With few words and less money, writer and director Bradley Rust Gray has created a tense, intimate drama of a young epileptic’s love life with The Exploding Girl. With Zoe Kazan (It’s Complicated, Revolutionary Road) at the helm as the emotionally conflicted Ivy, the film works its shoestring budget by accepting all the chaos of the city streets its characters roam. Rather than supplementing emotional moments with weepy strings, Gray inserts a bustling New York City between actors and the camera, making the audience a voyeuristic observer of awkward but genuine moments. There is little in the way of a soundtrack, and no twisted plot arcs or stunning climaxes, just moments of personal drama and the often frustrating romantic trials and errors of a budding collegiate romance. Kazan took time out before her Broadway performance of A Behanding in Spokane with Christopher Walken to discuss the process of making the film. The Exploding Girl opens tomorrow at E Street Cinema.
Washington City Paper: What attracted you to this film?
Zoe Kazan: Well, there was actually no script when I started. [Bradley Rust Gray] and I met when I auditioned for another film of his that I wasn’t right for. He later asked me if I’d be interested in making a film with him, and I asked what one, and he said he hadn’t written it yet. So we started taking walks together for like six to eight hours, just talking about life and ideas. Then I went away to film Me and Orson Welles, and he wrote this part for me, basically.
WCP: Did you face any particular challenges in portraying an epileptic?
ZK: From the start, I was very concerned about that aspect not getting exploited. I think a lot of times it’s misrepresented in other films. We did a lot of research—-I read books for parents of epileptics to figure out what my mom would’ve told me, and I read first-hand accounts of epilepsy as well as some of the science of what happens to the brain during a seizure. My poor boyfriend—-I would watch videos of epileptic seizures online and then practice in my bed and force him to watch me to see if it looked accurate.
I grew up with a few friends that had other health problems, like diabetes and lupus, where they had to always guard their health. That was more important to me than the seizures themselves, just knowing what the day-to-day experience would be like.
WCP: Was it difficult to tell a love story with such little dialogue? Your character rarely discusses her feelings.
ZK: I think every actor loves that challenge where you don’t say it with words, but the meaning is beneath the dialogue. It was hard because we didn’t have playback, and I just had to trust that my minimal performance was strong enough to communicate what needed to be said.
ZK: Well, normally in a film you have monitors to see what you’re doing after you do it, so you can see how you did. Because of the budget and the pace we were working at, we didn’t have that.
WCP: Was the small budget hard to work with?
ZK: I don’t think we could’ve done this on a big budget. Sometimes actors are treated as precious—-they’re given coffee, separated, and they wait in their rooms. With a film like this, everybody was right there and there was no waiting. I like that aspect because I like being more of a collaborator.
WCP: Can you speak to why the shots were so often obstructed by the environment in the film?
ZK: Well, that’s really a question for Brad, but I do know he really loved the long lenses used in [the Japanese film] Café Lumière to create a sense of voyeurism. This movie was kind of an homage to that one, actually. Brad tried to frame the shots with long lenses to not only give that voyeuristic feel, but also to give privacy to the characters during their emotional moments. In particular, when Ivy was crying or having a seizure. It also helped on the city streets to really encompass the city of New York around us.
WCP: Was it distracting to film so much in the actual city streets?
ZK: A cell phone that goes off in a quiet theater is distracting because it shouldn’t be there. These characters are living and managing their way through the city, so it’s not like it didn’t belong. The firetruck that passes in front of the camera when I’m on my cell phone actually happened, we didn’t plan that or pay for the truck. People in New York really have to carve a niche for themselves to have any kind of private life in public places.
WCP: How do you think your character relates to the title The Exploding Girl?
ZK: I think it’s and evocative title, but it seems crass to relate it to epilepsy. If it means anything literal, it’s that Ivy has kept her emotions bottled up inside for so long and there’s finally a release in the movie.