Between reality and dreams

Sara Driver on Sleepwalk and the New York City she remembers

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Suzanne Fletcher and Ann Magnuson in Sara Driver’s Sleepwalk
Suzanne Fletcher and Ann Magnuson in Sara Driver’s Sleepwalk Photo: Nan Goldin

Sara Driver’s spellbinding Sleepwalk, co-written with Kathleen Brennan and Lorenzo Mans, shot by Jim Jarmusch and Frank Prinzi, with a score by Phil Kline, and starring Suzanne Fletcher with Ann Magnuson, Steve Buscemi (coming to the Tribeca Film Festival to present Ethan Coen and Joel Coen’s Fargo), Linda Yablonski, Sally Venue (aka Sally Berg), Richard Boes, Ako, Stephen Chen, Tony Todd, Dexter Lee, Harvey Perr, Barbara Klar, Cheryl Dyer, Rebecca Wright, and William Rice (aka Bill Rice) was a New Directors/New Films at 50: A Retrospective pick. Sara also participated in an HBO sponsored live virtual Free Talk, moderated by Wendy Keys. Ed Bahlman (99 Records founder and producer) and I sent in greetings to Sara. The exchange is below our conversation.

Sara Driver on New York City in the Eighties: “When I was making Sleepwalk, during that period, I cut my hair very short and I learned how to walk like a boy.”
Sara Driver on New York City in the Eighties: “When I was making Sleepwalk, during that period, I cut my hair very short and I learned how to walk like a boy.”

Downtown NYC - Mid-Eighties - a stolen Chinese scroll - an office where the work turns people into zombies. Our heroine Nicole (Fletcher), who works there, pricks her finger but does not immediately fall into a 100-year sleep. Instead, she will be the one who is destined to translate the ancient manuscript. Her roommate Isabelle (Magnuson) comes by to borrow money for a cab. She cannot take the subway, no one can blame her for that.

The tale to be transcribed is of a princess and everyone knows that hair is of the greatest narrative importance in tales old and new. The streets in Sleepwalk are its enchanted forest. A little boy shouts “cross me!” Dogs and wolfs resemble each other at night. Nicole’s son Jimmy (Lee) at home is hungry, while the smell of almonds from the “old Chinese nursery rhyme” invades the present. A freight elevator ride, the red-winged rooftop of a building, an encounter with a woman named Ecco Ecco (Ako), and a mistaken kidnapping later, the mysteries pile up.

Nicole, overcoming the green flashes in her eyes from staring at a screen all day, faces the rattling street signs to get back her son. Little does she know that the kidnapper (played by Richard Boes), who is almost as friendly and accommodating as the one played by Jean-Louis Trintignant in Claude Lelouch’s Le Voyou, tells the kid about his own childhood and watching The Wizard Of Oz and Moby Dick. When the city awakens to a new and prosperous day, we have reason to be hopeful that all lost will be found.

Steve Buscemi sorting slides in Sara Driver’s Sleepwalk
Steve Buscemi sorting slides in Sara Driver’s Sleepwalk

From Upstate New York, Sara Driver joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on Sleepwalk and the New York City she remembers.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Hi Sara!

Sara Driver: Hi Anne-Katrin, how are you?

AKT: Fine. How are you?

SD: I’m good.

AKT: It’s quite an honour to be chosen as one of eleven films for the 50th anniversary edition of ND/NF, isn’t it?

SD: I didn’t know. I thought it was like the whole series. I didn’t know it was such a small selection they show of all the films in 50 years. Oh wow. I’m very thrilled.

AKT: One of eleven is quite an honour.

SD: It’s quite an interesting number. I wonder why eleven?

AKT: Magical numbers, I don’t know. Apropos, I was wondering while watching Sleepwalk if 1986 was the year of the dog?

Nicole (Suzanne Fletcher) with her son Jimmy (Dexter Lee) and Isabelle (Ann Magnuson)
Nicole (Suzanne Fletcher) with her son Jimmy (Dexter Lee) and Isabelle (Ann Magnuson)

SD: You know what, I don’t know. It would have been ’85, because that’s when we shot.

AKT: It’s a big point in the film with the dogs.

SD: Dogs just came into the script. It’s funny, I hadn’t seen the film in about 25 years and then Film Comment showed it at Lincoln Center and I had forgotten how funny it was. It’s really an odd, funny film. Those Charlie Chan movies really entered my subconscious when I was a child.

AKT: Oh that’s where it came from! I didn’t make that connection at all but it’s very funny. Steve Buscemi just moves slides around on a table and makes patterns. Seeing your film now, SoHo is starting to look a similar way again.

SD: That’s the way I love my city, empty. You know, nobody wanted to be in New York at that time, because it was considered to be very very violent. So we didn’t have tourists, nobody was really coming into the city. The city has reminded a lot of us who were in the city in the late Seventies and through the early Eighties of the city back then, the city that we loved. Although, at night I find it spookier out now than it was 35 years ago.

AKT: It’s not the SoHo of shopping and tourists on the weekends anymore. In your film the emptiness somehow evokes a feeling of freedom that is not actually what you sense in the streets right now.

Suzanne Fletcher as Nicole translating the Chinese scroll
Suzanne Fletcher as Nicole translating the Chinese scroll

SD: No. When I was making Sleepwalk, during that period, I cut my hair very short and I learned how to walk like a boy. So that I could go out at night and could be free and people wouldn’t harass me. And you learned how to walk in the middle of the street, so you weren’t ever on a sidewalk or near any shadows. It’s weird, because I used to know the rules. And I don’t know the rules anymore. And I don’t know if any of us know the rules anymore of protecting ourselves. With most of my friends now if you have dinner together, you’re home before dark. At least the bars were open back then. Not to have bars or restaurants open makes for a very eerie city. Also, so many businesses closed, oh my god. In the late Seventies, early Eighties, Midtown was thriving. Downtown was like a war zone. Now Downtown is kind of thriving and Midtown is so empty, it’s shocking.

