The truth about lying
interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
portrait by TERRY RICHARDSON
The first feature -length film of M. Blash, Lying, premiered at Cannes in 2006, less than a year from the time the script was concieved: four young women in a house, one a pathological liar named Megan, played by Chloe Sevigny. We asked the filmmaker to talk about his love for cinema, wilderness, darkness and joy, as about his subtle examination of the boredom, superficiality and anxiety of American girls.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Where did you grow up?And how did it mold your sensibility?
M. BLASH— I grew up in Colorado and Oregon, on the edge of the wilderness. In the 80s and 90s there were rising tensions in these places regarding how they would be gentrified. Even on a subconscious level I imagined romantic neutral zones between the past and future for telling stories. I love placing, or suggesting, that my characters are closer to animals, and so much of what I’m interested in is not stories, but animal and human behavior. I want to make the wilderness a magical place where mundane things happen, and where cryptic or ominous qualities draw us in. Colorado and Oregon are so different: one is high up and dry and sunnier; the other is darker, wetter, greener, and more colorful. That drastic difference added to the duplicitous feeling in Lying, because when I was in Colorado, I longed for Oregon—ignoring the environment around me, while keeping a very different one in mind, warping my memory and the present experience.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What were your earliest experiences of film?
M. BLASH— I accidentally saw The Shining, when I was five. I’d woken up and watched it standing behind my baby-sitter. She didn’t know I was there. It sort of screwed me up. It was the first time I’d been so scared of something, and yet so mesmerized. I saw lots of movies all the time. If I found a movie I liked, I’d watch it over and over again. My parents took me to foreign movies, and I would get lost in them, too lazy or distracted to read, but liking the imagery. I remember a foreign film about the Great Wall of China. I must have been 8 years old. It was the same year that David Copperfield, the magician, walked through the Great Wall. I remember thinking it was cooler to walk through the wall than to make a movie about it. But a few years later I read a short story by Kafka about the wall and its origins. So I sort of learned about Communism through Kafka and realized that Mr. Copperfield’s walk through the wall was a fake that probably had to do with American propaganda by suggesting a metaphorical hole in Communism. That’s when I decided it would be cooler to make a film about the wall than to walk through it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’ve mentioned being affected by the television series Little House on the Prairie. How?
M. BLASH— It was full of darkness and joy, and weird characters—a mime in the woods, orphans showing up in wooden crates, blind kids, big storms, girls caught in wells, mud fights—really exciting stuff. I watched it quite a bit with my big sister, and asked her one day how they got it on film, because it was the 1800s and they didn’t have movie cameras back then. She laughed and told me it was the back-lot of a studio in Los Angeles, and that they were sets, and that it was all filmed 10 years earlier, in the 70s. That’s when I knew I wanted to make films.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What were you working on before Lying?
M. BLASH — For about two and half years I’d been developing a film called 88 Madder Shades. I’d gone to Cannes with an agent last year to raise money, and although we made some progress, I realized the project wouldn’t come to fruition for another year. I didn’t want to wait, and the other scripts I’d written were too complicated or too costly to make quickly. Then I ran into Harmony Korine, whom I hadn’t seen in years, and he reminded me to be bold, which is hard to do with film since it’s not something you do easily alone, and not something that sincere people like to do. So, I thought of an idea that could be developed fast with far fewer resources—something we all do and that has been done to us. That’s when Lying came to mind. I wrote it in two days, and a few months later we were shooting. From that first thought to the premiere at Cannes, not even a year had passed: 359 days to be exact.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How long did it take to shoot?
M. BLASH — Fifteen days, which was all we had. So, in the spirit of spontaneity, instead of fighting for more time, I embraced what I had and worked quickly. I didn’t even have time to really rewrite the script. Now I feel lucky to have done it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Was the whole script written? Or improvised like Cassavettes or like in Dogma films?
M. BLASH — Yes, I wrote the entire script. Very little is ad-libbed, though some of the scenes, like the flag scene or the voice scenes, were just concepts, which couldn’t really be written out, so I created scenarios with certain rules in which the actors could perform.
Both John Cassavettes and Dogma films have influenced me. But I resist too many rules, because they make me anxious. Dogma films are great though. I hope to achieve something like that someday. They also tell stories in a mostly linear fashion, which has been a huge influence. Nonlinear story telling can be tiresome, and not very brave. I choose to be boring and linear because most of life is boring and linear.
OLIVIER ZAHM — All of Lying takes place in a house.
M. BLASH — Two houses, Sarah’s and Megan’s. I chose Megan’s house because from afar you can’t tell if it’s old or new. Even close up parts are quite modern, while others look like traditional homes from those parts of the country.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Can you describe how you chose it and the role it plays in the film?
M. BLASH — I liked it’s symmetry. If you look at it from afar, it sort of looks like a face bedded in the woods. It was like a living, breathing place, holding together all the tensions of the weekend. The voice scene had a lot to do with the house. Megan keeps shouting, “Don’t leave the house! Don’t leave the house!” Essentially they search for something that is unattainable within the house. Megan is afraid she’ll lose control over the girls, because if they leave, they’ll know she’s fucking with them. So she uses the house as her stage, which is why we open the film with her rearranging her house—her parent’s house really: she is setting the stage for the scene.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What role do the woods around it play?
M. BLASH — I wanted a house that looked out onto another house, with woods nearby. What’s amazing about this house is that on one side of the main room two, large French doors open directly onto the woods, and on the other side of the room identical doors look onto a vast open stretch of property between Sarah and Megan’s houses. I like to place characters in opposing extremes. People are always caught in polarities that are too complicated to choose between. That’s why I didn’t want Megan to be a bad person, just because she lies. We’re all too complicated to be deemed bad or good, regardless of our actions.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you define lying?
