Embers took the festival circuit by surprise in 2015. The story explores a world in which humanity has lost its ability to create memories. Featuring sumptuous visuals and a poetic ensemble, Claire Carré’s debut feature offers a unique science fiction film that is both elusive in its interpretation and poignant in its delicate approach to the wonders of humanity. Claire was kind enough to chat with us for a few minutes about her creative process, inspirations, and future aspirations.
TMS: The first thing that really caught me about Embers, was how visually artistic it is. Were than any specific mediums (outside of cinema) that influenced you?
CC: I’m constantly collecting visual references of things I enjoy. My background is in music videos, all visuals and no words. I’m a very visual person. For the bunker, I took inspiration from architect Tadao Ando. In particular museum in Japan he designed that is underground and illuminated by skylights.
TMS: The character of Chaos, played by Karl Glusman (Nocturnal Animals) really stood out for me, as it’s a juxtaposition of the victimizer becoming a victim.
CC: He did an amazing job with the transition. He owns the entire scene on the roof with just a close-up on his face, this moment of forgetting on camera. I think he’s incredible.
TMS: Where there any films that specifically influenced you when decided to make this?
CC: Yes, some of the biggest influences and references were Stalker by Tarkovsky and Children of Men by Cuaron. On set we called the room we shot the umbrella dance the Tarkovsky room, because the jagged ceiling reminded me of a shot from Ivan’s Childhood. It’s on of my favorite scenes in the film. Children of Men is a bigger film than Embers, but structurally it’s an inspiration. Both films pose the question of what the world would be like if one element we take for granted were suddenly gone. In Children of Men, that’s the birth of children, in Embers that’s memory.
TMS: It’s funny you mention Stalker, I thought the same thing during the first act with the boy and his caretaker and the warehouse filled with detritus. Did you and your crew set up the film locations with the look that you wanted or did you find them naturally?
CC: We had a limited budget and wrote the film knowing that we would be producing, so we wrote what we knew we could shoot. I found abandoned locations to use as a base, then our production designer, Chelsea Oliver would come in and work on them to make them specific to our story. Most of them were covered in graffiti, but I wanted them to look like people just forgot where they lived and walked away.
CC: I wasn’t thinking of that but that’s very cool! There’s this Belgium film that was very inspiring The Fifth Season by Brosens and Woodworth, it’s incredible. It’s about a small town where winter never ends one year and how everyone in the town reacts to it. It deals with big ideas on a very small scale.
TMS: Your husband wrote the script?
CC: We wrote it together.
TMS: How is that? Working in tandem? What are the advantages and the disadvantages?
CC: We met while working together. I was directing a music video and he was producing. That’s how we became a couple and I think it’s always been a part of our relationship. I’m very focused. I mean, making a film is a pretty all-absorbing experience, especially making an indie film where you are doing so many different jobs yourself. It’s great to be able to share an intense creative experience like that with your partner. Plus, if we hadn’t been working together, we wouldn’t have seen each other very much!
CC: Part of making our own film involved shooting over a year in three different units and locations. So we would raise money, shoot a section and then edit. Doing the Kickstarter was a way to say: we are going to shoot this film on a certain date with whatever money we can raise. Sometimes you talk to people who want to make a first film, but it seems hypothetical, they’re waiting for someone to swoop in and give them money or deal. We just wanted to do it and not wait for permission from anyone. I think the KS was great, we raised twenty three thousand, which wasn’t our whole budget, but it was enough to get started and move forward. I don’t know if I would do it again, I feel like I asked everyone I know for money. My friends and family helped me realize my dream and I’m very grateful.
TMS: And it’s amazing. You’re streaming in virtually every house in the country. Indiewire called it the best sci fi of 2015 that people missed. That’s awesome.
CC: That was super awesome.
