Lara Jean Gallagher heightens visual storytelling in her first feature “Clementine”

You can’t watch Lara Jean Gallagher’s film without thinking of the 1966 classic “Persona”, directed by Ingmar Bergman, especially one scene, when Bibi Andersson is talking to Liv Ullmann about a sexual experience on the beach. The description is so vivid that you’re hanging on her every word. You find yourself sharing her feelings as she brings us to a time when she was a girl, laying on the beach with her friend, and experimenting sexually. You can almost smell the salt water, feel the sweat from the hot sun, and taste the ocean air as it courses through your lungs, just by the dripping of her words. Lara Jean brought out a similar performance through Sydney Sweeney as Lana. Her monologue will give you shivers. Otmara Marrero also brings a powerhouse performance as Karen. She plays a woman who is dealing with a difficult breakup as Lana comes into her life. Their relationship is sensual in a way, and prickly.

Lara Jean Gallagher

Three directors over the past year have made films that I have not only watched but felt: “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” by Céline Sciamma, “Shirley” by Josephine Decker, and now “Clementine”. The film’s brilliance is a testament to Lana Jean Gallagher’s direction. Being her first feature film, I can’t wait to see what follows. Read our conversation as we discuss how she worked through the constraints of a small project, her luck casting two talented women, and the parallels of the film “Persona” to “Clementine”. “Clementine” is now streaming through virtual cinemas. If you’re going to watch one film this weekend, I recommend this one.

REBECCA MARTIN: How did you get to this project?

LARA JEAN GALLAGHER: “Clementine” was something I wrote. I was developing another project that was going to be my first feature. It just became clear that it was too big. I really wanted to write something that I didn’t need anyone else to say yes to and focus on strong female performances. Being greenlit didn’t matter, because I could just do it on my own and in Oregon. The logistical inspiration drove me to challenge myself to see if I could make something that was compelling. I wanted to make the film about this female dynamic that I really hadn’t seen onscreen that often. I feel like there is often the older male character and the younger woman. We know where that goes, and you kind of know what that is. I thought it would be interesting if it was an older woman instead and how our expectations are just different in that scenario, and maybe they shouldn’t be. So that was the nugget that got me going. 

“Clementine”

MARTIN: Something that stood out to me was the editing, as this is a mystery film. I love how the trick of the eye can tell a story, specifically with the relationships. What was your thought process with the editing and the storytelling?

GALLAGHER: My partner was actually the editor. It was really just us in the spare bedroom that we turned into an editing suite, hashing it out every day. It was a really challenging experience. For a project like this, the pacing is so critical, like the difference between something feeling intense because it’s long or slow because it’s boring. I think it is a real delicate balance, and having someone you trust to beat that out with you and find that rhythm is really important. I don’t think a more traditional or professional set up would work for a film like this one. It really needed to be discovered in the editing room, and really kind of ruthlessly. I think there’s insecurity with making a first feature, or anything that’s personal. Struggling to create, having a relationship with the editor that’s caring beyond the material, somebody who really just wants to help me achieve this thing, and communicate something that is personal, I couldn’t imagine it being another way. Although in the beginning, that was not the plan. My partner and I thought that being too close would get in the way of it being successful. But actually it was a wonderful collaboration and we did get engaged and married during the process too.

MARTIN: Congratulations!

GALLAGHER: Thanks, and yeah sometimes someone has to see you at your most vulnerable to know that you can both really work together as a team. 

MARTIN: That’s beautiful! What an amazing story.

Sydney Sweeney and Otmara Marrero

Switching gears, how was it working with the two actors, Sydney Sweeney and Otmara Marrero?

GALLAGHER: We really thought it was important with the limited money that we had be put toward a casting director, and really try to get the best possible people we could for the two roles, because really that’s the whole movie. We worked with a great casting director in LA who just liked the script and was willing to go down the road for a really small project. The casting was virtual, and the casting director would hold the calls and send me tapes. We ended up just having a Skype session with Sydney and Ot, along with a couple phone calls, and that was it. I didn’t meet them in person until they showed up in Oregon. It’s just crazy thinking back to it now, and it worked out beautifully. I’m so happy about who I cast. I ask myself, ‘How could that have happened? How could I have been so lucky?’ It was a real risk. We did not have any prep together, we didn’t do any rehearsals beforehand.

MARTIN: Wow! That’s insane. The two of them had such great chemistry together. 

GALLAGHER: There was a little bit of rewriting to connect best with who they were. But I think you just have to do this with small projects. Like casting people who are the characters in a way or writing the characters to play to your actors’ strengths. With Sydney, part of the reason why I really loved her for the part is she kind of just is this character. Not necessarily by her past or by what’s she’s done, or anything like that, but she’s from the northwest, a small town, and is incredibly ambitious. Sydney understands the drive of her character, Lana. I’m also from a small town on a lake. So you know it’s just recognizing this thing in her, being an ambitious woman, but living in a small town where there is that sense of entrapment. And also this insecurity of, “Am I good enough? Am I bigger than my small town?” That kind of question. I just really knew, even from conversations, that she got that, which to me was the fundamental element of that character.

