“State Like Sleep” opens with the death of Stefan Delvoe, a famous Belgian actor. It’s a suicide, the police decide, though the victim’s estranged wife Katherine isn’t so sure, and remains unconvinced when a year later she finally returns to Brussels to clear out the flat where they lived together and he died alone.
As Katherine, played by Katherine Waterston, works her way through what happened and all the hints and motives she senses in the shadows, “State Like Sleep” feels like a subtle psychological thriller, which on one level it is, but writer-director Meredith Danluck, making her feature film debut, says that’s not all the movie is about, and in some ways its not even the main thing she was after.
“There’s a couple of things going on in the script but the primary premise of the film is grief,” says Danluck, whose prior works include such varied projects as documentaries shot for Vice and some of the artful visuals incorporated by Beyoncé and Jay-Z into their On The Run tour.
“The film itself uses this kind of architecture of a mystery to explore that kind of deeper psychological process,” she says of the film that opens Friday, Jan. 4 in select theaters as well as on digital and on-demand platforms.
Danluck says the idea of grief as a theme arose partly from the suicide of someone she was close to years ago which left her group searching for reasons why.
“I noticed all of us kind of became amateur detectives, trying to create a different narrative in a way that made more sense to us,” she says, adding that Joan Didion’s non-fiction book “The Year of Magical Thinking,” in which she powerfully explored the mourning that followed the death of her husband, also served as inspiration.
“When I really started to think about that idea, of death as this mystery, and the ways that we negotiate the terms of it in order to make sense of something that’s incomprehensible, that’s really where it came from,” Danluck says.
But while future film was nurtured and bloomed during time spent at the Sundance Institute’s labs for screenwriters and directors, and the cast eventually came to include such acclaimed actors as Michael Shannon, Luke Evans, Michiel Huisman and Mary Kay Place, it was never going to be an easy project to get funded and made.
“It was very hard!” Danluck says, now able to laugh a little about her early travails. “I got the cast because the cast responded to the depths of the characters and the dialogue and all the kind of juicy stuff that actors respond to.
“Getting producers and financiers and really getting the movie green-lit was a different story,” she says. “Because it is an unusual movie, it’s tough. Making movies is really hard. They take a lot of money and the people who ultimately put together a movie, they really have to believe in it.
“That’s why you see so many movies that are kind of the same, because they know that OK, those types of movies work so we’re going to make them over and over again.”
Waterston, most recently seen in “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald,” was the second person to read the script in a very early draft, Danluck says, and inspired her as she finished writing it over the next year or two.
“There was something in the back of my head the entire time I was working on the revision,” Danluck says. “I had her in my thoughts. She’d just been in ‘Inherent Vice’ when I met her, and she always reminded me of a young Frances McDormand where there’s so much intelligence in her eyes, her decision-making, how she carries herself.
“I felt like this character having that kind of rich internal life was really necessary. It’s so legible, what she’s thinking and feeling, she doesn’t have to say anything, you’re so connected with her you know exactly what’s going on. I just think that’s great acting.”
Her past work left her well-equipped in most ways to take on a feature film project, Danluck says, though the level of sheer motivation and commitment to get the project off the ground was unprecedented in her experience.
“I think all of it prepared me in a way,” she says of the films that came before this one. “Just being on set is an incredible tool and experience. Day 1 of walking onto my set for ‘State Like Sleep’ I was very much at home. I think had I not had so much experience I would have been absolutely terrified.”
Instead there was the comfort of feeling at home.
“I felt like this is my team, these are my people,” she says. “We’re all here for the same purpose.”
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