Language as a Wild Animal: An Interview with Stephanie Barber

By Jeff Jackson

Stephanie Barber’s award-winning feature film DAREDEVILS debuted at the New York Film Festival to rave reviews. It’s a portrait of risk in its many guises. The story follows a writer as she interviews a well-known artist and feels the reverberations of their discussion throughout her day. The film is quietly riveting, filled with humor, surprising turns, and even dance. Barber describes the movie as “sitting gently between video art, narrative and poetic essay.” 

Barber has made more than 30 films. Her wide-ranging work includes poetry mown into lawns and a moving book composed from the YouTube comments about Bob Seger’s Night Moves video. Her work has been shown at MoMA, Tate Modern, Whitney Museum of American Art, and Paris Cinematheque. 

I interviewed Barber about DAREDEVILS via email. The film will be shown as part of New Frequencies at McColl Center on Friday, February 26 at 8 PM.

The long conversation between the characters of the writer and the artist in DAREDEVILS feels very natural and spontaneous. How did you capture that conversational feel, filled with so many moments of awkwardness, excitement, and intimacy? How difficult was it to achieve?

Stephanie Barber: I was very lucky to work with these two brilliant women. Flora Coker, who plays the artist, is a veteran stage and screen actor who lives in Wisconsin and KimSu Theiler is an artist who lives in New York City. So the majority of my preparation with them was done via sound files. Each would record their lines and send them to me and I would make comments or clarify pauses, interruptions, mood, etc. 

I think the most important aspect of their almost pitch perfect performances is their sheer intelligence. They took the time to really understand what was being said. And were able to really make the ideas and exchanges understandable to each other. They each have a very different way they are relating to the text but are each staying inside the text as the predominant element in that scene. By that I mean their “characters” are subservient to the conversation. Though that isn’t it exactly. Because the film is so formalist this very rigid, strict armature of the conversation is perhaps allowing some naturalism, as they’re not being called upon to improvise or telegraph the meaning of the text? It’s hard to say as I am still baffled by acting. 

For my part, careful, sensible writing with an ear to conversational meter and umms and unfinished statements, three cameras so that I can cut between the two shot and the characters and just trying to clarify the text for them at every turn so that they absolutely get what they are saying. The rest is a magic assisted by their brilliance and pathos and I am very thankful for having worked with these people. It is incredibly gratifying to see words spring to life in this way. 

On the first day of shooting this scene, I had to remind myself to stay “directorial” as I was so blown away by the very surreal experience of seeing people speak these lines I’d been writing the past few years. It’s like discovering your imaginary friend really is. And is better than you could have hoped.

The artist talks in great depth about her own art work, which is entirely fictional. Were there specific artists – or art works – that inspired you when you were conceiving the artist’s work for the film? 
 
Mostly these are projects that I have wanted to do. The smellodium, the magnetic bed and same pole room, the interactive hologram film – these are long-time fantasy projects of mine. The light writings are a reference to my lawn poems. I have this feeling that simply having written these, described them, discussed their implications, I have completed them. And I am happy that I have. 

I love how the writer is an unabashed fan of the artist – and how that translates into awkward moments in the conversation. Have you found yourself in a similar situation with an artist you admired?
 
Thank you. I love how she is so unabashed too. I am this sort of fan, but not awkward, simply in love. (It is probably only in discussion, exchange or praise of art that I am not awkward.)

One of the characters says: “There’s a certain faith that people put in language.” How much faith do you have in it? And how important is that faith for DAREDEVILS?

Two very huge questions. My “faith” in language is immense and fanatical but I am also deeply impressed by the lability of meaning and who are those people who buy tigers as pets and stay up late most nights running their fingers through their fur? How many bites and claw marks? I recognize language as a wild animal in a house of carpets and vases and dishes of candy. Or also, like the genealogy of migrating butterflies… this changing of bodies and maintaining mission.

As regards this particular film, I guess it only works if the audience really listens; trusts that real and understandable (though large and sometimes poetic) ideas are being exchanged. I had a woman ask me, after viewing the film, “What was she crying about?… (suggests a few unsavory options which often cause women to cry).” I was shocked (saddened) and it took me a bit to remember that for many people the “listening” required in a piece like this is just not rote… or maybe, for some people onerous or boring… Where do they go I wonder?

I know we are all attuned variously, but it is often shocking, speaking with someone and realizing they’ve been daydreaming! The writer is so moved by hearing and being heard. And so am I. I know so few ways to feel more existent than conversation. But yes, the language of this film is one of the things this film is about. It is about risks and art and language and love and it is made with these same elements. 

There are so many layers to this film. What were your initial impulses in beginning the project? How long was the process to fully realize it?  

Again, thank you so much. Many of my shorter films and videos employ language as the predominant element. A sort of inverse of a lot of cinema which prioritizes the visual. Some sort of gesture between poem and film, song and story. Many of them are conversations. I’ve always loved the conversation as a form, the ability to sidestep the surety of “statement”! 

Originally this piece was going to be a 20-minute conversation between two artists walking in the woods. The woods were a scrolled collage of hundreds of photographs from “nature books” (what’s that?!) and the camera was to pan slowly across the collage as the conversation proceeds. I think I began the collage and conversation in 2009? I can’t remember what made me feel I would like to make the leap to working with actors, but I am thankful I did. As I was imagining this piece literally “fleshed out,” I began to think about character development from the outside in. A learning about the writer through what she hears and how she responds. A bas relief. 

Once I knew what the writing was, I knew how to compositionally structure it, but a great amount of time was spent trying to cast the role of the artist. When writing it, I was picturing the poet Susan Howe (who reads the role of the chorus). I was very stuck on the character being played by a poet I love (fan!). Susan and I went back and forth and she finally said no, she couldn’t memorize that text, she’s not an actor. Then I asked a few other poets who I really love and finally realized I was spending a lot of time trying to make something into something it wasn’t and thought of Flora Coker who, as I’ve said, is a real and incredible actor. And gosh, I can’t even say how much I learned about directing, acting, writing, through watching her work. Her face is so intelligent. Is she acting thought?

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New Frequencies at McColl Center presents DAREDEVILS, a film by Stephanie Barber, on Friday, February 26, 2016 at 8 PM. Limited seating. Advance tickets are available now.

Jeff Jackson is a novelist, playwright, and curator of the New Frequencies at McColl Center series.