INTERVIEW: Filmmaker Rachel Lambert Talks ‘In The Radiant City’
Up close and personal with independent filmmaker Rachel Lambert.
Rachel Lambert is an independent filmmaker and whose latest film is now in release. We recently had the chance to talk with her about the movie and her experience in bringing to screen.
Hello and thank you for talking with us. Let’s begin with you. Who is Rachel Lambert?
Who am I? Well. That’s tough for me to answer, but I’ll give it a shot. I am a gal born in Kentucky, moved around a fair bit growing up as my dad would move jobs, and movies were my best friends. I made movies on VHS, editing tape to tape, in place of writing school papers. But my teachers were okay with it. I moved to Manhattan when I was eighteen, it’s there I figured out I liked telling stories, but never felt movies were a thing somebody like me could ever hope to do professionally. So I stuck to theater instead, and trained in that at BU and then at LAMDA. I stayed in London to learn about making films while I worked at some film companies, shoring up the guts to make one myself some day. I moved home after a few years, set to writing a film and making it. And that’s what I did.
Your latest film is called In the Radiant City. Maybe tell us a little bit about it.
Well, it’s the story of the Yurley family in Kentucky. About twenty years ago, Andrew, only fifteen at the time, turned in his brother for a violent crime that resulted in the loss of another kid’s life. Andrew then incurred the wrath of his elder sister, Laura. This was the only emotion coming at him since his mother was rendered permanently dormant in the face of such trauma. So, feeling rejected and unwanted as a result of this ‘blood betrayal’ he left. Fifteen on he raised himself, working fishing boats, oil, farm labor, anything that kept him cash in hand and moving. But, the past isn’t through with Andrew, and it comes calling for him – his brother, Michael, sentenced to life at seventeen years of age, is now up for a re-sentencing that could see him get out. His lawyer needs Andrew to speak up again, only this time for his brother’s interests. So Andrew travels home, unbeknownst to the rest of the family. And his arrival sets to undo a lot of what held these people together, and apart, for so long. So, while the narrative is asking “will he speak up for his brother, to help him?”, really what the film is asking is “does something broken ever come back together? what does that even look like?”
You are the director and also the co-writer. Where did the story originate, and is there a story behind the story?
I was inspired to write this after I read a story in the New York Times that profiled families of murderers or serial killers carrying a degree of notoriety to their name. Framing a narrative of violence around the family of the assailant was new for me. It was shocking, even, to humanize something I may have pre-figured was inhuman. Granting empathy to a person who is presumed unworthy of it by most people is exactly where my interest always goes as a storyteller. Pretty much no matter what. So I knew this was for me. Because it’s my ceaseless contention that there are no wholly good or bad people. There’s just people. And that’s not in an effort to take anyone off the hook for the bad they do. It’s to admit that as fact, but that also the conversation doesn’t stop there. That there’s this extra step we have to do as a culture where we understand all of our capacity to do bad as easily as good. And if we do that, we take responsibility for all the things that might make someone do a bad thing that doesn’t just involve the very easy and knee-jerk response of “Oh, that person was bad, that’s why it happened. So let’s lock him up and then we never have to think one more second about the culture that allowed for it to happen and the human wreckage left behind.” So anyway – I read that article, I contacted the journalist, he put me in touch with folks who knew what all this was about, such as David Kaczinsky, and all these folks helped me understand the emotional territory here. And from there Nathan (screenwriter Nathan Gregorski) and I wrote a fiction that allowed us to say what we wanted to say.
The intense dynamic between actors Marin Ireland and Michael Abbott Jr. is one of the best aspects of the film. Could you share a little about these performances, both of which are quite affecting.
Not sure what I can share other than these are Class A performers, hired because I knew that about them. And like any Class A performers, I had more to learn from them than they would ever have to gain from me. That’s just how it goes with the great actors out there. Marin I had seen on stage a ton, and I straight up worshipped her. For years, I’m talking. So I knew if I could write this for anyone, it would be her.
And Michael I saw in a friend’s photo album when I was finding actors to do a workshop on this script with us upstate for a few days, way early on. I saw a picture of this tall Southern guy in a gas station uniform and a cigarette in his mouth and I knew the way you know your own kin in a room of people. That’s my guy. And then I understood he went to NCSA, and any actors from that school are always going to be top notch. Then I set about listening to him in workshops and improvs while writing so I could tailor the role of Andrew to him. I wanted to give him everything to succeed at this, because I knew he understood just what we were doing with this story. So – that dynamic you reference has zero to do with me. It has everything to do with them, and what they brought on the day. I will say: that fight scene was the first day these two people ever worked together in a room ever. They met for maybe five seconds on Day 1 to say hello, but otherwise they did not know each other at all… so that’s work you’re seeing on screen. Really amazing work, on their part.
The story feels deeply personal and I liked how it stays rooted in such authenticity. We are never really sure who to side with. Was this something you intended from the start?
Absolutely intended. I think it’s important to understand, or at the very least to sense, that each of these people believe the story they’ve told themselves about 1) what happened 2) why it happened 3) why they did what they did and 4) what should happen next. Which is perhaps one of the most consistent truths of being human. No matter how irrational our stories may seem to someone else, we always believe wholeheartedly the narrative we build about the past so we can better reckon with our present. The thing I wanted to do is to present people who believe their stories, are fearful of abandoning them for fear of losing their sense of reality, and so may act irrationally or sometimes against their own interests – either in the present day, or in the years leading up to this moment. And then I wanted to see if they could still be empathetic, as characters, for people. That was a huge goal with this film, for me.
You play with expectations a few times, especially with the relationships, including that of a fifteen-year-old girl and a man more than twice her age. I don’t want to spoil who they are or the outcome, but how difficult was it in keeping balance with such, between creating believable situations and likeable characters?
