A Conversation About "The Unspeakable Act" with Dan Sallitt

A conversation with Dan Sallitt on his 2012 feature, _The Unspeakable Act_.
Craig Keller
Dan Sallitt

Dan Sallitt's new film, The Unspeakable Act, marks the return of an underseen, major American filmmaker (long esteemed as one of the superior cinema critics writing in English, often here at The Notebook) with a feature which surely ranks among the richest works of the last several years. 

Additionally, the new Sallitt film introduces the world to Tallie Medel, a performer whose intellect, emotive capacity, and force of persona place her in the outstanding category of such ascendant figures as Greta Gerwig and Kate Lyn Sheil while outlining a contour of being, a persuasion, that are hers alone.

The Unspeakable Act has its New York premiere as part of BAMcinemaFest on Sunday, June 24th, and its international premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on Friday, June 29th, with three screenings at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival to follow in July.

The conversation below took place over email across the last two months.

NOTEBOOK: On one hand, The Unspeakable Act inflects several tropes from a certain tradition of cinema and of literature: the afterschool haven (and the afterschool movie), the tight-knit precocious bohemian family (replete with absent figures), the future-vantage first-person narration, the coming-of-age story arc, the end of summer, The House as character. What was the starting point for conceiving the picture? 

DAN SALLITT: I honestly can't remember where the idea came from. I think there's some obscure psychological reason that I'm drawn to material where transgression is contemplated but not committed. Maybe that's one reason I feel an affinity to Rohmer.

But Jackie is a kind of character I like, who is fundamentally an unsolvable puzzle but who is wrapped in layers of plausible-looking psychology. And she lets me be romantic but also distance myself from romanticism. Win-win!
As you observed, a lot of the value of a central concept is all the other things you can hang on it. That checklist you ran down is full of vibes that are really important to me. When you make a film about family life, you've already begun with one big layer of socialization and concealment ripped away from all the characters.

Interestingly, that narration is all over the place: sometimes it's in the present, sometimes the near future, sometimes the far future. The inconsistency feels right somehow.

The Unspeakable Act

NOTEBOOK That's right. It's a temporally slippery voice-over that Jackie delivers. I think it gels because the images of the 'main movie story' (i.e., everything that makes the movie the movie, minus the instances of the voice-over track) maintain a pretty straightforward trajectory with relation to time. If you had written a novel or a story, that same kind of inconsistency in the narrational vantage, whether or not it ultimately 'worked' on an aesthetic level, would at the very least draw attention to itself as a 'modernist gesture' or the like. But I don't come away with that impression at all with regard to the voiceover in the film. Instead, the inconsistent narration seems natural enough as a representation of the presiding psychology of Jackie, a complicated interiority with reflections and 'look-backs' nested within the main narrative itself—especially in the therapist scenes.

SALLITT: The first two bits of voiceover are indeterminate in terms of time: they could be her thoughts at that moment, or years later. Then it starts to vary. But really, it's not the time that matters as much as the state of mind, the way that the calm, observing part of us coexists with the part of us that's engaged in battle and can't afford perspective.

NOTEBOOK In line with a discussion about the film's voice-over, what's your take on the way point-of-view operates in cinema? (Loaded term, so address it any way you want, even in the sense of 'critical trope.')

SALLITT: Point-of-view is a game that you play. The only real point-of-view is the audience's, the viewer's. Everything else is for effect: consistency might be part of the effect, or other things might be more important. I like going through the film with Jackie, because there's something odd about her as identification figure: she's comprehensible only at the top level of personality; if you look deeper, the pieces of her puzzle don't fit together in any clear way. The ideal viewer would both love her and be taken aback by her every so often: "What the hell was that?"

NOTEBOOK There's the sequence too where Jackie's point-of-view, insofar as she's a presence in the scenes, disappears, and it's the voice-over alone which activates (and anchors) the series of still shots of different corners of the house—like the landing, the sideboard with its family photos, etc.

SALLITT: That sequence is a fun way of doing exposition, pretending it's coming from Jackie, and combining it with some Jackie moments. At the end of the film, after the climax, some of the same images recur, but with a new feeling added: Jackie is gradually vanishing from the film, into long shots and backgrounds, and what's left is the world she lived in.

