Interview With Lauren Wolkstein, Co-Director Of THE STRANGE ONES
We were able to talk with Lauren Wolkstein, co-director of the thriller The Strange Ones, which is now available on VOD. We talked about the movies that inspired her, her experiences in the industry and the making of the film.
The Strange Ones is a debut by directors Lauren Wolkstein and Christopher Radcliff about two enigmatic travelers (Alex Pettyfer and James Freedson-Jackson). The tense relationship between these two characters and the uncertainty of their motivations make for a thrilling ride. Part drama, part suspense, it is a film that keeps you intrigued long after the credits roll.
I was able to speak with one of the directors, Lauren Wolkstein, and we talked about the movies that inspired her, her experiences in the industry and the making of the film!
Hello Lauren, this is Kristy Strouse from Film Inquiry, an online publication.
Lauren Wolkstein: Yes, I read your review of the film! Thank you so much for writing such wonderful and insightful things.
I appreciate that, thank you! I really enjoyed the film and I appreciate you taking the time to speak with me today.
Lauren Wolkstein: Of course.
Can you tell us a bit about your inspirations as a filmmaker?
Lauren Wolkstein: Yes, and I love that question! When I think back to where I started and what got me started, and I’m staring right now at a poster for Blue Velvet in the room that I’m in, I believe that film was the film for me. I saw it in college, and it made me realize I wanted to be a filmmaker. I think it was because it was the first time that I had seen a movie where everything felt very familiar, yet very distant. And it was the first time that I saw a movie where I could see the suburban life that I grew up in and I could see these neighborhoods that I knew.
And then what David Lynch did so well and does so well, is peel those layers back and really show the darkness that lies underneath it. And I think for me that was when I discovered that with visual storytelling, you can really expose layers upon layers upon layers. Of one image or several images together, and I think David Lynch has always been that type of inspiration for me, even until this day. And I would say other inspirations…when I saw Paris, Texas for the first time.
Road movies really left a mark on me, in terms of discovering America again in a way that I hadn’t seen before but seeing it through the lens of somebody who wasn’t from America. That was really interesting to me. And also, this idea, of kind of…these drifters and these loner type characters really finding themselves.
Blue Velvet is definitely an original film and it touches on a variety of different things. I can even see the inspiration from those two films in The Strange Ones.
Lauren Wolkstein: Yeah, it’s weird, it’s this unconscious thing, and I think having watched all these movies and having them leave impressions on me that I don’t realize, comes out in my own work. And Chris, my collaborator, also has these strong sensibilities that are very similar to mine and they all come from this place of watching these movies that have left impressions on us when we were younger. It’s really interesting- we didn’t consciously think “Oh, this inspired that movie, or this was inspired by this movie.” But it’s all part of our collective understanding of it.
Definitely, and I think you put that well. I think we are all fans to begin with, so you take pieces from everything that you watch and love.
Lauren Wolkstein: Exactly
You have made several short films. Can you tell us how you began in this business?
Lauren Wolkstein: Sure. I started making shorts in college, when I went to undergrad. I started out as a computer science major, which is like a completely different life, but then I realized that I didn’t want to be behind a computer for all hours of the day and night coding. I wanted to be out there making stuff with people and expressing things. So that’s why I started finding film in college, when I went to the movies and I saw Blue Velvet and I started taking film classes and experimental film, with 8MM etc and really started out experimenting with visuals and non-narrative.
And then when I graduated college I started working in commercials and being a PA on things in NY. I moved out to NY because my family was close by. I grew up in Baltimore MD, and my grandparents lived in New Jersey, so it felt like staying on the east coast was the right decision to make. It was either that or LA, but I had so much family in NY that I applied for film school there just to really kind of hone the craft and figure out how to direct, and how to tell a story. In a way that I hadn’t learned in undergrad.
So, I applied to film school at Columbia University and I went there for five years and really started to develop my voice there with my cohorts, my fellow Columbia classmates. And it was there that I met Chris Radcliff. We made The Strange Ones together, and we both really liked each other’s work, and each other’s sensibilities. We had made short films there separately, at Columbia, and had just finished our thesis films, which we both made independently.
