Writer/director Katherine Dieckmann on ‘Strange Weather,’ surviving grief

Strange Weather feels like a perfect title to be both evocative and descriptive of Katherine Dieckmann’s new feature. Focusing on parents of suicide victims and the suffering they experience in the aftermath, Dieckmann has also made a frequently funny and warm film about surviving grief.

In the role of grieving mother Darcy, Dieckmann has written a memorable leading role for Holly Hunter, bringing out the fearless and fierce qualities which have been a hallmark of the actress’ extensive career.

Speaking with the wonderfully frank and funny Dieckmann about her career, you can see how she moved from the strange and absurd (with music videos for REM and episodes of The Adventures of Pete and Pete), to more grounded, personal films such as A Good Baby, Diggers, Motherhood and now Strange Weather.

Lesley Coffin: I heard Holly Hunter discuss the film at a film festival and she mentioned that the two things that first appealed to her about the script are its humor and the decision to focus on youth suicide and the impact it has on parents. What inspired you to write the script and deal with that issue?

Katherine Dieckmann: I had a scene in my head a woman like Holly sitting outside a bar, with a hat on and smoking, and I had that image in my head for a long time. And I was listening to a lot of Lucinda Williams and just knew that the character I’d imagined had lost her son. But I didn’t know how. I had a close girlfriend who got pregnant the first time she had sex, and because her parents were Catholic they forced her to have it and then forced her to give that child up for adoption. And that was a trauma that really haunted her, she was always trying to find that boy. But then I realized that wouldn’t be right, and I’ve also had friends who lost children to suicide, and I felt like that was really the loss I wanted to explore. Suicide is so painful, especially for parents, because you’re left with these questions “what did I do wrong” and “what could I have done to stop it.” So it created an agency for that character, she was a woman looking for these impossible answers. I wanted to explore how grief is a very circuitous process.

Lesley Coffin: Was it important to the story or character that she lost her son rather than a daughter?

Katherine Dieckmann: It was, I’m not sure why exactly though. I think mothers and daughters have very different relationships from mothers and sons. I have a son and a daughter, and I’m extremely close to both but in wildly different ways. My daughter’s very similar to me, and when we fight it’s almost always because we’re so similar. My son’s very different, but very tender towards me. There is a sweetness that can happen between mothers and sons that’s probably harder for mothers and daughters.

Lesley Coffin: The location seemed to play a major role, because you see how the weather and the temperature really have a direct impact on how she reacts to things. She’s a little more relaxed at night, as opposed to the heated, tense conversations that happen during the day. How important was it during filming to select the right time of day to drive Holly’s behavior?

Katherine Dieckmann: It was incredibly important. It wasn’t as hot as I wanted it to be, because we shot it in the fall rather than the summer. But it was still warm enough, and I wanted that feeling that the temperature’s driving the scene. You see that in the scene with Holly and her boyfriend Kim Coates in the garden, it had to take place during a late summer night. We really need to think about how the temperature affects how people act. When are people going inside just for air conditioning? When do they get a little relief from the heat at night and can kind of relax?

Lesley Coffin: And a lot of those night scenes are between Holly and Carrie Coon, who are two actresses you would never realize how much you wanted to see them act together until you match them up. They are so perfectly matched as scene partners. How did you select them for the roles?

Katherine Dieckmann: Holly came on board first, and because she’s Holly we gave her a significant role in figuring out the rest of the cast. But the credit for casting Carrie really goes to our casting directing. She really advocated for Carrie and I didn’t really know her know her work that well. I’d seen her in Gone Girl but hadn’t seen The Leftovers, and I wrote the part for someone maybe 10 years older that would be closer in age to Holly. Carrie’s almost 20 years younger than Holly, but then I thought about the fact that I have female friends who are different ages. I have a friend who’s 84 and friends who were my students. So I really liked the idea that they could be best friends but at very different stages in their lives. It was really refreshing to me. But Cindy kept telling me to consider Carrie, and Holly had seen Carrie on Broadway in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. And Holly was really excited to work with Carrie because she knew that she was a really great dramatic actress.

Lesley Coffin: Did they mention that the project was a draw because so many of the big meaty scenes would between two women?

