Brandy Burre was a promising actor who had a steady gig on HBO's The Wire. A natural performer, she nevertheless abandoned the part to start a family with her partner Tim in Beacon, New York, just north of NYC. Eventually, with offspring, relationship, and a home successfully in place, the acting urge nevertheless returned and that's where filmmaker Robert Greene entered the picture. He set out to capture the work-home balance on camera, teaming with Burre on what would be his next project, Actress.
As neighbors, Greene and with his wife knew Brandy, Tim, and their children well. The filmmaker behind docs Fake It So Real, spotlighting amateur wrestlers, and Kati with an I, about a teen transitioning to adulthood, found Burre's story an interesting prospect. Many adults face life transitions, though Brandy also potentially added dramatic, self-aware elements by virtue of her craft. The results do not disappoint. Whole-heartedly pursuing a return to stage and screen, Brandy does not turn off her thespian self for Greene's cameras, though the filmmaker would not have it any other way. His past films have dissected performance on the big screen, and as Brandy's home life and professional struggles go into overdrive, she plays to the camera, while also revealing an honest portrait of life's often tumultuous transitions.
FilmLinc spoke with Robert Greene ahead of this Saturday's screening of Actress, the Closing Night film of the Film Society's Art of the Real series. Greene shares how he originally conceived Actress and why it took on its own life. He embraces what he sees as the inherently exploitative element of documentary, while challenging the audience to be surprised and prodded both intellectually and emotionally.
FilmLinc: I know Brandy was your neighbor and you knew her before you took on this documentary, but what prompted you to pick up a camera and follow her?
Robert Greene: We're actually very close. We have kids the same age and there's this thing where my wife and I take care of her kids and she takes care of ours. It's very intimate. There were things that I started to notice, but I also was ready to make another movie. In my last two films I tried to explore this idea about performance. It's a topic I'm interested in—I did that with my exploration of wrestlers. So, I was already interested in the idea of having an actor in a film. Would an actor be acting or be herself? Brandy told me this story about how she was passed over for a role that was given to a younger actress. That also interested me to think about being in your thirties and being a woman and a parent and having to balance all these things.
The formal idea was about filming not only an actor but someone who is by nature a theatrical human being. It doesn't take a camera for her to naturally be theatrical. She would say, "I'm not acting, I am an actor." The parental aspect is also [key] because it's important in a mother or father's life, but at the same time you don't want that to be the sole definition of your life.
I pitched the original idea and my producers initially said, "That could work, but who knows." They were right to be skeptical because it's an exploratory mission and you never know what's going to happen. As a back-up plan, I had this idea of making it about three actors—three women—and I even filmed them. It was going to [feature] a young actress and then Brandy who would be a bit older and then an elderly woman, but then Brandy's story became so dramatic and interesting that the film just sort of took on a life of its own.
FL: It is interesting to have someone who is naturally a performer in a documentary because that inherently raises issues about reality vs. non-reality or an embellished reality…
RG: That's right and I didn't want to shy away from that. To me you definitely feel she's playing to the camera at times, but you start to inspect her every emotion. You watch and start to contemplate what she is thinking at the moment. Brandy had a great quote at a recent Q&A, responding to a question: "If someone puts a camera into your face, you have to think about who you are." That is really brilliant in a way. Documentary is most interesting when there's a mingling of messy reality and artificial filmmaking and she was the perfect subject to talk about those things when trying to make something that is not meant to be an academic exercise.
FL: Along those lines then, were there moments that were scripted or were some of the perfectly framed moments that you see in the film a result of the element of performance?
RG: There is the element of performance in everything. There were some things we'd talk about and do, plus there was some reenactment there, but they're almost always reenactments of what exactly happened. I might also say, "When are you going to do [this particular thing]" and then I'd make sure to be there to film it. But to me that's less interesting than this idea of performance that continues all the way through the film. I want there to be moments where you're like, "I know she's playing to the camera, but what she's doing is so real and so raw it's not phony. So at that moment the intellectual and the emotional slam together and you get some other effect there, which is what I had hoped would happen.
