Filmmaker and programmer Moore talks process, offers perspective on his debut feature and Cinema by the Bay opener, ‘I Think It’s Raining.’
Joshua Moore’s affecting debut feature, I Think It’s Raining, is an inviting and intimate study of a mercurial 20-something San Francisco gal at loose ends. Spiky, saucy and dangerously vulnerable, Renata (actress-singer Alexandra Clayton) may or may not be a girl in trouble, and it’s anyone’s guess if it’s a temporary thing. A surprise hit at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival this past summer, the film unfolds at neighborhood joints like Sam Wo and the Red Devil Lounge, far from the tourist shutterbug spots. Moore studied moviemaking at the Los Angeles Film School and San Francisco State University, where he wrote and directed a handful of short films. We met Moore, whose day job is associate programmer at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, on a recent afternoon at a trendy SOMA caffeine dispensary. I Think It’s Raining opens the 2011 Cinema by the Bay showcase of Bay Area filmmakers with two screenings on Thursday, November 3.
SF360: How did you come to work with Alexandra Clayton, and what was that process like?
Joshua Moore: It started as a short, which is mainly the romantic encounter part where Renata meets Val (Andy Dulman). We were going to [shoot] that—I had already met Alexandra at this point—and the more we looked at the script we thought, ‘This is nice, but there’s something missing here. We want to know who this character is. What did she do before we meet her? Where was she, what’s going on in her head, where did she go, who is she?’ So then it became a collaborative process. I wrote the script, Alexandra helped me on some of the character aspects, and we explored through conversation and working scenes who Renata is.
SF360: On MUNI, among other locales?
Moore: We talked in many places and coffee shops. We went out in the city to the locations where the film was [ultimately] shot and just talked. That’s kind of my style of directing instead of having actors audition for me. Alexandra never auditioned. We met in a coffee shop, we talked and we just kind of clicked.
SF360: Did you know she was also a singer?
Moore: I had heard that she sang a little but no, I didn’t. She was a friend of a friend and I had no expectations, and she exceeded those expectations exponentially. For me, the actors have to bring a lot to a role. Getting them to make the character their own helped so much. I’ve written a script and all the dialogue is there, but there is some improvisation based on what’s written. The actors need to read between the lines and make it their own, so when they’re speaking those lines it’s coming from that character.
SF360: A pivotal early scene in the Red Devil Lounge encapsulates Renata’s simultaneous need—and inability—to belong. Tell us what’s going on there.
Moore: That’s definitely one of the themes of the film, and I think it relates to a particular time in your life, which is really what this movie is about: This kind of inability to move forward and also to not let go of the past. Her background story is vague because this movie is almost an experiment, in a way, to get to know a character only by what we see her doing. We’re not privy to any knowledge about her that we wouldn’t otherwise have if we weren’t with her. There are no flashbacks, no cutaway scenes to other people talking about her. Everything is through her eyes and what she experiences, and we have to put those pieces together. The pieces are there.
So Renata’s been away for a while traveling and she’s come back into her world. She’s not fully ready, yet she does go back to places that she’s familiar with, like the Red Devil Lounge. And she’s brought back into a whirlwind of all these people who have known her, whether intimately or superficially, and feeling torn about whether she still belongs in that world or not. I think at that age, in your mid-20s, you’re not yet an adult but you’re also not a kid anymore. You’re in limbo in many ways, especially if you don’t have a set career or a place where you’re living. So she’s very much in transition.
SF360: I had a darker interpretation, which is that Renata harbors a self-destructiveness that she may or may not outgrow.
Moore: She’s a very complex character. There are a lot of things going on with her beside the fact that she’s in her mid-20s and kind of in limbo. She has had a traumatic past. There are bad things that have happened to her. The pills and other things are in there for a reason. It’s vague because I felt that whatever answer I gave to what happened to her would never satisfy people’s curiosity. If I said it was one defining moment that changed her whole personality, people would be like, ‘Really? That’s what it was? Well, God, I thought it could have been this. It could have been more dramatic.’ The power of using your imagination, of knowing the way she acts in certain situations and with certain people, and how that changes, tells you about who she is in this time of her life. If we know more it just seems unsatisfying for me. Whatever you don’t know is always more interesting. That said, there are clues and hints to what has happened to her, and I feel it’s a film you can watch several times and get something more out of. Those are the types of film I like. Character-driven movies about people you’re fascinated by and it doesn’t really matter where they are or what they do. You’re just so enthralled by who they are that you want to follow them. So we follow Renata through a couple of days in San Francisco.
SF360: I gather you have some favorite movies in that vein.
