Subverting Expectations at Fantastic Fest With Ladyworld
Female-fronted film prepares for a #MeToo backlash
An all-female cast, performing a script by a woman filmmaker. Ladyworld sounds like the perfect movie for the #MeToo era, and yet writer/director Amanda Kramer is ready for a backlash from critics that will think it is anti-feminist. "Don't you think that some women will turn on me? It's a very challenging ideology."
One of the great cultural cliches is that it would be impossible to make Lord of the Flies with an all-female cast, because girls would not turn on each other like that. "We're not boys. We're not brutal," one character tells another in Ladyworld, echoing that sentiment, but Kramer's debut feature blows that idea apart. A group of teens wake up after a birthday party, only to find that an earthquake has sunk the building, swallowing it whole. Rather than escape, or form some stereotypical support network, they gang up into factions, fight, and betray: To Kramer's mind, it's not that girls would never turn on each other just as much as boys, but the way they turn would be different. "Feminine tedium is a big theme in my work," she said. "I like to think [about] where the feminine mind goes when it's bored."
In Ladyworld, where those minds go are some dark places. Maya Hawke (daughter of Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman) plays Romy, who Hawke describes as "kind of an anarchist." With Ladyworld's nuanced take on the inner lives of young women, she said, "It didn't make me angry, as much as it made me curious." It was immediately clear that Kramer had a story that set her apart but, Hawke said, "I did have a lot of questions for her, like in a movie that gives young women an opportunity to play [a] dimensional character, to hold the plot and the story together, why does she have them divide? ... She had a great answer. Basically people are capable of a lot of good and a lot of darkness, and [she doesn't] think you have to cut the dark parts out of human beings to love them."
Kramer's thesis is pretty clear, that depicting any character without the ability for cruelty is unrealistic, and it's one with which Hawke concurs. She said, "Part of making movies about young women is allowing them to have darkness and love, friendship and spite."
But it's not just about the characters doing mean things to each other. Although she has been making films for several years (including the short "Bark," which played at Fantastic Fest 2016), Kramer's background is in theatre. "I'm a bit of an intellectual prick," she said, but what that really translates to is a need to imbue everything with symbolism, meaning, and concepts that tie into the deeper themes of the script. That's why the house is sunken; in earlier iterations, across the four years of development, there were different reasons for the girls being sealed in, ones where the house looked different, and a time when they even reached the backyard. But, she said, "the most womanist thing you can think of is a house as a warm, wombic space, and if the house is sunken into space, it would be most reminiscent of those recesses in the woman's body. ... The more I thought about the idea of sinking down and sinking in, the more a vagina made sense."
That quest to give everything a resonance (in Kramer's work, a pipe would never be just a pipe) separates the emotional honesty of the script from the obvious surreality of the narrative. "I would never suggest that my film is realistic," she said. "I think if I had to make something natural, I would be bummed out." That's why there are eight girls: It may seem a large ensemble, and initially Kramer does little to introduce them to the audience, triggering deliberate confusion. "You don't even know how they all know Eden [played by Texas actor and filmmaker Atheena Frizzell], the birthday girl. You always just assumed they do." However, the number was essential and deliberate, as each represented a different trait, such as heroism, victimhood, manipulation, "and someone to represent just fear and pure innocence." Kramer said, "Eight was landed on because I needed enough to represent aspects of the female mentality. ... If there aren't that many girls, there isn't a sense that chaos is brewing.
There were points where Kramer thought about turning the sealed-bottle drama into a stage play; it would not be a great leap from the current structure but, she said, from a practical and economic standpoint, it would be no easier than trying to get a film made. "It's hard to put on a play. I live in Los Angeles, and Los Angeles theatre is adjectiveless." She added that if "a bored, tired millionaire" had coughed up the cash to mount it off-off-off-off-off-off-Broadway, that might have changed its fate, but "this is something that just stayed a film."
Kramer also notes that it is definitely not a response to #MeToo. She said, "I wrote this film way before it was fashionable to be a woman. ... I wrote this film when no one wanted to see eight women in a film together." In early drafts, she kept getting notes saying there should be a boy in there for them to all fight over – the absolute antithesis of what she wanted to achieve, which was simply "to get actresses together onscreen. ... I could get a group of girls who were fresh and blooming in their careers, and I could give them something, and they could give me something."
That didn't mean Ladyworld didn't evolve during development. Earlier versions would have been "more innocent," Kramer said, "[but] the waiting meant that it had changed a thousand times in my head. ... The culture changed. I changed. The girls changed." For example, Ryan Simpkins was one of the first actresses cast, having always been Kramer's Dolly. In the early vision, Dolly was meek, but after four years of growth and evolution and rewrites, Simpkins turned in what the director described as "a Gena Rowlands performance ... something completely fresh, which was this shrieking lunatic, someone who far more than anyone else is losing her shit."
Hawke was one of the last performers to join, having first read the script only a month before shooting while she was doing a press tour for PBS's Little Women. She was immediately drawn to Romy, the lone wolf who is forced to pick sides. She said, "I was taken by the character, and how malleable she is, and how lonely, and how smart." Signing on meant leaping into an intense production. She said, "We filmed an entire feature film in two weeks, in one house, with eight girls who were all under 21, and that is [an] intense environment to be a part of. But Amanda had such clear vision. ... The force of her creativity just powered us through."
But any off-camera unity stopped when the story demanded tribalism. Kramer said, "The camera goes on, and they're at each other's throats."
Ladyworld U.S. premiere: Sat., Sept. 22, 5pm; Mon., Sept. 24, 2pm.