Director Katherine Dieckmann, Holly Hunter, and Carrie Coon reflect on their film Strange Weather.
Holly Hunter is one of the most celebrated American actresses of her generation, yet she somehow went for more than ten years without appearing in a leading role in a film. While she is currently receiving universal praise for her work in The Big Sick, there is another Holly Hunter film quietly making its way onto the big screen. In Katherine Dieckmann’s Strange Weather, Hunter stars as Darcy Baylor, a grieving mother who takes to the road in search of an explanation for her son’s suicide seven year’s prior. Joining Darcy in support is her closest friend Byrd (Carrie Coon of The Leftovers and Fargo), whom it is revealed had a relationship of her own with Darcy’s son Walker. The film is a quiet study of grief and motherhood, yet carries a powerful energy that makes for a surprisingly enlightening experience. In a summer of rom-coms and action movies, Strange Weather exists as a sort of unicorn. It is a singular experience of deep emotions and an examination of a tight bond between two women. Following are the highlights from my fascinating discussions with Dieckmann, Hunter, and Coon.
The female-driven road movie is a unique form. Perhaps with the exception of Thelma and Louise there is not a memorable film that attempts to tell the story of women on the road. Were you conscious of this when writing Strange Weather?
Katherine Dieckmann: It’s funny because I started writing the script the summer of the twentieth anniversary of Thelma and Louise. I was conscious the summer I started writing the movie that there hadn’t really been an interesting movie with two women in a car since Thelma and Louise. Like where they’re really talking to each other about complicated topics and not just road topics. I was aware of that. I don’t think the movie is like Thelma and Louise though. I was aware of the fact that in all that time – and I’ve seen tons of films, probably one every day – I couldn’t remember any movie where I saw two women talking in a car for any length of time and was even interested in what was going on between them. I’m also a huge Wim Wenders fan. I saw those movies when I was pretty young and actually interviewed Wim twice back when I was a journalist. Those movies had a gigantic influence on me. There’s something about Kings of the Road and Paris, Texas – there’s something about the journey that doesn’t really reach its destination that I really love. To me Strange Weather – even though she literally reaches her destination, which is New Orleans, she doesn’t really reach her destination at all. At the very end of the movie, she’s sort of reached an emotional destination, but it’s never going to be a full destination because that’s what grief is, you don’t ever really fully process anything. You just kind of accept the fact that there is not going to be a solution or a finality to it. For me the road movie kind of framed the emotional journey I wanted that character to take, so it made a lot of sense to use that idiom.
What was it like working with Holly Hunter?
KD: She’s very rigorous. That’s an amazing gift because she always wants the work to be better. She’s way harder on herself than anybody could ever be. She’s exacting with herself and she’s exacting with everyone else. She elevates the energy and the focus of the company because she doesn’t ever relax for a second. She’s a tightly wound person because she’s extremely smart, she’s one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met in my life. She’s rigorous and I personally welcome that, I think it’s a gift. I learned more about acting and working with actors from Holly – I’ve made four films and I’ve worked with some really great actors – I learned more from her than I have from anybody. I think Carrie Coon would say the same. When we did that motel room scene with Carrie and Holly, which is probably my favorite scene in the movie, Carrie came up to me afterward and said, “I feel like I graduated into becoming a different kind of actor tonight.” Holly came up to me separately and said, “That Carrie Coon, she can go toe-to-toe.” She really was with Holly every step of the way and could match her energy and focus and that’s what Holly wanted.
This film is unique not only in plot but also in the sense that its central relationship is between two women. We’re seeing more films about female friendships that are comedies, but a drama about women is still very rare. Why do you think that is?
