What do you do when you’ve conquered Hollywood as a blockbuster screenwriter? You step behind the camera. Audiences might recognize Nicole Perlman’s name from her creative work on Guardians of the Galaxy or the upcoming Captain Marvel, but it’s her directorial debut – an adaptation of Gail Hareven’s The Slows – that has her making the rounds at film festivals across the country. It’s true: somewhere in the midst of helping write every tentpole feature of the next two years, Perlman found time to transition behind the camera, and she couldn’t be happier with how things turned out.
The Slows originally appeared in the fiction section of the May 2009 issue of The New Yorker; Perlman was so struck by the world present in the story that she snatched up the rights. But rather than shopping the project around Hollywood, she kept the story in her back pocket for years. “I didn’t know how to go from [purchasing the rights] to actually directing it,” Perlman admits. “I went to film school, but I had almost immediately gotten into the screenwriting side of things, so I felt really separate from that part of my life.” In fact, it wasn’t until she was approached by a not-for-profit production company that directing The Slows even seemed like a legitimate possibility. “I ended up having a meeting with Cinereach in New York – it was not long after Guardians came out – and I was thinking, why does this little independent film company want to meet with me?”
Much to Perlman’s surprise, Cinereach had no interest in discussing superhero movies. They only had one question for her as a filmmaker: what would you like to do next? “I said I have this strange little short story that I would love to do and do it right,” Perlman recalls. “I said I know I’ll probably never have a chance to direct it, but that’s the thing I would love to do one day.” A year later, Cinereach was helping Perlman apply for a filmmaker fellowship that would let her step behind the camera for her first short film. This fellowship helped refresh some of her directorial skills that had languished while Perlman focused on her screenwriting career. “They really worked on anything that I needed to feel like I was back up to speed with my directing skills. Once I started getting into it, I wondered why I had ever doubted the ability to do it.”
So began her first project as the singular creative force. While much of the focus for The Slows will be on Perlman’s debut as a director, it’s also important to note that this was also her first opportunity to develop a screenplay independent of other writers. For Perlman, this experience presented its own set of challenges. “It was amazing and also a little scary,” she explains. One benefit of working on a major Hollywood picture is the series of checks and balances the studio puts in place. “I always had a feeling that there were lots and lots of people to check me at every stage and make sure that this was the right, the best way to tell the story.” For better or worse, The Slows was an opportunity to write directly for her audience, not for the producers signing off on a project. “So much of screenwriting is about pleasing the person who hired you. Even if you haven’t written a spec, if you’re writing on assignment, you want to just get to the next phase of things.”
The first challenge was how much of the story to capture onscreen. Hareven’s short story takes place in a single room, where a doctor and his patient discuss the threat that their futuristic society poses to those (Slows) who fight for the freedom to live as nature intended. Instead of opting for a literal translation, Perlman elected to bring some of the images hinted at in the story to life. “This is an incredible world that this woman’s on the run from,” Perlman says when asked about her approach to world-building. “We should see what she looks like in that world and place the main character in an immersive environment, unlike anything she’s ever been in before.” This also informed her decision to shoot the film in the Pacific Northwest, using the foliage to create a pallet of life and death that underscores the central themes. “Having this mixture of life and death surrounding the character once she got out of her sanitized feature world, the accelerated world, that was really important to me.”
In her dual roles as writer and director, Perlman also found her time behind the camera changed the way she thought as a writer. “I definitely think that there’s an intuitive visual storytelling technique that I didn’t fully trust until I went back behind the camera,” she admits, noting that she has a better understanding of the interplay between what’s on the page and what an actor brings in their performance. If anything has changed since working on The Slows, it’s her preferences towards letting actors embody the emotions of a scene rather than scripting them out. “I definitely think that there’s an intuitive visual storytelling technique that I didn’t fully trust until I went back behind the camera,” she admits. “It had been so long since I realized that so much of the dialogue doesn’t need to be there.”
Perlman also had to fight for a short film that lives and dies on its own merits. Early in the process, Perlman learned to walk a fine line between making The Slows a self-contained narrative or creating something that would encourage a feature film expansion. “As I started going into the process, people on the more Hollywood side said, hey, we’ll throw in as much money as you need to make this if you make it as a proof of concept for a larger movie, something that’s very commercial,” she explains. “I said no because I figured I could probably raise the money or scrape it together somehow to tell a story that was exactly what I wanted to say.” That doesn’t mean The Slows will only ever exist in its current format; should The Slows be expanded as a full-length feature someday, Perlman will be ready. “I feel like I’ve put my flag in the ground.”