With a View
Kyle Henry and Cyndi Williams relive the making of 'Room'
When they say you can't get arrested, it's usually meant as a bad thing. So, maybe it was a good sign when NYPD actually did arrest director Kyle Henry on the last day of shooting Room. The film has since shown up as a usual suspect on the festival circuit, booked at no less than Sundance and the Directors Fortnight at Cannes, and getting listed on the Independent Spirit Awards' most wanted, with nominations for the John Cassavetes Award (for the best feature made on less than half a million dollars) and for lead actress Cyndi Williams (up against such prominent offenders as Laura Linney and Felicity Huffman).
"There was a police station in that subway stop," Henry says "and we were shooting on the platform for about two hours, so I don't know what we were thinking." Maybe that particular choice will always remain a mystery, but when I sat down with Henry and Williams to talk about what they were thinking throughout the making of this microbudget story about an overworked Houston mom whose debilitating visions of a strange room lead her to abandon her family in search of the place, it became clear that following this heroine's journey truthfully was sure to get everyone into some trouble.
Austin Chronicle: When we've talked about this story before, you've often discussed dreams and mythology, so I'd like to get into that.
Kyle Henry: Well, honestly, in 2001 and 2002, the main time that I was writing and working on this, reality seemed like a bad dream that you couldn't wake up from. And it only just went from bad to worse. And, in many ways, after making the film, it sort of purged something of that feeling of dread. ... And I thought of the film, after I'd written out the story, as going into a dark dream and reinterpreting that dream on the second, third, fourth draft to understand what it was about. I didn't understand what it was about while I was writing it, I just had the character make these choices in specific circumstances that take us into darker and darker territory. You know, [Joseph] Campbell often talked about grail mythology as the knight going into the very darkest part of the woods as the only way to find the grail. And I think in terms of a metaphor of personal transformation, relating to [the main character's] middle-age crisis moment, that crisis of identity of finding oneself again, requires that one enter into darker and darker places, make the darkest possible choice to find out what one is capable of, maybe.
These hero journey myths are serious business. And they're transformative and they're based upon stages of our own development as human beings, and so I don't want my story to say that we can get off easy by identifying with this person and going through the other side with them and saying, "Oh, middle age, that was tough, but I can handle that now!" No. It's to take you on the physical sensations of the journey ... not coddle you into thinking that everything's going to be all right. I think the hero's journey in classical mythology, not phony baloney CGI Death Star mythology, is ... well, it's scary shit. And it should be.
AC: It's funny that you chose New York as the destination for this kind of journey. You know, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.
KH: Well, to many people, New York is an Oz, the place at the end of the Yellow Brick Road, the place where dreams are made. And that's something that's been built up over time and is also in the architecture, this sense of aspiration for making dreams real.
Cyndi Williams: It was also kind of interesting that it seemed like people in New York were more likely to interrupt filming than people in Texas, like when we shot this scene with me crying in Times Square. And this crowd formed around us, and at one point, some guy in the crowd was going, "Aw, are you crying? Is something going wrong?" Really, just so bizarre, because I was really crying. I mean, I'd been holding it in all day because it was a point when I was actually quite scared that we might just be stranded in New York and have to keep filming and filming, but I had really held it all back until then and it was really strange to have people kind of indifferently watching or actively jeering.
KH: As if we were another billboard or lighted sign for people to stand and gawk or see if we were somebody famous, and then when we weren't, they'd move on or get mad at us because we weren't famous and were taking up valuable real estate.
CW: I remember one guy yelling out to show him my tits
KH: Like it was Mardi Gras.
CW: And I was so not in the mood for that.
KH: In a way, it was fine. It was great, like the city was being mean to us
CW: But on the other hand, I think there was a whole day of shooting when they filmed me in crowded spaces looking at maps and looking scared or confused or walking the wrong way through a crowd. And any time there was a setup with me looking at a map, inevitably, somebody would stop and offer to give me directions. So, I would make something up, and they'd give me directions and go on their way.
