fact alone, and therefore unable to maneuver the shifting group dynamic. Her mantra seems to be, on repeat: this isn’t fair, you’re not being fair, let’s all just be fair. The doll is not a symbol of childhood only – it’s also a symbol of control. For there to be an utter, absolute loss of control the doll has to be stolen, abused. There’s no other way it can go.

AHN: So much of the chaos that breaks out in Ladyworld is dependent on the isolating of your cast of characters from their broader community, forcing them to both reimagine and reconstruct their own from the ground up while experiencing the very real trauma of grief as they come to terms with the reality that could lie beyond the building they’re trapped in terms of their families and friends. It feels on this front very much a world-building project, like you’ve almost taken that abstracted concept for narrative construction and turned it into a very real, almost quite literal challenge for your characters: they are faced quite directly with the task of building a new society, where they get to make the rules and define what is acceptable and taboo. As a director and writer, I’m really intrigued to hear how this concept of ‘world building’ works into your broader artistic practice?

AK: World building is wildly important to me. I’m not the kind of artist who’s looking to hold a mirror up, to engage in verite, to document. I want to tonally erect a universe you don’t live in and never will. Like Solondz or Greenaway. All of the actors agree to occupy this fake world, hypnotizing the audience for 90 or so minutes into believing it’s a reality diagonal to ours, fully formed and (mal)functioning. I’m deeply interested in taboo, but even more so irrational, impossible action – acting ways that no one acts, costumed and made-up, ever “onstage.” Oddly it’s where I can get at deeper truths; in that distance I find my honesty. I also love fantasy – I have a very vivid fantasy life – and feel like it’s the sub-subgenre of all of my writing. Sexual fantasy, role playing, gender bending. But we’ve been looking at fantasy characters forever across every genre. Dorothy herself feels just as ridiculous and created and surreal as the Tin Man or the Wicked Witch of the East. I’m seeking iconoclasm, something that digs deeper into our memory. Freddy Kruger’s almost sad striped sweater. The way Sarah Conner runs down the halls of her Asylum, barefoot. That’s the magic of world building right? You can close your eyes and see it as viscerally as when you open your eyes to your apartment.

AHN: It’s virtually impossible to talk about Ladyworld and not really think in a very deep way about how much living in a culture where sexual violence influences the way that women – and here, young women especially – conceive their own identities and place in the world, even their own concept of their very womanhood, through their vulnerability. The (mostly) unseen presence of The Man is to me hilarious in a really dark way, and the film very clearly has a lot to say about rape culture and the impact it has on young women; how consciously was this woven into the project from the outset?

AK: The film was meant to be about rapephobia, or as a friend of mine jokes, “living daily as a woman.” The threat of sexual violence hangs over us; simply the idea of our own possible victimization looms. I want to talk about that, not about penetration itself. I’m mostly disgusted by films that showcase rape (and showcase is definitely the word I’d use). Gratuitous, pointless, contrived, the lame and ineffectual kind of perverted, snuffy, plot check-off, even silly. I don’t want to shoot a woman being raped and more than that I don’t want to shoot a man raping a woman. I don’t want to ask actors to do that and frankly I don’t feel like it’s my job to re-enact that kind of unimaginable personal misery. I love sex and I want to celebrate sex. I want to show people enjoying sex if I’m going to show it at all. But that doesn’t mean I want to hide from this darkness, or suppress my own fears, or ignore an important gendered conversation. Is the Man there to rape them, as Piper wants the girls to believe, or he is actually hurt, after having fallen in the earthquake, broken his bones, bleeding out in the basement, hoping not to die? Are the moans from pleasure or pain? I loved the image of an obscured man in desperate need of help, which is then misconstrued by women who are certain he’s going to rape and kill them. Wounds colliding, unable to communicate, possibly naive hope bashing against learned mistrust.

AHN: During a post-screening Q+A at Fantastic Fest I was really interested to hear you talk about your casting process which is so different from the more traditional, orthodox way that we think about films being cast, especially ones that rely so heavily on performances as opposed to high-budget special effects or a blockbuster brand name. I understand that it was a very informal, low-key process based more on your own personal interactions with the girls?

AK: Yes, I’m post-audition. I’m a vibey, wavelength filmmaker who values talk and energy. I just want to be in the room with an actor or hear their voice on the phone. I learn so much more about their approach to character, their on-set demeanor, whether they’re inspired by or even understand the text, whether they’ll like me and my attitude. They have to audition my personality as well. I’m not for everyone.

