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Being Human Is Heroic: Melora Walters on Waterlily Jaguar, Drowning, Magnolia and More

“Now that I’ve met you, would you object to never seeing me again?” This heartbreaking line, lifted from Aimee Mann’s song, “Deathly,” is delivered by Claudia Wilson Gator (Melora Walters) to her date, officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly), in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 masterpiece, “Magnolia.” The molestation Claudia endured at the hands of her father, Jimmy (Philip Baker Hall), has led her to feel unworthy of love, while using drugs to quell her pain. As a freshman in high school, “Magnolia” was the film that opened the floodgates for me to the limitless possibilities of cinema, and it was also one of the first movies my girlfriend and I chose to watch during the initial weeks of this year’s ongoing COVID-19 lockdown. Just over two decades since its December 8th premiere, Anderson’s achingly personal epic is timelier than ever, as its ensemble of alienated characters suddenly find themselves intrinsically connected once a sudden and bizarre act of nature upends their sense of normalcy. As they sing the lyrics to another hypnotic Mann tune, they realize that the anguish caused by their destructive patterns will not stop until they “wise up.”

Walters has appeared in many pictures that I’ve cherished throughout my life, from “Beethoven” and “Ed Wood” to “Short Term 12” and “The Lovers” (where she unforgettably hisses at her character’s romantic rival, played by Debra Winger). Yet it is her collaborations with Anderson—“Hard Eight,” “Boogie Nights” and especially “Magnolia”—that have become the most vividly etched in the memories of countless cinephiles. As evidenced by her first two feature efforts as writer/director, Walters’ ability to portray the struggle of individuals whose trauma continuously displaces their mind from the present moment is just as remarkable behind the camera as it is in front of it. “Waterlily Jaguar” and “Drowning,” both of which premiered online and are available to stream on sites such as Prime Video, affirm the filmmaker’s gift for eliciting fierce and richly textured work from her actors. Executive produced by Anderson, “Waterlily Jaguar” centers on a popular novelist, Bob (James Le Gros), whose obsession with the prehistoric La Brea Woman threatens to sever his connection from the world inhabited by his wife, Helen (Mira Sorvino).

Walters’ second directorial feature, “Drowning,” speaks uncannily to mankind’s currently heightened preoccupation with mortality, and was inspired by her own experience of watching her son being deployed to war. She is flat-out riveting as Rose, the mother of an enlisted soldier, who finds it increasingly difficult to go about her day-to-day existence without becoming paralyzed by anxiety. “I’m not the only one,” Rose reflects in voice-over. “There are millions of fathers and mothers of soldiers all over the world…waiting. We gave birth to something that has suffered and could die. We try to hold them from far away, try to send love, send prayers, send anger so they don’t die in fear, but we have no control.” A day before this year’s socially distanced Thanksgiving—which Walters prefers to dub National Indigenous Awareness Day—she and I spoke via Zoom about her new films, collaborating with Anderson, her role in Hulu’s uproarious “Pen15” series and the inherently heroic nature of being human.

It’s a rare privilege to talk to someone whose performance is the heart of a film I consider among my all-time favorites, and that is certainly true of “Magnolia.” How did you approach portraying an abuse survivor and addict in a way that subverts caricature at every turn?

For me, as an actress, it’s very important with any character I play to make her as human as possible, and to access anything I have within me, even if it’s archetypal, which we’ve shared since the times of our ancestors. My job as an actress is to make someone human, not to “act.” Paul Thomas Anderson is a genius, and when I read his script, I decided to just give him everything.

I know people who have battled addiction and survived, as well as people who have killed themselves. At that point, Philip Seymour Hoffman was very much alive, but I knew people before that who had a similar fate. I grew up in many different places, and I’ve seen people at their high points and low points. People may suffer over something that would make you and I scratch our heads, but you’re not a bad person if it eats you alive. If you research trauma from a Jungian psychological point of view, there is an inevitable emptiness within damaged individuals that was never nurtured or helped. These people have a constant need for something that they can’t believe in, even if it presented itself, as it does in the form of John C. Reilly’s character, although Claudia does go for it in the end. 

There’s a constant voice in your head telling you, “I don’t deserve this.” Jung talks about addiction in terms of a need for spiritual connection, but again, I feel that is very simply a need to feel that you’re connected, you’re loved and you’re nurtured. In her book, The Cat: A Tale of Feminine Redemption, Marie-Louise von Franz writes of how people who at a very early age lose their mother—it’s normally the mother, but it could be a father—often have an emptiness within them as a result of this loss. It’s very hard to operate in the world when nothing feels safe. I think that’s essentially what happened to Claudia. 

