The opening of Werner Vivier’s carefully crafted drama Walls Like Windows leads us down a seemingly familiar path as an older woman sits awkwardly with a younger escort, yet what follows quickly upends our preconceived presumptions as to where this situation is heading. Among so much more, Walls Like Windows explores the immense complexities of grief, and the additional trauma brought on when isolation is added into that most volatile of emotional states. To reveal more about what transpires between Maggie and Leon – both roles embodied with nuanced excellence by Juliet Stevenson and Anthony Welsh respectively – would be to rob you of the pleasure of unravelling the mystery at play between these two strangers. What I can say is that Vivier’s intricate writing and direction, naturalistic approach to lighting, and cinematography which expresses the shifting tones of the on screen relationship belies the fact that this is the director’s sophomore short film outing. After an award-winning festival run and in anticipation of its premiere on DN’s pages today, we sat down with Vivier to discover how the film was shot to give the audience a voyeuristic perspective of the unfolding story, rooting the action in realism and directing his renowned leading actors with confidence.
What’s the inspiration behind this rather surprising, thought-provoking short?
The sudden passing of my grandfather, coupled with a global pandemic that left millions unable to mourn friends and relatives, pushed me to want to explore how we try to address moments of grief when left without the fundamental support systems necessary to cope with trauma. Witnessing the aftermath of my grandfather’s passing, and the rushed funeral that followed, I became struck by the chaos and often comedic absurdity that arose when we attempt to juggle the administrative and logistical responsibilities of burying a loved one. I wanted to make a film that illustrates how isolation affects grief and how, without fail, we turn to the administrative tasks at hand as a means of distraction from adequately processing trauma. Ultimately, my aim was to highlight the importance and innate need we all have for human connection and empathy as we navigate trauma; exemplifying just how significant an unlikely connection between two complete strangers can be.
I wanted to tell a succinct story set in one location, over one day, essentially involving only two characters.
I set out to write the script, which ended up being rather a long process compared to past experiences. The 1st draft came together in a week, but with each subsequent draft, I kept finding that things were reading too comedic. The underlying themes and emotional spectrum I wanted to explore kept eluding me. So in the end, it took me about 6 months to get to the final draft where I was finally able to arrive at a point where I felt as though I was appropriately balancing the emotional heft of the story, whilst keeping things unexpected and entertaining. But most importantly, I wanted to tell a succinct story set in one location, over one day, essentially involving only two characters. These were the key guidelines I set out for myself in the beginning so as to help in managing the film’s scale and budgetary requirements.
Having watched the film, I am surprised that those initial drafts felt more comedic than dramatic. What were the changes you made in the later drafts which better established the tone you were looking for?
Well in the beginning, when I started writing the script, I wanted to do something more light-hearted, as I was coming off the back of my debut short Winter Coat, which had a more dramatic and subtle tone. However, as the script progressed, I kept pulling back the comedic elements to make the decisions and characters more organic and believable. For example, the last act of the film was much more along the lines of a satire originally. This was also where collaboration with Anthony and Juliet came into play. Their feedback would give me ideas on how to push the film towards the outcome that I was looking for.
Nonetheless, in the end, it was less so in the ‘writing’ per se, but more so in the interpretation and direction of the film that meant it didn’t play into a satire or comedy. Perhaps that is my taste hinting at what kinds of films I like to make, but I like to think that I’m not solely suited for significantly dramatically leaning films. I would really love to explore different genres. It just depends on the story and if it’s something I become obsessed with. I can be quite lazy sometimes so I need to obsess over something to put in enough effort to make it happen.
It would be remiss of me not to ask how you came to be working with your talented cast.
The first question was, who would play the two leads? I usually wouldn’t worry about the cast until quite a bit later on in the process but with this script, I had an idea of who I wanted to play the two leads from the beginning. The two names were Anthony Welsh and Juliet Stevenson – both incredible actors and both wildly overqualified for the job. Their fantastic portfolios of work didn’t exactly shout “please send me offers for roles in your passion project short”. But a dear friend and one of the executive producers, Kristina Epenetos, kept pushing to try to find a way of getting the scripts in front of them. She was very big on making sure that we were always giving a shot at the things we wanted in an ideal world. Convinced, yet a touch nervous about the rejection, I put together a treatment of the film, along with a personal letter for both Anthony and Juliet. I then handed things over to our ridiculously capable and talented casting director, Sarah Wilson, to do what she does best and liaise everything.
When one is at the beginning of their career, it is far too easy to diminish your worth or artistic integrity due to a lack of being established or an overwhelming sense of imposter syndrome.
