Go For The Throat: Amber Tamblyn on Paint It Black
Amber Tamblyn discusses writing about grief, poetic language in film, and the importance of asking for advice.
Whether you know her from House, Joan of Arcadia, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants or even Django Unchained, actress Amber Tamblyn has likely stolen a scene or two in some of your favorite films and shows.
But Tamblyn has now moved behind the camera to write and direct her first film, Paint It Black. The Los Angeles native fell in love with the story when her friend Amy Poehler (Parks and Rec, Inside Out) recommended the book by Janet Fitch (author of White Oleander).
Paint It Black takes place in the aftermath of a suicide. When Michael (Rhys Wakefield) takes his own life, his punk rock girlfriend (Alia Shawkat) and wealthy alcoholic mother (Janet McTeer) discover they need one another in a twisted way as they try to deal with the loss.
Creative Screenwriting spoke with Tamblyn about poetic language in film, writing about grief, and the importance of asking for advice.
This film is your directorial debut. What made you want to tell this story?
I read the novel and I was really blown away by author Janet Fitch’s ability to capture the way women feel. It’s so rare that you get to see a movie about the multidimensional aspects of a woman’s grief. Usually, it just shows ladies crying.
I wanted to make a movie that shows how grief affects people. But also how it affects their heart and their brain, not just their language or life experience.
I wanted us to really feel this from a more visceral, animalistic place. The book had a lot of that, and so much of it was about the narrative inside of women’s heads. So I thought if I could make a movie like that, it would be very unique and different.
How important was it to use these two characters, which are so different from one another?
The book is about grief, but it’s also about a class structure and the way people live in Los Angeles—both rich people in Hollywood Hills and the young punks who live on Sunset Boulevard. That’s the reality of Los Angeles, and I was born and raised there so I understand that very well.
In the book, that also played very well with their obsessions and what they need from each other, especially with what Josie’s character needs from Meredith. I think it was important to reflect that in the movie. It wasn’t just about the grief but also about how people live in different class systems.
When did you originally read the book, and how long did it take to get this film made as a first-time writer-director?
I read the book in 2006 I believe. Janet Fitch was not originally interested in having her book adapted. As far as she knew, I was just some random actress trying to get the rights to make a movie out of her book, which could be terrifying.
But I was very persistent, and expressed how I wanted to make it, and the poetic vision that I felt like I had, plus I said how I thought the movie would be different. Also I’m a third-generation from Los Angeles, so I expressed to her that I really understood where the characters were coming from. I told her that I understood the underworld of Los Angeles.
So that took about two years, and then we wrote the script. In totality, it’s been about ten years in the making, so I’ve had a lot of time to sit to think about the type of movie I wanted to make, which was something slightly arch and slightly fantastical, within the world of movies like The Hunger or Sunset Boulevard.
I wasn’t interested in making a gritty indie. I wanted something that felt tonally larger-than-life, as emotions can feel.
A lot of directors who shoot in Los Angeles create films that are a love letter to LA. Were there certain aspects of the city you felt like you had to include in the film?
Yes! There’s a shot of a sign called “Happy Foot, Sad Foot,” which has been on Sunset Boulevard since I was a kid, for as long as I can remember.
It’s just this weird, rotating sign of a foot with a happy face on it, and then on the other side it’s a foot with a sad face on it. So when it rotates you see a happy foot and a sad foot. So when we were rolling B roll, I said to Brian Hubbard, my DP, “When we drive by, you have to get happy foot, sad foot.” If you’re from LA or if you’ve lived there, you know about it—it’s been there forever.
You’re also a published poet. I noticed some symbolism in the film, for example with the pool or the piano. Was there any particular object or event that really stood out for you in the book, and how did you include that in the movie?
A great example of putting poetic language in the film would be within the sequence of shots with Alia Shawkat (Josie) lying in bed with Rhys Wakefield (Michael).
You see it in different points in the film when they’re lying together. Once she pulls a leaf out of his hair, and then there’s another time where she’s lying there along and the leaf is on the pillow. There’s a time when they’re kissing and she pulls his mother’s ring out of his mouth, and another time when Michael’s been replaced by Janet.
