By Jose S. Mateo
Photography By Tim Toda
At the center of this story is the topic of mental illness and how those affected by it cope, or don’t cope, with it. Why did you feel it was important to tell this story?
Jared: It was important to me to approach mental illness from a very authentic perspective. Many of the films that portray mental illness often romanticize or vilify it. I wanted to create a character that cut through the shallow representations and would provide the audience with a deeper look at a character suffering, no matter how raw and painful that emotion is.
Throughout the film the audience is experiencing the world through the main character’s unique perspective and mindset. How did you approach the development of this character’s psyche?
Christian: We read a lot of books on paranoia and delusions, and did hours and hours of research to try to understand Lucio. To try to understand the way he would react to things. The way he would see the world. The way he would give meanings to his surroundings, his fears, his neutral, his light and his love. We wanted to unapologetically portray his constant struggle with his own reality. He is constantly in fight or flight mode, and it takes courage to fight that battle on a daily basis.
Jared: While we understood it would be impossible to match how someone with a mental illness experiences the world, we knew it was our job to get as close as possible. Using our research, I devised mental exercises for Christian to do during prep in order to try and retrain his mind to begin to think like a person suffering with Delusional Disorder. The exercises focused on hyper-awareness of the surrounding world and the various triggers specific to Lucio. It was our goal to not only capture the pain of illness, but also the humanity of the person trapped underneath.
Christian, who plays Lucio, shed an astonishing 30 pounds in preparation for the role. Why was the physical transformation important to the film?
Jared: We wanted the audience to feel his suffering the moment they saw him on screen, even if the audience did not consciously know something was wrong. It was then through a back and forth dialogue about Lucio and deeper research into the many specifics of each form of mental illness, we arrived at the conclusion that Lucio, given his specific circumstances, should be underweight.
It was a challenge of discipline; and dedication to Lucio, his journey and the story.
Christian: To me, it was a challenge of discipline; and dedication to Lucio, his journey and the story. However, it was very important to me to do it in a healthy way, so I worked with a licensed nutritionist to develop a healthy regimen. We wanted to get Lucio’s look right; for Lucio to be unbalanced. To be underweight, but still be strong in some angles. To have a little muscle but also to see some bones. To create a look that would be representative of his state of mind.
A lot of the film is spent with one character struggling with an internal battle with his own mind. How did you go about externalizing Lucio’s internal world for the audience?
Jared: As Neeraj and I began to construct the visual approach for the film, we both knew that the first major challenge was bringing to life Lucio’s fear of being followed. The narrative arc of the film relies on the audience buying into the idea that Lucio is on the run for his life. After multiple camera tests, we devised what we called the “Stalker Camera” in order to visually translate the sense of paranoia and danger that Lucio was experiencing for the audience.
Neeraj: We wanted to create something in-camera that would feel like it’s own character without removing us from the world of the film. Jared wanted to ground the story in realism, so it was important that nothing was created using VFX. Eventually after some research, I came across a collection of old filters that spoke to me in a way that captured Lucio’s emotional state.
"It was important that nothing was created using VFX"
Jared: In addition to the filters, we felt we needed to inject some urgency to the ‘Stalker Camera’. We did this by employing shaky, handheld movements in order to heighten the feeling that Lucio is being watched. To enhance that further, we felt that the rest of the film should work counter to that. For almost every shot other than the ‘Stalker Camera’, the camera should be mounted, whether on a tripod or a car.
As the film progresses the line between the ‘Stalker Camera’ and Lucio’s POV begins to blur until the end of the film when the two finally merge. At that moment, Lucio is finally forced to confront his greatest fear, his pursuers (in reality, his illness), face to face. The camera watches Lucio from a third-person perspective, handheld like the ‘Stalker Camera’, but with no filter like the shots from Lucio’s POV.
What was your approach when it came to lighting design and frame composition when you were developing the mood and style of the film?