To my surprise, we learned that both Anthony and Juliet really liked the script and story, and were interested in discussing joining the film. At that moment, I realised this kind of ‘naïve optimism’ that I was at first hesitant to give in to, could possibly be the one thing that could help us get the film made. Speaking from personal experience, I often feel like when one is at the beginning of their career, it is far too easy to diminish your worth or artistic integrity due to a lack of being established or an overwhelming sense of imposter syndrome. It’s often easier to prevent feelings of rejection by defeating yourself before you’ve even tried than it is to be vulnerable and put your ideas out there for others to engage with and critique. So the experience of disregarding this idea of inadequacy and taking a rather naïve leap of faith, only to be met with openness and enthusiasm, isn’t only a testament to Anthony and Juliet’s humility and kindness, but also an urgent reminder to me that backing yourself and your ideas and taking those longshots every now and then can really pay off. No matter how established or amateur you are in your craft. It’s been something that I’ve really tried to keep in mind ever since, and it ended up being the driving force in the film’s production process. It built a sense of confidence and optimism that would eventually help carry us through to the final cut.
Was there any trepidation directing such experienced actors so early on in your filmmaking career?
The big challenge for me was to not only direct them with confidence and surety but to ensure that there remained a collaborative nature in our dynamic that allowed for experimentation and new ideas. Anthony and Juliet were, to my delight, ruthless in their interrogation of the script. We did everything we could to try and examine every question mark, through-line, and reaction so that it was organic and authentic to their characters. I understand that all directors have their own way of doing things. Some prefer to have a slightly more distant approach to working with actors. But the way I saw it, the smartest (and only choice) I could make, given the fact that I am very much new to filmmaking and have an insane amount still to learn, was to open myself up completely to Anthony and Juliet. I didn’t always succeed, but I tried not to overcompensate for my lack of experience by being steadfast in my opinions and approach, instead aiming to be malleable so that I could learn from them to further understand and curate the way in which I work with actors.
Their wealth of knowledge in their craft meant that every rehearsal and every scene was a one-on-one masterclass in acting and directing.
Were the performances completely scripted or was there room for improvisation?
Yes and no. The way I like to write means that I try to be quite specific in how I elaborate the actions, dialogue and physical notes. They are definitely ideas and guidelines for what I am intending for the scene and performance, but by no means solidify an approach. When I meet with actors and actually get to work on the nitty-gritty things, I prefer to allow the actors to revert to reflexes and reactions in a scene to see what new ideas and directions can come out. I’m really just looking for the most legitimate natural response from the actors. Less a ‘performance’, and more of an actual reaction to what they are experiencing. So yes, if I have to give the actor space to improvise certain lines of dialogue and open up their blocking and actions, then so be it.
I find that oftentimes, the actors are eventually able to go deeper into their roles than I am able to. I’m across every character, and so I sometimes miss certain details and questions that an actor will pick up on and explore. I want it to be collaborative so that we’re moulding the characters and performances together, instead of me being overly instructive in my approach. But like I said, I’m still figuring all of this out, and I’ve found that the best way of doing that is to be open to new ideas and to work transparently with people.
An example of this was when we were on our second day of the shoot and were a couple of hours behind schedule. Things were getting really tight and we were still trying to find our momentum. We only had another hour of sunlight left and had a big exterior scene still to do. Then, as Anthony and Juliet came to set from hair & make-up, I realised that the way I had written the scene wasn’t working for the way that the shoot and performances had been turning out. The crew then were extremely patient and gave Anthony, Juliet and me about 20 minutes to workshop the scene. I’m so grateful that the cast and crew trusted me because what we came up with, ended up being one of my favourite scenes in the film.
I’d like to dig into how you handle the sudden shift in tone, from that nervous slightly illicit getting know each other atmosphere before ramping up into the shock of the dead body reveal.
What was key for the film was understanding what kind of tone it required and how to construct it. I wanted to have this looming danger that felt like it lurked in the house. An underlying sense of eeriness. For example, at the beginning of the film when Leon enters Maggie’s home and sits with her, there are multiple things going on in that scene. He has one reality that he is dealing with, the one where he is an escort and is interacting with just another client, trying to find out what she needs and why he’s there. He thinks he’s in control. On the other hand, we have Maggie, who has been planning this moment for a few days now and has something completely different in mind for Leon. She is in fact in control, and he has no idea. Some of the dialogue is busy telling two stories at once. I liked the idea of how this felt quite mysterious. So we had to think a lot about how to infuse this idea into the construction of the film. It was difficult however, as we only had two actors, one day and one location, so it meant we had to do a lot with very little.
We always wanted the look of the film to be cinematic, yet grounded by natural or available light from the location.
