An interview with Stephanie Morgenstern and Mark Ellis on Remembrance

Richard Raskin

How did the idea for making Remembrance come about?

SM: A few years ago, I mentioned to a friend that I remembered phone numbers by their colour. He said "So you're a synesthete!" I hadn't heard of synesthesia (which means something close to sense-fusion') - I only knew that numbers seemed naturally to have colours: five is blue, two is green, three is red… And music has colours too: the key of C# minor is a sharp, tangy yellow, F major is a warm brown... We started reading more about it. Links like these between the senses are not that uncommon. But what's rare is the fusion of all five senses. We came across the case of a Russian man named Sherashevsky: he had the dubious gift of permanent memory, and it came directly from his extraordinary case of full synesthesia. [1]

ME: We were intrigued by the emotional angle on his condition. How would you live, if the experience of every choice you make is locked into your senses, and every memory is experienced as vividly as it was in the present? It would be hard not to live in fear of regret - you'd be haunted forever by every wrong move you made. We wanted a character like this as a protagonist, so we could feel the world through his heightened senses. And we wanted to give him the hardest possible choices to make: whether or not to join a war, and possibly just as frightening: whether or not to let himself fall in love.

I understand that you combined several stories in your film. Did that require making any significant changes in either one? Were any further changes made as the project advanced from screenplay to film?

SM: The real Sherashevsky was a performer who toured a memory show, just like our protagonist Alfred. Many ordinary situations were difficult for Sherashevksy - ordering a drink, entering a noisy room, even casual conversation - because they triggered intense tangles of sensation in him. So he had to lead a fairly cautious, sheltered life. The similarities end there: Sherashevsky was never approached to serve his country with his gift (as far as we know!). We transposed an early-twentieth century Russian into a WWII Canadian because of our interest in the second true but little-known story.

ME: During the Second World War, a training camp for secret agents was founded near a small Canadian town by 'the man called Intrepid,' William Stephenson, along with the British secret service. This is where the Allies trained North American and international recruits, and the successful graduates were flown behind enemy lines for covert wartime operations. The camp became unofficially known as 'Camp X.' Aurora reveals only the bare minimum to Alfred in Remembrance, for obvious security reasons, so we didn't need to make any real changes to the facts. The only stretch was sending a woman to sound out and recruit a man… That would have been very unorthodox!

Stephanie, I imagine that directing yourself and your husband involves both advantages and special challenges. Would you care to tell about this aspect of the making of Remembrance?

SM: This film would have been impossible with any other actors in those parts. (For one thing, the budget would have forbidden it!) Since we had been writing the screenplay on and off over a few years, we had had the chance to develop a real intimacy with the roles. It meant we hit the ground running when the time for rehearsals came, and by the time we were on the set, with pressures and distractions all around, we were already pretty clear about what we wanted to do. It was a valuable head start. But it actually worked both ways - being so familiar with the story meant we took some parts of it for granted. We may have assumed some things were clear that in fact needed a little more clarity. We had help here from a theatre-director friend, Chris Abraham. We invited him to observe and question during rehearsals, and on set he became my reference point between the takes. He could offer the kind of insightful and undistracted feedback I needed, watching to make sure we stayed faithful to what we explored in rehearsal.
I have to admit Chris rescued at least one important moment, when my self-direction was taking Aurora dangerously close to self-pity… This was at the train station. I was losing perspective, and found myself dwelling on Aurora's guilt about her handling of Alfred, and her vulnerability, rather than on a forcefully felt conviction that she and he could change the world.
As for directing Mark, I only actually remember directing him once: in the theatre scene, I suggested he start his backwards words more tentatively, slowly, so that the speed he gradually picks up is all the more impressive - all part of Alfred's good showmanship. As it turns out, that's what Mark was about to do anyway.

A great deal of effort must have gone into the special look you gave the film, both with regard to costumes, hair-do, makeup, décor, and also the camera work and color range you favored, even tinting the images at certain points if I'm not mistaken. Could you comment on this aspect of the production?

