A Zoom of One's Own

Magnetic fields: Rebecca Miller on the set of 'Personal Velocity'
United Artists

Writer-director Rebecca Miller is breast-feeding her six-month-old son as she tries to explain the greatest adjustment she has made in her life so far. "The transition from being someone who had no family and lived completely for herself," she says, "to [being] a woman who had a family and lived for her family as well as herself is huge--one where you become a different person."

Miller has two children with husband Daniel Day-Lewis. They met at a screening of The Crucible, a film adapted from the play by her father, American theater legend Arthur Miller. Now 40, this famous man's daughter and famous man's wife has begun to gain recognition for her own achievements. She's at the Ritz-Carlton in Boston today to promote Personal Velocity, the stunning independent film that won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance last January. (It opens at Lagoon Cinema on Friday.) Miller is beautiful, but unconventionally so. Long and lean in a gray pinstriped suit and battered cowboy boots, she seems completely at home, if a little tired.

Given that Miller's life has included separate careers as a painter, actor, author, screenwriter, and filmmaker, it's perhaps not surprising that Personal Velocity--which she adapted from her own published collection of short stories--is a study of women in the midst of metamorphosis. We visit each of the three protagonists on the day that her life changes for good. Delia (Kyra Sedgwick) is a hard-bitten woman and former high school "slut" who packs up her kids and flees her abusive husband. Greta (Parker Posey) is a Manhattan editor whose marriage collapses under the weight of her unexpected success. And Paula (Fairuza Balk) is a pregnant runaway trying to regain her bearings after a horrible accident. Each episode is built on observations that are sometimes startlingly intimate. While the women are not connected to one another, their stories engage the same basic questions.

"The film is asking what moves us forward in our lives," Miller explains. "Is it our unconscious selves? Our conscious choices? Our family history?"

In the process of exploring these questions, we come to understand complex emotional shifts in women who don't yet understand themselves. In Delia's story, for instance, the heroine has her strength restored by giving a handjob to a fry cook's son in the front seat of his pickup. Hardly the typical path to redemption, you might say, and yet here it makes perfect sense. Personal Velocity is rare for its deft handling of narrative nuance, outlining the characters' motivations so clearly that they hang in the air like smoke signals.

It's no wonder that by the time Miller wrote the stories that became Personal Velocity, she had already turned her back on Hollywood. Her brief acting career (in the likes of Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle and Regarding Henry) had taught her enough to direct, and her debut feature, Angela, was critically well-received. But that 1995 film was followed by a series of disappointments. Miller was tired of trying to raise money for film projects, tired of investing herself in screenplays that got stuck in development. When she had completed six of the seven stories in the book, Gary Winick, a filmmaker putting together low-budget digital projects for a new company called InDigEnt, asked if she was working on anything. She sent two stories, then added a third. Personal Velocity was shot in 16 days on a tiny budget--constraints that actually helped to establish Miller's ideal work environment.

"I was trying to create an atmosphere of trust and ease for the actresses," she says. "Having been in a few movies, I know that with 35mm productions, the actor usually has a mark to hit--a sandbag to hit. It's a very artificial kind of world."

Shooting on digital video meant that Miller could use a small crew, keep the cameras at a distance, and continue rolling though long takes, allowing her to capture unguarded moments. The tight schedule meant the actors never had time to get out of character. And working outside the studio system meant that the director could maintain complete creative freedom. The paradox is that forgetting about success in Hollywood has led her to more success than ever.

Miller is a better writer on film than she is on the page, drawing on her varied background to create what she calls the "filmic details" that amplify her stories. Alone, her stories seem unexceptional, so spare that they're more like sketches than finished pieces. But revisiting them in print after seeing the film, one finds a striking amount of content that survived the translation intact. Apparently the right elements were there all along; they just required more to bring them to life.

For this, Miller relied on her partnership with director of photography Ellen Kuras, whose work on Personal Velocity won her the Cinematography Award at Sundance. "I make drawings of at least one central image that has to appear in each scene," Miller says. "We might figure out different ways of getting there, but there's some fundamental thing that has to happen visually to reflect the emotion." Whether conveyed through the dizzying progression of a child's swing in the film's first shots, or through successions of still frames that catch the characters in a kind of emotional strobe light, both movement and the lack of it are central to the movie's visual design--as befits the story of people struggling to gather momentum.

In Miller's own display of personal velocity, it seems, the woman who has learned to live for her family as well as herself has also mastered the art of achieving personal goals in collaboration with other people.

"It becomes so hard to say where one person leaves off and the other comes in," she says. "I think of the director as a magnet, and the filings inside the other people need to move in the direction of your magnetic pull. You have to have that thing that makes other people want to complete your vision."

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