When I made “Boogie Nights,” the other actors and I were invited onto actual sets to see what the world of the film we were portraying was like, but I didn’t want to go. In the case of preparing for “Magnolia,” I know people who were addicts, but I didn’t want to go up to them and ask, “What’s your story?”, while watching their behavior and trying to emulate it. I wanted to get to the core, which I think is unconscious, and that oddly sets the real tone for this desperate isolation and alienation that cannot be filled.

Knowing people who have endured abuse, I have found myself in the position of John C. Reilly’s character, attempting to care for someone who isn’t ready for that connection.

Yeah, you can’t function normally because everything is heightened. Everything feels like a life-or-death situation, which can also be a result of post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s not a joke. Any minute, you feel as if a sniper shot or a bomb could go off. How do you make everything okay when that’s what you know? I think what was so beautiful about Claudia, which Paul added in, was that she is oddly aware of this, when she screams at her father, “You think I’m a whore? I hate you!” There’s a part of her brain that knows, and then there’s that switch-off between the brain and the inherent feeling that this man is never going to love me.

I wrote a paper in college analyzing the aesthetics of that scene between Claudia and her father. The sunshine spilling onto him from your character’s bedroom window almost resembles an interrogation light.

Yes. There’s no resolution there. Later on, when he sees the picture of me as a little girl and his wife—my mother—confronts him, he’s like, “I can’t remember.” Though it really does help when people actually say, “I’m sorry,” it’s heartbreaking because even if he were to apologize, the damage and the scar tissue cannot be taken away. Psychologically, you cannot remove the fact that someone who was supposed to take care of you wrecked you.

Speaking of heightened, the film’s operatic nature is beautifully expressed in your coffee scene with the officer, where the brewing tension is accentuated by the “Habanera” from Bizet’s “Carmen.”

Though the opera wasn’t playing when we were filming, I do remember thinking as Claudia during that scene, ‘What am I supposed to do that’s normal here because nothing is normal?’ Life during the time of the coronavirus is a heightened state, and I think we’re all seeing that nothing is normal, nothing is safe. The possibility of death is too close, which is also what my character senses in “Drowning”. It is very hard to live a normal life with death sitting next to you. We all know that it’s going to be there in our future, but it’s difficult to function normally when that fact is constantly preoccupying our minds. 

It’s the awareness that anything you hold onto in life is intangible, which is philosophically a reality. Heraclitus talks about that when he says, “No man steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” If you really choose to believe that, I think it could shatter you. When someone’s senses are so heightened and their emotions are too on the surface, that’s how it feels.

Just like the assassination in “Nashville” and the earthquake in “Short Cuts,” the rain of frogs in “Magnolia” illuminates our interconnectedness by disrupting the routines of our lives, just as COVID-19 has for the entire human race. 

Exactly. In the case of the virus, you are told what to do. You wear a mask, clean your hands, take a shower when you go home or you gargle with salt water. There are a few factual websites that are documenting the spread of the virus on a daily basis, and I’ve found myself keeping track of the numbers. Newscasters can say whatever they want, but a number is inarguable, as is an increase or decrease. This virus has been like a boulder. It’s just going down the hill taking everything out, but that’s the essence of nature. There’s no emotion involved. A hurricane isn’t like, ‘Hooray! I just knocked out New Orleans!’ It’s just a hurricane. The fires in California have no emotional attachment to what they’re destroying. That’s very frightening. The frogs raining from the sky at the end of “Magnolia” very much elicit that feeling of incredulity we’ve been living with this year. 

(Above) Valeria Ciangottini in Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita.” Courtesy of The Criterion Collection. (Below) Melora Walters in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia.” Courtesy of New Line Cinema.

The final shot holding on your face as you look at the viewer and smile has a mystery to it that is evocative of the girl (Valeria Ciangottini) turning toward the camera at the end of Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita.”

Oh, I love the end of “La Dolce Vita”! Paul wrote in the script that Claudia looks at the camera and smiles at the end. For me, that was the most difficult scene, because how do you go from abject hopelessness to hope? But I really think the underlying theme of Paul’s films, which is so beautiful, is love. There’s the notion that each moment of love provides a possibility of hope. Even in “There Will Be Blood,” after Daniel Plainview has “drank the milkshake,” and says, “I’m finished!”, there’s something so beautiful about him sitting there in the midst of destruction. He realizes that he can’t get more in blood than he is now, and to me, he has a moment of acceptance. Maybe there’s hope for him, now that he’s finally woken up. Of course, Daniel Day-Lewis can do no wrong, so that combination of him and Paul is the very definition of pure magic. 

