Leaning into curiosity

Britt Lower on water, body paint, sound design and Circus Person

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Britt Lower on Ava in Tribeca Film Festival highlight Circus Person: “She’s discovering who she is in this new chapter of her life.”
Britt Lower on Ava in Tribeca Film Festival highlight Circus Person: “She’s discovering who she is in this new chapter of her life.”

Britt Lower’s Circus Person, starring the director/writer with Philip Smithey, Jessica Marks, and Ramona Young; Héctor Silva Nuñez’s Home_ with Doris Amen, Andrew Zawacki, Arbie Goings, Remy Guerrien, and Micah Sudduth and Keylee Koop-Sudduth’s Backsliders, join Elvira Lind’s Oscar-nominated The Letter Room, starring Oscar Isaac as the four shorts screening in the 2020: Now Showcase A: Soul Connection program on the closing day of the 20th anniversary edition of the Tribeca Film Festival in 2021.

Britt Lower with Anne-Katrin Titze on the sound design: “It was a very collaborative process with the editor Alex Knell and our sound designer Cem Dursun.”
Britt Lower with Anne-Katrin Titze on the sound design: “It was a very collaborative process with the editor Alex Knell and our sound designer Cem Dursun.”

In his seminar on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Purloined Letter, Jacques Lacan stated that a letter always arrives at its destination. This is clearly true not only for Elvira Lind’s The Letter Room, but also for Britt Lower’s Circus Person, two highlights of the festival. Water brackets Britt’s film, the way the moon affects the tide. When her fiancé (Philip Smithey) leaves Ava (Lower) for a woman named Luna (Jessica Marks), Ava’s thoughts begin to circle.

Ava in her head proceeds to write a letter to the new woman, which turns out to be mostly addressed to herself. How she intends to change, open up her world, and be more like the circular Luna instead of her square self becomes the quest. Together with her Koi Beta fish Tomato (played by Koi Beta fish Potato) she embarks to join a small circus. Tomato, the fish, who is either not familiar, or annoyed by Ira Gershwin’s lyrics (in Let's Call the Whole Thing Off) he is named after, does not remain to be the only sounding board for Ava as new experiences open up. In this acute uplifting tale, obsession turns into adventure and discovery.

From a sleepy little river town, north of New York City, Britt Lower joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on Circus Person.

Ava (Britt Lower) with her fiancé (Philip Smithey): “Throughout the film Ava, who’s experiencing heartbreak, is going through a kind of cleansing and washing herself of old memories and who she used to be.”
Ava (Britt Lower) with her fiancé (Philip Smithey): “Throughout the film Ava, who’s experiencing heartbreak, is going through a kind of cleansing and washing herself of old memories and who she used to be.”

Anne-Katrin Titze: Hi Britt, nice to see you!

Britt Lower: Nice to see you too! I like your mint-coloured flowers and the green in your shirt. It’s all very nice

AKT: Thank you!

BL: I have some mint over here too!

AKT: Let’s talk about your beautiful short, which I enjoyed very much. Water is all-important. It starts with water, it ends with a very different kind of water. The moon affects the tide - so tell me about the connection to water!

BL: Oh, this is great, Anne-Katrin. You’re already saying all the right things. Yes, water is a huge element in the film. I always knew that I wanted the opening image to be inside her bathtub and that I wanted the final image to be in some natural body of water, preferably cold water. Throughout the film Ava, who’s experiencing heartbreak, is going through a kind of cleansing and washing herself of old memories and who she used to be. She’s discovering who she is in this new chapter of her life.

AKT: Another connection to water is, of course, the Koi named Tomato, played by Potato, named after the Ira and George Gershwin song. I love Shall We Dance from 1937 and this Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers number is one of my favourites. Was the fish before the film, was the film before the fish?

