After I attended a screening of Diane Bell’s Bleeding Heart at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, the festival worker in charge of the ticket line told us that everyone leaving the theater was talking excitedly about the film, a great sign that it has commercial potential. I think they were so pleased with the Scottish-born writer-director’s second feature because in addition to it being an exceptionally-acted character study—of not just one but two young women in turmoil–it was one of the few modern-day narratives at the festival that delivered suspense, tension, and thrills.
Zosia Mamet and Jessica Biel.
TFF programmer Cara Cusumano wrote this synopsis: “Reserved yoga instructor May (Jessica Biel) lives a peaceful, clean-living life with her boyfriend (Edi Gathegi). Her carefully maintained equilibrium is thrown out of balance by the arrival of her long-lost biological sister Shiva (Zosia Mamet), a street-smart yet naïve young woman caught working the streets and trapped in an abusive relationship [with her creepy pimp boyfriend, played by Joe Anderson]. May feels compelled to rescue the hapless Shiva but as she takes steps to pull Shiva back from the edge she finds herself increasingly drawn out of her sedate world and deeper into Shiva’s chaotic one.”
Bell wrote in her Director’s Statement: “I consciously wanted to make a movie that celebrated strength in women and in sisterhood. Where a woman doesn’t need a man to rescue her, just a sister. Where a woman is willing to sacrifice everything to help another woman, because it’s the right thing to do.” Cast against type, the talented twosome of Biel and Mamet is reason enough to see Bleeding Heart, but I was equally drawn to the movie by Bell, who has an interesting background. Having grown up in Japan, Australia and Germany, she earned a Master’s in Mental Philosophy from Edinburgh University and opened the first Ashtanga Yoga studio in Barcelona before optioning her first solo screenplay and settling in Los Angeles. Her debut film, Obselidia, was a festival favorite and won several awards. Her second film was originally called Shiva and May, but was retitled Bleeding Heart some time before it made its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. That is when I did the following interview with the engaging and animated filmmaker.
Danny Peary: When I first read that your movie is about a woman trying to connect to a younger sister who lives with a bullying, macho character I thought it sounded a little like A Streetcar Named Desire.
Diane Bell: I had never thought about that. It definitely has that sort of swaggering masculinity and a male character who is a bit of a brute. So, yeah, it’s not far off.
DP: The two females are May, a yoga instructor played by Jessica Biel, and Shiva, a prostitute played by Zosia Mamet. Is it true that the inspiration for their stories came from your own history?
DB: Yes. I taught yoga for many years in social welfare centers, and a couple of women I remember very well were sex workers, prostitutes. The idea of writing something about that was in the back of my mind for quite a long time, germinating. Then I had a baby and took off time from my normal work. But I always write, so I was writing while look after my newborn son, and I started writing the script that became Bleeding Heart just for me, and I started writing from my own life experiences about these two women coming together and going on this journey together.
DP: In a previous interview you said that you wanted to write a script in which women talk to each other because that’s so rare in films. You could have made them just friends, so did you feel there was something even more to explore if they were sisters?
DB: That’s part of it. In fact, in the very first draft of this, they were just friends. I pitched the idea to Greg Ammon, one of the producers when I’d only written about twenty pages of the script, and he immediately said, “I want to work on this, I love this idea.” And I think it was actually Greg who said, “What if they were sisters?” At first I said, “Oh, no, this is really about how allwomen aresisters. But then I realized that their being sisters brought something extra to their relationship, especially in that they could have had the same sad lives if they hadn’t been separated as kids. If not for the luck of circumstances, May, a yoga teacher with the perfect life, could have become a prostitute too if she had landed in the foster care system. They’re blood sisters but May was adopted as a baby and her sister Shiva was not. Their mother kept Shiva, but then their mother died and Shiva was put into the foster care system and had a rough time, and finally ended up with a pimp boyfriend.
DP: And May and Shiva didn’t stay in touch with each other.
DB: No. May tracked her down and they’re meeting as adults for the first time. They are biological sisters, but they haven’t grown up together and they don’t know each other. One got lucky and had supportive parents and affluence and privilege, and one was in the foster-care system, and didn’t have support and didn’t have much love. Something I noticed when I taught these ladies, is that none of them came from good, supportive, loving backgrounds. I never met a single woman living that lifestyle who’d had that privilege.
