Kate and Laura Mulleavy, best known as the CFDA Award winning creators of the fashion label Rodarte, made a movie five years ago. “Woodshock” their first directorial effort, is a dreamy, nightmarish look at grief. Theresa (Kirsten Dunst) a marijuana dispensary employee in Humboldt finds herself caught in a hallucinogenic emotional crisis after her mother’s death. We talk to the Mulleavy sisters about the difference between designing and filmmaking, their surreal rise to fashion darlings, and the importance of creative partnership.
Why did you decide to make a film?
LM: I think that for years we’ve explored the idea of creativity and what it means to us. This idea of narrative formats, and wanting to have some type of self expression that represents you fully and everything that we’ve done over the years and learned along the way and questioned, has kind of let us into this format, which we didn’t really know about, and all of a sudden thinking, “this is the way I want to express myself.” So about five years into starting our company, which we run independently, we’re the leaders of that ship, we wanted to tell this story. It was a little bit into our careers, and we had a self discovery process, I like to say. But I always loved film, it was something we grew up loving, and over the years didn’t really see it as being part of our lives, we were outsiders to it. But then in the process of making things we realized that it was maybe something we could achieve.
Did you have experience in film?
LM: I was an English major, so I wrote a lot, and Kate was an art history major [at UC Berkeley] which is really learning to analyze images. So those things, in combination, definitely are useful in the idea of film narration. But Kate and I both worked on costumes, we did the ballet designs for “Black Swan”, that was our only real experience within a formal film world until now.
KM: I think, interestingly enough, looking back now, coming from an art history background really informed not only our trajectory in fashion, but certainly with moving to film. One of the things I was really aware of was image making, and the power of what visual symbolism and storytelling could be. I certainly came from a world of loving films that utilized that, it’s one of the most powerful parts of filmmaking, you want to utilize all of the senses. Laura coming from a place of loving James Joyce, I think, created a more complex narrative in terms of people experimenting with the narrative form. I think both of these [image making and narrative experimentation] really informed and helped us jump in to make our first film.
What was it like transitioning from fashion design to filmmaking?
KM: I think it depends on how you look at what you do. Laura and I really come from looking at fashion as a form of artistic expression. For us, every collection we do, every piece we make is about storytelling on some level, it’s about things that we’re interested in, and something in us that we’re trying to bring to light to communicate with other people.
LM: I think it [fashion design] is kind of put in a certain space, but in truth, it’s a very important and relevant way for us, as a culture, to communicate, to truly understand each other. In moving into film, it was a similar thing, because it’s just about the desire to tell a story. In a broader sense, it’s about wanting to expand our creative process, and never exactly setting out to be in a box.
KM: When we started designing Laura and I weren’t sure of what we really wanted to do, we were interested in fashion and film and writing, but what happened to us in our fashion experience was almost crazy. I mean, we literally had never been to New York City, we went on a whim, and within three weeks we were meeting Anna Wintour [“Vogue” editor in chief]. I look back on it now, and I think, “well I can’t even imagine this story because it doesn’t seem real.” But what’s interesting about filmmaking is that, we started working on this film years ago, really midway through our fashion careers, right now we’ve been working for 10, maybe 11 years, we decided we wanted to make films. It’s just that making a film can be as long of a process, or as short of a process. We worked on our script for, I think, two years.
The plot was completely original, how did you come up with it?
LM: We wanted to do something new and different, and we did it. Kate and I grew up outside of Santa Cruz, and right across the street from us was an old growth redwood forest, and that experience definitely shaped everything in our lives, and the way we look at the world. When we went to write this film, we really wanted to explore the feeling of what it’s like to stand around those trees, and that feeling really brings a lot of humanity’s question’s up, to realize that you’re very small amongst these very magnificent things that are older and wiser and have lived on planet much longer than humans have. So that feeling was something we wanted to create, and celebrate, in this movie. Out of that we wanted to shoot in Humboldt county and Humboldt county has replaced logging as an industry with marihuana. So those things [Teresa’s employment at a dispensary] started to come together. But the big analogy in the film, has a stream of conscious narrative and has this subjective journey of this women’s agency and her choices. And you experience those things rather than find the answers to them.
KM: That all stems from the idea that there’s this great writing called “The Tree” and this person said, “the deepest recesses of the forest are linked to the innermost subconscious of the human mind, and the further you disengage from the natural world around you, the further you disengage with the idea of self. That became the large metaphor, that these woods could represent this form of connectivity to something greater for the character. And that’s where the exploration with marihuana came from, all those things start telling the story for you.