KD: For one thing the movies are almost impossible to get financed, let’s just start there. It’s considered radically unsexy to make a drama about women, especially women over fifty. It’s considered the least sexy category of filmmaking. To me it’s one of the most interesting. You see more European films – I love that Isabelle Huppert film Things to Come, I thought that was so great. We don’t see it as much in American filmmaking. So the first thing is that it’s hard to get it financed and the second thing is that it’s hard to get it distributed, and then the third thing is that male critics are very hostile. I’ve experienced that directly, where it’s like “why can’t these women shut up and stop talking?” and I think there’s something that actually offends some people in the notion that the female relationships are actually the primary ones and the male relationship is really subsidiary. I think there’s almost like a visceral or subliminal anger about that. It really does cut against the norm. We’re used to seeing the heterosexual love relationship be the primary thing, especially for the female character. In this movie it’s not defining at all, it’s off to the side. That’s not to say it’s not important to her, it is important to her, but it’s off to the side of what’s going on in the film. It’s not like I think I’m such a radical filmmaker. I think there’s also something quietly insistent that I’m trying to say about the values in these women’s lives that doesn’t necessarily sit well with some. I think the people who really hook into it love it and for other people it’s like, “Yeah, you know…I don’t want that,” and that’s okay. So to answer your question of why we don’t see more of it, I don’t think it’s really encouraged. Even the assumption that like – Holly was on Conan O’Brien a few weeks ago promoting The Big Sick but she also talked about Strange Weather. He was like, “Oh man, this movie Strange Weather sounds really depressing”. I understand that a movie about a mother and her son’s suicide sounds depressing in the abstract, but I don’t think the film is grim at all. It’s emotionally wrenching but it has moments of humor and real levity. So it’s hard to not be reduced. We just have to push against it.
Do you think the way we receive these films is changing?
KD: It’s interesting because I was just saying to my publicity team this morning that I was reading the New Yorker and I read Richard Brody’s short review of Gillian Robespierre’s new movie Landline, which I just saw and really enjoyed. You can like a movie or not like a movie, that’s fine, but the way that he wrote about his dislikes for the film was so reductive and so much based on not liking a certain femaleness about it. I see that all the time and I think it doesn’t really get commented on much. We can’t really change content until we change how it gets made and how it gets pushed out into the world. I don’t know what the answer is to that. I just feel like I don’t care what anybody says, I’m just not going to shut up. I’m going to keep making the movies I want to make and people can take to them or not take to them. I have no control over that anyway.
When you first read Strange Weather were you struck by how unique this story was? Road movies like this aren’t made very often.
Holly Hunter: When I read the script I didn’t really think of it as a road film. It felt like it was a journey that you’re going on. It didn’t feel like a real true road movie because real true road movies have a sense of levity. There is a spark of ‘anything’s possible’ and fun, this movie does not have that. It’s more than a road movie to me, it’s a revenge tale that’s hooked on the back of a road movie. I feel like that’s what my character can handle. She can handle putting this on someone else instead of the near impossibility of going through it herself.
There is a little bit of humor in the film though. One scene in particular that I found striking was when Darcy and Byrd go to visit Darcy’s friend Mary Lou. These three women just sit in a room joking around with one another. It’s something we so rarely see on film.
HH: It’s so cool that you say that. I completely agree with you that some of the greatest strengths of the movie and of Katherine Dieckmann’s beautiful script are the relationships between women. It’s just so potent. You see so few intimate relationships with women on screen that when you do see them it’s kind of endless. There’s a potency and a freewheeling kind of ‘anything is possible’ feeling between these characters, particularly between Darcy and Byrd. Then when you get Darcy and Byrd in there with Glenne Headly’s character, to a degree I feel like the roof comes off a little bit.
Katherine mentioned that the European films don’t seem as devoid of women’s stories as American films do. Have you noticed this?