Moore: Agnes Varda’s Cleo From 5 to 7 (1962) is a fantastic film which is supposed to take place in real time. I think they cheat a bit, but it’s definitely a big influence on this film. Mike Leigh’s films absolutely, even the more recent ones like Happy-Go-Lucky. Anything by John Cassavetes, but especially his first film, Shadows. I’ve always admired being in those characters’ worlds, and the freedom he gave his actors. That’s what I like to do with my films. The camera is handheld and my cameraman instinctively is able to follow the actors in a way that feels natural, like some kind of dance. It gives the actors so much freedom to not have to worry about ‘I have to say this line in this space, then we have to shoot the angle from over here, and cover the scene five different times and do 20 takes.’ Most of the shots in this film are one shot.
SF360: A handheld approach is also reflective of Renata’s restlessness.
Moore: Well, since it’s a character driven film, and literally in her shoes—she’s in every frame—the camera follows her. It wouldn’t make sense to have the camera set up across the street, or have very controlled shots where the camera’s on a tripod. The character is always in motion. Even when she’s in the bathtub she’s kind of moving around. So handheld is a style that just fits this particular movie. Whether I’ll shoot all my movies that way I don’t know. It has to fit the story.
SF360: In this case, you engage the viewer in a partnership that requires their active participation.
Moore: Yeah, absolutely. Which is why we start the movie the way it starts. We introduce Renata, she’s sitting on the steps, she’s in the middle of a spiel, and we don’t know who she is, where she is, why she’s there, who she’s talking to. It’s kind of like coming into a movie late. You have to put the pieces together. I really like that in films, and it makes the audience have to kind of catch up, in a way. We’re not easing you into this film. We don’t have wide shots of the city, gentle music playing and then a few little scenes to kind of ease you into the character and what she’s going through and set up the plot. It’s just Bam! She’s right here, who is she, let’s follow her around, let’s get to know her. They’re kind of hangout films in a way. Another influence maybe is Richard Linklater. In Slacker or Before Sunrise, you spend a brief time with a character but it’s an intimate time, and you learn volumes about them just by being in their shoes for a little while. I think it makes it interesting for the viewer to not know what’s happening next. So many films are telegraphed, but there’s an excitement with where is she going next? How is she going to act in this [new] situation?
SF360: By now, audiences have seen so many movies that filmmakers have to worry about repeating clichés on the one hand and trying too strenuously to be unpredictable on the other.
Moore: Audiences know how certain genres are treated and maybe deconstruct that a little bit, but ultimately I think it comes down to being true to the characters. Alexandra and I knew, and still know, who Renata is and what she would do in a certain situation. Every choice she makes in the film goes back to that. Her behavior when she meets Val is a little bit different than it is in the rest of the film, and the choices she makes shows different sides of her personality. Renata has many flaws and many great things about her, and I feel that’s more of a representation of real people. We have different sides of ourselves that we present to different people, almost chameleon-like, and throughout the film that’s what she’s doing. She’s kind of battling through her different personas with different people.
SF360: How did Alexandra go about inhabiting the character?
Moore: As I said, it was a short at first, which was based on a relationship that I had in my life. I was very much Val, and I put myself into that character a lot. But Renata, who was loosely based on the person I had the relationship with—I realized the more I wrote her and the more I talked to Alexandra, Renata was a lot like me. So it’s sort of both sides of my personality in a way. And there’s also a lot of Alexandra in Renata, too. Alexandra is a singer, so we put that into the character. We had a whole history of Renata, where she’s from, places she’s traveled, things she’s done, her family life. It comes out in little pieces throughout the film. I didn’t want to have a scene where we just lay all this exposition out, everything that’s happened to her. It happens a little bit in the Red Devil Lounge, when she runs into an old friend who asks about her brother and other family members.
Renata carries a notebook in the film that I wanted Alexandra to create and design herself. Everything in that book is from the perspective of Renata, and we see glimpses of drawings and writings because anything more is almost an invasion of her privacy.
SF360: Here’s a non sequitur for you: What’s your favorite piece of gear?
Moore: It’s actually not gear, but actors. The reason I make films is to work with actors. The camera and all the technical aspects are hugely important to a film, and I do spend a lot of time working with my DP designing the shots and making sure every image serves the story, but it’s still about the actors to me. Letting them have the freedom to be in their characters is a joy to watch. I don’t look at a monitor when I’m directing. I’m looking at the actors. It’s really about them. Ultimately they’re bringing the show to life, and if that’s not working we don’t have anything.
SF360: What’s your method of working with actors?
Moore: I don’t like to over-rehearse because it gets stale for me, which is the same reason we don’t have a lot of camera set-ups. I don’t want the actors to feel like they’re just reciting and reciting and reciting. Maybe they did something great the first time but now it’s just become a mimic of that. So I have them do exercises together to get them comfortable with each other that don’t relate to the dialogue. When it comes time to do the scene, oftentimes they’re actually doing it for the first time with the lines. It keeps things fresh for them and for me. I’d get bored myself if I had to cover the scene from five different angles and 10 techniques.
SF360: The exception is the Red Devil Lounge sequence, which is clearly choreographed.
