When the lights dim, and the first scenes of a film splay their light onto the eagerly awaiting faces, I imagine Michael Irish sitting in the back with baited breath. Imagine the exhaustion, excitement, and, perhaps, anxiety that a director must feel when an audience first views their work. When I caught a screening of Life of Significant Soil, at the Wythe Hotel in Williamsburg, I was able to get a glance of what it may be like. Irish told me it had been a couple of days since he had last slept. Sweeping his hair back from his forehead with a quick gesture, he added that the days of film fests had felt almost unreal. The screenings, interviews, and award ceremonies were a blur. Time had become relatively insignificant; 5 years had been translated into 70 minutes and a slew of events. Life of Significant Soil is itself a dip into the surreal, skewing time, place, and circumstance. The facts of existence are called into question and carefully pulled apart under an illusory filter. The film is like taking a prism to love, and every colored reflection is a slice of perspective, an important aspect of a personal experience.
Director Michael Irish, and leading lady Charlotte Bydwell who plays Addison, were kind enough to answer a few questions.
Justine: Life of Significant Soil perfectly displayed the anatomy of a relationship. I liked that both characters were equally involved in making the relationship what it was and you said that that was something you were really proud of. Why was that an important factor for you to have?
Michael Irish: I think the only way to confidently or accurately portray a depleting love is for them to share responsibility on some level – but beyond that, I’m proud that I was able to convey both sides from a relatively honest perspective without, hopefully, seeming misogynistic. I know that breakups can be sensitive, and people are always quick to place the blame on the other person. That was a big driver for the way the film was written, to try and be more honest than that.
I was fortunate enough to meet your lovely mother at the screening and she said since you were 10 years old you always had a camera in hand. Do you remember the first time you felt the urge to film? What is it about film that you find attractive and what filmmakers inspire you?
I wish I knew what drew me towards it. I know that my parents always brought us to the movies growing up and I always liked the car rides home listening to them talk about them. I once recommended Space Jam to my dad and told him “it’s cool, you’ll like it. It’s kind of their take on why Jordan retired”. He just kind of smiled and let me have that one. Italian and French New Wave films inspire me. I won’t start rattling off titles, but I really love the patience of the camera in those films and the way they just let the characters relax right there in front of us – it’s almost arresting and it makes me feel like a pervert sometimes…in a good way?
I’m not sure how many people really realize how difficult it is being an independent filmmaker. Can you describe the process of getting your film made, and then getting it out into the world?
It is a very difficult process. I could try and explain it, but I’ve sort of just resigned to the fact that the only people who will understand are other independent filmmakers. It’s a little like jazz players. They can sit around and tell me what I’m missing in the song, but the only ones who can really hear it the way they are the guys who play it. I know this may sound pretentious or something and I don’t mean it to be. This 71-minute feature took me basically 5 years to make. It’s tough to quantify that in simple terms. I’d say getting it to the world is the hardest part, but me, 3 years ago, would have a very different answer that I’m not even sure I’d remember now.
One of the things that draw me to films is that it is literally seeing from another person’s perspective. There were pieces in Life of Significant Soil that were so intimate; it was as if I were looking into someone’s memory of love. Do you use your own life as inspiration, or is film more of an escape from reality for you?
That’s a wonderfully framed question. I escape from reality in other ways – namely watching other films or reading books. So much so that sometimes I daydream about characters from literature or films so deeply that I wonder if they must be real. I need to live in a world where Teresa and Tomas are still vanishing on a road somewhere in the woods or where Joel and Clementine are still trying to erase each other – they really must be. While making this film is truly personal, down to the broader story and up to specific lines of dialogue, now that it’s completed I daydream about them still a day apart – for eternity – and still deeply in love but okay to linger on. “They must exist somewhere”, I mean, I took my obsession with escapism and built that dialogue and that frame into a pivotal segment of my film. So, perhaps my escapism is reality. I’ve been both characters in my life, and it’s meant to be written that way. But at the exact same time, they’ve been created and are now independent of me. I don’t know. Maybe you didn’t mean to mind f**k me, but I’ve got some thinking to do.
What concepts are most important to you for people to understand and experience through your film? What do you want your audience to walk away with after a viewing?
Exactly what I just got confused about. I want my audience to feel like Conor and Addison exist in this world and that he will forever be chasing her. It’s heart breaking, but that’s love. And when you’ve lost a love, there’s always going to be a part of you that you never get back. You grow and improve upon what you were, but that’s only because you lost something that at one time was truly significant. I mean, doesn’t that blow your mind? There was a day when you first lost a love that you thought you’d never recover from. What if that person that you were that day had to be like that every day forever? That’s what the film is getting at, I hope.
Although you have a tour coming up for Life of Significant Soil, you’re also working on your next project. Can you tell me a little bit about your next piece?
