Interview: Brett Haley, dir. THE NEW YEAR

– Despite a devastating technical malfunction that nearly upended the whole interview, I was able to speak with Mr. Haley at length about his superb debut feature, THE NEW YEAR. I want to thank Mr. Haley for his generous, time, insight, and patience.

GLENN HEATH JR.: In terms of debut films, THE NEW YEAR stands out because it avoids making a first impression through genre and sensationalism. Instead, it’s about the nuanced transition of a very special woman. Why was this theme so important to you when presenting your first film?

BRETT HALEY: I think it was really important to me to avoid narrative cliché and stereotype, so I didn’t necessarily start off avoiding genre. I just set out to tell a very specific story that I was passionate about. For whatever reason, this story about a girl who’s stuck but destined for so much more, was really important to me. Elizabeth Kennedy, my co-writer and I were just trying to be honest to that character.

GHJ: Can you talk about the genesis about coming up with the idea and writing the script and what you were trying to achieve with it as a character study?

BH: I got the idea from a train ride. I was working on THE ROAD at the time and I was on a train from New York City to Philadelphia and I saw this bowling alley out the window in the middle of nowhere. And this idea just struck me about this girl who works at a bowling alley, who works the shoes and has never bowled before and her first time she rolls a 300, a perfect game. And then I thought of the bowling center in my hometown Pensacola FL, Cordova Lanes, and I thought about shooting it at home. That brought me to the idea of a girl coming back home, and then that gave me the idea of her father having cancer. So it all hit me at once. I called Elizabeth about the idea and she started writing, she wrote the first 10 pgs, then we went back and forth like that on the whole script.

GHJ: We first meet Sunny (Trieste Kelly Dunn) when she’s in the middle of a shift at the bowling center, and even though the viewer is distanced from her we instantly get an idea of her as a person. Why introduce her in this very specific way, as opposed to using dialogue?

BH: First, it’s important that the bowling alley becomes a big character in the film and it was not only a way to introduce Sunny but also a way to introduce the world she lives in. She lives in this bowling alley to a certain extent and the place has so much character and depth in it. The snack machine that has socks instead of food, for people who forgot their socks. That kind of detail was just amazing. You can’t fake that or write it. I was in love with that place. It was important to set up that this place is where Sunny spends a lot of her time. I think it says a lot about Sunny to see the place where she’s chosen to be in, to avoid reality in a sense. We shot that scene all in one night. I basically put Trieste, who plays Sunny, behind the counter and had her work the shoes and talk to people and have her interact with people. Everything that’s happening is her reacting naturally, she’s in character and all of that stuff is essentially real. None of it was planned out or scripted. We were just capturing it from different angles and Trieste was actually living Sunny’s life for a few hours.

GHJ: Every character gets a moment to shine in THE NEW YEAR, but not always in the way we expect. Can you describe why it’s so important to you as a writer/filmmaker to give each character a unique and sometimes surprising dimension?

BH: Supporting roles in films should be just as important as the leading roles because they make a film a whole piece. I hate films that supporting characters are simply there to service the leads or the plot. That seams like a stereotypical, easy way out for these characters. I think they should be fully realized people living their lives separate from the main character. Because Sunny is in every scene of the film, I didn’t want the characters, like Bobby and Amy, who when you first see them you judge them, to come off as clichés. When you get to know them, they’re actually fully realized people. They have all of the same feelings and characteristics that the lead character has. You might not have as much time with them, but hopefully you get just as much from them during this duration. Their lives don’t begin and end with Sunny.

GHJ: There’s a brilliant scene when Amy and her husband set up the Christmas celebration for Sunny and her dad in the hospital room. The film captures them leaving just before Sunny and her Dad walk through the hospital door. They enter to find a beautiful surprise, and the look on the faces shows a range of emotions. A standard film would show that sentimental interaction between Amy/husband Sunny/Dad. Why did you choose to shoot the sequence the way you did?

BH: I think anything that can be shown and not said is crucial to a film’s success. Elizabeth and I, both when writing the script and when directing the movie, were conscious of the power of performance, that somebody’s face can say it all. We came up with the idea that we wanted to avoid that sort of sentimental scene because it’s so much more powerful to see Sunny’s Dad’s reaction. You can never ever discount the power of performance, and literally the power of a facial reaction. I think Marc Peterson, who plays Sunny’s Dad, gives this amazing moment, because there is no scene to spell it out for you. His face says it all.

GHJ: Throughout THE NEW YEAR, we get a very distinct sense of place through the really beautiful B-roll footage of Pensacola juxtaposed with the film’s theme music. How in your opinion were these moments crucial to the pacing of the film and Sunny’s evolution as a character?

BH: Pensacola is a beautiful place and it’s the spot I grew up in. I love it and think of it fondly so I wanted to show it off. I also think it’s an interesting juxtaposition to show this beautiful scenery and then to show this person who’s sort of miserable being back home and not really where they are supposed to be, even though it’s a beautiful place to live. So I think this juxtaposition says a lot about Sunny, that she’s a person who needs greater things. A beautiful place with white sand beaches and green waters is not enough to fool Sunny into settling down. She really does desire more in life, something that for her Pensacola can’t offer. I think it was really important for pacing because these moments of montage, whether it’s the city or Sunny teaching the kids how to bowl, show you more about the characters and place.

GHJ: Trieste Kelly Dunn’s performance as Sunny shows an incredible vulnerability and sensitivity to the changing tides of her life, but also a deep sense of strength and self. Can you talk a bit about the evolution of Sunny and how you and Trieste were able to create this very complex character?

BH: Essentially Elizabeth and I came up with the character together, the ins and outs. But Elizabeth really breathed life into Sunny, gave her the base character, the way she talks and thinks. I took her lead and wrote from that. It was a really collaborative effort but Elizabeth was the true creator of Sunny. Then Trieste took it to the next level. What she did that so powerful. She didn’t act it nor did she try too hard. She simply was Sunny. I think all of my actors did that. I think none of them played into cliché, or ever give you a moment where they were just “acting”. They were always just being the characters, and reacting. Which is very different from acting. I give them all the credit for that. Trieste brought an immense amount to Sunny that wasn’t on the page. That’s what a great actor does. You have to trust your actors, and that’s what I tried to do. I tried to give them as much freedom and space to work. The only credit I can take is providing a safe and creative place where they could feel comfortable to do their work.

GHJ: Your film doesn’t provide the audience with any easy answers to the conflicts and questions posed throughout the film, Why was this ambiguity so crucial to the impact of the film?

BH: It’s been talked a lot about how the film is very realistic. I read somewhere in a review that they thought it was “documentary-like” even though the style of the film isn’t a documentary. I think people find the film real and honest and I take that as a huge compliment. And I think it was something that I really wanted to get across, the reality of the film and not play into cliché or expectation, but what actually happens in life. And life is essentially a series of moments and there is no true ending. I hate movies where the ending is “she gets the guy”, and that’s supposedly the happy ending. You can end on those moments, but don’t try and convince me that it’s the moment that makes this person’s life okay, that they will be happy forever. Life is ebb and flow, throughout. I wanted to find the key moment to end this film on. And I think we chose the right one.

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