Fantasia 2020 Interview: Natasha Kermani and Brea Grant Get LUCKY
Orginally intended to premiere at SXSW and a slew of other festivals, Lucky plays for Canadian audiences via virtual Fantasia 2020. Natasha Kermani (Imitation Girl) directs writer and star Brea Grant (Dexter, Eastsiders; Grant is also the writer/director of 12 Hour Shift, also playing this year's Fantasia) in a story about a self-help author who can't seem to help herself.
Grant plays May, who must not only deal with an absentee husband, but also a nightly male assailant. Think a murderous Groundhog Day, filled with the looming threat of men who serve to traumatize women into a heightened sense of vigilance. Any man anywhere can appear instantly to attack, maim, rape, or kill.
For most men --- who've not had the experience of being stalked, catcalled, oppressed, controlled, or abused or anything else that's largely directed at women --- this is what it feels like to live in a woman's skin. If you're a mask wearer (I hope you are in this pandemic) and trying to avoid people but feel that frightening shot of adrenaline when unmasked people get too close to you in public --- this comes close to the feeling of hyper-vigilance that most women feel simply existing.
Lucky captures this state of being perfectly.
ScreenAnarchy spoke to both Kermani and Grant on how they created the world of Lucky, as well as on the themes mentioned above.
ScreenAnarchy: Congrats on getting Lucky made! Tell us about the genesis of the project: for Brea, was the story influenced by any events in your life, or by simply being a woman? For Natasha: how did you come aboard and what about the script spoke to you personally?
Natasha Kermani: I actually emailed Brea directly after having read the script telling her how much I had connected with the material, and that I wanted to be a part of it! For me, it was the combination of theme and what I call “doability” --- ie., it would be possible on a very limited budget and schedule, while also providing an opportunity to tell an important story in an interesting and unusual way. I could see the scenes coming to life off the page, and I really saw Brea as the main character while reading. I think I had decided I wanted to do it about halfway through, and by the time I put it down I was already thinking about how we could pull it off --- that’s when you know a script’s got its hooks in you! I love how Brea took genre tropes and re-centered them in this really satirical, absurdist way, with this anti-heroine at the front of the story. It felt distinctly different from projects I’d done in the past, and a worthy challenge.
Brea Grant: Yeah. It was influenced by some personal events, but it’s rare that I tell a woman the plot of the movie and they don’t respond with a similar anecdote. I think every woman can think of a moment in which she felt unsafe in her home or workplace or just walking down the street at night. There’s not a woman out there who hasn’t felt like she was being followed at some point. So while I was working through a past experience during the creation of this, the more I spoke about it, the more I realized how universal the feeling of being unsafe is for women and how the response is generally a shoulder shrug and “that’s just how it goes.” Then I took that idea and amplified it to the point of absurdity. Not only is May being stalked by the same killer every night, no one thinks it’s odd or out of the ordinary. Because unfortunately, it’s really not.
How did the script evolve between you collaboratively, once the project was greenlit?
NK: We did the usual passes of condensing scenes and sequences to make the script more production friendly, but more or less the script stayed intact. The most notable change was that in the original version, Brea’s character May actually had a young son named Hunter. I felt that the character was unnecessary to telling May’s story, and I also was very aware that scheduling and budgeting for a child actor to be in 90% of the movie was going to be almost impossible. Brea and I discussed and agreed, and we ended up trying a pass without the son and liking it! We called that process “child deletion,” haha. I think ultimately it was freeing for me, because it really re-centered the story back to May and her journey as an individual, versus her journey as a mother, which is an interesting story, but inevitably makes the story’s stakes about the child. So in addition to what we saved logistically, I did feel that removing the child character did better serve the story.
Lucky works so well as a metaphor for the challenges women face every day. Was this ever difficult to get across to male producers, cast, crew, or financiers?
NK: We were fortunate to work with some supportive male partners on this project, who really respected Brea’s vision and my creative leadership and were willing to “step aside” and use their energy to support us in telling this story. Yes, there’s always the occasional “extra” conversation that needs to be had, but I think overall we were, well… pretty lucky!
Many of our department heads were women, which was nice as we definitely all had a shorthand --- after reading the script, all the women collaborators were like, “great, we got it!” One particularly important element to me was to have a woman stunt coordinator, who could understand how May would fight, and who would also understand and work with the concept of violence in a film where the main character is existing under increasing threat of physical violence. We weren’t interested in making May look cool or sexy --- the fights in the film are scrappy, rough, desperate.
The casting of the male roles was really important because it went way beyond whether or not a person fit in the role --- it was really about having conversations with the actors to make sure they understood the balance of satire against the inherent gravity of the story, because if we didn’t strike that equilibrium, the film would really start to become unwieldy. So our search really became about finding men who were open to these conversations and open to looking at themselves in a satirical and critical way --- happily, we found some awesome gents who were more than ready to go along for the ride.
