Annie Baker Shifts Her Focus to the Big Screen

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A mother sits in the front seat of a car, her tanned and freckled face glowing; her daughter, owlish and opaque behind her glasses, stares at her mother’s cheek, transfixed, as the countryside glides by. The camera tracks the daughter’s gaze—what she sees is all that matters. Later, at home, the eleven-year-old girl practices on her tinny keyboard (plink-plink-plunk), ignoring the roaring cicada symphony outside.

That obsessive, catalyzing, world-building attention is the subject of Annie Baker’s début film, “Janet Planet.” It follows a single mother, Janet (Julianne Nicholson), and her daughter, Lacy (Zoe Ziegler), through a hot, green-and-brown-grass summer in western Massachusetts, in 1991. The pair orbit each other—Lacy wants to hold her mother’s hand when she falls asleep, or to keep a strand of her hair—but they are also as lonely as satellites. “I’m actually pretty unhappy, too,” Janet says to Lacy, abstractedly.

Until now, Baker has been known as a playwright. Her generation-defining plays—including the gently humanist “Circle Mirror Transformation”; the Hollywood-is-hell comedy “The Antipodes”; “John,” in which a relationship founders in a doll-infested bed-and-breakfast; and last year’s chronic-pain narrative “Infinite Life”—are famous for their micro-naturalistic dialogue and carefully timed, hypnotic languor. Her approach, which reminds me as much of Cassavetes as of Chekhov, has exerted enormous influence: one can sense her impact in the work of writers as wildly divergent as Eboni Booth and Bailey Williams. (She also teaches M.F.A. students at the University of Texas at Austin.) For those of us who have been watching her work, her turn toward film comes as no surprise. Baker won a Pulitzer, in 2014, for “The Flick,” which took place in a dilapidated Massachusetts cinema. Ever since a “Flick” character entered whistling “Le Tourbillon,” from Truffaut’s “Jules et Jim,” you knew where Baker’s attention was taking her.

Over lunch at Zatar Café in Park Slope, Brooklyn, the forty-three-year-old Baker talked to me about writing and directing a movie that both is and isn’t about her childhood. Baker, who now lives in Brooklyn, was raised in Amherst, Massachusetts; she would have been ten in 1991. She wasn’t an only child, but there still seems to be some self-portraiture in “Janet Planet.” Her parents divorced when she was six; afterward, she stayed in Amherst with her mother. The film’s tension-in-lassitude reflects the reserve in Baker’s work and sometimes in her conversation—a sense of something kept private behind a door.

On the surface, “Janet Planet” is dreamy, summer-warm, and easy; even the grain of the 16-mm. film seems nostalgic. But its real interest is the unreadability and uncanniness of youth, like so many films (by Truffaut, by Bergman) about childhood. The movie starts with Lacy racing down a hill, running to find a pay phone, so that she can call Janet to come pick her up early from camp. The rest of the film—and Lacy’s reluctant coming of age—is divided into three acts, each examining a relationship of Janet’s: there’s a temperamental boyfriend, Wayne (Will Patton); a needy friend, Regina (Sophie Okonedo); and Avi (Elias Koteas), the seductive leader of a roving theatre company. Lacy wants them all gone. At night, she stares into her doll house and arranges a cast of miniatures into strange, hieratic tableaux. And then, occasionally, something Lacy devoutly wishes for happens.

At one point, Lacy and Janet go to an outdoor spectacle, a puppet-filled extravaganza put on by Avi’s hippie-adjacent, romantically entangled company. (Later, Janet tells Lacy that the company might be a cult.) In one of the eerier moments in the movie, we see a storage room, stacked with dozens of the company’s larger-than-life-size puppets, their cardboard bodies looking disconcertingly sapient. In “Janet Planet,” the inanimate occupy a mysterious zone. At lunch and over subsequent e-mails, Baker discussed puppets and movie directing, an art that, for her, seems to turn on an almost metaphysical question of privacy. (The conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.)

So when does the work on “Janet Planet” begin? Does it start with the puppets?

I started writing it during the pandemic when I had a very young baby, in 2020. I’ve written a number of screenplays. I had tried to write a screenplay for myself to direct a few years earlier and—it just felt very familiar to me. . . . I didn’t think I was going to direct anything I wrote until I wrote something that really surprised me. Which is not to say anything particularly nice about the movie, but just to say, “Oh, I would be interested in directing this.”