Throughout all of your experiences as an actor, beginning with your screen debut in Peter Weir’s “Dead Poets Society,” was directing always something you wanted to explore?

I went to Pratt [Institute] in New York, and to get out of doing homework in a class, the teacher gave me an option to turn a story—a bullshit story that I made up on the spot, because I hadn’t done my homework—into a performance. He said if I did that, I’d never have to do work again. The performance featured three characters and I built the sets and masks for it. I directed my boyfriend at the time, David Brunn Perry, who is a writer interested in cyclists, and our neighbor, Adam Fuss, who is a photographer from England, and they are great guys. However, we were all very young, and they wouldn’t do what I said, so I got really mad at them. We had been reading about how Stanislavski would create an atmosphere and feeling and emotion through how you pose someone, and I had been really moved by films and ballet throughout my life. I had wanted to be a dancer, so I was very particular in how I wanted to direct these two guys, and they kept refusing to do what I was telling them to do, while smoking pot and getting high.

One of their characters was supposed to be a symbolic representation of god and was wearing a bird mask. I told him, “You’re going to come in and say this as you walk to the stage,” and he literally said to me, “Well, I don’t think my character would do that.” That’s a classic response in the acting world, but for me, as an art student, I thought, ‘That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. I wrote it, I created it, I designed it—you say what I want you to say.’ I think I ended up throwing a chair at him and screaming at him and telling him that I didn’t care how he felt, that he had to say what I said or I would beat him up. [laughs] I became violent, and he was like, “Fine, Jesus, calm down, I’ll do it. You don’t have to be so crazy!” I remember, at that moment, I thought, ‘I never want to work with an actor. I hate acting, and directing is the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do.’ I ended up acting in my own piece because no one else would perform it, and at that point, I didn’t want to deal with another person.  

I think I even told Paul that this experience informed me that when I decided to become an actor, I should really do whatever the director wants, even if I feel it’s wrong. As I told you earlier, my job is to make the character real, while the director/creator is like the puppet master in the ballet “Patrushka,” who sees everything. He’s seeing things in a dimension that I can’t see, so ultimately, I defer to the director. I’ve ended up making them benevolent father or mother figures, which doesn’t always work. They are not always right, but in the end, it is their creation, and you want to give to it depending on their vision. Mira Sorvino and her husband, Chris Backus, are in all my projects, and they are the ones who said to me that I should make my own films. 

About ten years ago, I was attending various screenings of films by Ingmar Bergman, John Cassavetes and Federico Fellini, who is my favorite, at the LA County Museum of Art. They also had an Antonioni retrospective in 2005, which the director himself attended. I was so inspired by how real their films felt, and how often they would use the same people, that Mira and Chris were like, “If you write it, we can do this!” They encouraged me, and so when it came time for casting, I obviously only want to work with them all the time. [laughs] I also knew that you only want to work with people who are not only interested in working with you, but are committed, especially when you have no time or money, which was true of the pieces I’ve directed. There is no room for discussion, so you really want to work with people who are all on the same page with you and are very collaborative.

The Muse from Lexicon on Vimeo.

What do you like specifically about Mira as an actor?

Mira is one of those actors who really transforms. She is this stunning goddess—she’s tall, she’s beautiful, she’s got this insane education—and she’s been changing the world. From fighting to end sex trafficking and pass sexual assault laws to her prominent role in the #MeToo movement, I don’t think people are aware of how active she is in making the world a better place. I have a document listing her achievements from when she asked me to present her with an award from the Creative Coalition. She has given me a lot of hope and inspiration, even in how her family is so important to her. What I really love about Mira is that when we work together, we both tell each other the truth. We discuss the pieces and she knows I’ll rewrite and adjust for her. I know that she sees the whole piece, and wants to make it better, so it is truly collaborative, and because of her stature in the industry, I am so lucky to have someone like her believing in me.

The first time I got to direct her and watch her come to life as an actress was during my first directorial effort, “The Muse,” in 2016. It’s just fifteen minutes and I have a feature script for it that I’d love to shoot someday. As an actress, once you have rehearsed and gone through the lighting and sound check, and you’re getting ready to do the first take, there’s an energy you feel when everything shuts down. It’s gotta be super-quiet. Then, the director says, “Action!”, and between ‘action’ and ‘cut,’ it’s as though time stops. It’s pure magic. Peter Weir taught me this. He was like, “When we’re filming, it’s yours. I didn’t cast you to play a character. I cast you because you are more intriguing than anything I could write. Fill the screen, be who you are, breathe and don’t stop until I say ‘cut.’ If you’ve finished your lines, it doesn’t matter. Be you.” 

