Vintage filmmaking

Eve Symington on the dark side of wine country, crafting film noir, and Brut Force

by Jennie Kermode

Brut Force
Brut Force Photo: XYZ Films

A handsomely shot, gorgeously scored film noir set in California wine country, Eve Symington’s début feature Brut Force draws on her family’s talents and features a strong lead performance from her sister, Lelia Symington, as troubled journalist Sloane. As it prepared for release on VoD, I connected with Eve to discuss it and began by asking about the location and what drew her to it.

“My father, who plays Arthur, lives in that area, so I've been spending time there for about ten years and I always thought it was so, so gorgeous,” she explains. “And I thought that the difference between the way that it looks and the reputation of wine country and then some of these social problems, which I wanted to examine more closely, was a really interesting dichotomy and ripe for a noir film.

“I think that one of the things about living in California, and a lot of places, is that these problems are very much hidden from view unless you start digging below the surface. I had spent time in Guatemala previously, and made a film there, and kind of explored the other end of why people might migrate away from their home. I wrote a script about, about immigration issues previously, and had done a deep dive. And so that was the initial jumping off point, and then I did tonnes of research for for the film. Just looking at the work, the farmworkers and their conditions and the way they're treated, and how there's a certain hypocrisy to how much we all love to drink wine and to eat fresh food and everything, but can't seem to treat the people who provide that for us properly.”

It reminded me a little bit of Chinatown in terms of how it explores Californian society, I note. Was that an influence?

“Definitely, yes, that's a big influence. It’s just such an amazing and timeless movie in so many ways. But it also felt like it was ripe for a reimagining, bringing it into the modern age. Obviously, one thing for me was flipping all the genders, making the female lead, and exploring topical issues, but also using a classic genre.”

So why did this feel like the right time to move from making shorts to making a feature film?

“Making features has always been my goal ever, since I was a little kid, so this was basically the movie that I was able to put together, get funding for and and ultimately move forward with. And it was a special project to me, partly because of the story and the genre, but also getting to work with with my sister and my dad was a really special opportunity.”

She’s also previously worked with some of the other people involved.

“I did have a few key people who I always collaborate with. Notably, my cinematographer Emilie Silvestri, who is a very close friend of mine from film school. We came up together making shorts – trying and failing!” She laughs. “And working well together. She was the cinematographer for my short film in Guatemala. And there are several other people that I've collaborated with before, but a lot of the crew were new to me, so that was also very fun, to get to know a whole new group of people and really bring a team together over the course of the month long shoot.”

Going back to what she said about flipping genders, I tell her that I like the fact that she has a female lead who not only can look after herself physically, but has a bit of a reputation for intimidating people physically and is always edgy and ready to start fights. She's a type of character we don't see very often.

“Definitely, I totally agree. When I was writing it, I was thinking about how, if people don't have the right outlets, then they can turn to violence. And that kind of fit in with the theme of generational violence and physical violence. And so I wanted that to really be embodied in someone's actual body. And I think that that's something you normally see with male protagonists, but I thought that it would be really interesting to explore a female character who, yeah, is ready to snap at any moment, but over the course of the story is able to move past it and go through something emotional as well.”

I tell her that I think it’s important in noir to show a hero who isn't super competent, and is always going to be a bit vulnerable to things going wrong physically and emotionally. She agrees.

“Definitely. And also speaking to the fact that one person, especially someone from a little bit outside the culture, can't save a group of people. This is not a saviour story. It's darker than that. And that's not the way the world works. If you care about something then it doesn't mean that you can fix the problems.” Sometimes, she notes, characters who try end up making them worse.

There are difficult issues in Sloane’s past, related to her mother’s addiction and her own feelings of guilt about she handled it. I ask Eve if that’s something she’s personally familiar with.

