Closing out the calendar year, writer-director (and ShanghaiPRIDE Film Fest co-founder) Matthew Baren returns to the screen with his latest short, The Driver.
The film follows an unnamed woman (played by Lilian Shen) who sets out one night from her home in the city on an erratic and ill-fated journey to the seaside—one in which she engages in a series of violent confrontations with the people she encounters along the way. In the process, the film also questions its characters’ sense of safety, desire, truth, and purpose in life.
Now, if any of that sounds even vaguely familiar it could be because the film was loosely inspired by UK author Muriel Spark’s 1970 novella The Driver’s Seat and as the director explains, his immediate attraction to the story stemmed as much from its deceptive qualities as from its charm.
“It’s a beguiling and batshit mental story with this beautifully crafted character at the center of it,” says Baren.
Despite writing a screenplay adaptation of the story way back in 2009, the project sat largely untouched until earlier this year when a real-world encounter proved to be the creative catalyst Baren needed to get it off the ground.
“Meeting the right actor [Lilian Shen] really made a difference,” he recalls. “I could see her very clearly in this part and she brought a lot to the role in terms of developing the main character. I think we helped each other to understand her better.”
I liked the idea of having a female lead who is so completely in control of chaos.
As with the original text, The Driver isn’t an easy film to dissect and at times it comes together like a series of fractured pieces that don’t quite properly fit. However, if nothing else, this only serves to demonstrate how the work seems to live up to its director’s intentions.
“I’m very attracted to characters and situations which behave and happen with no seemingly logical motive,” Baren states. “And, I liked the idea of having a female lead who is so completely in control of chaos.”
And, with much of the backstory and motivation for the characters—especially Shen’s—intentionally obscured and never fully explained, Baren was also left with some interesting—if not unconventional—choices when it came to working with the actors on the project.
“Some of the cast developed a background to their character, but we tried to discuss that very minimally,” he explains. “Sexuality and gender play an important role in the way the characters interact though and we were always quite clear on those points.”
Like much of Baren’s other work—most notably his 2012 feature Exquisite Corpse—The Driver weighs heavily on the subject of dying and death and the filmmaker admits it’s a topic he’s spent a fair amount of time considering.
“I think on the one hand because I haven’t experienced death first hand, I think about it a lot. But, also because it’s not something which is that openly explored in many modern cultures… I think we like to pretend it doesn’t happen.”
Further contributing to the film’s raw sense of realism, Baren relies extensively on the use of handheld camera work to get the job done. As he points out, this approach also brought with it certain practical benefits.
“I like handheld because it means I can get closer to the actors,” he says. “I try to keep set up time minimal, so they can get to where they need to be and stay in that zone. It’s quiet on set if it needs to be, we keep rolling and I can just whisper notes to them between takes.”
A lighter-weight approach also meant the cast and crew could react quickly to their shooting environment when the situation required them to do so.
“The beach scene was supposed to be mounted, but the sun came up and the tide came in so fast that there wasn’t time, so we just ran. I was sat barefoot in the wet sand with a stabilizer, the actors got soaked. It worked though, that scene looks great. I lost my shoes to the sea, but it looks great.”
In addition to his work as a director, Baren has also been active promoting events in the independent film scene—especially where those events have overlapped with the local LGBTQ community. Moreover, his work in the community has allowed him to tap into a larger network of potential collaborators.
“China has a large network of queer people exploring their identity through docs, short films, web videos, and so on. It’s a community which has really embraced digital film and is telling great stories.” He adds, “I don’t know if it’s growing, but I hope it’s becoming more visible.”
Queer Chinese people need to see their stories told on screen—it’s no good if every major film is about white Americans.
Despite the involvement and support from those in the community, Baren stops short of applying a strictly LGBTQ label to his latest project.
“I don’t think this is the kind of film that would be described as giving a voice to LGBTQ people, but I hope that it’s a different type of film representation,” says Baren. “There are queer characters in it, but they don’t struggle with that identity. It’s more fluid than that.”
Nevertheless, he states there is still a strong need for local LGBTQ filmmakers to get out there and make more films.
“Queer Chinese people need to see their stories told on screen—it’s no good if every major film is about white Americans.”
As for The Driver, Baren says he’s ready to move on to new projects.
“I think I’m done with the story, but there are themes I will come back to.”
Of course, now that the film is done, it’s still up to him to decide what he wants to do with it.
“Oh man, you would think someone who ran a festival would have a plan, but I don’t. I’m excited by the prospect of getting it into some queer festivals internationally though.”
The Driver is set to premiere this Thursday, December 8th, 2016 as part of the China Indie Film screening on the rooftop of The Place Shanghai, Espace, Bridge 8 Phase IV, 457 Jumen Rd. (near Quxi Rd.). Doors at 18:30 with films starting at 19:00. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or WeChat richardtrombly.
If you can’t make it to the screening, you can still check out more of Matthew Baren’s work on his website here or watch the trailer below (you’ll need a VPN if you’re in China).