Creating Meaning 
Interview with Lisa Krueger
interview by
Cynthia Fuchs,  28 April 2000

Lisa Krueger's new film, Committed, features Heather Graham as the irrepressible Joline, a young New York City club manager who commits -- with all her heart and soul -- to her marriage to Carl (Luke Wilson). The movie explores the ways that such commitment is defined and tested when Carl leaves his wife in order to "find himself." As Joline follows Carl to the border town of El Paso Texas, she also discovers and transforms herself. The movie's combined generosity and skepticism toward Joline recall the complex rhythms and themes of Krueger's first film, 1994's Manny & Lo, which she developed through the Sundance Institute's Filmmakers and Writers Lab. Both films respect and rework conventions familiar from "women's pictures," while also staking out new ground for female protagonists.  

Krueger grew up outside San Francisco, and studied at the University of California at Berkeley, where she wrote her thesis on cinema and music. She continued her studies at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes in Paris. Back in New York, Krueger worked at the Museum of Modern Art and as production manager for director Zbigniew Rybccynski, and on films by Alain Tanner and Pierre Granier-Deferre. After working as script supervisor on films by Jim Jarmusch (Mystery Train and Night on Earth), Abel Ferrara (King of New York), and James Ivory (Mr. and Mrs. Bridge), Krueger started making her own films, beginning with the short feature Best Offer. I spoke with Lisa Krueger on the phone from Chicago, where she was promoting her second feature, Committed.

Cynthia Fuchs: First, a question born of personal interest: what inspired you to cast Art Alexakis [singer for the band Everclear, and famously recovering addict] as the junkie car thief who is redeemed by Joline's faith?

Lisa Krueger: I knew the band and I knew of his history, but it was as if I had an image in my mind of him particularly, as I wrote the part. I was lucky to have a creative executive at Miramax, John Gordon, who was very hip and who had met Art on the set of somebody else's movie, and Art had said he was interested in doing a movie, at some unspecified time. So John suggested it to me, and I was already in preproduction, when Art went on tape, by himself, with someone in LA who ran the camera, and just did the scene. Some people just have an interesting face, something about them that the camera reacts to, and I could tell that Art did. And it was clear that it was a soulful, deep issue for him, the whole idea of redemption through somebody's faith in you, even unjustified faith. On a personal level, it was something he responded to.

CF: How do you see the movie working out or working against romantic comedy conventions?

LK: You know, it's funny, because I never put it in the realm of romantic comedy, until I read the press notes myself. And what happened was that Goran Visnjic's character [Neil] ended up having a more powerful presence in the film than I had anticipated. He was meant to be a connection that Joline made, sort of a projection into her future, not necessarily her future with him, but with somebody other than her husband. But his presence allowed [the studio people] to see the movie that way.

CF: And the wedding at film's end, that seems like a generic closure device.

LK: Yeah, but that was funny, because I thought of the wedding at the end -- this is just a filmmaker being completely out of touch with the audience -- originally, the wedding had a sad irony to it. In my view, these characters were getting married in the way that many people do, there's something very alluring and attractive about standing in front of people and making a lifelong vow. You stand there and there's a lump in your throat and feel solemn, like you're connecting to this timeless tradition. For some people I think it's the closest they get to this grand spiritual continuum. And sometimes it's not even a likelihood that these people will be together in five years. So I wanted to show that aspect of marriage, which is sort of the flipside of Joline's approach. But it reads on the screen, with the crane shot and the music, as closure, even though filmmakers of my peer group would be inclined to do something a little more open-ended. It's still open to interpretation, I think.

I was hyperaware that people were going to assume that the movie was going to be about her husband.  Was he worth her devotion? Would they get back together? Why did he leave? I did feel all that I was working against the grain of thousands of movies that have come before, so I had to work extra hard to pull people away from the idea that the movie was about one thing that they'd seen before, like unrequited love, but that's not what this is. It's not about [Carl] being her perfect mate. It's about something much larger, for which this marriage is a vehicle for her.