I’d always thought about writing about the sort of marriage between a single mother and a daughter, but that wasn’t enough for me. . . . The thing that actually made me think, I want to write this movie, was picturing evaporating your mother’s boyfriend with your brain. I remember feeling that way at eleven, as though I had a little wizard brain. And I have met a lot of eleven-year-olds now, from my auditioning process, and they all have wizard brains. I really feel like they’re all wizards. So, what if spiritual longing and destructive desire and love for one’s mother and the power of inanimate objects could all be harnessed to evaporate a mother’s potentially nefarious new boyfriend? That was what the movie was about for me. People say, Oh, it’s a mother-daughter story—and I’m sort of, like, Sure.

But you did start with the idea of the mother and the daughter?

I began with the mother and the daughter, and with the triangulation that occurs when that mother is single and dating, and also has various people living with them for different reasons. And then, say, there is a miraculous act that may or may not be just completely psychological. A big influence was the container of this place where I grew up in Massachusetts—I’ve always been interested in making something with that material.

Lacy and Janet’s house—all wood and ladders and curving walls—is very specific. Was that your house?

No, I found that house by joining for a year before prep started and I was, like, “We’ve gotta find the house.” That house was built in 1979. It’s two silos, and all the bedrooms are lofts. It was built by hippies; there was once a Waldorf farm inside that house. It’s a folly of a house because you can’t fit an air-conditioner into any window, so we were filming in ninety-eight degrees, pouring with sweat.

By shooting in that area, were you trying to recapture sense memories?

No—it’s more about the aesthetics of a particular place where I spent a lot of time, and the length of time it takes to get from one place to another. At the beginning, that hillside Lacy runs down is my old overnight camp, and I ran down that hill. That sounds kind of cute, but actually it was the timing—I remember how long it took me to run down that hill.

So you synchronized the timing without relying on the edit?

I’m still grappling with the philosophy of film editing. It’s a process like no other. I’ve always tried to have very loose and groovy ideas about what works and what doesn’t, and as a teacher I have zero dogma, or really pedagogy. But if you break certain rules of editing—eyeline stuff, or if you cut from one scene to another—there are things that are just wrong. I’ve never experienced anything like it, where there’s no subjectivity. There’s a certain kind of cut that will be an abomination to every person on the planet because of something your brain knows about time and perspective. It was simultaneously the most rule-bound and the most intuitive process I’ve ever been a part of.

In the movie, you see a girl looking at this doll house, making tableaux. Are you telling us about something that you did?

Yeah. My mom actually recently unearthed my doll house from when I was a kid. I feel like I started as a set designer: I would make a tiny book, and then I would go to the copy shop and shrink it down ten times, so it was barely visible. I don’t actually remember having the dolls in character speaking to each other; it really was about setting the scene. . . . A lot of “Janet Planet” is about rooms and boxes and stages. And that is what I was interested in.

Still, I don’t really identify with one character more than others. I had a conversation with a relative where she said something like “You were nothing like that child,” and, of course, I wasn’t like that. I’m kind of like the mom and I’m kind of like the puppeteer. Yes—I’m the creepy puppeteer-director guy. If there’s anyone in that movie I identify with now, it might be the puppeteer.

I know you filmed out at the Double Edge Theatre, in Ashfield, Massachusetts, for the outdoor performance sequence. . . . I love puppets, but there is so much bad puppet theatre out there!

Really bad, and sanctimonious! Yes. I think something happened in my youth in which a puppet was, like, trying to teach me a lesson or something. But a puppet should be an agent of chaos! Once I got really obsessed with puppets, I was, like, “Oh, my God, who were Punch and Judy? Punch and Judy were anarchy!”

I think even I remember as a young woman saying to someone, “I’m not into puppets.” Working with Jeremy [Jeremy Louise Eaton, a onetime Double Edge performer who designed the costumes and puppets for the theatre sequence] while making this movie made me really into puppets, particularly shooting puppets on celluloid. Now I just want to make a short with no people, only puppets! This happens to me with a lot of my projects; I come at it from a place of irony, and then just completely fall in love with the thing that I was ambivalent about.

Sibyl Kempson also had that amazing, weird play she did called “The Secret Death of Puppets,” and she and that play introduced me to the book [by Victoria Nelson], “The Secret Life of Puppets.” It’s one of my favorite books of scholarship. [Nelson writes about our cultural fascination with horror, simulacra, and the nonhuman.] That was really important when I was writing my play “John.” I got really interested and still am interested in the incredible, spiritual importance of “the toy” or “the doll.”

This isn’t your first time directing, right?

