Director Lance Edmands Discusses His Feature Debut, the Subtly Powerful ‘Bluebird’

In Raymond Carver’s short story So Much Water So Close to Home, the narrator, Claire, laments about keeping on living after something traumatic has happened. "The people around you continue to talk and act as if you were the same person as yesterday, or last night, or five minutes before, but you are really undergoing a crisis, your heart feels damaged," she says. I found echoes of that sentiment in Lance Edmands’ debut feature, Bluebird, as the story exists in a world where a small town must deal with the aftermath of a tragedy that shakes the foundations of their lives. Rich in tone and texture, Bluebird is an atmospheric and deeply emotional film that pulls us into the psyche of its characters. There’s a quiet sense of distress that pervades, highlighting the decay of a logging town in Maine, which feels anachronistic in its stillness yet deals with issues relevant to working class American families everywhere.

Starring John Slattery, Amy Morton, Louisa Krause, Emily Meade, and Margo Martindale, Bluebird follows an ensemble of characters who are isolated both geographically and emotionally. Lesley (Morton), an elementary school bus driver, neglects to notice that a young boy has been left on the bus overnight after his young mother forgets to pick him up. Left in the freezing cold hours, the boy falls into a coma. Lesley and her family—made up of Slattery and Meade—must deal with her guilt and the consequent shift in their family structure. Marla (Krouse), the young boy’s mother, is forced to own up to her own feelings of regret and sorrow. But, as with all the characters in the film, she proves unable to cope with the intensely painful new hand she’s dealt. Reminiscent of Carver himself, Edmands crafts a brilliant feature debut about the struggle to deal with the profound and unexpected circumstances that can confront ordinary lives. 

Last Saturday, I sat down with Edmands to discuss his affinity for American minimalism, drawing inspiration from the landscape, and experiencing a film as you experience life.

Unfortunately I’ve only seen the film on my laptop thus far, which is really a shame because it’s absolutely beautiful and should be seen on a big screen.
It’s a movie that plays well in a theater. I tried to make something that was immersive. My favorite movies are more experiential than they are just storytelling.

But even watching it in the darkness of my bedroom, it felt very dreamlike and had such an atmosphere. When you were writing it, did you start with that element?
In a lot of ways, yeah. I find myself occasionally working backwards, where I start with an emotional tone, a feeling, a place, or a location as a writer and then build the story into that. So a lot of the time that’s where my interests lie. The way these characters interact and the story is very much a part of the emotional tapestry that folds into this world. That was a goal from the beginning.
 
This type of story and the characters reminded me of a lot of the short stories that I love reading. Raymond Carver comes to mind—stories of ordinary people dealing with circumstances and emotions beyond their grasp. Were there certain works of literature or films that inspired you?
Actually I was inspired by Raymond Carver quite a bit because I do love his writing, and Sam Shepard as well. 
 
I can definitely see the Shepard influence in the family dynamics.
I think there’s a tradition of this American minimalism that’s about people grappling with emotions they don’t fully understand, which was inspiring to me. But I’m also a big cinephile and I watch a lot of movies, so I was drawing from a lot of different sources and a lot of different styles that are exciting to me. In terms of a tapestry, Robert Altman was really inspiring to me, some of his early films and later films, in terms of the way they draw a world together. Also his visual sensitivity. But I also love sensitive American working class films like Paris, Texas or Tender Mercies.
 
There’s a sense of emotional isolation that penetrates the film and affects the characters, which was echoed in the sprawling rural landscape.
It was written for this specific place and I was very much inspired by the landscape there and the way of life. It’s a way of life that’s disintegrating and disappearing and it was a nice extra layer to explore people holding onto something that was disappearing from under them. It was always this place that I wanted to shoot, and the characters and story emerged from the landscape and personify some element of the place.
 
You grew up in Maine?
Not in the specific town we shot in, a bit south of there in a more coastal area. But I’ve definitely been inspired by Maine and the mythologies of Maine, the woods, and the Maine legend, in a way.
 
