Dianne Dreyer is a first-time director but an experienced filmmaker. Her new film is the delicate, touching Change in the Air, starring Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s Rachel Brosnahan. Dreyer has 56 IMDB previous credits as “miscellaneous crew,” and her jobs on movies have ranged from script supervisor to co-producer of films including Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia and the upcoming Julia Roberts film Ben is Back. In an interview, Dreyer spoke about what she learned on movie sets, about creating one of the most extraordinary images in any film this year, and why even in the digital age old-fashioned letters on paper still matter.
Nell Minow: What was the first paid job that you had in movies?
Dianne Dreyer: The first paying job I had in movies was the assistant to the director of Nothing Lasts Forever. Lorne Michaels produced it and it was the directorial debut of a guy who used to write and do short films for Saturday Night Live, Tom Schiller.
NM: I see that you spent a lot of time as a script supervisor. What did you learn in that job that helped you as a director?
DD: Oh such a long list of things. I had a very charmed career as a script supervisor. I worked over and over and over again with some of the best directors in my generation and most of them encouraged me from the very beginning to have a voice. Script supervision can be a very tactical position but you sit next to the director all day long and you protect the interests of the editor. So you’re watching story and you’re watching performance. Almost all of the directors I worked with were so welcoming of any idea and any way I could offer to expand or deepen a performance or photographic plan. That happened from the very beginning with Alan Pakula and continued. I think that is a remarkable way to train because you’re basically whispering something in a director’s ear and then watching them take that to an actor. You see how that translates and how to communicate with actors.
What attracts me to theater, cinema, or television is performance. I’m interested in letting an actor bring the deepest, most thoughtful characterization of the point that’s on the page. That’s true in drama, comedy, fantasy; it’s true across the board for me. Watching and learning from a great director’s’ approach to communicating with an actor is just gold.
NM: I can see the emphasis on performance in your casting of this film. Every actor in the cast is extraordinarily talented. Probably the one facing the biggest challenge was Rachel Brosnahan, who plays Wren, a somewhat mysterious character who arrives in a community and has a significant impact on her new neighbors. She has to convey a lot just in the way she walks and looks. How did you speak to her about her character?
DD: First she read it and then we met and I think she understood quite a bit about Wren on her own. Most important was that she understood her to be real; she’s a person. There’s something that happens in life that I believe in very firmly which is that people come into your life and you don’t know it at the time but they may or may not give you the skills or the preparation to cope with or find your own path.
This certainly happened to me. I met my friend Gail right when I graduated from college and our friendship was born of my commenting on something she was wearing. She said, “Do you really like it?” and I said, “Why would I say I liked it if I didn’t like it?” and she said, “Because it was my sister Debbie’s.” I learned that she had just recently lost her sister Debbie to cervical cancer. Anyway the short version of that story is that almost six years later I lost my younger brother and there was something about meeting Gail and learning and developing such a deep and now lifelong friendship with her that I didn’t feel was an accident. I felt every day after I lost my brother that if I hadn’t had Gail as an example of how she survived her own loss that I would not have handled it the way I did.
So the character of Wren for me is someone who is very real. She’s coming into people’s lives. They don’t know why she’s there. She may or may not know why she’s there but she is the true thing. We never wanted to imply that she was, for lack of a better word, an angel, but she’s just someone who is quiet and engaged and compelling and I think they understood that immediately.
Wren’s purpose in the world is not always easy. When you’re asking people to confront problems because their habitual avoidance is causing them more pain than any kind of healing, it is not an easy task. I never wanted her to be a smiling caricature. I think really the only time she smiles on her own is right when she walks past Mister Lemke at the end and it’s just the barest hint of a smile from her, which was very well chosen.
NM: Tell me about the way you chose to film her. I noticed that she’s filmed with a little bit of brightness, a little bit of almost a washed out quality to her face at some times and from below.
DD: Some of the choices of below are actually accurate to the perspective. Like when you first meet her, Arnie is seated and she is standing so his perspective of looking at her was real. We did exaggerate it a little bit but the idea of asking people to look up from their life is very important. Her color palette was also very important to me. She’s in very neutral tones. The one thing I wanted so much was to have her in the color lavender at the end. That’s the color at the end of the spectrum and I felt that that would be the right palette for that moment, that she sort of had this hint of where the color spectrum ends. So that was very purposeful. And you definitely want it to feel like she was something special. My cinematographer just loved photographing her. There is no bad angle on that girl’s face. She has very, very inviting eyes and she’s not self-conscious at all.
NM: I loved the beautiful scrolls of letters that play such an important part in the film. They are so tactile and visually striking.
DD: The scrolls were in the script and I also love them because so many mechanisms in life that are healing are lost these days and writing by hand is one of them. I find if I write something down I take more time with it, I consider the structure of the sentences, the choice of the words. I’ve met many actors who actually hand write the entire screenplay when they first accept their role, just as a way of ingesting the character. It goes into you and then comes out of you in a very different way when you use your hand. In my life the number of times I have had the chance to open a drawer and rediscover a letter or something someone wrote to me years and years ago, or when my parents passed and I had access to their love letters and the notes that people wrote to my dad who had been a confirmed bachelor on the announcement of his engagement — they were funny, they were so deep and genuine. I thought, “How is that going to happen in the next generation? Who is going to find the box of emails which is not going to be there?” Even to this day when I write a letter people send me an email thanking me for my letters.
NM: The image of the beautiful white bird in the film is so breathtaking. I’ve never seen anything like that. Was it CGI? How did you do it?
DD: That is a real bird, from the Roger Williams Zoo. They travel in male-female pairs and they don’t like to be alone so it’s hard to get one on a perch without the other quickly joining it or chasing each other around the room, but we spent the day doing that, and then put them on green screen to place one in the tree and on the chair.
NM: What’s the best advice you ever got about directing?
DD: I’m not sure I got advice as much as I learned working with directors that you have to be prepared for anything and everything and you have to be able to to say when you know you’ve got it. I went from a career working on movies with massive budgets and huge movie stars to making my own film; a tiny, tiny fraction of that. So I don’t have the luxury of going a day over or shooting overtime. I just don’t have the resources for that; so I’d do one take and I would say “we’ve got it.” The AD would say, “Don’t you want to do another take?” Not if I want to get another shot. You have to be willing to trust, to watch your feelings, and that you can only learn by being on the set for long periods of time. I think the other great lesson is that good ideas can come from anyone. They can come from an actor, they can come from a costume designer or they can come from a prop man or woman. People will see one thing that you didn’t see and it will be remarkable. You have to remain open and interested. Keep your crew engaged with the art of it because they all bring something. You want to go in there with clear ideas and be able to tell them what you’re thinking, but then you want to give them the space to take that ball and run with it.
And there is something I read in an interview with Mike Nichols that has stayed with me, about how you choose material. He said, “If I read something and I feel like I might know a little bit more about that than the average person that makes me want to direct it.” When I read this script, I felt like I knew a little bit more about those two couples and that I could show that in the movie,” so I knew I had to do it.