To be behind the camera and feel that energy was incredible. When the DP says “set,” that’s when you say “action.” On “The Muse,” the editor was sitting behind me and he was like, “Say action,” and I told him, “I can’t.” He asked, “Why not?”, and I said, “Look at the actors. It’s like watching the ultimate racehorse. You see everything right before the gate lifts and once they start acting, you’re like, ‘Who are these people?’” I know in the old days, actors or performers couldn’t be buried in Southern graveyards because people thought they had sold their soul to the devil at the crossroads. When actors perform, they are not themselves, which can seem supernatural at times. Watching actors from my perch as their director, I couldn’t believe what they could do, and afterwards, people were like, “You’re an actor, what are you talking about?” But the experience is different from when I am just acting. To see your best friend who you love more than anything transform into this whole other being made me stand back and go, “How did she do that?”

Was it an interesting balance to undergo that transformation yourself while simultaneously directing in the case of “Drowning”?

It was an interesting balance. Again, I relied very heavily on how I cast. I know how to just step in and be there because I’ve worked on so many different kinds of films. I know when there is no time. The DP of “Drowning,” Chris Soos, went over and over the look and the language of the film with me, so we were in sync. There was no time to watch playback, so I just had to trust that everything was captured. I told my editor, Alexis Evelyn, “Since I’m carrying the film, you’ve gotta protect me. Nobody wants to watch someone who really looks bad, so you’ve gotta keep an eye on me in terms of that because I have no time for it, and there’s no playback. I’m just going to have to trust that after we have developed this language, you understand exactly what I want.” I did watch playback sometimes, just because of setup, but it was very rare. I just knew what I wanted, in part due to the fact that when I write, I’m seeing it. We shot “Drowning” in nine days, so it was a complete immersion. There was no time to think or second guess. You just had to dive in and swim.

While both of your feature directorial efforts are riveting, I found the searing pain of “Waterlily Jaguar” more challenging to embrace. What interests you in exploring certain forms of obsession that prevent us from being present in our own lives? 

Well, I feel that “The Muse,” “Waterlily Jaguar” and “Drowning”—which I call my Los Angeles trilogy—reflect my interest in the psychology of being human. I am very interested in what makes us tick. Why does one person feel very good about themselves and successful, while another person can achieve the same things and feel like a failure? It’s a constant struggle. Humans suffer so much, and as in the work of Bergman and Fellini, my films have an odd humor. Life has to have that because, as Schopenhauer says, “Existence has no real value in itself.” Relationships and the inner life of humans are what interest me. 

For example, I have two other scripts that I’m trying to get made. I was asked by James Sikura, who was head of development for The Robert Evans Company, to write a script about W.C. Fields. We all know who W.C. Fields is, but he and Alan Selka gave me books to read in which I discovered that he died in a sanatorium in Pasadena, only a couple years after making major hits as a film star, following all his success in vaudeville. I call the film, “W.C. Fields: A Malaise in Three Acts,” and it’s similar to William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying in how it’s about a man in the dry-out tank at a sanatorium, going over his past because he knows he is dying. I became intrigued with this man who suffered horribly as a child. He was on his own at a very young age. His dad beat him and he ran away. His first and only wife—although he was with other women—really gave him his education and taught him how to read Shakespeare. Who knew that about W.C. Fields? He also drank, which ties into the recurring themes of obsession and addiction. 

Life is hard, and the curse of being an artist is that you feel everything. The blessing, ideally, is that you can take that pain and create with it. My other script is called “Esperanza,” and it’s about an older man and his atonement for his past. “Esperanza” means hope, and there is hope in that he is now really living and trying to atone during the time of Covid in a desolate section of a town. Obviously I would love Plan B or A24 to help me with these because I would like the time to really give to the actors. I had more time with “Waterlily Jaguar” than I did on “Drowning.” James Le Gros is a highly trained actor and he had beautiful chemistry with Mira. I criticize everything I do, so I wonder if my mistake with that film is the edit may be too long.

It appropriately lacks the sense of catharsis I felt with your other feature, which may make it seem longer, though not in a negative way. I was struck by how “Waterlily Jaguar” finds the main character walking into the ocean, while “Drowning” is about a woman literally trying to keep her head above water. 

