Grief is a very personal experience. Some of us cry, some lash out at loved ones, some shut down. A few even look at a loss as an excuse to reassess their lives. Either way, it is a loss. Five years ago yesterday, I lost someone very special to me. I had experienced the loss of family members before, but this, this was something altogether different. Tyler was a beloved friend. I guess I never actually knew how close we were until after he was ripped from my life without real explanation. The hole gets smaller each day but just barely. There are moments, songs, pictures, that still take the wind out of me. It’s the most horrible feeling. Grief owns me at times. It’s still a process. In Blake Robbins new film, The SUBLIME and BEAUTIFUL, all those feelings rush back into my brain and heart.
The film is a powerful portrait of loss. Robbins plays David, a college professor raising three children in suburban Kansas. A few days before Christmas, a tragedy thrusts David into a downward spiral of coping with death and coming to terms with the aftermath of how his family is now defined. What happens when you know who is responsible for the death of your kids? What, as a parent, do you do about it? This heart wrenching script is spot on for anyone who has lost a loved one. At some point it is not about living, maybe just surviving until you can live again.
We all struggle with how to approach others after a tragedy. What is the proper thing to say? Do people want help? Do they care if you can relate? Everyone is different, you can never predict. Robbins uses his own three children in the film. They are spectacular. The decision seems both logical and genius all at once. The pace is slow and deliberate. The colors are ominous and completely fitting. All natural light and local Kansas locations play well to the familiarity factor. This could happen to anyone, anywhere. The relatability of the story will hit you in the gut whether you’ve experienced this first hand or not. Robbins used very personal moments in his life to build this story. His performance is one to notice. Both quiet and astoundingly loud at the perfect moments. He is the driving force of this narrative and I encourage everyone to seek out this film.
After screening this movie, I was fortunate enough to be able to chat with Blake about The SUBLIME and BEAUTIFUL. Here is our interview:
Liz: First of all let me say, I love the film. I’ve been talking about it to people non-stop. It’s such a pleasure when you come across something so wonderful, you’re instinct is just to tell people about it. So, why this story in particular?
Blake: Predominantly, it had to do with my own issues with grief. I lost my best friend to cancer, a brain tumor. He was diagnosed a month before he was to graduate college, so he passed away when I was 27. So I’d been dealing with grief for a long time and whenever I was drawn to the movies to see a film that dealt with the subject matter, inevitably, with the exception of one or two films, I was always disappointed. They didn’t deal with grief that I understood, that I knew. And even the really good films that dealt with great, usually dealt with it through a celebrity performance. When you put a celebrity into that situation it requires some artifice, some elevation of the role to kind of sort of put them in a position to win awards, and I thought if I do this we’re making it for so little money and we don’t have celebrities so I can resist the urge to do a disservice to anyone who knows what this is, what this feels like… I’m just going to honor the circumstance of grief to my understanding. The payoff for me has been incredibly powerful to have people come to me and say, “I know this personally and God bless you for doing this.”
L: That is exactly how I felt while watching.
B: I hope it’s not because you’ve experienced loss like that!
L: Well, I have.
B: Oh, I’m so sorry.
L: But that’s the thing. I can appreciate it as someone who has gone through that. You cannot explain to anyone who hasn’t gone through that and it was very refreshing, if that’s a word I can use, to see that.
B: You’re the person I was making the movie for and when those people find the movie, that’s amazing for me, and I feel… I don’t really know.
L: What is your process when writing? I am personally inspired by music, but what do you do when you write?
B: I am somewhat embarrassed about myself as a writer. I’m comfortable now because I’ve been writing for years. I didn’t start out as a writer, I started out as an actor and I had a sort of bad experience in school where I was told I couldn’t do things, or I wasn’t as good at things, ya know what I mean? So I had to overcome that feeling in myself, could I write? And thanks to my co-actor, Matthew Del Negro, who is in the movie, who also is my good friend, we had these conversations about this idea I wanted to put on paper and he encouraged me to the point where I actually did. And how that process looked is, I thought about things for a long long time, and resisted writing, because at first I was afraid to. I don’t write until it ha to explode out of me, until I can’t sleep at night. I write overnight, I write without thought, without concern about good or bad, I just a yellow legal pad and a pencil and just sort of purge an idea out of myself. SUBLIME and BEAUTIFUL started that way. Two overnights of I can’t sleep and I basically wrote from midnight to 6 am in the morning. That is probably 70% of the finished film… Then I get all my actor buddies to sit around and read it to me. They always inform me, they always raise such good questions, and I kinda pull a bunch of storytellers together and when I do the movie I am very open the actor contribution. I’m not sensitive about, wait, I am very sensitive, let me rephrase that, but I don’t hold it so precious that I can’t see what the opportunity is in the moment. I’m open to a lot of play and improv.