HH: Well we’re lagging behind in many ways. I think there are more female leads in European films than there are in American films, I’m sure that’s true. I haven’t looked at the actual stats but I would imagine that’s true. There’s a richness that we’re missing in being able to watch people who are of the female sex go through their lives. There’s so much to learn, there’s so much joy to be had by observing lives like Darcy’s life, or like Beth’s life in The Big Sick. At the same time, I did play for three years an incredible character on television named Grace in Saving Grace and one of the great riches of doing that particular character is that I was forty-nine, fifty, fifty-one at the time of shooting that. Not once did my character’s age ever come up. It was never written about, it was never referred to. I was having sex with nineteen-year-old boys, I was having sex with seventy-three-year-old men, I was having sex with busboys and CEOs. It was a non-issue and I reveled in that. I thought that was so incredibly exciting what Nancy Miller accomplished with the role of Grace. I commend her for that. It was a beautiful ride that she gave me. So when I came back to do feature films after playing Grace for three years on television I was shocked at the offers that came to me. The roles did not have body or substance. We’ve got a ways to go.
This is the first leading role you’ve done since Saving Grace ended. Is that because the roles aren’t there? If so, do you have to just take the work that’s is available?
HH: I definitely take the work. I think it’s good for actors to act; certainly feel that way about myself. So I’ve taken the work when it has come to me, to a degree. One of the absolute lures of doing Strange Weather was the fact that it was a lead and that I was going to get to stretch out for the length of an entire film. That gives me an incredible satisfaction in expressing myself. Dieckmann wrote this beautiful script that I thought was highly eccentric and quite beautiful. The son harnessed all of his dreams around such a banal, small dream. A hotdog shop, I thought there was something so real about that. Not too dreamed up, something that feels like a young boy’s dream.
So what was that like coming off of Saving Grace and realizing the lack of great roles for yourself and actresses in general?
HH: It’s an incredibly frustrating position to be in. I think if you spoke to virtually any actor, and you had a frank conversation with them, even guys who are thirty-years-old could complain about the quality of stuff being offered. The fact is that there are not endless numbers of brilliant movies being made in a single year. There are a handful of movies per year, if you’re lucky, that are exquisite. In that handful, there’s none that are being written about a woman in her forties or fifties. You can have years go by where that is actually not happening. There may be an okay movie, but it’s not like I have a tremendous amount of room to move in terms of choosing stuff to do that I feel really challenges me and is something I feel lucky that I get to do. With Strange Weather, I felt lucky to get to do it. I felt lucky to get to explore Darcy.
Grief is so important in this film, but it’s never simplified. You’ve worked in pieces like The Leftovers, even this season of Fargo, where grief is so integral to characters. Can you talk about playing this character who has to negotiate with her own grief?
Carrie Coon: Well I haven’t experienced loss as profound as for example Nora Durst has experienced. When you do something like The Leftovers suddenly all your offers are the grieving mom. When you do something like Fargo all your offers are steely, stoic cops. Very rarely do people see you as something else. What I appreciated about Katherine coming to me with the part of Byrd in Strange Weather is that I was playing the friend, so I’m not the person who suffered the grief directly, but obviously, she has a relationship to Darcy’s son herself. But she’s on the periphery of that. She’s helping a friend through that process which is never-ending. That person is never coming back. I think the loss of a child is particularly poignant because it subverts the natural order of things. You are not supposed to bury your child. What I love is that Byrd is bringing some light-heartedness to the piece and that’s not something I was being asked to do. People didn’t recognize that I had a sense of humor. So it was such a relief for me to have Katherine recognize that, even thought I had been playing these darker, more serious characters on television and yet she was offering me this sort of supporting part as the lighthearted friend. I felt so refreshing to be seen that way. Byrd’s style was very different from mine, so that was a lot of fun to do. Of course, the other draw is that if you’re going ot watch somebody go through the process of grief you might as well watch Holly Hunter do it. She’s one of our greatest actresses. When I read the script and saw that there was this scene in the middle where I would be in this motel room with her, this eight-page scene, that’s irresistible as an actor. Just for the possibilities of what you’d get to learn by being in a room with that person. You don’t pass up an opportunity to go toe-to-toe with someone who is as much of a force as Holly is. She really is a force of nature. Holly is a tiny person, but she packs a wallop. There’s a moment in that scene where she suddenly jumps out of her chair and she grabs me. She almost knocked me down. To act with her is to constantly be surprised because she’s always trying something new. It’s really exciting.