Your naturalistic cinematography reflects a real “slice of life” approach even though you’re ultimately dealing with darker themes.
I wanted to give the feeling that we were watching Maggie and Leon as voyeurs. Something that Lorena and I spoke a lot about was how to create this effect visually. We decided to shoot as though the camera was lurking at the bottom of the stairs, peering around a corner, or watching from another room, to help add this sense of voyeurism. We also decided early on that from the beginning of the film up until the two characters start to actually connect with one another, that everything should be shot in a mechanical way. This meant only using a dolly or a tripod for shots to create a cold and calculated feel to things. However, once the story becomes more intimate and vulnerable, we switch to handheld shots. Lorena would have the freedom to move with the actors as they went through scenes, allowing her to capture Anthony and Juliet’s performances in a more organic way. Lorena and I always wanted the look of the film to be cinematic, yet grounded by natural or available light from the location. At no point did we want the lighting to be noticeable. At all times we tried to root ourselves in realism to carry a consistent theme throughout the film.
As the story all unfolds within the confines of the house I’m assuming finding a location that worked both from a visual and narrative standpoint must have been key.
The house was another character in the story that I wanted to use to bring in a different dimension to scenes. When we were scouting, we were so lucky to stumble across the location that inevitably became the one used as Maggie’s house in the film. It had this perfect hint of disintegration built into various aspects. For example, the walls had visible cracks and peeling paint. Almost as if there was a sickness festering in the walls, trying to get out. Production Designer Grace Taylor and I really loved how this read into the subtext of the script and how it gave little gestures that there was more to Maggie and her environment than first meets the eye. What was also very special about the location was the fact that it housed so many intricate and unusual pieces of furniture and art that felt so true to Maggie as a person. Grace and I decided to lean into this. All that was left to do was to use what was there as a foundation already and build on it to create a fully realised home that spoke to both Maggie and the script.
What considerations guided you through the post production process from the edit, to the sound design and scoring of the film?
Once we got into the edit, the main focus for the Editor Owen O’Sullivan and I was to let the performances and story speak for themselves. There wasn’t any trickery we wanted to use to emphasize things. Instead, we aimed to allow the film to flow seamlessly and uninterrupted so that the viewer could be completely drawn in without interruption. As I came to find, sometimes the most difficult thing is to do something in a simple and pure way. Owen’s ability to not only put the puzzle pieces together so that everything came together as a coherent and clearly constructed whole but to elevate the edit with his intuition and ideas was what got us to where we needed to be. His unbiased and focused approach meant that we were cutthroat in cutting sections of the script that weren’t working or felt superfluous. By doing this, it meant that we were able to hone in on the most intentional and concise version of the story that we could.
I wanted to bring in small details and sounds that would heighten the audience’s senses.
Tim Obzud had the task of finding a way to add to all of this through a carefully considered sound design. An early note I gave him was that I wanted to bring in small details and sounds that would heighten the audience’s senses. There were also moments when Tim and I thought about ways that we could bring in the sound design to act more as a creative vehicle. For example, when Maggie leads Leon up the stairs to the bathroom, Andrea and I originally had a score playing over the scene. However, we came to realise that it felt a bit too didactic and one-dimensional. So what Tim did was to bring in notes of air and wind that replaced the score in a way that felt grounded in the environment, yet inventive in how they were being used. Tim managed to create this luring and mysterious quality by utilizing these natural sounds to great effect.
This approach of ‘less is more’ also bled into the score when working with Andrea Boccadoro. Andrea and I didn’t want to spoon-feed the audience about what to feel and when to feel it. Instead, we tried to be a bit more experimental in the composition of the score. Andrea was able to take my musically uninformed direction and come back with precise and fully formed sound and tone. We would often take the work that Andrea made and deconstruct it in a way to understand why it worked and what was potentially unnecessary. After we determined what was absolutely crucial, we honed in on those elements and tried to find ways to emphasize them. What Andrea came up with, was a score that to me, felt both unique and interesting yet approachable and true to the undertones of the film’s emotion and story.
What can we look forward to seeing from you next?
I’m currently in pre-production on another short film that I’ve been tinkering with for some time now. The scale and complexity of the story are quite a jump up from anything I’ve done before, so I’m seriously excited about it. In January we found out that it was shortlisted for the BAFTA Rocliffe New Writing Competition, so we’ve used the momentum from that to really kickstart things. We’ve got an amazing team together and are planning on shooting in the summer. Alongside that, I’m really interested in exploring music videos more. I’ve been fortunate enough to have directed one in the past (Point by Vraell), and I absolutely loved the experience. It’s a format I really want to dive into further. So all in all, I just want to keep writing and making things really!