The opening scene is deliberately lit to make it feel like she's on a stage. That's a composed indie-film moment. But there is some emotional truth. The first time you see a slow-motion shot, for instance, is when she's applying some lipstick and then at that moment her partner Tim walks in and you see her entire emotion change. It looks like the most melodramatic stagey thing along with the music that's added, but all I really did was put the camera on the counter and pushed record in slow motion and all that happened. It's just as direct cinema as anything, but it happens to be in slow motion. To me, we were able to find these moments that were observational documentary but we repurposed them.
FL: So generally, how much of this project was a collaborative process with Brandy and did she see footage along the way?
RG: It started out very much non-collaborative. It was actually very vulturous that documentaries can be at times in which I'd tell her, "I'm going to do this and she's say, 'Oh, okay, I guess…'" I think she also knew the truth of what was going on in her life, but once things started to unravel for her, the film became a little structure for her to be inside of. She depended on the film and depended on what the film was giving her, which was an art project to work on. It also became cathartic and something to depend on. I wasn't her therapist, it was: "We are making art out of the mess that you've created." That allowed her to do what she really wanted to do, which was to explore her own authenticity. That still gets her in trouble because she can pursue that to extreme degrees… She never watched footage because she said she couldn't. There were times when I'd say, "Look at that great shot," and she'd say, "I can't." There was a shot of her in New York that I was so pleased with and it pans over to the skyline, but she said that she couldn't look at it.
When she watched the movie, what I did was I never asked Brandy or Tim to sign a release form until it was actually done. I did that because I wanted to give them any chance to change anything, but mostly it was just a matter of trust with my friends. But both of them respected the process and never asked for anything to be changed. That was what I worked at for 18 months. She was very much a collaborator, there's no doubt about it, but I think that's what makes the film so interesting. At the same time she's adamant and so am I that it's my film. The story is very true, but there's still a lot left out. Brandy would want to include everything, but the story I wanted to tell is very specific.
FL: There are many tiers to this film. One of course being what we've been talking about with performance and the blending of reality. But there's also this universality here that performers, quasi-performers, and non-performers alike can relate to who struggle with trying to balance family, relationships, work, etc.
RG: I was hoping her story would be relatable. I find it relatable and my wife has found it relatable and I'm happy to say that that's how people have found it so far. She's so open about her decisions and opinions. At that time, she's very self-obsessed. But she's nevertheless only self-obsessed to a degree because she still has to take care of her children. When you're giving a baby a bath at night, you're inherently not being self-obsessed. But at the same time, she's demanding of herself and thinking about her career. Some people might be critical of her, but I've found parents, or women, or even older men see this as a universal story. I think some are fascinated that we can make a film like this, while others are just thankful for showing this.
There's one moment in the film—and I don't want to give this away—that I want the audience to think, "Well she deserved it…"
FL: Since you were close friends and had known each other for a long time, how did that complicate, complement ,or challenge the dynamic when filming?
RG: Of course it did, but I don't find those sort of things very precious, do you know what I mean? I start from a couple of premises, which include the idea that documentaries are inherently exploitive when you're creating images out of people's real lives. It can be a noble cause, but if you don't start from that, you're lying to a degree. And if things start to get really interesting, then it becomes especially complicated. I absolutely embrace that complexity. I want people to think that maybe she did this movie to get back into the business. Maybe it's all phony. I've had some people say, "Maybe you're the other man…" It's an intriguing experience. I like movies where you sit down and are challenged intellectually and emotionally in a way that takes you to another level. Documentaries quite often can be so safe because they play to journalism's rules instead of cinema's rules. Our cinematic heroes have always challenged us. I think the film works if you can see those things at work, otherwise it can get pretty boring. I think you have to challenge the balance and the ethics at all times because that makes it pretty exciting.