The next film isn’t going to be as ambitious – and maybe that’s a good thing. I had a crazy thought experiment script I was working on about meeting your ex wife again for the first time with the only thing that’s changed is you have grown older. However, you know, maybe it’s a good thing that I don’t see all my ideas through. The thought experiment existed and it informed the characters in my new film: A love triangle between an ex wife, a 17 year old girl and a 40 year old man who is having a mid life crisis. It’s a comedy and it has a lot of twists and turns that I find to be unique and fun.
Charlotte, after the screening you were kind enough to stay for questions with the audience, and mentioned that to prepare for the film you and Alexis did a lot of improve exercises. It’s really incredible considering how close the two of you seemed on screen. Can you expound on that a little bit? How difficult is it to act an authentic relationship?
Charlotte Bydwell: I think the challenge in acting an authentic relationship on camera is to give it a sense of history. The audience needs to feel like the actors have spent time together, that their bodies are used to being in close proximity and that they are speaking from a place of really knowing each other in a variety of circumstances. So Alexis and I decided to improvise around the script by going on adventures around NYC in the weeks leading up to the shoot. By having experiences as our characters, we tried to find the spark that initially brought them together (we wanted to be able to access this in choice moments throughout the film). We also worked through the ways in which their connection started to split apart. We improvised their fights, their silences and their reconciliations. It’s very vulnerable to explore a character in this way with an actor you are meeting for the first time, but Alexis was so generous and his imaginary life was so vivid that it felt incredibly natural to slip into these roles with him.
The scene showing the aftermath of your characters abortion was terrifying. I thought it was a very brave move; both from Mike’s stand point as a director, and yours as an actor. Women’s rights are still at the forefront of current politics, and that scene showed what many women go through unseen. How did you feel about filming that particular moment, and how do you prepare for such an emotionally charged scene?
For the scene after the abortion, most of my work was just in trying to imagine the physical pain that Addison would be experiencing. She went through a very invasive procedure with probably insufficient medication and wakes up to find herself covered in blood. Adding to that the extreme loneliness of the situation Mike envisioned, there was so much to draw on to fuel the difficulty of this moment in her story. But this scene also shows Addison’s incredible courage and will to move forward. Having been a dancer since a very young age, I thought a lot about how this pregnancy would hit Addison at a moment in her life when she is desperate for her dance career to flourish. The volatility of her relationship with Connor aside, it would be challenging to keep pursuing that personal goal if she had the baby. Ultimately, Addison chooses the abortion for herself and goes through it by herself. This is true for many women and their courage deserves to be depicted on screen.
You’ve been involved in many different projects spanning a great many genres. What type of project is your favorite to work on, and what draws you to collaborative work?
I love any opportunity that allows me to utilize more than one of my creative pursuits in a single project. Since I shift between being in front of the camera and behind it, and between being a dancer and an actor, any chance to exercise these skills simultaneously is a gift. Thus, I usually look for collaborators that ask me to bring my full self to the table, that expect and trust me to be involved in the process on many levels. Mike gave me so much room to craft Addison’s character, which engaged all my instincts as an actor, a writer and a director. Not to mention that she was a ballerina, so I got to pull my dusty point shoes out of the closet!
When it comes to choosing scripts to act, I always hope to be given a part that makes my heart burst open. One can find a way into any part eventually, but there is nothing like hearing a character articulates a hidden experience of your inner life that you may never have been able to put into words. Mike’s script gave me that feeling over and over again.
You’re a dancer, a tuba player, SAFD Certified in Single Sword & Unarmed Combat, among a slew of other talents. What does the future hold for you, and what new skills do you hope to pick up in the process?
I’m currently working on a short film version of my solo show, “Woman of Leisure and Panic”. This is my first time seeing a film project of this length through from inception to the final edit. I must say the post-production process can be tedious, especially for someone who is more accustomed to the spontaneity of live theater. And having it be my own face that I’m staring at for hours on end can be challenging (and devastating!), but I’m excited to be creating a tangible, shareable and long-lasting version of my show.
New York can be a really rough place, especially for those who have big dreams. Your wonderful solo piece “A Woman of Leisure and Panic” gives much life to that very concept. What advice do you have for aspiring actors, dancers, and other creative types to keep themselves motivated, and hard working, but also healthy and happy?
I think it is very easy for the creative process and the joy of being an artist to get crushed by the realities of living in NYC. Life becomes a race to make it through the day; you find yourself just crossing things off the list and constantly looking ahead to what’s next. Now this sounds a bit hokey, but I try to remind myself every day to let the passion for what I do rise to the surface. To let my aspirations, my excitement and my curiosities rise above the chaos of my daily experience. These are really such delicate elements of the human psyche and I’ve found that I need to consciously invite them to be a part of my life in NYC. Also, big dreams happen in small steps and there is specialness to be found in every landing along the way. “Life of Significant Soil” was not a million-dollar blockbuster, but it was an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything. This tiny team of actors and crew — that could all fit in a single mini-van — shared a bond that may not have been possible on a bigger project. So maybe I would say… Enjoy where you are along the road and the people that are there with you; you can never really go backwards.