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NOTEBOOK There's an attention to speed within the performances of the ensemble—you're coaxing the actors at various points to hit beats at a precise rhythm, directing line-deliveries to hit particular rhythmic 'marks' in a way I haven't seen in many modern movies. Do you feel more comfortable honing this in rehearsal, or by running through a couple of takes while on set?

SALLITT: My feelings about rehearsing aren't resolved. I've never gotten a lot out of rehearsing in a room weeks before a shoot: somehow nothing seems to stick when you hit the set. And then when video came along, I adopted a no-rehearsal approach: those first takes are often the best, we don't have to worry about the expense of film stock anymore, so why not film the rehearsals? What's making me revisit the issue is that, with actors who are best in the early takes—which is a lot of them—we sometimes get caught in a place where that spontaneity is wasted on takes where we're still learning the lines, or where the interpretation needs a readjustment. At the least, I need to start making allowances for special scenes, scenes with a lot of dialogue or with hard-to-recreate emotional extremes, and plan some kind of preparation before the camera rolls. Renoir used to ask his actors to rehearse scenes as if they were reading a phone book, with no emotion: the so-called "Italian method." Maybe that would prevent the rehearsals from draining spontaneity. The ideal would be to shoot a difficult scene with 20 or so takes, wait a few days, then do the same scene again in a brand new location! Sometimes that happens in the normal course of things, and you get the benefits of rehearsal and newness at the same time.

The line deliveries in my movies are a response to the kind of dialogue I write, I guess. I don't try to build in an element of abstraction, but it seems to happen.

NOTEBOOK I take you at face-value when you say this, but I would add that whether or not the following is seen as an abstract quality, all three of your features (The Unspeakable Act and, earlier, Honeymoon [1998] and All the Ships at Sea [2004]) adopt a very unique, very idiosyncratic—and I should add fully integrated, world-creating—approach to line deliveries and performance in general, which is unlike anything else I've seen in movies.

SALLITT: The odd thing is that, when I'm working out the script, all I think about is verisimilitude: whether the dialogue will sound right in the actor's mouth. And quite often I think of enhancing the naturalism of scenes with overlaps, hesitations, improvisations, whatever. But the impulse that drives me to come up with the dialogue in the first place is different, and I suppose abstraction is built in at that point, and survives all my naturalistic efforts at later stages.

Honeymoon by Dan Sallitt, 1998

All the Ships at Sea
by Dan Sallitt, 2004

NOTEBOOK What do you value in an actress or actor? What qualities attract you to use them for a film? What are some common characteristics across performers you admire in movies outside your own?

SALLITT: I hesitate to be too prescriptive about it, because it's complex and context-dependent. I like actors who just want to exist plausibly, who don't need to illustrate what they're feeling. In real life we all spend 90% of our social energy trying to prevent other people from knowing what's going on in our heads, so it can be difficult to use an actor who wants to signal internal states clearly.

But, you know, once in a while I would direct Tallie to be bigger and more obvious. Because Jackie writes herself large onto the world. There has to be mystery somewhere, and usually that's the actor's job, but not always.
A really valuable aspect of Tallie's acting is that she doesn't try to go deeper than she should: she almost never talked to me about Jackie's motivation or psychological structure. What she does is take the dialogue, take the situation, and intuitively try to integrate all the materials into a plausible moment of existence. She works horizontally, so to speak, not vertically. That's almost necessary for a character like Jackie, who's not fundamentally a psychological conception—but even if the character's inner structure were clear, you want a lot of perpendicular material to keep the character's existence in a properly messy, opaque range.

Casting Tallie is not a way of distinguishing yourself as a filmmaker—I think a lot of people in my position would have cast her. But casting Sky Hirschkron, who played Matthew, or Aundrea Fares, who played the mother, is perhaps more idiosyncratic. With both those roles, I had the hardest time finding actors who would hold enough back and give me a surface that I couldn't see past.

NOTEBOOK Certain scenes, like the opening one after Jackie bikes home and enters the family kitchen, remind me of aspects of Howard Hawks. What's the greatest difference, as you see it, between pacing the rhythm of a scene in a 1.37:1 frame (i.e., "4:3," like Hawks used in films like His Girl Friday [1940], or like your own earlier films) vs. a 1.78:1 space (i.e., "16:9," the ratio of most modern cameras, flat-screens, movies, etc.)?

