The hardest part of the job was in figuring out how to craft the movie so it would be open for multiple interpretations.
Chris Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein’s feature-length debut The Strange Ones is an expansion of the co-directors’ 2011 short of the same title, which was hugely successful on the festival circuit.
The deliberately opaque narrative is anchored by James Freedson-Jackson as teen boy Sam who’s on a camping trip with older companion Nick (Alex Pettyfer). Things are most definitely not what they seem. Are they brothers? Are they runaways? Fugitives? Revealing this discordant relationship in the tiniest of dollops, and scrambling our findings with its share of misdirections, The Strange Ones gives way to a dark possibility that the boy’s an innocent caught up with a dangerous man—maybe a pedophile. It’s not much later that we begin to question the boy’s mental faculties as well: his inability to recall his past, or even his understanding of current reality. The cryptic material leaves a lot at the margins, having less to do with literal events but rather the boy’s limited understanding of them, and how it opens up once he’s pressed to explore his true feelings.
The Strange Ones is an artful assembly, and a mastering of atmosphere and mood. It features a boundary-pushing performance by Pettyfer, signaling a new direction for the English actor.
Anthem spoke to Radcliff and Wolkstein about ticking similar sensibilities in a co-directing capacity, spinning a complex yarn through an unreliable narrator, and their plans for a new project.
The Strange Ones hits select theaters on January 5.
When this movie was brought to my attention recently, it took me a while to realize that it’s the expansion of your 2011 short film starring David Call. Was that a proof of concept?
Chris Radcliff: We didn’t really think of the short as a proof of concept. Even though there’s a sequence in the feature that overlaps with the short, we tend to think of them as self-contained. With the short, we set out to make the best short film we could and the feature was its own separate entity. From a creative point of view, it’s very difficult to try and equate them and think of them as the same thing because the dramatic rules and structures have different demands and obstacles. As much as we could, we tried to keep them distinct from each other. But they definitely came from the same well of inspiration and source material.
The film raises a lot of questions without providing any easy answers, especially when it comes to the nature of Sam and Nick’s ambiguous pairing. It’s certainly open-ended enough to invite different conclusions. I wonder if it’s more explicit in your minds as creators.
Lauren Wolkstein: Yeah, we both kind of knew where the characters were coming from and what actually happens to them and what their relationship was. For us, the hardest part of the job was in figuring out how to craft the movie so it would be open for multiple interpretations. For any given scene, you can see the characters in a different way in how they are to each other because we wanted to ground it in Sam’s perspective and his confusion as to what’s really going on, what’s real and what’s not real, and what his relationship is to Nick. So we knew objectively what happened with these characters, but the real challenge for us was to create the story in such a way that the audience has to try to understand it in the same way that Sam is experiencing it, being confused and going through all the emotional beats throughout the journey.
Chris: Yeah, we did have very explicit and specific ideas as to what actually happens between them and what their real relationship is. We really needed to be specific about those ideas when we were working with our actors because they have to play it as if it’s real. We needed to give them a sense of reality. As Lauren said, we wanted to be able to then take that and express it in this ambiguous way. We think that reflects more accurately the subjective nature of the story from Sam’s point of view. Sam is a teenage kid who’s going through a confusing experience. In terms of how we told the story and gave the audience information—and conflicting information—it’s all tied to Sam’s point of view, his memories, and his sense of what’s real and what’s not.
It’s an unpredictable moviegoing experience with some larger abstractions and a lot of misdirection throughout. How much of that was found in the editing room?
Chris: This was a difficult process just because we started editing immediately after we shot the film. Lauren and I edited the film ourselves. It’s a very mentally and creatively demanding thing to do, and most directors don’t edit their films themselves. We first went through the process of using everything we had and then stripping everything away that we thought might be unnecessary. Then it’s about, “What do we need to add back in? How can we change things to make the story better?” Ultimately, the final edit on this film reflects pretty consistently what the original script was in terms of its beginning, middle, and end. It ended up reflecting our original intentions pretty closely.
Lauren: Yeah, definitely.
I understand that you were inspired by true crime events. Maybe it’s an amagalmation of different things, but were there specific cases that you were especially drawn to?
Chris: There were definitely a few.
