In 2009, I was excited about the theatrical release Handsome Harry because it was director Bette Gordon’s first film since Luminous Motion back in 2000. Moreover, it was only her second feature since her striking debut, Variety, burst onto the scene in 1984 and solidified her role, after a series of acclaimed shorts, as a pioneer of American independent cinema and New York City’s “No Wave Cinema” underground movement. I hoped all film fans took notice.
Well, it has taken another eight years for Gordon, a revered directing professor at Columbia University School of Arts, to make her fourth film, The Drowning, which opens at the IFC Center on Wednesday, with Q&As after the 6:10 p.m. and 8:25 p.m. screenings (and on future nights as well), and I am alerting all local film fans to attend so it gets an extended run.
Gordon’s works typically explore sexuality, violence and secrets about the past, and feature characters who are driven by dark impulses that neither she nor we can fully grasp, and The Drowning is no exception. In this tense, disturbing psychological thriller, she once again offers us a bold and tricky film puzzle that is intentionally missing a few pieces she insists we search for.
The synopsis from The Drowning press notes:
“The Drowning tells the story of Tom Seymour (Josh Charles), a child psychologist who is haunted by a situation 12 years earlier when his expert witness testimony sent Danny, a young boy, to prison for a chilling murder. When the boy, now a young man (Avan Jogia), reappears in Tom’s life, Tom is drawn into a potentially destructive, soul-searching reinvestigation of the case that threatens his marriage to Lauren (Julia Stiles), his practice and, ultimately, his life.” Watch the trailer below and read on.
Full disclosure about what makes this piece personal for me: Although Bette Gordon and I didn’t meet until around 1980, we both attended the University of Wisconsin in the late 1960s and early 1970s and become family-close friends for the next 40 years with another student who loved movies, Karyn Kay. We would all eventually live in New York City, with Karyn becoming a teacher at LaGuardia HS, a screenwriter (Call Me), and a single mother to a nice boy we watched grow up. As with everyone else who knew and loved Karyn, we were devastated when, in a headline-making story in April 2012, she was beaten to death by her increasingly troubled teenage son. He has been in prisons and mental facilities ever since, and his case—his future, his treatment—continues to be revisited in the court system. And we are still trying to figure out how this tragedy happened. I mention all this because Bette Gordon dedicated her new film to Karyn Kay, and The Drowning itself poses the very questions we still want answered about why our dear friend is no longer with us. I spoke to the influential director last week at the Malibu Diner in New York City.
Danny Peary: It was very powerful for me to see that your film is dedicated to someone who was so close to both of us, Karyn Kay.
Bette Gordon: Of course, you too have an insider’s knowledge about Karyn. There are so few of us who can talk to each other about what happened to her, being killed by her son, someone we both knew was troubled but not to that extreme. That’s why I made this film in a way, not that it’s gotten me any closer to being able to deal with such a tragic loss. I’m still so conflicted all the time about how to deal with her son, and that’s a problem. (He was at an institution in Minnesota, where he was evaluated for a year or two, and now has been released back to New York and is being held by a state mental facility.)
DP: When it happened, were you thinking that your next film, whatever it was, was going to be dedicated to Karyn, or did you actually start planning to make a film that relates to her death?
BG: Like all of us, I was so devastated that I wasn’t thinking about movies. I was in a weird state of mind, going a bit crazy, and wasn’t looking for a project. My friend Renée Shafransky, who was with Spalding Gray in the days we ran the Collective for Living Cinema, had known Karyn and saw I was struggling after her death, so about a month later she gave me a novel to read. She said, “You must read Pat Barker’s Border Crossing.” Pat Barker is an incredible, really well-known British writer whose Regeneration Trilogy about World War I veterans suffering from PTSD won the Man Booker Prize [and whose Union Street was adapted into the Robert De Niro/Jane Fonda movie, Stanley & Iris]. Border Crossing was written in 2001 and is the story of a young man, Danny, who is charismatic and attracts people to him but has been accused of murdering a woman in cold blood when he was 11. After I finished the book, I said, “Oh, my god, this is asking those philosophical questions that I wasn’t able to formulate yet about why this boy I knew killed his mother.” So I found Pat Barker’s agent and got a couple of people together to help me option the book. I then gave it to Jamin O’Brien, who had produced Handsome Harry with me, and it became our journey to adapt it. So, in answer to your question, it was one event that led to another.
DP: You changed the title from her book.