CF: Actually, the wedding seemed to me even more about the coming together of the two cultures that Joline has been straddling throughout the film, as the film is set on the border, between times, between commitments, between nations.

LK: I'm glad you saw that. It was important for me that Joline would see herself and feel at home in that culture in a way that she didn't in her own, in a similar way to how Carmen [Patricia Gonzalez] also crosses cultures, coveting modern, hip American styles, saying things which are right out of Cosmo, about low self-esteem. I mean, the Mexican characters are all hard-working and don't have that luxury of that constant quest for self-fulfillment and identity. They're more like, you're born here, you stay here, these are your parents and grandparents. And some of us, including myself, have a certain envy of that, even as we can't mimic or pretend that we grew up in that environment, or embrace those traditions as if they're our own.

CF: But the film endorses "visiting," and coming home enriched in some way?

LK: Definitely. Alfonso Arau's character [the Mexican snake handler and medicine man, Grampy] instantly recognizes in Joline this power, and were she born into that culture, she'd be doing what he does. I like that there's that mutual recognition.

CF: The question of space -- what it means and who has it -- is pertinent here, for while Carl wants his "space," Joline perceives the Mexican ranchers "give her space," grant her "a wide berth," which she reads as a kind of condoning of her actions, reading what she needs to into it.

LK: Absolutely, and I think they do think she's a little goofy, as anyone from that culture would observe these American tourists running around and camping out, or like Madonna studying the Kaballah, will make Orthodox Jews scratch their heads, but they don't necessarily judge her for it. I do think that's a hallmark of somebody who lives in a state of grace, spiritually speaking, is that they don't judge those who are flailing around in quest of that. They accept and understand that quest, even if they think it's a little goofy.

CF: The movie shows several "visitors," all looking for commitments and identities, including the lesbian couple, Jenny [Kim Dickens] and Mimi [Clea Duvall].

LK: The bulk of the script came quickly, once Joline arrives in El Paso and meets Carmen. And the challenge became, how do I establish the world she's from, to show this contrast. In this world, there are pockets of people who are like her, who are not able to act on their desires, like Joline does. And Mimi is like her, even wearing her girlfriend's doll-head jewelry on her nightgown, this stupid-ass thing. And in my mind, their relationship was about Jenny needing to stir the pot [by flirting with Joline's brother, in front of Mimi], where the process of fighting and making up is the process of the relationship, their search for commitment.

CF: The scene with them was one of the few in the film where Joline walks out of the scene when Jenny and Mimi are fighting, and we stay behind to see something she doesn't, which is the making up.

LK: That's very astute, because that scene was initially on the chopping block, because it's not a plot-driving scene, but I like it, because it's one of the few scenes where the audience sees Joline just react. Mostly they're seeing her act, and we react to her, so I thought it was important for the audience to be with her, and react with her, to something else.

CF: That also has to do with Joline's drive to "make meaning" out of everything, and how she's so happy to come to a place where she doesn't have to, where meaning is already there.

LK: Oh my god. I can't tell you how many people told me to get rid of that scene where she talks about symbols and you don't have to make up your own meaning. You're making me glad that I kept it, which we did because we needed that beat in the scene. She wants everything to mean something; she never met a symbol she didn't like.

CF: How do you come to that sense of the "beat" in a scene, how do you know when it's right? LK: That's the hardest part, because you have all this stuff and you don't know how it's all going to hang together rhythmically. There was some great "developing" stuff in the beginning that I had to lose, because there's an internal time clock that anyone watching a movie has, and you know it's time to embark on the journey. It's like an alarm clock, that people will have, having watched however many thousands of movies, and maybe it even predates movie-watching. But it's a hard thing as a director; you have to lose things that you love. And I do a lot of cutting -- if it were up to me, it would probably be down to about forty-five minutes.  You get addicted to the rush, of seeing how things fit differently. But ultimately, you have to see what it is you're losing.

