An Interview with Upcoming Superfest Filmmaker: Michael Achtman

Enjoy this interview where Longmore Grad Assistant Alex Locust spoke with Michael Achtman, director of the film Awake, in anticipation of Superfest 2016. Awake is about the unlikely friendship that forms between two blind women: Anna, a woman living with Multiple Sclerosis is visited by Doreen, a door to door proselytizer who makes herself at home and stays the day, slowly defrosting her non-welcome. Together they walk in the park, bake a chocolate cake, and watch an Ingmar Bergman film. For more information about Michael, and his work, visit his websiteAwake screens at Superfest Sunday, October 23rd, at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in downtown San Francisco.

Watch the trailer; for audio description of the trailer, click here.  

Alex Locust: What was the inspiration for this film?

Michael Achtman: The inspiration for Awake was a 1963 film by Ingmar Bergman called Winter Light. The first time I saw it I fell asleep half way through, and went into a surreal, dreamy state. I ended up using that in the film, where Doreen and Anna are watching an audio described version of the Bergman film. Doreen says, “Is this the type of thing you usually watch?” And then in Doreen’s dream, they become the characters from the Bergman film. Bergman’s film is about a Swedish pastor who has lost his faith. I came up with the idea of a blind Jehovah’s Witness, which provided a way for two strangers to meet, one who has faith and the other who doesn’t. Faith in a larger sense, not religious but just to get through the day.

AL: Tell us more about the casting process - did you have a goal of hiring disabled actors?

MA: I know a lot of disabled actors, so basically I’m writing for and casting my friends. In addition to that, I’m very interested in the representation of disabled people on film, so it gives me a lot to work with. You create something and realise it hasn’t been done before – that’s powerful and very motivating.

AL: Describe your experience working with actors who are blind (accessibility features on set, scripts, travel, etc.)?

MA: It wasn’t that big of a deal. Scripts were provided electronically and we covered travel expenses. Margo and Alex, the actors, had support workers on set, whom they were able to pay through a UK programme called Access to Work. Otherwise, I would have had to budget for that. We filmed in Alex’s house, so she had a familiarity with the set; otherwise she would have needed time to get familiar enough with the space to make it believable that she actually lived there. The two guide dogs got along, which was lucky – they spent most of the time cramped together in a small room upstairs! If people are really wondering how to work with Deaf or disabled actors (or crew members), just ask them what they need. Sit down and have a chat before you go into production and try to envision every situation that might come up. But I would recommend doing that with every actor. You might find out someone has an invisible impairment, like dyslexia or pain issues, and that will inform your approach. A black and white image of two women sitting on a bench in a park. The woman on the left is black and wearing darker clothes, and the woman on the right is white and wearing lighter clothes. They are both blind, and have canes. Doreen, the LDS proselytizer, left, and Anna, right, sitting on a bench in a park.

AL: Some people in the community are frustrated with the lack of opportunities for disabled actors to play disabled characters in film. What advice do you have for filmmakers trying to cast disabled actors in their films?

MA: Go see their work and get to know them. It’s true, in the UK anyway – there are lots of fabulous Deaf and disabled actors who don’t get enough opportunities to stretch their muscles. When they do get cast, it’s as “the blind person” or “the wheelchair user.” Write something (or find a script) that isn’t all about their impairment – but more about character, situation and a believable world. That’s not to say you can’t deal with disability-specific issues – for example, the social service cuts in the UK are affecting disabled people’s lives hugely, and there’s lots of potential for drama there. But a film about that would need to focus on particular, well-rounded characters, who have both virtues and flaws. That said, you need to think about whether your filmmaking process is accessible. Money is such a big issue that we tend to work in trying conditions, with long days, on a set in the middle of nowhere, that doesn’t have an accessible bathroom. If you want to use an actor who has fatigue issues, for example, you’re going to have to take that into consideration when scheduling, using more shorter days, and budget for that from the start.

AL: While some of the moments in Awake are somber, there are some great comedic elements as well. Did you all have fun on set? Any stories you can share?

MA: It was a tiny crew, so we were like family, and we had a lot of fun. We shot the film in two days, so you had to either laugh or cry! There’s a moment in the film where the two women are passing a spliff – they struggle to find each other’s hands and when they finally do they break out in laughter. That was unscripted and real, and it turned out to be an important turning point in the film – it’s the first time you see Anna laugh or even smile. I was just praying that we captured that properly on film because we couldn’t have repeated it so spontaneously. Black and white image of two woman sitting at a table laughing. The woman on the left holds a small hand-rolled cigarette, and has an empty bowl in front of her. The woman on the right has a mug in front of her. In the middle of the table, between the two women, an array of prescription pill bottles and a day of the week pill organizer, with one flap open. Anna, left, and Doreen, right, in the infamous spliff scene.

AL: What audiences did you have in mind when you made this film?

MA: An intelligent, sexy audience like the one at Superfest.

AL: Can you tell us about the decision to make the film black and white?

MA: That was inspired by the Bergman film. I felt that aesthetic represented Anna’s world, and the shades of grey – well, I’m getting too arty. But it ended up having a lot of resonance because the approaches to life of the two characters are so opposite. Also, you save on colour grading! Black and white image of two women making a cake. The woman on the left holds a pan and has one finger to her lips, tasting the batter. The woman on the right holds a mixing bowl and a spoon, her mouth pursed as if she were speaking when the image was taken. Doreen, left, and Anna, right, baking a cake.

AL: What do you want audiences to leave Awake with?

MA: I hope it doesn’t sound preachy, but it’s not your circumstances, it’s your attitude. Depression is not something you can snap your fingers and make vanish, but sometimes a little human contact and compassion can turn things in another direction. In a wider sense, I think the films creates an identification with two blind women in a way that makes their lives seem ordinary. The drama is not about their impairments, it’s about the clashing of their temperaments and philosophies.

AL: What does being a part of Superfest mean to you as a filmmaker?

MA: We’re very honoured to be part of such a prestigious festival, and excited to show the film to the Bay Area audience. The Superfest mandate is sophisticated – you’ve seen the traditional representations of disability and you’re trying to show something different – and that’s exactly what the film is trying to do.

Buy your tickets to Superfest to catch Awake and more great films!