AC: So, in a way the film comes out as slightly unrealistic, because nobody does that for Cyndi's character in the story
KH: I'd never say the film is a documentary or any kind of reflection of documentary realism. Instead, the film sort of sucks you into the interior reality of this character who's channelling a lot of bad vibes. She's got an antenna or a net and maybe she's gifted or talented in a certain way for picking up information that she can't process. She's not a psychologist or an academic or clergy who can analyze it. But I think I can say that I think that the forces this character is dealing with are very real. They're not necessarily forces that are only in her mind. But it's her way of dealing with them that's very personal, so, it's reflective of the very personal state of mind that she's in.
She's somebody who has worked very, very hard and is all of a sudden receiving this signal that is disturbing her, and she's doing what she thinks is best, which is she's going to find it. You know, in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, for example, the aliens are real, and you've just got to find Devil's Tower and then the ship will come and take you away. You're waiting for the sky to open and take you home, but that obviously doesn't happen for most people, does it? She hasn't been given a mystical tradition that she can internalize and make a personal sense out of these things that are happening to her.
CW: I do not know that I am on the hero's journey. I'm just looking for that damn room. [laughs] Part of what's so interesting to me about this character is that the world is constantly acting upon her and acting upon her, and she's just sort of running around in this knee-jerk responsive, panicky kind of mode until basically she can't do that any longer, and she has to take action.
AC: Doesn't all that sort of break one of the big storytelling rules, going back to Aristotle, that you're not supposed to have a main character who is primarily acted upon? And a lot of the time that's good advice, but there's a basic reality that a lot of people feel in their everyday lives that then, if you always follow that rule, you're denying. You're saying to everybody, "Well, that's not a story, and that's not a character." So, then, how are you supposed to deal with that reality?
KH: Well, I think that that relates very much to my own feelings of living in America now or at least America, 2003. For me, at least, there's a sense that you get from a lot of people of the country being hijacked by forces that are way beyond any average citizen's control. But I think in America we like to believe that we are all the agents of all of our own destinies. We're indoctrinated to believe this so we can make proper shopping choices. And I'm very glad that I've had that point of view, because it enabled me to build up a very large credit card debt to make a film that I believe will have an impact upon the world. [laughter]
AC: That's not just a story, but a production that goes into darker and darker territory.
KH: We made a choice to try to shoot the film as much as possible in chronological order, and it is a story about a character who's breaking down at different points. By starting in Houston, and working 12- to 14-hour days, it wasn't hard for Cyndi to imagine herself as an overworked mother of two who's being financially stretched. Especially on the kind of money we were paying her.
CW: While we were in Texas, we had the same people working on the crew and certain actors, some of them I knew really well, and felt safe, but then going to New York, it was just Kyle and PJ [Raval, cinematographer] and Ted [Gesing, sound recordist] ... and so much of it was so lonely and so much of it was just me going through the streets and trying to open doors and looking at maps and going around on the subways looking scared. It's funny because people asked ... "How did you cry so much? You're awfully good at crying." And, really, I just wanted to cry all the time because I was scared and lonely and cold and hungry.
KH: But, you know, the wonderful, liberating thing about making a film like this, was that, for us, it was only about finding as much truth as we could in these moments, heightening the drama, finding things that were real underneath the script, and not thinking about a financial return on an investment. And that was a pretty liberating place, because we felt you could take things pretty far.
CW: And that's something different about being a film actor [rather] than a stage actor. You know onstage, you can create the conditions your character is experiencing through your behavior. But in film, it's real. If you're supposed to be lying in the gutter, you know, you're literally lying in a gutter. So, the actual filming of the movie was such an incredible terrifying, at times but a great adventure that I'm really appreciative to have experienced.
KH: Back to the hero's journey, you know, it was really, literally heroic for Cyndi to go through this at such risk to life and limb and emotional well-being. And when you have actors that are committed that way, it's not hard to get your crew to give you everything they have. And so many times while we were shooting, I almost felt like I was just witnessing a ritual being enacted for us and for an audience to witness. And I felt very honored to be witnessing that performance.
Room opens in Austin on Friday, April 7. For a review and show times, see Film Listings.