Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge spoke to Brooklyn-based directors Celine Held and Logan George about their powerful short film Caroline.
Q: Caroline’ is a humanizing story that very much reminded me of Sean Baker’s ‘The Florida Project’. Can you tell us about the news stories that inspired this short film and why you both wanted to take on this subject?
A: ‘Caroline’ is based on three news stories from summer 2015, in Florida, Arizona, and Texas, of three single mothers who either had a second job interview or an exam, and their childcare options unfortunately all fell through. All of these mothers were arrested and spent time in jail, they were put on probation, and all owed huge fines. It is never okay to leave a child in a car, but we felt like these situations were a lot more grey, and that there might be something to explore there.
Q: You brilliantly capture the troubling way these types of situations escalate, and how there are often no ‘winners’. How important for you was it to show the morally complex and intense nature of these situations?
A: Building an honest ‘mob mentality’ in the crowd that gathers was very important to us. The challenge was to portray the violence in a way that was both threatening and also awkward – something that escalated naturally.
We watched a lot of YouTube videos of parking lot fights, and vehicle confrontations. There are lots of variables to consider in terms of how quickly something can escalate, and if each bystander understands the situation or is just responding on pure emotion.
We worked with six additional actors to choreograph a repeatable fight where each character had intention and purpose. Then, on the day of shooting, we were able to sprinkle in a surrounding cast of extras who remain on the periphery. It was important that both the good samaritan and mother were at fault in equal measure – we didn’t want to demonize or victimize either character too much. We feel that both are ‘right’, in their own way.
Q: I wonder, how do you feel you would react as a bystander in a similar situation?
A: The response to a conflict can depend a lot on the external factors like your proximity as a bystander, the amount of people already involved, how far it’s escalated, etc. There is definitely a point of no return where we’d step in as soon as a verbal argument becomes a physical one.
As a bystander, you normally don’t have all the facts before you’re faced with the decision to involve yourself or not. For us, it is all so circumstantial. We have both gotten involved in situations before, and chosen to stay out of them. We think, upon seeing three children in a hot car, we wouldn’t hesitate to get them out of that potentially fatal situation. It’s the phone call to the police, and the taking of the keys, that we may not immediately go for … but who knows. It all changes when you’re there, and instinct takes over.
Q: The striking final image of the film shows Caroline with a tooth in her hand. What did you want to leave audiences thinking about and questioning after seeing your film?
A: Caroline losing her tooth in the climax was a way to transition from the overblown, public drama of the fight to a more intimate, relatable moment of action. It brings us back into Caroline’s point of view and simplifies the consequences of the conflict in an almost childlike way. We hope that the audience is able to question both the mother and the good samaritan, and leaves thinking about that grey area.
We both strongly believe that all people are just trying to do the right thing, and hopefully our audience sees that as well in this film: each character is just trying to do the right thing. It’s just that sometimes the ‘right’ thing isn’t always black and white.
Q: Did you have any notable or memorable responses to the film at festivals?
A: At our premiere at SXSW, Caroline Falk (our lead actress) came up on stage with us for the Q&A. The first question was: “I want to acknowledge the incredible performance by the little actress Caroline.” She received a big round of applause for her performance. She was so red, big smile, just happy beyond belief. She wants to be an actress when she grows up, and we cannot wait to cast her again.
Q: I believe you spent time getting to know all of the child actors before filming. Can you tell us about that process and how you found the tasks of coaching them all through this project?
A: The Falk Family (lead actors Caroline, Brooks, and Sally Falk) were so wonderful to work with. We’d known them in advance before the project, but not well. Their dad Todd Falk had seen our short film Mouse and loved it. He said that we could absolutely use his children in a film, so we really took him up on that.
We moved into an AirBnB in Houston down the street from them a little over a month before the project, but we were over their house so much that we ended up moving in with the kids for the month before we shot the film. We wrote the roles for Caroline (age 6), Brooks (age 4), and Sally (age 1), and we made sure to continue to edit and change the script to suit their personalities and interests before the shoot. The kids never saw a script, and never memorized any lines.
We were originally thinking to cast a local actress in the role of the mother, but we saw the relationship that Celine had with the kids, especially Caroline, and thought that there was no reason to have a kind of middle man there – why not have Celine direct from the inside out? With Celine playing the mother, we could film on a roll, without having to take the time to re-set, slate, etc. We were able to give all the kids the time to be themselves, while still adhering to the beats of the script that we’d laid out.
We made use of our pre-production month with them to really get to know each of them, and kind of set the seeds of the film then. They are really amazing – we still talk to them all the time.
The kids were rarely in the car all at once – most of the film was shot very piecemeal. The audio really helps sell it, as well as Caroline’s really incredible performance. She was very often acting toward no one, and her performance blew all of us away on set. We had prepared for the worst: we had all these alternatives for her character, such as just being very quiet, and the film still working, but she completely nailed it.
It was overall a really happy shoot: the kids ate a bunch of popsicles and pickles, had a lot of downtime, and were very excited to be there. We all played a lot of Trolls during the three production days – Sally’s favourite soundtrack.
Q: You are a wife and husband team. Did you meet through the film industry?
A: We met at New York University in 2010. We actually both majored in drama, so no, not through the film industry. We started writing scripts and shooting films together in 2015, mostly as a two person crew, until we met our producer Kara Durrett and cinematographer Lowell A Meyer, who we have worked with on all of our films since.
We have done a lot of commercial work as a two person crew, working internationally with non profits and international schools, so it’s all really helped us define our style as filmmakers. We were both partially raised internationally, so we had some contacts and just really reached out to everyone we possibly could to get some commercial work starting in 2015 – which is how we’ve funded all of our shorts. We actually eloped while on a commercial job in Tokyo in 2017.
Q: Does your taste in cinema differ?
A: We’re really on the same page about mostly everything. In 2018 we both really loved The Favourite, Roma, Girl, Hereditary, among others. In creating our own work, it’s incredibly important to us to be united about each moment in our films before production. We feel that the stronger choice in creating work is not usually a compromise, so if we do have differing opinions, we really state our case and work through it to find the best choice for that moment, rather than a wishy-washy middle ground.
Our work is very character based – probably from our acting backgrounds – so when we get excited about an idea, or a film we’ve seen, it’s almost always due to a really strong character arc. We both feel that’s the spine of any worthwhile story: a character you can get behind.
Q: What is your working dynamic like, particularly when one of you is acting in a project?
A: We’re very much of the belief that we can divide and conquer on set. There has to be a reason to have two directors!
We spend a lot of time in pre-production getting completely on the same page – every moment, every shot is storyboarded, on the shot list, so that we have the ability to throw all that aside and be flexible on set. We prep to the nth degree, so that when an opportunity does present itself that’s better than what we had in mind, we are ready to take it.
Q: You have had an incredible journey with ‘Caroline’ that has taken you from Cannes to the Oscars. How special has it been for you both?
A: It’s all been such a huge honor – we never would have expected for this film to have taken us on this journey, especially so early in our career. It’s very exciting and validating and our hope is that this recognition allows us to continue to make movies.
Q: What are your hopes for 2019? Is a feature film on the horizon?
A: We have a feature script that is also centered around a mother-daughter relationship. It’s a very different story, but Caroline has been a wonderful proof-of-concept for the way we work with children, and the films’ overall aesthetic. Our feature is about a five year old girl who lives with her mother in the tunnels beneath New York City, until an eviction forces them topside, into the world above.