BG: I took the script to a lot of different places who didn’t exactly get it before Epic came on to finance. It’s not a typical slasher-killer story and it’s not a typical stalker story. It’s supernatural, but there is no origin story. It’s not about Jason or Freddy. It’s about the women whose lives are changed because these mysterious, dangerous men that are after them every single day. Most of the push back was on that, but I did get some really wild notes wanting me to add in things that absolutely did not fit in with what I was going for. One in particular asked me to include a sexual assault as the inciting incident. I kept trying to explain that having a man break into your house to try to kill you was scary enough without a sexual assault. They didn’t get it.
The callousness in which May’s husband acts is jaw dropping, but also totally believable to many women. The film goes much deeper than this, but it’s possible that he can be seen as not even existing in the first place, since he’s so absent. What are your thoughts on that?
NK: That has been a comment that keeps coming up, which I love! Yes, there’s certainly an interpretation of the film that brings into question whether or not Ted, or any of the men, really exist. For me, we’re following May’s journey down a rabbit hole, into a bizzaro wonderland version of our own world, with increasingly bizarre interactions with those she encounters along the way. I think sometimes there’s such a stark discrepancy between how we’re supposed to experience the world around us and the way women actually experience the world, and Ted is very much a part of that funhouse-mirror version of reality. I’ll let Brea speak to Ted’s disappearance more, but for me I felt that his popping in and out of the story is about deconstructing the idea of what May thinks her husband should be doing, versus what he actually does and how he actually behaves. He’s very much a part of and a reflection of May’s environment --- and as the world around May begins to become increasingly strange, so does Ted’s behavior, until eventually his very essence is simply a mouthpiece for the bizarro version of the world where May is trapped.
BG: Natasha is spot on with this and that’s what I loved about working with her. She got the bizarre world I was trying to create from the beginning. And then Dhruv came in and played the character’s evolution perfectly. When writing, it was very much from May’s POV. I got a lot of notes asking where the men were and why Ted would abandon her. But Natasha agreed with me from the beginning. It’s not Ted’s story. It’s May’s story. It’s all her POV and that means her reality is blurred and her perception of his reaction is blurred. When writing, it didn’t feel that different from my own experience when I was dealing with a stalker, dealing with the court system, and having a boyfriend who just didn’t feel like he could emotionally deal with it so he checked out. It’s about the isolation of being targeted like this.
I appreciated how real and no-nonsense May is; was there ever pushback on how strong she is? Did you ever get the “unlikable character” comment?
NK: Actually, one thing that I really loved about Brea’s script when I first read it is that May is a bit of an anti-hero. She makes some decisions in the film that are decidedly not heroic, and that made her feel very real to me. I also felt that by taking that unapologetic look at May, Brea was also addressing some of the deep-rooted social issues that we sometimes don’t want to think about --- problems with white feminism, problems with a culture that’s designed around “looking after number one,” problems with the impossible decisions that women are asked to make on a daily basis.
BG: I’m really interested in female leads who have a lot of problems. I never wanted May to be 100% agreeable or likeable. I wanted her to have made mistakes in the past and to say things that were fucked up. Like Natasha said, we live in this culture that is very self-centered. There are so many people (particularly women, and particularly white women) who feel they have to throw other people under the bus to get ahead and survive. I think that would be May’s instinct. She writes self-help books but has no idea how to help herself without hurting others. We have seen so, so many final girls who are virginal and make great decisions and care about others. This is not a morality story. It’s about a woman who may be kind of fucked u,p but that doesn’t mean she deserves to die.
Often, when women and people of color are above the line on a film, the cast and crew becomes much more diverse as opposed to the typical American film. How important was this to you and how did you go about accomplishing this?
NK: Incredibly important on Lucky and all of my projects. We’re very proud that many of our department heads and their teams were women, and we also were also thrilled to fill out the cast with a group of talented and diverse actors. It’s important to me that sets and casts reflect the world that we all live in --- which is diverse. I’m grateful to the entire team for immediately getting on board and encouraging diversity above and below the line.
The color blue is quite prevalent in May’s world; can you discuss the choice to use blue and what that meant to each of you?
NK: Color is often a very instinctual thing for me --- I had a vision of Brea with this really frosty blonde hair, clothed in cool blue tones. Blue is interesting because it can be quite bold, while not being fiery or perceived as particularly “strong.” Once I knew that light blue was May’s color, I knew that The Man’s color would be a deep, overwhelming, attention-grabbing red. Their costuming became offshoots of their assigned colors --- ie, The Man’s coat is a deep purple-red, and most of May’s outfits are blue or teal or cool greens.
What else was important about creating the world in which May lives?
NK: May’s house is really the main location, so most of what we were able to do production design wise was there --- I was so happy to work with production designer LB Minnich, who I had worked with previously on shorter commercial shoots. LB has a background in fine art, so she really leaned into my overall vision for the house --- in many ways, we wanted the house to change with May as she goes deeper and deeper through the looking glass.
For instance, the artwork on the walls changes, becoming more visceral and violent, and there’s a strange ivy vine that becomes more and more prevalent throughout the house. I wanted lots of imagery of the female body around the house in various subconscious ways, so you’ll see a lot of headless torsos and so on --- but LB had the great idea to get a bunch of those creepy hand model figurines and adjust the fingers on the hand to indicate which “day” we were in. So, for example, when The Man comes to attack May on the third night, there’s a hand behind him with three fingers held up.
