By Danny Peary
Typically, filmmakers bring their newest films to film festivals in hopes of finding a theatrical distributor. But after its April 20 world premiere at the TriBeCa Film Festival, Brin Hill’s metaphysical romantic comedy, In Your Eyes, which was written and executive produced by Joss Whedon, was made available around the world for $5 with a digital release on the film’s website: www.inyoureyesmovie.com. The release was powered by the Vimeo On Demand platform and was translated into Spanish, German, Portuguese, French, and Japanese. It seemed appropriate that viewers could watch it simultaneously in diverse locations because it is about two people who are 2,000 miles apart who can see and experience the same things. Since they were kids, Rebecca (Zoe Kazan) and Dylan (Michael Stahl-David) have felt disconnected from everyone around them but have sensed that someone was there with them, in their heads. This connection troubled them –she spent time in an asylum, he spent time in prison–but also comforted them. She is now a lonely housewife in New Hampshire and he works in a car wash in New Mexico. Suddenly they start seeing through each other’s eyes and carrying on conversations in private and public, making everyone think they are loony. Their attraction grows and life becomes more exciting, but also more dangerous. In the future, I’ll post roundtables I participated in with Kazan, Stahl-David, and Nikki Read (who plays the one person in town who doesn’t treat Dylan as an outcast). The following is a one-on-one I did with the amiable Hill (Ball Don’t Lie) during the Festival.
Danny Peary: So you’re becoming a regular at the TriBeCa Film Festival.
Brin Hill: This is my third time here! It might be a record, I was actually wondering that the other day.
DP: Nicki Reed is in In Your Eyes as well as two others this year.
BH: People do the TriBeCa Trifecta in one year, I just spread it out over a decade.
DP: You’ve now had three experiences at TriBeCa.
BH: This has obviously been different in that we’ve gotten a lot of great press since Joss Whedon made a big announcement about the digital distribution.
DP: Tell me your background, beginning in Boston.
BH: I’ve crossed this fair country a lot. After Boston, I moved to Santa Monica, Venice, when I was twelve. I was blessed to go to art school, where I studied film history. My film professor was a professor at AFI and he was an amazing film theorist. So I always sort of knew I wanted to do that. I did a little UCLA time too. At UCLA we made 16mm, non-sync films. My film won the Spotlight Award there for me and Justin Lynd. It was this film about three kids in Venice who find a gun, and a day in their life. It was multi-cultural, one black kid, one white kid, one Latin kid. Much like Venice. Then I came back to NYU for grad school. I went straight from undergrad to grad school. I made a bunch of films at Tisch, including a short called Morning Breath, a Brooklyn love story. It went to Sundance, won a special jury prize there, and actually showed at the first TriBeCa Film Festival. I actually ended up working for Spike Lee, who was one of my professors at NYU. I worked for him on a couple of movies. We share a common love of basketball. Then I was here making various things, before going back to Santa Monica. I have been there for a while…
DP: What’s your basketball background?
BH: I played decently high-level in high school, and I played in college. I like to play three point line to three point line, no defense, just shoot. It’s not how many you make, it’s how many you take. But the wheels are already coming off over here. Three of my friends went to play in the NBA. I did not, but so we have all these guys who played in the league, Mark Jackson used to play in our game until he went to the Warriors. These guys are all so big. I’m a two-guard, I don’t go down the block. But playing with those guys, I got beat up, so I realized I was done. I play a little bit, not so much. I play with my kids now, I coach them.
DP: So did you have sports ambitions?
BH: To me, sports was always a tool that afforded me opportunities in certain respects. My high school team was really good, so I could go there and pursue art. And same with college, it got me into places and afforded me things. But the thing that Spike Lee and I used to talk about was that basketball taught me about competition. Which is the film industry in a lot of respects. So I got that lesson out of sports.
DP: I read that Joss Whedon wrote the script for In Your Eyes a while ago. What part did he play in the process of getting this film made or did he move away and leave it to you at some point?
BH: He was involved in the process. I don’t know when he wrote the script but I know it was a passion project. He and I sat down with my creative vision and he gave his two cents. Then we had the table reading with the actors. I was in New Hampshire getting ready for the shoot and flew back for the table read with the actors and Joss and one of the producers. We had Zoe Kazan and Michael Stahl-David, and Joss and I played all the other characters. When we got to New Hampshire, Mark and Zoe and I would meet and go over his scene work. Joss watched dailies and made notes. He was around, he just wasn’t on set. He and I would email. Occasionally I would need clarification on a scene that was coming up the next day, and we’d make sure we were seeing things in the same way. On a couple of occasions he sent rewrites of scenes.
