Catching Up With Arie Posin

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The Face of Love, the latest film by American director Arie Posin (and his first since 2005’s Chumscrubber), feels as familiar as it does personal; although the picture borrows from classics ranging from Solaris to, perhaps most notably, Vertigo, its greatest influencing factor actually happens to be reality itself. Proving that truth really is stranger than fiction, The Face of Love finds its basis in a yarn told to Posin by his mother, so any similarities between it and the works of the greats are purely coincidental. Almost.

When we spoke with Posin, it was clear that he doesn’t really mind the comparisons; after all, it’s difficult to be anything but flattered when your film receives mention alongside the likes of Tarkovsky and Hitchcock. We talked not only about what fascinates him in a storytelling capacity, but also about the depth of romantic human relationships and loss—two central ideas behind The Face of Love—and the importance of crafting an organic narrative.

Paste: I wanted to start at the beginning and just get an idea of how the project came together. What motivated you to make the movie in the first place?
Arie Posin: Sure. Well, it’s based on an incident that happened to my mom. Many years after my dad passed away, she told me one day—and actually in language really similar to what Nikki, Annette Bening’s character, uses in the movie—she said to me, “Something happened to me today. I walked past the LACMA (the Los Angeles County Museum of Arts), and I was at the crosswalk on Western Boulevard, and I saw a man coming toward me who looked like a carbon copy of your father.” And I said, “Well, what did you do?” She said, “You know, I stopped, standing in the middle of the street, and he walked toward me with a big smile on his face, and it just felt so nice. I knew it wasn’t your dad, but it felt so nice in that moment to imagine that that was really him, that he was still around. He moved past me, and then the light changed, a car honked, and I kept going.”

When she told me that story, I found it really moving and very hard to shake. I started having dreams about it, and eventually I tried writing about it, and that eventually led to the movie.

Paste: It’s interesting, it’s such a small, almost one-of-a-kind incidental event, and here you draw so much more out of it. For your mom, it sounds like it just happened and life moved on, but for Nikki, it becomes an obsession that she feeds more and more into. She becomes, maybe “crazed” isn’t the right word, but there’s definitely a level of unraveling that occurs.
Posin: For sure. Eventually, it becomes a compulsion that she can’t shake. You know, when my mom told me that it happened, she told me it took her a week to get over it. It really shook her to the core. And I know for me, I think I was the one who really became obsessed with it. I just found it so moving, and I think everyone who has experienced love and loss can identify with the wish of having another moment or two with that person. And I don’t just mean “loss” in terms of death—you know, first love or relationships that don’t work out, you think, “What if I saw that person?” It reawakens all of those feelings.

Coincidentally, when I heard the story, I’d really gotten into brain research. It was a hobby, I was reading all these books about the brain, and I got talking to a brain scientist who explained to me that when we see somebody that we love over a long period of time, it triggers a very specific chemical reaction in our brain that identifies that, and that in turns leads to an emotional reaction. So when you see someone who reminds you of that person, who looks like them, in your brain, it triggers a precise chemical reaction. On a chemical level, it’s not as if you’re seeing that person, you are seeing them again, and on a molecular level, the feeling is exactly the same.
So that’s what kind of kept my curiosity during the process of scribbling notes about it, and then when I worked with my co-writer, Matthew McDuffie.

Paste: That’s really fascinating—it actually adds more depth to the moments where Nikki calls Tom “Garrett.” It’s not that she’s mistaking him for someone else; she genuinely believes that he’s this other person, and why wouldn’t she? He looks like Garrett, he sounds like Garrett…
Posin: Exactly. That’s exactly right. On a chemical level, on the level of emotion, she is really talking to Garrett, and that’s what leads to her unraveling, as you said. It’s exactly that, because at the same time, there’s an intellectual awareness that kicks in that they’re not the same person, and in fact, she’s really attracted to this man. Certain people have a type, and she’s dating someone who looks like Garrett, but why do we do that? It’s an interesting question.

