Whistler Film Festival Filmmaker Interview: Katharine O’Brien on LOST TRANSMISSIONS

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At a party in Los Angeles one evening, aspiring songwriter Hannah (Juno Temple) finds herself at the piano, singing nervously alongside Theo (Simon Pegg), an established music producer with an infectiously joyous spirit. Despite Hannah’s self-consciousness, her talent is evident to Theo, who suggests they get together to record some tracks. But just as their friendship and creative partnership are taking off, Theo suddenly changes. He becomes distant and starts talking about secret messages transmitted through radio static. Hannah soon learns that he is schizophrenic, and when he goes off his medication, his delusions and paranoia take over. When Theo’s condition worsens and he starts alienating colleagues in the insular L.A. music scene, Hannah sticks by him, determined to keep him from throwing away his career—and his life. She chases him through Los Angeles, trying to get him into treatment, and comes face-to-face with the frustrating inadequacies of America’s health care system, all while balancing the demands of her own blossoming career writing songs for Dana Lee (Alexandra Daddario), a shiny, pre-packaged pop star in need of a new hit.

Jennifer Merin: What your film is about — both in story and theme?

Katharine O’Brien: Lost Transmissions is about mental illness. It’s also about the mental wavelengths we’re on, trying to connect to with one another, and missing. On one hand the film is grounded in realism. It shows someone trying to help their friend psychiatric care and comes up against the broken healthcare system. It links that failing to the current homeless crisis we’re facing. On the other hand, the film looks at how bizarre the real world is if we take a moment to consider it in depth, the oscillating electric and magnetic fields of cell phones, the quantum mechanics of it all. As she chases her friend down the rabbit hole a shifting perspective of the world reframes her artistic endeavors.

Merin: How is your film stylistically distinctive?

O’Brien: It’s a blend of naturalism with an edge of organic strangeness. Not glossy or stylized, because I wanted an authentic portrayal of mental illness. But there’s also something else going on. Theo makes those around him pay closer attention to the real world and all the bizarreness that actually exists in it (as opposed to showing hallucinations, figments of a delusional mind, that aren’t really there.) I was influenced by films of the Czech New Wave with its documentary origins and dissenter films which criticized tangled beaucratic institutions of the Eastern Bloc. There is much love for humanity in those films, humorous affection for the characters, and the real antagonist is these inane systems, that, yes, we build. Milos Foreman’s Fireman’s Ball, for instance. I also loved Kieślowski’s attention to the existential, and Cassavetes rough and ready way of capturing his whirlwind of characters in Los Angeles. I approached the film with an intentionally stripped down aesthetic. Hand held camera. Minimal lighting, save for some pastel neon accents that put a feminine feel on it reflective of Hannah’s sensibilities. I wanted you to feel present in the situation, nothing to distance you from it. Just be upfront to the actors and have the best view possible of what they were going through. Human behavior is so interesting and complex in these situations. I wanted faces to tell the story.

The film also shows the grit of Los Angeles from the gutter up to the hills, not the gleaming way it’s portrayed in Hollywood movies. We desaturated the color palate and applied Live Grain. Garry Winogrand was a big influence on my choice of shots and lenses. He was a mid century street photographer who shot skid row even back then. The street photography approach is to shoot from the hip and use wide lenses so you can capture decisive moments in focus. But I found Winogrand to be especially aware of how those wide lenses create a slight bend and distortion at the edges that just makes something very real and uncontrived feel a little peculiar.

Merin: How and why did you encounter and commit to the subject/theme of your film and to the main characters in it?

O’Brien: The story was inspired by a similar situation I went through with a group of friends trying to help a friend of ours who had gone off their medication. During that time it I learned how current laws make it extremely difficult to get someone help. You can’t commit someone against their will, but if they’re paranoid delusional, they think everyone is out to get them and won’t willfully commit themselves. I also learned a lot about how difficult it is to communicate with someone suffering a mental illness. In this instance, we were successful in getting help, and felt it was an experience worth sharing with the world.

Merin: What did you learn about the subject/theme from making the film?

O’Brien: I learned how just by talking about mental illness, opening the conversation, helps lift the burden of it. It was that way consulting with my friend in the writing process. It was that way with the crew during filming. Just acknowledging it is such a relief. It’s so common. So many people are suffering in their own ways. Sharing helps people not feel isolated. It encourages people to reach out for help.

Merin: What did you learn about filmmaking from making the film?