We had a lot of fun finding these little Easter eggs that we could include, even on our very limited budget. I want to also mention that our DP, Julia Swain, and I really wanted to find the right set of lenses that would feel cinematic (we ended up with a beautiful set of anamorphic T-series lenses from Panavision) but also give us opportunity to “mess up” the image when we wanted to, so we played a lot with flaring or similar “mistakes” that would occur in camera to either indicate May’s state of mind, or that The Man was incoming.
Similarly, we were fortunate to work with the brilliant colorist Alastor Arnold over at FotoKem, who really took Julia’s work to the next level and helped bring forward the visual journey of Lucky, which starts somewhat placed in “reality,” but has a really unusual look by the end of the film. Al, Julia, and I had a lot of fun with the parking garage sequence, which we were really able to push to the edge! I loved working with these creative minds and can’t wait to collaborate again.
What was the most challenging part of making Lucky? Was it stunts, continuity, something else?
NK: The same as with every indie film --- time and money! But mostly time. We had a very short shoot schedule --- 15 days of production --- so we tried to be very smart about how we used every hour of the day. We had to make some changes to the script, but we tried to hold on to the “bigger” set pieces that really mattered to us. It’s always a balancing act, and it starts with surrounding yourself with an awesome team of professionals, which we were lucky enough to do (pun intended).
BG: Yeah. To repeat --- 15 days! I was happy we got to hold on to the scenes in the parking garage. On a small budget, cool locations like that can be the first to go. I had just come off of directing another movie and I was editing that while shooting this. So it was a bit of a balancing act. I also didn’t really think about how being in it would remind me of the traumatic events that shaped the script until I was actually there. So just personally, I had to think about how the whole thing was affecting me emotionally. But Natasha is a really supportive director who let me relax and honestly, be kind of goofy through the whole thing, so it wasn’t all about assault all of the time.
If you were able to do test screenings (or send the film out for notes), I’m interested to hear what the general consensus was from women versus men.
NK: Turns out that the test screening was a fascinating sociological experiment! We predicted that men and women might react differently, but the difference in their interpretations, questions, and suggestions was really stark and consistent along gender lines.
Women immediately understood the metaphor of the story and really responded to the humor. Men seemed to respond positively to the opportunity to empathize with a woman’s perspective and would often comment on understanding things that women take for granted --- the idea of being vulnerable, the struggle to be believed, etc. --- all the themes that are the backbone of the film. However, the men in the room were really concerned with the husband character, Ted, and what happened to him, whereas the women were far less concerned with the mystery of Ted. There were many more examples where the notes differed along gender lines. Very interesting!
What’s inspiring to each of you in the world?
NK: I love music and am myself a musician, so I always gravitate towards pulling out a record by one of my favorite composers, both old and contemporary, when I’m looking for inspiration. I’m very fortunate to be surrounded by some amazing artists in my real life --- working in music, film, writing, etc. A friend just suggested a book on relativity and space/time physics that I’m excited to read, haha. There’s great work happening all around, we just need to take a minute to find it and support the new voices who are creating --- the creativity of others feeds into our own imaginations and work. No creator is an island!
BG: I read a lot, so I am always inspired by the amazing fiction and non-fiction I get to dive into. Reading is both my hobby and I feel like my duty. It makes me really happy. I’m also really inspired by other filmmakers. I feel so lucky to get to work with amazing innovators in the film world. One of the many sad things about COVID is that Natasha and I didn’t get to attend SXSW with Lucky. I love attending festivals both as a participant and just as a fan, because I see things there that I can’t see anywhere else.
Are there any plans for the two of you to collaborate again?
NK: I hope so! I was so grateful for Brea’s collaboration. She immediately welcomed me as the filmmaker on the project, and we worked to create trust and open communication right off the bat. Since Brea is herself a director, I had some initial concerns that there might be some issues (some people can be territorial), but we were quickly able to have open, honest conversations that were always collaborative and respectful.
BG: Yeah, duh, hopefully we can.
If the film has an official release date/other details you’re allowed to discuss, let us know below.
NK: Announcement coming very soon!
Is there anything else you’d like to tell us, about the film or anything at all?
NK: As I’m writing this in summer of 2020, our industry is in a very weird place. As we all start to put the pieces back together, I hope that we can use this opportunity to transition to a better system for making movies. I know that change is hard, but I hope that we can remember our value as storytellers and creatives moving forward, and through the disruption find an improved methodology that puts diversity, creativity, deep and thoughtful conversation, and safety at the forefront of our industry. And I hope that we women can be at the forefront of this transitional period. It’s time that we take on more leadership roles, and in so doing, maybe we can make some lasting and positive change.
Canadian viewers can watch the first virtual screening of Lucky tonight, August 23rd at 9:45pm, and the encore screening on August 28th at 11pm, but everyone can read more about the film at Fantasia's website here.