Sabrina Doyle shows the beauty of embracing change through ‘Lorelei’

Before we got into speaking about her film “Lorelei”, director Sabrina Doyle and I couldn’t help talking about the trying times we are in, and how difficult it is for everyone, regardless of their situation. After viewing “Lorelei”, I realized that this film is exactly what we need right now. The movie centers on a man [Pablo Schreiber] who is released from prison after 15 years. He reunites with his high school girlfriend [Jena Malone], now a single mother of three.

Through their meeting, we see how the past needs to be let go, and that change, finding yourself, and not trying to do what is expected brings hope. The message is stay true to yourself, and embrace the change. The film is beautifully shot, and embedded throughout it are motifs of oceans and waters and mermaids. “Lorelei” was supposed to have its in-person premiere at Tribeca Film Festival, but the film is currently seeking distribution.

Sabrina Doyle on set

REBECCA MARTIN: What brought you to this particular project?

SABRINA DOYLE: As a filmmaker you sometimes get lucky when someone is willing to fund your film. Somebody was willing to fund my film if I made the main character a stepfather with children who are not his biological children. That was the condition of the company with this character. So I was like, “Yeah, wow”. For someone who had struggled to get funding for their movie, as any independent filmmaker does, you take the opportunities when they come, and that seemed like an enormous opportunity. The person that I was working with at the time, an executive producer, is such a wonderful a person, and happened to be a stepfather themself. It just felt really serendipitous. 

So I thought about the films that I love about fatherhood. Immediately I thought about “Paris, Texas”, which is a film that I love, period. I liked the idea of telling a story about the American dream, about fathers and about expectations, failed expectations. Telling a story about catastrophic failure. And after catastrophic failure doing something meaningful, that isn’t perfect. It isn’t what it should have been and could have been, but something meaningful. For a child, it could be something life-changing. 

“Paris, Texas”

I thought about the stepfather story. It’s a sequential story about a second childhood. You didn’t do it the way you thought you’d do it, a different way, but it’s still great. When I just think about how I felt about writing this film almost four years ago–I started writing in the fall, around the presidential election here in the US–that we are just so stuck in the past, culturally at home as well as in the UK with Brexit, and so stuck on what should have been. Like things were great back then and why can’t we stay in that moment? And I just wanted to make this film about the magic and the virtue of change, embracing change and letting yourself go with it.

That’s how I found my way into that story. I managed to start out in that arena of making a meaningful film about a stepfather. I arrived at this inspired by “Paris, Texas”, and also looking culturally at the moment we’re in, and the nostalgia. You don’t want to undermine the past, you build your sense of identity from the past, which is kind of the spirit of it. You don’t want to say to people to forget the past. The past matters, but I also think we say, especially in the west, that we hold on to the past too tightly. The world is changing. And that’s a scary thing, especially for people who have status, and no longer have status, or people’s status who’ve changed a lot. So I thought, ‘Let’s look at change as something positive, and use the children to represent change and the future, using them as the vessel for that.’  

Sabrina Doyle on “Lorelei” set

MARTIN: I love that. There are so many things I loved about what you said. I wanted to get a little background on you. I know that you grew up in the UK and were a journalist, then came to the US, and attended AFI. When did you come to the US?

DOYLE: I came to the US in 2010. I got a full ride scholarship to study Directing at the American Film Institute. 

MARTIN: I love how filmmakers who are not from the US capture the country from an outside perspective in their films, like Wim Wenders in “Paris, Texas”, and nail it. You touched on various themes like “Paris, Texas”, especially through the character Dolores, played by Jena Malone. She is fantastic in the film. You can see that Dolores feels held back by her past, but has a dream, and how she goes about pursuing it is beautiful, in a way. 

DOYLE: Well before I even came to the US, I felt that I knew the US. You just grow up being in love with American cinema, at least the mythology of it. That’s deeply ingrained in me. I’m also mindful of the fact that this isn’t my culture. We spent a lot of time before we shot the film in rural Oregon, visiting small towns, talking to bikers, and people in the motorcycle club culture. We’d been to the prison, and visited the halfway houses. We wanted to do the film from a place of having done the research. I think that’s important, especially when you’re telling a story that is outside of your immediate experience. That was really helpful.