Ava (Britt Lower) face paints Zenith (Ramona Young): “My mom and I travelled around as a face painting duo in Central Illinois, turning kids into creatures …”
Ava (Britt Lower) face paints Zenith (Ramona Young): “My mom and I travelled around as a face painting duo in Central Illinois, turning kids into creatures …”

BL: I actually had a fish like this in college that I would travel around with. I went to school at Northwestern. I grew up two hours south of Chicago, so when I would go home for the holidays, I would take my little fish in a jar on the train and it just seemed like a perfectly logical thing to me. I just wanted to give Ava almost someone who was speaking her subconscious. The fish also, Betas have to be isolated because when they see other fish they get angry and they fight.

AKT: Like Ava, who is starting out that way.

BL: Yeah, exactly, looking at herself in the mirror and not liking what she is experiencing because she is also experiencing this intense jealousy and curiosity about the other woman, comparing and contrasting herself to Luna.

AKT: I noticed the sound design of your film. With the throwing of the ring, we never see the visuals, we just hear the sound. We hear the sound of the cutting of the bangs, an aggressive sound that works really well. The sound design was important to you, wasn’t it?

BL: It certainly was. It was a very collaborative process with the editor Alex Knell and our sound designer Cem Dursun. Also the soundtrack plays a big part. We used music that my friend Jason Lesser had written when he was going through his own heartbreak. I wanted the sound and the music to feel as tactile as the visual language of the film. I’m really glad you noticed the ring moment.

Britt Lower: “I think envy for Ava becomes an invitation to lean into her curiosity.”
Britt Lower: “I think envy for Ava becomes an invitation to lean into her curiosity.”

AKT: It works! I’ve only seen one other film of the program of shorts that you are in. I’ve seen Elvira Lind’s The Letter Room and spoke to Elvira about it. Both films have the theme in common that a letter always arrives at its destination. That’s Lacan’s idea of a letter always arriving at its destination. You may misconceive what the destination is, but it gets there. It happens in your two very very different shorts.

BL: Wow, I’m so taken aback by this. It’s so beautiful. I have yet to see The Letter Room. I’m waiting to see it on Sunday. But I love what you said, that the letter arrives. It arrives! Where it’s supposed to and when it’s supposed to. Really for Ava, she’s testing the letter in her head. It’s never determined if she delivers the letter to Luna. But she is ruminating inside of herself what she would say to the woman her fiancé has fallen in love with.

AKT: And maybe the destination isn’t Luna, but the Luna in herself, so she is the destination. You have someone setting out with an obsession and it turns into a rumination about kindness and changing yourself and discovering the world. I thought it was beautiful.

BL: Thank you so much. I think envy for Ava becomes an invitation to lean into her curiosity. My friend Meg Poe who is a consultant on the film and is a professor of love - she teaches a class about love at NYU - she says that jealousy is unbearable admiration. I think especially when you’re in a love triangle situation, the comparison aspect is unavoidable. And I really wanted this film to reframe that jealousy. It’s noticing something in someone that you long for inside of yourself and that’s probably just dormant.

Britt Lower: “The Vetruvian image was painted by the incredible Christopher Agostino …”
Britt Lower: “The Vetruvian image was painted by the incredible Christopher Agostino …”

AKT: Envy is not usually seen as a springboard to something productive. Your facial expressions several times in the film are right there between a laugh and a cry.

BL: I feel very seen! Yes, they say that laughing and weeping actually physiologically do the same thing. A release of crying, a release of laughter - it’s good for your body to do that. I think Ava is healing. In my experience of heartbreak and grief, it’s at one moment totally hilarious, and the other moment it brings you to your knees. Of course the great clowns - my teacher always said, you want to cast a clown as King Lear. Because you want to have the tension of drama and comedy at the same time.

AKT: King Lear has three daughters and he mistreats them, often comedy and tragedy are at the expense of daughters. Leonardo, the square and the circle and the idea of the Vetruvian Man that becomes you - where did that come from?