Sydney Sweeney and Otmara Marrero

And then for Ot, what was really cool was she’d never been to Oregon or the Pacific Northwest. With Ot freezing the entire time, just her physical discomfort, you could really sense that, and by being a city person, she’s originally from Miami. For her, just being in the woods was not exciting. She doesn’t want to go on a hike, she doesn’t want to see what’s around that tree, she’s like “get me inside”. That kind of really worked with the idea of wanting to be in this beautiful place, but not wanting it to feel like a vacation. And kind of trying to find and ride that line to who Ot was, and allowing her to embrace how she actually felt about the environment was important. 

They both did a lot of preparation on their own. Ot has some really amazing stories about this dream work she was doing at the time, which allowed her to go deeper with the character. That was important to her because there were three or four days before the beginning of the shoot she was by herself. Which is really hard for an actor, to be just like sweeping up glass, looking at books, just totally being by yourself, and structuring the shoot that way. I think she was actually really excited for there to be another actor there. And that’s when Sydney came in on day four. Building in that kind of reality I think helped. 

Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullman in “Persona”

MARTIN: I couldn’t help thinking of films like “Persona” and “3 Women” when I was watching this film. The relationship between the women in “Clementine” was very fluid in a similar way. Were you intentionally trying to capture that kind of fluidity in their relationship?

GALLAGHER: Thematically I was really interested in the idea of cyclical relationships, about how you can be hurt in a relationship and then turn around and hurt somebody else in the exact same way. What is that? Why does that happen? This was something that was really interesting to me. Like in the film, Karen is at a crossroads with her breakup, is she going to do the same thing to this person that was done to her? Can she hurt her to help her, as her form of growth? That kind of thing. 

Both of the films you mentioned were big inspirations, especially “Persona” with the drama coming from the storytelling between these two women, especially when one of them is not even talking, and how that can be compelling. As an audience, you fill in the blanks and imagine things, even if they are not seen onscreen. I was thinking about that a lot, especially in that big monologue in “Clementine”.

MARTIN: With Lana?

GALLAGHER: Yes. It’s interesting thinking about “Persona”. That monologue when Alma [Bibi Andersson] talks about having sex with that guy on the beach–for a long time, in my mind, I thought that they show the flashback to that in the movie. Then I realized, “No, that’s just me doing that.” I was really fascinated by that, and thought that might have something to do with what’s sensual to a woman versus a man. That was an interesting thing that I wanted to experiment with and see what we could do. So yeah, definitely big influences, and “3 Women” is amazing.

Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall in “3 Women”

MARTIN: That’s the wonderful thing about great films like yours, it reminds you of the greats. There is such a power to your storytelling that I love.

GALLAGHER: Thank you! 

MARTIN: Do you have any advice for emerging female filmmakers?

GALLAGHER: I think they should start with writing, because it’s cheap and it’s free. I think for me, even though I’ve always wanted to direct and that was always the goal, if I didn’t also write and produce, I wouldn’t get to direct. They really all go hand in hand, especially on small projects. Again, that’s going back to that idea of taking away the need for someone to green light something. If you can produce, write, and direct, there you go. That’s the best thing that you can do, and also writing is just a great way to know what kind of stories you want to tell. Then you’re able to identify that in other scripts and other projects. So writing is really important to me and always has been. 

As for other advice, I’d tell them to figure out any way they can to just do it. For me, there’s always this idea that there is more to learn and there is more to do, and that you need to get to this point. But I think even with “Clementine”, I learned so much from doing it. I’m really excited now to do it again. So don’t wait and just do it is my advice.

MARTIN: Right, I’m glad that you didn’t wait, and that you were able to do a festival run before all of this happened. You went to Tribeca last year, right? 

GALLAGHER: Yes we did, and my heart just breaks for all of the Tribeca films this year that didn’t get to have that experience. Our international premiere was supposed to be in March at BFI Flare. We were going to be going to London. So that was sad, but at the same time we can’t complain. We had a great year of festivals. I think doing the virtual release is really exciting to capitalize and be present in the moment. Just trying to get as many people to see it as we can, and maybe it’ll be more than if it had gone to theatres, who knows. 

MARTIN: Well I’m looking forward to the streaming premiere, and what a great way to stream through supporting movie theatres. I love that you are going the virtual cinema route.

GALLAGHER: We’re the first film that Oscillscope is releasing solely to virtual cinemas. “Saint Frances” started in theaters and then had to pivot to the virtual cinemas. So this is an interesting time. We will then eventually be streaming on other online platforms, but starting out through the virtual cinemas.

A must-read for female filmmakers is a personal essay by Lara Jean Gallagher overcoming her challenges during the editing process of “Clementine”.

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