CC: Yeah, I think Embers isn’t a sci fi movie for everyone, and I’m ok with that. It depends on what you want out of your sci fi film. If what you want is a strong plot or action that builds to a big climax or resolution, that’s not this movie. It’s more of an emotional film about big ideas. I made a lot of creative choices to keep in a certain mood, because I wanted the audience to start the film in the same position as the characters. Like when Guy and Girl wake up in a room and realize they don’t know each other or where they are, or even who they are, the audience is in the same position and gets the same experience. I think if I started with text, like “9 and a half years ago…” you’d lose that shared subjectivity with the characters. The tradeoff is that a lot is inferred and isn’t made clear.
TMS: For me, those are the best kind of films.
CC: Spoiler alert: they don’t come together and find a cure. (She grins)
TMS: I assume it’s intentional, but I liked how you never committed to any theme. You flirt with horror, romance, parenthood, but never fully commit. My favorite scene was Dominique Swain’s (Face Off) scene and the boy. Tell me about putting that scene together?
CC: Because the film is made up of several different stories, it allowed me to look at different aspects of life without memory, and how different people might cope with it. Dominique plays The Woman in the Long Dress who deals with her memory loss through confabulation and hoarding. Confabulation is a common coping mechanism of people with Alzheimer’s and dementia. She is in denial about her memory loss, filling in the blanks with fictional stories, acting like everything is fine. She also collects toys and stuffed animals. Memorabilia that no longer has memories attached to it. Most of it isn’t hers. She surrounds herself with things she thinks should have meaning.
TMS: I think that is one of the strongest attributes of the film. You keep it very close to what is plausible, presenting one possible world of tomorrow.
CC: It is fiction, but I did a lot of research to make it as accurate as possible. I looked at neurological case files of people with amnesia and brain damage. It was important, me as a writer and director, and for the actors, to have an understanding of exactly how their retrograde and anterograde amnesia functions and what the symptoms are, even if it isn’t explained directly to the audience in the film.
TMS: Being that this is your first film, what advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers and what were the mistakes and experiences that were important?
CC: I think if we hadn’t decided to just make this film any way we could, you wouldn’t be interviewing me right now because the film wouldn’t exist. Make the version that you can. To make a feature, you have to love it because it’s going to be all that you’re doing for the next couple of years of your life. You have to be passionate. If you’re not sure, keep writing until you’re sure. Try to make your constraints into advantages. Look at what you have: maybe you have friends who are amazing actors, access to a unique space, or a friend who is a choreographer or owns a camera. If you have to shoot on a camera that isn’t great, or if you can’t afford to build sets or big vfx, embrace that aesthetic, instead of trying to make it look like the cheap version of something bigger. As for mistakes, or things I would do differently… we had very limited shoot days due to the budget and didn’t have rehearsal time. I will schedule more shoot days and rehearsal time on the next film for sure.
CC: I tried to plan out as much as I could in advance because our shoot days where scheduled very tightly. After we did our initial scouting, Todd (the DoP) and I mapped out all the shots, so going onto set we had a clear shoot strategy for each scene. We made a strong commitment to shooting scenes with limited coverage. Some of the scenes are one long take, with no alternate angles. We committed to shooting them in a certain way from the beginning which I think was a stronger artistic choice, but the flipside is that in the edit you don’t have options. We shot in April 2014 in Gary, Indiana, July in upstate New York, and November Poland. 6-9 days at a time. So when the first section was done, I started editing and then folded the new footage into what we already had, which wasn’t typical, but it allowed us to see the tone of the film as it was developing.
TMS: What films have you enjoyed this year?
CC: I just watched American Honey by Andrea Arnold a couple days ago, which I absolutely loved. Embrace of the Serpent is a beautiful, masterfully made black and white film, which I recommend. For a fun film, I suggest Slash by Clay Lifford. It’s about two teens who bond over their love of writing slash fan fiction.
TMS: What is your next project?
CC: Well, Embers finally just came out into the world in August, but I’m working on a new sci fi feature script and a television pilot with Charles (her husband).
TMS: Well, if they’re anywhere near at excellent as Embers, I’m sure you’ll have no problems.
CC: No pressure!