THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

INDEPENDENT SPOTLIGHT: "ALL IS NORMAL"

Regular readers of this website will be familiar with the names Todd Bieber and Juliana Brafa. I initially wrote about the filmmaking duo a few years ago, when their short film One Number Two first hit the festival circuit. Just last year, I covered another of their shorts, Neck Deep, which went on to win the Viewer’s Choice Award at the Cinequest Film Festival. From the time I began reviewing movies on the internet in 1995, I made it a mission to seek out independent filmmakers and help give them some exposure. The ironic thing was that the most talented filmmakers I found were operating just a few miles away. Bieber and Brafa are Central Pennsylvania natives who make stellar use of the region’s inherent beauty in their productions. Seeing One Number Two and Neck Deep was thrilling, not just because of the local connection but because there is a unique excitement that comes from watching an independently made movie that brims over with passion, energy, and skill. Any true lover of the cinema knows exactly what I’m talking about.

In the intervening months, I have bumped into Todd Bieber a few times at Lewisburg’s historic Campus Theater, which brings quality independent, foreign, and documentary films to Central PA. On those occasions, he mentioned that Flexible Frame Productions (which he runs with Brafa) was in the process of making its first feature-length film. After multiple successes in the short format, it was time to take on a much bigger challenge.


 
That film, All is Normal, is complete and (as of this March 2006 writing) has just made its debut at the DC Independent Film Festival. Bieber and Brafa were, as always, generous enough to let me see the movie in preparation for this article. Fans of independent cinema, you are hereby advised to keep your eyes open: All is Normal will blow you away. Artistic enough to dazzle the indie crowd, this psychological thriller is also scary enough to pull in a wider audience. A lot of things must happen for an independent film to break out, but this one stands a solid chance of doing so. There is much reason to believe that you will be hearing more about All is Normal in the months to come.

This is the story of a young woman named Janet (played by Brafa), a college dropout who lives with her abusive boyfriend Bruce (Duane Wallace). After being empowered by her counselor Barbara (Oscar nominee Linda Blair), Janet decides to escape. She takes a job house-sitting at an Appalachian mountain home where Bruce won’t find her. While there, she meets Paul (Greg Burgess), the cranky realtor trying to unload the house, and Woody (Kyle Brosius), the friendly young lawn caretaker. Janet’s job is to monitor the house, show it off to prospective buyers, and make sure everything is clean.

Although the house is isolated, Janet finds that feelings of comfort do not come easily. At night, her sleep is interrupted by flashbacks about her past abuse. As time goes on, the flashbacks become worse, combining with the isolation to seriously interfere with Janet’s sense of safety. She begins to wonder if Bruce might somehow find her in this far-away place, even though she knows this is not likely. What happens next wouldn’t be fair to disclose; however, I will say that there is an incident, which may be real or may be a figment of Janet’s wounded imagination. Either way, it has some unsettling repercussions.

Tackling a thriller as their first feature was a gutsy move on the part of Bieber and Brafa. While mounting any independent production is full of challenges, it’s comparatively easy to make a low-budget comedy. As Kevin Smith’s Clerks proved, audiences will cheerfully overlook some rough edges as long as there is a funny script and some good performances. Thrillers are different, though. They too require good writing and acting, but they also require a very precise tone. Get that tone wrong and you’re film falls apart because it isn’t scary. This is what makes All is Normal such a triumph for its makers: the tone is spot-on, continually cranking up the tension and sneaking up on you psychologically.

There is an effective mixture of performance and style in All is Normal, and this mixture contributes greatly to its success. The performances are solid across the board, with Brafa giving an especially haunting turn as the shattered main character. She has some nice scenes with Blair, who realistically conveys therapeutic empathy. Because the characters, especially Janet, are so vivid, we easily become involved in the telling of the story. The supporting characters play off Janet in significant ways: the brusque, demanding Paul only increases Janet’s sense of nervousness, while Woody represents the kind of normalcy and security that she ultimately yearns for.