DP: We’re in an age where everybody can connect but other than Dylan and Rebecca, who connect by an unusual means, people still don’t.
BH: I think Her was about that, and I like to think it’s a theme I thought about for In Your Eyes, too. Obviously connection is central to it. Joss Whedon’s writing in general, whether it’s The Avengers or Buffy, is about loner heroes who band together to overcome adversity. It’s a central theme in everything he does, so I sort of latched onto that. To me my movie is about two loner heroes finding a connection to overcome adversity. As a commentary on how we’re all trying to figure out how to navigate connection in this age, it’s timely in a lot of ways. I think it’s a metaphor for what’s going on.
DP: Having seen Ball Don’t Lie and In Your Eyes, that search for connectivity is, to me, a theme of yours as a filmmaker. But I think your major theme is the title of one of your scripts: Won’t Back Down. Certainly Dylan and Rebecca move forward despite the obstacles.
BH: For me, all the stuff that I do is about people overcoming perceived socialization and the limitations of their environment. That’s something I can relate to in terms of my neighborhood in Boston, where kids on my Little League team were socialized by what they perceived was a limited environment. So I’m always looking back at that.
DP: What do you mean by “socialization?”
BH: How society puts limitations on you based on who you are, where you’re born. Michael Stahl-David talked about it a little bit at the Q&A the other day, saying how being different in a small town is really hard, because you’re under a microscope in a lot of ways and you’re told to be a certain way. If you’re different, if you’re punk rock, if you dress differently, if you’re an artist, or if you think differently, people are going to look at you strangely. Which is why a lot of people come to a place like New York, where you can find other people like them. I think there’s an element of that in this movie, too. You hit on it, it’s a central theme for me–how do people overcome circumstance and environment when it puts constraints on you?
DP: Well, both Dylan and Rebecca, if you think about it, could have been destroyed because they never fit in. But there’s a resilience to both of them.
BH: Yeah, absolutely. For Won’t Back Down, the script that I wrote was slightly different from the movie they made, but that was the central theme. It was about the resilience of characters. Can you overcome adversity to break through and find your destiny? I think that’s what I was alluding to with Joss. He’s always telling that story about overcoming adversity to find one’s destiny, whether it’s a superhero or whether it’s two lovers..
DP: One reason I loved Buffy was the kindness of the show. It’s about Buffy doing it alone or banding together with her gang to help people in need, including each other.
BH: Yeah, that goes back to what you were talking about, connection, finding someone to help you. That’s what I meant by banding together, because you can never do it alone. The world and the universe is too big for just one voice.
DP: Of course, it’s major to your film that Dylan and Rebecca help each other.
BH: Yeah, I’m on board with that, 100%.
DP: This film is essentially about two people having a long-distance relationship. Did you have long-distance relationships?
BH: It’s funny, you’re the first person to ask that question. I hadn’t thought about it, but my wife and I dated in high school and were off-again, on-again, but never lived in the same place. So I think, like, a little bit of that seeped out into this movie. Back in the day, we didn’t have cell phones with affordable plans when we were in college, so we were always on the phone and my phone bills were just insane. That existed in my life for a long, long time.
DP: In the movie Dylan tells Rebecca that looking back on his life, she was the best thing in it.
BH: “The only thing I liked about me is you.”
DP: But as a viewer I’m wondering, did they drive each other crazy? Because they felt someone inside their heads and had no explanation.
BH: It’s true, people have brought that up. I like that people have different ideas. Different viewers have said. “I thought they’d never make it together, I thought that he’d get shot.” But they have a cynical view of what this movie is. You can’t end it that way. I think it’d be so disappointing for people because of the sweetness of this film. If you ride this journey the whole way, you want to see them get together.
DP: Did you ever think people might believe that one of the two characters didn’t exist?
BH: I thought that some people would wonder that at some point. Late in the film, when she arrives and he’s not there, I think at that moment, some viewers might think she’s bonkers and made him up because she needed that. I always thought because the script has both feet in reality, so as a filmmaker, I never went in that direction. I thought these two people are absolutely real and this is absolutely happening. I think the style of the film, the way we treated it, was all about trying to feel real and unfolding the story in real time in a real way. But I can see how a viewer might interpret it differently. I do think it’s cool that people wondered about it being real.
DP: You mentioned “destiny” before. Is this the ultimate fate movie?