Yes! You go in it and you’re like, “Fuck! This is what I’ve brought myself to now. How am I going to get out of it?” With “Waterlily Jaguar,” I wanted to capture what happens when someone is in darkness. If they are not willing to try getting out of it, or if they really feel they can’t, this is what leads to suicide. They alienate everyone. In “Drowning,” at least Rose is trying. She’s flailing, but she’s also asking for help. After she learns to swim, she’s like, “So what? Is that going to save me?” But there’s hope at the end when she realizes that everybody is just trying, and everybody is suffering. You don’t know everyone’s story. It’s like that “White Stripes” song that goes, “Every single one’s got a story to tell…From the Queen of England to the hounds of hell,” or the first sentence in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

For “Waterlily Jaguar,” I really wanted to capture how awful it is when someone is in that downward spiral. That film was made after Philip Seymour Hoffman died. I knew him since my time in New York, and his last three performances, which he delivered as he was going down the drain, are beyond brilliant genius precisely because he was walking the line with death. You want to go, “Was it really worth it?” But then, having lost other friends who aren’t famous, when they are in that state, you can’t pull them back, as is illustrated by the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. You can go there, but you can’t pull them back.

I also noticed a considerable amount of water-related imagery among the wonderful artwork featured on your site, such as the portraits of mermaids.

I’ve always lived relatively near water. The story was that when my mother was about ready to give birth to me, they were on a boat and it capsized. There she was in the water with me, and everybody was like, “It’s going to be a water baby,” whatever that meant. [laughs] I know that according to psychologists Marie-Louise von Franz and Carl Jung, water is generally considered the unconscious, and that’s what I’m interested in. I want to explore what makes us who we are. I have a series of paintings on my art website called The Ocean. I didn’t start that until maybe three months after I shot “Waterlily Jaguar,” because I had this crazy dream which ended with me in the middle of the ocean at night. I woke up and thought, ‘I have to paint this,’ and I painted over almost half of my work with the ocean. 

As for the mermaid portraits, I’m very interested in mythology, so Joseph Campbell was a huge influence on me starting when I was young. Because I grew up in so many different cultures, I was told all the fairy tales grounded in the ancestral cultural heritage of the various places I’ve lived. Anytime that I go to a new location, I want to know the story of who was there originally. Greek mythology sets the stage for Western culture, but there are a few myths or gods and goddesses that have no resolution, and I have struggled with that. Sedna is a goddess of the ocean, and she gives birth to everything. From her comes all ocean life which feeds the Inuit and all the indigenous tribes in the Pacific Northwest, but she suffers and her story lacks a resolution. Often with my films, my writing and my paintings, I find that they have no resolution, and I’ve discussed this with Mira. The W.C. Fields and Esperanza scripts have atonement and hope at the end. There is a resolution, an acceptance and a love of life itself, which is also present in “Drowning.” But that’s not always the case.

In a “Magnolia”-esque coincidence, I realized that the first five times we see Rose listening to her car radio in “Drowning,” she’s hearing my cousin, Jeremy Scahill, in conversation with Amy Goodman on “Democracy Now.”

No kidding! I told the producers I didn’t want Rose listening to anything, but they told me I couldn’t have that. I said, “You’ll never get permission from these people,” and they said they would, while insisting, “You have to allow the audience to hear what’s going on in her head.” And I was like, “No! I want the audience to feel the nothingness.” But I realized after “Waterlily Jaguar” that it’s too much sometimes, like at the end of Bergman’s “Through the Glass Darkly.” It’s one of my favorite films, but I realize that for normal people, it’s too much. I wanted the radio show to not only stoke Rose’s fears, but also feature real people talking about issues like drone bombings and cover-ups. Then we added in the sounds of war footage from WWII.

Rose’s final monologue applies to what all of us are feeling now in the era of COVID-19, where we are constantly faced with the challenge of remaining present in our lives.

Right. We’re also realizing that at this point, regardless of whoever you want to consider the enemy, each person—parents and loved ones alike—is dealing with this random loss which connects us again as humans.

Melora Walters in “Drowning.” Photo by Christopher Soos. © 2020 Drowning Film Production Inc.

There are echoes of Cassavetes in the loose, unconventional approach to character interactions in the film, such as how we see Rose and her husband, Frank (Gil Bellows), play-acting a fight before having a real one.

Cassavetes’ visual approach often consisted of him taking the camera and filming while standing on a sofa, so you can see it moving. “A Woman Under the Influence” is so real that you’re not even sure whether some of it is scripted. That was one of the Cassavetes films I watched again before I made “Drowning,” and I was struck by how Peter Falk’s character beats his wife when he says, “Come back to yourself! I want you back as yourself!” I don’t think we’d be allowed to do that now. If I made a film like that, I would be criticized. However, bringing up the virus again, domestic violence, drug abuse, alcohol abuse and suicide are currently skyrocketing, and I think it’s because of the fact—which Cassavetes shows—that day-to-day life is hard. 