BL: You know, when we’re open, when we’re heartbroken, I just kept getting that image of my arms being outstretched. When your arms are outstretched, you’re at your strongest, and you’re also at your most vulnerable. You’re exposed. When I got into the etymology - circus means circle in Latin, so I was thinking about the circle versus the square. The circus being this curvaceous, wild, free, tumbling kind of experience and the square being how we think of it as very pragmatic. But Ava feels she’s much more of a square and wants to embrace her inner circle. The Vetruvian image was painted by the incredible Christopher Agostino, a face and body painter and theatrical performer here in New York City. He flew to LA and painted that image onto my body which was so stunning.

AKT: You have a history with body painting. Did you do the face painting on one of the circus performers? It reminded me of the images from The Cave of Swimmers in The English Patient. Anyway, the acrobat drawing on the temple reminded me of these ancient cave paintings.

Britt Lower on Ava: “Looking at herself in the mirror and not liking what she is experiencing …”
Britt Lower on Ava: “Looking at herself in the mirror and not liking what she is experiencing …”

BL: My mom and I travelled around as a face painting duo in Central Illinois, turning kids into creatures at fairs and festivals and that’s where I first met all of my circus people and it sparked my love for people who make art as a way of life, and particularly travel while doing so. I painted with my mom, I studied art at Northwestern. I was a regular painter but also did a lot of performance art where I sent people body painted into public spaces. When I moved to New York after college, I worked for Christopher Agostino’s company, Agostino Arts, and we painted these beautiful mask-like face paints at the US Open, The Bronx Zoo, the World Science Fair, all kinds of art events and that’s really where I learned most of my skills.

AKT: One of the most beautiful images is the full moon on the hand.

BL: That was Christopher’s design. He does a lot where he turns the body into almost puppetry. He does a live stage show where he uses audience members to paint the story that he’s telling.

AKT: I noticed in the special thanks that you thanked the egret who is flying off.

BL: Yeah, we didn’t plan for the egret to be in the film.

Britt Lower: “A release of crying, a release of laughter - it’s good for your body to do that. I think Ava is healing.”
Britt Lower: “A release of crying, a release of laughter - it’s good for your body to do that. I think Ava is healing.”

AKT: It just showed up?

BL: Yeah, it just showed up. We were filming LexI [Powell] on the Lyra. Lexi is an incredible aerialist and she brought her own Lyra, which was the perfect moon shape. We were filming her scene and all of a sudden the egret flew near my car and we all just pivoted and improvised the scene on the spot.

AKT: I’m a New York State Department of Environmental Conservation licensed Wildlife Rehabilitator, so I have been rescuing egrets from fishing line. And geese and swans. So I loved that egret showing up in your film very unexpectedly.

BL: It felt like a good omen.

AKT: I noticed your overalls, the pale yellow one and the dark one. Where did you get those?

BL: Okay, that’s a great question, because believe it or not, I’ve had those yellow overalls since high school. And I was the weird kid who wore yellow overalls, and people were like, what are you doing?

AKT: I love them.

Circus Person poster
Circus Person poster

BL: I got them in a thrift store. And then the blue overalls were just your regular Dickies. Because I was directing and acting, I just wanted there to be a costume that was so easy I didn’t have to think about it. I felt fun in it.

AKT: I have a dress in that pale yellow and I really wanted to have those overalls. Is there any meaning to naming the main character Ava, a palindrome?

BL: Perhaps! This started as a feature film script that I had been tinkering with for many years and her name has just always been Ava. I don’t really know why, but maybe it is because it’s a palindrome. I like that answer, can I take it?

AKT: Yeah, take it, absolutely. It’s yours. Thank you so much and have a good screening on Sunday!

BL: This was so fun. You are a whole universe.

AKT: Wow, I have never heard that before. Thank you!

BL: You go everywhere, I love it!

The Brooklyn Commons at MetroTech 2020: Now Showcase A: Soul Connection screening on Sunday, June 20 at 5:00pm is SOLD OUT.

This year's Tribeca Film Festival has moved from its regular spring dates in response to the pandemic and will run through June 20. There will be in-person and drive-in events and, for the first time, the festival will have venues across the city's five boroughs.

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