His Girl Friday by Howard Hawks, 1940

SALLITT: You know the way to a film buff's heart! Hawks is the greatest of the great, but I'd never dream of emulating him. When I was setting up that kitchen scene, I told the cast and crew that I was trying for the last shot of Losey's Time Without Pity [1957].

The Unspeakable Act

Time Without Pity
by Joseph Losey, 1957

I actually really like 1.78. My mind works in Academy ratio, but then the shots you imagine in that ratio contain more of the world in 1.78, more spatial context; they're less abstract. And it's great for shots of people close together, like the park bench conversation between Jackie and Matthew, or the climactic shot of Jackie in Matthew's arms. Because there's more space in 1.78 to anchor you in reality, I feel encouraged to push myself a little more, to go for bigger closeups than I normally would, for more visual drama.

The Unspeakable ActThe Unspeakable Act

To my mind, 1.37 and 1.78 aren't so far apart that I need to rethink the rhythm or the découpage very often. But a group or action scene played out in 1.37 comes out more comic or more remote than in 1.78, because the people are smaller in the frame. It's great for His Girl Friday; but for what I'm doing here I think the ability to stage a group scene with closer framing is quite useful.

NOTEBOOK Jackie/Tallie slicing the onion at the end of that opening sequence is this perfect cadenza. An actor's piece of business becomes extraordinarily focused, charged.

SALLITT: It's a fun reflexive moment: the filmmaker is the one who plans the thematically appropriate tears, though the drama-queen character might have done it herself had she had time to reflect. And brother, can that girl hold a close-up.

The Unspeakable Act

NOTEBOOK Earlier you mentioned that Jackie is "fundamentally an unsolvable puzzle but who is wrapped in layers of plausible-looking psychology." The family is extraordinarily tightknit ("impossibly close," in Jackie's phrase), but the small rebellions that Jackie engages in are played as nothing especially out of the ordinary for a kid her age. Her mother is an inveterate journaler; Jackie seems repulsed by the therapist's inquiry about whether she herself keeps a diary. Her mother handwrites letters "every day" to the oldest child Will in Paris; Jackie and her younger brother Matthew an hour and a half away in Princeton stay in touch nearly as often through video letters and email. All this, plus the presence of no fewer than five scenes that take place in a therapist's office (one of which involves a 'breakthrough' moment after Jackie recounts a recent dream) would guide the viewer in another movie to construct a motivation for the question: "Why is this teenage girl sexually and emotionally attracted solely to her own older brother?" In this movie the question has its purpose as a logline, but is integrated as part of an organic whole. The motivation for the incestuous attraction? People are complicated.

SALLITT: Yes, exactly. Jackie's "breakthrough," which suggests that her incestuous desire is a form of narcissism, isn't intended to lead the viewer anywhere, and I'm guessing that it won't lead Jackie anywhere either. I was trying there to depict the fascination of the therapeutic process. If the viewer wants to look for clues, he or she will have a field day: there's the missing father, the mother's drug addiction, the too-close relationship between the mother and the oldest brother. But life always gives us lots and lots of clues like this.

NOTEBOOK Since you mentioned the mother's addiction, I'd add that while that particular detail fails to account in any knowable quantity for Jackie's psychology, it might also surprise the viewer in the context of the character of Mama as we see her in the film. That this Mama should have been an addict deepens her own character's mystery. It comes out of nowhere to a degree, so seemingly at random, that the detail feels true to life. (cf. Matthew's girlfriend, a girl named "Yolanda" who turns out to be white.) Tallie's phrasing and delivery too, in announcing Mama's past addiction in the course of the voice-over, is also 'rich and strange': "Mama was addicted to drugs long ago."

SALLITT: Yeah, it's beautiful the way she delivered that line: tenderly, but as a fact of her life, nothing to shock with. You don't have to give Tallie any direction for things like that—she has great instincts.