Lauren: There wasn’t one specific case that we were attached to. It was a bunch of different kidnapping cases that were happening around the same time. But what we find really interesting about all these different cases is that everyone seems to know the truth about what really happened when they weren’t actually there. So many people were actually a part of it and know the truth, but often, there’s only one person’s story to go by. That was really interesting to us. So it’s about this idea of truth: “How do we believe one person’s story when we don’t have all the facts and we weren’t actually there?” Reading about all these true crime cases, you’re being told one thing without really knowing what happened.
Chris: There’s one case that we can maybe mention that kind of influenced us in how the film would deal with whether people are lying or not, and what’s real or not. In 2013, a teenage girl named Hannah Anderson was kidnapped and her family was murdered. Her kidnapper was an older family friend who ended up getting shot and killed while they were on the run. The story was pretty cut and dry at first glance because she was kidnapped and this guy killed her family, but publicly, there was all this speculation about whether she was culpable. They found some text messaging and her behavior seemed off afterwards, so people started questioning her account of what had happened. At the same time, there was a general read on the case that, basically, she’s a child and we need to remember that. That wasn’t necessarily the biggest case that we drew from, but it was in some ways inspirational in how we wanted to capture that dynamic between truth and fiction, and how trustworthy a character is at any given time.
Sam is your quintessential unreliable narrator. He has trouble separating dreams from wakefulness. He can’t seem to recall the circumstances surrounding the death of his father, who may have abused him. But he’s also alarmingly frank when he speaks.
Chris: It’s a relatively difficult undertaking to tell a story through an unreliable narrator. Pretty early on in the process, we decided that we wanted to just tell the story from Sam’s perspective as truthfully and honestly as possible, even if his perspective is sometimes skewed or even if he’s outright lying to people. For instance, Lauren and I had a rule for ourselves when we were writing the script that everything we put on screen would be the truth, whereas everything that the characters say is a poor interpretation in terms of whether or not they’re lying. That helped guide us through the process of telling the story through an unreliable narrator, as opposed to thinking that because he’s unreliable that gives us the license to do whatever we wanted. It gave us a more clear-cut sense of how we would tell the story, how we engage with an unreliable narrator, and how to separate what’s true and what’s not.
The film has this incredible flute-forward score. It perfectly captures the film’s peculiar mood and atmosphere. How did you arrive at this kind of musical phrase?
Lauren: I’m so glad that you liked it and that it worked. We worked with Brian McOmber, the composer. He came with a bunch of different references to movies that we really liked. The sound actually felt like its own character, like its own element in the movie, and that really helps with the mood and the tone of the film. Then we worked with him to find the flute sound. It felt like a distinct instrument that really indicates the things that are going on in Sam’s head and how he was feeling, and in term of creating this ambiguity of innocence. But there’s also something very off about it that puts you on edge. So that’s how we came to the distinct flute sound. Working with Brian and finding just the right sound was an amazing process.
It’s just so unusual, but in the best possible way. It’s not an obvious choice.
Chris: That’s really great to hear because it felt truly perfect for the movie. It really captures the different nuances of the story and the ambiguity without taking the audience in a very specific and dramatic direction. We’re super happy with it. The fact that it’s peculiar and distinct and gives the film a new dimension—it was not part of the script stage or the shooting of the movie. For us, it’s so rewarding. We’re always excited when people appreciate those aspects of the film, so thank you.
Who boarded the project first, James [Freedson-Jackson] or Alex [Pettyfer]?
Lauren: We got Alex first, right?
Chris: Yeah, it was Alex.
Lauren: Then the casting director brought in all these different boys and James stood out amongst all of them. He was somebody that really exuded this natural maturity for his age and he didn’t indicate much. You could tell there was a lot going on in his eyes. You could tell that he was processing a lot. So there were a lot of complexities that was really interesting to us. When Alex first met James, their chemistry was immediately great. Alex said to us, “That’s the guy, right?” I think it was a pretty easy decision after hearing him say that. They already started acting like brothers and had great chemistry.
Chris: They had a really great visual chemistry as well. We knew the ambiguity we wanted to present in terms of their relationship. It was a pretty narrow field to work with in terms of age and physical appearance. Once we had Alex in place, James was in those parameters. They had natural chemistry, too, apart from being the right pair visually.
I remember Alex saying that this was his first time working with two directors on a movie. I can imagine being a co-director has many upsides and challenges. How did you first meet?
