The Bare Phenomenal Facts: Kazik Radwanski and Deragh Campbell on “Anne at 13,000 Ft.”
It’s not the fall, it’s the sudden stop — in Anne at 13,000 Ft., which circles back again and again to the image of its title character skydiving, we ride out the elation and dread of a personality hurtling through the world, buffeted by currents of conflict and the knowledge of the ground rising up to meet us. This confidently sketched indie, from one of Canada’s rising young filmmakers, is a “character study” in which character is defined through flux and contingency, and understanding goes hand-in-glove with frustration.
27-year-old Anne (Deragh Campbell) works at a Toronto daycare center, where her own sense of playfulness sometimes earns her the condescension of her supervisor — to which she responds with childlike petulance. The way Anne’s mother hovers nervously, attuned to any sign of irresponsibility, suggests a history left deliberately vague. (In a wonderful Cinema-Scope essay on the film, Josh Cabrita suggests that the film “seems to take place over a single manic-depressive cycle.”) Other characters bring out different aspects of Anne’s personality — moods of high energy or jaggy self-pity, neediness or performativity. She bonds with a perhaps autistic kid at daycare who seems to know an awful lot about sharks; leans on some co-workers and alienates others, and begins a halting and unstable relationship with a man (played by filmmaker Matt Johnson) whom she meets while recklessly, charismatically drunk at a friend’s wedding.
Anne at 13,000 Ft. is director and writer Kazik Radwanski’s third feature, following Tower (2012) and the standout How Heavy This Hammer (2015), the latter a depiction, via the drifting rugger-bugger father Erwin (Erwin Van Cotthem), of masculinity as a haze of emptied-out gestures of aggression and bleary defiance. Here Radwanski sticks with his established aesthetic — a handheld camera and natural, sometimes unflattering lighting; many non-professional actors and scavenged everyday Toronto locations. But working this time with a female protagonist played by a professional actor (and credited co-writer), he’s able to expand his dramatic palette, while maintaining an interest in the raw nerves exposed through the frictions of daily life.
Deragh Campbell has been such a thoughtful collaborator and on-screen avatar for Sofia Bohdanowicz in their musings on memory and identity, and their mediation through art, like MS Slavic 7. As Anne, Campbell builds a character while playing with small children and jumping out of an airplane, along with other, more incidental turns in the road to bend herself around. She pushes her character into confrontations and through unexpected mood swings, responding to nervy moments with giggles or tantrums or closed-off moping. Nikolay Michaylov’s camera stays reactive and pore-close to the action and editor Ajla Odobasic elides uncertain intervals of time, denying Anne equilibrium except while she’s skydiving, at her friend’s bachelorette party and then solo.
Yet the very volatility of her character is true to life — not just because Anne is a uniquely struggling and erratic person, but because head-scratching inconsistency is a facet of personhood more generally, albeit one usually sanded smooth for film. Manohla Dargis’ pan in The New York Times — Anne at 13,000 Ft. is apparently the rare 75-minute Cinema Guild release with a sub–seven-figure budget to merit a full-length takedown from one of the lead critics in the Times — complains that Anne “isn’t deeply felt or substantially drawn enough, to serve as the axis for a movie that hovers around mental illness and tries to substitute free-floating metaphors for a story […] these pieces also never cohere.” Seen from a slightly shifted vantage, this is a fair approximation of the film’s considerable merits.
Anne at 13,000 Ft. at once embodies and challenges the template for the “character-driven” micro-budget independent film. It both draws us in and repels us, engendering as much confusion and irritation with Anne as empathy for her; as Cinema-Scope’s Cabrita points out, the protagonist’s “motivations, thoughts, and feelings remain obscure,” even as the filmmaking style seems to promise intimacy. (“Who could honestly say, having spent a significant period of time in such close proximity to these [characters], that they truly understand them?”)
It also gets funnier the more you see it — having spoken to Radwanski and Campbell at the 2019 Toronto Film Festival, before COVID-19 stalled the film’s rollout, I revisited Anne 13K for this piece and felt freer, this time, to laugh at one of Anne’s more inappropriately maudlin moments, imbued by Campbell with an exquisite and knowing solipsism. The film’s dance between immediacy and distance continues to evolve two years on, which is testament to the organic nature of their achievement.