O’Brien: You can have a plan, you should go in with a plan, but you should prioritize what is presenting itself to you on the day, how things are aligning. What’s presenting in front of the lens. Be adaptable to the thing that feels most alive and vital, and don’t be afraid to let go of the plan. Being tuned into that I think it the most essential factor in making a great film. It’s a trick to be able to tune out all of the logistics of the production machine, all of the stresses, so you can be really present. You should do whatever it is you need to do in order for that to happen. A tented in private video monitor? Sure. Taking a long time until a scene is right? As much as you can. A weekend alone in the mountains with just you and the cut? Do it. Try to build the production mechanism around your creative needs. And its ok to demand it. In fact, it’s your responsibility.

Merin: What were your biggest challenges in making the film?

O’Brien: It was an ambitious shoot for a small film, 15 locations in 19 days. I think the biggest enemy in these cases is time. Our week and a half of rehearsal turned out to be essential. We were able to drop right into scenes, probably saving an hour for each one we rehearsed. I found it didn’t diminish the freshness of the scene. Just had everyone on the same page about what the scene was really about, understanding the beats, subtext, etc.

Merin: Do you think that being female gave you a distinct perspective and/or way of handling the filmmaking process?

O’Brien: I think Lost Transmissions demonstrates a female mentality specific to a certain type of heroine. There is a philosophy in screenwriting circles that the heroine’s journey is different from the hero’s journey. The hero goes out and conquers. The heroine’s journey is to connect with deeper, previously suppressed parts of herself that she’s been cut off from so that she can embrace her natural aptitudes as the nurturer and community builder. The hero in my life has been my mother. She was a single working mother who was consistent, always there. Stuck through the hard times. Hannah’s strength is that she is able to do this with Theo when he’s run through the patience of others. She is also able to figure out the trick to help him in the end by being extremely empathetic. She has to be a bit of a ninja to play along with his delusions. These traits are specifically feminine. And I think they carry into directing. They certainly did for me. I’m not a yeller. I’ve been told by my actors that they felt extremely safe, which enabled them to go deeper into their performances than they had ever felt they could. Leadership isn’t about power or intimidation, its about capability and respect. That can come in softer, more feminine forms.

Merin: What are your plans for the future?

O’Brien: I’m working on my next film, which is an action thriller set in 1500s Scotland. Quite different as a genre but one I’m looking to apply a similar level of authenticity.

Merin: Who are the filmmakers whose work has inspired/influenced your own?

O’Brien: Apart from the ones already mentioned, Antonioni. I love filmmakers who are asking philosophical questions which only the medium of film, being beyond words, can approach. I like films that give you space to have your own thoughts, not be fed what you’re supposed to think. As far as current day filmmakers, I have so much admiration for Lynne Ramsay and Claire Denis.

Merin: What advice do you have for other female Filmmakers who are trying to make their way through a still male-dominated industry?

O’Brien: Women have to do a lot more to prove themselves. The biggest hurdle is getting people willing to put money behind women’s films when there is an inherent bias about ability. So I encourage female filmmakers to have a lot of work visible on their website and social media that demonstrates their ability. I would also say that films made by women don’t necessarily have to have a banner of female empowerment across them. There’s certainly a need for those films to correct some negative conditioned beliefs. And there’s SO much fresh ground to explore story-wise now that female psychology is being more accurately represented on screen. But I worry that making political correctness too much a hallmark of female made films could be a detriment to the quality. Women should be making whatever it is they want to explore artistically, and those films may be about things that that aren’t necessarily meant to be prescriptive. I think that’s why Kathryn Bigelow was such a G and had success smashing through the glass ceiling. Women should have equal opportunity to be taken seriously as artists. Not just as a subcategory of female artist.

ABOUT KATHARINE O’BRIEN

Director and screenwriter Katharine OʼBrien was born in Santa Barbara, CA and studied English at Wellesley College. Katharine worked at Muse Film (Virgin Suicides, Buffalo ʼ66) and as a television writing assistant before receiving her MFA in film directing at Columbia University’s graduate film program. Katharineʼs award-winning short films have played numerous film festivals. Her first feature film THE AUTOMATIC HATE, which she co-wrote, premiered at the 2015 SXSW Film Festival and played top international festivals such as Busan and Mar del Plata, winning the Audience Award at the Mill Valley Film Festival. In Katharineʼs directorial debut, LOST TRANSMISSIONS, she draws heavily from personal experience dealing with mental health in her own family, her grandmother suffered from schizophrenia. Her upbringing was varied, her father was a police officer in South Boston, and her stepfather was a prominent art dealer in New York City. Through her stepfather she was exposed to the great artists of the 20th century and was inspired to pursue art, photography and writing at an early age. Katharine’s career in narrative film allows her to combine these passions with a dose of social realism, believing that film is a conversation between art and popular culture. Katharine currently resides in Silverlake, Los Angeles, where she is actively involved in promoting art and film culture, having served on the boards of LACMA and the Cinefamily Foundation.

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