NOTEBOOK The emotionality of the characters/actors resonates within the decor as well. The colors of the Kimball house (the front porch, the bedrooms and bathroom), and in particular the pattern of the kitchen wallpaper, are extraordinarily expressive. It's not counter-realism,—and yet the pictorial quality seems as important here as in Rohmer, or Pialat, specifically with regard to the wallpaper patterns of L'Enfance-nue [Naked-Childhood, 1968].

SALLITT: I love that house—the greens of the living room and the demonic red of the bathroom. I was grateful to be able to shoot there, but we didn't have the budget or authority to make big changes. Bridget Rafferty, the production designer, had her say about everything you see that isn't nailed down, and maybe a few things that were; but the feeling of the rooms was something we accepted and worked with.

I'd bet that Pialat saw that L'Enfance-nue wallpaper during scouting and told the art department to leave it that way.

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[Naked-Childhood] by Maurice Pialat, 1968

NOTEBOOK I suspected the same applied to you and the location on this shoot. A lot of direction is just about making choices; that being said, there's another amazing piece of the environment that you put to arresting effect in the framing: the family at the kitchen table, with the two windows behind them, all in a symmetrical composition, but the window on the right bearing a kind of shatter-star of packing tape.

The Unspeakable Act

SALLITT: That window was totally taped before we got there. Money can't buy art direction like that. Duraid Munajim, the cinematographer, had a rule for this shoot: "One decrepit thing in every shot."

One aspect of the house that I think worked out well is that most of the colorful interior decoration is on the ground floor, and the upper floor rooms mostly had white walls, which cinematographers and production designers traditionally avoid. But a lot of the scenes upstairs were nighttime scenes, and you don't really get full force whiteness until the climax, which is shot in cold morning daylight, with the walls prominent. It's a good moment to go ascetic: a little bit of a Dreyer vibe manifests.

NOTEBOOK What can you say about one of the most unusual shots in the film, one which I think you've also been distributing among the promotional images?—when Matthew is lying on his bed on the phone with Yolanda, and his body in the frame takes a foreshortened arrangement that wouldn't be out of place in a painting where the subject has been encoffined.

SALLITT: I'm not entirely happy with my composition there, nor with the body language that I forced on Sky. The acting is terrific, but there's something of a compromise between the composition and the way the scene is pegged to mood and to the sight lines between brother and sister. For me, that's the organizing scene of the script, its thematic center; and sometimes problems crop up when a scene is so conceptually important that you don't feel as free to adjust it on the set.

The Unspeakable Act

NOTEBOOK One of the most poignant lines in the film is Matthew's admission to Jackie that she's a "very powerful person." This is beautiful, because it verbalizes an aspect, and value, of Jackie that, in her own self-regard, probably lingers somewhere in that twilight of semi-awareness; her power assists her boldness, and she's also blind enough to it that she can't help but self-loathe. I think, too, such a sentiment is nice for people, in general, to hear in the course of their lives, here and there.

SALLITT: That bit of dialogue is important to me. I really like the effect of slightly redefining the characters at the end, and hiding that revelation within the dramatic mechanism. Do you remember the end of All the Ships at Sea, where we hear it stated clearly for the first time at the climax that the older sister was acting only out of duty, that she doesn't have feelings for her family? It's a similar thing. In both cases the evidence has been out in the open, so it's not so much a revelation as a speaking of the not-yet-spoken. In The Unspeakable Act, when Matthew had said earlier that Jackie seemed at ease with her sexuality as a child, and that Matthew had been "more nervous or guilty—of course," he was really saying the same thing as at the climax, but more indirectly. Sky delivered that "nervous or guilty" line really beautifully: you sense his self-doubts without him acting them out.

Jackie is sort of what they call a "pushy bottom." She likes the idea of Matthew being the god and her the faithful acolyte; looking up to him is part of her turn-on. But she's such a big personality that she doesn't fit in the subservient role in our minds, nor in Matthew's. During the shooting, Tallie would sometimes adjust me on this point, especially in the scene where they quit attic smoking: she thought I was pushing the inequality of the relationship too far, and I felt good about taking her notes and changing the scene slightly.

NOTEBOOK Jackie's middle name of "Evangeline" suggests something too of this power, of her status as a moving force in the lives of those who are close to her.