An edited transcript of our conversation follows.
I want to start by asking, Kazik, how you have developed the protagonists in your features up to now, where those characters are coming from, and whether it’s different this time around — both where the idea came from, here, and how it developed.
Kazik Radwanski: This one is a lot more convoluted than the other films. What I always say with my other work is that all my films come from a very personal place, almost embarrassingly introspective. A lot of these films are shot in places I know: the daycare is the daycare my mom ran; the last feature was about rugby — my dad played rugby. The process in the other films was finding someone like Erwin, or Derek [Bogart, of Tower] — having these ideas, and then filtering it through this person. Getting out of this angsty, introspective place, living with these ideas for a bit, seeing this person interact with people and sculpting around the person.
This is different, because I was working with Deragh. I wrote the screenplay with her in mind. For my other films, I never really showed the screenplay to the actors, but with this film I showed it to Deragh quite early on — we did a screen test all the way back in 2015. I really wanted to work with an actress like Deragh. With the other films, there’s a Derek or an Erwin and it’s sort of: “What is possible with them? How does this person function in these scenarios, when is it interesting?” And building a film that way. With this, it’s a similar process, except that Deragh’s also controlling things, also learning and sculpting the character and pushing it in different directions.
It sounds like Anne comes from a similarly introspective place, but there’s a surrendering of an initial idea to what happens in the process of collaboration. How was the character pitched to you, Deragh?
Deragh Campbell: We had a bunch of ideas about who the character was to start; I do preparation for a character, there’s a period of gestation where you watch movies, read books, and think about the person — and then you have to let that go, and not be in a place where you’re like, “I am making a decision right now,” but actually be reacting to the scenario. And through reacting to the scenario, discover things about the character.
Really early on, things were just that like… She wants to be well-liked, but she thinks — not that she’s evil, but she thinks that she’s unpleasant to be around or something. I think that’s a social anxiety that a lot of us suffer from sometimes: that there’s something just, like, unpleasant about our company [laughs], so that was an early thing we thought about. That’s a really helpful drive for a character, because on the one hand, you have a drive for the character to be asking questions, to be interacting with people, but also something that they’re denying, something they’re pulling away from. She’s almost always trying to prove to herself that she doesn’t suck, or something [laughs].
KR: More so than in my other films, there’s a lot of backstory. We almost overburdened ourselves at first, we read a number of memoirs…
KR: I can’t actually think of a lot of them now, but four or five different books by people who had survived the mental healthcare system, and that had had diagnoses. And we talked to a number of mental healthcare practitioners — and continued to, as we made the film. Maybe some of that stuff was buried in the back of our head as we were making the film—
DC: I think it does become subconscious.
KR: But we really tried to lose all that expository information about what exactly is going on with her, and be more in the moment.
And that grew out of screening the film for a lot of different medical practitioners: This is more useful if it’s not prescriptive.
The Cinema-Scope writeup, which is a really good writeup, suggested that Anne is bipolar. I wasn’t thinking about the character in terms of a diagnosis—
KR: Somebody else said that too today. Sure, that’s great when that happens, if people can relate to it… It happened with my first feature Tower, a couple of people came up to me and were like, “This is the best film I’ve ever seen about Asperger’s,” or autism, and I’m like, Well, that definitely was not on my mind, but I can see why. There’s a lot of people in my life who take medication for various reasons. I know they take pills, I know they’re on some sort of spectrum, but I don’t know exactly what their diagnosis is, you know? Even girlfriends I’ve lived with, I don’t say, “What pill is this, what does it do, how does your mind work?” I feel like that’s a level of knowing someone that I’m comfortable with.
[You don’t shoot chronologically.] Is the character fixed once you’re shooting?
DC: No, and what I appreciate a lot about Kaz’s work and about Ajla’s work — it’s not quite this, but I always liked what someone told me about Arnaud Desplechin, how he gets actors to perform things in many different ways, and plays them like a piano in editing. He’ll be like, I’m going to use a sad take here…
Whereas with this, there’s a second aspect of characterization, which is Kaz and Ajla selecting not only a different take, a sadder version, but even which scenes are being used. I allowed myself to not be consistent, and to not be overly concerned with continuity — like, Oh, Anne wouldn’t do that. Instead, it’s like, Do all these different crazy things, and that actually probably resembles more of a human being than if you were just one way.