Then Chris and I decided that we wanted to team up and see what that would look like together. And it just felt like this…natural organic collaboration. That was really exciting for both of us because we could brainstorm and think about story together and bounce ideas off of each other where before we were trying to figure out things alone, so it was really nice. That’s where that collaboration started. And then we made the short for The Strange Ones in 2010 right before we graduated from Columbia.
After we graduated we decided to expand that into a feature and it took us about six years to really get that story the way it needed to be, structured, with the right way of telling that story. In between that time, we didn’t want to not be directing, so both Chris and I decided to each make short films while we were polishing up the feature script. So, we both made separate shorts, that we helped each other make. Then we were able to make the feature in 2016!
Was there something about that short in particular that made you decide to do that as your first feature?
Lauren Wolkstein: Yeah, I think because for Chris and I, we had both done so much research around the true crimes that it is loosely based off of. It is partially based off an amalgamation of a bunch of different kidnapping stories that we were reading at the time. So, when we wrote the short film, we had amassed this sort of archive of so many different stories that we had been researching. When we wrote the short film, we knew where these characters were going. The short is just the motel sequence in the feature, kind of like a condensed version of that, where the boy tells the motel clerk where they are coming from and what happened, and to be scared of this guy.
When we wrote the short we knew where these characters had been, what their story was, so it just felt like a natural progression for us to finish telling that story. Even though we hadn’t set out to make the feature, we had just set out to make the short, but in making the short and really developing these characters, really understanding who these people are, we realized that there is this whole backstory that we had created that nobody really knew.
And so, when people were really excited about the short and had said “oh what happens to them? Where are they going next?” We already knew the answer to that. So, it just felt like…oh let’s keep telling the story because we are not done with these characters. This feels like a natural step forward to make this a feature rather than our other shorts. Because it was something that we had both worked on extensively we knew exactly where the story was headed. Whereas the other films were more realized as short films.
Well that makes perfect sense and I’m glad you decided to do it!
Lauren Wolkstein: Thank you!
Now, with the collaboration, you co-wrote, co-edited and co-directed with Christopher Radcliff, can you tell us how that worked as far as the distribution of work, directing styles?
Lauren Wolkstein: Sure, yeah. It was our first feature. We knew we only had twenty days to shoot the film, so we would have to be very efficient. And the way we worked together on set, we figured we couldn’t stop and discuss things for too long, or really have long conversations about what to do or where to put the camera. So, we really spent all of our time in prep, working everyday around the clock to really figure out the pre-visualization of the film and how every shot would look and how every scene would be broken down.
We spent that time in prep, really figuring out the look and the feel of how everything would be shaped and crafted, so that when we got on set it would just be kind of a natural execution of the vision we laid out. And then we were just able to work with our actors and help them find who they were from moment to moment. So, it was really nice to have both of us there for our first feature and have everything planned from beat to beat.
That way if Chris had an adjustment to make with an actor he would just give that adjustment. And then if I had something different to tell the actor, like we wanted a different emotion, I would just say that and do another take. Rather than us sort of conferencing about which way would be better. Since we were shooting digitally we could just keep doing take after take if we needed to, but we found we were mostly on the same page for everything which was really nice. We had planned everything for so many years.
Yeah, I am sure there is a level of comfort there, having worked together.
Lauren Wolkstein: Yeah, we went to film school together, so we kind of shared that common language. Since film school we had made all of our shorts together, in one capacity or another. So, it just felt very familiar.
That’s good. You are a great directing team. Do you see yourself doing things going forward as well? Do you currently have any future plans together?
Lauren Wolkstein: Yes, we would love to work together again. Given the right project I think. For now, both Chris and I are developing individual features to work on, for the next projects. But we always say we are so excited to find the next project that we can do together. The next thing that we find inspiration for that we feel we have to make together, which I am sure will happen soon because we had such a great time making this movie, we will do. We both trust each other’s instincts so well that it just feels like…of course we are going to make another movie together!
Understandable. To go back to the film – obviously everyone is terrific, but I really feel like this is Sam’s (James Freedson-Jackson) story. Can you tell us about the casting involved with him?