SM: Funny you should mention the tinting. I think I know the scene you mean: when we're on the train platform, and flash back to a moment in the dance hall. It fooled me too, when I first saw it: I thought somehow the golden glow of the dance hall had been boosted for the flashback. But the picture had been treated no differently from the first time in the dance hall - it's just that the eye has adjusted by then to the cold greys and blues of the station…
All I can say about the 'special look,' or rather the film's succulent production values, is that it's the result of the work of a glorious team, and not something I 'gave' the film. Our producer, Paula Fleck, worked real magic in recruiting the allegiance, skills, faith and material resources of colleagues and strangers alike. This applied to everything, from getting unbelievable deals on the costumes to securing the perfect locations. The lush cinematography and the stylish use of the camera are the work of Mark Morgenstern, my brother. He's an uncompromising artist, and a director himself, though he was careful not to tread on my toes on the set. James Cameron was our art director, who had already worked on a short film my brother and I co-directed, called Curtains, and had won an award for it. James needed no instruction from me, and worked closely with my brother in setting the visual tone. There's the safe, cool, nearly monochrome world that Alfred chooses to live in; and there's the steamy, colourful, risky, sensual world that Aurora invites him into. They took it from there.

You opted for a flashback structure in telling your story, beginning with a shot of Alfred waiting for his train at the railroad station, and remembering. First there are three brief moments he recalls, and then the main flashback begins. And there are even momentary flashbacks within the main flashback. Could you comment on your choice to structure the story in this way?

SM: From the beginning, we knew this story was going to be built as a loop in time, told from Alfred's point of view. Or rather, shaped like a capital Q: a loop with a conclusion. Within this general shape, our premise about his perfect recall actually gave us license to play with time: it meant we could use flashbacks, meta-flashbacks and even a moment when he turns and 'sees' himself in a conversation from ten minutes ago. The brief moments before the main flashback also serve to inspire a distant sense of déjà vu by the time the main body of the story repeats them… The idea was that he needs to replay the evening's significant moments, scan them for clues about whether or not he can trust this woman, and make a decision - all in the 30 seconds it takes for the train to pull in.

The final memory that seems to tip the balance for Alfred, so that he opts for staying, is the memory of Aurora asking him what her name tastes like. May I ask what your thoughts were in saving up this moment as the final decisive factor in Alfred's decision?

SM: One of the things that most intrigued us about Sherashevsky's story is that he did marry… The book mentions this in passing, but makes no mention of his experience of love. It's scary enough for an ordinary person to speak the name of their beloved for the first time, but imagine someone whose experience of that name spills into every sense… What moves Alfred about Aurora is that she has an instant, understated empathy for his condition. She's curious, but doesn't treat him like some human anomaly. She understands the quiet courage it takes for him to get through the most ordinary of days. Her question expresses this understanding in very few words, and at the same time confesses that she's aware something uncommonly sensual has been going on between them that evening. We don't know his answer, but we know her bold question convinces him he'll never meet anyone like her again.

One particularly interesting aspect of your film is the degree to which decisive things are left unsaid. Even when Alfred asks Aurora, "And what was the thing you wanted to tell me?" her reply to him is non-verbal. Was it a deliberate principle on your part to let subtext carry as much of the storytelling as possible in the film?

ME: We're big believers in the unspoken. What the viewer will imagine is often much more powerfully personal than any details we could have cooked up. The synesthetic experience of Aurora's name is a good example: it's better left unsaid. And if Aurora had actually said the thing she wanted to say, it would have swayed Alfred even further and compromised the integrity of his decision… But beyond the romance, the story deals with necessary secrecy and discretion. It's a time when too much talk can carry a heavy price.

SM: Of course this is all easy to say in retrospect. One or two of our earlier drafts included several superfluous pages of heavy exposition. Not so much about Alfred and his back-story, but more about the current state of the war, the nature of the camp and of Aurora's role in it. We wanted to be very clear. I guess at some level we wanted to prove we'd done our research… It's surprising how, when that stuff is trimmed off, you really don't miss it.

ME: There was only one spot where we felt we had to add a little exposition: some friends we consulted didn't know what to make of the silent standoff between Alfred and the corporal in the dance hall. We'd hoped the subtext would carry that - and the fact that Alfred's the only able-bodied young man in the room out of uniform. But too many didn't 'get it' and we ended up adding the corporal's line in post-production…

Another special quality of Remembrance is the effectiveness with which the film engages the viewer's interest in and profound sympathy for the two main characters. Your comments on the way you chose to design the Alfred and Aurora characters?