There’s a great Leonard Michaels quote from an interview where he says, “I’ve never met anyone, except for people who are profoundly depressed or trapped in some neurosis, who exhibited a novelistic consistency.” Is there discovery about the character and about the performance in seeing the edit? What felt subconscious while you were acting but is maybe more textual when you saw the movie?
DC: Not to be too personal, but I’m pretty hard on myself, and I wanted this character to be really outward, because most of the characters I’ve played have been really introverted, and I would get really frustrated with myself, like: I didn’t do enough, I didn’t show enough, I was too in my head. What moved me and which was really exciting when I watched this movie was, I was like, Oh, I actually showed a lot. You could see a lot of different things happening on the character’s face: this thing that I keep reiterating, her desire to be connected to people, her worry that she couldn’t, that there was something wrong with her that prevented her from being able to be close to other people — I could actually see that struggle in her face, and that was really cool for me.
KR: To talk about Ajla again, who’s cut all my stuff, and who’s also a filmmaker — her sense of rhythm is something I think about a lot. The final shot — that wasn’t in the screenplay, that was something that we found. Losing scenes, to keep in a certain headspace, swapping scenes around… Also thinking about sound cues and different environments to create rhythms to draw the audience’s attention or refresh things, because we’re always in this close-up: We need the subway now, or, Water would be good here. Or air. Intercutting the skydiving throughout the film was something we leaned into more and more in the edit.
In How Heavy This Hammer I liked that the only wide shots in the movie were when his video game fills the screen — that this is where Erwin’s actually present, understands himself in a world, and has any kind of perspective at all. Watching that and Anne back to back, I’m curious about what we’re gaining by staying similarly close to Anne. The close-up aesthetic felt less literal, and more like a recurrent style that is not specifically shaped around a protagonist. What are we gaining in Anne, in being so close?
KR: How I write the film, is in this constant moment of being with her, in this proximity to her. I’ve been making films like this for a while, going back to my shorts; that intimacy and documentary texture motivates me. But then it becomes how I negotiate the character. I like being very close to someone I don’t understand… I feel like that Cinema-Scope piece did a really good job [laughs] at articulating some of the motivations—
I know! I almost skipped this question entirely because I was satisfied with the explanation.
KR: —I think a lot of these feelings came from me being a young filmmaker, What do I have to offer as a young filmmaker, and stumbling into something. But it’s also a handheld aesthetic, we’re always adjusting, always reacting to her — and it’s disorienting. We’re very close to her, but I’m not comfortable with us having too privileged a position looking at her. I want it to be a little uncomfortable, a little disorienting — it’s the way I’m comfortable framing the character. At the same time, it lines up with the introspective thrust I have as a filmmaker too.
DC: When I first saw Tower, the way that I thought of the close-up was as something that’s unrelenting — the drive to know someone is unceasing. But it’s unceasing because it’s never fully successful. You never can really know a person, so you keep trying.
KR: That quote earlier, it made me think of a quote I always like, I think it was by Henry James’ brother: “Behind the bare phenomenal facts, there is nothing.”
KR: And that’s why I’m interested in realism — not because it’s “real.” If you can capture a conversation or a moment in its true complexity than you’ve accomplished something.
DC: And you’d never have to stop looking at it, because it’s infinite.
Having a female protagonist, what new is Anne bringing? Or, not even from her being female, but from her being a new character to explore? What’s new that you’re working through with this one?
KR: That’s something I always think about between projects. The first short was about a young man that gets arrested, and from there we go to a woman with Alzheimer’s. I always like that harsh [reversal], to go from Erwin to Deragh, a palette-cleanser.
DC: If Erwin and Derek were more characters that you [to KR] felt more immediately close to, this was… Kaz definitely listened to what I said and what I thought this character was, which is interesting if you’re a male filmmaker making a movie about a woman, to give the woman a lot of authority to tell you [laughs] who that person is.
