Justine Bateman on Visualizing Anxiety in ‘Violet’

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The new feature “Violet” opens with a horrifying montage, something that wouldn’t seem out of place in an arthouse horror flick, though the film that follows is a domestic drama.

“Family Ties” actress Justine Bateman made her feature directing debut on the film, now available on demand. Bateman brought on video artist and DJ Mike Relm to design the montage after drawing inspiration from Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona,” realizing that the 1966 film had provided a useful guide to immersing an audience in anxiety and commenting on shame.

“I kept saying the most important character in this film is the viewer. And I remember how [the opening montage] of Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Persona’ set up the way I viewed the rest of that film” Bateman said. “I’m watching these two women talk, but there must be something going on because I was shown all that stuff in the beginning. There’s something underneath all of this. Then there’s a terrific payoff [because] you were set up appropriately — you were handed a balloon string.”

She and Relm were creatively driven by what she calls the “candy store” of Getty stock footage. Together, they built something to tease out the fears of her protagonist Violet, a film production executive who can’t enjoy any of her success due to an inability to process her own mental health.

“We’re very dismissive of them,” Bateman said about the negative thoughts many people experience on a daily basis. “We say, ‘Oh, I’m just hard on myself.’ But in my experience, those negative thoughts, they’re like a little paper cut at first. But then you paper cut over the same area, and you’re to create a gouge that becomes a scar that becomes this groove that the needle in your record player keeps going over and over again until you think it’s part of your personality. When really, it’s just this lie you absorbed that now you’ve made real.”

Slowly, “Violet” reveals the different sources of its titular character’s trauma: harsh family relationships, catastrophic romances, men in Hollywood who abuse their power. But before any of those stories crystallize, their effects are made visually and sonically apparent in the film.

First, there’s The Voice. Before, during and after Violet’s stressful encounters at work and in her personal life, we hear her internal monologue rattling off everything she’s doing wrong and all the ways she should sabotage herself. But the voice inside her head isn’t hers — it’s Justin Theroux’s. The decision to cast a man, whose terrifying timbre in the film starkly contrasts with the softer, more tentative quality in Munn’s voice, came from a breakthrough Bateman had when working on her own anxieties.

“Years ago, I made a lot of fear-based decisions,” she said. “I didn’t feel myself. And I would see other people that seemed to be themselves, and seemed to be confident, and I was like, ‘God, I guess you just have to be born that way. Am I just stuck here? Can I become like them?’ And I realized I could. The thing that made the biggest difference for me was an experiment. I just started thinking about these negative thoughts as if they were coming from someone else. If someone else was saying them to me, I would not be giving them the validity that I was giving them. I would not be assuming they were all true. I would have doubts.”

“If someone else told me, ‘Don’t take that job. It’s gonna be bad for you.’ I would go, ‘Why?’” she continued. “But they’re my own thoughts, and treating them as such made me trust them. [Rethinking] that made such a big difference in my life that I wanted to give that to the viewer. I wanted to take the negative thoughts and make them sound so different from Olivia’s own voice, that we could start setting up that idea for the viewer.”

The beating heart of the film is Violet’s process of learning that The Voice has been lying to her all these years — she’s worth more than it says she is. So Bateman also imbued the idea of Violet’s return to herself using visual methods. Early in the film, she relives a childhood memory where she breaks away from a group of friends who are telling her what to do, riding off on her bicycle and enjoying a sense of freedom. The shots and the audio don’t match up together, making that freedom feel distant, disorienting, out of reach.

“When I was looking at the dailies, they weren’t synced yet,” Bateman said. “I had the audio and the video separate, and I would have to start them at the same time. But I was doing something else, and I didn’t start them at the same time, and all the dialogue slipped. Everything was out of sync, and it was great, since it’s a dream sequence. Your brain doesn’t put things together in sync, necessarily, when you’re dreaming.”

After the initial flashback, that memory appears again, this time as an image projected on what looks to be a movie screen Violet is imagining under an overpass that she stops her car at after having a hard day. Bateman said that she wanted that former freedom to “haunt” Violet, and recalled working with the lighting department to project a perfect rectangle of light that the visual effects team could lay the flashback footage over. The projected memory comes out again near the end of the film when Violet finally begins to act out of authenticity instead of shame, and in the context of Violet’s film industry career, there’s something symbolic about her struggle and eventual triumph to fall back in love with the big screen.

One of the most prominent visual aspects of “Violet” wasn’t introduced until Bateman was supposed to have already finished the film.

“Late into the edit process, really when I [was watching] what should have been my final cut, I knew I didn’t have it,” she shared. “I [was] missing this passionate desperation to get out of the situation. Like, ‘Can somebody help me? Can somebody get me out of this? I don’t know how to get out of this.’ And if I think of making a film as like I’m making a collage, then what elements do I have to add? Is it something audial? Is it something visual? Then I went, ‘I know: I just write it. I just write it on the screen.’”

A collage made by Justine Bateman
Justine Bateman

Bateman has utilized collage as an art form for many years, drawing inspiration from artists like Peter Beard and Ed Templeton, who often wrote on top of the photos and images they used, as well as the handwritten title cards in Sofia Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides.” So, using a Wacom tablet, Bateman wrote Violet’s missing thoughts and feelings on top of 386 different frames of the film, framing Violet’s face and body with her own handwriting. 124 of those handwritten pieces eventually made it into the film, saying things like “My new skin feels raw and red” before the screen begins to fade into red, indicating a panic attack induced by the hurtful lies of The Voice.

“It’s really interesting what it did to the performance. Because when I doubled up the number of things The Voice was saying, and then added this like desperate writing from underneath, it created this pressure cooker on the performance. My editor, Jay Friedkin, said that that’s [called] the Kuleshov effect. This is done in politics and in advertising all the time: take an image and put a word beneath it, and now your brain will marry that word with that image. It’d be very difficult for you to separate them. Take a picture of someone and say, ‘This guy’s a thief!’ ‘Yeah, I can see it in his face.’ But if you’d put down ‘hero,’ or ‘Teacher of the Year,’ you would make that association instead.”

In a way, the Kuleshov effect is a useful framework to think about how “Violet” ends. It’s a tool to reconfigure how we think of others, and Violet learns to use that level of intention when it comes to how she thinks of herself.

“If we were to see the character of Violet going forward for the next couple years, she’d still be attacked by The Voice,” Bateman said. “But you know, she’d have different tools to use. I don’t know if it stops completely. But it’ll be there less frequently. Because now it doesn’t have as many anchors to drop in you. Because you’re on to him. Right?”

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