"Black Bear" is something of a Rorschach indie film, its two halves mirroring each other, demanding the viewer's own take. At the beginning of the movie from writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine, Aubrey Plaza plays a struggling indie filmmaker named Allison who has retreated an Airbnb cabin in the woods, in search of focus for her next script. What follows is not surprising in terms of indie movie plotting, but like everything in Levine's film, it must be seen to be emotionally understood: namely, that Airbnb owner Gabe (Christopher Abbott) develops a clumsy attraction to Allison, which upsets his pregnant girlfriend Blair (Sarah Gadon). The tension increases between the three of them, and it becomes exhausting, and finally, destructive. With half a movie left to go, this proves to be like a referential text for what follows.
The second half of “Black Bear” is about trying to capture the intensity of these themes, but on the film set of an indie. It’s the last day of shooting, and Plaza’s Allison is now an actor. She needs to hit emotional depths that need to come from the darkest places of a performer. Her director and husband Gabe (Christopher Abbott), has a plan to manipulate Allison to such artistic despair, involving his other star Blair (Sarah Gadon) and their suspicious chemistry. The treatment causes Allison to spiral, while trying to do her job as an actor given the pressure of delivering the film's vital, final emotional notes. Levine's movie presents a character study of an actor under the influence, and it details the many moving pieces of an indie just like "Black Bear," conveying the specific feeling of being on a fraught set like a boom operator capturing room tone.
This is a major role for Aubrey Plaza, who equally works in indies (like "Safety Not Guaranteed," or "Ingrid Goes West") or studio fare (the "Child's Play" remake), but rarely has she been given the space to display her inner dramatic force as she does here. As "Black Bear" garners its own raw energy with its mirroring approach, Plaza shows the complex psychology behind the process, and the frightening degrees of self-destruction that can go into nailing a scene. It's heartbreaking work, and it's all the more fascinating given Plaza's history of working on films just like this.
We spoke to Plaza about the abstract methods behind Allison’s madness, the catharsis that making "Black Bear" provided Plaza regarding past projects, Michael Caine’s famous advice on drunk acting and more.
Was there a difference in how you approached acting in the first half, compared to the meta second half? Did you approach it in two different ways?
I approached them both as real characters. But I would say with this film more than any other film I’ve worked on, I kind of incorporated some more abstract methods in my process than I’ve ever done before. I feel like this movie is kind of experimental in that way, so it allowed me to explore some other ways of getting into the character and performing in that way. But they were both real characters to me.
What kind of abstract methods?
I mean … I can’t give you all my secrets! [laughs] On a very, very basic level, every project that I’ve ever worked on I’ve worked with an acting coach, her name is Ivana Chubbuck. I’ve worked with her for ten years now. So I have a method of a process that I go through every time I work, but with this film I started exploring Jungian dream analyzation and creative work that’s kind of wrapped up in your dreams. Because Larry [director Lawrence Michael Levine] was inspired by a dream he had when he first wrote the script. When I read it, I sometimes describe it as “two nightmares interwoven in one mega nightmare.” I thought it would be interesting to go into my unconscious mind and my dreams and explore in that way, and see what I could bring to the film.
It sounds like it was a pretty big learning experience. Was there a lot you learned about acting because of “Black Bear,” even with all you knew before?
I think so—the preparation process that I go through is very effective to me, but I do think you get to a certain point sometimes where you go, “Well, is this the only way? Are there other ways?” And when you’re comfortable doing it your way, it’s hard to get out of that and go, “No, I’m going to try something new,” especially if you don’t know if it’s going to work. I think that if anything, it was encouraging for me to know that I took a risk to incorporate new things into my process, and that it paid off, and it really helped. I don’t know if I’d ever do it again, but just the fact that I don’t have to do what I think I have to do every time is encouraging.
The movie also brings to mind the act of directors directing actors. How do you like to be directed? How do you feel best guided?
Well, I love being directed. I’m definitely not one of those actors that wants to be left alone, and not directed. It’s such a collaboration for me, and I want to be directed in creative ways. I don’t want to be told to give any end result, I want to be asked questions, I want to be inspired by my director. And I want to feel safe, I want to feel like they really got me. Then I can really be vulnerable and expose myself. But if I feel … I’m a very sensitive person, so I feel if I’m not in good hands or I don’t respect the person I’m working with, it’s not going to go down well.
How did Larry make you feel safe in this production?
Well, I respect Larry. That’s one thing about Larry and me, and I think that when I got to know him before he wrote the script, I recognized that I really connected with his approach to filmmaking, and I think he has incredible taste. And I believe in him as a filmmaker, and I always have. That’s a good starting place. I felt like I was in good hands, and I think that Larry is a sensitive guy, and an actor as well. He doesn’t deal with stress very well, whatever. One thing I will say about him is that he doesn’t compromise, and so I think the safety for me was really about knowing deep down inside was knowing that Larry wouldn’t compromise. Even if it was painful what we were doing, and what he was putting me through, I knew that deep down it was worth it. And I wouldn’t put up with it any other way.
I actually talked to the boom guy who worked on the film, Stephen Harrod, who I know from college. I asked him what his experience was because it’s such a meta movie, and he said it felt like "a social experiment or a mirror world to the process." Did it feel like that to you?
Totally, the lines of reality were very blurry for me, and continued to get blurrier as we went on. Was Steve on camera? I know Shannon O’Neill was the boom op.
