Interview: Allison Mattox
Writer/director Allison Mattox won the 2019 Film Pipeline Short Film competition with her beautifully composed drama Échappé, which she’s developing into a feature.
Échappé is practically a masterclass in how to write a slow-burn drama without it feeling like a slow-burn drama. The two leads—flawless. While character is a major reason we get so invested in the story so quickly, the plot structure and the composition of the film should be given equal credit. Was this meticulously planned in the script stage, or was a lot of the cohesion of the film brought together in editing? It all seems remarkably unified, not unlike, ironically, the pacing of a ballet performance itself. Curious how this was achieved and if this poetic sort of tempo was intentional.
I love this idea that the film somehow matches the pacing and build of a choreographed ballet. I should probably take credit for that but, in all honesty, it wasn’t a calculated choice. In thinking about it now, I do think that confining the story to one day and location probably allowed for the undercurrent of the performance to intrinsically affect the pacing and storytelling.
As far as developing the structure, the film is very close to the script. Both on set and in the edit, it was important for me to take my time and let some of these scenes linger. From there, some of the tempo came out later in post in working with my editor and composer.
And yes, I got very lucky with my actors (Olesya Senchenko and Pavel Shatu). Olesya’s role is really difficult. She doesn’t have a lot of dialogue so communicating non-verbally is essential, and she managed to bring so many layers of complexity to the role. Pavel was kind of exactly how I had pictured Nikolai. He actually has all of these tattoos that we had to cover for the film, but when I saw them in his audition, they helped him come off as this bad boy of ballet that I was trying to capture.
The film is about a specific time period, in a specific place, against a backdrop we don’t oftentimes see. What drove you to write about this idea, a Russian ballet dancer planning his defection to America in 1970? If you were to expand this into a feature, what are some of the thematic parallels you’d hope to draw between this era and the present day?
I was inspired by the defections of Baryshnikov, Nureyev, Makarova, and others, and drew from some research around their lives and other dancers in the Soviet Union. The public library at Lincoln Center has an extensive dance archive, so I spent some early days digging up old tapes and materials there.
While Échappé is fully a historical piece, it provides a snapshot of how political asylum has been handled in the past which draws some parallels to our current immigration crises. When I started making the film, tensions between the United States and Russia were high, but those issues continued to grow during development which was interesting to track.
And there actually is a feature script! It just won a grant for some seed money from a development fund through the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival. The feature builds on the above themes and also goes more in-depth on some other aspects. One of the things that stood out to me in my research was how much the Soviet officials were (often admittedly) not as worried about women defecting, so they watched the male dancers much more closely. The feature gives me a little more space to draw out this idea as well as expand on the complicated stakes of defecting.
You went to USC for theater, correct? A typical writer/director—film school grad or self-taught—takes such a different route in their training. What can they glean from the theater world? How has it affected your approach to filmmaking, from writing, to directing, to working with actors?
When I first started directing, I was a little intimidated not to have more a more conventional background, but I also feel like I have this secret insight into working with actors and crafting storytelling from that side of things.
I still pull from theater in many ways. We had more rehearsals for this film than is typical for a short—or any film for that matter. Since the film is in Russian (which I do not speak), it was helpful for my actors and I to meet and rehearse and work through any translation changes and beats before we got to set.
Did you know from day one that you wanted to write and direct, or was there an epiphany at some point? What drew you to this side of film, as opposed to acting, or focusing solely on writing or directing?
I started primarily as an actress but was always writing some on the side. I love acting, but find that you do surrender a lot of control in most projects. Writing is nice because you retain more artistic ownership, and the two skills definitely build off of one another. When I’m acting, I take the script and try to build a life and point of view from the words I’m given. With writing, I flesh that whole story out first and then whittle it down to 90 pages (or 10 or so for a short).
With my first few short films, it was important for me to direct and keep a consistent and authentic point of view from inception to completion. I think commercial cinema often gets muddied by too many ideas and compromises, and it’s important to me to find a healthy balance with collaborators. I’d love to mix it up more on future projects and direct someone else’s script, or see how another director interprets something I’ve written.
When developing new projects, what’s your step one? Is the story born from theme or commentary on a particular issue, from the character/s, from interest in a particular era. . . ?
It’s different every time but typically a story or period of history will start to interest me, and I’ll dive into a lot of research without knowing exactly where the story will net out. I try not to write scenes and dialogue too early—it’s my favorite part so I treat it almost as a reward—and find that when I take more time to research and solidify plot and structure things go more smoothly.
Your other short film, Three in June, is also a period piece. How would you define your growth as a filmmaker between that and Échappé?
Yes, Three in June, was my first film. It’s set in 1960s Appalachia and inspired by a family story surrounding puritanical views on marriage and sex.
I loved working on that film, but when it came to Échappé, I tried to focus more on telling the story visually and cut down a lot of dialogue. I was lucky enough to work with some of the same crew—including cinematographer Beth Napoli—on both projects, so it was nice to grow with some of the same collaborators.
Allison Mattox is a writer and director who studied at the University of Southern California.
Her short film, Échappé, follows a Soviet ballet company on tour in New York and has screened at festivals including Traverse City, Newport Beach, and Dance on Camera, and has won awards including Festival Favorite at San Francisco Independent and Best Drama Short at Sedona and Golden State. Her previous short film, Three in June, explores marriage and sexuality in 1960s puritanical Georgia and screened at a dozen festivals.
She’s is developing the feature script for Échappé and a book of personal essays. Allison lives in Brooklyn, New York.