BG: I didn’t want anyone to assume the movie is about what’s going on in Texas and Mexico with immigration. I liked the word “border” because it can mean different things. A physical border? A psychological border? It can relate to ownership and identity. So it’s a fascinating word to me and I hated taking it out of the title. Fortunately, the word “drowning” has a lot of significance, too. There are so many different ways to drown that have nothing to do with water. The characters in the book and my film could drown in their own air, for instance. I want viewers to feel things and be uncomfortable, so putting the word “drowning” in the title helps do that. The book is different, and I took some liberties other than with the title change, but Pat Barker has seen the movie and loves it, and I am thrilled about that.”
DP: When working on the script by Stephen Molton and Frank Pugliese, were you trying to create a scenario that might help you, cathartically, deal with what happened to Karyn?
BG: At first probably not. The book became more important and what I really wanted to do was make a great psychological thriller, a genre that you and I, growing up when we did, were taken with. That genre offers so much possibility because it lets you think about what is going on beneath the surface and what are the darker elements of life. With noir, thrillers and B-melodramas, there is just something attractively edgy going on. My first film, Variety, was a thriller, too, but it was a much quieter, pensive one. For The Drowning I really wanted to embrace the form and tell a dramatic story about characters who have moral ambiguity. Everything I’ve ever made is about moral ambiguity; and all my characters have had moral ambiguity. Like Jamey Sheridan’s title character in Handsome Harry, they carry secrets and it is interesting to me in terms of craft how to control that information and let it out a little at a time. I had fun on The Drowning creating suspense as I told a story about complex characters.
DP: One thing I find interesting about your films, most obviously in The Drowning and Handsome Harry—and I admit it is because you’re a female director—is that you are really interested in male characters, boys and adults.
BG: I know! It’s interesting that I’ve felt that to understand the position of women in culture—including what we are up against in terms of living and in representation—and be able to paint them in their fullest capacity, I started to think about men. That really happened in Handsome Harry but even before that, Luminous Motion is the story of a boy and his two fathers. I feel that masculinity hasn’t been dissected in the same way that the feminist movement pushed us to examine the position of women. What about men? When I was making Handsome Harry, I read Stiffed by Susan Faludi, and that set the world in motion for me. I think there was a change in “masculinity” around the end of the Vietnam War. Before then men were considered the bearers of “victory.” It’s almost as if Trump supporters are trying to find that moment in history. However, at the end of that war, with our perceived failure, I think there was a shift in masculinity, and that interested me because there was also a shift in women, and the women’s movement grew and became much stronger. A film I really love is William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives , which deals with loss and what is underneath the male psyche that we women sometimes don’t see. In my deep search into masculinity, I can learn more about myself and about sexuality and gender. It’s a revelation sometimes, so I’m drawn to it even now. I haven’t finished with it.
DP: And was male “heroism” redefined as well back then?
DP: I ask because in the first scene of your movie, Tom does something heroic, jumping into deep water to save the drowning young man who is attempting suicide—who turns out to be his long-ago patient, Danny. But after that, even though he can hold his own in a fistfight, we see the chinks in his armor.
BG: Right, we see the vulnerability under his tough exterior. I go deeper into that. I wanted to look at a guy who is a pro at what he does. Tom is a skilled, professional therapist, who buys into the institutional system he works in and when he gives court testimony, there are results because he’s an expert. Tom’s a guy who helps other people understand their nature, but I always wonder about psychiatrists and psychologists who have the ability to see beneath the surface of other people. What about them? What about Tom? That is interesting to me. Tom also is someone who has a mission when he is working on something, and in regard to Danny it is to either verify the truth or deny the truth about whether he was right when giving expert-witness testimony. But his mission is compromised by his own past. His own past, going back to his childhood, offers a look into a deeper element of his own soul and to children in general. Don’t children have this unbridled ability to hurt each other or someone and to do things because they don’t have the Superego part of their personalities? That kind of violence in children relates to Karyn’s son and is also what Pat Barker was really interested in. She was thinking about the case of two 10-year-old boys killing an even younger kid, James Bolter, that made headlines in Britain and worldwide. We eventually let kids like them who have committed terrible crimes out of prison although we don’t know if redemption is a real thing.
DP: Danny is accused of killing someone when he was a kid. He went off to prison. We learn that young Tom almost killed another kid and he would have gone to prison if his father didn’t save that boy from drowning. That’s Tom’s link to Danny.
BG: That’s totally right. If not for Tom’s father he would have been like Danny, a kid in jail on a murder charge. When Tom helped put the young Danny away, he looked at him and saw something that couldn’t be put into words. There was something behind the young Danny’s eyes that scared him. Maybe he recognized something in himself. He made the decision to help put Danny away, and thought he was finished with the case, but just like with Handsome Harry, his past comes back. It’s fascinating that the things we do in life are not just over and done but keep resurfacing in all kinds of ways.
