Joanna Arnow The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed

Sean Baker is telling Joanna Arnow how her film The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed feels like a real labor of love. A series of droll and sometimes profound vignettes, it follows Ann, played by Arnow, as she goes from workplace disappointments to BDSM encounters to talks with her parents. 

“It feels special when you know that the filmmaker poured their heart into it,” says Baker. “Most films are being made as calling cards to get a Marvel film or to get a series—”

Arnow, laughing, cuts him off: “Oh,” she says. “This is a calling card for a Marvel film.” 

It’s not. But the line is a typical Joanna Arnow joke: succinct, dry, absurd. It acknowledges reality by denying reality. 

Baker, best known for tightly budgeted masterpieces including Tangerine, The Florida Project and Red Rocket, makes films in which potentially dire circumstances coexist with moments of rippling comic truth. He signed on as an executive producer of Arnow’s feature in part because of his own experience in micro-budget filmmaking, going back to his 2000 debut, Four Letter Words

Arnow first gained attention for the shorts “Bad at Dancing,” which won the Berlinale Silver Bear in 2015, and 2019’s “Laying Out,” as well as for the 2013 feature documentary I hate myself :), all of which deal with complicated entanglements.

She made films while working corporate jobs that weren’t the best outlets for her imagination: The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed, which she wrote, directed and produced, perfectly captures the crushing sense of being in a job too long, while longing to do something else. 

The film’s long title captures the alternating currents of hopelessness and hope. 

“It felt right for a film reflecting on patterns and the way time goes by in our lives. And it’s kind of humorously angsty — a little bit making fun of itself,” Arnow explains. “You can’t take it that seriously, because it’s so long, and we all kind of get tired of typing it out.”

People have been be typing it out a lot, lately. The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody, for example, has called it “a deceptively plain masterpiece,” in one of the film’s many strong reviews. The film, which premiered last year at the Cannes Film Festival in the Directors Fortnight section, is now playing in New York City, and opens in Los Angeles Friday.

In our winter issue, we listened in as Baker and Arnow discussed the film. —M.M.

Sean Baker: Joanna, it’s great to be speaking with you. The term “autofiction” has been thrown around a little bit with this film. I was just wondering if autofiction is a term that you apply to your work and this film in particular? 

Joanna Arnow:Yeah, I have been calling this film autofiction. Because while it’s not a film that’s autobiographical, it does draw on personal experience. I guess I like doing that — to mine specifics and vulnerability for humor, and really try to push further with that and create a story that I hope that other people can connect to. 

And there’s definitely elements of it, like casting myself as a version of myself and my parents and friends to play versions of themselves. I hoped that would lend to the film’s authenticity. I did go to Wesleyan, I was a “Clinical E-Learning Media Specialist” — it’s on my LinkedIn. I hope things like that are true and specific make it more universal in some way. 

Sean Baker: In terms of the BDSM stuff, I’m not going to ask how much you’re involved in that world, but I do want to know about how you approached it. Was it important to you to represent it a certain way?

Joanna Arnow. Photo by Victoria Stevens

Joanna Arnow:I feel like there’s a lot of misconceptions about BDSM and being submissive and the ways that it’s depicted. And it was really important to me to show Ann as an active participant in the planning of the sessions to counter that, and kind of show the conversation and agency in everything that goes into these meetings. 

And yeah, in my experience, people involved in BDSM have to be triply communicative and respectful, and I wanted the film to reflect that. Often you see these shiny, glossy depictions of BDSM in movies, these sensationalized things with handcuffs. I feel like the conversation around it, and the vulnerability of the way bodies move in space, and trying new things — these were a way I was more interested in exploring this subject, as something that’s true to life. In BDSM and also in everything else in the film — the in-between space.

Sean Baker:I appreciate that you brought humor into it, too. As you just said, it’s sometimes shiny, sometimes exoticized or glamorized. You bring it down to the ground level, approaching it with humor. I think it really allows an audience that’s not familiar with it to not be scared by it. 

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So — the vignette style, which I really love. Instead of the normal Screenplay 101 approach where every scene has to be driving the plot forward, yours is more like these one-off vignettes that ultimately add up to this wonderful whole. So I was just wondering if you could talk about your approach to the vignette style of screenwriting, and also how it visually works into your filmmaking style.

Joanna Arnow:I was interested in using these very short scenes and structuring the film elliptically to give an impressionistic sense of the protagonist’s experience. And a lot of it had to do with the experience of time in her life. Sometimes things can slip by very quickly and sometimes they kind of stagnate and you go through a slower period. It all kind of depends on what’s going on in your life. So I kind of wanted the typography of the film with its five different sections to reflect that. And to show that variation of experience.

Sean Baker:That leads to your editing, which I’m so impressed with. Being an EP, being a little involved, I got to see different cuts of the film. What I thought was so impressive was your command of knowing what would work with an audience. Because to tell you the truth, being a little on the outside, I was wondering about how it would play with an audience. And then getting to see it with the AFI audience proved to me that you are exactly right in determining pace and determining where jokes would land and how engaged the audience would be. 