Yeah—I directed one-acts in New York, and I co-directed “The Antipodes,” in London, with Chloe Lamford, who I’m very close with.

Did anything transfer over to film directing?

The funny thing was, what I was so nervous about was directing actors in such a short span of time—just ten minutes to shoot a scene. But, then, I’ve been talking to actors for fifteen years. So, for over a decade, getting to observe wonderful directors, and drive them crazy, and then doing it myself, and co-directing . . . a lot carried over.

What didn’t?

In film, you really are making as much material for yourself as you can, in very short, panicked amounts of time, with a large group of people, and, in my case, I was dependent on very faulty 16-mm. cameras. You don’t do a run-through; you don’t see it run through until you’re in the edit. That’s a really interesting problem.

Can you remember any specific piece of direction that you gave?

So, I love directing Will Patton, because he’s worked with the Wooster Group—I feel like we have a half century’s worth of language and aesthetics to use. And he had a funny thing that he taught me that I only use with him. Every direction I ever gave him, I would categorize it: literal, symbolic, or anagogical. “Literal” is “Walk over there after you say that line.” And I’m a very literal director: I did choreograph everybody within an inch of their lives. And then there’s the “symbolic”—look at her like she’s the moon, or whatever. And then “anagogical” is just, like—


It’s a real word!

[Reading from Merriam-Webster.] It’s an “interpretation of a word, passage, or text (as of Scripture or poetry) that finds beyond the literal, allegorical, and moral senses a fourth and ultimate spiritual or mystical sense.”

Yes, that’s it—the fourth and ultimate, mystical and spiritual. I find it harder to give anagogical direction in a [theatrical] rehearsal room because twenty people are looking at you, and they’ll all take it probably too literally. But I could talk to Will while I was shooting; we’re close, and we have a history together. So I would be saying very weird shit.

That’s one of the things I liked about film directing, because I’m not really a charismatic person. I do know directors who take great joy in running a rehearsal room, and I can do that. But my joy is in individual conversations with people, and directing on film is basically that—going up to somebody being, like, “Do you need anything? Here’s one idea.” It just feels very intimate.

What was your process like with Julianne Nicholson? How did you find her?

I knew her from theatre. She’s been my acquaintance over the years; I didn’t really know her. And then I watched that movie—what was it called? It’s about kids in South America, and they kidnap Julianne, who’s a doctor—O.K., “Monos.” Julianne basically lived in the jungle without running water for three months to make that movie.

I knew we needed to find someone who we would be projecting onto for an entire movie. Janet, the character, does feel like Jeanne Moreau in “Jules et Jim,” in the sense of the person who is going to be the central love object. And it was very clear to me within five minutes of meeting her that she had that. And then it turns out we grew up ten miles from each other! We bought our first bras at the same J. C. Penney. She grew up in a cabin without running water, and her mother is an herbalist. And so it was really nice to find someone who I feel like has an intelligent, complicated, beautiful face that you want to look at for an hour and a half.

I learned with Julianne to leave her alone for the first take—and she would always do something wonderful.

And then, obviously, there’s the issue of directing a child, which must be some whole other thing.

Well, Zoe’s a very particular child. And—again, this is something you couldn’t do in theatre, which is one of the reasons I like film directing—I choreographed her every move and gesture, and we didn’t really talk about feelings. Because, for me, the key was mystery, and the real thoughts happening underneath the surface that we are not fully accessing. And she’s not a kid who would have wanted to articulate her emotional state to me anyway—me prescribing it to her would have been a disaster and over-articulated, and made literal when I wanted to be magical and allegorical.

Why did you pick her?

Because with the, I mean, thousands of other child actors, I knew what they were thinking. It was telegraphed to me. There was no privacy. Maybe that’s the best way to put it. She was completely private. She always sounded like a real person talking, which is the greatest of all talents you can have. And she had a very complicated interior life that she could have access to when there was a camera pointed at her. Which I think points to a real inner strength that I, as a people pleaser, don’t understand, but really admire.

I did a report on this when I was eleven—I don’t know why I did an oral report on Robert Kinsey—but he said something like “Eight is when you realize you’re not the center of the universe.” It really takes until you’re eight, and then it’s kind of a crisis. But I’ve noticed that eleven is when the person suddenly seems really knocked down by it. It’s not even about puberty—it’s about self-consciousness in the universe.

Did you, as the screenwriter, ever set yourself up in a situation, which, as a director, you found was difficult?