Did you develop this rhythm when working with particular people [Jarmusch, Tanner, Ferrara], or do you think you have this innately?

LK: I think it's like people walk at a different pace. There are moments when I think I'm more impatient than most people, and others when I can stare at waves for hours, and people are like, Come on! There are some movies that some people think are incredibly slow, that I love, and others that are ruined for me because they're too frenetic. You know David Lynch's The Straight Story? I think the slowness of that movie was the theme, and I found myself weeping at that, its depiction of the loss of slowness. It was brilliant, so eloquent, it got you to mourn a principle even more than a person.

CF: And it's about externalizing his perspective.

LK: Right, and that's the fun part of filmmaking, externalizing an inner landscape.

CF: In both Manny & Lo and Committed, you do that in part through voice-overs.

LK: Actually, bringing in Joline's voice was a later addition, and the trick was to allow her to remain an object of mystery and fascination even as you're hearing her logic. Instead of explaining, it almost becomes even more fantastic, or exotic, the more intimate you seem to be with it. The assumption is that you're going to let everybody in on everything through the voice over, but sometimes voice-over complicates things, or adds to the mystery.

CF: Why did you decide to add the voice-over for Joline?

LK: Because I thought it would add another layer to what appears to be such a dour task, go back to the man who left her, and somehow, out of sheer will and faith, make things right. In most people's lives, that's such a dirty-dishwater kind of task, or so ego-bruising or painful, [that] there can be so much bitterness involved. So I thought that to hear her optimism and her logic, as she tries to create a meaning for her life, it pulls you away from this tendency you might have to wallow in a hopelessness.

CF: Another theme is this continuum, more than a dichotomy, between what's brave and stupid.

LK: That was the genesis of Joline, even though I didn't know it at the time, you know, going up in front of the classroom and holding up this strange object and saying, what do you think? And some people said, it's beautiful!, and others said, it's ridiculous! And because I was struggling with these things -- is it stupid or brave to commit yourself to another person for life, which I just did this last August -- I feel like it's a really interesting question. And there is no one answer to it. And people respond to the character so strongly, I've spoken with women who say, "I would never do that! I would never do that! And did I mention, I would never do that!?" and others say, "I've done that," and feel shame about it. And guys will say, I was really moved by that, or would do that, or admire it. Or some guys would reject Carl in an incredibly violent way. And I don't see Carl as committing any crime, he's not abusive; he just can't commit to her the way she commits to him.

CF: This gendering of responses may indicate reactions to years of cultural conditioning too; certainly women would resist the stereotype.

LK: That is true, and certainly I know many girls who don't commit and boys who do, but the twist is that in this day and age, we're conditioned not only to commit, more than boys, but we're also taught to feel ashamed of that. There's a tendency we have as women -- we're between such a rock and a hard place -- because we're supposed to be so vigilant that we're not giving more than we're getting. For so long women gave too much, and now there's a shame attached to giving too much. It's almost an extra punishment, because the giving should be celebrated. In my opinion, what Joline does isn't born of weakness or dependence. She's stronger and more independent and clear than Carl is, and she makes things happen in a way that he can't. I'd like to see men and women be able to acknowledge when enough is enough and be able to walk away, but also, to embrace the part of themselves that's willing to go out on that limb. Not only for romance, but for any kind of commitment.

CF: That's a standard criticism of young people, of Joline's age maybe, that they have short attention spans and can't commit.

LK: Yeah, and some of the kids in the audience seem to respond like they have a big sign on their foreheads saying "I will never be treated like that." And it's sad because they do want to commit, and not for the other person or to their own detriment, or because that's how they've been trained, but because it's a really basic yearning, to give unconditionally, and people are looking for outlets, even though they keep getting hit in the face for it. It's kind of endearing in a way.

Click here to read Cynthia Fuch's review.  Copyright 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.