Interviews · Movies

The Directors of ‘The Strange Ones’ On Rule Breaking and Storytelling

We chat with Lauren Wolkstein and Chris Radcliff about breaking the rules and “Staff Picks” being the ultimate classification.
The Strange Ones
By  · Published on January 24th, 2018

The Shallow Pocket Project is our way of getting to know the filmmakers behind the independent flicks that we dig. Check our last chat with Ingrid Jungermann (writer/director/star of ‘Women Who Kill). Special thanks to my fellow Dorks at In The Mouth of Dorkness, especially Brad Gullickson and Darren Smith.

Lauren Wolkstein and Chris Radcliff understand how to tell a story. They’ve been to school. They’ve worked professionally. They know the rules and the conventions and the customs. So, how the hell did they wind up making something like The Strange Ones?

The film has a minimal presentation. It’s long on emotion and short on dialogue. At times, portions of the dialogue that is there blur the line between reality and fantasy. In particular, there’s a recurring conversation about our ability to will changes in reality. Are we watching a road trip through purgatory or a painfully literal drama about the effect of trauma? It’s disturbing and disjointed, but god damn, it got me talking about movies.

Don’t get me wrong. The film isn’t a puzzle or a challenge. Rather, I finished it and immediately wanted to talk about it because I wasn’t sure how I felt about what I saw. Depending on your own worldview, you might watch it and see something I did not. Which is amazing!

The Strange Ones New Poster

Nick (Alex Pettyfer) and Sam (James Freedson-Jackson) are on the road. They keep telling everyone that they’re brothers on a camping trip. But we know that isn’t right. Police are involved. There’s been a death. A fire. Nick keeps telling Sam that none of this is real unless he wants it to be. And the way that Sam, a teenager, looks at Nick, a man in his mid to late twenties, is troubling. Their road trip takes Sam many places. Are they happy? Is this all by design? Was that a happy ending? There is much to discuss.

The Strange Ones explores the fractured reality created by trauma. The story is presented in a jumble, where flashbacks feel like they lead to flashbacks and the present becomes difficult to distinguish. There are moments of disturbing violence and glimpses of what could be psychopathy or fragility.

Wolkstein and Radcliff took this approach deliberately. In part, the rules of filmmaking felt a bit stale to them. Especially in the independent filmmaking hustle, that’s an important point to keep in mind! We measure independent filmmaking in years of struggle and days of joy. Their biggest point was that if you were going to really do something, make it something that feels challenging or exciting or ripe with the prospect of failure. Making art should bang you up a little and leave you feeling exposed.

It’s more than that, though. This movie operates on an emotional level first and subordinates everything else. I asked the filmmakers about some of the elements that left me puzzled, in their film and in others. What about unsolved mysteries or unanswered questions? We talked about Picnic at Hanging Rock and 3 Women. Sometimes they’re a meditation on identity or more an experience than a result. But Radcliff’s response in a nutshell?

“If there’s an emotional truth going on, it doesn’t matter.”

They want you to feel your way through this movie. And, they’ve created something unique that compels that sort of watch. This is the kind of movie that excites me. It is a special thing to create a movie that actually works as a movie and yet is still wide open to interpretation. Give too few details, and you have an undecipherable mess that can be anything. An inkblot instead of an actual feeling. If you provide too many answers in the film, you’ve simply created a mystery that once solved will no longer be interesting.

Alright, so they’re crafting emotions on this film. This is no simple thing. They debuted the original short film at Sundance 2011. It isn’t until seven full years later that the feature film dropped on VOD. They poured all their free time and their hearts into it. Wolkstein and Radcliff wrote, directed, and edited The Strange Ones together.

For them, the story was born out of research they had been doing on true crime, specifically kidnapping. Through that, they wanted to explore how trauma can fracture your world, especially in a young person who doesn’t quite have a full frame of reference for many things.

To aid in that, they made Sam their POV character. Do you remember being that young? The world was such a mystery. Sex was a mystery, really. Not just our own sexuality, but also how those relationships worked. Sam clearly is attracted to Nick. But just what the heck is up with Nick, and why is he riding around the country with this kid? With an unreliable POV character whose inexperience and manipulativeness are expressed in equal measures, it should be confusing. Through the course of the film, the power dynamics of the relationship flow and it becomes difficult to know for sure who is in charge.

Writing the story and then shooting it was a challenging and, by their account, fun puzzle to solve. Still, they knew they had the most to lose in terms of their creative intent in the editing room. In fact, the credit that most caught my eye was their role as editors. It’s rare to see someone write, shoot, and edit their projects. I’d guess this is for two reasons. First, editing is a truck-load of time-consuming, tedious work. And if you can afford to bring someone in to help with that, you do so because you need that time to help get your next hustle ready. However, it also affords an opportunity to bring a knowledgeable creative partner into the process to help shape the work.

Wolkstein shared that while they appreciated the cost savings that doing it themselves afforded them, it was really about maintaining artistic control of their vision. Passing this responsibility off to someone else would have been like playing a game of telephone about the contents of a dream that left you shaken.

Kill your darlings, right? That’s what happens in the editing bay. It’s one of the lessons we’ve been hearing from indie filmmakers since our very first chat with Christian Stella. It’s a stressful time, especially since you know the work that went into a shot. If you know you worked for two days to get the stars to align on that particular take, you will naturally fight way harder than you should to get it to fit into the final cut of the film. Wolkstein and Radcliff’s guiding line was that when it was the right cut, they agreed. Anything else, and they were forcing something together that didn’t quite belong.

Having worked through that and produced a cut of the film that matched the emotional torpedo they were looking to craft, their producers asked them to make a cut of the film that showcased the same elements in a linear and straightforward fashion.

I get it. That’s the first thing I would do if someone told me their whole construction was based exactly on breaking the rules of conventional storytelling. Okay, show me what it would look like conventionally. And, my goodness, they did. They prepped what they termed the “Law & Order cut” of The Strange Ones. And it fell flat! People didn’t connect with it the same way they did the fractured reality cut.

Wolkstein and Radcliff knew that the confusion was the essential element of the film. Without it, we watch the movie as adults. We lose the essential experience. Without it, we are watching a semi-engaging drama whose story we might have otherwise experienced in an episode of Law & Order — a fine show, but easily consumable while dinner is prepared.

We talk a lot about the idea of movies as empathy machines. I always come back to that Roger Ebert quote. It’s how I watch movies. I want to understand, I mean really truly understand, the experiences of the people I’m watching on the big screen. I want to feel.

The last question we asked them? So, you’ve made this genre-bending film. If we could go back to the days of the local video store, on what shelf would you want them to put The Strange Ones? Two words, one righteous answer:

“Staff picks.”

Wolkstein and Radcliff have made a movie designed for that approach. I love their style, and I’m very excited to see whatever it is they get up to next. For now,  The Strange Ones is available on demand, and this staff member strongly encourages you to go out and give it a watch.

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Writer for Film School Rejects. He currently lives in Virginia, where he is very proud of his three kids, wife, and projector. Co-Dork on the In The Mouth of Dorkness podcast.