Paste: I thought Annette Bening did a really excellent job with conveying the disintegration that Nikki goes through. How did she end up getting involved in the project? I actually thought she and Ed Harris were terrific together, and I can’t imagine these characters being played without them.
Posin: Oh, I feel so fortunate to have had them involved, because that’s something where you hope the movie gods will smile upon you. I can get the script to the person that I think is the best person in the world to play the role, and then you hope, first of all, that they’ll like it, and that second of all, they’ll like each other, and then third of all, we’re an independent movie, so we’re paying people well below their price. And then of course they have to be available. They have to slot in between the larger projects that are actually paying, or just other projects that they’ve committed to. So to traverse all of that, and then get on the set and see the two of them, who have never worked together and have this great, natural chemistry, and also off-camera a real respect for each other … that’s just pure fortune.

Paste: I think it’s one of the strongest points of the movie. The way that they interact, it feels like you’re watching this couple with 30-year history, and when it’s Tom, it’s the same effect but of course there’s that slight difference because Ed is playing them just a little differently. I thought they were a great pairing.
Posin: Thank you!

Paste: I’d heard that there was a personal aspect to the story, but the other touchstone I keep hearing about from other journalists is Vertigo. In my mind, there are also other movies, like Laura and Solaris, that this reminded me. That feels sort of like a happy coincidence for you—correct me if I’m wrong, but would you call Hitchcock one of your influences?
Posin: Oh, for sure, and I’ll also call Vertigo one of my favorite movies. But as you say, Tarkovsky and Hitchcock knew each other through film school, and they both did films that are about one actor, but a movie like Vertigo is told in a different tonal way, where it’s a crime, a caper, and we sort of have to uncover the truth of the meaning and how we’re being manipulated. Tarkovsky had a whole different take on the question of a double, but I think at the heart of these movies, and mine too, is the nature of appearance and façade, and how that plays to our emotional reactions.

The first draft of the script evolved from a very organic, natural place, a very personal place, and once we had it, we realized that there was some similarity between it and Vertigo, and so at that point I went back and I looked at Vertigo, because if I’m going to steal, I’m going to steal from the best and I’m going to steal openly. We have a word for that here, we don’t call it “stealing,” we call it “homage,” which is actually a French word, but I don’t know what that does for me, because I’m not French! [laughs]

But that’s what I’m trying to do, to be very open about it. Of course, in Solaris, the idea of whether you’re falling in love with this real person, or falling love with a memory—a memory that’s being stirred by a physical appearance—that’s very interesting to me.

Paste: That definitely resonates throughout. It’s interesting, you’re talking about stealing from the best—it never feels like theft because as much as you can recognize those elements, it doesn’t feel like someone who isn’t Hitchcock trying to do a Hitchcock film. There’s a movie I saw recently that I won’t name that just cribs constantly from all of these sources, and it never feels like there’s someone on the other end of the camera with their own sense of vision. The Face of Love, I think, avoids that pitfall.
Posin: Well, I’m happy to hear that, because I don’t like that, either. If it’s not organic to the style that you’re telling the movie with, it feels like nails on the chalkboard. It doesn’t fit. If it’s not organic to your approach, it really stands out and it’s grating. So I hope that this feels organic, and any of those similarities are incidental. That’s why I try to be open about it—there’s a scene where we have the Vertigo poster on the wall, and there’s another movie poster in there which is from Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia, first of all because Tarkovsky is somebody that I thought about in this. But also the idea of nostalgia—the meaning of that word, the way he uses it in his film, it’s nostalgia for a place. He was shooting it in Italy, and it’s about Mother Russia, and what he’s leaving behind. And in this, I kind of had this feeling of romantic nostalgia, this nostalgia for a feeling, for a certain time and place, but not nostalgia for a homeland or an old country but for that experience of love.

Paste: And I feel like the ending result here is that the pursuit of nostalgia is, not necessarily dangerous, but it’s certainly fraught. Searching for nostalgia, you’re not necessarily getting what you’re after.
Posin: Yeah. Well, it’s certainly on some level a potentially transgressive relationship. I don’t like to use the words “right” and “wrong,” but you know, from a moral point of view, if there is such a thing, the idea is to explore people who are doing something that’s not going to lead to something good, and yet they do it anyways. What excites me is being able to tell that story to an audience and have them empathize with a character and understand why the character is doing what they might feel themselves isn’t the right thing to be doing.

Paste: It makes for a fascinating movie. Thank you for your time!