M. BLASH — Lying is everywhere. In the film I wanted to present women lying about really banal things, things that weren’t too big or too abstract to relate to. I wanted Megan to lie for no apparent reason, and for us to witness it from the very beginning rather than over the course of the film. I chose women because I think it’s more intriguing to watch women lie. My initial reaction to a man lying is usually anger, while my initial reaction to a woman lying is more fascination or wonder. It’s easier to watch a woman lie again and again. You don’t hate her, you don’t love her. You want to get closer, but you also want to run away. It’s strange. I grew up surrounded by women. That’s a possible reason why I chose women.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Why does Chloe’s character lie? What is she trying to hide?
M. BLASH — I think Chloe’s character lies in order to make her life seem less empty. Personally I don’t think Megan’s life is empty. She’s young and beautiful. She lives in New York, and has cool friends, but she feels empty and therefore has to appropriate the tragedy of others to make life seem more complex, more colorful and dramatic. Her character tries to create a copasetic environment for her friends, even if it means lying to them. She tells Grace there are no ticks in the woods, not because she wants Grace to be bitten and to get Lyme disease, but because she wants her friends to think she has brought them to a safe, beautiful place.
OLIVIER ZAHM — The movie is about the interraction between five girls. Can you describe what each girl brings to the film, and how you cast them?
M. BLASH— The women are not physically interchangeable or generic looking, and there is very little dialogue in the film. So much of the story is told in their faces. Jena Malone, Chloe Sevigny, and Leelee Sobieski had all been cast for my project 88 Madder Shades. I cast Chloe in the lead because I’ve always been very attracted to a maternal quality that she has. If her character is going to manipulate these women, she has to be able to take care of them. Chloe has the most consistent confidence and grace, which she presents very quietly, almost invisibly. I don’t know how she does it, or if she is even aware she is doing it. Chloe is also funny and very silly, which doesn’t always come across in films she has done. I wanted to be the first to let her do that. As for Leelee Sobieksi, who plays Sarah, she is much taller than the other characters and exudes an Amazon Queen quality—which Sarah needed as she is the only character who doesn’t lie, and who has experienced real tragedy. She wants so much to connect with the other girls, but her situation is so different, because it is real, that it takes a lot of courage to enter Megan’s world. By the time she does, Megan’s world has shattered and no longer exists. Leelee has an energy that is analogous to a mourning procession I once saw in Patan, Nepal of women coming around a corner, mourning the death of someone. They forced a tremendously carnal crying from their bodies, so forceful it became sincere—as if an amazing truth had been born again. Leelee is not only beautiful; she has an incredible force inside her, like a Phoenix being reborn, stamping out her flames and reigniting them. Jena Malone needed to say a lot with her eyes, because her character Grace lies out of omission. She doesn’t share her findings until the very end, so her discoveries had to be unspoken or expressed passively and ambiguously. Jena is very good at multitasking, her body can say one thing while her eyes say something completely different. It’s very, very cool to watch. Jena’s eyes could cause a train wreck.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Does the film describe your perception or experience of young women today?
M. BLASH — Young women today? Huh? I feel like there is a backlash against feminism. The culture of dissent today is spoken about as if it were a passing fad in the window of Barney’s. The girl, Megan, in my film is very much like that: equipped to do great things, but too caught up in apathetic daydreaming to do anything important. Women will always be mysterious to me and I think that is the biggest influence in the film: the mystery I feel when I see and meet a woman, the enigma of their intuition. Young women today also seem more feminine than they did when I was a kid. There is sort of a renaissance of femininity, which, I think, is also seeping into the way men act and dress, allowing men to be as ostentatious as women.
OLIVIER ZAHM — A French journalist called the film a long fashion shoot. How do you feel about that?
M. BLASH — I didn’t hear about it. One person’s passion for truth is easily read as a fad. And since actors in films are usually getting dressed up, and having their pictures taken thousands of times, it is, in fact, like a fashion shoot. I didn’t think too much in terms of fashion, but I created the characters and decided what their costumes would be based on how they were feeling over the course of the weekend. I thought a lot about colors—colors that I’ve been attracted to recently, colors that relax me and allow me to focus. I like clothes, too. I’m a compulsive changer—five or six times a day. I hope to destroy all my clothes someday. Really. But I enjoy fashion editorials, too. I never know what I’m going to get from them, like the nudes of Chloe in your last issue that Inez Van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin took—there’s more of a narrative in them than in most Hollywood movies.
OLIVIER ZAHM — We keep waiting for something to happen in the film, and nothing really does—no crime, no drama, only the little details of intimacy, and the slowly emerging truth. Nothing goes really wrong. Is that because you resist spectacular elements, and wanted the film to be more psychological?
M. BLASH — Nothing goes really wrong because that part happens before the film begins. This woman chose to supplant the truth with lies, and that is when the real drama begins, in that deciding moment. We come to her long after that moment. I’m more interested in presenting the results of a crime than the crime itself. In challenging the basic assumption of genre films, which are lies unto themselves, I avoid a specific structure because film is a lie. There is a voiceover in the film because so often films are plagued with voiceovers that spew some incomprehensible gimmick that’s supposed to add depth and understanding to the story. I want to hold up a mirror and have the audience ask themselves why they lie, not so much why she is lying. I show them someone lying from the very beginning of the film. Hopefully by the end they’ll be able to see the ease and levity by which lies are told. Lying is sort of like the backcover of a book: it tells you what it’s about, and hints at who the characters are but it’s up to the audience to read it. I wouldn’t make a film without all the clues needed for one to complete the story. They are there if someone is willing to wait for, listen to, and see them.
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