In his film “Husbands,” you see these guys go off on their own, and they all kind of lose it for a minute. For a little while, it’s fun in that they don’t have to answer to anyone. Like Dionysus, they can drink and do whatever, but afterwards, they’re faced with the question of how to come back to reality. The one guy stays behind, while the other two return to their normal lives. They simultaneously get out of taxis, walk to the front door and act like nothing happened when they say, “Honey, I’m home.” I think that captures some aspect of being human that we may not want to talk about. 

That shadow side of ourselves is also glimpsed in “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie,” and what’s amazing about that film is how real it is in portraying the connections between people and how one mistake can upend all of it. Cassavetes doesn’t shy away from these things and he’s not apologetic about it. There’s no judgement or censoring in how he shoots a scene. He’s just concerned with showing what it means to be human, which was beautifully articulated by Joseph Campbell when he spoke of our need to “feel the rapture of being alive.” I really feel that being human is, in itself, heroic. To live a full life, just as a human, is heroic because it takes so much effort.

That observation resonates deeply with me, especially in light of how my mom has Multiple Sclerosis and my dad has been her primary caregiver ever since his retirement five years ago.

It’s heroic. Living a life is a hero’s journey. You don’t have to become President of the United States—of course, what we’re watching right now in Washington D.C. is absurdity on the order of Jean Genet. You knew your mom when you were a little kid, and now with her MS, she’s in this other world. It’s mythic, and I think it’s really important to honor that. I suppose that also is what interests me about James Le Gros’ journey in “Waterlily Jaguar.” That is a hero’s journey too.

It’s heroic how Bob frees his wife from the burden of his downward spiral. 

He doesn’t want to hurt her anymore, and he’s seen her suffering. She takes the pain and puts it in her paintings to illustrate how he makes her feel. I thought about what would’ve happened if he said, “Alright, let’s go to marriage counseling.” [laughs] That would be an option, but that’s not what I wanted to explore. I wanted to show someone who cannot continue moving forward. I recently rewatched “The Deer Hunter, which is such a mythic film. You see all the surviving characters eating and drinking together at the end, but during the second act, they are exposed to primal fear. John Savage goes one way, Christopher Walken goes another way and Robert De Niro goes another. Christopher Walken is engulfed by the horror and he cannot get out of it anymore. It has taken over. I sobbed when I watched that part where it’s clear that he cannot go back.

Melora Walters in “Drowning.” Photo by Christopher Soos. © 2020 Drowning Film Production Inc.

In “Drowning,” cinematographer Christopher Soos creates an atmosphere of disconnect during the break-up scene between Rose and Frank, where she is facing a light and he is left in shadow.

Chris Soos happens to be a genius. For every film I do from now on, I only want him to shoot it. As in the Dogme 95 films like “The Celebration,” we used very little added lighting. Wherever we could use natural lighting, we would, and we wanted it as minimal as possible, so it is almost staged like theatre. Gil comes in from the darkness, and I think there was just one light source on that.

They each appear to be in separate worlds in that moment, and it’s all the more powerful when kept in a medium wide shot. 

That was a decision given the time restrictions, but I also didn’t want to shoot in the standard way of getting the wide, the medium close-up, the other close-up and then cut back and forth between them. I was like, “Just fill the space and let it happen. We’ll get coverage later.”

Orson Welles would often opt to take the risk of shooting in a master rather than rely on conventional coverage.

Right. In “Waterlily Jaguar,” when Dominic Monaghan comes in to try and talk sense into James Le Gros’ character, we shot that in one take. That was a lot of pages, and I wanted it just like that. I called it “the chess game scene,” a la “The Seventh Seal,” but the problem is that there is this thing called distribution. The film needs to make money and you’ve gotta be aware of your audience. People are used to seeing the back and forth, but I prefer the unconventional approach. What if the camera depicted your own viewpoint as you watched your parents? You’d see the whole interaction. Your mom might say something and you might turn to your dad to see how he reacts, but what really is holding your attention is this relationship. I wouldn’t want to cut away from it. 

Your directorial efforts don’t feel compromised in that they resemble a raw expression from your soul.

