Bette Gordon Talks Recognizing the Evil Within Ourselves in “The Drowning”

Bette Gordon’s films have been screened theatrically in the U.S. and abroad, as well as in all the major film festivals, including Cannes, Berlin, Toronto, and Sundance. Her films are in the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum, The Centre Georges Pompidou, and MoMA. Her credits include “Variety,” “Luminous Motion,” and “Handsome Harry.”

The Drowning” is now playing in New York.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

Bg: A psychological thriller based on the novel “Border Crossing” by Booker Prize-winning novelist Pat Barker, “The Drowning” tells the story of a forensic psychologist who is haunted by his expert-witness testimony that sent a young boy to prison for a chilling murder. When the boy later reappears in his life, he is drawn into a destructive, soul-searching reinvestigation of the case.

Complex, riveting, and unafraid to read deep, murky psychological waters, this is a story of shifting identities that will keep you guessing until the very end.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

Bg: After a tragic incident, in which a close friend was murdered by her 19-year-old son, I was given “Border Crossing.” When I read it, I knew I wanted to make it into a film. The book explores the question of evil — if it can ever really be explained, let alone treated.

As a culture, we are horrified and at the same time fascinated by the dark side of human nature. We consume media that focuses on evil characters. We read books about it, we want to lock it behind bars, exorcise it, and quarantine it, but we don’t look away. Maybe that’s because there is an implicit awareness that there is a darkness in all of us. This scares us and motivates us to probe deeper, much like Tom [played by Josh Charles], the protagonist, who embarks on a journey to explore this fundamental tension.

W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?

Bg: I am always interested in asking questions about human nature: Do our actions define us? Are people born evil or do they become evil? Can we every truly overcome evil impulses? These questions push us to look within our own psychology to imagine what borders we ourselves have crossed.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

Bg: It is always raising the money. Once the money is there, the challenges can always be solved, and problem-solving is all about creativity.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

Bg: We were able to raise most of the budget from an international sales company, which required a strong cast with name value. We also raised private equity to add to the international sales. And I launched a Kickstarter campaign during pre-production.

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

Bg: Keep your eyes straight ahead and don’t compare yourself to others. You have to visualize yourself making the film; you need enormous willpower and tenacity. No matter how many “no’s” you get, there is always a possible “yes” out there.

There are many labs that help with development, support, mentorship, and those are great! I have never had much luck with that myself; I am usually not chosen to be a part labs like at Sundance or Tribeca All Access.

I have managed to surround myself with great collaborators — writers, producers, cinematographers, editors — and have pushed forward. I always provide a visual lookbook of what I see as a director [that helps illustrate] what my approach is to the story and characters. I have a clear sense of why I want to make the film and what it has to say to the audience.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

Bg: Claire Denis, Jane Campion, Susanne Bier, and Kathryn Bigelow are all women whose work I admire. If I had to choose one favorite film, it may be Campion’s “The Piano,” and her limited series “Top of the Lake” would also be top of my list of favorite shows.

Campion’s use of cinematic language, which is a visual language that trusts the shot to shot relationship of film, allowing meaning and subtext to exist not only in the story, but beneath the story, [is masterful.] She uses off-center framing, composition, lighting, and all the tools that make film such a strong medium for storytelling.

W&H: There have been significant conversations over the last couple of years about increasing the amount of opportunities for women directors yet the numbers have not increased. Are you optimistic about the possibilities for change? Share any thoughts you might have on this topic.

Bg: I can see that things have been changing in the last year. There is a building conversation about women getting more opportunities as directors. I don’t see the evidence of change yet, but the first step is to create more awareness. Then we need a system to push executives to change the approach — to solicit projects by women, and to hire women on to films that need directors. With more television and streaming, there is so much opportunity, yet when I look at the roster of directors on any show, rarely are there more than one or two women directors, unless the shows are created by women like Jill Soloway or Ava DuVernay.

For the last few years I have been trying to work as a director on series, and I have been hearing from people that you need to have directed television in order to be hired. Having directed four feature films, I would love to work with John Ridley on “American Crime,” or with Veena Sud on her new series “Seven Seconds,” or Sarah Treem on “The Affair.” I enjoy the development of character, and these shows really focus on that.

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Bette Gordon Talks Recognizing the Evil Within Ourselves in “The Drowning” was originally published in Women and Hollywood on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
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