Moore: That was a fun scene to film because it was all one shot. It’s designed to be one shot because Renata is going back into a space she hasn’t been in for a while and she’s bombarded with the past and with people. To cut that didn’t feel right. It’s choreographed in a way that people had to come in and out, but ultimately the camera is following her and her actions dictate where the camera goes. It was very challenging and people had doubts whether we could pull it off with one take, but we did and it came out great.
SF360: This is your first feature, but you’ve directed a couple of shorts.
Moore: I have. I never submitted any of them to festivals. The complicated thing is that everyone can make a movie now because the technology is cheap. Being a film festival programmer, I see the influx of movies coming in all the time. In the olden days, access to a 35mm film camera or even a 16mm [was limited], and the cost of having film developed and transferred was very expensive, so not everyone did that. Video is for the masses, which is a great thing and also a terrible thing because it gives people who are talented the means to make a film but it also give people who are untalented the means to make a film. This film was primarily self-financed and it was written at a modest scale because that’s what I knew I could afford. I didn’t want to spend time looking for outside money because it takes so long and the idea was hot and we were passionate about it. We wanted to do it. We wanted to just make the best film we could with the resources we had and whatever came from that, wherever it would show, would be great. So it was a matter of us focusing on what we had and doing it well, and I think we achieved that.
SF360: What are your thoughts on working in digital video v. film?
Moore: I love film. But for an independent filmmaker who’s primarily self-financing it’s very expensive to shoot. So we shot video and we embraced video. That was the conversation I’d have with my cinematographer Sinise Kukic: How are we going to shoot video and make it look good, but not make it look like film? So many times people shoot video and want to make it look like film. We decided to shoot video and embrace video for what it is. That said, video looks better in tighter shots. When you open up wide panoramic shots, something’s lost in the image. Now, because this is such a tight, claustrophobic story centering on this one girl, and we’re with her all the time, it made sense to shoot tighter.
SF360: Share something specific you learned shooting your first feature.
Moore: Shooting in rain? Pretty hard. We didn’t have the luxury of permits on this movie. We had permission to shoot inside the clubs and restaurants and bars and houses. But in the streets, all of that is just in the moment, which I loved because it has a spontaneity to it. You don’t know what’s going to happen or who is going to walk by. Sometimes it can be a disaster because the scene is perfect but then some passerby looks in the camera and ruins the scene. But it keeps everyone on their toes and makes you inventive.
I thought it was going to go a lot worse than it did, and it actually worked out really well. We were shooting in the Forest Hill Muni station, and we had a large crew down there and, of course, we were kicked out. That location is perfect for the film, I loved it and had to have it in, so I downsized our crew, came back and shot it again without a problem the next day. So it allows you to be inventive. Even if something works in the script, you get to the location and you say, ‘Well, there’s no way that’s going to happen.’ Getting back to the rain, we couldn’t afford to have rain machines or create rain. It’s San Francisco, it rains a lot. But somehow it decided to be a dry month when we were shooting and we were waiting for the rain all the time. That bus stop scene, we went so many times to shoot and we had no rain. And it had to be in the rain. When people aren’t giving you money you don’t have to make those compromises, so I wasn’t prepared to make that compromise. Finally, we got our rain. But I could see how it would be very nice having the ability to shoot the scene when you want to and have everything there for you.
SF360: Renata and Val have fun with this question, and now it’s your turn: What’s your favorite rainy day album?
Moore: It’s the one in the film, actually. Soul music on rainy days is perfect, Sam Cooke has an amazing voice and Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 is phenomenal. It’s good besides rainy days, but it really fits the bill on rainy days.
SF360: Tell us about the original music you used.
Moore: All the musicians are local artists and I’m excited that they get to be in this film and have their music showcased. Sonya Cotton, a favorite performer of mine, has two songs in the church scene with Renata. Another great performer, Oona, who has a pretty big following here and now works in Los Angeles, performs some songs in the Red Devil Lounge scene. We have some other artists who contribute music, and Alexandra wrote some songs for the movie. The lyrics are very telling of her character, especially the song at the end, Morning Brings Flowers. The ending [of the film] is rather ambiguous, and how you view life is what you think will happen to her—something positive or something negative. I’ve a feeling that comes across in the lyric ‘morning brings flowers’ that there is hope for her.
SF360: Now that you’re a grizzled veteran with one feature under your belt, what advice do you have for independent filmmakers?
Moore: When it comes to making a film, especially a feature film, it’s a huge undertaking. There’s so many ways to talk yourself out of doing it: It’s not the right time, I don’t have the money yet, I can’t get time off from work, this actor’s unavailable. There’s a million excuses to not make a movie. I think the biggest thing I learned was to just make the movie. Committing to the idea and following it through to completion is a very rewarding thing to do when it comes to any type of project. For filmmakers making their first feature, there’s never that right time to make a movie. You just have to do it.
SF360: What’s next?
Moore: I plan on making more films and making quite a lot of them. I’ve always admired directors who just keep working, and having their work out there. Making a film a year, two films a year and just perfecting your craft as you go along. If you hit a home run the very first time you have nothing to work for.
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