Visual style has always been a staple of Flexible Frame productions, and co-directors Bieber and Brafa use a variety of techniques to illustrate Janet’s fear. The best sequence (I won’t spoil the details) bathes the images in red light and uses almost subliminal editing to create a sense of impending threat. Another scene goes the opposite direction, relying on a steady camera and near-complete silence as we breathlessly await what may be a key plot point. These approaches are not done to draw attention to themselves; instead, they have been carefully chosen to convey the unsettling feelings that Janet has over the story’s arc. In a way, Bieber and Brafa put you inside the character’s mind, allowing you to experience varying states of mental anguish with her.

“I think our biggest goal in regards to the film's visual style was to always use what we show on screen to reflect the character's emotions,” Brafa says. “To that end, planning the placement of colors in each scene was very important to us. Throughout pre-production and shooting, we were very selective about the colors of props, costumes, and the entire sets. Another big part of the visual style was capturing the character's environment to show that it could feel both vast and uncomfortably small and close, depending on the character's point of view at the given time.”

That kind of attention to detail really pays off. “To me this movie is all about fear, but not in the typical way we think of fear in a movie,” Bieber says. “This isn't a slasher horror movie, or a fast paced, mile-a-minute, thriller movie.” He’s right. This is what I would call an “under your skin” movie – the kind of thriller that creeps up on you with an unsettling tone.

While Bieber adds that he and Brafa had different inspirations for the theme, he says that the concept of shell-shocked Vietnam vets was central to developing the story: “Anything (a smell, a loud noise, an object in a room) could send them into a flashback. Sometimes they think they are physically back in a wartime situation, and other times these ‘signifiers’ dig up old memories. I had read some studies which showed that women who are survivors of domestic abuse go through the exact same thing. This was surprising, but made complete sense. A soldier never knows when they might get shot at next and a woman in that situation never knows when her next verbal or physical attack might come. And this isn't happening in some foreign land, this is happening in our homes.”

Although it deals with serious subject matter, Bieber asserts: “It was never our goal to shove an agenda down an audience's throat. We wanted first to create a movie that people would be interested in watching, and despite the touchy subject we wanted to create an entertaining story. We also hoped to shed some light on the subject.”

The process of making All is Normal started with a concept that had been brewing in Bieber’s head for some time. He and Brafa retooled the idea significantly as they discussed its possibilities. Shooting began in the summer of 2004. As with all independent films, there were logistical problems. Brafa says that they “tried to prepare thoroughly before the shoot” and dealt with problems as they arose. Some things couldn’t have been predicted, such as Bieber getting heat exhaustion from shooting in a hot attic. A scene set in a snowy forest was equally troubling for Brafa.

“When we shot in the winter, my hands got so cold that it became excruciatingly painful,” she explains. “We had to stop the shooting and get me into the car. Then when I got warmed up and calmed down, we went out and shot again. At the time we didn't realize how serious my ailments were. It turned out that I had early stages of frostbite and then went into shock.”

Other production issues were less dramatic. Locations were found by calling in favors from family and friends, or from having them volunteered. “The house scenes were shot at a friend’s house in the west end of Union County,” Bieber says. “They had a picnic at their house and we saw how beautiful it was. During the party the owner said ‘if you ever need a place to shoot, just let us know.’ We called them a few days later and said ‘you remember when you said we could shoot at your place? Well....’ I think they were a bit surprised, but we ended up spending about two weeks of 12-18 hour days in their yard.”

That house is practically another character in the film, which Bieber says was their goal. “It was always our intention to try to make the location this Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde-type character in the movie. On one hand it is Janet's sanctuary, and on the other hand the vastness of the landscape and the surrounding forest was very ominous and showed how alone and vulnerable she was.”

Many of the All is Normal crew members were friends or people recruited from nearby universities (Bucknell, Susquehanna, Bloomsburg). Some of the actors came from other Flexible Frame productions, but auditions were also held. Because Bieber and Brafa knew the family of actor Tom Stechschulte (from 2004’s The Manchurian Candidate remake), they were able to land him for the role of a doctor.


Todd Bieber, Linda Blair, and Juliana Brafa rehearse on the set.
 
