Shared Inspiration: Claire in Motion
Lisa Robinson and Annie J. Howell on learning from your actors, a unique way of writing as a duo, and what makes a partnership work.
Filmmakers Lisa Robinson and Annie J. Howell first met as NYU graduate film students, bonding over their similar interests in stories. “What we found interesting and what we found odd,” recalls Robinson
Soon after, they created a web series together. The experience was so enjoyable and successful, that it prompted the women to make a feature film, Small, Beautifully Moving Parts.
Now, five years after the premiere of their first film, the writing/directing team returns with their latest film project, Claire In Motion.
The film, which premiered last year at SXSW, is about Claire (Betsy Brandt), a college professor whose husband disappears while on a hiking trip. As the police wind down their search, Claire discovers secrets about her husband which makes her question what she knew about his life, as well as her own.
Creative Screenwriting spoke with the pair about creating unusual characters, their writing process as a duo and what makes their partnership work.
What was the inspiration behind telling this story?
Lisa: We were looking for another story, and we looking for a story about what it means to be a woman in your late 30s, early 40s, when you start figuring out who you are, and who your partner is, and how that can be upended and what that experience is. That is something we were always interested in.
At the time, Annie was living in Athens, Ohio, and I was in in New York. We were going back and forth with ideas, and Annie was sending photos of the house she was living in Ohio. And one photo in particular showed her house shadowed by these tall trees. It gave off this Gothic look in a cool way, and I got really excited about it, and the story we could tell about the town. So we decided that we would tell the story of a college professor in a small town, and that’s how it started.
In terms of the writing process, we did location scouting together and the brainstorming together, but most of the writing took place separately, while I was in New York and she was in Ohio. Shooting back and forth lots of photos and lots of texts, and little ideas and things that had happened to Annie in the town. It was a unique situation that couldn’t be replicated.
Annie: In terms of the subject matter of a missing person, we didn’t have any personal experience with that, but we wanted to put our protagonist in a dire scenario. Also, we wanted to create scenes that are universal, raising questions such as how well do we know our partner, or or ourselves? Which we hope both work in the film – the suspense of the plot, and the universality of those scenes.
Claire is such a multi-faceted character. Did you have an idea about who she was before you started writing, or did she evolve during the writing process?
Annie: I would say both. We both had an idea that felt pretty vivid, but once Betsy came on board, she brought all her nuances to the role.
We struggled with what type of professor Claire would be, but I’m so glad that we settled on math, because there’s a sense of knowing in patterns and behavior. For the math geeks out there, there is some real math lying beneath the surface to be considered, in terms of probability.
So those are the things we considered about the character. But when Betsy came on, she had so much to give in terms of her true self and her own ideas about the character, which made it so much more richer.
Lisa: We were interested in Claire being this imperfect, flawed person, and showing her in that way, under those circumstances, which were obviously complicated and difficult. And Betsy brought this great experience and vulnerability, that combined all the ideas we had about the character that we couldn’t have imagined coming true.
You touched on a little bit already about your writing process as a duo. How do you write together? Was this movie any different than working on other projects together?
Lisa: We started working together on a web series, and that was different because each episode was two minutes long. So what we did there was to each tackle an episode of the series, and if we felt the urge to rewrite something, or when we were stuck on something, we would pass it back and forth.
So when we got to our first feature, we already had our unique way of passing things back and forth. For example, Annie would write the first two scenes, and I would go and do some rewriting on them and then tackle scenes three and four.
That was kind of great because writing is tiring. I think we keep each other inspired because we would each step in and inject something fresh into the work, like a completely new idea. One of us would go, “What about something like this?” And we then would discuss it together and figure it out.
So because we had that system down already, for this feature we didn’t need to be in the same physical space for it to work. There would be a nice lull where we’d write a scene, send it, and then wait to hear back. That way you’re not staring at the same thing over and over on your screen, which was great.
Annie: [Laughs] Yeah, we like to cook things slowly.
Was the most challenging scene or sequence to write, and how did you end up solving it?
Lisa: I think at one point we had to step back and examine Claire’s husband, who he was and what his place was. When you’re writing the first draft, you’re so caught up with the main character and their struggle, that it’s easy to overlook the secondary characters. So you need to make sure they’re doing something that is affecting the main character. I don’t think it was particularly hard, but we had to step back and work on that for a bit.
Annie: We have some unusual secondary characters and behaviors, like Claire’s son, who is not grieving outward in an emotional way. It’s sort of an interior conflict. He’s the quiet kid. So that was something interesting to think about.
We also wanted to vary the classic, active grieving process because it’s so often been portrayed. And it might be true for so many people, but there are so many different ways to grieve.
It was also interesting to think about the character of Allison (Anna Margaret Hollyman), who’s an antagonist, but who also prods the protagonist along. I think it was interesting to look at someone in a different way like that.
Successful partnerships, especially writer/directors, are rare. What makes your partnership work?
Lisa: We laugh a lot. That helps. The work can be challenging and lonely when you’re doing it by yourself.
We share a lot. We confer a lot. We’re really good at conferring and finding a common theme for the film.
By the time it comes to start, we’ve already spent a lot of time establishing what it’s going to look like, what we want it to feel like, who the characters are, because we don’t want to do too much of that on set. So then there’s that shared inspiration on set. We’re coming in it with similar goals and feelings. Annie, what do you think?
Annie: I think that’s a really good answer. [Laughs].
Are you working on other projects together?
Lisa: We have been working on a genre-twisting project that’s a little too early to discuss. But we’re both hard at work and praying to the writing gods that things go well.
Featured image: Betsy Brandt as Claire and Zev Haworth as Connor in Claire in Motion, a Breaking Glass Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Breaking Glass Pictures.