Lee Toland Krieger has garnered a lot of attention from his indie successes, like Celeste and Jesse Forever, but with The Age of Adaline, he is ostensibly going in a more mainstream direction. However, it’s his intention to take that intimate, realistic form of filmmaking from his earlier works and integrate it into a film that is much larger in scope. Cinedelphia was able to sit down for a face-to-face interview with the thirty-two-year-old director, who talked about his longtime relationship with the film, his inspirations, and gave some retrospective advice. Cinedelphia: What drew you to The Age of Adaline script?
Lee Toland Krieger: It was a thing I read years ago—five or six years ago now—and I was smitten with this idea of the beauty in growing old. That here’s a woman that you meet around the turn of the century, has this accident, renders her ageless, and immediately you’re thinking, “Oh, she gets to be 29 forever. This is kind of a wish fulfillment fantasy.” When in fact, it’s much more in touch with the curse, as it were, of someone who doesn’t grow old. Who’s surrounded by people who grow old and pass on, and she doesn’t, and how difficult that would be, and how she retreats inward and becomes a recluse in the process. And then of course, finally decides to open up when she meets Ellis. But that idea of really identifying the beauty in growing old is what drew me.
C: And how did you come across the script?
LTK: It was given to me by a guy named Dan Cohen, who at the time was working at Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, one of the producers of the film. He’s a very good friend of mine now, and he no longer works at Sidney Kimmel, but he gave me this script, I think back in 2008. I had just shot my first movie—I hadn’t even finished it yet—and he said, “You should just read this. Not because they’re going to hire you to direct it, because they certainly won’t, but you’ll just love this script. It’s just a beautiful script.” And I read it, and of course fell in love with it. And then kept an eye on it for the next five or six years, as they were kicking tires on it.
C: Did you draw on any previous works for stylistic inspiration?
LTK: It’s sort of a weird one, but I really, really worship Jonathan Glazer’s movie Birth, which I think is a really underappreciated gem of a movie. Harris Savides—the late, great Harris Savides—shot that film, and I really loved the kind of rich, sort of deep chocolately tones of that film. But more importantly, what those tones did in terms of creating this kind of brooding undercurrent throughout the movie, and I wanted to give at least the first act or so of Adaline that kind of tone, because I wanted her life to feel a bit cold and lonely and isolated—and also get the feeling that she was always looking over her shoulder, because of her life sort of on the run from the government, as it were. And then as she meets Ellis, her life opens up, warms up a little bit. Big is another one, just because I love the sort of Big fantasy hook in one moment, but the rest of the movie played totally straight. There are others, but I won’t bore you. I could keep you all day. But those two are big ones.
C: What is like directing a more realistic narrative like Celeste and Jesse Forever, and then moving on to something much more fantasy based and magical like Adaline?
LTK: You know, as odd as it may sound, I don’t really look at Adaline as a fantasy. I look at the hook of the movie as a sort of magical realism moment, and treating that with some magical realism, which for me is exciting, because you get to do some more stylish work. In our case, some more with the phantom, where we’re really over cranking, we’re filming at 600 frames per second. We’re seeing her emerge from the water, as you see in the trailer—that everything’s happening in sort of hyper slow-mo. And that’s fun for me, because I do love camera, and I do love style, and so for me I think the main difference was being able to give it a little bit more flare. Flare is probably the wrong word, but giving it more of a stylish fingerprint than I was able to on Celeste and Jesse because of just the tone and genre allows for that. But a lot of the same rules apply. I really wanted the performances to feel always very grounded and moving and subtle and real and I think both Celeste and Jesse and Adaline hopefully have that in common.
C: How do you approach directing when you’ve written the screenplay like for The Vicious Kind versus not, as in the case of Adaline?
LTK: You know, I keep saying I’m just going to go back to writing my own material, and maybe I will, I hope I do one day. But, what’s exciting about doing somebody else’s material is it really sort of opens your world to a new perspective, something that you would have never come up with on your own. I don’t think I would have ever been able to write Adaline’s story on my own. One of the differences, and maybe the more challenging aspects for me is when you’ve written it, you’ve spent years writing it and working on it theoretically, and it’s come from within you, so you know every detail of that story so intimately. And then you know kind of what’s below the surface of that detail, way way way down. So when you’re on set, if an actor has a question or is resistant to doing something, I feel like you have—immediately without having done any additional work—you have sort of a wealth of “here’s why this moment is here, and here’s why I want to do it this way.” Whereas, when you’re directing someone else’s work, it requires you to really dig into that script and know every beat of that—learn every beat of that story intimately, because you have to love it more than anyone else, and I think you have to know it better than everyone else. So it requires that sort of additional time and energy to not just know the script really well, but really know every tiny detail better than everyone else on set. I really think that’s your responsibility as a filmmaker.
C: How is it different directing a short film versus a feature length? Do you enjoy making shorts?
LTK: You know, I don’t really, to be honest with you. I’ve not done that many shorts. I did one a couple years ago called Modern / Love with Robert Schwartzman and Naomi Scott, which was a lot of fun. The process to me is always the same, and I tell other filmmakers this that I know that if you’re making a film for one hundred thousand dollars or one hundred million dollars, all the principles are the same. I mean, there are different challenges with both, of course. On the hundred million dollar version you probably have more political obstacles. On the hundred thousand dollar you have more sort of logistical obstacles. But the reality is the principle of filmmaking and how you shoot and cut a scene together. They all are consistent. So, with shorts it’s really, for me, it’s the same. I mean, I think arguably I feel a little bit less pressure on a short, because nowadays when you make a feature, it’s two plus years of your time—that’s always been the case. But then you’re only as good as your last movie and it’s sort of a—and maybe I’m overthinking it—but there’s a legacy that’s involved: “Well I’m always going to be tied to this film, so it better be good.” And so there’s, for me maybe, a pressure, and hopefully it doesn’t make me play it safe as often as I would. But there’s certainly those thoughts about, “Should I shoot the safer version” certainly creep into your head more often.
C: How was it to work with cinematographer David Lanzenberg again?
LTK: Amazing. I mean, listen, I’ve worked with David exclusively now for like five or six years. I’ve not shot anything since like 2009 or 2008 without him. So we have such a shorthand now—I know him so well, I think he knows me so well—to think about doing the movie, or anything for that matter, without him is sort of impossible. We get along so well. We like the same things, we, I think, are always thinking the same sort of thoughts, and so it’s a joy. And I just think he’s incredibly talented and always pushing me. And his eye is so—he’s got such a natural eye for composition and light, that he’s always pushing me to be better.
C: Knowing what you know now, if you could give yourself as a young filmmaker some advice, what would you say?
LTK: Oh god. You know, I think what I would say, if I was talking to, say—I’m thirty two now—if I was talking to the twenty-two-year-old version, I would say, “Trust your gut, always.” And it’s harder to do than you realize. I always thought, “Oh, that’s easy advice to give, and easy advice to take,” but along the way there are going to be so many people—not just when you’re making movies, in between movies too—they’re going to try to, whether they realize it or not, talk you out of going with you gut. And it’s very easy to be—unless you really commit yourself to that, to doing what’s in your gut, in your bones—there’s going to be…it’s going to be easy to be talked out of it. Because you’re talking to people who are older, who are more experienced, more seasoned. “Well, they know what they’re talking about, right?” So, I would tell myself to always trust my instincts, because without them, what are we exactly as artists? That’s really what we’re doing, is just putting our taste out there, and what’s in our bones out there. So I would tell my twenty-two-year-old version to stick to his guns even more so than maybe I did.