AKT: Midtown is a wasteland, completely.

SD: Walking through Times Square was some kind of weird … I felt like I was in Blade Runner without any people around. Because you have all those large ads that are going everywhere but there’s nobody to witness them. But I think the city will come back.

AKT: I watched Sleepwalk with Ed Bahlman, founder of 99 Records, and he cued me in on some of the background of some of the people that he remembered. He is sending greetings to Jim [Jarmusch].

SD: Oh, I’ll tell him, sure, he’s a big fan.

AKT: Ed, do you want to say hi?

Nicole (Suzanne Fletcher) pricks her finger
Nicole (Suzanne Fletcher) pricks her finger

EB: Hi Sara!

SD: Hi Ed, nice to see you!

EB: We watched your film last week. Boy, it brought back so many memories from the Seventies, early Eighties.

SD: The magic of our city.

EB: Yeah, thinking of Bush Tetras running around loose.

SD: I know! They’ve been preparing a new release, too, Bush Tetras.

EB: Yeah, I miss Laura [Kennedy], though.

SD: I know, I miss Laura too. But they have a really good new bass player. Because Cynthia and I are very close friends.

EB: Perfect.

SD: And Pat too, of course.

EB: Tell Cynthia and Pat that I say hello, too.

SD: And I’ll tell Jim too. Nice to see you Ed! I remember you telling me that you and Ed walked by June [Leaf] and Robert’s [Frank] house on Bleecker Street one day and they were both sitting outside.

AKT: Yes, very shortly before he died.

SD: I’ve seen June a couple of times. She’s doing really well. She’s working so hard, it’s just remarkable. She’s a great lesson in aging.

AKT: That’s good. I don’t know, the times we are living in right now, it’s so strange.

SD: It’s so strange! I’m trying to get over to Europe because I have a project there to shoot and I just don’t know when I’ll get there to Portugal. I wrote a script for Nicoletta Braschi, you know, the Italian actress. One of my closest friends.

Sara Driver with Anne-Katrin Titze and Ed Bahlman: “Hi Ed, nice to see you!”
Sara Driver with Anne-Katrin Titze and Ed Bahlman: “Hi Ed, nice to see you!”

AKT: Can you tell me more about the project or not yet?

SD: It’s a little similar to Sleepwalk in that it exists in a place between reality and dreams. And the character herself doesn’t know what’s real and what isn’t. She has something called Sundowner Syndrome, and it’s actually quite joyful, the film. It’s about imagination and being lost in one’s imagination.

AKT: There are two very interesting black and white films in this year’s ND/NF selection. The opening night film, Amalia Ulman’s El Planeta and a film that takes place in Georgia, called Bebia, A Mon Seul Désir, directed by Juja Dobrachkous. Another one I can highly recommend is Iva Radivojevic’s Aleph, I just spoke with the filmmaker. It travels all around the world and is inspired by Borges.

SD: Oh wow!

AKT: All three of them are directed by women. These are three of my favourites at this year’s festival. Aleph is about a portal that if you find it unravels the whole universe for you, based on the Borges collection.

SD: How great, that sounds fantastic.

Ed Bahlman’s 99 Records - Bush Tetras Too Many Creeps
Ed Bahlman’s 99 Records - Bush Tetras Too Many Creeps Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Also great sense of humour. There were good films to see. And I’m glad Sleepwalk was part of this festival.

SD: I’m very very honoured. So nice to see you! Thank you so much.

During the HBO sponsored live virtual Free Talk with Sara Driver, moderated by Wendy Keys, Ed and I sent in greetings to Sara with the comment that in You Are Not I, Ethel resembles Dreyer's Joan of Arc, shifting towards Virginia Woolf at times.

Wendy Keys reads the message: Friends of yours, I think. Greetings from Anne-Katrin and Ed.

Sara Driver: Oh, hi! That’s interesting. I didn’t see Joan of Arc, Passion of St. Joan, until after I made You Are Not I, actually. And that is a movie about how eyes tell everything. Language is so secondary in cinema. It’s the reverse of theatre. I don’t know, possibly to Virginia Woolf.

WK: Interesting!

SD: It is interesting, I have to think about it.

WK: Well, you know who to get back to!

SD: Yes, and I will.

Glenn Branca The Ascension produced by Ed Bahlman
Glenn Branca The Ascension produced by Ed Bahlman Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

WK: Because they are waiting for the answer!

Coming up - Sara Driver on Jacques Rivette, a snake, elevators, Nan Goldin, the existence of Mount Olympus, fairy tales, Ann Magnuson’s green blouse, You Are Not I, the connection to Stranger Than Paradise, and the deals made to complete Sleepwalk.

The 2021 feature committee comprises Florence Almozini (Co-Chair, FLC), La Frances Hui (Co-Chair, MoMA), Rajendra Roy (MoMA), Josh Siegel (MoMA), Dan Sullivan (FLC), and Tyler Wilson (FLC), and the shorts were programmed by Brittany Shaw (MoMA) and Madeline Whittle (FLC).

New Directors/New Films at 50: A Retrospective ran free virtually from April 16 through April 28.

The 50th anniversary edition of New Directors/New Films started on April 28 and ran through May 8. The in-person screenings at Lincoln Center are extended to May 13.

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