Everyone knows that “Batman Returns” is the best Christmas movie, but Zach Clark’s “White Reindeer” (premiering today) is a definite contender for reveling in the darker side of the holiday spirit. Newly widowed, real estate agent Suzanne finds her love of the holiday spirit put to the test as she wanders around in a haze of mourning, befriending a group of strippers and joining up with a crowd of suburban swingers.
Anna Margaret Hollyman, previously at SXSW with “Small, Beautifully Moving Parts” and “Gayby,” imbues Suzanne with a raw nerve. Isolated and mostly silent, Suzanne goes through the holiday motions with a watchful eye and a grief-induced willingness to embrace new experiences, from shoplifting to snorting cocaine, all while searching for the true meaning of Christmas.
How did “White Reindeer” come your way?
I met Zach at a mutual friend’s screening, and I’d seen his feature “Vacation” and was really excited to talk to him about it. And they were starting to cast “White Reindeer,” so I auditioned for Zach and his producing partner Melodie Sisk and prepared a few scenes. I actually auditioned in a kitchen, which was strangely helpful. The challenge of the role was going to be that so much of the time she’s isolated in this space, suffering this tragedy, and in a weird way I feel like seeing me in an environment we would essentially be working in was easier than some blank, empty, rent-by-the-hour space. It was such a small crew and team that it was a precursor to what the shooting experience was going to be like, which is very intimate and very focused.
And your shoot was longer than most indie film shoots, right?
We filmed originally around Christmas of 2011, because it’s helpful when doing exterior shots for a Christmas movie to have Christmas lights pre lit for you. But we actually ended up shooting a few times over the year until this past August. I had ample time to become very familiar with the character of Suzanne.
Was it hard to pick up Suzanne after taking a few months off here and there?
It was different, because it’s such an emotional and sad character to return to. And in order to pick back up where I left off required checking back in with her, where she was in her mourning process. Which was a little bit exhausting. It presented a new challenge as a performer, trying to keep that consistent and trying to get back in touch.
Was the movie you shot the movie you first read? Or was there a lot of improv on set?
The script itself was very cohesive and there were a ton of themes and plotlines that got cut. Like, she lost her job and her co-workers turned on her. But I think there was so much piling on on the character that it was just better to give the gal a break.
With indie films in general, there are different approaches and on any film set a million things can go wrong at any second. But Zach is very precise and deliberate with what he wants, and that was incredibly valuable. He knew what he wanted and the dialogue never changed. It can be a great relief when you have work to do and you can just relax and trust in the film.
And snort some blow.
[Laughs] That was actually powder that they prescribe to “listless children” in the U.K. At least, that’s what it said on the box.
What was the rest of the casting process like? Were you reading with actors during their auditions?
No, they were all in place. Zach likes to use all sorts of people in his casting process. A lot of local actors, people would come in from New York. At one point we actually had a man shopping in the grocery store who saw us filming and asked if he could be in the movie with us, so we incorporated him into the shot. But in terms of having to read with anyone else, even the guy playing my husband I met the day of. I met the girls playing the strippers the day they showed up. Which actually works with a film like this. That unfamiliarity, I think, benefits the performance if what you’re doing is trying to find your way in ultimate aloneness.
And you’re also in a short film at SXSW, right?
Yes! I’m in Lauren Wolkstein’s “Social Butterfly,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year. She and I met when I was doing the movie “Gayby” just a few days after I’d seen her film “The Strange Ones,” one of my favorite shorts I’ve ever seen. I was really excited because I was a big fan of her work and she had seen a few shorts I’ve done over the years, and we started talking about working on a project together. She was going to the South of France for the summer to work on a feature version of her one of her shorts, and she decided it would be the perfect time to shoot something together. So she came up with idea and I flew out there for this short for 10 days with an entirely French crew.
So it sounds like it’s about finding simpatico filmmakers as an actor?
Acting is one of the most difficult pursuits in the world, so it’s important to find work that you naturally respond to and try to pursue. See as many things as you can. The great thing about true independent cinema in America is it’s a great community of artists you can meet and become involved with, but the key is finding out what you respond to and what you love at the core. And letting that happen naturally. That’s the value of festivals, being around likeminded people. You will naturally find people who share the same ideas as you professionally.