here are three things working against Personal Velocity, at least in the eyes of alt-weekly jugheads who will try to dissuade you from seeing this film: first, it won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance (and therefore must be flogged); second, it’s an indie film that disdains quirk (and therefore must be a drag); third, that writer-director Rebecca Miller is adapting her acclaimed first book, which tends to inspire a who-does-she-think-she-is kind of indignation.
Fortunately, there are four considerable forces working for Personal Velocity: its stars (Parker Posey, Kyra Sedgwick and Fairuza Balk, universally excellent) and Miller, who has crafted a genuinely affecting look at the interior lives of women and the men who complicate their lives.
The film revolves around three character studies: Greta (Posey) is a book editor whose success at work and “problems with fidelity” bring unexpected consequences to her marriage. Delia (Sedgwick) is a former school slut and battered wife who flees her husband and establishes a new life by resorting to old tricks. Paula (Balk) is a pregnant teenager who runs away from Manhattan after a traumatic event, encounters a teenage hitchhiker and has a quasi-mystical experience on the road.
Miller, a former actor turned writer-director (her first film was 1995’s Angela), is the daughter of dramatist Arthur Miller and the wife of actor Daniel Day-Lewis. She spoke with Nerve about the movie’s themes and the filmmaking process. Michael Martin
Nerve: I think the Greta section is interesting because it explores a woman’s capacity to cheat, without demonizing her. You generally don’t see that in film.
Miller: And when you do, it’s something like Unfaithful, where the husband ends up fleeing from the wrath of his wife. I knew a couple of people who’d done exactly what Greta is doing: getting married, or on their way to getting married, and having an affair with somebody, yet compartmentalizing it. People are able to absorb a lot into their self-perception without necessarily having a moral crisis about it. You do see plenty of stories of men doing similar things. Certainly, it’s not like I’m inventing this. So either the predominantly male filmmakers don’t want to talk about women that way, or there’s a need to punish women in fiction if they do stray. You see it more French films: people can have all sorts of sexual gymnastics, and it’s not a crisis. The Anglo-Saxons and the Americans tend to think of it as a huge deal all the time. Not that I don’t think it is, but it’s just real life.
Yet I couldn’t help feeling that the Greta section suffered from the blame-the-dude school of logic: Greta’s husband is dull, her father is distant, so it’s almost not her fault that she has a fidelity problem.
I totally disagree with you. I don’t think he is dull. I think she sees him that way. But is he really? He’s a guy who is a real genuine intellectual in the sense that he loves what he’s doing, and he’s not doing it to become more successful. I really think he’s a great guy, and it’s very sad that she used him. I think her father is definitely distant. But how rare is it that he left two women? Is he a monster, or is he just like a lot of people? That’s life people get left. Honestly, I don’t think that men are inherently more to blame than women for the way things are.
Why did you cast Parker, Kyra Sedgwick and Fairuza Balk in those roles?
Parker’s so funny, and she has a kind of intelligence. She worked as being Jewish too. Kyra had this wonderful honesty. She can really be straight and tough and clear. Fairuza has a kind of otherworldly quality which I found really moving and really right for the character. I wouldn’t want to see a lot of actresses play that part because it’s so transcendent. She’s doing stuff that has no words. She does it so well you don’t even notice that she’s doing it, I think.
In “Delia,” it was refreshing to see an honest depiction of a girl who was aggressive with her sexuality from a young age: her last name “rhymes with ‘cunt;’ that’s not why she became the school slut, but it didn’t help.”
Delia has this amazing body really young, and it’s almost like she typecast herself. At that time of life, our physical self with boys as well as girls, I think, but especially girls has a lot to do with how our personality develops. In her case, Delia had these breasts which kind of led the way into her personality, into her identification and sexuality. She had that kind of power. She was able to reel some power into a person that was otherwise powerless. That’s what she had, so she used it.
How did you plan to make the story of Delia as an adult transcend the Lifetime battered-wife syndrome?
I think her story is playful, and there’s humor in it: I dare to invite the audience to laugh in the middle of this material. Also, Delia doesn’t have any self-pity and she’s horribly rude. But she deserves to be. She’s lived that kind of life. In a way, she’s my alter ego, but I don’t deserve to say what she says. She’s really a heroic character.
Bret Easton Ellis said, in reference to The Rules of Attraction, that writers should never adapt their own work because they’re too close to it. But here, you’ve adapted and directed.
In my mind, there was never any question that I would. Writing a book and writing a screenplay are part of the same motion, in a way. I wrote the film right after I wrote the book, and I finished shooting before my book was published. So the whole thing kind of happened at once. I do think that’s a danger: being too close to your own material. But I think that, as a director, you learn that on the first day of shooting, the script needs to become something that was written by someone else. You have to just forget you wrote it and be merciless. The same thing goes with the adaptation. You have to be ready to restructure and get rid of things. We had so little money to make the movie that I couldn’t afford a lot of scenes that I might have otherwise put in.
The film is very heavy in the use of voice-over; the classic film criticism is that’s a dramatic cheat.
I think voice-over becomes a problem when it’s used to fix things, or to do things that the actor should be able to do, like convey emotion. I use it as a contradictory device, when you’re seeing one thing and you’re hearing something else, or to move you through time very quickly. It comes out of a tradition that Truffaut and Scorsese used to some degree. You’re listening to something and you’re also having an emotional experience: like certain scenes like in Jules and Jim, for example.
Could this movie have been made by a major studio?
No. I don’t think I could have raised the money. I may be pessimistic, but I have a lot of experience with these people. I would have made several more films had I been able to get people to do things the way I saw them.
Unfortunately, what happened was that people with no power always loved my stuff. The secretary would say, “I love it!” and the big cheese would read it and inevitably say no. I’ve made two feature films, but both of them have been financed in a sort of unorthodox way, even though the studios have always expressed interest. They thought I was a good writer, but they always thought I was shooting the wrong material. It’s very, very tough in this country. More so than in Europe, because they have subsidies. But we don’t have any help.
What do you love and hate about recent movies, and how did that affect the way you made your film?
I think a lot of films are kind of impoverished: you know the theme and the outcome in about twenty minutes. Occasionally you get surprised, and I love that. In The Bedroom was a film I loved, because I really didn’t know what was going to happen. And I like that kind of filmmaking. I like to be kept at the edge of my seat. The kind of moviemaking that is supposed to make you feel suspense car chases and action sequences — literally put me to sleep. I glaze over. I just don’t get it. I’m more excited by emotional cliffhangers.