BH: You know, I hadn’t thought about it on those terms, but I guess that’s true. People asked why this connection from afar is happening, what’s the explanation, and Joss and I always talked about how it happens when these two people need it the most. When they’re kids and feeling alienated from their environments, that’s when they need it. It helps them. Obviously, it freaks them out, but then they settle into it and they realize this is what they need, this is what they’ve lacked in their life. On some level you could argue that they’ve manifested it–and that would speak to their destiny in the external sense of the word. So I don’t know if it’s the ultimate fate movie, but it definitely deals with fate.
DP: You don’t give an explanation for why this is happening. Therefore, as I see it, the only explanation is that these two are destined to be together and their hearing and speaking to each other is the only way to get them together.
BH: That’s sort of how Joss and I thought about it, in the sense that they need each other at this moment in their lives. If they both appear for each other, it speaks to what we were talking about before, in terms of people needing one another to overcome adversity –or to do anything in this world. It’s hard to go it alone.
DP: I love that opening, with the young Rebecca sliding into a tree in New Hampshire and the young Dylan feeling the blow in New Mexico. I think there’s something so sweet about how a boy connects to a girl, first love. They don’t live next door to each other, it’s not a traditional small-town thing where they’ve known each other since they were kids.
BH: There’s a little bit of an old-school quality, a throwback quality to this movie, that I love. Even the beginning feels a little bit like the way 1980s movies used to open. I like that it has that feel. I wanted it to feel that way, sort of like a classic, bigger movie. I always knew the two color palettes. When I first read the script I saw blue and orange, and I don’t know if it’s because I was channeling my inner Steven Soderbergh with Traffic or all of his movies, but I wanted to define their two spaces because there is so much back and forth between them. I defined that look immediately for myself, as a director.
DP: How does it end?
BH: With a normal tone.
DP: It turns yellow, doesn’t it?
BH: A little bit, but that’s because it’s the sunset. It’s a beautiful, beautiful sunset, it’s alchemy.
DP: Michael Stahl-David is superlikeable. He actually has your vibe.
BH: I try to zen out my vibe. Michael has such an easy way about him. He’s very charismatic in this movie. I guess he was in Cloverfield, in which he played the main kid. He was also on that show The Black Donnellys, about the West Side mob. It was on for a heartbeat, and now it’s on Netflix. .
DP: In the roundtable,, Michael was joking that Dylan falls in love with himself by looking through Rebecca’s eyes. And I said, “That’s actually what he does.”
BH: It’s true. He learns to love himself and appreciate himself because that’s how someone else sees him. That is true in this film for both Dylan and Rebecca.
DP: Zoe Kazan had two movies play previous at TriBeCa, The Exploding Girl and The Pretty One, in which her characters undervalue themselves. That’s true with Rebecca as well. In all these films her characters have to find self-worth. Dylan has to do that too.
BH: Yeah, I think that’s a central theme that Michael accidentally hit on for you. It’s about appreciating one’s self. That line I quoted before–”The only thing I liked about me was you”–is more about how they see each other, and now they see themselves in a new way.
DP: They talk about what they have done for each other over the years. I would like to think that their strength comes from the other person who’s always in them, always rooting for them, always being a positive influence on them.
BH: And their personality inside the other person, it’s always been there.
DP: Another film that deals with the two people sharing bodies is All of Me, the comedy with Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin.
BH: I rewatched it before I made this movie, because I was thinking, “What movie is this like?” All these agents would say, “Are you going to shoot the movie in split-screen?” “No, I’m not shooting in split-screen.” ” POV?” No, not really.” I watched All of Me, and I saw that it’s completely different tonally. I watched it to see what it was like to have two personalities inside yourself. It wasn’t relatable to my movie. It’s just a broad slapstick comedy.
DP: It’s the premise more than anything. But usually with possession movies, one of the characters by the end disappears, and you’re left with one person. In your movie you have two individuals. The other thing we touched on before is that there’s no explanation for their supernatural connection–the Zoe Kazan-scripted Ruby Sparks is like that.
BH: Someone at a Q&A asked if Ruby Sparks inspired this, but the only thing that informed it was that Zoe acted in it. Joss hadn’t seen that movie because it hadn’t been finished yet. It’s good, it’s really fun, she’s great in it.
DP: Zoe said it was really hard acting in front of a mirror in your movie.
BH: And she’s really good in her moments in front of the mirror. She has two scenes in front of the mirror in this movie and I love both of them. It’s so interesting that she said that, because she didn’t express that on set, in the moment, But I can definitely see how that would be really hard. You can act opposite someone even if they’re hiding under a couch or off-camera and yelling their lines, but this was the first time she was actually looking at herself while in her head she has to imagine that Rebecca’s seeing Dylan.
DP: And, making it harder, Zoe is seeing herself as Rebecca through Dylan’s eyes and the audience’s eyes.
