Director Joe Swanberg is a master at getting naturalistic performances from his actors. He did it in Nights and Weekends, he did it in Drinking Buddies, and he does it again in his latest film, All the Light in the Sky. With a cast led by Jane Adams and Sophia Takal, All the Light in the Sky is a portrait of two women at different points in their parallel lives.
Officially, this is the synopsis: The film follows a middling actress named Marie (Adams) who's struggling both professionally, with finding her next gig, and personally, with her stagnant dating life. When she's not calling her agent about auditions, she spends her days researching roles and surfing with her best friend Rusty (Larry Fessenden), a ladies man who could seemingly fit easily into the role of her boyfriend. All of this unravels when her niece Faye (Takal), who also aspires to achieve showbiz success, comes to stay at her Malibu home for a weekend.
Complex got a chance to speak to Adams and Takal about signing up for the project, how autobiographical the film is for them, and how this is not a movie you've seen before.
Interview by Tara Aquino (@t_akino)
How did you both get involved in the film?
Jane Adams: This is a film that Joe and I first thought about making in July of 2008. We just kept figuring out how we were going to do it and then talk about the ideas in it. We decided we were going to shoot it and he came out in December. We checked the tide and saw that it would be low. Joe showed up, just walked into my apartment with Sofia Takal and Lindsay Burge, which was great.
Sophia Takal: I met Joe through my roommate, at the time, Kate Sheil, who was also in Silver Bullets with me. I had acted with Joe a couple times, also in 2011. He called me up and asked if I would this movie with Jane as the lead and I actually quit another movie so I could do it.
Adams: Yeah? I’m just finding that out right now!
Takal: Yeah! I e-mailed the director I was working with and I said, “This is an actress that I love. I have to do this.” Then I showed up at Jane’s house.
Adams: I knew nothing about what was going on. That’s how much I trust him. I mean, I knew someone would be playing my niece. I knew he was picking somebody. I had nothing to say about the casting. When I saw Sofia, I thought, “Oh my god, how perfect.”
What made you say that?
Adams: Her whole vibe. She’s a great lady.
Joe Swanberg likes to work with the same cast and crew, and both of you are a part of that. What’s that like?
Adams: I just think that we’re all like-minded people.
Takal: One of the many reasons I think Joe is able to get great performances out of people is because there’s a rapport developed with people over and over again, as opposed to you showing up to set one day and having to do a scene with a person you’ve never met before. Finding people who are creative, who take risks— it’s really interesting to be directed by those people. It makes the process enjoyable.
Going into the film, where was your head at? I know Swanberg likes to work off an outline rather than a script.
Adams: This time was little bit different. He worked with an outline but this time he and I both had a lot to say about the scenes we were shooting. Each day I was coming up with scenes that I felt needed to be shot that weren't in the outline. When I had worked with Joe before, I was just saying, “What do you want me to do next?”
Takal: I noticed also that there was a lot more structure. It felt even more collaborative than usual in a way. It felt like everyone was invested in the story and exploring the characters and the issues that movie was trying to raise.
Was this before or after Drinking Buddies?
Adams: This was before. Drinking Buddies was not even a twinkle in his eye yet. We made this movie and then Drinking Buddies after.
Takal: He made this movie at sort of the end of this crazy prolific period where he was just making tons of movies.
Adams: This was the last one of that era.
Takal: I really think the reason this was different was because of Jane. Jane really pushed everyone to try harder. Not that Joe doesn’t try hard or that we don’t try hard, but there was this sense of a presence of someone really, really special and the story we were telling felt very unique and special. It felt like it needed to be told, so everyone seemed to push themselves a little harder.
How long did the shoot take?
Adams: I know it was only six or seven days in December, but we added a few more days in January and February. A total of 12 days, I think.
Because it’s mostly improv, do you ever feel vulnerable revealing yourself through the characters?
Adams: No. [Laughs.] I feel more vulnerable in real life than at work.