“Yes, it's something that I have some familiarity with,” she says, “and I definitely wanted to explore this idea of loving someone so much, and also being very angry with them and hating them in some ways, and how you reconcile that when the person is gone. I think that's a struggle for a lot of people who have people close to them with addiction problems. It's hard to reconcile your own emotions and it's hard to figure out the right way to love somebody who sometimes lets you down.”

I like the fact that it gives us a way in to who Sloane is emotionally so that the film doewsn’t need to do that through a romance storyline. There is a romance in the film but it’s not at its core, and I think that’s rare where films with female leads are concerned.

She nods. “It's a feature of noir films as well, the romance is often more detrimental than positive. In this case I think that those two characters kind of grow together and there is, I hope, a suggestion that they might have a future together. But the central relationships for me were really more Sloane with Juana, the farm worker who she was close with, and then, of course, with her stepfather, that's the central complex emotional relationship of the film, rather than a romance, and it kind of goes along with someone struggling with violence and with her sometimes troublesome personality. That's more interesting to me in this context than looking at a romance.”

She wrote this film with her sister in mind, she says. ”Obviously we've known each other for life, and we've worked together quite a bit in the past. I just knew that this would be a really special collaboration. It was such a treat to get to work with my sister and to build this character together and go through this journey together.”

Did it affect the way that they worked together as director and star, that they had that history together?

“I think that we definitely developed a shorthand, or had a shorthand coming into it, which was great, and certainly I felt very comfortable with her. It was also a fun directing challenge for me to not always be too sisterly, to make sure that I was watching her performance and guiding her as a director, not just as a friend and as a sister.”

We discuss Sloane’s various relationships with other characters in the film and the importance of getting beyond saviour narratives.

“I think one of the biggest things for me is about making sure that these characters, Juana and Marcos, were real people with specific personalities and foibles and relationships,” she says. “I think it's very easy to make characters like that into perfect angels, and that's just as degrading as making them the villains, so I think it's the key thing is remembering that everybody is complicated. And that was something that I strove for when I was writing this film, making everybody complicated and making everybody specific. And more than that, I think that Juana’s someone who fights with her family, she's not going to go along with what other people tell her to do. I guess I shouldn't give away any spoilers about what happens, but it was important to me that she saved herself, not be saved.”

That same approach to character creation applies to some of the more unpleasant individuals in the story.

“That was definitely tying into the themes of the movie about about cyclical and generational violence. And sometimes that can lead characters down dark paths, but hopefully we understand where they're coming from, and that that complicates our view of them.”

The other thing I wanted to ask about is the score, because it's very distinctive, and it adds a lot of character to the film. How did that develop?

“I'm glad you asked about that,” she says, smiling. “That's one of my favourite parts of the movie. So I worked with a wonderful composer named Ali Helnwein. He is so talented! I gave him some musical references with some score elements that I really liked: the drumming, and I’m a huge Latin music fan. So I gave him some of those influences and said I really wanted it to feel like a character, to feel like it's adding another dimension to the film rather than just underscoring. So he did a wonderful job. And then all the original songs and all the song lyrics were written by my brother, who is very talented – it’s a real family project.”

As always, when putting a first feature together, there's so much that has to be done and so many different things to manage, and it’s really hard to manage the time and get everything together. So how did she feel when it was complete? Did it worked out the way that she had hoped?

“It was such an amazing experience,” she says. “I mean, the thing about directing, when you want to be a director, is that you don't spend a lot of time actually directing. You spend years writing and pitching your movie and trying to get financing, and then in practice and in post. That month that I was able to be on set actually directing was one of the best experiences of my life, and I felt so gratified with our the team that we put together and the actors, the location and everything just really came together, and there was definitely a moment of bliss before I went into the editing room.”

So is she planning to do more of this?

“Definitely. I’ve got another movie lined up that I've written. It's a horror movie, and it's looking for finance. I'm very excited for Brut Force to come out in the world. It's been a very long journey since I first decided I wanted to make movies, all the way to here. So it's very exciting to be able to say ‘Hey, my movie’s coming out.’”

Brut Force is available on VoD from Thursday 21 April.

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