BH: It’s interesting, I didn’t think about how challenging that would be, because you’re seeing it through Dylan’s point of view and feeling the emotion he’s feeling for you, whether it’s heart-racing or whatever. That would actually be manifesting itself in what she’s feeling for him. I hadn’t thought about how complicated that is!
DP: How do you film that scene?
BH: Michael was off-camera, doing all his lines so he was present but Zoe couldn’t see him, which is true of almost all their scenes. So it was not your traditional sort of coverage. It’s a lot like what we were talking about–long-distance phone conversations.
DP: Did you ever not have Michael there to read the lines?
BH: Very rarely, because it was very important for them to be there for each other.
DP: Zoe Kazan is off-beat beautiful, and you captured it.
BH: I think she’s so charismatic and so pretty and so cute and part of that is her performance. I think she gives you a lot of different options as an actress, she has versatility. I think there’s a notion that people typecast her or pigeon-hole her into something like manic pixie, like Zoey Deschanel, but that limits her. She has so much more range than that. I think her beauty is natural, it’s not overt when you see her, but on film she’s unique-looking in a really cool way. A lot of times, Joss picks unique-looking women in his projects–like Amy Acker – people who are a little off-center in terms of who we think of as movie stars. So she sort of fits that a little bit.. I didn’t have to work at that. She’s a great actress and I think everyone falls in love with her every time.
DP: Was the long-distance “sex scene” hard to edit?
BH: It wasn’t scripted that way, it was scripted very simply. I wanted to do something that would capture how they feel for the audience. I wanted to visually share what they were going through with viewers. It breaks with reality a little bit, but I think it captures the experience that they’re going through. For me, it was, “How do I manifest this?”
DP: It’s very sensual. You had to be sensual with the male body as well as the female body, which is hard.
BH: I didn’t really think about that, it just came naturally, I guess. Our DP and editor did an amazing job cutting it, I think. It was tricky to find the right music for that, but hopefully it works for people.
DP: You made an interesting choice in regard to a relationship with her husband, Phillip (Mark Feuerstein). The choice was to have him truly love her, rather than just be completely in love with himself or love someone else. Rebecca even recalls how helpful he was to her when she had a breakdown years before.
BH: Part of that is an element of his trying to make her fit this great, perfect image of what he wants his wife to be. He meets her when she is young and insecure and molds her. I think it’s stunted her personal development and growth. There’s danger with characters like Phillip, because they don’t have a ton of real estate in the movie. There’s an element of a trope with him, but I wanted him to be at least a little three-dimensional, in the sense that he does truly love her. Whether he loves her or the idea of her is hard to know.
DP: But you could have made him more of a villain.
BH: There was a version of the movie in which I could have made him much worse. But I dulled the edges a little bit and tried to make him more three-dimensional. Mark was going against type. It was an inspired decision by all of us, collectively, to go after him for the part because we could have cast that part with someone you’d immediately think of as a villain. But we know Mark in a different way.
DP: Did Rebecca love Phillip at some point?
BH: I think so, or, here again, maybe she loved the idea of him. He did help her through a hard time. But he’s not right for her.
DP: Has Dylan ever been in love?
DP: We’re talking about fate and destiny, so have they each always thought there’s someone out there for them?
BH: Yeah, they talked about sensing there was someone with them and helping them get past things. I think in her mind, she thought that person was her husband, but over time she thought that it might be her soul mate or kindred spirit.
DP: Zoe and Michael said they would have loved to have done the film in chronological order. How about you?
BH: I see from an acting point of view how that would have been helpful, but for me I don’t know that it would have made any difference. It’s so rare that you’re afforded the opportunity to shoot things chronologically. Because of our budget, you just have to go with the logistics of trying to stick with the schedule.
DP: At the roundtable I did with her, Zoe wondered whether they will stop hearing each other once they’re together.
BH: I think they’ll stop.
DP: She also wondered what happens to the characters after the film ends.. You don’t have to tell me what happens, because it’s up to viewers to decide, but in your mind, do you know what happens? Or do you not want to know?
BH: I don’t know that I want to know, I like the idea that they just found each other. I love open endings, not that this is an open ending in a traditional way. Who knows where they’re headed?
DP: This is where you’d like to leave it?
BH: Yeah, it is a natural ending. I like the openness of it, I like people spinning their own narrative. I like to think that love can conquer all of it, no matter where they end up, no matter if they live in a boxcar for the rest of their life, or if they find a house somewhere. I believe love will conquer whatever their environment is. They’ll have a great life.
END SPOILER ALERT