A few of the actresses were recommended by industry friends who had worked with the girls before and knew them to be gems – Annalise Basso, Ryan Simpkins, Atheena Frizzell. Ryan suggested Ariela Barer to me and we met for coffee and babbled until my meter ran out. Gina Piersanti (an actress I adore, who was in my short film Bark and was initially set to play Blake before she entered college) suggested Tatsumi Romano. We met for pho and mainly discussed her life as a recent LA transplant, living on godless Melrose. I wanted Odessa Adlon based on nothing but her face and eyes, but when she met me for tea – boots untied, carrying a laptop charging her iPhone, cussing and laughing like we’d known each other for years – it was a forgone conclusion that I had to have her in the cast. I saw Maya’s photo and it radiated her strength and intensity. The first time I saw her act was on my set. She suggested Zora Casabere, as they’re childhood friends. Zora’s a dancer and a model and just a generally lovely being. When all nine of them showed up on the first day of shooting it was as though – corny and eye roll-inducing as it sounds – they’d come together in the same car, looking for me.

AHN: Ladyworld is such a formally striking film, but the use of sound and music is (as so many others have noted) something really extraordinary. The opening moments where we have a black screen and the sound of the earthquake is a stroke of genius in how it introduces us so effectively to the aftermath, but it is really the use of music throughout the film that amplifies its otherworldly, abstracted atmosphere. Can you tell me about how the soundtrack in particular was incorporated into the film in a practical production history way – at what point did you know that those strange, almost avant garde haunting female vocals would be so central?

AK: First I should say this is the work of Ben Shearn (my editor), Guilio Carmassi and Bryan Scary (my sound mixers/designers) and Callie Ryan (my composer). I’m in awe of their ability to turn my nonsensical magnetic fridge poetry style ramblings/references into the final sound design and score for Ladyworld. They cemented the tone that my actresses set, one of feminine tedium sliding into mania, of raw emotion dissolving civility and order like a penny left for years in a glass of Coca-Cola. As for the score, that’s Callie’s beautiful, haunting, wild, mesmerizing voice. I knew straight away that I needed a vocables-only score (no instrumentation at all) and for that I needed a woman who’d search depths for me, unself-conscious and free. Callie’s voice is unambiguously “pretty” and “good” but what she gave me here is a testament to her humanness as much as it is her talent. Ben and I sent Callie classic pieces from Meredith Monk and Joan LaBarbara and Yoko Ono. We wanted pure self-expression, unhinged and manic. I’d say, “Go bonkers.” What does bonkers even mean? Callie sat with the footage and just felt and felt and felt. I think she exhausted herself and her voice in the process. I’m so grateful for that level of engagement and commitment, you can’t imagine.

AHN: I believe your next film is Paris Window – can you give us a sneak peek into this project?

AK: Paris Window is a film I shot before Ladyworld, in my apartment. The leads are a man (Noel David Taylor) and a woman (Sophie Kargman), playing infatuated adult siblings Julian and Sunny. The film follows the damaging effects that a series of hypnosis infomercials have on the socially and emotionally stunted pair. With creeping intensity, delusional brother and sister turn on each other as Julian becomes convinced he’s the victim of a conspiracy when Sunny begins dating a man who looks exactly like him. Noel and Sophie are fantastic. See it for their performances alone, honestly.

AHN: To finish up, the “all-girl Lord of the Flies” description seems to already be synonymous with Ladyworld, and I love the nod to this by the use of the crystal instead of that famous conch shell to determine who has the right to speak at certain times. I’d love to ask you about influences both specific and broad; there’s such a strong ambient sensibility of absurdist theater to both this film and your earlier short Bark in particular, I’m fascinated to hear where you both directly and indirectly find inspiration.

AK: I love the extremity and perversion in the unchecked male gaze of DePalma, the epic stillness and breathtaking framework of Fassbinder, the ill-spirited satire and humour-pain of Solondz, the exquisitely crafted turn of phrase of Stillman, the painterly composition and art-conversation confidence of Greenaway. Woody Allen’s decades-long body of work is an enduring, personally enlightening gift. But mostly film isn’t my creative inspiration for film. In preparation for Ladyworld I studied the Brechtian alienation effect of making the familiar strange, I poured through hundreds of photos of department store design and mannequin displays, absorbed the LACMA’s Dutch and Flemish masters collection, listened to an absurd amount of Sade, watched Pina Bausch performances, collected pictures of Eiko Ishioka’s costumes and graphic print ads, and – as always – generally daydreamed about the magnificence and melodrama of Streisand. There’s always a ton of text by my bedside: Barthes’ The Death of the Author, Lynne Tillman’s Weird Fucks, the poems of Frank O’Hara, anything Bret Easton Ellis. But I do think many contemporary filmmakers are overly reliant on their influences and fall into the trap of hacky collage. Just being a cultured person – cultivating myself daily and then letting those unconscious influences reveal themselves organically within the process – is ultimately what I strive for.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is an award-winning film critic from Melbourne, Australia. She was an editor at Senses of Cinema from 2015 to 2018, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic whose other publications including Film International, Flicks, Diabolique Magazine, Vulture, Overland, The Big Issue and her own website, The Blue Lenses. She has written eight books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema and co-edited collections on Elaine May, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, and Alice in Wonderland in film. Alexandra is a programmer at Austin’s Fantastic Fest and an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University.