LM: It’s so weird when you’re writing the story starts telling it for you. If we sat down and said, “well, what do we want to happen in this movie,” we could never think of the ten lists of things that happen, but as you’re writing it you’re like, “oh, she’s building a fence.” That came out of us. I have no idea, but it all makes sense.
KM: Without wanting to give too much away, everything in this film is very thoughtful. For example, the fence sequence. If you know the history of where we shot, 95% of the old growth forests were completely destroyed by humans. Logging started, I think it was the biggest business in California. I’m not 100% sure, but I think these trees brought more money than the Gold Rush. To put it in perspective when you’re talking about logging trees taller than the Statue of Liberty, you can imagine that that tree doesn’t just get pulled down, you feel it. People would say that you felt the vibrations for miles. That is an interesting standing point because you’re focusing on this place of sublime beauty, that’s also a landscape of destruction, and shows you about the fragility of life. We usually say that Teresa was born out of this landscape, but certainly as she evolves, it’s really a story of isolation and grief. I think it’s extreme grief that sets her off on a psychological journey, and the journey is really about a deeper need to look inward and try to understand the different parts of the human brain, which is an almost impossible thing to understand, but that’s her journey. I have no idea why I was talking about this—
LM: Well, it was interesting. This character is almost going through this creation myth, that Teresa was born out of this natural landscape, and she struggles to get back to it. So in the beginning, she admits, “I’m not a part of this, I want to be in these woods,” and she ends up there. and that’s an interesting way of looking at her as a vessel. Whatever meaning she carries, she is a vessel for that feeling—
KM: I thought about it now, sorry, but I got it! What I was going to say about the fence, the process is that we’re going to start at the beginning and we just go deeper and deeper in her mind. When we get to the fence thing, we could just see it one way. But what’s interesting is the amount of connectivity. For example, the house that we shot in is a real house that was built in the 50s by a very prominent logger. When she touches the walls that’s all redwood. A lot of redwoods were cut down just to make planks. There’s a scene in the beginning, where you see the planks in the mother’s bedroom, that’s what those trees became. When she builds the fence, they’re not redwood planks, but the idea is that there’s still a connectivity there. The literal connection was that in order to protect a redwood you build a fence around it, so a lot of it was the idea of somehow, when she goes to build the fence we see her slowly somehow transforming and leaving this world. For me, I thought “is it the act of building the fence?” because it feels so masculine, which is interesting. She puts on these gloves, and we know these are gloves linked to destruction because she says, “do you ever regret cutting things down,” and at one point all you ever see of those gloves, is that they land on that kitchen table. By the time she puts them on and builds that fence, it’s also an act of extreme breaking through to the other side. The fence scene is so pivotal to me because it kind of grounds herself, as everything is kind of floating.
LM: But, it’s also subverting something. She’s saying this is an act that I associate with destruction, and I recognize that in myself, so she’s aware of it and that’s really interesting. It’s like she’s aware of the power she has to destroy, and it comes up in a lot of different ways later on in the film, that we won’t say. Because it’s a spoiler, we always say “spoiler alert,” we don’t want to make everyone crazy online. I always do that, I’m always the person that reads the paragraph that says “don’t read past this point, it’s a spoiler!’ And I read it and I go, “why did I read that?”
I love spoilers.
LM: I do too! I don’t feel ruined by spoilers.
KM: She does, I don’t. I’m like don’t tell me anything, she’s always trying to tell me, “oh I read this.”
I just hate when someone is like, “this is great,” and doesn’t leave more information. Tell me everything!
LM: I’ll look it up online a minute later, I need to know!
KM: She’s just like that, I’m like, “don’t tell me.” She’ll watch “Game of Thrones” with me—
LM: She won’t let me say anything.
KM: She’s like, “you know what I think is about to happen,” and then she tells me. And then it’s like —
LM: I don’t do that!
KM: the exact thing that happens. So she can’t say anything.
Was the creation of the script similar to designing?
KM: Writing is very different than designing. Designing starts with a blueprint and then builds on it. Writing is like you build your blueprint and then you don’t touch it until later. I feel like—
LM: It’s similar in the way that it’s intuitive. So you just have to trust your gut, and we didn’t really plan out the things that would happen within the script, they just happen as you write. And the characters tell the story for you, the trees tell the story for you. I think design is similar to that if you’re open to it being that way. Some people are like, “I have to make this top and that top,” and it’s very mechanized. Kate and I are a little more free, with the idea of what design is.
I feel like you can sense that in both the film and your designs, they both have such great natural movement.
LM: They’re very organic, and I think we carried that sensibility into the film. We brought the idea that there should be texture within it, things that make you feel like a human hand touched it. We had this great experience with the Arclight in Hollywood. It was so exciting, there was this giant image of Teresa up, and the footage that we took the still from is 35mm, but it was shot on a handcrank, so it’s very grainy and with old stock. It was great to see it so big and with all that grain, it looked so tactile, and everything else is very digital. Because that’s the way the images exist.