Jena Malone in “Lorelei”

MARTIN: What were you trying to convey onscreen through the theme of water in relation to Jena Malone’s character? That seems to be linked to her right from the opening. Could you talk more about that?

DOYLE: Water, for me, is something I’ve been obsessed about. I have to think back to where that came from. I think it comes from when I was little. My mother is Italian and when I was little we would go to Italy once a year to go see my Grandmother and relatives. She lived by the ocean. And every time I’d go to Italy to visit my Grandmother, I’d go to the ocean. Throughout the year, I would long to go to the ocean. The ocean is such a foundational thing from my childhood. Living in dreary London, the ocean was part of my dream world. It was the thing I’d dream about, think about, and kind of long for. 

There’s just something personal to me in that. Symbolically I think of Jena’s character Dolores as a newborn in the beginning. She’s in the fetal position, it’s like she’s in the womb. It is a place where something just is and life is born, and like we came from the ocean, we’re suspended, like Jena is in the beginning of the film. The idea of water is a kind of baptism, it’s kind of a cleansing, a renewing, being born again. Water is the agent of change in the film. Water comes in every time something is about to change in the film. Like, there’s a scene where Wayland is lying in bed, and the rain is falling on the window. Water is the disruptive force. It sweeps away the old and brings in the new. There’s something kind of dangerous about it, but at the same time, tremendously exciting. It’s a primal desire to kind of be absorbed by the ocean, to be consumed by it, destroyed by it, changed by it, and reborn by it.

For me, that was how I expressed the ways on a symbolic level, how I expressed the change in movie. And Jena was just so great. We really put her through the wringer with all of this. The water scenes are just so hard to do. That mermaid tank at the end is very claustrophobic and small. Being in a mermaid tail, your legs are bound together. You’re trapped by that as well. And you can’t see underwater. Everything is fuzzy. It’s very disorienting being in that environment, and she just did it so well. It’s kind of incredible to me. It’s because of her that we got the ending in the film that we got. We did some work with some people who helped us teach her how to swim with a tail. But we didn’t have too much time to perfect all of that, it was just a few sessions. I’m just so impressed with her. Because physically, I think it was really hard. Also, Jena being a single mother herself, although she could probably speak better to this than me, but I think that she profoundly connected with the film on that level.

Pablo Schreiber as Wayland

MARTIN: How was it working with Pablo Schreiber [Wayland character]? I didn’t even recognize him. I’ve seen “Orange is the New Black”, but he looked like a totally different person. He really transformed himself for this character.

DOYLE: He likes to transform physically for his roles. I think that’s a really important thing for getting into character for him. He’s been doing a lot of action films. He did “Den of Thieves”, and he’s currently–well, filming stopped because COVID-19–but he’s in a series called “Halo”, which is a complete action hero kind of role. So he changed his body to fit this role. He ate a lot of food–

MARTIN: Yeah he bulked up. 

DOYLE: Yes, but not to look like a muscly hero type, but to look like someone who’d look like a person who had been lifting weights in prison. I think he just loves that process of physically changing himself for a role. I think that’s how he understands his characters, through their physicality. 

Jena Malone as Dolores and Pablo Schreiber as Wayland

Jena and Pablo have very different acting styles, but I think they have such tremendous chemistry. Pablo comes from a Stanislavski style, while Jena is extremely an intuitive actor. He has the vigor and discipline of being a theatre actor, so they kind of come at it in different ways. But it somehow really works. Onscreen I think they are so great together. It’s a love story in many ways. I just wanted that bit to work.

MARTIN: It totally did. I loved the children in the film, and I loved how you played with gender and representation in their characters. I also thought it was interesting how you captured the girl’s first period, connecting to your short film [“Code Red”] about mensuration. 

DOYLE: Yeah, I know. My family always jokes with me about that.

