The town was small enough that they all knew we were there. Everyone sort of saw their real life counterparts at the bar every night, you know? There was this doubling of life happening, which was kind of interesting.
In Lance Edmands’ Bluebird, Lesley (Amy Morton) is a schoolbus driver who gets distracted on one end-of-shift bus inspection by a bluebird fluttering about inside the vehicle. In that moment—a pause for natural beauty—she fails to notice a sleeping boy in a rear seat, only discovering him the next morning when he’s rushed to the hospital in a hypothermic coma. But Lesley is not solely culpable. Oddly, the boy’s mother (Louisa Krause) appears the least affected, having neglected to collect her son from the bus stop while knocking back a cocktail of beer and pills. The trauma spreads from there. The child’s grandmother (Margo Martindale) patiently attends the boy’s hospital bedside. Lesley’s lumberjack husband (John Slattery) and daughter (Emily Meade) cope with her distress as best as they can. Grim, cold and static, Bluebird is set in a desolate, decaying town dominated by a paper mill where the sky is gray and its residents financially vulnerable.
In this directorial debut, Edmands evenhandedly observes this small group of characters with a potent sense of place and evocative images of a frozen Millinocket, Maine, opening with a quotation from Thoreau’s “Ktaadin” that extols the region’s unspoiled wilderness, before revealing the inner workings of the town’s Grand Northern Paper Co. While Thoreau might have recoiled to see the “violence” the logging business does to his Maine woods, the film is more focused on the decline of the local economy, capturing everything in stately, arms-length widescreen on that endangered format of 35mm. And then it’s all over, with an empathetic handle on six lives irrevocably changed, all flawed in one way or another and existing in their self-imposed solitude. All told, flaws notwithstanding, Bluebird nonetheless shows Edmands’ good ear for naturalistic dialogue, guiding his cast—especially Morton—to uniformly strong, unforced performances.
Bluebird opens February 27 in New York City, Chicago, and on select VOD platforms.
How did this particular journey with Bluebird begin, Lance?
Lance Edmands: The film is kind of inspired by the location. I grew up in Maine and I’ve always been fascinated by Northern Maine in particular, which has this mythology around it that’s been explored in storytelling from Thoreau to Stephen King. There’s this forest of trees and this town where we shot the movie, which is a real town near Mt. Katahdin. It’s teetering on the brink of economic collapse. The industry is changing and the paper mills are closing. A whole way of life is changing. You have these people there who are incredibly hardworking, incredibly stoic, and tough. At the same time, they’re faced with a tremendous amount of change. I just thought there was a lot of inherent drama built into this place and really wanted to make a movie there. I spent some time there writing and worked through it. Eventually, this kind of story and characters grew out of the landscape. That’s where the seed of the idea came from.
Did you find any challenges in capturing the kind of Maine you wanted on film?
Lance: No, because we immersed ourselves in the location and shot in this place that’s kind of isolated. We really came together and lived there to experience it. We were able to incorporate the world around us into the movie in a way that made it seem seamless. As far as capturing it, I don’t know… I feel like everyone did a really good job at inhabiting the world, from the cinematography to production design. It came together in a way that I felt was pretty true to what it was.
I’m a real big fan of Jody’s [Lee Lipes] cinematography work. What kind of conversations did you have with him about the overall visual approach here?
Lance: We talked a lot about it. First of all, we shot this on 35mm, which was a challenge given that we didn’t have any money or resources. There was a lot of begging and negotiating to make that happen. Once we decided to do that, we thought it’d be really important to almost exaggerate the fact that we’d shot on film and call attention to it because it felt like it really fit the story. We underexposed the film to make it really grainy. The blacks are very milky and the colors are fading into each other. I felt that really fit the story, which is in a way about a technology that’s disappearing. These people and the place is also on that edge of falling apart. It really wasn’t an arbitrary decision. It was the way I felt was the best way to tell it visually. And, you know, Jody has a very specific thing. I’ve known Jody for 15 years. We went to film school together and became roommates when we were 20. We lived together for about six years, so we digested a lot of the same films and grew up watching movies together in our formative years. I think we’re drawn to a lot of the same types of things, you know? It’s very measured cinematography with long takes, the use of blocking and lighting to tell the story, more so than a lot of cutting and being very specific about where you put the camera. We both respond to that style.
Amy, when you’re shooting on 35mm and you know there won’t be all this coverage or get as many takes as you’d want, does that pose challenges for you?
Amy Morton: No, because I’m not a big fan of a lot of takes. [Laughs] I mean, I don’t do a whole lot of film. Before this film, I’d done a few, but I’ve never done a role this big. I’m so used to theater where you get one shot every night, you know? So a lot of takes is something that’s beyond me. I run out of ideas! I sort of liked the run and gun effect of it, I really did. I found it really easy to work that way.
What was your first reading of the screenplay like?
Amy: I just loved it. I thought it was really beautiful, intimate, and quiet. It was something I’d never done before and the fact that it would be so interior was a great challenge.
I really appreciated that about Bluebird. It’s tackling something so serious, but it’s handled in such a subtle way. Was it difficult to throw down that kind of quietly moving anchor?
Lance: Yeah, definitely. The movie is very atmosphere-driven and it’s about the interior lives of these characters. It’s the kind of movie where we’ll stage an entire scene with a character listening to the sound of music boxes, allowing the soundscape to take them over. There’s a lot of these thoughtful, ponderous moments with the characters alone experiencing grief or some sort of trauma they’re trying to deal with on the inside. In that sense, it’s difficult because not every scene is about moving the story forward. It’s a movie that really takes its time. The tough part is trying to create a sense of momentum and trying to keep the tension up. I think the hardest part was, in the edit, making sure to find ways to push things forward and make it feel like there’s progression, but at the same time, knowing we had this movie that was very quiet and about observation without it being this ticking clock or your traditional narrative engine.