Well keeping that balance is incumbent on any story, I wager. At least the ones I write, ha! Because I do like to upend perception. But for me, in this particular story, it all just starts and ends with character. If you put two distinctly different people in a space, and ask them to interact, as long as you never step outside the bounds of the truth of that character, and all they bring to a moment, then you’ll always be okay. The minute a writer manipulates a character in order to create something or impose themselves on a moment, to, i don’t know to prove a point or provoke a response from an audience… well, then that’s an act of vanity. And I have no stomach for that in writing. But, anyway, so if I do that in the writing, as I said, then it falls to the actors to justify all that within their own choices and navigation of the emotions that carry from one beat to the next, and as long as I’ve thought through that journey well enough, then I can step aside and let them take the reins and just be there to know if it skews off the ‘emotional track’ as it were. But with these actors I never really had to do that.
This is your third independent film, including a documentary. As a filmmaker, what are some of the larger challenges you have faced and what are some benefits as well in making your movies?
Challenges abound. And just when you think you licked all the challenges you could conceive of, maturity and ambition lead you to a new kettle of them. But I think that’s the benefit of this kind of work. Challenge is a sign that you’re on the right path, I think. If it feels easy, or old hat, or you don’t have any real acidic fear in your belly, it means, to me, you’ve stopped being curious, or brave. And if there’s no fear it probably means you either are not trying something new, so you’re not growing OR, even worse, you aren’t feeling fear because you’ve lost humility for what it is you’re doing and all your responsible for – if I were a betting woman (which I am), if you’re not feeling some degree of resistance or fear, you’re probably not doing this right. But that’s just me. Playing a hand, every day, even when the odds look bad, is the only way you’re gonna get anywhere or make anything. Believe me, that’s the ONLY way someone like me makes a movie called Mom Jovi. And because I made that movie, I learned a HELL of a lot I never would have in any other context. And that makes me better for the next thing.
You also have done a bit acting, right? Which hat do you prefer, in front of or behind the camera?
Well, I have actually only appeared in one friend’s film ever in my life. There are ton of erroneous facts about me on imdb and wikipedia and the like. It’s bizarre. I think because I have a common name. Anyway – I did train as an actor in college, that’s what my degree says. And while I adored all I did and learned as a performer, I think performing was my ‘way in.’ I was just way too chicken shit and shy to admit I wanted to write and direct, even though that’s literally what I was doing all the damn time in high school, college, sometimes to the annoyance of my teachers. But I learned a hell of a lot with acting, that’s for sure. I learned everything about cadence, breath, beats, dynamics, and dramatic structure. Because I had to live it eight shows a week on top of studio classes all day. But I am not an actress. I cannot do what Celia or Madisen or Marin does. I can’t come close. And finally I had a professor in London tell me “you walk on stage with an idea of how the scene should move and go before you start talking. That’s a director’s impulse. Not an actor’s.” So then I directed to try it out. And everything that upset me and frustrated me and angered me about performing suddenly went away. Like re-setting a shoulder that’s pulled out of socket. So — to answer your question. Acting got me going where I needed to go. And I am thankful. But I am no actress.
What’s next for you?
I wrote another film. But it’s a big idea, so who knows when I will get to make that one. In the meantime, I just finished another script that I like a lot. Getting it polished with my writing partner as we speak. It’s somewhere in the middle between Radiant and that bigger project, in terms of size and scope of story, so perhaps that makes sense as the next one to take on. I don’t like saying too much about projects in typeface. I mean, in conversation, throw a beer down my throat and I would probably tell you the whole story in one sitting – but for some reason I get real paranoid about putting stories in print before I am literally looking at a shoot schedule and I know it’s happening. I’m Southern. We’re superstitious by nature, I guess.
We dedicate a lot on the site to discussing great moments in movies. Are there any moments or movies in general that have had influence on you?
Jesus, where to begin? Seriously. I remember a few that I will mention. The first movie I ever saw in the movie theater was Fantasia. I could tell you the temperature that day, that’s how much this impacted me. I remember those shapes and colors playing alongside the music, and even though I was too young to know what abstraction even meant, it all felt right. Like “of course when the bassoons come in there’s these big maroon bumps rolling across the screen. I mean, DUH.” And it all just made total sense to me. I remember seeing a Buster Keaton film at an exhibit when I was in kindergarten – it was Steamboat Bill, Jr., and I sat in that exhibit for hours laughing like a goddamn maniac and my parents just let me stay there. It was the funniest thing I had ever seen. They weren’t going to make me leave until the exhibit closed. TWO MORE! I swear. Just Two. I remember The Godfather pt.1 and then pt.2 played in a marathon, one after the other, on TNT when I was in middle school. It was the first time I had seen either of them. And that scene when Michael grabs Fredo and kisses him on New Year’s and tells him “you broke my heart.” I would stay up to watch it all the way through, the marathon, again and again just to get to that part. Then I bought them at Best Buy. And I watched it over and over until I wore out the discs. I had never seen something so bald, and true, and messy, and public, and unadorned and beautiful. I can’t get over either of those films. Francis Ford Coppola is responsible for me being a filmmaker. FINALLY! I remember the first time I ever saw Take Shelter. I had never seen a film where I thought “I know that place.” And it was so simple, but I saw Curtis go out into his back yard the first time and I saw a gas tank out there. And I grew up with gas tanks in the yard nearly my whole life. And I hadn’t seen it in a movie before. And it was the Hero’s house! He was common, and working class, but dignified, and full of emotion and drama and consequence. That’s when I decided to take a job in film and set to learn how to make one. I finally realized maybe somebody like me could make one, after all.
Thanks again for talking with us. Anything you’d like to say to the readers?
Just thanks for the interest in my little ol’ film.