Shannon Plumb has shot over 200 short films, which have been exhibited in museums, galleries, and on international screens. She started by shooting herself as various characters, acting out three-minute situations using humor and silence as her vehicles for storytelling. In 2013, her first feature film, Towheads, premiered at MoMA as part of New Directors / New Films. You can see her short films at shannonplumb.com and Towheads is available on Netflix and iTunes. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, director Derek Cianfrance, and their two sons.
Liv and I have a few things in common. We both have two children. We have both accused our husbands of wanting us to be housewives. We both think our husbands exist in a big world and we live in a small world. We have both put on a fancy gown to go to Cannes. We both know Ryan Gosling. We both pick up the camera every so often. We both love our husbands. But they are both “successful” directors.
It’s not easy to make a movie. It’s not easy staying home.
At the start of My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, Alejandro Jodorowsky does a Tarot reading for Refn. He flips a card that shows a woman helper. “You are the helper. You have to help him,” he says to Liv. It’s as if she stepped out of the deck of cards, a golden-haired woman kneeling with what looks like a pair of tube socks, and filled the role of the Helper.
As wives of directors, we have to adapt to the director’s world. Desperate to make our own work, but committed to keeping a family, we often feed our desires when it’s convenient for everyone else. Our worlds are cupcakes compared to the triple-layer mousse cakes of our husbands. A moviemaker needs time. A lot of it. A year or two or three. The shooting is the most intense. This is when we, as partners, put ourselves aside if we can.
We want to make more than beds and dinner, so we learn to find time within their time. We burrow a space that we can create in. When Derek was shooting Place Beyond the Pines, I was desperate to write a movie. The only time for writing was at night, when the kids were in bed. After reading The Berenstain Bears and the Big Road Race, I would go into another room and write a page at a time. I wrote what I had access to, I wrote what I was learning the most. Motherhood. I used our house and kids and Derek. The scenes with only myself we shot while the kids were at school. When they came home, we’d shoot their story. When Derek was done editing, I put him in the movie. Liv picked up the camera during the preproduction and shooting of Refn’s most recent feature, Only God Forgives. The whole family moved to Bangkok for six months. She filmed what was around her too. She filmed the world she knew the most about — a world that had been created by her husband. The big world of Nicolas Winding Refn.
But aside from all that inequality, making a movie is hard. Like giving birth to Godzilla. It’s hungry, ruthless, huge and unpredictable. It has teeth that rip into everyone’s lives. Watching Liv documenting Nicolas’ process, I was able to make comparisons with the process in our own home. How similar it all is. I nodded, often agreeing with Liv, “I say that.” But I also looked at Derek and said, “You’ve said that.” Making a movie is extremely humbling. It’s an exercise for a new enlightenment. You are a king for six months. You are a fool for six months. You are great. You suck. You make more decisions in one movie than some people make in a lifetime. You are a leader in a great battle. You are defeated at every turn. You bring your family with you on this quest. Hopefully they ground you and offer asylum. They can free the director from his/her doubts about the work. They can free him from himself. Like when Refn’s daughter reminds him, “It’s only a movie.”
There can be nothing as important as the movie when you are directing. That’s why your partner is a crucial Helper. The children need reminding that they are always number one even when it seems another priority exists. The Helper has to hold the family together while Daddy stops Godzilla from eating everyone alive.
What a great world it would be if we could all live off the thing we love to do. Some of us try. When Jodorowsky says to Liv, “A part of what he is doing now is for you. For the child, for you, for the family. To pay for the apartment. He does that. It’s a part of why he’s changing.” Now the world is put on the husband’s shoulders. He is in a position to do what he loves to do the most but he must also provide for the family. He must be “successful” or the children will not eat. He must be “successful” so the roof doesn’t cave in. He must “succeed” in the American sense of the word. “But I didn’t ask for it. It’s himself,” Liv responds.
“It’s responsibility. That’s life,” Jodorowsky says.
When the big money, the big trucks and the craft services come into play, somehow the pleasure of filmmaking gets lost. I love the free crackers but… Hollywood wants you to be Commercial. Once the director makes a commercial film, he becomes “successful.” He will probably make another film. But, he has to make another one that sells more tickets. As a “successful” director, every film can be your last. Because Refn feels this need to maintain success, the pleasure he once had in filmmaking is replaced by anxiety and fear. You start to realize you could lose everything. Including the dream that came true — that dream to make movies until you die. Be careful what you dream. Yes, maybe it is life, but take away the pleasure and really there is no success. Take away the pleasure and you take away original filmmaking and unique ideas. This is what Jodorowsky understands most.
These directors are special. For a few hours at a time, people live in the worlds they create. Worlds made of angles and emotion, perspectives and character, light and color. They can speak a language every culture understands. They have unexplained perseverance. They endure sleepless nights and sore hearts. They wear Halloween smiles over pumpkin frowns. They march through present times adapting and fighting to tell stories in new ways. Maybe it’s time to support the unicorns instead of hacking off their horns. It’s time to embrace the Uncommon and start taking risks. Maybe success in America isn’t everything we think it is. Maybe being commercial is not success. But someone has to enable the unicorn to survive. Most Hollywood companies aren’t ready for a horse with a twisted horn.
I have trouble moving too far away from Liv, though. Because she does have a voice in this documentary. There is something she’s observing out loud. A reason she made the title My Life Directed by….
At the end of the documentary, Jodorowsky says the only way she could do her own work is by divorcing Refn. Where is the relay race, Jodorowsky? Can’t there be a baton toss? Refn to Corfixen, Corfixen to Refn. And together they win the race? Derek and I switched roles when I received the money to make Towheads. He got himself home in time to cook meals while I edited. He understood when I had to take calls during dinner. He recognized the distance in my eyes at night when shooting was done. He didn’t like being second to the movie but he understood and knew it was temporary. And when I finished my first feature, I had walked some miles in Derek’s shoes. I now understood putting a project first and he understood the feeling of being last.
Refn says at the end they are ready for new adventures. Isn’t the next adventure one that Liv could lead? Maybe this movie is the beginning of a new adventure? One directed by Liv Corfixen?