Resident Video 5: Orchids

Resident Video is a monthly series that provides exclusive access to short films from emerging artists. For this month, we bring you Katherine Clark’s Orchids

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This month’s Resident Video, Orchids, starring Paul Russell and Lauren Warren Carlstrom, takes an in-depth look at family dynamics and the effect years of guilt and blame can have on a relationship. When daughter Melanie shows up at her father Paul’s house to celebrate his 70th birthday, Paul’s stubborn and reclusive habits drive Melanie to a breaking point and stir up painful memories.

The film takes place in a heavily symbolic space—Paul’s home is reflective of himself and his lived experience. Covered in dirty dishes, decaying phone books, broken records, and ash trays, the set creates a feeling of nostalgic confinement. Paul lives in the past and is unable to overcome the mistakes he made when his wife was alive. The appearance of Melanie forces Paul to confront a version of himself he had been trying to forget for many years.  Using orchids as a metaphor for Melanie’s late mother, writer/director Katherine Clark creates a catalyst for tension between father and daughter, starkly contrasting fragility and volatility in the process.

Katherine Clark received her MFA in Film Directing from Columbia College Chicago and has worked on several shorts primarily as writer, director, and art director. Check out her Vimeo page to watch the trailer for her most recent short, Beta Persei. Katherine is currently back and forth between the greater New York City area, where she lives, and Honolulu, where she is location scouting for her upcoming feature film. To learn more about Katherine’s first feature, Pololia, head to the film’s official website and Twitter page. To support Katherine in her artistic endeavors, click here.

The detailed storytelling in Orchids gives it a very personal feel, almost like a memory come to life. What was your inspiration for writing the film? Was it a result of lived experience or was your creativity prompted by some other source?

When I was young, there was a house of a relative I would visit. It was an old house and so thick with cigarette smoke and the smell of alcohol that you couldn’t breathe, but so heavily crowded with orchids under with bright fluorescent lights. They were everywhere, but they were so out of place. And no one was allowed to get near the orchids. They were too delicate to touch. The house itself was a contradiction of coughing and illness and old age, and of
vivacious green life that was so out of reach. It seemed like the perfect setting for a short film. I worked with my producer, Kenneth Detterline, and we came up with a character sketch and the arc of the film. We talked back and forth about the chain of events and backstory that would force someone to be so protective of these flowers, but completely let themselves go in the process.

 Stylistically, the film takes a slow, minimal, and quiet approach in lieu of heightened drama. For an American family drama, it takes more cues from Ozu than Kazan. This approach seems to place more emphasis on the slowly rising tension than on the emotional outcome. Did this stylistic choice influence your decision to leave the film open-ended?

The film is about a small moment, but one with immense emotional baggage. Instead of admitting their frustrations, the characters coat their dialogue in “worry” or contrived memories of the past. It takes a lot of work and trust to express what you really mean, and those characters don’t have it. So to answer your question, probably the other way around- The ambiguity of the situation and characters influenced the style. Because nobody can see an internal moment, the setting of the smoky room full of flowers, slow editing pace, that sound of a saxophone, close ups of characters as they listen, and the faded yellows and greens or pastels in the production design palette all reflected that. Even if Paul replaces his flower and repeat his habits, we still see that moment in between where he wakes up and the sun is shining into his face, and he has nothing. It’s a significant, quiet moment that also requires stylistic changes, from a change of wardrobe to a complete change of setting, with bright natural light and quicker montage cuts.

 The most intriguing moment of the film is when Melanie destroys one of her father’s orchids, soliciting a visceral response from the audience. The frustration she feels with a situation she can’t change makes her very relatable. If this story had been told from Melanie’s point of view instead of Paul’s, what would change?

This is an interesting question, because the perspective really is entirely from Paul,and completely unreliable. We see what he cares about. We hear what hurts him. But his own statements are disjointed and not grounded in reality, and Melanie rarely responds to him. I think from her perspective, this day was much different. She’s completely avoidant, too – that’s where they are the same, but she is a doer, she works all day to take her mind off of things. She begrudgingly left work early for “an appointment”, making the trip to see him for an obligatory birthday visit. She sits at the table, waiting for him to say anything, I mean anything, but instead he is completely oblivious to her presence. She’s got so much resentment towards him for never being around, but she constantly works to take her mind off of it. So when she’s confronted with him, and she is trapped in that environment with no means of escape, all of that resentment comes out. She tries to get his attention, and destroying the orchid is the only way she knows how. She leaves, she probably has a cigarette outside, and drives home to an empty city apartment, setting her alarm early to get up for work.

 Paul and Melanie’s relationship is extremely complex and riddled with regret. How did you approach directing such an intricate relationship? How much did you leave up to the actors?

We had numerous rehearsals so that I could spend time with the actors and they could spend time with me. I shared my personal stories with them, and they brought their own experiences to the table, too. When you just have two actors who play off of each other, it requires a lot of trust. And when you’re pulling from characters’ memories and building it into a climactic moment- one where hurt and anger are channeled to the point where they boil over the surface, their frustrations must be shown in the actions and looks rather than dialogue. We tried one exercise where Lauren Carlstrom, our actress who plays Melanie, screamed all of the lines of dialogue, and the next time she would channel the same pressure of the words but her voice would be very quiet. And there was something so tense about that moment, about seeming calm when you’re not. But it was all about building trust.

Don’t forget to check out the rest of the Resident Video series. While the films are no longer available, the interviews remain. Forever.

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