Well, I am often asked to compromise, and I don’t—and then I wonder why I have to be so stubborn. [laughs] My initial reaction tends to be, “No!” And then I’ll think about it and go, “Okay, let’s try it.” So I think with filmmaking, because there are so many logistics involved, there has to be an element of compromise. You show up on a set, and it’s raining. Or there’s no power, so you go shoot outside. Or someone is not going to make it because they are stuck in traffic. That’s not their fault, but what can you shoot now that could be added? Compromise sounds like you have a vision and then you are giving it away. I love collaboration, where we figure out how to make it work together. 

Has this experience in directing in any way altered how you approach work as an actor?

I think that on the acting side, I’ll be sitting and waiting while listening to everyone discuss, and then the temptation is to be like, “Hey, what if you move the camera and shoot this scene like that?” But it’s not my place. I have said things like that, and sometimes it’s okay, and most of the time, it’s not, so I try to be really quiet. [laughs] Other times, I do like to observe how other filmmakers handle certain things in ways I wouldn’t have considered. 

Do you feel the #MeToo movement has given actors more of an agency to speak up, especially in instances of abuse?

I would hope that. I have not experienced it myself, but I would hope that is the case. I would hope that anyone who’s been horribly taken advantage of has been given the courage by this movement to know that abuse is not okay. Even as a kid, I’ve always stood up for myself, and in elementary school, when kids were bullied, I would defend them. I’ve been lucky enough to feel like I’ve handled myself and am fine in saying what I have to say, but to hear these stories of horrible abuse is so saddening. I don’t want anyone to have to suffer.

Melora Walters in “Drowning.” Photo by Christopher Soos. © 2020 Drowning Film Production Inc.

What films do you consider gifts that keep on giving?

Well, “The Deer Hunter” had a huge impact on me when I was younger. You brought up “La Dolce Vita,” which is one of my favorite films. I also love Fellini’s “Nights of Cabiria” and Cassavetes’ “A Woman Under the Influence.” I really liked Antonioni’s work before he came to America. There is one picture he made called “Il Grido” that had a big influence on me. There is no resolution in that film. “The Swimmer” has an element of that as well. When I watch a film like “Il Grido,” I am just taken with how we think we’re modern, but the filmmakers back then were way ahead of us. The cinematography in 1932’s “Vampyr” is modern art. There’s something about black and white film that is so lush.

Would you ever consider making a film in black and white?

Yes, I have, and then I’m always like, “What if we shot it on 16mm?” I have a Covid film that I wrote starting in April. It features a series of miserable relationships and shows how they intertwine. I came up with this crazy idea of how we could shoot it on film, and that’s when I am inevitably asked, “Where’s the money, Melora?” I don’t know! [laughs]

It’s interesting to see you exploring the culture of LA in your trilogy, which feels as personal as Paul Thomas Anderson’s own work.

It’s really interesting because I didn’t grow up here. I grew up in Saudi Arabia and Holland. I went to boarding school at Lake Forest Academy, north of Chicago, and I love the Art Institute. I worked on the farm of my grandparents—a German-Catholic immigrant family—in northwest Arkansas, which is a part of America that is a ghost town now. Then I went to Pratt in New York. Europe has always felt like home to me because that was the heart of where I grew up. In America, I felt New York was home because I lived there the longest, though now that might be LA. I came out to California, and I had my kids here. I thought I should give them consistency because I didn’t have it—of course, the joke is they are now on the East Coast, and I’m here. I moved this past summer, during all of this craziness, and everybody was like, “We thought you were going to go to Europe.” I mean, I have an American citizenship and there’s the virus, so I can’t. I’m closest to Mira and her family here, but I don’t know if I want to stay in LA.

When I started writing and directing my own films, I wanted to write about what I’ve experienced here because I don’t always love it. I saw it as an opportunity to take these experiences and really examine them. Los Angeles does not have the beauty or the history or the architecture of Chicago or New York. It has the Chumash and other native inhabitants of the Channel Islands, all the indigenous people who we should be honoring today and every day, but we don’t. The missions are beautiful, but the Native Americans were eviscerated, so I wanted to really explore this ugliness. I call it “seeing the beauty in the ugliness,” which is a theme of my trilogy. As soon as I’ve found someone to finance the feature version of “The Muse,” and I’ve made it, then I can leave. [laughs] 

The La Brea Woman actually existed, and the indigenous woman I got to play her—Jessica Ceballos y Campbell—has a grandmother who was from the Channel Islands, so she might actually be related to the original La Brea Woman. She hadn’t been to the La Brea Tar Pits, so I took her, and that was a gift for me. In “Waterlily Jaguar,” I made a point of detailing how the La Brea Woman is 9,000 years old. She is the only human skeleton found in the La Brea Tar Pits, and human sacrifice was ruled out because there was only one. If they were going to be making offerings to calm the gods of the Tar Pits, more bodies would’ve been found. She’s literally a 9,000-year-old murder victim. And if you go to the La Brea Tar Pits, you walk around the grounds that are adjacent to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and bubbles are erupting, so they have to put fences around them. My joke is that Los Angeles is going to get swallowed by the La Brea Tar Pits. But I think because I started writing about Los Angeles while based in Los Angeles, it allowed me to see the beauty in it.

