The Mary Sue Interview: Runoff Writer/Director Kimberly Levin
Theater director Kimberly Levin makes her feature film debut with the new environmental drama Runoff. Referencing water pollution, Levin understands the questions she’s asked first had, having worked in the field of biochemistry before transitioning to the arts. The tense drama will remind audiences of Frozen River, for the sense of desperation and moral questions facing a couple, played by Joanne Kelly and Neal Huff. The film opened in New York this weekend and will be released nationally gradually. Levin spoke with me about her background in science, filming on working farms and returning to her home state of Kentucky for filming.
Lesley Coffin (TMS): Being from Kentucky yourself, did you set the film there when you first wrote the script or was it just coincidence that you filmed in Kentucky?
Kimberly Levin: There were a couple of factors which went into the decision, and being from there was one of them. When you sit down to write something which could potentially take place where you’re from, it gets infused in the story, as well as the rhythms of the film. I worked really hard with the Kentucky Film Office, which helped us find locations to film and people to work with. They were instrumental in helping us meet people, such as the pilot of the crop-duster you see in the film and farmers who let us film on their property. And being from Kentucky, it was a tight enough community that I could ask friends of friends for help. I asked “do you know anyone who has a hog farm or a dairy farm that would allow film on their property.”
So all the introductions were done in person, because to make the film work, we had to gain access for farming locations that would suggest operations of large scale. Which was going to be tough, and being on a fairly small budget, we knew we wouldn’t have an opportunity to re-film scenes or insert CGI later. So we had to get ourselves into these locations at the time. But even if we didn’t end up filming on a farm we found, I was able to spend time during our lead up to production, and ask them questions about their lives. And it was a great opportunity for relationship building and creative opportunity to invite them to contribute as well and help me make the script more accurate. So I would actually give them the script pages for the scenes we were considering film there and asked them to read the script and tell me where things could be more accurate or specific. And that was often what tipped us in their favor, gaining their trust and respect, and helped them agree to work with us.
TMS: What were some of the things you added or changed based on those conversations?
Levin: There were little things. In the dairy scene, when Betty comes to diagnose the problem with Scratch’s cow, she figures out the math that if you prescribe antibiotics, how many hours do you keep them out of the milking line up. So that was a very specific detail we added. And even if the viewer doesn’t pick up on that level of detail when watching it, the overall feeling is that the movie feels real, which also comes from filming on location, where we have very little control of the animals, because they are real working farms. We had to take these highly choreographed scenes with great working actors and plunked them down in the chaos of a real working farm. The scene at the dairy, you see the real dairy farmers milking the cows they were going to sell, so the cows were coming in and out while we were filming. And there is a beautiful chaos to that kind of filming, which we tried to convert to an energy. And I think it does add to the sense of authenticity I hope the film has.
TMS: As a theater director, did you find it challenging to adapt to working on sets you didn’t have physical control over?
Levin: I would almost say the opposite. I would say my experience in the theater, and particularly working with actors, really helped ease me into the chaos. Because I know how to work with the actors, and get into the right head space to make sudden changes on set. If a location falls though at the last minute, or turkeys are scratching our audio cables, or a hog bits one of are leads, all of which happened on this movie, my experiences working in the theater helped put me and them at ease. Because I’m comfortable directing actors and I feel it’s something I do well.
TMS: Could you tell me how you transitioned from working in the scientific field to the arts and directing?
Levin: It was an overnight shift, and a very dramatic shift as you would probably assume. I was doing research on metal hydroxide minerals. A lot of wetland plants have the ability to detoxify wastewater. So I was doing research to figure out how to develop a wetland space to decontaminate waste water and soil and and also trying to build them in a lab. So I was totally ensconced in this world I was totally loving. And I was very stimulated on an intellectual level. But when I looked around at the other people, who seemed totally comfortable in the lab, I realized I needed something that allowed me to communicate and interact with more people and be more social.
So it was just one of those things, where the city I grew up has the Actors’ Theater of Louisville, a very famous regional theater, which was then run by John Dory. And for the first time, he was offering a director’s internship and on a lark I decided to apply for it. I’d always been in theater and enjoyed writing, but I never considered it professionally. And was taken on by John as a student and found myself in this good old-fashioned mentorship relationship. He trained me one-on-one for a year, which launched by move to New York.
TMS: Was part of the decision to make that kind of drastic career move a desire to communicate your environmental concerns dramatically to a broader audience?
Levin: I don’t think it will be the case for every film I make, but for this film there was definitely a close connection between what I had been doing and the subject matter. The original seeds of the film happened when I was doing field biochemistry, testing stream waters, and helped to uncover that there was a textile company dropping raw, untreated effluent into a tiny tributary, which fed into the state’s largest tourist attraction, Lake Cumberland.
Where a lot of people engage in recreation, get their drinking water, and fish. And there was a long legal battle which led to the factory being shut down. But what should have been a victory was tainted because the factory was just relocated to another community. So I started obsessing about the way people make difficult choices and who the prioritize. The idea of how wide we draw a circle around ourselves. Are we conserved with only ourselves, our family, our community. How far does it extend?
TMS: Why did you choose to focus on the family’s decision rather than corporate responsibilities?
Levin: I’m very interested in telling the story in a way which creates space, so everything isn’t filled in for the viewer. It asks the viewer to take the journey and ask themselves the questions the characters have to ask, and embed their own narrative into the narrative of the film. So they come away with a narrative which is deeply personal. Narratives are such a powerful tool to engage people who would otherwise be in disparate parties. To stay away from agendas and create complex characters is the best way to engage the audience emotionally. So the political underbelly is personalized and leads to them engaging others in conversation.
TMS: The movie focuses on a mother and father, each with their own sense of morality. Why did you have Bettie tempted to betray her morals rather than Frank conflicted?
Levin: I think all of us can identify with strong female characters who when things hit the fan, are responsible for picking up the pieces and making tough choices. For the sake of the family, people they care about, and people they feel responsible for. I don’t think we see that dynamics on screen very often, but for most people, this gender dynamic is more familiar in their real lives. Women are often the guardians of society left to tow the line and make the difficult decisions.
Runoff will be available in theaters June 26th and digitally July 28th.
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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