We did that in a series of takes, and I just called out different ideas. We would hand her a ring and say, “Now kiss him and take this out of his mouth.” Or, “Let’s get Janet McTeer in here and Janet will lay next to Alia.”
I didn’t know where those shots were going to go, but I knew that they could mean something at the end of the day. I think the poetic part of my brain really kicked in and helped support me as a director.
It’s a very stylish film. What were some of your cinematic influences beyond Sunset Boulevard and The Hunger?
I really love the films of Ingmar Bergman (The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries). Even though they’re not tonally the same, I think he wrote women in an incredible, complicated way.
He really made complex women the protagonists in his films. I love anyone who has a real specific style, a visual style like a Quentin Tarantino, David Lynch, or Jane Campion (The Piano, Bright Star).
As an actress both in film and television, you’ve worked with directors such as Quentin Tarantino. What are some of the things you learned on set that you used to direct this film?
Well, this is going to sound so boring, but time management.
I feel like the quicker and tighter I would run a ship on set, the more time there would be not only for the actors to do their part and get extra takes, but also for the crew to do their job, to make sure everything was lit the way they wanted it to be, things like that. That had always been a frustration for me on sets, where I would see people just sort of messing around and wasting time.
I just wanted to make sure we moved swiftly and quickly, so extra time could allow for the actors to have more takes. That stuff really adds up and matters at the end of the day. Those shots that we were able to get would normally be the types of shots you would cut because you had lost or ran out of time. I knew things like that would be important in the editing room, so I made sure there was time for stuff like that.
What did you find to be the most difficult step in the writing process?
I don’t think there was anything really difficult, to be honest. I went through the book and I wrote out in a linear order what happened.
I just wrote the book out in a very straight-forward way: “Josie walks out of her house and goes to a funeral. At the funeral, she’s attacked by Meredith. Later, she meets Michael’s Father.”
So I made myself a template of what the book looks like, and then I went through and started to carve stuff away. “What is the real story here? This isn’t a story about a man who kills himself, it’s about the two women. So maybe I need to get rid of the boy in it, even though it’s about his memory.”
There were a lot of drafts of the script, but there wasn’t anything particularly difficult, per se.
What are you working on now?
There are a couple things I’m working, but I haven’t started writing yet. I’ve just started thinking. They’re just sort of seeds. That’s how Paint It Black started. It started as a small seed or idea that I couldn’t get out of my head. That’s also how poems happen.
So you spend a lot of time outlining or carrying the story with you?
Yes, I do. I think about things a lot. I’m slow to the process in that way, but that’s good for me.
It used to be something where I thought something was wrong with me. I had friends who were putting out a book every single year, or doing a movie or TV show every five seconds, and I would go, “Why can’t I do that?”
But I’ve come to realize that I move very slowly, but I move intentionally. There’s nothing about my slowness that’s not intentional. Everything is me thinking and processing and absorbing information, in order to create something that I hope will be profound.
Do you have any advice for writers or new filmmakers?
I feel like people don’t go for the throat quick enough. A great poem starts with a great line, and you have to grab your audience quick. For me, those are the types of movies, or books, or poems, that are the best. Some people love a slow build but I don’t. I like to get in there quick. I like to get to the meat of what needs to be said.
I also think it’s really hard for people to kill their darlings. People get a little too precious with the work that they love, and they don’t consider what the work is that the audience might love.
If I think about anything, I think about that. People need to be able to kill what doesn’t work.
And also ask for advice. With this movie, I did maybe fifteen test screenings. I wasn’t precious with it. Ask for help. Ask for people’s points of view. Ask for opinions from people that aren’t in our business. Ask poets. Ask veterinarians. Ask Hillary Clinton. Ask people and see what they think of the work.
To find tone you have to do that, and sometimes that means killing the thing you love the most. I know I always do that with poems. I send them to other poets. Oftentimes they’ll go, “Cut all of this. I know you think this is great, but it’s not.” And you go, “Damn it. I know you’re right…”
Paint it Black is in theaters from Friday 19th May.
Featured image: Alia Shawkat as Josie in Paint it Black. Image courtesy of Imagination Worldwide. Credit: Brian Rigney Hubbard.