Oh, the thing that drives you crazy becomes the greatest pleasure. There was a point where we were all, like, This is a low-budget movie, we have very limited shooting days—why do we have a puppet-theatre sequence in Ashfield? Everyone would say, “A location move will kill you.” And I was, like, “It’s the next town over!” But then you watch the union load up the trucks. And hundreds of thousands of dollars are falling out. That’s an example of something I would never write again without having some sort of budgetary acknowledgment in my own brain of what I was doing.

It was written in innocence, and it is one of my favorite parts of the movie. It was the most fun day of shooting; we’d all been in a ninety-eight-degree house for weeks, with people, like, wearing ice scarves around their neck and drinking Gatorade and almost fainting. And, for one day, we got to go to the Double Edge Theatre, and a hundred extras came, and we all watched theatre—like we all actually really needed it. And then we had a party in the barn.

This month, you programmed a week of screenings at Lincoln Center called “Angels and Puppets: The Stage on Screen with Annie Baker,” which includes “Vanya on 42nd Street,” “Floating Weeds,” and “Fanny and Alexander” [another semi-autobiographical film that shows a future filmmaker with his little puppet theatre]. How are these films important to you?

It’s all films about theatre, or that are theatre onscreen. So it’s, you know, [the Wooster Group’s] “Rumstick Road,” to, like, Technicolor musicals, naturally, and “My Dinner with Andre”—I’ll do a Q. & A. with Wallace Shawn, and that’ll be cute. And “The Tales of Hoffmann.” [E. T. A.] Hoffmann actually has been very influential in my thinking about dolls. You know, Hoffmann stories were very influential when I was writing “John.” . . . Anyway, it’s the weirdest movie of all time. Hoffmann’s “Coppélia” is the great puppet love story!

Is there some connection between your interest in dolls and this interest in the privacy of the person that you’re shooting?

I never thought about that before. I mean, it goes back to [Robert] Bresson a little bit, you know, “Notes on the Cinematographer,” because he referred to actors as models, and I would never—to an actor’s face or behind their back—talk about them that way! And yet I think—what do I think? Do I want my actors to be puppets? No! Julianne’s first take, for instance, is totally her, and by definition private, because I didn’t know what she was going to do. And I’d say forty per cent of the time, we’re using those first takes.

How much are movies in your mind at any given moment? Are there filmic influences and touchstones you were thinking of as you composed “Janet Planet”?

The filmmaker I would say my D.P. and my editor and I discussed the most was Maurice Pialat, especially his film “L’Enfance Nue.” Another movie that is very important to me is [Victor] Erice’s “Spirit of the Beehive.” We also talked about [Abbas] Kiarostami’s films about children, and my sound designer Paul and I talked a lot about [Apichatpong] Weerasethakul, and went to see “Tropical Malady” together.

When you were Lacy’s age, was there a cultural event (like the performance in the film) that particularly drew your attention?

Two theatre productions loomed very large for me when I was in middle school, because I didn’t get to see much growing up in a small town. One was my high school’s production of “Guys and Dolls,” which I recall being just totally magnificent, probably because there is no one more glamorous to a twelve-year-old girl than a seventeen-year-old girl. I also saw my first Richard Foreman play at age fourteen. . . . I randomly ended up at the Ontological-Hysteric [Theatre] because I was visiting my dad in New York City, and a woman was taking him there on a date. It was “Permanent Brain Damage,” and it was a really big deal for me.

What do you think about when you’re teaching other playwrights?

I try to figure out a way to help them by noticing when they’re experiencing pleasure, which, for a young writer, is really hard.

Is that what you learned from your teacher at Brooklyn College, the playwright Mac Wellman?

A little bit? Yeah, he is very pleasure-oriented. He once said something to me, like, “What would give you pleasure? What will just be easy?” I admitted an inclination that, to me, was really unhealthy, because of the kind of theatre I was into, and also the people who were in my cohort who I really respected. And he was, like, “Oh, well, just do that.” And that was it. I was, like, it doesn’t matter if my ambition is sort of irrelevant, right? Then my inclination is everything.

And are you working on something now?

It’s just finished; it’s very new. I am willing to say that the movie I just finished is a two-hander, and I’m working on a play that is returning me to my interest in ancient Greek history and oration.

The pleasure of the writing process is always intertwined with dissatisfaction with all my previous work. This may be very particular to me, but that’s how it goes. Every time I finish something and put it out into the world, I feel devastated afterward, and like a heap of ash, but then some last little live ember comes roaring back to life and is, like, LET’S DO THIS AGAIN AND THIS TIME WE’LL BURN THE WHOLE PLACE DOWN. ♦


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