Lost Transmissions: Director Katharine O’Brien on the Film’s Gritty Look, Career Advice From the Russo Brothers, and More

Simon Pegg and Juno Temple star in Lost Transmissions, written by Katharine O’Brien, who is also making her feature-film directing debut. The indie drama, set in the gritty L.A. music world, delves into the realm of mental disability. Inspired by a personal story, the 36 year-old director is known mainly as a writer (The Automatic Hate) and for her work with the directors Joe and Anthony Russo.

In Lost Transmissions Pegg—in a rare non-comic role—plays Theo, a charismatic and renowned expat-Brit record producer who mentors Hannah (Temple), an aspiring and talented singer/songwriter who struggles with depression. It’s a strictly platonic relationship, something hardly ever seen in movies. Under Theo’s guidance, Hannah’s career takes off at the same time Theo’s behavior becomes erratic and unmanageable. It’s revealed Theo’s gone off his meds for schizophrenia, causing him to lapse into paranoid rages and rants, in which he hears messages in sound waves and electromagnetic fields. The movie traces Hannah’s frantic attempts to help her friend get treatment before he’s lost to the streets and becomes homeless.

On the red carpet at the Tribeca Film Festival, where the film had its world premiere, Pegg told MovieMaker: “Katharine is an amazingly assured and intelligent director. And I think it’s probably because she was born in Santa Barbara. She’s incredibly laid back. She has that sort of beach kind of cool about her. And everything is very zen and it helps to create a very creative atmosphere on set. She’s knows exactly what she wants. She’s got an extremely precise vision and as an actor, you really need that. I was impressed and felt very safe while I was working with her. I didn’t feel like this was a first time director that I had to look after in any way. I just sat back and let her direct me.”

Later during the Q&A, Pegg confessed: “Another reason I decided to get involved was because I realized in however many years I’ve been making films I’d never made a film directed by a woman before. It’s indicative of the state of the industry and I just felt like it was high time that I did that. And it just happened to be a beautiful script as well.”

Following is a wide-ranging interview with the director for MovieMaker, which included her comments on what inspired the story, how she achieved the film’s gritty look, and the career-making advice she received from the little-known Russo brothers.

Paula Schwartz, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Is it true the film is inspired by a personal story?

Katharine O’Brien (KOB): Yes. Mental illness is something that I’ve dealt with for a long time because of family members that are schizophrenic. My grandmother’s schizophrenic so it’s been a factor in my life for a while, but this particular incident happens with a group of friends from Los Angeles around 2012, when a friend of mine went off his medication for schizophrenia. And there was quite a few people involved in trying to get him help. Everybody took turns trying to take care of him, going through the rigmarole of trying to commit him to a psychiatric facility only to be spit right back out again after a temporary stay period. So I learned a lot about the system and it was something that I thought would be worth telling because I realized how many people were going through this aspect, the logistics of it.

MM: How did your friend feel about seeing his story on screen?

KOB: From the very beginning I approached him, and we agreed it was  a valuable story worth sharing and he was really enthusiastic about it. From the early stages of the script, he consulted on it and told me the very innermost thoughts he went through at the time. He still had a clear recollection of it which gave me a clear insight into just how exactly his delusions were functioning, and I really wanted to be true to that. He wanted that to be portrayed accurately, so it was really nice for us to work together on it and then also I think it was therapeutic for him to own his own story and start everybody having a conversation about what had happened to him.</p.

MM: How difficult was it writing and developing characters based on people you actually know?

KO: It’s such a complicated question because this character that Juno plays is not a representation of me, she’s a combination of different people’s experiences and somebody that would make sense in the music world and she’s going on her own creative journey. So it’s always this blend of fabricating things but also putting yourself back into that character in some way in an attempt to relate to them so that you feel something when you’re actually writing.

MM: How would you describe the visual style you were going for in the film? It’s set in southern California but it feels very naturalistic.

KOB: It was really important to me to show the Los Angeles that I felt that I saw more on a daily basis because so often you see L.A. depicted with palm trees and shiny cars and Hollywood movie stars… The reality is [it goes from] the highest heights of celebrities in the Hollywood Hills to Skid Row — where we’re having a huge homeless crisis right now. And that’s a much grittier, urban sprawl, and that’s something that I really wanted to show by stripping away a lot of devices and using handheld cameras and all that.

MM: The music and the sound are such important aspects of the film because it really does trace the journey that the two musicians go on. When you were creating the movie how important was the sound design and music and putting everything all together?

KOB: It was huge… That really cemented the identity of the film because so much of what Simon and Juno share in the film, their connection, is sonically through the music world—both in what they like and how she understands him—and how she eventually comes to understand his world and how she starts to empathize with him. You can start to hear more of the waves that he’s been talking about. And, you know, the musical footprint is really sort of a reflection of what Simon’s character would have been inspired by growing up in London in the mid-90s and also blend with Juno’s character, the type of music she would like in L.A. now, so we incorporated a lot of both sounds. We worked with some L.A. bass musicians to write the songs they write together.

MM: Talk a little more about your sound editing. For example the music, both that they play and the sounds that Theo hears in his head, the frequency itself, how challenging was it to integrate all these sounds?

