Amber Tamblyn’s atmospheric directorial debut, “Paint It Black,” can be traced back to Amy Poehler.
“Amy Poehler had given me the book maybe 10 years ago, just as a friend, and said, ‘You should just read this, it’s amazing.’ And I did, and I was so blown away,” Tamblyn says, describing Janet Fitch’s novel about two women navigating grief. “The way [Fitch] can write the way [the women] felt and the way they think, I said, ‘Man, I want to make a movie that shows that. And I’m not sure I’ll be able to do it, but I want to make something that can show the way women feel, as opposed to saying the way women feel.'”
Tamblyn originally wrote the screenplay for herself to star as Josie, the young punky girlfriend of a man who commits suicide. After deciding that she had aged out of the role, Tamblyn decided to direct the project instead. She cast Janet McTeer as Meredith, the man’s bourgeoisie, stately mother, while the role of Josie ultimately went to Alia Shawkat.
“I saw [McTeer and Shawkat] side by side and I went, ‘OK, I have a film, and I have the film that’s in my head — it’s official,'” Tamblyn recalls of the two women’s onscreen chemistry. “Alia surpassed any idea of what I thought someone could do with the role, myself included,” she continues. “She just really has such a kinetic energy that comes across the screen. I could just watch her shop at a grocery store and watch her look at different brands of tomato soup. That’s how interesting she is to me.”
Tamblyn describes the film’s aesthetic as “if David Lynch directed ‘Grey Gardens,'” and the visually driven film incorporates elements of surrealism with dark neon tonal qualities; grief is rendered at times as a disjointed, psychedelic haze. Tamblyn points to “Birdman” and “Persona” as films that have directly influenced her stylistic approach; “The Hunger” and “The Witches” influenced the film’s tonal approach. “I really like directors who have a very extreme specific style,” she adds, referencing the unique worlds created by Lynch, Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson. While Tamblyn didn’t set out to direct “Paint It Black,” she hopes to combine directing and acting for future projects
“I think coming from a poet background — I’ve been a writer and a poet for a very long time — I understand a lot of emotion, and a lot of moments in the film could be conveyed without directly conveying them, without being so straightforward,” she explains of her directorial approach, likening the surrealistic moments in the film to “palette cleansers” for the heavier, more narrative-driven scenes.
McTeer’s character channels her grief through manipulation toward her son’s girlfriend, and while she doesn’t come across as the most likable character, Tamblyn notes that she treated the pain of both characters with equal empathy.
“People experience grief in very different ways, and they can be self-destructive, they can lash out at other people, and I wanted to show both of those things in this film,” she says. “I think one of the hardest things for women in general is to explain how they feel, and explain how they feel to men, and they always get caught up in their thoughts and trying to express what that feels like. I wanted the movie to reflect the confusion the anger, the violence, the rage, the fire, the depression — I wanted it to be multifaceted emotionally,” she continues. “My hope is that people see that no matter how awful people are in a state of grief, it’s usually merited.”