Lauren Wolkstein: Sure, James was a real find for us. He is amazing, our casting director Jessica Daniels in NY brought in all of these kids for us to see and as soon as James walked into the room, we knew there was something special about him. He had this like raw energy and he was able to deliver the lines in the audition in a way that felt very natural and that felt like he was doing a lot with very little. A lot of the kids we saw were indicating how they were feeling and were very theatrical, and James was very restrained.
You could tell something was going on behind his eyes that he was processing things in a very complex way. He was a lot more mature than a lot of the other kids we saw. And a lot of the kids we saw were a few years older than James so it was really fascinating. When he came in he was only 14, but he had maturity beyond his years, and for us that was really exciting to find in a kid. One that could really understand the material at a level that the other kids couldn’t, and yet he was younger than them! So that was really interesting to us. He really took to the material and really rose to the challenge of playing this very tragic character.
And that really comes across on screen. He has a very big presence.
Lauren Wolkstein: Yes, he’s a fantastic actor and I really hope more people work with him in the future.
Yes, I look forward to seeing what else he does going forward. On the other end of the spectrum, Alex Pettyfer (Nick), is in a kind of role I hadn’t seen him do before. Did you have him in mind?
Lauren Wolkstein: Yeah, Alex actually came to us before James did. Chris and I didn’t have him in mind when we wrote the script. We were kind of taking it around and Alex had read it. He wanted to come in and audition, and I didn’t really know about his work other than Magic Mike, which I thought was fantastic. I loved Alex in that movie, but I didn’t really know who he was or what type of actor he was. Other than being in a lot of Hollywood movies. So, when he came in, we were kind of like “Are you really sure you want to do this? This is an independent film, we won’t have trailers, we will pretty much be camping upstate. Is that okay?”
And he was totally down for it. Really open. He really sort of blew us away with the amount of work he did for the character, and he really understood the character when he read the script. He really dived right into it in a way that was exciting for us. He wanted to show how versatile he was, and that he wasn’t just this kind Hollywood star/good looking guy, that he really had a lot of depth to him. He showed he could be very vulnerable, and he really exposed himself in a way that he hadn’t before. Because the movie is really about male weakness and male vulnerability. He was really open to doing that and going to those dark places with us.
There were a lot of layers to his character and he executed that well. Both characters were terrific. But also, the setting/locations, obviously there is a mood, even the score…there is a lot to it that gives it this kind of uncertainty and suspense. It all made a difference. Did you choose the locations with this in mind? Did you have certain areas planned to shoot in?
Lauren Wolkstein: Yeah, thank you so much for saying that about the locations, because that was really important to us. We wanted to find a place in America NY that had this sort of timelessness, this sense of not really knowing what time period this place came from. Not really knowing the specificity of where this place was in America and getting lost in nature and the landscape. And for us Upstate NY kind of had all of these things. In the Hudson Valley region.
It kind of has this feeling of like time past, and of these places that used to be very vibrant, that were kind of left behind. So, when we filmed in the Catskills at the motel, it felt kind of like a motel that was plucked out of another generation, another time period, and that was really exciting for us. Because it didn’t feel modern, it didn’t feel like you could watch this movie and say “I know exactly where they are.” Because we didn’t want that to be the case. We wanted it to feel like a mood or a setting that was very ethereal, and that it could be kind of any place in America. A very remote, in the middle of nowhere location. And upstate NY had all these regions for us, that we didn’t even know existed before we went location scouting.
Well I think it was a great choice. It captures all of that.
Lauren Wolkstein: Thank you!
My last question, you mentioned that you had a feature in mind going forward. Is there anything you can tell us about that project?
Lauren Wolkstein: Sure! I am working on writing a story about a female poker player that takes place in Atlantic City. Also kind of a place that is out of time. You know a weird little area, but I am really excited to be exploring this subculture of poker and gambling. That’s what I am working on right now.
Very cool, we look forward to it! Again, congratulations on The Strange Ones and thank you for taking the time to speak with me today!
Lauren Wolkstein: Thank you!
Film Inquiry would like to thank Lauren Wolkstein for taking the time out of her busy schedule to talk with us.
The Strange Ones is currently streaming on DirecTV and was released on January 5th. To read our review click here.
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