ME: I think we just followed our own interest and hoped it would be contagious. We never designed them deliberately for audience sympathy, but if they earned it, all the better! We did have an advantage because Alfred's condition is something that people seem to respond to immediately. Everyone can empathize with the burden of painful memories and regrets. Beyond that, he's made more accessible by being written (and performed) more as a person than as a 'case' - he could have simply been a socially maladjusted idiot savant for instance. Maybe this is the answer: we think there's something naturally appealing about a person who navigates a difficult life without being its victim. He doesn't ask for pity, and doesn't pity himself. He's also a truthful and undefended person - that's a welcome trait in anyone - and as a bonus, carries a kind of sensuality in him that you rarely find in a male character.

SM: Aurora on the other hand… it's interesting that you found her equally sympathetic. She's written as a bit of an enigma, and she wasn't intended (in writing or performance) to be very easy to 'read.' If she'd come across as a warm and completely honest person, Alfred might not have needed much time to think over his decision! But since the story's from Alfred's point of view, we (we viewers, I mean) should have no more insight into her than he does. Her apparent shyness and innocence could be all part of her job. In fact, so could what had felt like romantic sparks… Still, I'm happy to know that in spite of this you found her sympathetic. The ending could have a much darker edge to it otherwise: Alfred would be risking everything for someone who wasn't worth it.

Sound and silence are used very effectively in Remembrance. There is a wonderful moment of complete silence after Aurora says "Once or twice" at the dance hall. Would you comment on your choice to suspend all background sound at that moment?

SM: Imagine standing in a crowded home appliance store, where every television or stereo is blasting a different station… This is the closest image we can come up with to evoke the constant chaos going on in Alfred's senses. The thing he longs for, possibly even more than the secret of forgetting, is a moment of peace. When Aurora says "Once or twice, yes" she has matched his honesty with hers. It's a moment of simple, truthful defencelessness. He's so taken by surprise and so absorbed by her that for a moment she fills everything, and the chaos recedes. We thought that for Alfred, a precious moment of serenity like this would be what love feels like.

Remembrance is both a highly intellectual film and a wonderfully sensual one at the same time - an extremely rare combination. The film also encompasses both personal and national, individual and collective concerns. Would you agree with these observations and would you care to comment on the range of experience covered by the film?

ME: Remembrance is about a man whose world is defined by his extraordinary sensual perception. Its effect can be magical - when Alfred 'tastes' Aurora's name, when he's seduced by her touch and by the colours of the music in the dance hall. But it's also an obstacle that ranges from a minor distraction to a hammering obstruction. We tried to paint a visual and aural world that does justice to that sensuality and also conveys a sense of how difficult it is for Alfred to navigate his way through the clutter of life.
It's this sensuality that curses Alfred with an inability to forget. Here, in the writing, our thoughts took an intellectual turn. What situation could we place this man in that would resonate best with our audience? What, we wondered, are the things that we most often want to forget? Well, love is one. Or rather, failed love - love that is unrequited or betrayed or extinguished too early. Nearly everyone has some experience of this - and we, unlike Alfred, usually find ways to diminish or bury this pain in our memory. So love is our individual - our personal connection to Alfred and his story.

SM: Our national, collective concern, is the idea of war. It's too easy to say, "Never again." And "Lest we forget." What has our society's memory of war really taught us? With the passage of time, our memories become selective, and our history becomes myth. We actually only remember that soldiers are brave, that it hurts to lose loved ones, and that it's better to win wars than to lose them. We see this all over again in today's American patriotic war films

ME: But Alfred Graves is a man with an unerasable history. He carries with him a permanent responsibility for every action he takes. And so he's fully aware of the consequences of his choice to join a war. Unlike most war heroes, he has a sense of the stakes, of the dangers of pain and inescapable regret. We, as his audience, appreciate his choice, not at the end of a war, but at the beginning. In these troubled times, so should we all carry that awareness. Not at the ends of wars, but at the beginnings.

Unless I'm mistaken, the only music you use in the film is that played by the band and sung by the singer in the dance hall. Could you tell about your decision not to use background music at other points in the story?

