How Meredith Danluck Created Her First Feature Film, ‘State Like Sleep’

The writer/director takes RealClearLife behind the scenes of the critically acclaimed drama.

May 12, 2018 5:00 am
(L-R) Katherine Waterston, Meredith Danluck, Michael Shannon, Mary Kay Place and Michiel Huisman attend a screening of "State Like Sleep" during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival at SVA Theatre on April 21, 2018. (Andrew Toth/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)
(L-R) Katherine Waterston, Meredith Danluck, Michael Shannon, Mary Kay Place and Michiel Huisman attend a screening of "State Like Sleep" during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival at SVA Theatre on April 21, 2018. (Andrew Toth/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)
Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

In the opening minutes of Meredith Danluck’s State Like Sleep, the camera pans across an abandoned Brussels apartment as the bouncing piano riff of Tirez Tirez’s “Set the Timer” begins to play. It’s unlikely you’ve heard the Kansas City new wave band’s track, but it sounds like a pop song you’d be embarrassed not to know. Danluck herself had never heard it before the film’s music supervisor, Zach Cowie, played it during their first meeting. “It feels like something that should’ve been in a John Hughes movie that just somehow missed that era,” Danluck told RealClearLife. She immediately chose “Set the Timer” to anchor her first traditional feature film.

That song is the first indication of the playfulness of State Like Sleep, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. It’s a mystery movie with autobiographical elements, one that darts from quiet grief to exuberant pop music and never quits shifting tones. Katherine Waterston plays Katherine, the widowed American photographer who returns to the life she left behind in Brussels, where her mother (Mary Kay Place) is currently in the hospital, and her movie star husband (Michiel Huisman) committed suicide just a year earlier. The movie follows both Katherine’s investigation into her husband’s death and his final months alive, alternating back and forth between timelines. Katherine spends her homecoming trying to figure out the motivations of her husband’s club-owning best friend (Luke Evans) and a stranger in a neighboring hotel room (Michael Shannon).

The movie, with the help of typically-great performances by Waterston and Shannon, treats grief as its central mystery. While Katherine searches for clues to the secret life her husband led and ponders whether his death involved foul play, she navigates her former home city of Brussels as a foreigner.

The Tribeca premiere of State Like Sleep marks the writer/director Danluck’s first foray into traditional feature filmmaking. Her 2013 project, North of South, West of East, involved a four-wall installation, with narratives unspooling on each panel. State Like Sleep came to Danluck when she received a call alerting her that her own mother had been hospitalized in Belgium, where Danluck used to live. Throughout her stay in Belgium, she found herself retracing her past life and spending most of her time alone.

Meredith Danluck attends a screening of “State Like Sleep” during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival at SVA Theatre on April 21, 2018, in New York City. (Andrew Toth/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)
Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

The emotional high-wire act of Danluck’s time in Brussels brought her to the mystery genre. As she searched for the seed of an idea for her first feature film, Danluck realized that she needed to start not with a genre but with herself. Her return to Brussels, Danluck found, was itself a puzzle. “I think the process of loss and grieving is really similar to a mystery,” Danluck said. “No matter what kind of loss you’re dealing with, even if it’s something expected, like an elderly grandparent passing away, you’re still asking questions. ‘Who was she with? Who was the last person to see her? What time was it?’ It’s like you’re trying to put together these clues that will explain a situation that is completely inexplicable.”

The range of feeling is what distinguishes Danluck’s filmmaking. There’s the drug-fueled exhilaration of the movie’s repeated techno club scenes, the quiet romance of the hotel which Waterston and Shannon’s characters inhabit, the gloom of Katherine’s mother’s hospital bedroom. There’s a bizarre scene in a bathtub.

“Movies are in the best way a reflection of a life experience, and life experience incorporates so many different emotions,” Danluck said. “Maybe now with very genre-heavy movies they have more narrow parameters, and we’re not allowed to laugh and cry in the same film, or laugh and feel nervous. But in my favorite movies, you do have that multidimensional emotional experience.”

The movie world of 2018, dominated as it is by superhero tent poles and other franchise fare, leaves little space for the twisty narratives of mysteries like The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye, both of which served as inspirations for Danluck. It also erases the non-comic book leading roles that used to make stars stars, like the one Danluck sculpted for Katherine Waterston.

Waterston was the first actress to read State Like Sleep’s script. She was already in Danluck’s mind when Inherent Vice, a movie whose combination slapstick-mystery aesthetic shares something with State Like Sleep, hit theaters. Seeing Waterston play the sometimes tragic, sometimes romantic, always unknowable Shasta Fay Hepworth convinced Danluck that Waterston had the range her script required. “She’s got the kind of gravitas that not every young actress has,” Danluck explained. “She could’ve been a 1940s actress. You automatically project an intelligence onto her.”

Silence makes up a great deal of Waterston’s performance. She wanders through bars dotted with unrecognizable faces and dimly-lit hotel lobbies, cautious but never defeated. Playing loneliness on screen and making it charismatic is a tall order. One of the great accomplishments of Waterston’s work is the forward momentum she breathes into her character. As devastating as her character’s circumstances are, Waterston’s Katherine keeps making choices, seeking control in her every interaction.

This nonstop choice-making allows for the movie’s tonal shifts. The messiness of Katherine’s grief leads her in every direction, to both alienating and intimate places. “It’s the simplest thing and the most gratifying thing in life to be able to love and accept love. But there’s so many things that get in the way of us doing that,” Danluck said of the search at the heart of her movie. “You know, someone breaks our heart, or someone dies. Any kind of trauma we experience ends up being a roadblock to love and trust later in life.” Untangling the heartbreak of grief and love lost is hard work. There aren’t many movies in current Hollywood that foreground feeling, that treat emotional work as a plot unto itself.

Like so many new wave songs, “Set the Timer” sounds at once melancholy and hopeful. It’s key to the movie’s plot, recurring as a memory trigger for Katherine. The lead vocals floated above the melody, distant but filled with a light energy. Meredith Danluck makes room for every emotion in State Like Sleep, even the pleasure of finding a forgotten pop song.

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