Since you come from an editorial background, did you find it more difficult editing your own footage as opposed to someone else’s?
Lance: Probably, yeah. I’d be lying if I said you don’t fall in love with your own footage a little more as a director than you would as an editor. As an editor, you’re really willing to throw things away much easier.
You’re more objective.
Lance: You’re more objective, yeah. As a director, it’s like, “Yeah, but her look here is so amazing. How can we lose that?” But a lot of the time, you’re falling in love with things that people aren’t seeing. They’re so specific to what’s in your head and not reality. That’s why I brought on an editor to work with the footage with me. We kind of split it 60% him and 40% me because I needed an objective set of eyes to tell me, “No, Lance. This isn’t working. You think this is great, but it’s actually slowing things down.” I’ve edited a lot of my own stuff in the past, so I’m maybe better than “normal,” but I’m still not. I’m still too biased, you know, for the most part.
Last night at the premiere, you talked about how, from a technical standpoint, the scene with the logging truck falling to its side was difficult because you had one shot at it. From an acting point of view, what did you find most difficult, Amy?
Amy: It wasn’t difficult. The script was so well-written, the place was so authentic, and the weather was so cold. The town is so economically depressed. It wasn’t hard to get into the right frame of mind. I didn’t find this enormously difficult. It took a certain amount of focus and you had to stay quiet while you were getting into costume and things like that, but I didn’t find any of the emotional terrain incredibly difficult. I found the weather more difficult, you know? [Laughs]
What was life like outside of the actual filming there?
Amy: It was… [Laughs] There wasn’t much of a life.
Lance: Well, it was interesting because there was maybe one or two bars in town. You’d kind of see everybody every night at the bar you work with, but mixed with the town. The town was small enough that they all knew we were there. Everyone sort of saw their real life counterparts at the bar every night, you know? John [Slattery] would see loggers there and play pool with them or whatever. Louisa [Krause] would see the women in town that are a little crazy and drinking a lot of whiskey. There was this doubling of life happening, which was kind of interesting.
What was the general dialogue like between the crew and the locals?
Amy: They were really happy to see us. I mean, there was a bunch of people spending money in that town, which only helped. They were also incredibly welcoming and very nice. I got to sit and talk to a woman for a good two hours when I had her over at my hotel room just so I could get the feel of life there and she was wonderful. So, yeah, they were incredibly welcoming.
Lance: Yeah, helpful, with the locations and the logging guys as consultants especially. Sometimes, right off-camera, they were telling us, “Oh, you have to put your hand on that this way. Put your foot there.” The bus driver helping us out, I mean. Those were the real school buses and that’s the real school bus barn in that town. We really had access to all the true, authentic kind of locations. The police station is actually the police chief’s actual office and stuff. We really didn’t have to do much because they were so welcoming and open to us in everything we needed to do. It was an incredibly giving and warm community.
I’d imagine that when you shoot outside of metropolitan cities like New York and Los Angeles, you do get more help in a way.
Amy: Yeah, I’ve always found that to be true. The last movie I shot before this was in St. Louis and no one’s jaded about film, yet. [Laughs]
Lance: I also like the idea of just bringing a group of people together and transporting them somewhere faraway. There’s something to it that brings everyone together. All hands are on deck working towards this one goal. There aren’t distractions of going home to your family. I mean, I don’t want to take people away from their family, but at the same time, it’s nice to be working on something together that intimately in a remote location.
Amy, how did you reach such emotional places? In particular, I’m thinking of the scene where you breakdown before John’s character walks into the kitchen.
Amy: Thinking of that particular circumstance of being responsible for something so horrible, as long as you’re relaxed so that your mind can actually go there, it wasn’t hard at all. Also, most of my career in theater was about doing the heavy lifting emotionally, you know what I mean? So it’s something I can do quickly. You just learn that after doing it a million times over the years. It wasn’t hard. The script was so good and the place was so authentic that you just get on that train and go for the ride. The only time it was difficult was if you allow yourself to lose your focus and wander off. But, for the most part, it wasn’t hard.
What are you both working on now, aside from promoting this film?
Lance: I’m going to try and make another movie next year. I’m just trying to get all of that started all over again, pushing the boulder back up the hill.
Are you always looking to explore something completely different whenever you’re developing or taking on a new project?
Lance: Well, you know, what seems different to me other people will say, “This is such a Lance project.” [Laughs] I thought I was making something super exciting and people are like, “It’s another quiet movie.” So you can’t help your own tendencies. You are who you are. So, the things I’m interested in I’ll maintain interested in.
Your DNA is still there. How about you, Amy? Do you always look for something different?
Amy: Nobody wants to repeat themselves over and over. You’re always looking for different subject material. Right now, I’m doing a TV show that shoots in Chicago, which is where I live, so that’s been fun. Then I’m directing a play here in New York in the spring.
What’s it like working in Chicago away from the epicenters of film?
Amy: Well, that’s where I live, so it’s where I’m used to. So I guess when you ask what it’s like to work there, it’s just my life. Chicago is a great place to work because more and more shows are filming there. It’s crazy because, within the last five to seven years, there’s been a whole lot of work, which has been great. It’s a really great theater town. That’s what I’ve spent most of my life doing, so I love working in Chicago.
Is theater something you always wanted to focus on first and foremost?
Amy: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Always.
What drew you to theater?
Amy: My mom enrolled me in a drama class when I was six to get me out of the house for part of the summer. I was just, like, “Oh, okay. I think I made my decision.” It never wavered from there. It’s just what I do.
That’s a great gift your mom gave you.
Amy: No kidding, man! [Laughs]