Byrd is a very interesting, somewhat mysterious character. Her relationships with Darcy and her son are complicated ones, and Katherine Dieckmann never attempts to simplify them. Why do you think Byrd chooses to go on this journey with Darcy?
CC: One of the reasons I chose to do the film was because I specifically looking to work with a female director because there are so few of those projects that are getting championed. So often those films get made and don’t get distributed, even we have pretty limited distribution. I don’t want to stereotype men and women but I do think there’s something particularly female in Katherine’s gaze, in a way that I really appreciated. As you point out, there is not an explicit truth. The plot process doesn’t necessarily feel linear. There’s not this sort of driving to a particular point. Female friendships are complicated and there isn’t one reason why you do something. There isn’t one reason why Byrd goes along with Darcy. They are friends, she did have a relationship with her son, and she is carrying some guilt about not having revealed this relationship to her friend. Yet, she doesn’t feel badly for having had it. She also embraces it as part of her own experience, independent from Darcy. To me, that is the female gaze in the storytelling, that device of having both things be true is okay. I think when you look at conventional films when you look at the superhero franchises you have very clear expectations for how those stories go. You know the structure of those stories. It’s more exciting for me to work on projects where the storytelling is more oblique. I think we saw that for example with Moonlight. It’s a story that subverted the tropes we normally associate with that milieu or that population, that community, the way it’s depicted in such a lush way. Likewise, I think that Katherine is taking on female grief and female friendship in a way that is rarely dealt with. Female friendships are so rarely dealt with in movies at all. We don’t see those films getting made. I know they’re written, but it’s hard for them to get produced. I read a lot of scripts by women and they never get made.
I do have to ask about The Leftovers. It’s been a few weeks since the finale and I wonder if you could reflect on the reveal offered by your character Nora. What has the reaction been like?
CC: What I’ve always loved about The Leftovers is that it’s fearless in its embrace of ambiguity. Ultimately, what the show has always been about is revealing more about the viewer than it does about the people making the show. In some ways, it doesn’t matter what Damon Lindelof thinks or what I as the actress think, or even what Nora Durst thinks. What matters is what the audience takes away from that moment, because what’s interesting is that when it came to the question of whether or not Nora was telling the truth on set, our crew was split about 50/50. I found in talkback, when we’ve had screenings of the episode, it’s more like 70/30 of people believing her story, which Damon was really shocked by. He expected it to be less consistent. I guess, in my estimation, I just had to put in my twitter bio because people keep tweeting at me to tell them what it meant and if I was telling the truth. I just wrote that I would never tell, the same way that I won’t offer my opinion on the end of Fargo. I of course as an actress had to make a choice. My answer to the question is so much less interesting than your answer to the question. That’s the reason to make the show, to stimulate that kind of conversation in another person. For me, in some ways, the playing of it would be the same either way, whether she was telling the truth or not. Otherwise, I’ve just been very shocked and moved by people’s response. The fact that they’re still talking about the ending in this age where there’s so much television. You watch it, you finish it, you go on to the next thing or you go to dinner. I feel like The Leftovers has taken its place in the zeitgeist now and I think it will continue to be relevant. That feels really satisfying to me because it was satisfying to make and it felt like we were doing something unique. It entertains questions that I entertain in my own life about my own beliefs, and that’s the kind of art I like making. I’m glad it went over as well as it did because when I watch that performance I think of things that I would do differently or choices I wish I had made. I always want to be better, so it’s a relief that people have responded to it in the way that they have. I’m really grateful for that.
Strange Weather is being released by Brainstorm Media and is now playing in theaters and on VOD.