For the role of Janet’s counselor, a fortuitous bit of casting luck came their way. While showing Neck Deep at the Palm Beach International Film Festival, Bieber and Brafa met Exorcist star Linda Blair, who was there to promote another independent movie she had worked on. “We knew we had one role to fill in our movie so we made it our mission to track her down and ask her to consider being in our movie,” Bieber tells me. “By the end of the fest we ended up with just her business card, but it ended up being enough. We sent her the script, which she really liked, and within a week after her saying yes, she was on a plane from Hollywood to Pennsylvania.”

Brafa continues the story. “As one might imagine, it was a pretty intimidating prospect, but I was fortunate that she offered a lot of support. She asked before we started if I wanted her to share some pointers and give input during the shooting, and of course I said yes. So it was a great experience because I got to really learn from someone who has a lot to teach.”

There’s no doubt that Blair is terrific in the film. Her performance is, in many ways, the story’s anchor. Barbara is not only a counselor; she’s also the little voice in Janet’s head, urging her to continue on in life despite the overwhelming fear and intimidation she has experienced. Blair brings a sense of authority to the role, making us understand why Janet trusts her.

For added realism in the movie, Brafa visited a local women’s shelter and spoke to some of the domestic violence counselors and also to real-life survivors of abuse. The power of this experience made her feel obliged to portray Janet as realistically as possible.

“For me to portray this character to the best of my ability, I had to make every attempt to feel what she was feeling, not just do what she was doing. The scenes in the counselor's office were particularly difficult because my character, who usually represses her emotions as a coping mechanism, must expose herself to Linda Blair's character. Those scenes were tremendously hard for me because I had to honestly stir up those emotions and basically cry for three days while also being in front of the camera, Linda Blair, and on the TV monitor for the rest of the cast and crew to watch.”

Adding to that challenge was the fact that Brafa was co-directing at the same time. “For the parts of the filmmaking process when I was in front of the camera, I couldn't see the framing or objectively evaluate the performance, so, as a director, I had to make myself let go of some degree of control at some points. Of course I found ways to strike a balance, but I also had to give up some of that control, and trust that the other aspects were taken care of.”

Like any independent film, All is Normal has the occasional rough edge. But what’s amazing is how few of them there are. One of the things that was most impressive to me is that the movie looks like it would have cost in the low millions, even though it didn’t. This is an extremely professional looking production. Bieber and Brafa have always been confident behind the camera, using different creative techniques to tell their stories. For their feature debut, they have continued this trend, once again displaying a confidence in their material. The duo makes it look easy, but they insist it was hard work.


This homemade contraption provides the basis for one of the most stunning images in the film.
 
“We didn't have money for expensive cranes and dollies, so we had to make them ourselves out of PVC piping, old skate boards, old hiking bags, tree limb cutters, scrap wood and metal, fish aquariums,” Bieber explains. “When you don't have any money you’re forced to think outside the box, and a lot of times this leads to new, creative ways to approach a scene. We always were trying to use our limitations as an aesthetic. Rather than feeling disappointed or frustrated we just tried to make things happen in a non-traditional way.” This is, of course, the very aesthetic that independent film fans love – the ability to overcome limitations through a mixture of innovation and passion. It’s the very heart of indie filmmaking.

I’ll be the first to admit that, having greatly admired One Number Two and Neck Deep, my expectations were high for All is Normal. What I did not expect was for Bieber and Brafa to totally surpass those expectations. They have made the transition from short films to feature films with their trademark self-assurance. These are filmmakers who know how to tell a story – visually, tonally, creatively. Every choice they make contributes to the overall effect which, in the case of All is Normal, is full of suspense. The contrast between the serenity of the environment and the chaos in Janet’s mind diminishes over the course of the movie until, finally, the environment seems hostile and Janet’s mindset becomes oddly serene. That ability to defy our expectation is part of what makes the film work.

The plan for 2006 is to get All is Normal in front of as many people as possible. It will be submitted to more film festivals and is also scheduled to have a local theatrical engagement at Lewisburg’s Campus Theater. What happens beyond that obviously remains to be seen. What’s indisputable though is that All is Normal is a superb indie thriller. Todd Bieber and Juliana Brafa have shown great ambition in choosing this genre for their feature debut. That they have pulled it off so spectacularly shows that they are up-and-coming filmmakers with a very exciting future.


For more information on All is Normal, visit the official "All is Normal" website.

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