DP: In your discussions with Josh Charles, did he reveal whether he liked Tom?
BG: We never talked about that specifically. So I’m not sure if he liked Tom, but I know he understood him. As an actor Josh could relate to Tom because they’re both internal people. I wanted Josh to play Tom because as an actor he wrestles with “internal life.” As a person, too. There are other actors who struggle with internal life, but Josh has the rare ability to let us see that. Josh lets us in. The big moments with him are silent moments, without dialogue. I love that Josh absorbs things and then turns it around in his head. In order to define who Tom is, considering he doesn’t show much, Josh and I had some deep discussions about Tom’s actions and words, trying to figure out what he does and doesn’t believe and what he wants in life. Josh knew that Tom needs to believe in something but is having doubts. Doubt is something we all live with every second of our lives.
DP: When you met Avan, did you agree on whether Danny was guilty of murder as a kid?
BG: We knew the book, so we knew if he did it.
DP: If Avan knew Danny was innocent then he of course could play it so Danny feels Tom did him wrong. But if Avan knew Danny was guilty, could he have played the role thinking Danny believes he is innocent?
BG: I visited Karyn’s son one time after his arrest, at Bellevue before he was sent to Rikers Island. His father, Karyn’s ex, asked me to come and it was really scary. He was the boy we knew but very messed up. And one of the first things he said to me, and it was weird—and it is something Danny says in my film—was, “I didn’t do it. It wasn’t me.” That really spooked me. That is the narrative of his lawyer, that it was his medication that took him over and he killed during a blackout. That’s also a bit of the theme in the Pat Barker book.
So just as it was with Karyn’s son, Danny knows he did it but he says he didn’t and we don’t know if he believes he’s telling the truth. What does Danny mean when he says it wasn’t him who killed that woman?
END SPOILER ALERT
The first half of the film is the same as the book. Tom jumps into the water and saves Danny from suicide. And Danny tells him that he was innocent of the murder and wants his help to prove it. In the first half of the film, as in the book, Danny comes across as wrongly accused and Tom appears to be stubborn about insisting he was guilty. Tom has to rid himself of the guilt he feels because he might have made the wrong decision about the boy because of something that happened in his own past. Tom is haunted by his own misdeed as a boy, and has his own demons because he almost committed murder. When reading the book, I was absolutely rooting for Tom to see the mistake he made and try to help Danny—not even to find the real killer but to just give a retraction that will bring Danny some peace. Maybe all Danny really wants is for Tom to say, “I believe you.” As one of my writers said, “It’s like Humpty Dumpty. If you fall, can the pieces be put back together again?”
DP: Soon we begin to think that Danny wants more than for Tom to admit his mistake with him.
BG: Danny makes very clear choices. He has been released from prison and now has an assumed name, so he could live a very quiet life, but he sets out to find Tom again. In working with Avan Jogia, who plays Danny, I needed to play something out. I said to him, “We need to find moments when Danny is being honest and other moments when he’s not being honest.” We worked on those moments of Danny being sincere. For us to buy what Danny says, we have to see his vulnerability and we have to root for him. First we’re rooting for Tom and saying, “You probably made a mistake with your testimony years ago, so why don’t you fix it?” But then we’re not sure if we’re rooting for him. We might instead be rooting for Danny because we think he’s sincerely looking for help. We think he’s a victim and we root for him even if we start to believe he might have done the murder he denies doing. We may say, “He did this really bad thing, but we are drawn him.” So in the first half of the book and film, we’re complicit. Avan had such a great skill playing a 22-year-old who is both a child and a man. Danny was a hard role to cast because he couldn’t be too boyish and still be a threat to Tom’s masculinity. We didn’t have the budget to do auditions so we looked at past things done by the actors we considered for Danny. Avan was on a TV series called Twisted, in which he played a character not unlike Danny. From that he has a huge following with young people. He’s a smart, very political, interesting guy. He’s from Vancouver, with an English mother and Indian father. He was great to work with.
DP: In their therapy sessions, Tom tries to find out about Danny, but what’s interesting is that Danny is trying to dig deep into Tom. It’s a two-way thing.
BG: That’s right. That was by intention. I worked very closely with the writers, reading the book over and over, dissecting it line for line and word for word. I’ve always used the Jekyll and Hyde idea with characters, and in this there is an element of Tom in Danny and an element of Danny in Tom, and there’s this wrestling to overtake and control the other. Tom is pure thought, someone who always has explanations, while Danny is pure emotion. So they’re set for battle.