Jared: Throughout the film Lucio is running from his demons, searching for his freedom. It was imperative to capture that visually through both composition and lighting. Neeraj and I felt that the lighting needed to be motivated by Lucio’s emotional state. He is in a cloud of darkness and he is running towards his freedom, a glimmer of light in the distance. It was important that the lighting not just capture Lucio’s extremes, but also tell the story.
Neeraj: Depending on where Lucio’s emotional state was in his journey would determine how we wanted to light the scene. If Lucio was more isolated and in his own headspace, the frame would be predominantly dark with touches of highlights. If the danger was more external, or if Lucio was interacting more with the external world, the frame would be brighter.
Like the lighting, the compositions also explore the extremes of Lucio’s world. We wound up mixing extreme wide shots with extreme closeups. In the extreme wides we wanted to tell the story of Lucio’s emotions through his body language and his relation to the world around him and his hypersensitive nature to his surroundings. In the extreme closeups, we had a chance to get the audience closer to Lucio and begin to see the story through the landscape of his face.
Jared: Our objective was to make sure that if you were to pause the film at any moment, the image, through the composition, lighting, art and performance would tell you Lucio‘s story at that moment in time.
The other major character in this story is Vanessa, the mother of Lucio’s daughter and the love of his life. Why was this character important to the story?
Jared: While we are with Lucio throughout the entire film as he fights an internal battle, Vanessa faces a battle of her own that is both internal and external. It was important for us to show this, not just because when a person suffers from mental illness their family suffers too, but because one of the greatest factors in overcoming fear is love. Vanessa is the emotional anchor that Lucio’s downward spiral revolves around.
For most of the film, Vanessa exists as a disembodied voice presented over a series of phone calls. Was that a choice you made early in the development of the film, and how did that affect the actors’ performance?
Jared: Not showing Vanessa was necessary in order to keep the audience in Lucio’s internal world and particular perspective. However, I knew that as a result, getting the audience to connect to the emotional core of the film would present a major challenge. Therefore, When I started the casting process, I knew that finding the perfect Vanessa would be crucial. Since the character is not on screen for most of the film, I knew we needed someone who could convey Vanessa’s suffering entirely through their voice. Through serendipity we were lucky enough to have Stefanie Rons read for the role. I could tell she understood Vanessa’s love, pain and anguish on a deep level; it was as if she were inhabiting Vanessa. I instantly knew no one else could do the part justice.
I opted to have Stefanie on set, rather than add her later through ADR, so all of the phone calls could be performed live. I think that helped the actors convey the tension and raw emotion the scenes called for.
During the climax of the film, there is a scene where the main character shaves his head. It’s a very emotional and cathartic scene. Can you tell us how you approached this particular scene?
Jared: When we arrive at the shaving sequence, it is the breaking point of Lucio’s illness. The point in his descent where he doesn’t recognize himself anymore. He has lost everything, at which point his struggle becomes finding himself.
Given the permanence of shaving one’s head, we knew we would only get one shot at it; I’ve never been more nervous as a director. For the performance’s sake, I didn’t want Christian to have to stop and start so we could reset the camera. I wanted him to be able to go through the entire process of shaving his head completely in the moment.
If there was one mistake we would either have to cut the scene from the film, which we couldn’t do given its pivotal nature, or we would have to wait a few months for Christian to grow his hair back, which was also not very feasible given Christian’s weight loss for the role. I spent sleepless nights knowing everything would need to be perfect.
Neeraj: From the moment I read the script, I thought we’d have to find a way to get coverage and be clever about how to cut through the scene. But the closer we got, the more convinced I became that it would have to be just one long take. If it had been any other actor I would have been nervous about a single take; however, having worked with Christian before I knew that if I found a shot that worked, he’d take over and be able to give us what was needed. The shot we found had a balance of being wide enough to give us an understanding of Lucio’s physicality and body language, but the mirror gave us the emotions that Lucio goes through.