How the making of Black Bear was just as surreal as the film itself
Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott, and Sarah Gadon reflect on their mind-bending indie.
In the months since Black Bear premiered at Sundance in January, our very existence has altered into a fractured mirror of what it used to be — so what's another few layers of dreamlike unreality?
"To me, the movie almost feels like two nightmares, interwoven into one mega-nightmare," producer and star Aubrey Plaza tells EW of the enigmatic indie, written and directed by Lawrence Michael Levine and co-starring Christopher Abbott and Sarah Gadon.
Those twin nightmares are the film's two parts, both pieces of a dramatic puzzle that simultaneously challenge and inform each other. Taking place at a remote cabin in the Adirondacks, the two acts follow three characters, one of whom is a filmmaker in search of the perfect scene. Two of them are in a relationship, one of them is getting drunk when they shouldn't, and all three become trapped in a jealous game of deception and manipulation — all in the name of art, of course.
The second half alters the impact of the first, seeing the trio's power games intensify and multiply as they play out on the set of an indie film — itself disorientingly titled Black Bear, and starring the players in the love triangle. "The lines of reality were very blurred for me," Plaza admits. "Honestly, things started to kind of shift in ways that I've never experienced before."
The film is already a meta-commentary about relationships and creativity, but even within the making of it, "everything started blending, in a lot of weird ways," Abbott recalls. Made with an indie budget on an indie timeline, Black Bear (the real one, not the Black Bear within Black Bear) called on some of its crew members to also step in as actors to play crew members working on Black Bear (the fictional one, meaning the Black Bear filmed within Black Bear). "It added to this kind of chaos and insanity and confusion that often film sets can feel like," Gadon says. "So I was really pleased when I saw it, because it felt very real, but it also felt a little bit satirical."
The lake house in which they shot also proved as much of a challenge for the production as it was a psychological prison for its characters (and its characters' characters, too). "The location became this beast we were battling the whole shoot," Plaza says. Though she registers her appreciation for Levine's uncompromising vision for a perfect setting, the actress-producer recalls a long commute to the remote location, a complete lack of cell service, random blackouts due to a malfunctioning generator, and "the bug situation," she adds. "[It] was out of control. We had to reshoot a couple scenes because there were so many bugs that were swarming, you could see them on camera."
"The making of it was pretty intense," Abbott confirms. "Even just schedule-wise; we were shooting a lot at night. It became heavy just because of the logistics of it. It became this kind of dreamy thing." You might say literally: "The three of us would drive to work as the sun was setting, work all night, and then drive home in this kind of daze, as the sun was rising and the steam was coming up off the lake," Gadon says. "I would sometimes go to bed thinking of the lines I'd said during the day and wake up the next morning saying them."
While the days blurred into nights and reality into fiction (and into the fictional reality's fiction, etc.), the film's greatest riddle is the relationship between its two halves, which is powerful and constantly teased but not clearly reducible to a clean answer. WARNING: EXISTENTIAL AND THEORETICAL SPOILERS FOLLOW, ASSUMING THIS CAN EVEN BE SPOILED, WHICH IS UNCLEAR! IF YOU ARE AT ALL SPOILERPHOBIC, HOWEVER, WE ADVISE YOU STOP READING NOW!
Black Bear was shot basically in order — the first half, about a filmmaker (Plaza) trying to write her next film while staying with a couple (Abbott and Gadon) in their lake house, and then the second, about a filmmaker (Abbott) shooting a movie starring his wife (Plaza) and another actress (Gadon) at the same lake house. Costumes and lines of dialogue and tensions from the first half pop back up in the second half, worn or spoken or felt by different people, and all three actors keep the same character names between the two acts.
"We spent a lot of time prepping the first half of the film, and then the second half kind of was a product of the process of rehearsing the first," Gadon says. "I think that was really important." And as far as her own role? "I think, from an abstract perspective, I kind of felt like it was written as if they were two different characters, but in conversation with each other," she says of her character(s), Blair. "Sometimes when I get abstract ideas in a script, I love them intellectually, but in terms of actually playing them in a practical way, I have to ground them in something real. And to me it was less about creating two fully different people [and] more about the idea that sometimes in a relationship you can be with someone who really makes you crazy, and then other times you can really hold the power."
Abbott took another tack: "They're kind of mirrored," he says of the two faces of his character, Gabe, who remains at the center of the love triangle in both halves despite engaging with the position differently. "It's like the guy in the first half almost feels like some sort of projection from the guy in the second half." And as Plaza describes her approach to her role, Allison: "Even though I treated the characters differently, it's almost like the soul of that character was the same for both, for me."
Now that audiences can question for themselves what the two pieces of Black Bear mean (and let's not even get started on what the black bear itself actually means), "I hope people theorize on it," Plaza says. "It does have a meaning. It's trippy and intellectualized, but I think if you do really, really, really think about it, you can put together what is happening. It's not empty; it's not for nothing. So I hope that people do have discussions, and do think about it."
"I am really excited for people to watch the film right now," adds Gadon. "Because I think a lot of them are maybe having similar, intense feelings about their romantic relationships. The film is so much about being isolated and feeling alone — and I think we all are coming out of this period of feeling that way."
Black Bear is out now on VOD and in select theaters.
Trailer courtesy of Momentum Pictures.