Pictured: Director Garrett Bradley. Photo Credit: Cassie Hunter.

Pictured: Director Garrett Bradley. Photo Credit: Cassie Hunter.

Garrett Bradley’s first narrative feature film, Below Dreams, is much like a dream itself, the kind forgotten upon waking but slowly remembered throughout the day in its ability to stealthily seep to the forefront of one’s thoughts.

The 72-minute movie, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, shadows three 20-somethings as they attempt to keep sight of their dreams while contending with the stark realities of their situations. It’s a refreshing reminder that though “millennial” is a word constantly reached for, it encompasses more than just the stories of the over-educated, underemployed, and hyper-social, but also that of the drifters, the townies, and the single parents.

Below Dreams is based on the lives of the people Bradley met on the road to the Crescent City (New Orleans, LA), the 37-hour Greyhound trips serving as outposts for the trading of stories between the passengers. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association Award recipient and concert photojournalist recorded her conversations and was soon inspired to create her film upon reading a New York Times Magazine article, seeking locals with similar life experiences as to those found in “What Is It About Twenty-Somethings?”

The backdrop of the film is New Orleans, and the director and her cinematographers present it doubly as a hazy fever dream and a stark portrayal of the grit of the city; there are no romanticized cobblestone streets and horse-drawn carriages trotting down the tourist districts, rather a post-Katrina reality pervades the scenes of the film in the dilapidated porches, neighborhood streets, and the conversations.

The use of space and framing is clever, with Bradley employing close-ups in a manner that complements what is happening in the story. A notable example is the final scene where the audience is made to feel as stifled as one of the characters, Leanne, who is looking a shred of peace and space in the bathtub when her mother begins to hound her through the door. It is cramped, it lingers, and it is uncomfortable — we feel as Leanne feels.

The unprofessional actors recruited for the film found themselves in roles that mirror some aspect of their real lives. The performances are so nuanced and strong that, especially coupled with the film being shot in the style of cinéma vérité, one can’t help but feel as if Below Dreams were a documentary.

GALO had the opportunity to interview the director during the festival about the journey that led her to the film, its development, and the choices that ended up on screen. Read on to find out what she had to say.

GALO: You were inspired to make this film while you were traveling to New Orleans by Greyhound bus — would you describe your experience doing that? Thirty-seven hours is a long time.

Garrett Bradley: While I was taking the Greyhound, like you were saying, it was a long ride, and I was just traveling. I didn’t really know why I was traveling; I certainly didn’t go into it thinking I was going to make a film around this. My background is in concert photography. I’ve been doing that since I was a teenager, and I’m used to documenting everything all the time. It wasn’t until that New York Times Magazine article came out that I really was like, “oh, well, this is an opportunity to kind of work with this material in some way.” The film was based on these very intense sessions that I had with just strangers.

GALO: Your characters are all in their 20s. They have their goals, vague or otherwise, but they’re pretty different than the 20-somethings that are constantly being written about, the disenfranchised post-graduates. Why are these stories about people like your characters just as important?

GB: They’re just as important because it’s reality. If people are documenting reality in a journalistic fashion then we need to be journalists, we need to be real about what we’re actually talking about. I know that by nature, just as a filmmaker, an artist, when you edit something, you have to have an angle. That’s what gets people to engage, and when something’s too broad, it’s harder for people to bite off of. I think that there’s a majority here that’s not being talked about and that’s really interesting. I think we can talk about the majority because they exist and the majority should be heard just by nature of pure numbers.

GALO: You found your actors through Craigslist posts, I believe, looking for people with similar lives as the characters you wanted to portray. How did you go about choosing your actors once they met with you?

GB: Well, I had originally tried to find a proper casting agent in New Orleans at the time. I couldn’t find anybody who was interested in the project, they were all doing really big Hollywood films, and so I wasn’t really willing to wait around. I felt like there was a real need to make it happen, so I didn’t go into it thinking I’m going to work with non-professional actors, it just really came out of necessity. So in addition to putting posts up online, I also put posters up in women’s clinics, across the street from federal buildings, college campuses. I was really trying to think of the space that these characters would inhabit. I chose to focus on these three archetypes just because I felt like they were specific but they were also big enough to be relatable to the public.