We threw so many of the other crew members in the background, so maybe he was even in a lunch scene … they could have been in the lunch scene! But yeah, it was an experiment, it felt honestly like there were times where we were shooting a student film, at NYU or something. It reminded me of that feeling, where it’s scrappy and messy and we’re all just fighting to get through it. The overlap of the crew and the actors and how messy that got, it definitely felt bizarre and sometimes scary. Sometimes uncomfortable. And weird, because we were all in the middle of nowhere, confined in this small space, and I was probably in an incredibly vulnerable place. I didn’t even know who was an actor and who was not anymore. It was all just real.
Does that keep you on your toes more than a normal set, because you’re in such a blended reality? Do you have to have the actor brain on even more?
Um … kind of. Personally, I think I always am having my actor brain, regardless of how small or big the set is. But I think that every single thing about that set was inspiring to me, and was helpful for me. I think that it allowed me to fully let go in a way; I wasn’t really dealing with the outside world at all, and it allowed me to slowly immerse myself in the character and in the story, which was awesome. And painful. But really helpful.
How does working in a film about an indie film bring up sense memories to other films you have made? Or other film sets?
I have been on so many indie sets now, and—I’ve seen it all, I’ve seen too much, I’ve seen it all go wrong, I’ve seen it all go right! There’s so many things like that, I feel like this movie is such a gift for people that went to film school or work on independent films. And specifically improvised movies, because I’ve been in some, as they call them, “mumblecore” movies, or whatever you want to call them. I think that this movie is almost like a deconstruction of that kind of process, and I’ve been in that process in very unhealthy ways, and really insane ways. This movie almost felt like a catharsis for me, and it felt very much like taking all of these unresolved things that have happened and infusing them into this story. And hopefully saying goodbye to them forever.
What kind of unresolved things?
I think for me, I tend to value the artistic process and the work over my personal well-being and mental health. And physical health, sometimes. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot of things about that, and I think that this movie asks the question like, “Is it worth it? At what lengths do we need to go to create art? At the end of the day, what’s really important?” I think there’s a lot of things like that were brought up for me in the process.
That’s interesting because it’s reminding me of one standout part of your performance—her impulsive drinking. It’s like, Oh my god. Allison is drinking so much. It’s tragic. How did the bottle that Allison clings to influence your physicality, or how you approached her on set?
It’s funny, the amount of alcohol that she consumes is almost so ridiculous [laughs]. In fact, when I was in the editing room, I remember saying to Larry like, “Alright, that’s a little … I’ve just taken five swigs of whiskey in one shot. I’d be dead. I’d be dead on the ground if I drank that much.” But I think that the alcohol became a window through which she could unravel. Physically that was probably also the hardest part of the shoot for me. The amount of hours that I had to be acting wasted was so many hours, and all night shoots. My body was just breaking down, because I was constantly physicalizing this inebriation, just flinging my body like no sense left. I would go to my hotel room and just be covered in bruises and be like, “Oh, I’m just hurting myself.” So, it was pretty gnarly.
There’s that sense in "Black Bear" that your character is so repressed but she can only let things out in select moments, usually when the camera is running. Being in a movie that includes that, and is about that, what do you feel an actor needs to get those emotional bursts?
You mean like, what skills an actor needs?
Yeah, like what kind of homework.
Oh. Well! [laughs] Life experience, that’s one thing. I mean, I can conjure up lots of memories of being incredibly, unhealthily inebriated and intoxicated. I’m not proud of that, but I know what that feels like. And more than anything, I think for this movie in particular, it felt to me like the alcohol was this kind of acting out response to this situation with her husband. It became a symbol of her being like, “F**k you, I’m not going to listen to you anymore.” And I think we don’t really talk about, Is she an alcoholic? What’s going on with her drinking in the movie? But I of course had my own narrative about it, and in my mind it’s like, he thinks that she has a drinking problem, and she’s told her multiple times to not drink. It’s this rebellious act, I think, that just gets to a point of total self-destruction. Do I know what that feels like? Yes I do. If you don’t know what it feels like, I don’t know! I’m sure you could still act. You could always follow Michael Caine advice of, actors that play drunk the good ones know that when you’re drunk you don’t want actors to know how drunk you are, so you don’t play drunk, you pretend that you’re not drunk. This is not a good example of that. Because everyone knew I was drunk! From the minute I showed up on set. But Michael Caine. What an icon!
And also, I will say, and this is something that’s really dear to me. The first time I ever talked about this with an actor was with Anton Yelchin, when we shot a movie in Vancouver. He was doing a scene where he had to be drunk. And he was so worked up about it, and he wanted to nail it. And we watched “Under the Volcano,” and it’s one of the best drunk performances in the history of cinema. And we watched it together in our hotel. And I remember thinking like, "Oh yeah, you can watch incredible performances about this."
Were there any performances then, that you watched or thought about before you made “Black Bear”?
Honestly, I thought a lot about Gena Rowlands. I thought a lot about “Opening Night” and “A Woman Under the Influence.” And Chris Abbott and I talked a lot about those movies, too. There’s something so real about those performances, and there’s a lot of connections we were making between the director and the actor, the cinema verité style. Those were two movies that I definitely thought about.
"Black Bear" will be available in select theaters and on VOD on December 4.