For me, growing up in a very suburban place and moving to the city, when I visit home now I see the physical world totally differently. There’s a beauty there that I never noticed and I appreciate it much more. Did you find that when you left Maine and then came back you had a heightened affinity for the place you grew up?
Definitely. I couldn’t wait to get out of Maine when I was there, and then I went to NYU for film school—that was my goal from the first time I ever heard there was a film school in New York City, and I was just dying to get out. But then when I moved to New York, I found myself returning to Maine in my head time and time again, or when I was writing. Creatively, I was realizing it was actually really inspiring to me. I love New York City and this is my home, but I’m less inspired by the buildings and the hustle and bustle than I am by childhood memories of open fields and trees and the ocean. I kept returning to those textural things as an inspiration. I ended up shooting all my shorts in college there and my thesis short. I would keep going back and it made a lot of sense to me because it felt like there was a deep well of inspiration that came from there.
 
The film exists in a very specific world because the town it’s set in feels so antiquated. It’s rare to see a modern film now without the use of computers or cell phones, etc. It was almost as if this place has been buried under snow, stuck in time.
That was definitely something I wanted to portray. The town very much feels that way and I really wanted that to come across. The heyday of the town or the boom years of this mill town and the last time it was very successful was in the late ’70s, early ’80s. So there’s this strange feeling of everything being frozen in that time because that was the last time that people went out and bought new appliances, the last time people were really making money. The locations really had that feeling—a lot of wood paneling and older vehicles—so we tried to highlight that in the production design and the design of the film—in the family’s house and things like that, and give it that frozen-in-time feeling that you really notice there. I always had the notion that I wanted the film to feel contemporary, like it was happening now, but I wanted the time period to be a little bit confusing, because there’s so much vintage stuff in it and the music is a part of that as well. I wanted it to be like a call back to a more innocent, prosperous era. 
 
In terms of casting, did you have any of the actors in mind for the roles? I know that you knew Louisa beforehand and she is just incredible. I recently saw her in The Flick and totally fell in love.
Yeah, I really enjoyed that play quite a bit. I met Louisa at Sundance. She was there with a different project, but we stayed in touch and I always loved everything she was in. However, I didn’t write with any specific people in mind. The casting process was really challenging because we had to put together all of these different people and have them fit authentically into this world and have a good balance between all of them. We wanted to make sure that there wasn’t one character or one actor that felt as if they were taking the film over. Our casting director is really brilliant and knows about a lot of different types of people and knows how to challenge expectations so we ended up assembling a lot of interesting actors with different types of background, coming from different places. I also wanted it to be a little unexpected. I wanted the people in the film to be people you recognize and love and you know as character actors but they’re not necessarily names you can place. I feel like when you do that, you can get a little more authenticity out of it because it doesn’t feel like someone’s been airlifted in from Hollywood and they’re there to do a gritty thing. I wanted it to feel lived in and authentic.
 
And their performances were so subtly brilliant. I kept noticing throughout the film that so much of the best acting took place in the absence of dialogue, in the quiet moments when they were just looking in the mirror or walking down a hallway. They all have such amazing physicality. How was working with John Slattery?
It was great. I think he was really excited to play a guy who didn’t wear a suit. And he’s from New England, so he gets it—he gets the rhythm, he gets the lifestyle, he’s spent time in Maine growing up. So I was excited to work with him because I felt like he really knew where I was coming from and I think that he’s also really talented. I was interested in actors who, like you said, have a physicality and subtlety and can convey something through action as opposed to dialogue. And so it’s about expressions and how you’re moving your body—especially his character whose a logger in northern Maine, it’s very much—
 
Like a character that doesn’t exist anymore.
Yeah, it’s like an old myth in a way. I think there’s something interesting about this mythic lumberjack that’s been reduced to just basically being a construction worker and sitting in the truck all day and having his job get lower and lower pay until it’s almost disappearing. It’s an interesting thing to me to have this mythic, almost macho thing be reduced. So I always saw his character like a man’s man but almost like a little boy in terms of his emotional tools and the way he sees the world. On one hand he’s hyper in control and hyper-physical and hyper-masculine and on the other hand he’s like a little kid who is petulant and is a little aloof and doesn’t totally get it.
 