Sean Baker. Courtesy of Fusion Entertainment

Joanna Arnow:We did about eight test screenings that were really helpful, just to get a sense of where people were laughing and what they weren’t laughing at. Just from a comedy standpoint, I really liked those. Just like any other editor, I watch and try to edit in real time to get the pacing. Especially the first two sections — they’re such a mix of scenes that in a lot of ways, the rhythm is what’s driving forward the narrative and creating tension. 

Sometimes I really wanted to emphasize a certain juxtaposition, and sound was a big part of it, too — having certain sections where the audio contrasts between the scenes, and some where it all just felt like a kind of smooth easing from one scene to the next. 

Sean Baker:How did you determine the test audience? 

Joanna Arnow:I was a careful curator of the screenings. I wanted to find some people who I didn’t know and who weren’t familiar with my work. I’d always add non-filmmakers, but then also some filmmakers who I did know, so I could kind of assess their comments based on how they had given feedback on previous work. … I just wanted to get all the perspectives. We even took it to a class at one point, a college class. You and [producers] Pierce Varous and Graham Swon were all very involved and watched a lot of cuts. You were great creative partners in it.

Sean Baker: I was just trying to perhaps help you with some streamlining. But I always find it so dangerous to ask other filmmakers to give their comments or to help with an edit or to even be a test audience because it’s like bringing in a whole other vision. I’m so adverse — I’m so scared of test audiences. I don’t want to show anybody but like my three people in my small circle. 

Besides patterns, can you talk about other themes you were tackling with this film? Sometimes I don’t like to think of my films as tackling an issue. … I often try to think of my films as themes that I’m tackling. 

Joanna Arnow:I think of it as a film examining how the entirety of our experience informs who we are, and how we’re all more than one person. In conventional storytelling, in order to have the character clearly arrive at point B from point A, they have to be very consistent within themselves the whole time. So you can clearly chart that path.

But I kind of feel like it’s more like a wave-particle theory. People are kind of existing on different levels. It’s a fuller, more complex picture that I was hoping to kind of examine. [Laughs.] If I may say so.

Sean Baker:Definitely. I read an article recently, you probably saw it, that said Gen Zers don’t want to see sexuality depicted on the screen. I don’t know whether that’s true. What do you think of sex being depicted in cinema, whether it’s necessary or not, and whether or not you appreciate its depiction? Because I certainly do, and I’m getting worried Gen Z doesn’t want to see this kind of work.

Joanna Arnow with her real-life parents, and actors, Barbara Weiserbs and David Arnow. Photo by Esy Casey

Joanna Arnow:I certainly appreciate the depiction of sex on screen. I feel like films are about showing humanity in all of its forms and especially sides of it we don’t normally get to see. And I feel like sexuality is an important part of experience. So to say that we shouldn’t see that seems crazy to me. And of course sex scenes should always be filmed in a respectful and safe and consensual environment. But I don’t see any reason that they can’t get to that condition. 

Sean Baker:Well, that leads to me asking you about you as a director and actor, and how you managed to balance the roles of actor and director. 

Joanna Arnow:Well, I had acted in my previous shorts. So that was helpful. But I often just get a sense of my own performance while being in the scene. Of course it’s not as great as being on monitor, but you get a sense, nonetheless. And I watch back one to two takes per scene, usually. Usually after the third or fourth take when we’re warmed up a little bit, but there’s still time to change and do it again after getting some notes. 

And I always had a friend on set who was my acting coach — [filmmakers] Hye Yun Park and Esy Casey. They were really wonderful and would reflect my performance back to me and answer questions about it, and had rehearsed with me and knew what I was going for. And could generally just be people to go to throughout the process. We also rehearsed a lot, as much as we could. 

The other actors were very generous —  we rehearsed a lot with Babak Tafti and Scott Cohen and Alysia Reiner and my parents. I also took some time to Skype with some of the other actors — just getting to know each other a little bit without the chaos of being on set was helpful.

Sean Baker: Can I ask about just some film geeky stuff? What are some of your favorite films and who are your influences? 

Joanna Arnow:  I always say Tsai Ming-liang is kind of a reference for my work — the way his kind of minimalist style lets people experience his off-kilter cinematic universes and their absurd situations. His Vive L’Amour is a favorite of mine. And I started watching Aki Kaurismäki films after I wrote the script. I enjoyed their kind of deadpan humor.

Sean Baker:Do you like working in the independent film world? 

Joanna Arnow:Yeah! [Laughs.] How so?

Sean Baker: Because it can be a grind. … It can be a long road. 

Joanna Arnow:I don’t think I have it in me to make another film quite as small as this one. It took a lot of favors and eight years to make and a year of begging everyone I know for locations. I’m just really grateful to the producers, the crew, the cast, everyone who made such a small film like this possible. But it doesn’t feel like it’s sustainable to do for film after film. And so yeah, I’m hoping to keep making independent films — hoping to do them more at the level that you do.

The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed is now in theaters, from Magnolia Pictures.

Main image: The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed actors Babak Tafti and Joanna Arnow. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.