KOB: We had a great sound designer, his name was Brent Kiser from Unbridled Sound and he really understood that we’re looking to tell a naturalistic story but one that as the story developed and as Hanna dives farther into Theo’s world, she’s paying attention more to what he’s hearing and seeing because they have this connection through this sort of sound space in the film. And so he took a lot of atmospheric sounds and registers and heightened it. That’s what happens with schizophrenia, that the neurons in your brain actually fire apart, so it allows for this flood of information to come in and the problem is your brain mixes it all up, so your brain is constantly trying to find orders, like what’s up and down, and hot and cold, just so you can survive… And so, what it’s trying to do, is somehow connect that truck rolling down the street with that orange lamp and somehow you create these elaborate delusions because your brain is trying to find a connection between all of these things.

What we really wanted to do is take certain sounds and really start cranking them up really high so that they would become piercing and you’d start to experience those more schizophrenic symptoms and then we took those sounds and a lot of the atmospheric music that our composer [created for the film] and blend those sounds into the score. There was a lot of back and forth on this film between the sound designer and the composer because there’d be times when we’d want to take some of the sound design and put it in the film and the composer would want to use it as part of the score and vice versa.

MM: As a first-time feature film director, how hard a sell was a story about friendship, where there’s no sex, between a record producer with schizophrenia and the woman he mentors who tries to get him help?

KOB: Pulse [Films, in L.A.] signed on right away. It’s really the music aspect of the script that’s the part of their DNA. The company got their start doing music documentaries and it’s really in line of what their movies are about. And they also wanted to bring in films that have strong social conscience messages. And this was a great crossover of that.

MM: Why did you decide to shoot with handheld cameras?

KOB: The film was very much influenced by the Czech new wave—Eastern European filmmakers that have documentary beginnings like Miloš Forman—because they were doing state films before they started doing films that had commentary on a broken system. That’s the type of thing that really fascinate me.

MM: Were you influenced by the dogma filmmakers?

KOB: No, not so much, I’m more of a formalist, I really like shot progression, but it just seemed that to have a natural feel and flow to it and to be able to catch the destabilization of that world and the whirlwind manic-ness that handheld seemed right. And while we’re doing handheld, we’re also very composed and purposeful. That was something that we’re always trying to find the happy medium in between.

MM: What was your production schedule?

KOB: We shot for 19 days in 15 locations, so we were just really taking a journey across Los Angeles and we just had to get in there and get out. Our rehearsals were hugely helpful for that.

MM: Since the film is essentially a two-hander, how did you know Simon and Juno would have such a natural chemistry and how did they bond?

KOB: Simon was attached for a bit before Juno was. And I think we just lucked out, I think it was kind of them just being the right people for those characters. We wrote two characters that would have that synergy and then we cast people that embody those qualities. For the character of Hannah, I was looking for somebody that really had a huge heart, that really led with her heart and had the capacity for helping Theo beyond what a lot of people could up with, and the same with Simon. The character of Theo had to be someone so likable, so inherently amiable that you want to keep helping him because he’s going to test and challenge and push his friends, and Simon really had that as well, in addition to all of, you know, how great of a dramatic actor I saw him, plus the way that he could really walk his line of humor and different tones of film stuff.

They came together to rehearse at my house a week and a half before shooting, and instantly we were friends and really became close and shared a lot of things. I think it was a first for a lot of us, doing this particular type of role—my first film, Simon’s first really picking a role like this, and same for Juno.

MM: What was your collaboration with your cinematographer, Arnau Valls Colomer like? Are you the kind of director who tells your cinematographer exactly where you want every shot or did you give him leeway and discuss it with him?

KOB: I’m pretty particular. I have like a 100-page leaf book… There were a lot of references [to other movies]. We talked about a lot about films that we liked and were going towards, like Cassavetes’ film, The Killing of the Chinese Bookie. We loved the gritty way he shot Los Angeles. Also Garry Winogrand, the street photographer, was a huge influence because he shot on these wider lenses to capture street photography so he could capture and focus on the fly. And he also shot a lot of skid row and Los Angeles in the 1950s, so his photography was a huge influence.

MM: Early in your career you worked with the little known film directors, the Russo brothers, who have a small indie movie out now. What did you learn working with them?

KOB: [Laughs] They were hugely influential in an important decision I was making. At the time, after I graduated from undergrad school I was out in LA and I wasn’t sure what to do because I had a writing assistant job on this TV show but I also wanted to go to film school. I asked their advice as Anthony Russo went to Columbia and I was considering it. They just told me to basically ‘bet on yourself’ because I was unhappy in the job that I was in, working for the boss that I was at that time… They encouraged me to really grow as a filmmaker and it was one of the best decisions that I’ve made.

MM: Were there any #MeToo problems you’ve faced so far in your career?

KOB: What I’ve experienced is the more insidious problem—the dismissal that happens. You could be at a party and talking to somebody and saying that you’re a filmmaker but they would talk to a guy and say come up to the office the next day, let’s talk about what you’re doing. Or if you were to send in a project, there’s just some sort of very sub-conscious bias that maybe it’s not as good or something and that’s the thing. There doesn’t have to be any dramatic kind of assault or anything but you know, it’s more damaging because it’s more prevalent. MM

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