MARTIN: I love that, it’s not shown enough in film. I appreciate that. Because it is a thing. How was it working with the three kids? 

DOYLE: I think we were just so lucky. None of those kids had acted before. 

MARTIN: Wow!

DOYLE: Yeah, Chancellor Perry, who played Dodger, the oldest, had done some catalog modeling, and just a couple commercials. But he’d never done anything like this before. The other two had never acted at all. 

MARTIN: That’s so surprising, the girl was fantastic!

DOYLE: I mean, it’s kind of incredible. We spent months looking for the kids. We toured theatre camps in the area. For budget reasons we were tied to casting in the Portland area. We limited our search to Oregon basically. We toured around that whole area and went to theatre camps, after school clubs, the whole thing. We cast a wide net and the whole thing is very serendipitous. We found Parker, who plays Denim, and one of Parker’s family friends was Ameli, who plays Peri. She asked, “Can I audition as well?”, and we said, “Sure.” And she ended up being great. And because they knew each other, they already had that relationship.

We really wanted them to feel like a family, so before production, we had the kids hang out with each other. We’d laugh and play games with them. We kind of gave them an acting bootcamp, but really, it was just for them to get to know each other, and to really bond together. Chancellor was great with them. He really did behave like an older brother. Every time we met up as a film family, they were just delighted to see him. That kind of relationship became really important to all of them. I think the key with the kids is they just really, really bonded.

We put the time in before production to make them feel comfortable together. And that was just so key. It would be remiss to talk about the kids and not the kids’ parents. They were supportive in the emotional process. Amelia found it really hard to say swear words, because she wasn’t allowed to at home. We told her, “This is your character saying these words, it’s not you. No one will judge you. Your character is hurting right now, and she’s not saying these words because she is a bad person, but she’s saying them because she’s hurting, and she’s in pain. She’s using the words as a defense for herself.” And I think she understood that.

The intelligence of these children is just remarkable to me, they are just able to understand abstractions like that and translate them to behavior. I just feel so incredibly lucky. It’s very hard to work with children. It’s hard as well because when you’re filming a low-budget film like ours, you have to get everything you can out of the day. And obviously, they have very restricted hours that they can work. So I just feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude working with the three of them. That’s the thing I am most excited about is introducing these three young actors to the world. 

“Lorelei”

MARTIN: Absolutely, and what I love is the family as a unit: Jena, Pablo, and the kids. The chemistry works with all of them together, and it’s believable that there is a connection there. What advice do you have for emerging female filmmakers?

DOYLE: I think my advice would be what I tell myself constantly, which is that you shouldn’t second guess yourself. You always have a sense of imposter syndrome, right? Or at least as a woman, you seem to have that. In my case, I’m a woman from a working class background, I was the first generation of my family to be a high school graduate. And what comes with that is you feel you have to please people, give people what they want. I think sometimes the mistake I’ve made in my career is second guessing my own instincts and not trusting my own instincts, by believing that I just have to fit into a mold. I think what will give you your unique voice as a filmmaker is your visual instincts, your gut, that primal bit of your brain. Anytime I’ve done something that I have not been proud of is because I’ve overridden that instinct, that knowledge I already have, by doing what I think the industry wants from me.

Sabrina Doyle on “Lorelei” set

My advice would be around that, to have the confidence to tell the stories you really believe in, and try not to second guess yourself about what you think people want of you. It’s important to have role models, and find role models, especially those who come from a similar background to you, because they show you a path. I just think it’s really important to be yourself, and to express yourself, and tell the story you were meant to tell. I know that’s advice a lot of people give–

MARTIN: I don’t feel we hear it enough. That’s great advice. 

DOYLE: It’s so important, we’re all just trying to forge our own path in this very difficult industry. And sometimes I think the ways we try to stay “fresh” and “current”, and “relevant” as an industry is if we take creative risks and try not to do the same thing or do what everyone else is doing, on both an individual and an industry level.

Pablo Schreiber and Jena Malone in “Lorelei”

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