What was interesting about John’s character and his family is that they seem to have so much love for one another and get they don’t have a relationship. — will be lying in her mother’s lap and she’ll be playing with her hair and you can tell there’s love there but you never really see them interact.
As a family,  sometimes you can fall into a routine where there’s love there but it’s not being expressed, or its not in the right place. I think that in this family, there is love there, so hopefully in the end we have hope for them and we want them to stay together and come to understand each other better. In a relationship you always have this base love at the bottom, but it’s the things on the surface that clash. And as long as you have that base love and can learn to understand each other better, you can have a stronger relationship. But sometimes you have that love and the other things you can’t reconcile and it stills falls apart. I wanted to convey that togetherness and that true caring, but that it’s not functioning properly.
 
You make the choice throughout the film to withhold certain information or also details to unravel very slowly. Was that a conscious storytelling effort?
Yeah, as a storytelling style, I’m into holding things back and leaving things implied. When I watch a movie, I want to experience it like how I experience life, which is that people are always a little bit unknowable and you learn things over time, and then that’s how you get to really know, understand, and love someone. First they’re just a face and story and then you learn more about who they are and what makes them work. I think slowly drawing that stuff out, implying things, alluding to things outside the frame, allows you to fill in the blanks, and that’s exciting to me because that’s how you experience life. So yeah, there was a lot of conscious effort into really building a full world for everyone—but only showing the audience bits and pieces of that world because that’s either all they need to know or makes them feel like they bleed between the edges of the frame.
 
I really enjoyed watching Emily’s character. She seemed so lonely, even in the company of other people, just very lost and searching for something—that snow globes scene in particular. Can you tell me a little bit about her character and about the scene where she lets all of the snow globes play at once?
I think that, to me, that was a character thing in the sense that there’s a lot of inner turmoil going on in terms of what’s happened with her mother and how she’s feeling about it and it’s the day after and she’s there and she’s trying to make sense of everything and to me it was just an interesting bit of behavior that kind of shows how something normal, when put into a different context, can become kind of surreal. It’s a mirror for her internal emotional state which is all of these different things happening at once to the point where they kind of create chaos in a way. Alone one of those snow globes is cute and pretty and plays a cute little song but as a group because a cacophonous drone of like really disorienting tones and I thought emotionally, what’s in her head right now is very much like what’s happening with the snow globes. So for me, it was about drawing that parallel in a physical way. 
 
And you’ve known your cinematographer for a long time now, I imagine having that sort of simpatico with someone makes creating the tone and atmosphere of the film a much smoother process.
I’ve known Jody for about 13 years. We became very quick friends at NYU, we lived in the same dorm our freshman year and made probably over 200 films together if you count all our shorts, music videos, little projects, and commercials. So there’s very much a deep understanding of what we both respond to. Visually, there’s a kind of short hand. We didn’t even really have to talk too much before the film started because we grew up watching movies together and learning about movies together so we knew what excited us. We could just do it and skip all the discussions and mood boards. We’re both really interested in atmosphere and storytelling with a camera in a way that’s about wide frames and geography and trying to get the space in there and using the space to tell the story. We wanted to do something a little unexpected so that it kept you engaged as a viewer because we weren’t just spoon feeding you information, you had to sort of crawl into the picture.
 
You were in a very isolated environment while shooting, did that have an affect on the process?
It was tough. We were really had to become part of the community. Our film crew really seemed to double the population of the town, so everyone was very aware we were there. They were incredibly helpful and lovely people who were on board and we shot in all the real locations in the town and we were given access to everything. But it was tough, that town is two hours from the closest city with a movie theater, the next town is 45 minutes on the highway. It’s really in the middle of nowhere and that’s pretty tough on a crew when there’s really nothing to do. So for the actors, I think they drew a lot of inspiration from it because there was no even thinking about method—method was just being there and just dealing with the cold and dealing with the one restaurant where the food isn’t’ great and dealing with the snow mobiles and logging trucks flying by the hotel all night and really going to the one bar in town. It didn’t leave a lot of room to escape the environment, but the environment was such a big part of the film that I think it actually ended up helping all of the actors and the tone of the project.

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