Catherine Breillat speaks fervently about color and setting in her films, and how they dictate emotion. I fully believe this.
Acute attention to color and setting is a crucial tool to draw the viewer in. A fully realized world invites an audience to engage completely actively, in the film they are watching. And not just visually—when films are too obvious, when they answer every question you have, the viewer watches passively. They turn off their brains and let the words and actions wash over them. Then they leave the theater, close their laptop, or (yuck) turn off their phone, and they’ve immediately moved on to the next thing.
But if the filmmaker invites you to ask questions, if they give you characters whose faces you read just as you would in real life, if they arrange mise-en-scene that pushes you to search the frame, then you’re thinking while you’re watching. Then you will (hopefully) leave the film with those scenes still replaying in your head. This is hard to do, and even harder still to control your audience so they are in the position to receive what you are offering.
I begin with this large preamble only to give you a sort of setting as to why, when I was making a short film with a bunch of friends about one woman’s day in Texas, I got obsessed with a glass wall.
Lucia, Before and After follows a woman who travels 200 miles from Odessa to El Paso, Texas to get an abortion. When she gets there, she finds out she must wait a state-mandated 24-hour period before she can get the procedure. With a day to spend in a city she doesn’t know, Lucia does things.
“Lucia does things” might not seem like the most compelling synopsis for a film, but that’s exactly what she does. Lucia does things that some would say were good, others would say were bad, and she might say, many years later, she barely remembers.
When I was doing research for the film in Texas with my producer, Gabrielle Nadig, we stopped in the only abortion center in El Paso. The clinic wasn’t affiliated with Planned Parenthood, which we had contacts with, so we didn’t have a meeting scheduled. There’s a whole slew of things ranging from suspicious to disrespectful for two strangers to walk into an abortion clinic demanding a tour, but I needed to get a look at the lobby.
As Gabrielle struck up a rather long conversation on STD testing (to which I commend her skillful inquisitive improvisation), I took a quick look around the place. It was empty that afternoon, which made it feel almost like a set ready to be filmed.
I was so struck by how beautiful the clinic was. It wasn’t depressing in the slightest—there were bold paintings, a small TV in the corner (I forget what was playing, but I remember it having a calming effect), and separating the reception from the waiting area was this magnificent wall.
This wall was beautiful. It was made of translucent square blocks, like the kind you’d see in Casino or Goodfellas: 1980s-chic. The sun was diffused by subtle white blinds, and the whole place looked like a cozy living room. I left and immediately drew the floor plan of the clinic from memory. I had never seen a doctor’s office like it. The wall was brilliant in its use, too—it hid the people in the waiting room from prying eyes. If you looked through it, faces were distorted in the most wonderful way.
I loved this wall. I had to have this wall. Lucky for me, our production designer, Amelia Steely, loved it, too.
That’s one thing about making movies—the best work gets done when everyone is enchanted by the same things. You can’t depend on your obsessiveness alone. A lot of other people need to board the ship with you. Amelia was as taken by these glass blocks as I was. I sent her countless images and drew too many pictures. Trust me, there is a limit to how many drawings of a single glass block one can make.
We both searched tirelessly for a location that had the same wall, but we couldn’t find anything that both looked right and allowed our DP, Charlotte Hornsby, to light it from both sides.
So, Amelia, in all her own obsessive training, decided to build this wall herself.
The actual mechanics of how she did it involved more than 100 plastic blocks, a lot of grout, and enough manpower to place each row of blocks in the exact frame for our camera, as we only had enough for the widest shot in the film.
We built the recreated abortion clinic in the basement of our Airbnb, right below where our actor, Sarah Goldberg, was staying. She woke up in the morning and went downstairs to film the emotional crux of her scenes later that day.
The departments worked closely together—art, camera, electric, and costumes, to get this shot the exact color, size, and atmosphere. All in an effort to recreate the surprising feeling of care and privacy I experienced in El Paso one summer afternoon. MM
Anu Valia is a filmmaker and the director of Lucia, Before and After, part of Refinery29’s Shatterbox Anthology series. Photos courtesy of Refinery29.