Interview: Stacie Passon of Concussion
In Concussion, first-time writer-director Stacie Passon gives us a glimpse into the doldrums of lesbian suburbia and how a bored housewife (Robin Weigert), awakened to her unfulfilling malaise by her son (who conks her in the head with a baseball), attempts to unleash her true inner-self by becoming a hooker. Unoriginal this movie is not, in a most beautiful, sensual, riveting way.
Hours before the screening of Concussion at San Francisco’s Frameline Film Festival back in June, Stacie Passon chatted with us at The Hilton San Francisco Union Square Hotel about living in the suburbs, her experience at the IFP Narrative Lab, the best week of her life, Robin Weigert’s shocking physical transformation for the role, making people squirm, and more.
Where did you get the idea for the story? Did your son actually hit you in the head with a baseball?
Yeah. My son has a really good arm and he wanted to practice. (laughs) My daughter was diverting my attention, he threw and the poor kid didn’t know I wasn’t looking. My behavior was awful! I had gotten to this point where I had a 9-year-old and a 6-year-old at the time, and I felt like it was my “fuck this” moment. Like, “What am I doing? What am I doing?” I started writing in short order and it was a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” moment.
Did you really call him a little shit?
No comment. Maybe you should ask him that. (laughs)
How do you like living in the suburbs?
It’s interesting. Since I’ve made the film, I’ve found a sense of community in the suburbs that I didn’t know existed. I think the lesson is–Wherever you are, be who you are, and then you’re going to meet like-minded people. I moved to the suburbs around four years ago, before production [on the film started]. I sat and painted in my house and I had nothing to do, really. This was during the financial crisis, too. I was doing a lot of commercial work, but that had kind of dried up and I became a full-time mom for a while. I was like, “Oh my god…this sucks!” It just does. You lose all sense of yourself and you feel that everything you’re doing is sacrificing for your kids. I lost myself for a bit.
Before we get into the film, could you talk a bit about the IFP Lab, the grants you received, and other support you’ve gotten for the film?
The film community is one of my favorite things of which to talk. The independent film community has really come to the table for Concussion. It started with the IFP Narrative Lab, and we halted editing to do a finishing lab with IFP in New York. That lab is led by Amy Dodson, Joana Vicente, who’s head of IFP, and Scott Macaulay, who runs Filmmaker Magazine. It’s a wonderful team that they have. What they do is, they bring in first time filmmakers who’ve made their films for under a million dollars into a finishing lab, and they teach them about what the next phase of finishing editorial–color, sound, composing, score. A lot of us have had that experience of doing all of that, but they gave us a lot of resources, etc.
The next part of it was independent distribution. They want to find a home for these films. John Reiss comes in and does the indie distribution part of it. He wrote a book called Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul with Sheri Chandler. They’re very interested in making sure all their films find either homes at distribution or have the tools for self distribution, which I thought was so awesome. It was actually the best week of my life. Through IFP many grants came as well.
Best week of your life?
IFP was one of the best professional weeks of my life because I love sitting and learning from people. It’s my favorite thing to do. It was an amazing experience. The best week of my life was Sundance.
You got a ton of support there.
I owe a lot to the programmers at Sundance, and I think John Cooper really got behind Concussion along with Trevor Groth, John Nein, Shari Frilot, Kim Yutani, Caroline Libresco…all of them. I was fortunate because at the beginning I thought, well, there are eight women directors in competition and I’m just one of them. The token gay girl or whatever. Throughout that week what I learned was that I wasn’t the token anything. I was pushed to be my own thing in many ways. They were so incredibly generous about talking about the film. They pushed me to USA Today…it was insane! We got a lot of great publicity. When Radius came and wanted to distribute the film we thought, “This is a miracle!” This just doesn’t happen. That was the best week ever. (laughs)
The film is about suburbia and feminism, but it’s about more than that. What’s at the core of the film?
I believe that finding one’s self is the subject of one’s life. Clarity. I think that’s at the core of the film for me. Many will find a take on marriage. I think we have to look at ourselves and our partners from time to time and assess what we want to do with the rest of our lives. I think the aspirations of somebody who’s 46 or 43 are very different from somebody who’s in their mid 20’s. I think that when I say that, people in my state of advanced age sort of start nodding their heads. We’ve gone through a lot of the milestones already. We’ve seen our children born, we’ve made some money. But still, there’s an emptiness. If you’re sacrificing yourself to find legitimacy, sometimes that can take its toll. I think those are some of the themes in the film. I think it’s something people like to talk about. It feeds the soul a little bit.
It’s a personal, intimate film, but I think everybody can relate to something in there.
Well, that’s the bet. I think the absence of the male figure in the film makes it sort of relatable for men. I think they feel very vindicated when they watch the film. They might feel titillated, which I love. It’s great, because the film is about sexuality and finding what makes you tick, sexually. Also, it’s a good film for people to look at two people together and find that it’s not always about gender dynamics. It’s about when two people stop having sex and what that looks like in a marriage.
There’s this thing called the Bechdel Test. If two women characters in a work of fiction talk to each other about something other than a man, it passes. Concussion passes!
I’ve never heard about that!
I think films like this are really valuable by this measure.