GALO: What prompted you to use New Orleans as the backdrop of the film, juxtaposing that with New York?

GB: Well, I think that it’s a combination of being from New York and being able to relate to the idea of my city changing post 9/11. I feel like the Tribeca [Film Festival] is one of these entities that are really trying to hold New York down, trying to keep that positive energy of what New York is downtown. But New Orleans, obviously, there’s that same connection of post Katrina and how the city is shifting since that happened. It also is the kernel of the country for me; the genesis of our culture as Americans, and it’s very visible. It’s not something that’s being hidden by this idea of the future and what a lot of the bigger cities are focused on. I think there’s a lot of material to work with and that’s why I’m choosing to stay there, because of the subject matter. A lot of the issues and the problems that exist are things that I want to work with.

GALO: The film is beautifully shot, it was described as a fever dream of sorts somewhere, I forget where exactly — but it felt gritty and real and there was none of the touristy wonderland side of New Orleans. Can you describe what you and your team did to set the tone of the film in terms of lighting and framing, and what the vision was of your directors of photography?

GB: There was a seven-person crew, two of which were cinematographers, Milena Pastreich and Brian C. Miller Richard, and I split the two of them up. I had Brian work on the controlled set-up with proper lighting and marks, and Milena and I worked on the camera being a character in the city. So I shot a lot of stuff on my own and showed it to her, and she and I were kind of like, “OK, this is who the character of the camera is; this is where the eyes need to be.” She really went off on her own and was a one-woman team and shot a bunch of stuff, and we kind of merged that stuff together.

In terms of the big picture and the overall tone of the film, I come from a photography background, and if there’s one thing that I engage with the most in film, it’s usually the way it looks. I watch them sometimes more than I even listen to them, and so I really wanted to bring that beauty to the film. I wanted to experiment with new visual aesthetics and new ways of engaging with the content. I could have made, in the editing process, a really slick film. We had that content to make a really tight, slick film, but I wanted to play with this idea of when the camera drops, or the camera shakes, or when the camera starts fading out, and use those as transitions and new ways of engaging with this story. I think that’s why people think sometimes that it’s a documentary, but it’s actually just a choice.

GALO: Can you talk about the influence of the supporting characters on the main characters — there are all these great conversations, with Jermaine on the bike talking to his friend; the final conversation with Leanne and her mother; Elliot talking to the sandwich guy in New York. How much of their stories are shaped by these people in their lives, whether they are giving them advice or putting pressure on them?

GB: There’s very little shape in their lives to begin with, and that’s the problem. There’s this sort of preexisting circumstance that they really were all just born into, and that’s the only shape that’s really been created. They’re trying to work with that material they’ve been given to try and shape something that is theirs. So all that guidance that we see in those moments, those are just those little moments of, a bit of advice here, a bit of advice there, but unfortunately, it’s not the kind of guidance that’s built into their lives, it’s all sort of externalized dialogue.

GALO: The film ends with Leanne. How did you decide on where you wanted to end it, and why there?

GB: We ended the film there because I had originally written this guy, this knight in shining armor, to rescue her at the end of the film and he didn’t show up, which I thought was kind of ironic. For me, it was a matter of saying, “OK, what did it mean? What was I trying to say in having him there, and the irony of him not showing up?” So I just said what Leanne really needs is space. She has no space. She has no time; she has no emotional space, nothing for herself. Where can we go right now that’s really going to elicit that? So the bathtub was the place where she can close the door, she can block everybody out, and just take some time for herself. And even in that moment of her trying to do that, her mom still harasses her, but at least she is by herself in a tub and that’s something she doesn’t ever have. I think it actually worked better than if we had another character there in the end.

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