KR: With Hammer and Tower, those being a male character, there is this instinct for me to destroy them [DC laughs], or to have them be unlikeable or anti-heroes, or just subvert audience expectations a bit with some of their choices. That, I didn’t have as much of with this film, which was kind of refreshing for me. Maybe I’d gone a bit too far down that path, where I definitely couldn’t make another film about a man after…
There are no further depths to plumb after Erwin’s bachelor pad.
DC: Oh wow.
That actually maybe leads into a related question. Erwin’s combination of helplessness and aggression did remind me of men I’ve known — I clocked him in the first five or ten minutes. It took me longer with Anne. But that also helped me think about what the characters do have in common. I’m thinking of Anne’s moments of aggression and the surprising ways, in both of these films, in which anger animates everyday life through people who are not stereotypically walking around with a lot of unresolved anger. I think I see that in both films…
But you’re Anne — is she angry?
KR: It is funny, the connection between Hammer and Anne: thinking of the scene Deragh acted in, which was of Erwin coming into the daycare being angry, and not realizing he’s being angry, and making women uncomfortable—
DC: And me being like, why are you being angry?
KR: And then it’s Deragh, or Anne, being similar in not being aware of tensions forming in unlikely places — but actually very likely places. It’s a high-stress job, working with children.
DC: I don’t think of her as being angry — I think of her as being desperate. That definitely manifests as aggression, but it’s actually the opposite. It’s not aggression through defensiveness, it’s aggression through a kind of intense vulnerability. Sometimes a stranger will tell you something intensely personal, and it feels a bit aggressive, like, You’re sort of forcing this on me. I think she does that a lot: forcing people to have to deal with her, when they would like to be at a bit more of a distance.
Talking about empathy — this is a film that is shot handheld, and about the lives of everyday people and features non-actors and people American audiences might mistake for non-actors [like Matt Johnson]. Generically, as a visibly micro-budget character study about the life of an everyday person, and her psychology and perspective, this is stereotypically a film that would “Ask us to empathize” and bring us closer inside of this person. But what mix of empathy and other more distant, more — I don’t want to say “objective,” but what is empathy mingling with here?
KR: I wish I could classify it. It’s subverting both empathy and objectivity — it’s a constant dance in the film. It’d be a lie to say I don’t want people to empathize with Anne — but empathize without totally understanding, or empathize while knowing there’s still a lot unknown. Empathy without being sentimental? Maybe just avoiding sentimentality is a key part, even though that seems a bit simplistic.
DC: Sentimentality, or—
KR: Or patronizing.
DC: Or a diagnosis.
KR: Or superiority: Oh poor her, she can’t figure it out. When it really works is when I see myself in this person. But then, I also empathize a lot with Anne’s mother: How do I help this person, what is the right thing to do here?
I wonder if it’s different for you, Deragh. The stereotypical thing is actors never wanting you to say in an interview that they play the villain, because no one is a villain to themselves. And this is not really that, but I do think that there is potential in Anne for us to see ourselves in her, and to feel that she’s doing the best that she can, but also to feel a bit distant from her, a little bit frustrated about her. And it occurred to me that I should give you the chance to push back a bit on that if you want to!
DC: I don’t really think about someone as being “redeemable” or not, I think of it more as people having a quality that they either indulge or deny. Certainly, when I was younger, I was willing to be like, I feel bad! Therefore I’m going to treat you this way. Whereas now… I think Anne is still that way. She never is like, Oh, I don’t have a right to impose my moods on everyone at all times. She just doesn’t have that barrier. She’s constantly thinking about expressing herself, rather than putting herself aside for someone else’s benefit. That was a good through-line throughout the film, in terms of performance. I can’t think of a moment where she doesn’t do something just for herself. Is there a moment when she does something for someone else? Even doing that wedding speech, she thinks of it as this moment where she’s giving something to her friend, but no [laughing], she completely derails the situation. Maybe she thinks that bringing Matt to this dinner would be really funny, but no, she’s actually doing that for herself, to create a chaotic situation, to maybe not have to deal with trying to have an actual relationship with this person. So she is — she’s pretty selfish. I don’t know if that answers the question.