Katherine Dieckmann: It was a huge allure for both of them. People don’t realize that Carrie didn’t take a movie between Gone Girl and this film, and she told me that the reason was she hated the way women were being written. She had her TV and her theater work, so she didn’t need to take a movie unless she liked the role. Both Holly and Carrie are pretty fierce feminist, and their beliefs strongly aligned with my views and my producer Rachel Cohen. And we four spent a lot of time discussing feminist issues and women in Hollywood, and their frustrations with the lack of well written roles for women.

Lesley Coffin: One of the biggest debates we’re hearing now is the idea that strong women and complicated women are mutually exclusive. Hollywood seems to think that when women say they want to see more female protagonist they exclusively want them to honorable or good role models. I would call Holly’s character strong and a survivor, but she’s very complicated and flawed.

Katherine Dieckmann: Darcy is extremely flawed, and Holly dove into that aspect of her character. She can be willful and childish at times, almost pigheaded and unable to see other’s pain. But at other times we see her capacity to be incredibly kind and loving, and very funny. I wrote the part in a very prismatic way, but Holly brought even more dimensions to the role. She’d play things more comically than I initially thought, but I loved those choices.

Lesley Coffin: I spoke with her a few weeks ago about The Big Sick, and seeing her in person you really notice how important her stature and physicality is to how she plays roles. She’s so short and petite that she almost seems to be jumping up and on people to get their attention in the film, and it helps that you cast her opposite an actor like Kim Coates who’s a pretty big guy. Were those aspects of the character she added or did you write them into the screenplay?

Katherine Dieckmann: She’s just an actor who’s very in her own body and uses it to get into character. She runs on a treadmill every day, she’ll jump up and down before filming a scene, she’s just very attuned to her body and how to channel energy through a character. And that’s also why I love watching her play scenes when she has to be really still, because you know she has all that energy running through her body and she’s trying to contain it. But Carrie has a wonderful sense of her own body too, it’s just a very different approach, and I loved seeing them side by side?

Lesley Coffin: Because of the heaviness of the subject matter, were you thinking of how and when to add humor to script?

Katherine Dieckmann: I never felt like I was adding humor, it’s just the way I write and the relationships I have with women in my life, specifically my female southern friends. I have a lot of friends from the South and I know how they talk. And even when they’re discussing something they’re incredibly upset over, there’s usually a bit of humor. And I’ve written some of their terms and sayings down. I’d be on the phone and one of my girlfriends said “he’s sitting right on top of my last available nerve” and I’d just scribble it down. So I just included that language in the script. And I also know that when they get together, it will turn out like that scene with Glenn Headly, three very loud, funny women cackling and throwing down brilliant lines. It wasn’t about adding humor, it was about being true to how they talk in real life, especially how they talk when alone with other women.

Lesley Coffin: When you first started working on the script did you know it would be set in the south?

Katherine Dieckmann: I did, because I wanted to explore that kind of female friendship and language, and I don’t think that particular female friendship exists among northern women. My kids always tease me because they can always tell when I’m on the phone with my southern girlfriends. I start adopting their language and speaking in a kind of twang. But there’s just a different language. In the south, women were raised with a coated form of public behavior. Holly really liked this scene she tells one of her son’s friends “will you remember me to her” about his mother. That’s what a southern woman would say, but you then realize when you meet that woman that she’s horrible and looked down on Darcy. In public there’s is a graciousness, but in private there is a kind of emotional abandon. And that felt so right for the suicide story, comparing how Darcy has to function in the public space but has to deal with this private pain.

Lesley Coffin: Other films might show flashbacks of her son when Darcy is remembering him. Did you ever consider including them?

Katherine Dieckmann: People often suggested having them, but I thought that would be a terrible idea because it would become too sentimental. But the challenge I faced by choosing not to include flashbacks was how to make Walker feel like a character that had been alive. There are pictures and artifacts in the closet, and the things other characters said about him. I just had to hope that by the time we were at the end there was a sense of the person she was mourning. And avoid having dialogue that felt too expositional. But I never wanted flashbacks because the story isn’t about remembering him, but figuring out how Darcy can remember him. How she can process what happened to him, come to terms with it, and still be able to remember her son.

Lesley Coffin: The film takes place seven years after his death, how did you select that passage of time?

Katherine Dieckmann: I think people think people get over things, but you don’t. Seven years later, people think Darcy should be moving on, but she can’t. I know someone who lost her son 25 years ago, and she’ll never be over it. If it were more recent people would be a little more accepting of that, but seven years later people are starting to move on with their lives and want the same for her. This is a journey about accepting that she won’t get over this kind of grief, she just has to find a way to live with it.