KM: I think the idea of somehow approaching both film and digital in the movie. We were open to both. The light is so beautiful in the area at night, and digital film really lent to us shooting in the forest. That being said, we wanted to shoot film for anything that involved double exposure, and that felt more like Teresa’s innermost diary. The idea that there’s something so ephemeral on film that really can’t be described, it just links so much to memory. Film is almost objective in that it adds a layer of memory, so it never feels—
LM: It’s not the film though, what it really is, is that it’s communicating that there’s a person behind that camera, and people creating the image, and that’s the difference. If you put five photographers in the room, and they shoot the same image it would look different. And that’s the beauty of it, the intention behind what you’re making. When I look at it, and experience it visually, the digital and film go together, because it’s about the thought process and the creation of the shots. We were very aware that we needed to disorient the viewer as Teresa got more and more disoriented. Part of what’s interesting about this film is that we actually want the viewer to get disoriented and lost in a dream state.
KM: That’s the way it’s meant to be experienced. If you can watch it fully without asking, “why? why? why,” the whole time, you can get to a sublime moment with it. Which is just saying I’m “with this person,” and that’s a powerful journey to go on, emotionally.
Everyone in the film seemed so natural, what was the casting process like?
LM: That’s what we were looking for. So Kirsten [Dunst] set the tone because we needed this incredible actress to create Teresa, and she’s so emotive and everything she had to do had to be gestural and carry a lot of weight. Her technique is very natural, she comes with a lot of dream theory, being very present in her body and explaining things without an overacting technique. She blends into the film. So picking the other people that are going to be in her world was a huge task because they couldn’t stand out, since they were in her space. So we needed people that could fit with her in the same kind of tonality, and that’s where Pilou [Asbæk], Jack [Kilmer], Joe [Cole], and Steph [Du’Vall] came in. That’s four men, and Susan [Traylor] who plays her mother, and we needed people who had chemistry and had a similar performance level.
KM: It was interesting because working with Pilou, when we shot with him it was his first American film, he’d never shot in the US before, I mean he’s from Denmark. It was trust, I think Laura and I, felt like each actor, we each had an intuition that it’d work. On paper, maybe it didn’t make as much sense, especially since the role of Keith, is a character we felt a soul connection to because he represented something I can’t really describe for us. It just really had to be this guy from Denmark! There’s a poetry in a way that he talks, and he did little things because his English was slightly off, he would just invert and add lines, and change the phrasing—
LM: It almost made you feel like he was out of place in the landscape, too. So it was perfect. He’s kind of dangerous in this Humboldt setting, he’s the outsider and breaking all these rules, so he has a good duality in that way. Joe was amazing because he had to really become a shadow. He feels almost out of place, like a bull in a China shop, every scene he’s in he’s such a foil. There’s such a disconnect in his relationship with Teresa, and we were essentially saying, this relationship is fractured beyond repair. That’s the antithesis of the boyfriend role in other movies, there’s a version of our movie where we spend half of the movie talking about the relationship, and then showing how the relationship is why she’s in this state.
KM: I think that people understand narrative through human connectivity. Teresa’s disconnected from every single person in the film, which is a huge task for a viewer to say, “I’m just going to be connected to her.” It’s impossible for Teresa to be connected to other people, so that’s the challenge in this film. You’re on a journey that’s more personal, but I liked that. One of the things that consistently gets said to us, from anyone who’s experienced a loss, is that they could never talk about what the isolation felt like, and how the world changed for them. I think that sometimes you want to believe that you can communicate those inner most feelings, but you just cant, and the person that’s with you isn’t necessarily going to know when you’re in pain like that. If you’re lucky enough maybe you’ll have a relationship where you can communicate and get help, but in the case of Teresa she’s not. I think the reason, she and Keith have this kind of chemistry is because he’s one of the only people in the characters, who actually knows more of her inner truth. He knows something about her that no one else knows.
What was the highlight of filming?
LM: I think working with your cast is just really thrilling. Our production designer K.K. Barrett said, “you know, you’re going to fall in love with your actors, it’s just what happens.” And that’s true, you do, you just care so much about them, and that’s a wonderful thing to go through. It was the same feeling with our key creatives on the film, and it comes in different stages, whether it’s with our editors Julia or our composer Peter Rayburn, those kinds of things that happen during filming or on set with all these creators is really powerful. Partnership is really powerful.
Featured Photo: Kirsten Dunst is surrounded by redwoods in the ethereal “Woodshock”. A24.