Colvin: 'I think I tell stories in order to give space and time an emotional charge.'
Produced in Madison, Sabbatical follows professor Ben Hardin (Robert Longstreet) to his rural hometown to care for his dying mother, who has suffered a stroke. The home and hometown he knew have changed. As he interacts with his mother, brother, old girlfriend, and hometown buddy, Ben's journey "home" grows more painful. He really doesn't know them anymore, small talk is strained, and the ties to the past that bind them together either threadbare or broken.
Isthmus: How did you choose Robert Longstreet (Pineapple Express, Take Shelter, This Is Martin Bonner) for the movie, and what was it about him that seemed right for the role of Ben Hardin?
Colvin: I wanted Robert because, based on his previous work, I felt there was an untapped sensitivity to him. Robert has often been cast as very high-energy, sometimes wild, characters, which he's great at playing. However, I saw in his eyes and heard in his voice a capacity for really subtle, quiet intensity. He's an actor who can convey the act of thinking... without forcing it or telegraphing. He carries a somber gravitas, even when you just see him sitting in a chair, staring. That's what we needed for the film.
The setting is sort of "any Midwestern small town" since there are few specific places or landmarks. Is that intentional, or is it supposed to be a specific place? There were more iconic settings such as the church, the hardware store and Ben's home. What was the thinking behind that?
That's a great observation. Yeah, I definitely thought of this place as extremely non-specific. I'm interested in a sort of abstracted realism in my work. I'm less interested in portraying a specific place as I am in portraying an archetypal space. I wanted to capture the structural components of a small town, if that makes sense. I'm a little metaphysical in that way. I go for the essence. I would rather purify a setting, a location, or an image than replicate it precisely or attend to its idiosyncrasies.
The formative drive in my work is always a feeling, a tone; that's what generates the images, the sounds and the story... I think of myself as more of a meditator, a mood architect, than a traditional storyteller. My films should not feel like conventional reality; they should feel like emotional states translated into images, sounds and duration. I derive a lot of inspiration from painting in that way. For this film, it was Vilhelm Hammershøi.
There is little conversation between any of the characters. Often there's almost a brooding, waking dream-like quality. There's little life anywhere. What was your thinking in approaching these relationships this way? Ben, for example, almost never smiles. The actors and actresses mostly look down or away from each other rather than at each other, implying disconnection.
That's definitely true. There is a clear stylization in my approach to directing actors, staging scenes and even writing them, which is where it all starts. It comes back to a desire to purify, to abstract the emotional core from a situation or a relationship and give it a visible or audible form. Art requires artifice, and my form of artifice is based on a pursuit of a mood or a feeling. It's highly intuitive, for me.
I want to articulate the essential qualities of situations and relationships, to capture an emotional truth that precedes and exceeds "realistic" interactions. Most of that just comes from opening my heart and stripping away all of the clutter, eliminating the unnecessary, some of which might be what you mean when you say "life." There is a risk in simplifying and reducing a situation to its core, but to me, the reward is greater. It is a preference for depth rather than breadth.
There is an intensity, a meditativeness, to my approach... Ideally, the viewer will feel as if they are inhabiting Ben's heart, experiencing the isolation he has chosen, his pain, his desperation, his grudges, his self-loathing. However, I also consider myself a deadpan humorist. I like to play certain silences and actions in order to create subtle jokes and comic amusements. It's okay for viewers to smirk or chuckle at times. Not everything is as dead serious as it might seem.
There are few visual details on the walls of Ben's house. One room seems about the same as the next wherever Ben is. Again, what were you trying to suggest?
Art direction should not be descriptive, in my opinion. Instead, it should be expressive. I don't think production design should tell you about the characters. I think it should make you feel what they feel. Walls, colors, furniture, space -- all of that carries emotion. The story gives those elements further emotional charge. In some ways, I think I tell stories in order to give space and time an emotional charge instead of using images and sounds to dramatize stories. It's a reversal of the way most people make narrative films. Anything that dilutes the overall mood of the space -- extraneous objects or details that might add verisimilitude -- is excised.
The most dominant colors and textures in the film -- brown wooden objects and pale, neutral walls -- carry a double emotional purpose. I associate brown with wood, and wood carries a double emotional valence that is warm (living material fashioned by human hands) and connotative of death ([material that] rots, decays and returns to the soil, which is also brown). So the warm death of brown felt right for this film, in which the known, the familiar (the past) mingles with morbidity. That's a sort of rational explanation of why I was initially attracted to that color and texture, but that explanation all comes after the fact.
My first feeling was just for brown, and I think the above might be why. The same goes for the neutral, bare walls. I think there is a beautiful sort of abstraction in them -- a certain purity of space, which also interacts very well with light -- but there is also the connotation of an ascetic space, like a church, a monastery, even a prison. I wanted Ben and his family to exist in this place that could feel a little unreal and a little confining or cloistered.
When you were creating Sabbatical, what did you think the film was about, and what did you hope to convey through the narrative progression from the opening shot of Ben's office through the various settings "back home"?
In terms of what I wanted to convey, it was the feeling of coming home. Not in the sense of a vacation or a jovial reunion, but of an awareness of emotional weight and accumulation, that fog that creates distance between yourself and those who know you best. It's a certain kind of time and rhythm, a displacement, something cyclical. There is a way in which words don't mean much to these characters anymore; [these people] have known each other so long. There is a lot of implied pain due to past transgressions. They aren't explicitly depicted or addressed in the film so much, but their effects are visible on the faces, in the voices, and through the actions of the characters. That was what I wanted to convey.