Joe [Swanberg] and I both agreed that we didn’t want to make the movie you always see, which is the older woman jealous of the younger woman. —Jane Adams
Takal: I felt really vulnerable. I was in my head the whole time.
Adams: It worked. I thought you were just playing a part.
Takal: I was way more nervous than usual. [Laughs.]
Are you worried that people might confuse this movie as a kind of documentary about your life?
Adams: No, not really. This is what people don’t understand. If the story was about a solar engineer, it would take as much of my real life to act that part. All I knew was, “Well this time I’m playing an actress.” It doesn’t feel like me because there’s so much about me that’s not in the movie. [Laughs.]
Is what both your characters are going through reminiscent of what actors go through in real life?
Takal: Yeah, the scene that I have with Ti West [Ed. note: West's character, a director, makes a pass at Faye.] strikes me as something very realistic that you go through as an actress, especially with directors or people who can get you a part.
Adams: Ti is good in the movie isn’t he?
Adams: With my character, there’s more that’s based on what women I know that’ve gone through than what you might think. It’s like that thing where you steal from your friends experiences and you throw it in, but it wasn’t mine.
About Ti West—what’s going through your character’s mind when he comes onto her?
Takal: When you’re in a relationship, but also trying to establish yourself in any career, you can start to feel conflicted about—and this is something Jane and I talked about—how you know you’re a young woman and you can use your sexuality to get things. I think you can start to feel really confused what those boundaries are. She’s confused. She’s thinking she can sleep with a guy to get a part and help her career, but she’s in a committed relationship. At times you might feel trapped by being in a relationship and not being able to use your sexuality, but you’re not so desperate that you’re throwing yourself at people. She’s just confused and wants two different things.
Adams: It’s anyone in any career. It’s men, too. Guys say they have a girlfriend or that they’re engaged but can think the same towards female executives.
What does Rusty represent to Marie?
Adams: I love the name Rusty, first of all. I love that we had the balls to name a character Rusty. I never thought about it in terms of what he represents. It’s more like Joe and I knew we wanted a character who was a middle-aged guy who, for all intents and purposes, could be a partner for this woman, but was dating young women.
One of my favorite scenes is the scene where Sophia and I are talking about how when men look at women, it’s biology. They’re not doing something wrong. It’s just that nature sets it up that way. Men are able to reproduce for a longer period, so of course they’re attracted to women with, you know, eggs. [Laughs.]
I’m sure you’ve heard in your life older women who, for some reason, are angry or upset about that. I always want to say, “What are you upset about? It’s natural.” They’re not doing that out of rudeness. It’s what they’re set up to do. They make choices based on that reality. So Rusty is the friend that Marie has to accept that kind of reality of limitations.
Does Marie feel threatened at all by Faye?
Adams: No, but you just asked a core question actually that no one had asked us before. I wish Joe was here, because when we first started talking about this one of the things we agreed on was that we didn’t want to make the movie you always see, which is the older woman jealous of the younger woman. I said to Joe that that wasn’t my experience. My experience is I’m just very aware that I wish they believed me when I say you could do whatever you want. You’re really powerful right now. You’re at a really powerful time in your life. Please just do whatever you want to do because it’s not forever. But a 70-year-old woman would say that to me now. The key is realizing that.
Sophia, did you feel like you were telling that story?
Takal: Yeah, I felt really supported.
Adams: That’s one of the main reasons we made the movie. Did you feel like you were watching women that were supporting each other?
Well, I was expecting it to turn in a certain way, but it doesn’t.
Adams: I just got the chills right now because that is the reason we made that movie. That you could you have that experience of watching that and thinking it’ll turn into what you’ve seen before but it doesn’t. I’m thrilled. Quite seriously, I am so happy right now.
It was upsetting to me that when I was young, in every movie I saw that involved a younger woman and an older woman there was this horrible dynamic. Also, often in life it’s like that, that women don’t support each other. You see a lot of fingers pointed at men saying, “Well, men don’t treat us—” No actually, women are harder on other women than men. But seriously, thanks for asking that, because I actually forgot it. [Laughs.]