Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Annie Baker Shifts Her Focus to the Big Screen

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A mother sits in the front seat of a car, her tanned and freckled face glowing; her daughter, owlish and opaque behind her glasses, stares at her mother’s cheek, transfixed, as the countryside glides by. The camera tracks the daughter’s gaze—what she sees is all that matters. Later, at home, the eleven-year-old girl practices on her tinny keyboard (plink-plink-plunk), ignoring the roaring cicada symphony outside.

That obsessive, catalyzing, world-building attention is the subject of Annie Baker’s début film, “Janet Planet.” It follows a single mother, Janet (Julianne Nicholson), and her daughter, Lacy (Zoe Ziegler), through a hot, green-and-brown-grass summer in western Massachusetts, in 1991. The pair orbit each other—Lacy wants to hold her mother’s hand when she falls asleep, or to keep a strand of her hair—but they are also as lonely as satellites. “I’m actually pretty unhappy, too,” Janet says to Lacy, abstractedly.

Until now, Baker has been known as a playwright. Her generation-defining plays—including the gently humanist “Circle Mirror Transformation”; the Hollywood-is-hell comedy “The Antipodes”; “John,” in which a relationship founders in a doll-infested bed-and-breakfast; and last year’s chronic-pain narrative “Infinite Life”—are famous for their micro-naturalistic dialogue and carefully timed, hypnotic languor. Her approach, which reminds me as much of Cassavetes as of Chekhov, has exerted enormous influence: one can sense her impact in the work of writers as wildly divergent as Eboni Booth and Bailey Williams. (She also teaches M.F.A. students at the University of Texas at Austin.) For those of us who have been watching her work, her turn toward film comes as no surprise. Baker won a Pulitzer, in 2014, for “The Flick,” which took place in a dilapidated Massachusetts cinema. Ever since a “Flick” character entered whistling “Le Tourbillon,” from Truffaut’s “Jules et Jim,” you knew where Baker’s attention was taking her.

Over lunch at Zatar Café in Park Slope, Brooklyn, the forty-three-year-old Baker talked to me about writing and directing a movie that both is and isn’t about her childhood. Baker, who now lives in Brooklyn, was raised in Amherst, Massachusetts; she would have been ten in 1991. She wasn’t an only child, but there still seems to be some self-portraiture in “Janet Planet.” Her parents divorced when she was six; afterward, she stayed in Amherst with her mother. The film’s tension-in-lassitude reflects the reserve in Baker’s work and sometimes in her conversation—a sense of something kept private behind a door.

On the surface, “Janet Planet” is dreamy, summer-warm, and easy; even the grain of the 16-mm. film seems nostalgic. But its real interest is the unreadability and uncanniness of youth, like so many films (by Truffaut, by Bergman) about childhood. The movie starts with Lacy racing down a hill, running to find a pay phone, so that she can call Janet to come pick her up early from camp. The rest of the film—and Lacy’s reluctant coming of age—is divided into three acts, each examining a relationship of Janet’s: there’s a temperamental boyfriend, Wayne (Will Patton); a needy friend, Regina (Sophie Okonedo); and Avi (Elias Koteas), the seductive leader of a roving theatre company. Lacy wants them all gone. At night, she stares into her doll house and arranges a cast of miniatures into strange, hieratic tableaux. And then, occasionally, something Lacy devoutly wishes for happens.

At one point, Lacy and Janet go to an outdoor spectacle, a puppet-filled extravaganza put on by Avi’s hippie-adjacent, romantically entangled company. (Later, Janet tells Lacy that the company might be a cult.) In one of the eerier moments in the movie, we see a storage room, stacked with dozens of the company’s larger-than-life-size puppets, their cardboard bodies looking disconcertingly sapient. In “Janet Planet,” the inanimate occupy a mysterious zone. At lunch and over subsequent e-mails, Baker discussed puppets and movie directing, an art that, for her, seems to turn on an almost metaphysical question of privacy. (The conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.)

So when does the work on “Janet Planet” begin? Does it start with the puppets?

I started writing it during the pandemic when I had a very young baby, in 2020. I’ve written a number of screenplays. I had tried to write a screenplay for myself to direct a few years earlier and—it just felt very familiar to me. . . . I didn’t think I was going to direct anything I wrote until I wrote something that really surprised me. Which is not to say anything particularly nice about the movie, but just to say, “Oh, I would be interested in directing this.”

I’d always thought about writing about the sort of marriage between a single mother and a daughter, but that wasn’t enough for me. . . . The thing that actually made me think, I want to write this movie, was picturing evaporating your mother’s boyfriend with your brain. I remember feeling that way at eleven, as though I had a little wizard brain. And I have met a lot of eleven-year-olds now, from my auditioning process, and they all have wizard brains. I really feel like they’re all wizards. So, what if spiritual longing and destructive desire and love for one’s mother and the power of inanimate objects could all be harnessed to evaporate a mother’s potentially nefarious new boyfriend? That was what the movie was about for me. People say, Oh, it’s a mother-daughter story—and I’m sort of, like, Sure.

But you did start with the idea of the mother and the daughter?

I began with the mother and the daughter, and with the triangulation that occurs when that mother is single and dating, and also has various people living with them for different reasons. And then, say, there is a miraculous act that may or may not be just completely psychological. A big influence was the container of this place where I grew up in Massachusetts—I’ve always been interested in making something with that material.

Lacy and Janet’s house—all wood and ladders and curving walls—is very specific. Was that your house?

No, I found that house by joining nextdoor.com for a year before prep started and I was, like, “We’ve gotta find the house.” That house was built in 1979. It’s two silos, and all the bedrooms are lofts. It was built by hippies; there was once a Waldorf farm inside that house. It’s a folly of a house because you can’t fit an air-conditioner into any window, so we were filming in ninety-eight degrees, pouring with sweat.

By shooting in that area, were you trying to recapture sense memories?

No—it’s more about the aesthetics of a particular place where I spent a lot of time, and the length of time it takes to get from one place to another. At the beginning, that hillside Lacy runs down is my old overnight camp, and I ran down that hill. That sounds kind of cute, but actually it was the timing—I remember how long it took me to run down that hill.

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