DP: What are their motives when dealing with each other?
BG: Tom wants from Danny a breakthrough. I think Danny wants to force Tom to reveal himself to himself. He wants Tom to look deeper into his own makeup and see that he has a similar darkness as Danny, as all of us do. Danny maybe wants Tom to help him. Danny maybe also wants to punish Tom for his betrayal. He reminds him that when he was a kid Tom offered him a helping hand and told him everything was going to be okay—which is what we do as adults with children—but then he spoke against Danny in court, testifying that he knew the difference between right and wrong. Danny maybe wants Tom to retract that testimony so he can feel vindicated. Danny maybe wants revenge. Danny surely is showing Tom how easy it is to step across a border. Danny is saying to Tom that he shouldn’t think he is on the other side of a line between them in the sand, a border. The boundaries between them are seen differently from where they each are standing.
DP: Would Danny know about Tom having almost killed someone years before?
BG: That’s the question. Late in the movie, Tom asks Danny, “Did I tell you that story before?” Danny doesn’t answer. So, what does Danny know and how does he use what he knows to manipulate Tom? He’s a great manipulator. Also he knows who other people want him to be and he has the ability to make them believe he is that. That ability to change his identities to suit Tom, Lauren and his parole officer Angela, is the great skill of a con artist. He’s like Tom Ripley in Patricia Highsmith novels.
DP: I think Danny tries to make Tom feel like he’s a father figure to him, and that he isn’t doing a very good job being that.
BG: Ultimately, it’s the battle between a 44-year-old man and a 22-year-old man, father-son, who have similar elements. Danny even manipulates a battle between Tom and his real father. Tom protects Danny to the very end, unlike his real father would do, which gives the manipulative Danny satisfaction.
DP: If Danny sees that Tom protects him against his brutal father, why won’t he leave him be?
BG: He’s not done. Danny doesn’t want protection. He wants to make the point that they are the same, on the same side of the border. Tom thinks Danny killed someone as a kid, he knows he almost killed someone himself. We ask: Under what circumstances will someone cross over the line? We viewers like to take information and make moral judgments about other people, but we wouldn’t be so fascinated if we didn’t see something of ourselves in them, even something evil. What is our attraction to evil? We can’t stop watching something scary, dark and twisted. Psychological thrillers push us to look deeper into ourselves, even if it means discovering a similar darkness is present there. Under certain circumstances I think everyone is capable of pushing someone down the stairs, pushing someone into deep water, something that can be construed as an evil act. Does one act make that person evil?
DP: There’s a lot of gray in these characters, certainly in Danny. In We Have to Talk About Kevin , I think the boy who murders his family and classmates is an evil person. I’m not sure about Danny, even if he did kill an elderly woman years before. We detect something good.
BG: In history there was the Third Reich, so you have to believe there is pure evil. In Chinatown , John Huston’s character says it’s amazing how imaginative evil can be—evil can take so many shapes and forms.
DP: A couple of times when Danny’s at Tom’s house, Danny throws tantrums and starts smashing things. We wonder if they are fake tantrums for Tom’s benefit because later on you show Danny alone and contemplating his next move and he is completely calm.
BG: Not that I’ve met many of them, but some sociopaths and psychopaths are the calmest people in the world. It is likely Danny’s tantrums are for show, but they also tell Tom and us that he’s capable of violence and is wrestling with something himself.
DP: When I was watching your movie, I was thinking of Cape Fear because here too the scary guy is able to maneuver his way into the family.
BG: And he’s not going away. There’s just no way out. Cape Fear is interesting because Gregory Peck’s character represents the Law, as an institution. And as we know, institutions are not always capable of protecting the people they’re supposed to protect. When there is no violence perpetrated you can’t even get a restraining order. So the kind-hearted Gregory Peck has to take the law into his own hands. Tom, too, works with the law, and when Danny attacks him he feels Danny is attacking the Law, the entire institution. As good as his psychiatric training is, what is he to do? The first mistake Tom makes is letting Danny into his house. He crosses a border then. You never let your patients into your house. But his humanity kicks in because he knows how much Danny has suffered.
DP: Tom and Danny are morally ambiguous and certainly multidimensional, but what about Tom’s wife Lauren, played by Julia Stiles?
BG: In a more conventional psychological thriller, she’d be seen more as a victim. I think we worked really hard to allow her to be independent of that. She has her own secrets and she has ambition and her secret weapon is that she wants Tom but she doesn’t need him. That’s what Julia and I worked on together. I love that in a way Lauren comes across as the strongest character. It’s the same in Variety, with the young woman who sells tickets at the porno theater. She’s strong and actually controls more of the narrative than the people who might have been controlling her.
