Many of you of a certain age may still remember her best from childhood in Hocus Pocus, but the impressive list of directors Vinessa Shaw has worked with includes Steven Soderbergh, James Gray and Stanley Kubrick. More recently, she worked with Terrence Malick’s editor Saar Klein on his directing debut, Things People Do, currently on the festival circuit (it shared the Grand Jury prize with Whiplash at the Deauville film festival), and Jim Mickle for Cold in July, an eighties-tastic adaptation of the Joe R. Lansdale novel, which is out on DVD and Blu-ray today.
I spoke to Vinessa about playing wives of the main character in a man’s world and making them stand out, working with Wes Bentley now that his career is back on track and the secret of rocking a cool mullet on screen.
Vinessa Shaw: Haha! Yes I was actually. I enjoyed taking this wonderful mullet, which he named Richard Dane II, after his character, as my own little pet. Everyone took turns putting Richard Dane II on their head and trying different hairstyles. I went for some extra fringe.
It’s very committed though. He actually makes a mullet look pretty cool.
I know, isn’t that weird? It’s just subtle enough so that it isn’t extremely distracting, it doesn’t go into a curly lock or anything, but you can still notice and appreciate it for its mulletness.
I noticed your own hair wasn’t quite as crazy, you were rocking some serious eighties denim, but your own hair was relatively untouched. Any mullet envy?
Anne Dane is a schoolteacher, so she can’t go too crazy fortunately! The make-up and hair people were saddened by this and at one point were really trying for an eye shadow motif, but Anne was too conservative, even for that.
After so many seasons of Dexter on television and spending years with a character, as opposed to weeks on a low budget film, does it require a different sort of energy and focus to adapt to that? You yourself have experience of this, currently being on Ray Donovan.
He had just finished Dexter, so this performance was like his unwinding from that. It’s also interesting that he is a murderer in this movie but quite a different type of killer to Dexter. He liked that he was this small town, humble, unassuming guy, who had no idea about the big bad world of murder and the darkness he gets thrown into in the movie. I think he really appreciated the difference of being able to do so much in such a short amount of time, not living with a character day in, day out.
Did you read Joe R Lansdale’s book and build anything from that into Anne?
I actually did read it and it was very helpful. The screenplay condensed Anne down quite a bit to a much simpler person. She’s a busybody in the book who wants to be involved with everything Richard is doing and has her opinions on all of that. It worked in the novel but given the movie’s tone it would have come off as campy I think. It helped to gleam the kind of controlling personality she could have and where she could go in terms of resolving their problems, and I play a little bit of that humour in the movie that readers will recognise.
She’s the only woman of any real importance in the film set in a world where retribution is its own form of masculinity. Did you discuss this with director Jim Mickle at all and how you wanted to position Anne in relation to that to make her stand out?
She is the odd woman out. We both talked about her having a presence, representing family and what Richard could be losing if he got himself in real trouble. Jim’s intention was for her to be a real grounding force, but in a weird way, also the one who sparks in him the courage to take matters into his own hands and be more of a man. Either way, I tried to make her a reminder of this dangerous reality Richard finds himself in; in every scene, someone who increases the importance of him having to resolve these events which have spiralled out of control after the burglary that opens the film. It was important to me she was more than the “honey I’m home” type of good wife and that was tough ‘cause there wasn’t much written for me to work with. Fortunately, thanks to the bond Michael C. and I had on set, I don’t think I needed so many words.
Naturally, Anne is terrified after the burglary but dealing with questions from the cops afterwards, you can see how you’re playing her as very demanding, no-nonsense. She’s the one asking them questions, unlike Richard who’s meek and mild-mannered around them and can’t look them in the eye.
It’s interesting given the time period of the ‘80s that she’s the one wearing the pants in the household. She’s definitely the woman behind the man and not afraid of express her lioness protectiveness of the household. Richard sees this and it’s something else that inspires him to act as he does later.
The finished film is this curious blend of neo-noir, western, exploitation and domestic drama. Did you get the vibe of all these elements on the set or were you pretty surprised when you saw the final product?
I knew based on my conversations with Jim before shooting that his approach was going to be significantly different to the book and I specifically asked him about the tone and just how campy it was going to be after I’d heard him talk about the other movies he was likening it to. I was expecting noir and exploitation but not at all of the magnitude of how it turned out. I was so happily surprised by how far he pushed it and I feel like that nostalgic quality, right away, really sets up a lot of excitement for what’s coming in the next scene, placing you right in the movie and that time period. Without the amazing cinematography and that synth score, it wouldn’t have been half as great as it is. Jim actually cut out a lot of things he thought were important but isn’t afraid to be humble, trimming away at things that don’t work and really concentrating on building a mood.
Being Lansdale’s most beloved novel and book fans being as protective as they are, how would you sell it to those people?
It really does the novel justice. Expresses it’s twists, and turns, actually heightens the atmosphere and there’s just as much nuance. I don’t think anyone would be upset by how our cast portrayed those characters. They won’t be disappointed in the least, apart from the fact that they might be left wanting more.
You’ve another film, After the Fall that recently played Raindance, in which you play another wife whose husband is living a secret life. In this film she finds out whereas in Cold in July she’s none the wiser. I’m wondering what you think Anne’s reaction might’ve been if she’d found out and whether or not she would have stood by her man?
There would be a long conversation followed by many nights of not talking. There’s a scene in the film where Richard calls Anne “Sparky”, kind of indicating he might’ve at one point being a more adventurous person, so I wouldn’t put it past Anne for have compassion for Richard for having done such a thing, but I definitely think she’d be giving him some serious cold shoulder!
After the Fall is the feature debut of Terrence Malick editor Saar Klein, how was he as a director?
I loved Saar. As an editor, that makes him such a visual person and he really admired Terrence Malick, really considered him a mentor. They’ve a direct connection and attributes his love for film to him. Asking the actors what they needed to feel more supported is a wonderful quality that he has. He’s really willing to do anything to make the film better and that made it a really easy working environment. Unlike a lot of first time directors who claim to know what they want and get to set having no idea.
After the Fall has an unexpectedly moving real life resonance, the fact that you’ve got Wes Bentley playing this deeply troubled, secretive guy who comes right in the end. Having had dark times in his career, this film seems to underline that victory in his battle with drink and drugs.
It was an honour to work with someone who pulled through harrowing times and made it to the other side. He’s a father and I think that gave him the new perspective that he needed. That’s a parallel you see clearly in the film in the way Bill looks at his kids as he’s going off the deep end.
These two wives who are in the dark so much of the time, it must have be an exciting relief for you playing a news reporter on Ray Donovan, someone who’s putting all the pieces together and bringing secrets into the light.
That’s exactly what I love about Kate and what I think viewers responded to. She goes where she shouldn’t without really thinking of her own well-being. She’s only concerned with uncovering the truth and is absolutely fearless in fighting for justice. We know that she’s won a Pulitzer before and you need that kind of fearlessness to win such a prize. On a TV show it’s really only the producers and writers who know where it’s all going and your character changes directions constantly. It made me feel like I was jumping off a cliff every episode I was in and I definitely felt freer than I ever have as an actor.
First published by Vérité Film Magazine on October 20, 2014