L: The climactic scenes, the heaviness of these scenes, must have just taken it out of you guys.Did you do a lot of takes, or when you’re emotionally done, you’re done? As a director, how to you reach that balance?
B: Because of the nature of the film where we had so few days, so little money, so few resources, it necessitated that we just jump and look later. And not because of the amazing cast that came on board with me, they were all ready to jump right in. I would say it’s a two or three take movie foe the most part, but what I did was prioritize certain scenes as you can see, I call those scenes “living organs” and the rest of the scenes connective tissue. So 2-3 takes on the connective tissue and then 5-6 takes on the really heavy scenes. But to give you an example, on the really climactic scene between Armin Shimerman’s character and mine, it’s about a 6-7 minutes scene in the film, that was my coverage and his coverage, one take each.
L: Wow. I was wondering about that as I watched it. I could imagine doing it more than once but it felt very visceral, very real.
B: I had worked with Armin theatrically and I asked him if he was OK with throwing away the script. “Armin, let’s just see what happens when I come into the room.” … And then we just went for it, and he was so good and so willing to jump in. I was sort of powering the scene and we shot my coverage first, neither of us wanted to do it again, but then we went on to do his coverage informed by the take we had just done, which was so raw, and we made sure we got his reactions but it was just one long take. So we just powered through, one time each.
L: Your character is so relatable, in fact all the characters are, so in respect to the disintegration of a marriage, I know that statisticly that when parents lose a child they don’t stay together, so did you look into those stats or were you just thinking this is a very real scenario, this is how I’m writing it?
B: Yeah, I knew statisticly that I was covering the truth. And I had to prove it to myself, I had a version of the script where the parents sort of ended up together at the end, and I as a human being wanted some hope as well. I just didn’t believe it. I as a filmmaker and an artist just couldn’t buy it. This feels like the truth to me so I have to live with the truth. There’s a glimmer of hope at the end that he’s not the same guy that experienced the movie, but I was going for the truth.
L: I think we don’t think we like to watch flawed human beings, when in reality it’s so much more important to watch flawed human beings because we are all flawed. Which in films we’re so used to it being wrapped up in a bow, and I very much appreciated that it wasn’t.
B: Not only was I trying to honor these people who had had grief experiences and would recognize the truth of this I was also trying to make a movie for my audience which is people who truly love contemporary adult independent cinema and want a film that sticks with them and makes them talk about tings, that makes them examine things. I wanted to make that movie. So even if you hadn’t had a grief experience, you could still enjoy it as a piece of cinema.
L: You use your kids, which is fantastic because they are amazing. Was that a catalyst for your performance, as a dad?
B: I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t overlap. That’s who I am as an actor, I try to grab onto everything that’s true to me. I knew they’d be fantastic in the movie because I know them. I knew I’d be able to help the audience experience who they were in such a short amount of time, and I wanted ti make sure people cared. They had to care for these kids. Absolutely that was with me the whole time.
When discussing the ending of the film, this is what Blake had to share, without getting too spoilery…
B: Well, I had to be as honest with myself as I was with my audience. I left a key piece of information out for a reason. And I love the fact that two completely brilliant, equally attuned, smart, sophisticated theater goers will have different thoughts on the film. I made a movie where you get to walk away and make your own decision on what happened.
THE SUBLIME AND BEAUTIFUL available on iTunes / VOD December 16th via Candy Factory Distribution, and is also playing the Anthology Film Archives that night at 7pm at the Maya Deren Theatre.
Produced By Blake Robbins and Warren Ostergard
Casting Director / Producer Marci Liroff (E.T., Blade Runner, Footloose)