Directing team Lauren Wolkstein and Christopher Radcliff are Maryland Film Festival veterans, having shared an impressive body of short-film work (both individually and as co-directors) with Baltimore audiences dating back to 2011, when their visually stunning and note-perfect psychological thriller The Strange Ones was part of our Opening Night Shorts. Wolkstein became one of only a handful of filmmakers to present work within our Opening Night twice with 2013’s Social Butterfly, and Radcliff’s Jonathan’s Chest was a standout in MdFF 2014.
Now the duo has returned with their bold debut feature, a revelatory work that more than confirms the rich talent and strong cinematic voices on display in these shorts. The Strange Ones (the feature) assuredly reinvents and expands the narrative world of their short film of the same name. Reference points like Todd Haynes’ Poison and Lodge Kerrigan’s Clean, Shaven give you a sense of the bold vision and narrative surprises offered within; champions like John Waters naming it one of the top 10 films of 2017 further confirms this film’s aesthetic prowess.
The Strange Ones opens at the Parkway Friday, January 5, and we’re thrilled that Wolkstein and Radcliff will be with us for a special screening this Sunday, January 7, at 7:15pm, where they’ll talk about their work and answer your questions.
To whet your appetite, the directing team took some time from their busy premiere week to answer some questions for MdFF!
1)John Waters just named THE STRANGE ONES one of the top 10 films of the year for Artforum. Congratulations! Did you know that was coming, and how did you react when you heard the news?
We knew he had seen the film (at the Parkway during the Maryland FF) and liked it, but in terms of being on his top ten list we had no idea that was coming! To say we were surprised would be a huge understatement – we were really blown away when we first saw the news. He’s one of our heroes and we love and respect his work so much, so it’s incredibly meaningful for us.
2)Some readers may remember your short film THE STRANGE ONES, which screened as part of Maryland Film Festival’s Opening Night Shorts in 2011. Did you always intend to revisit and expand this material as a feature? Has your relationship to this material evolved substantially over the years between the short and feature? Were there challenges particular to keeping the material fresh and surprising for viewers who may have seen the short?
Yeah, in making the short we knew we had a larger, deeper story that we wanted to explore in the feature. The short and the feature definitely have a lot in common but I think our relationship to the material has evolved naturally over the years mainly because in order to craft the feature we really had to dive deeper and get inside it in a way that is different from the short film. The biggest challenge was really expanding on the story as much as possible while still maintaining the same tone and the kind of mysterious experience we wanted the audience to have while watching the film, which is a trickier thing to do with a longer film.
3)The atmosphere and performances in your film are incredibly assured for any film, let alone a first feature, reminding me at times of the moodier works of Gus van Sant and films rooted in troubled interior lives like Todd Haynes’ Safe. Were there any films you watched and/or discussed with your actors and/or DP as points of reference in preparing your production?
We are such huge fans of Todd Haynes and Gus van Sant’s work. We actually had our actor James Freedson-Jackson, who was 14 years old at the time of filming, watch a bunch of films that we felt accurately portrayed a mysterious and dark coming-of-age story through the perspective of a young teenager. Some of these films were Gus van Sant’s Paranoid Park, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s The Return, 400 Blows, Let the Light Right One In, and The Dardenne Brothers’ The Son. Afterwards, we were able to have a common language with James about the character he was portraying based on the understated and restrained performances of the lead actors in these films.
4)Can you speak a bit about working as a directing team? How long have you been collaborating? Are there individual areas/duties that each of you concentrate on more?
We met in film school and have been working together for about seven years. We both continue to direct solo as well, so while collaborating, when it comes to dividing up duties – we don’t. We both have strong points of view and would have a hard time not being involved in any one area, so we tackle everything together and do a lot of work to make sure we have a unified vision for what we are making.
5)Lauren, you grew up in the Baltimore/DC area. What were some of the theaters you grew up going to, or other things in the area that shaped your experience and sparked your interest in filmmaking?
I grew up in between Baltimore and DC so I would split my time, whenever I could, between AFI Silver in the DC area (where I also volunteered) and The Charles Theatre in Baltimore. I was spending so much money going to watch films in the theater, that in order to pay for my habit I took a job working in the box office of a large movie theater chain that was closer to home. To offset this, I rented several movies a week at local video stores. I am so elated that the Parkway exists because I now have even greater access to excellent year-round repertory programming whenever I’m in Baltimore.
6)You’re both veterans of the film-festival circuit with your awesome short films. Can you comment on the role festivals and the growing circuit of alternative film venues has played in your careers?
Yeah – film festivals and alternative venues really have been such a great platform for the kind of work we want to do. And they have been really essential for us in building our careers to this point. Practically speaking it’s given us a home and launching pad, but beyond that it’s just creatively and emotionally inspiring to be able to travel the circuit and meet other filmmakers, and find such enthusiastic audiences for work that is often non-mainstream, adventurous, and trying to push the medium forward in exciting ways.
See all screening times and buy tickets for The Strange Ones here.