‘State Like Sleep’ Director Talks Grief, Filming in Brussels and the Appeal of Michael Shannon

Cinema has a long history of depicting the photography profession as a seductive mix of invasive voyeurism and willful detachment. They are keepers of images of the world, providing their own point of view. From Rear Window to Blow-up, the profession has been used as a a strong backdrop for cinematic storytellers (often thrillers). After producing multiple shorts, documentaries and experimental films, Meredith Danluck is the latest director to explore these ideas with her feature-narrative debut State Like Sleep (which premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival) starring Katherine Waterston as a photographer trying to find answers to her husband (Michiel Huisman)’s recent death; co-starring Michael Shannon and Luke Evans.

Lesley Coffin: It’s interesting to me that you really embraced the idea of silence and using it to convey the character’s state of mind. Did you have that concept from the start?

Meredith Danluck: I did. The title of the film State Like Sleep conveys a woman who, after suffering this shocking loss, has built up walls and is sleepwalking through life, until things start to tug at her and drag her into waking life. So, because she’s so shut down at the beginning of the movie, and because you have to see her essentially woken back up to life, the first half of the movie required the main character to be very silent.

Lesley Coffin: But it’s interesting that you weave flashbacks into the film throughout, and even in the early part of the flashbacks she’s somewhat shut off, just in a different way. I assume you pre-planned the scenes which would come before and after each flashback so audiences would make comparisons.

Meredith Danluck: It was something Katherine Waterson noticed and talked about with me a lot. What she noted, her character had to react very differently and she really showed that with her body language on set. She wanted the way her character moved to feel very different. She was always almost cat-like but the speed she moved was very different. She moves quickly and constantly doing things in the before, and hiding and trying to remain invisible in the present.

Lesley Coffin: I don’t know if you feel this way, but I’ve certainly experienced the temptation to use your job as an observer to fade into the shadows a little in public and watch rather than interact. It’s not only true of photographers but also writers, actors, and filmmakers. Have you ever experienced that? Or was that even something you spoke about with Katherine?

Meredith Danluck: Katherine was a photographer before she became an actress so that was definitely one of the things we talked about right away. We talked about the profession of photography a lot and were discussing the idea of photographer of voyeur a lot. But we were also talking about it as a mediating devise which can allow you to step away from the experience you’re capturing. And photographers talk all the time about lowering the stakes, trying to lessen the emotional impact you’re having while trying to capture this moment or disengaging from the person you’re taking a picture of. It’s a way to participate in life without putting yourself emotionally on the line every time.

Lesley Coffin: And photography is such a common profession to give characters in film. Because you gave her that trait, are you thinking about ways to incorporate or comment on the profession visually?

Meredith Danluck: We introduce her literally doing her work, so it’s clearly a major part of her character. My favorite iteration of her as photographer is in her private moment in the hotel, where it’s really abstract and close-up, when she’s photographing smoke against a rainy window. We filmed that handheld and tried to keep things very loose, to convey the beauty of the abstraction she’s capturing. That was my favorite scene because it shows the emotional connection she has to photography, beyond her professional life. She’s creating a world she can escape into with her art.

Lesley Coffin: Katherine’s become a big name in a relatively short period of time. How did you get her on board?

Meredith Danluck: Katherine was the very first actor to read the script. We have a mutual friend in common and he was the first person to read the script, because he’s a writer also and I was very nervous about showing it to people. And right after he finished he told me “You have to meet my friend Katherine” and I asked “Are you saying that because the character’s name is Katherine?” And he said “No, she’s going to be a movie star.” So, I gave the script to her and she loved it. Mind you, this was when the script didn’t have an ending, so it was very different from the film we ultimately made. And it was before Inherent Vice, so she wasn’t a name yet. And as I worked on the screenplay and found producers, I suggested we cast her. And they didn’t know her name yet and said they needed a movie star. And so we lined up another cast and then things fell through. And by that time Inherent Vice has come out, Fantastic Beasts has come out. And I go back to the money people and say “Remember my friend Katherine?” And this time they were like, “You know her?”

Lesley Coffin: Did you actually go through a period of time when an entirely different actress was attached?

Meredith Danluck: At one point, we were going to make it with a different production company and Rebecca Hall was on board. And she’s also an incredible actress but they are also very different “types”.

Lesley Coffin: And with a film like this, where she’s in almost every single scene, having a different lead would require you to make some adjustments I assume.

Meredith Danluck: The character in the script was set by the time Rebecca left and Katherine came back on board. But things can change drastically once an actress starts working and you’re filming on location. Things come together in ways you would never be able to expect, because 50 percent of a character is probably in the writing, and 50 percent of a character is determined by what an actress brings to her role. I never saw how Rebecca would have played the role of Katherine, but part of me even feels Katherine Waterston was destined to play this role.