SM: You're right, there's no additional music. I think there's always something inherently manipulative about background music, no matter how discreetly it's used. That's when you feel the presence of the omniscient director, giving you instructions on how you should be feeling. Alfred's attention, feelings and thoughts are guiding is through the story here - or more specifically, his senses. It would have been intrusive to the premise of complete sensual subjectivity if we'd underscored a moment or two with something he couldn't actually be hearing. We cheat a little on the very last shot, since the music is heard as we see him turn and walk away, but that could be because the music's still in his memory right then…
That said, we chose the music that happened to underscore important moments in the film with a lot of care. Come to think of it, principles aside, there's actually nothing less manipulative about what we did! The first song at the dance bar, "Live a Little, Darlin'," was generously lent to us by Leslie Arden, adapted from her musical comedy The Last Resort. Its lyrics are not coincidental, and neither is its aggressive, borderline obnoxious delivery. On top of that, the sound was distorted to have an unsettling, slightly nightmarish effect. The second tune, "The Honey Hop" by our pianist Rob Rowe, had to be instrumental and fairly undramatic, so as not to interfere too much with the dialogue. (But you may notice that there's a playful call-and-response thing going between the drums and piano at one point, when Aurora and Alfred start to develop a rapport.) As for the theme song, we and our producer Paula looked for weeks for a song with the right feel to it, either with affordable rights or in the public domain, and came out desperate and empty-handed. We were running out of time. So Mark and I wrote "This Isn't Like Me," trying to match the music and lyric style of a more humble Cole Porter or Irving Berlin… Our pianist arranged it, and Julain Molnar sang it so beautifully you'd never guess it was home-grown. And free. [2]

I understand that you are now developing a feature film, as an expansion of Remembrance. Do you see short films and feature films as involving essentially the same narrative strategies or as being fundamentally different in the ways they tell their stories?

ME: There are many similarities in the construction of short and feature scripts. They both require compelling characters, truthful dialogue and a satisfying story arc. But they are each uniquely different and difficult challenges… The biggest challenge in a short film is to find a way to grab your audience's interest quickly - to have them invest in your story and your characters in a very short space of time. You have few scenes in which you can deliver your story, so economy rules every choice.
To some extent the same could be said of writing a feature: economy is always important, no line should be superfluous, no character incidental... But of course there's more space. A greater multitude of events and characters and actions can be used to add up to a more complex and a more satisfying story. Structure becomes all the more important because you have to pace, control, shape the viewer's attention over longer stretches, and you can't take their interest for granted. Remembrance has a pretty conventional structure: three distinct acts (theatre, dance hall, and train station), and it has an end that echoes and then extends the beginning, which usually brings with it a satisfying sense of closure. But shorts can tolerate more liberties taken with structure, because the chances are pretty good the viewer will be willing to watch attentively all the way to the end.

SM: Brevity is not a problem for films that are the equivalent of a good poem, an anecdote with a good punch line, an intriguing puzzle, or any story - dramatic or comedic - that sets up an expectation and then throws you a twist. What's much harder, by definition, is if your short's effectiveness depends on an element that takes time - like suspense or, more commonly, empathy. If it's important to you to touch your viewer emotionally, you have the special challenge of making the viewer care about what happens to someone they've just met. I think many shorts-makers use emotional shortcuts here. They hope it will quickly engage sympathy if a character is accessible, "just like me," any cute young kid, a quirky young guy next door (usually a stand-in for the filmmaker!), or an attractive but vulnerable woman (usually a stand-in for someone the filmmaker cares about!). And sometimes it does work. But in a drama, having a very familiar, recognizable protagonist can backfire and end you up with a stock character. If you as a filmmaker can't be bothered to set your character apart, make them their very own person - never mind what your audience thinks, why would you want to make a film about them?

Is there any advice you would give student filmmakers about to make their own first short films?

ME: See a lot of short films. Nothing compares. It'll probably teach you more than any course could - with models to inspire you and mistakes to avoid. Go to every shorts festival you can, treat them like an all-you-can eat buffet. If that strikes you as a great way to spend time, all the better. If it sounds to you like a chore, that should tell you something…

SM: Do what matters to you. Do what you can stay passionate about for many years - A) because it always takes longer than you might think to get it finished, and B) because if you're lucky, you get to keep talking and thinking about it for a long time, at an endless string of festivals, in the press, among peers, with industry people, in P.O.V. , at award show cocktails… If you chose a particular story or style for any other reason - like because that's what 'people' want to see - your honest enthusiasm will run dry before your journey's over and it'll be too late to turn back.

14 January 2003

to the top of the page

1 A note from Stephanie Morgenstern and Mark Ellis: " If any readers want to follow up on synesthesia, we recommend two books: the classic The Mind of a Mnemonist by A. R. Luria, which was the inspiration for Alfred; and The Man Who Tasted Shapes by Richard Cytowic, a very readable contemporary look at the subject.

2 See "This Isn't Like Me" - The theme song for Remembrance