SALLITT: I came up with that on the fly, because the Princeton application needed a middle name! It's funny how some characters get extra names and others have names taken away. The mother is named Alice in the script and in my mind: during the shooting, we would yell for Alice when we wanted Aundrea on the set. But no one ever said her first name in the movie, so I reluctantly removed it from the credits.

NOTEBOOK Can you talk a bit about the therapy sessions with Jackie? Some of the most beautiful shots in the film occur in these sequences. I hope you won't hold it against me if I tell you certain moments reminded me of Kubrick.

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SALLITT: Not at all. I didn't think of Kubrick in connection with the therapy—though I think I know what you mean—but in All the Ships at Sea there was a scene, the sisters' talk on the enclosed porch in the rain, that came out looking like Kubrick, and I loved that.

The therapy scenes are reflexive fun from a filmmaking point of view: "Let's see, what other questions would I like to hear Jackie answer?" It was easy to come up with ideas for those scenes, which is why there are so many of them. And, as a side effect, they gave me the justification for a subtle kind of happy ending: therapy is the last thing that Jackie talks about in the movie.

Filming two people sitting in a room talking is the ultimate in cinema. There are no excuses, no crutches, no distractions to make you look like a better filmmaker than you are. I always rely on the syntax that Rohmer developed, or rather synthesized, in My Night at Maud's [Ma nuit chez Maud, the third part of Éric Rohmer's series Six contes moraux, or Six Moral Tales,1969]: it's flexible enough that you can shift emphasis back and forth effortlessly between the scene's dramatic values and a documentation of the space, the ambience, the time passing.

Six contes moraux: III: Ma nuit chez Maud
[Six Moral Tales: III: My Night at Maud's] by Éric Rohmer, 1969

NOTEBOOK Some of the last lines in the film, which I find very moving, come via voice-over from Jackie: "This house is my native country. Soon I'll have to leave it and go among foreigners." Where does Jackie go next from here?

SALLITT: It's hard for Jackie to say goodbye to childhood: some of us are reaching for new things at her age, but she had everything she wanted at home. But I think she'll be okay. Hopefully by this point in the film the viewer gets the idea that Jackie is in the same boat as all of us: she will go on living and finding some happiness despite a feeling that she's damaged, barred from the things she really wants, putting on a façade of normality.

If parts two and three of the Unspeakable Act trilogy ever materialize, Jackie will begin both films settled in new circumstances that are now her reality and that absorb her. The past will pay her visits, but I want it to sneak up on her...

NOTEBOOK Among the closing lines, continuing in the voice-over and, as you've already alluded to, springboarding off of a comment from the therapist, Jackie remarks: "I hope she's right." In this moment, Tallie's voice slightly cracks—a final complication from which the spectator takes leave of the character of Jackie, and a final snapshot of the instinct and intelligence of the actress Tallie Medel. Do you want to say anything here?

SALLITT: No–I liked that reading, and the line is probably the most emotive one in the whole voiceover, but it seems to me she keeps the emotion reined in. What I wanted in the last section of voiceover—and Tallie is just the right actor for the job—was to flip randomly back and forth between a sorrowful, almost hopeless feeling she has about her life, and a light-hearted tone which suggests that her mode of living isn't sorrowful by nature. It's À nos amours at a sprint. [Sallitt refers here to Maurice Pialat's 1983 À nos amours., or To Our Loves. / Here's to Love.]

À nos amours.
[To Our Loves. / Here's to Love.] by Maurice Pialat, 1983

NOTEBOOK In conclusion: who are the filmmakers, in addition to Rohmer and Pialat, who have meant the most to you over the course of your life? Either bodies of work or singular pictures.

SALLITT: Wow, that's a big question. A while back I made a list, which is not carved in stone: Hawks, Keaton, Rohmer, Hitchcock, Leigh, Lubitsch, Ford, McCarey, von Sternberg, Naruse, Chabrol, Pialat, Bresson, Breillat, Renoir, Fassbinder, Hartley, Sturges, Becker, Ophuls, Siegel, Deville, Alan Clarke, Powell, Eustache. Looking at it now, I think I'd want to throw Doillon in there. Maybe Hong Sang-soo is knocking on the door. I'm probably forgetting someone… Were you trying to get me to end this interview with a geek-out?

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