Lesley Coffin: Did you film on location?

Meredith Danluck: We filmed in Brussels and Toronto. Shooting Toronto for Brussels was pretty hard, but we had some incredible location scouts and our crew was great. But part of the job as a director is about making things work and acknowledging when they aren’t working. And there were a couple of scenes where I said “We have to shoot this in Brussels, it just won’t work any other way.” And thankfully, my producers trusted me and found a way to make that happen.

Lesley Coffin: What was it about the city of Brussels that was important for this story?

Meredith Danluck: It’s a big, beautiful city with a lot a transient people. There’s this kind of umbrella of loneliness there, because there are a lot of people there working with the EU. And if you go there, you’ll see a lot of people at really nice hotels eating alone. But I think the city itself feels like it has a lot of secrets. It’s very clean but there is an underbelly of something going on behind closed doors.

Lesley Coffin: What interested did you find yourself pulling from?

Meredith Danluck: I thought a lot about Polanski’s Frantic, I put some direct references in from that movie. In terms of colors, I really love In the Mood for Love. I also watched a lot of Billy Wilder movies because of the tone he could balance in those films, film which had great banter but were also suspenseful. The scene in Double Indemnity when Fred McMurray and Barbara Stanwyck were talking about speed limits is so exciting and there’s so much heat between them. And I wanted to bring some of that to the scene when Katherine and Michael Shannon were having dinner at the hotel. The volley between them that is somehow still naturalistic but smart and witty.

Lesley Coffin: And it was nice to see Michael Shannon play a character who wasn’t intense and intimidating.

Meredith Danluck: I remember in a couple of our test screenings, something like nine out of 10 women said they didn’t realize Michael Shannon was so handsome or they didn’t realize he could be so charming.

Lesley Coffin: Because people go into a film expecting one thing from Michael Shannon and he proves not to be like that here and the film has an undercurrent of suspense and thriller, is that type of casting against type an asset you were looking to exploit?

Meredith Danluck: I liked how fascinated she was with him that she doesn’t understand what his appeal was. That’s what makes Michael the perfect person to play the role. There’s something really appealing about him, but it’s hard to pinpoint what that exactly is. And I think he ultimately plays someone really smart and funny and charming, someone who’s ultimately vulnerable with her which was so beautiful.

Lesley Coffin: What did you want to emphasize by focusing on the relationship she has with her mother in the present and her husband’s relationship with his mother in the past?

Meredith Danluck: The aspect of Katherine having to go to Brussels to take care of her mother was something I pulled from my own life. I had to take care of my mom in Brussels and that’s when I started writing this story. Regarding her husband, I find a lot of famous people, men especially, have mothers who are managing their lives, their careers, their finances. And that allows them to be who they need to be in public, but that ultimately cripples other aspects of their lives because they don’t have to take responsibility for the choices they make. So I found that to be really interesting and also created this aspect of shared guilt. She’s blaming everyone except herself. She was born out of a woman who wants the best for her child but essentially puppeteers a destructive situation.

Lesley Coffin: You mention this being inspired at least in part by your experience taking care of your mother. Did you pull from other aspects of your life in writing the story?

Meredith Danluck: I did experience a death similar to the one in the film. And what was interesting was, because of feelings of personal guilt and feeling responsible, I created a narrative which essentially removed me from the story. And it wasn’t until I started writing that I realized that I was building that narrative to cope with that grief.

Lesley Coffin: What were some of the big changes you made from that early screenplay to the one you ultimately filmed?

Meredith Danluck: In the early screenplay, I was writing around this idea that Stephen took his own life. I thought I was alluding to it and that everyone understood, but when I went to the Sundance Lab, people were like “That’s what you meant?” And people told me, if that’s important the story you have to write it. But I also came to realize that the kernel of what you’re writing about will only be revealed through the process of writing.

Lesley Coffin: I’ve spoken with a couple of people who came out of the Sundance Lab and it seems like an organization which can really help writers not only with the technical aspects but actually formulate ideas or pinpoint the crux of their story. What were your experiences there?

Meredith Danluck: There are all these amazing writers, mentors and peers. And they can really help magnify and make clear the idea you might still be struggling to find in your own story. I had a screenplay about the mystery of the last days of this man’s life. But I had been writing all this other stuff around the subject I really wanted to examine.

(C) Lesley Coffin (5/8/18) FF2 Media

Featured photo: State Like Sleep courtesy of Sight Unseen PicturesCode Red ProductionsScythia Films

Photos: Katherine Waterston; Michael Shannon; Jake Burghart and Meredith Danluck at an event for State Like Sleep (2018) courtesy of Andrew Toth – © 2018 Getty Images

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