After Hannah Fidell’s breakthrough film, A Teacher (about a high school teacher who unravels after ending an affair with student), she’s tackling another controversial subject: domestic abuse among young couples. In 6 Years, college students Dan (Ben Rosenfield) and Mel (Taissa Farmiga) are in love, but reckless Mel reacts with violence against Dan when upset with him. Over their 6-year relationship, the still in love couple heads down an abusive path. Fidell spoke with us about writing and directing this film, in select theaters and on demand now, and available on Netflx September 8th.
Lesley Coffin (TMS): I read that a majority of the movie had the actors improvise their dialogue in the film. Why approach the film that way from that way from the beginning?
Hannah Fidell: I wanted to add improve to the film because a lot of the films I love are done that way, especially the films by the Duplass Brothers who produced the film. So I thought it would be cool to try something different, kind of experiment. For my own development as a filmmaker, but also to see how it would translate on film. I hope it turned out okay, a lot of people are surprised because of how incredible the actors are at delivering their dialogue.
TMS: I hear a lot about directors who try to create spontaneity on set, especially when staging a conflict, by talking to actors privately. Did you ever employ that method or were Taissa and Ben always working out scenes together with you?
Fidell: I never talked to one without talking to the other. They both knew what would happen in every scene and we blocked scenes extensively. By blocking it, I mean we worked on how the conversations would go so the cameras never got in their way. But they were always on their toes.
TMS: Because the film depicts a violent relationship, specifically among two very young people, were you concerned about how much should or could be shown on screen vs how much of the violence should be implied?
Fidell: Yeah, I was. I was also worried about how to shoot those scenes on a purely practical level. But the original idea Mark (Duplass) came to me with was to make a movie about a young couple in an abusive relationship, not just emotionally abusive but a physically abusive relationship. And what intrigued me about that idea was the fact that we never see people this young in that kind of relationship on screen, but also that Mel, our female lead, is the more physically violent of the two. So from the first day I started working on the film we were discussing how and when to show the violence.
TMS: Why was it important to show that kind of gender reversal and have Mel’s character be the violent one in the one relationship?
Fidell: I wanted to make something I knew would be thought-provoking and deeper than just a relationship drama about a couple breaking up. And by deeper, I mean because of the violence element, it would force a conversation. And I wanted to have audiences asking the question “is that domestic violence.” And “why does it seem, perhaps, less scary because it is a woman perpetrating the violence, rather than the man in the relationship?”
TMS: Having shown the film at festivals and screenings, have you been surprised by the conversations and feedback you’ve gotten about the film?
Fidell: I’ve been happily surprised by just how many people relate to the film and get emotional during it. People who are young, in college or high school, seem to be able to relate to the film, and older people are able to reminiscent about that time in their life.
TMS: The Duplass Brothers are strong filmmakers themselves but are starting to shepherd up-and-coming filmmakers like yourself as producers. What made you want to work with them?
Fidell: They are so amazing because they are so hands off. They really allow the director or writer-director, which is typical for them, to have free reign. And when I need their input or help with notes or casting, they will step in. But otherwise, they are completely supportive in their silence.
TMS: I’ve been a big fan of Julian Wass’s film scores for a few years now and I really thought you used his music well in the film, using it to move the film along without stressing the emotional beats of the film. What did you two talk about in terms of what you wanted from the score?
Fidell: Julian is great and did a fantastic job. I didn’t want the score to feel too sentimental and I didn’t want it to feel too sad. So we tried to get a score which would feel uplifting. Because if the music veered too much towards melodrama, it could really hurt the film. But I completely agree that Julian did a great job. And another composer, worked on the score as well, and he did a fantastic job as well.
TMS: What types of films or filmmakers do you draw from as inspiration?
Fidell: It really does very by project, but it really was the Duplass Brothers. I thought it would be cool to do kind of an homage to them, both the way we shot and the way it looks. But I looked at an old film called La Notte (1961), and we referenced that film’s last scene in our film, where the couple realizes they’ve moved on from each other. But for this movie, it was more about a sensory experience, so I looked at Urban Outfitters catalogues and listened to indie rock college rock stations, and used those as a jumping off point.
TMS: Regarding the film’s ending, I thought there could be a few different ways to conclude the film, and was surprised by how you choose to end it, specifically that the resolution comes from Mel. What made you want to end the film with Mel making a decision for Dan?
I think because it is a real moment of growth on Mel’s part, the realization that it is better for them not to be together. I consider this to be a coming of age film, and this is the moment that Mel comes of age. It doesn’t really matter what happens afterward, it’s about her ability to walk away from the situation.
Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.
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