There is this sense of the ancient world intervening into our own, which makes Bob unable to live in the here and now.

As a writer, he is always in fantasy, whereas I wanted Rose in “Drowning” to be a very, very normal woman in Los Angeles, which means you drive all the time. You’re like a hamster in a wheel going nowhere, listening to the same thing over and over. What I noticed when I first came to Los Angeles is as much as you’re with people, your car is a bubble.

I must also mention that “Pen15,” in which you play Anna Konkle’s mother, brilliantly portrays how ostracized one can feel in junior high by casting adult women as adolescents.

The script for the pilot was offered to me, and I read it and was like, “Oh yeah, I wanna play an inappropriate mom who feels no guilt,” though that changes in the second season. I just wanted to work with these two amazing women, Anna and Maya [Erskine]. There are certain comedians, like Jay Mohr, who have a language and a rhythm. It’s a movement, a dance—and it’s something that I don’t really understand. Watching Jay perform is like watching Maya and Anna onset. While Anna and I were doing ADR, I said to her, “You know, you’re so brilliant, it’s kinda frightening.”

In light of how Maya is acting opposite her own real-life mother, how did you go about developing such an authentic mother-daughter dynamic with Anna? 

Well, I have a daughter who is 23 and a son who is 24, so there are plenty of times I’ll read the script and be like, “Okay, I kinda remember that—I don’t want to remember that, but I do.” They wrote the character and then they kind of let me go off with her, but since the part is very much based on Anna’s own mother, there were times she would tell me what her mother would do or say, and then I’d try that. But other times, I’d be the one asking if I could try certain things, and they’d let me go for it.

I am a very instinctual, primal mother, which drives my kids crazy. I’ll just turn into a ferocious mountain lion and be like, “I don’t understand! This is wrong! How can you let him treat you like that?” And they’re like, “Mom, calm down!” You have to let them live their own life, but then part of me just wants to roar. [laughs] There’s an unconditional love one has for their kids, and though my character on “Pen15” is slightly out of her mind, she inherently loves her daughter. 

We had this one scene where we were all having a big argument, and Anna was like, “This is really important. I want people to see what the mother-daughter relationship is really like, where we’re yelling at each other.” I remember that when my daughter was a certain age, someone had told me, “You’re supposed to say, ‘I love you, but I don’t like you.’ I don’t like how you’re behaving right now, you’re not acting like yourself, but I want you to know that I love you.” And I’m like, “What?” [laughs]

I recently analyzed “The Master” in a virtual film class, and I like how your presence is felt in that picture, even though you remain offscreen.

Paul asked me to sing a version of “A-Tisket-A-Tasket,” and I never say no to Paul. [laughs] “Melora?” “Yes, I’ll do it!” “I haven’t asked you yet.” “That’s okay—yes!” That’s how I feel. I think that film is an incredible journey. I know he has all these references that he drew upon, but in the end, where Joaquin Phoenix’s character is with that woman, all you see is this young man searching for love and acceptance who will do anything to have it.

His character is also reaching out for a connection while literally trying not to get submerged in the process. 

Yeah, I think it is just an incredible film. It’s a “master”-piece.

Sometimes the most intuitive works of filmmaking resonate the strongest, and that is what the nine-day shoot for “Drowning” illustrates so indelibly.

I think so. I think when you don’t have enough time to analyze and over-analyze and question, sometimes that’s where the magic happens, even as an actor or a painter. Precisely when you say the line wrong or you think you’ve made a mistake, that’s actually the magic in the scene.

“Drowning” is currently available to stream on Prime Video, YouTube, Google Play and Vudu. “Waterlily Jaguar” is also streaming on Prime Video, YouTube, Google Play and Tubi. To view Melora Walters’ artwork, visit her official site.

Header image caption: Melora Walters in “Drowning.” Photo by Christopher Soos. © 2020 Drowning Film Production Inc.

Matt Fagerholm

Matt Fagerholm is the Literary Editor at and is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association. 

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