Thank you. My approach to subject matter is that it has to speak to me. I’m thinking about all the films I want to do, and I don’t think that issue would’ve even come up. All of the things that turn me on aren’t those old kind of ideas. It’s very interesting. There are two things that can be done. One, we can have more women talking to men about their issues, and two, we can have women talk to each other about things that aren’t about men. I don’t know…I just feel like people should do their work. I love men and I love talking about them. I think they’re wonderfully interesting creatures, just like women. In this case, it’s a personal film. Some of the themes are very much about empowerment, and her sexual goals did not involve men, so it was just a matter of what turned her on. It has a lot to do with being gay, certainly. There are absolutely tons of layers, like the fight for legitimacy and the toll that it can take when it’s really all about money and a house in the suburbs. Those are the gay issues in the film. When people say it’s not a gay film, I want to be like, “Well, maybe you’re not that straight of an audience.” You know what I mean? It has a lot of gay themes, and it has a universality about it that a lot of people seem to find.
I want to get into how you shoot intimacy. At my screening, there were some gasps, some…
Yes, some squirming.
I can see that you’re seeing something in your mind right now. What is it exactly? I’m interested. What was the squirmy part?
I’m picturing the scene with the young student sitting in a chair and Robin kneels down in front of her. A lot of people in the theater looked very, very nervous.
Do you remember your first kiss?
That’s what it was. Robin and I both knew that that scene was about her first kiss. This is a woman who’s so shut down that she starts over again in many ways. I approached the whole thing as a big orgasm. There’s a build to it. It goes back to the very beautiful woman in the film who seduces Robin. That moment where she pulls Robin to her and it’s almost like Robin is a walker. She’s like stone. I was like, “You’re a column. You’re stone. You don’t know what you’re doing or how this all works anymore.” By the time Robin gets to the [student], it really is her first kiss. She learns a little more until she finds her “animal” self.
Talk a bit about Robin and her performance.
Early on, we thought about the arc of the character. I told her that the character punishes herself with exercise, and Robin came back three months later and she had all these muscles on her and lost all this weight. I was scared when I saw her. She’s a very tall woman, and she was a size zero. At one point, I could see the sinew in her back during the shower scene, and it was kind of sad. Sometimes, that sexiness almost became a look of hunger and desperation. As the film goes on, she finds a way to satiate her hunger. She knew that going in, and she created that arc beautifully. She’s a brilliant person and a wonderful collaborative partner. I don’t know that the film would be anything without her.
What were you looking for when you were casting that role?
I wanted to create an immersive experience. I feel like our culture has gotten so conservative that we’re afraid to go there, and I wanted someone to be able to go there with me. I said, “This isn’t going to be an expensive project, but it’s going to be expensive to your soul.” The way I wanted to do this was the way directors of the golden age of film did it–with their whole heart. I wasn’t afraid, but Robin was afraid. As we talked, she became less afraid. She can go there. That’s the beautiful thing about her. She’s just a well–there are no limits to what she can do. When I realized that, I knew we had something special because that satisfied my urge and hunger to go there creatively, and I think hers as well.
Will you talk a bit about David Kruta, your DP, and the look of the film? The colors are great.
I love to talk about David. He was a camera operator, a DIT by trade, and he shot some shorts. I loved his reel, and the thing I loved about him most was that he knew, technically, how to achieve the looks that we both wanted. The type of framing we wanted. The thing I love about him was that sometimes he saved me from myself. I’m a big fan of alternative framing and kind of “going there”. I think David really knew what this piece was, and he shot what the piece needed to be rather than some of the kooky ideas that I had. I really appreciated his steadiness throughout the process. In the chaos, when you’re doing that amount of acting, you’re doing that amount of directing and you’re really getting into these characters, you need somebody steady and somebody who can help in that way. David was always ready. We dared a little bit with the color. We took some chances. I find that a lot of digital is looking a little too creamy. We were encouraged by our producer to find the look that we wanted, so we really heightened blacks and played with that quite a bit. I think we came to a look that we felt was important for the character and the tone of the piece. I don’t know that I would make another film that looks exactly like that–it’s not necessarily going to be my way–but I felt that this piece deserved that look because of who she was.
After writing and directing your debut film, are you still open to doing films that you don’t both write and direct?
Sure. I’m a collaborator. I didn’t grow up in a world where I could call the shots. I grew up in a world where I was serving clients. That really helped make this film better. I was able to listen to my producer Rose and my editor, executive producer, and collaborator Anthony Cupo. I was very, very involved in collaboration. Rose and I would rewrite scenes, Robin would help rewrite scenes. We really played with it, and that’s something that you have to do in commercial work. You have to serve many masters. I believe in listening to people and making decisions on how to put the puzzle pieces together. I think I’d be really good at helping guide the voice of another writer. It’s something I’m definitely interested in doing.
How does it feel to have the film screening in San Francisco at Frameline?
I always get choked up when anything involves community of any kind. I’m a part of many communities–I’m a part of a suburban community with my friends and I’m part of a Jewish community–but the one that’s the most important for my soul is the gay community. It’s an incredibly important moment for the film and for us as a team. We’re absolutely thrilled to be here.