Lauren: Chris and I met in film school at Columbia University. We were really good friends already. We made our own works before teaming up together and making The Strange Ones. We both respected each other’s sensibilities and had mutual respect for each other’s works. It felt natural to collaborate on something together so we decided to try to make something for the little money that we had. We wanted to use both of our sensibilities to tell a story that was driven by tone and atmosphere because that’s what we both really responded to and the kind of films we liked and the stories that we like to tell. It was a natural progression for us to work together.
Chris: Our coming to be collaborators and co-directors is based on our friendship and mutual admiration for each other’s works, but in a way also because our sensibilities matched up in key ways creatively. The things Lauren does on her own are different from what I do on my own, but there are key qualities that overlap between us. I think it made for a particularly fruitful collaboration because The Strange Ones feels very true to who we both are. But also, it’s very different and something that neither one of us would’ve made on our own. In that way, I think it’s a great collaboration. I honestly don’t know what I would’ve done or what the movie would look like if I had made it on my own. It’s so far beyond that point and I can’t even dream of it.
Getting any film made, big or small, is obviously a Herculean task. I’m sure there are so many lessons learned on any given project, but can you pick out something that was particularly challenging to you on The Strange Ones?
Lauren: So many lessons…
Chris: [Laughs] There’s a lot of micro lessons in terms of working on set and how to properly collaborate with different crew members. On a creative level as a writer, director, filmmaker, or whatever, I think a big lesson we both learned was how to trust our own instincts and when to seek objectivity from other people. Because this movie is so much about perspective and ambiguity, as opposed to a more traditional movie, the audience’s experiences really varies from person to person. Over the course of making this film, we found that we really had to believe in our instincts and follow them. That was really crucial, even though we were creating something that was meant to be taken in multiple ways. We needed a strong foundation in which to create. It’s very nuanced and it’s something that I’ll continue to take with me into future projects.
This is a really difficult film to discuss without saying too much. I mean, it’s easy to believe that Sam and Nick are in fact brothers at the outset. But the gay undertones are frequent and uncomfortable in that context. We cross into a possible friend and babysitter territory. Of course, there’s potential pedophilia. Do people come up to you all the time with unexpected readings into what’s going on between the two of them?
Lauren: Yes, all the time. We get all sorts of different things. I just don’t want to say anything in particular because that might make people think that was our intention or interpretation. It’s amazing that people have their own ideas of what happens and believes that to be true.
Chris: I’m always surprised, in a good way, even though we did intend for this, whenever people relate on an emotional level to Sam and feel for him. His journey in the story is relatively dark and very intense and not a common experience at all. We made the film from a place of trying to be emotionally truthful and sympathetic as possible, and we were hoping that audiences would identify with Sam and understand him. But at the same time, I’m always surprised when people actually have that response because we’re bracing for people to be really put off by him or think that he’s evil or something. When people read between the lines and get underneath the material, I’m always pleasantly surprised by that.
Early on in the film, I remember exploring the possibility that Nick is a figment of Sam’s imagination. It felt like an outlandish reading, but at the same time, it seemed plausible because the narrative flow is so unpredictable. That was my subjective reading.
Chris: Yeah, totally. I love it when people have a reading similar to yours: not sure if Nick’s real or not, or some people even think that they’re versions of the same person. For us, that’s exciting because we made the film from a place of knowing exactly what’s real and what’s not in a reality-based way of filmmaking. But also, as I said before, we wanted to tell a story with a sense of subjectivity where reality and fiction become intertwined and interchangeable. That was the most accurate and realistic way of expressing Sam’s subjectivity. For us, the more fantastical readings are really fun and validating. Also, they key into the thematic layers of the film that goes beyond just the nuts and bolts of the events that people witness on screen. I think it speaks to a deeper reading of the film that you’re maybe having as a viewer and we find that really rewarding. It’s satisfying to hear that people are putting that much thought into what they’re seeing.
So what’s next for you guys?
Lauren: Right now, we’re both writing separate films and trying to figure out what we’re going to do together again. We both love working together so hopefully we’ll find another project.
Chris: There are key similarities genre-wise and in terms of the stories that we’re telling or hoping to tell next, in ways that are similar to The Strange Ones, but also very different. We’ve been working together for a long time on this project so I think we’re just kind of in that scary but exciting place of seeing what happens next. That’s sort of where my mind is at right now.