DP: Angela is Danny’s parole officer. She seems increasingly worried, not because Danny is acting increasingly agitated and may harm her—which is what I first thought was her concern—but because she thinks Danny isn’t being treated well. What is her role in the movie?
BG: She also is a representative of a system that is in place to help people. She finds herself being drawn in by Danny’s charisma. This is a way for us to see that even a professional like Angela is buying into the idea that Danny needs help. She goes too far in caring about him; she crosses her own line. Tom visits the headmaster of the juvenile delinquent home where Danny had lived, and a woman on the staff says, “Danny has the ability to take people in. He’s a dark hole.” Angela finds herself attracted to him and Tom tries to call her out on it, reminding her that Danny is a parolee. Tom also is being drawn in by Danny, but he’s the character who resists Danny the longest. He holds back, and that’s because somewhere inside himself Tom knows the truth about Danny.
DP: You have mentioned that you use water symbolically in your films. This film is titled The Drowning and there are a couple of important scenes that take place in water. But is there a metaphor we’re supposed to recognize?
BG: Not really, although water has a sexual connotation and we call this an “erotic thriller.” I think water in this film is another boundary. What I love are surfaces because I can never stay on the surface myself in anything I make. I don’t accept face value but need to go to the other side of the mirror. Like Harold Pinter said in his Nobel laureate speech, we can’t simply rest on surfaces and need to go deeper, and I’m always looking for ways to go deeper in film and in life. Nothing is what it seems to be.
DP: You are a visual director who pays extraordinary attention to what’s in your frame. Talk about working with Radium Cheung as your cinematographer to get the mood you wanted. He is famous for shooting Tangerine on a cellphone.
BG: That put him on the map. We worked well together. We met a lot of times and showed each other examples of what we loved visually. And on all of our scouts, we’d have a camera and shoot, shoot, shoot, and then look at all the pictures to try to find the angles we’d use. That was so much fun. Both Radium and I are colorists, and we were both cinematographers, and he’s a still photographer, so he knew what I was looking for within the frame. We wanted to use de-saturated color. We weren’t shooting in winter, but I wanted a wintery look. Not full color, with only a few touches of red, and mostly blue. I told him I wanted the film to be claustrophobic. So there is always somebody else in the main person’s frame. I told him I wanted him to use a long lens and do the opposite of what he did in Tangerine, where he had all these wide-angle vistas shooting with an iPhone camera. I asked him to always give me the backs of other people’s heads because I often prefer backs and shoulders to faces. That makes what you don’t see more intriguing. And I pushed Radium to shoot really tight and to always be shooting through things, like the handle of a coffee cup that is in the foreground and a little out of focus. So you feel barriers as you do in the films of Fassbinder and Michael Mann, particularly The Insider. My biggest thing was to have the “ghost of Danny” in every shot. Even when Danny isn’t in the frame, his ghost is there. He haunts the movie.
DP: Tom lives in an enormous house and you often show people using the staircase.
BG: We wanted to make that house a character much like Roman Polanski made the apartment in Rosemary’s Baby. It has its own character, having nooks and crannies and warmth but for when Lauren leaves for the city. And there’s water behind it. It’s a great house and a great find for us in Yonkers.
DP: I love your head-on shot of Pennsylvania Station, which reminded me of your great shots of the old Variety Theatre in your first feature.
BG: The book takes place in Newcastle, England and I wanted to shoot in New London, Connecticut, which has the best old train station ever, right on the water. But it was too expensive to take the whole cast and crew there. Fortunately, the train station in Yonkers is the exact replica of that, including the waiting room. So we used that one and said it was New London.
DP: Did you move away from the book with your ending?
BG: The book has a different, beautiful ending. I shot that ending, pleased that it matched all my other ambiguous endings. But a lot of people said, “You’re going to take us through this whole journey and then leave us with a big question?” Finally, I decided to keep the dialogue between Tom and Danny in the final sequence but shoot a new ending that is conclusive. Or seems to be. Still, I left room for ambiguity. Endings are really difficult for me!
DP: I’m sure people have asked you if making this film helped you deal with what happened to your best friend.
BG: And I don’t know the answer to that question. I don’t think it helped me get answers to my questions, but there are no answers to them. The unknowability of what makes someone do something like this is what we have to live with. We want everything to be spelled out, and we look for answers in therapy to explain behavior, but so much behavior can’t be explained. Things aren’t so simple.
Danny Peary has published 25 books on film and sports, including Cult Movies and Jackie Robinson in Quotes.