Lesley Coffin: What are the biggest challenges of doing a road movie in 20 days?

Katherine Dieckmann: Figuring out the economy of how to shoot a moving car and finding locations. I picked Jackson because there are a number of locations which feel like different parts of the south that are just half an hour away from each other. I loved filming in Jackson, Mississippi and the people were great. But you have to select the scenes you’ll shoot on a process trailer, which are expensive and time consuming, but allow you to film big chunks of dialogue. We shot other scenes with my cameraman on the floor of the truck and through windows. So we really had to map out in advance how we would shoot those driving scenes, the process and angles for each one.

Lesley Coffin: Was it nerve-wracking for Holly to have to do those big emotional scenes while driving?

Katherine Dieckmann: Two of the best things about Holly for an indie director like myself are, she can nail a scene in like two takes, and she can drive and act at the same time. Holly loves to drive, and especially loved driving that big truck. She loved backing that thing up.

Lesley Coffin: Glenn Headly has one of the smaller roles in the film, but she has such a big, warm presence on screen. What’s it been like watching her performance since her death earlier this year?

Katherine Dieckmann: She’s great in the film, and I love her scenes. But I loved her work before she died of course, but it just makes me sad that’ll I won’t be seeing her again. She was incredibly dedicated to her son, and thinking about him going on without her makes me very said. Holly, Carrie and I all felt that way because we saw how dedicated she was to him and how often she talked about him. That’s the saddest part, sadder than the fact that the public won’t get to see her act again. But I feel so incredibly lucky that I had this opportunity to work with her. She was a force, she brought very interesting things to the table. Her wig being one of those things. She didn’t tell me she wanted to wear a wig, she just showed up and said “I just threw this in my bag, what do you think?” and I thought it was great. We talked on the phone a lot before she arrived in Jackson, and she asked a lot of questions about her backstory and her relationship with Holly.

Lesley Coffin: When you transition from a writer whose lived with the story for years to a director with a budget and time frame and actors bringing their own interpretations, is there an period of adjustment?

Katherine Dieckmann: I am so willing to throw the writer in me out the window when I direct. I was trained in journalism and I’m use to writing to deadline and length, so I am one writer who is not precious. More often an editor will argue with me to keep something I think we don’t need. I’ll cling to some things stubbornly, but I’m pretty good at seeing the big picture.


Lesley Coffin: Do you consider run times?

Katherine Dieckmann: I cut seven minutes out of the movie after Toronto. I was really impatient during that screening and cut it again to keep the film right at 90 minutes. There is a version that could have been 110 minutes, but I wanted to cut a lot out. Madeline, our editor, was wonderful in her ruthlessness. She agreed that this had to stay focused on Holly’s emotional journey. There is a beautiful scene with Holly and her ex-husband that went on really long, and features brilliant work from Holly. But it just didn’t work within this movie, and it just felt like too much. We could never get it to work within the film, and I probably knew that when I wrote it because there was a time when I dropped that at the end of the film and that didn’t work either. I love the writing, I love Holly’s work in it, but I just couldn’t make it work within this film. So it was painful but I had to let it go. And cutting stuff like that gives the film an energy and drive that I just love.

Lesley Coffin: We always hear that advice that artists have to be willing to let those things go, but does that kind of self-awareness as a filmmaker have to come from experience?

Katherine Dieckmann: Oh, definitely. We all hang onto things for too long, but you have to learn that everything is to serve the whole. And if something’s bringing that whole down, it’s got to go. And you need to be open to the fact that you will write more than you film, and film more than you keep, but you need to allow the film to tell you what it is. This is a film that was probably written to be a little slower, but once I’d filmed it and saw what we had, the film wanted to be a little faster paced. The thing you have to remember is the more you extract from a film the more room you leave for the audience to be surprised.

© Lesley Coffin (7/31/17) FF2 Media

Top Photos: Holly Hunter as Darcy Baylor

Middle Photo: Holly Hunter as Darcy Baylor and Carrie Coon as Byrd Ritt

Bottom Photo: Holly Hunter as Darcy Baylor and Kim Coates as Clayton Watson

Credit: Brainstorm Media

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