Fedor Tot talks to Carol Morley, the director of the upcoming Lynchian noir, Out of Blue starring Patricia Clarkson.
Detective films are ten-a-penny, but rarely ones that are as offbeat and wilfully oblique as Out of Blue. Carol Morley’s latest film stars Patricia Clarkson as detective Mike Hoolihan, a New Orleans detective tasked with solving the grisly murder of Jennifer Rockwell (Mamie Gummer), a smart young astrophysicist. The usual suspects find themselves under the spotlight – her boss, Ian Strammi (Toby Jones), her boyfriend Duncan (Jonathan Majors) and her obscenely rich family (James Caan and Jacki Weaver as the parents, Brad and Tom Mann as her brothers).
But what starts off as a standard police procedural quickly becomes something much more cosmic and surreal, with echoes of Lynch and Nicolas Roeg – unsurprising as Luc Roeg, his son, produced Out of Blue. As the film delves into physics and its philosophical strands – Schrodinger’s Cat and the like – Mike Hoolihan gradually loses her grip on the coherence and A-to-B of the case (which is solved relatively quickly).
The film is adapted from a little-known 1997 Martin Amis novel, Night Train, that Nicolas Roeg had bought the rights to on release, but never got around to adapting. After working together on Morley’s previous film The Falling, Luc suggested that Morley take on the adaptation; “It had a history with [Nicolas], but I never saw anything that came before me” says Carol Morley. “I think there was a script or two. I read the book and was really intrigued. I wanted to explore it a bit more and I…fell in love with the idea of doing it really. Probably Nic Roeg had the same reasons as I did – the themes around cosmology, time. But I particularly loved the detective elements and mystery of the book.”
The original Amis book isn’t one that’s particularly acclaimed, and Morley’s tone sounds more as if she rather liked the book rather than fell in love with it on a deeper level. Is it easier to adapt a work you don’t feel closely tied to? “I think when you go over a loved novel you can be intimidated by it. Of course I respect a lot of what he’s done but I don’t necessarily agree with all of it, so it becomes this sort of weird collaboration with someone you don’t know. I did genuinely feel invested in the characters in the book. During writing the screenplay, I read Amis’ memoir, Experience, and in that he mentions some of the characters in Night Train, the book, and I couldn’t understand how he knew them, because at that point, it belonged to me!”
Most of cinema’s best literary adaptations come not from literature’s highest peaks – there’s a reason there’s no definitive film version of War and Peace– but from its pulpier low-end. Was it a case of being more readily able to impose her vision on top of the existing work? “No, I don’t think so. I think a book exists in its own right and you should allow it that space. I never wanted to adapt something and then describe it. It was about creating a translation through me. It was about creating a film that has its own identity and energy. And that’s why I changed the title; I felt if you knew the book it wouldn’t be that book.”
If there is such a sub-genre of noir that can be entitled ‘philosophical detective’ – where the detective gets suckered into a case that then begins to take over their lives, causing them to question their purpose – then you can readily file Out of Blue alongside Chinatown, The Big Sleep, the works of French noirists like Jean-Pierre Melville and even latter-day incarnations like True Detective. What encouraged Carol Morley to draw her film around this structure? “I’m interested in noir where the characters are the strongest element. I loved the suspense of every character having a history and a life beyond the main character…I saw them all as a constellation.”
“I do love the noirs where, like Chinatown, it has an amazing story and plot, but it’s about the characters and the dynamics between the characters. There was apparently an earlier version of Chinatown where the ending was the revelation about the water supply company [that Jack Nicholson’s character is tasked with investigating] and in working through it, they realised the real story was about the relationship [between him and Faye Dunaway’s character]. That element is something I love about noir, but also where people get embroiled or trapped [as a result of] their past. I really enjoyed exploring the female detective here.”
Speaking of female detectives, Patricia Clarkson’s take on the role of the older, grizzled detective – a performance that nine times out of ten goes to a grizzled Clint Eastwood/Bruce Willis type – is superb. Depressingly it turns out, having an older female lead almost immediately impinged on the potential budget for the film. “Somebody somewhere crunches algorithms about how much your film will make if it has this cast member or that cast member…For every feature film you need a pre-sale; you need to sell it before you make it. I’m really lucky that the film has BFI and BBC money, and they’re not making you look at your casting in terms of economics, but the other elements do. It’s brutal, but I realised recently that every actor has a price. Because how are you gonna know if an actor is going to bring an audience?”
“It enrages me because I think Patricia’s such a brilliant actor but hasn’t had the roles that she’s deserved through her career. And the same with Jacki Weaver. She had Animal Kingdom [in 2010] and that bought her back to life, but she had 20 years where she had to act in theatre, because no one would cast her in films. But having said that, you can’t change the system over night.”
Clarkson’s performance in the film is a perfectly-poised balancing act. Mike Hoolihan isn’t a loud or effusive character – rather she’s someone who slips into the background. Yet, Clarkson has an innate quiet charisma, brilliantly adept at conveying both Hoolihan’s coolness and her tumultuous past – an abusive upbringing, alcoholism and her fearlessness as a detective. Clarkson makes all this look near-effortless, as if she’s just walked in off the street. Carol Morley seems to agree; “Patricia would always say it was on the page. Well, the writing’s on the page, and it is a blueprint, but an amazing actor brings a quality that’s indefinable and she’s so watchable… She’s not at all showy. It’s about what’s appropriate for this moment in the story and for the way forward. She’s got this restraint which is really impressive.”
With a rather low budget – shot in 28 days with no reshoots – Out of Blue is a fine piece of moody noir with one eye on the cosmos. It has ambitions that sometimes exceed its executions – but with a coterie of superb performers grounding the film, it’s hard not to be taken by the film’s jazzy, woozy mood.
Out of Blue is on general release now.
(Carol Morley image credit: Alchetron)