DP: And that lifestyle includes enduring violence?
DB: I still am genuinely shocked by the level of violence with which these women live. We think, “It’s okay, this is life,” but it’s happening in our so-called civilized cities.
DP: So was it your intention to get across what most sex workers experience?
DB: I feel very cautious about making generalizations. There are so many different women and so many different stories, and this is just one, this is one representation. I’m totally aware that there are many permutations of sex workers, many women who are empowered by their choice to be a sex worker and who feel that it’s a good choice for them. Shiva is a like a lot of the women I met who don’t think of themselves as victims, by the way. She’s street-smart and sassy and thinks what she’s doing is fine and “it’s what I have to do. No one enjoys what they do, but this is my life.” She feels like her boyfriend loves her and it’s their fate to be together and she can’t imagine leaving him–just as he won’t let her leave.
DP: Even though he abuses her and lets clients abuse her.
DB: A lot of those women have partners who know what they’re doing. The abuse comes both from the partner and from clients. And there’s an element of both going on with Shiva.
DP: Shiva never gets help…
DB: Yes, that’s a big difference between the two women.
DP: May obviously wants to help her sister leave her situation, and that’s the thrust of the movie. But what does she get from Shiva?
DB: She becomes a real human being. The name Shiva comes from Indian mythology. Shiva was the god who gave yoga and meditation to man, and was also the god of destruction—and from the god Shiva came the idea in the film that you have destroy everything in order to create something new. So there’s something positive to the destruction. Shiva essentially destroys May’s life, but it’s kind of like she destroys everything that’s false so that May is freed in a different way.
DP: Has Shiva been destroying everybody’s life her whole life?
DB: It’s something that’s brought up by her boyfriend. There’s a little bit of time in the film where you question Shiva and her motives for befriending May. So there is an underlying tension about that. She’s a little bit of a femme fatale, in a sense. Are there ulterior motives to what she’s doing?
DP: So as a viewer, do we have to work with the characters?
DB: As you go along you will question what their motives are. May has sort of an arrogance to her when she first approaches Shiva—“My life is perfect, and I can help you, and I can give you money and I can do this and that because everything’s amazing for me.” But then she completely unravels and she’s the one that’s helped more, in a certain sense. I have to say that the film is a little crazy, too. There’s definitely a thriller element to it, too. Last night at the premiere screening, I was amazed because it was the first time I’d seen it with an audience like that, and people were gasping and saying, “Oh, no!” There are quite a few thrills and spills along their journey and humor–it’s more than just a character drama.
DP: Talk about casting Jessica Biel.
DB: When Jessica was first suggested to me for the part of May, I thought, “She’s this beautiful, glamorous woman and I don’t know if she can do this.” Because I needed someone who could be believable as a yoga teacher, who wouldn’t wear make-up and would come across as real, that kind of thing. When I talked to Jessica, the first thing she said to me was, “I read the script, I understand this character. Everybody thinks my life is perfect, and it’s not, I’m a human being, and to me what this movie is about is this woman thinks her life is perfect and from the outside it us, but she’s a human being with problems and needs to take this journey.” And the minute she said that, I said, “She’s May.” I think she brings so much to the role. She was so committed to the process. She’s a trooper. She was in every scene of this film, working 12 hours a day every day, giving her 100%, A-game all the time. And she was so much fun and always had time to joke with the crew and keep everyone’s spirits up, even at 4 a.m.! She was amazing and I can’t speak highly enough about her.
DP: What about casting Zosia Mamet?
DB: She was suggested to me by my casting director, and I just went, “No! I know her from Girls and I know she’s David Mamet’s daughter, and there’s no way she can do this and play this street-smart, tough girl. No way.” I was in Los Angeles casting, and Zosia taped an audition in New York and sent it to us. And I watched it just so I could say I watched it. The second I started to watch it, I said, “She’s the one!” She just had the character down. Zosia’s this really intuitive actress who gives you so much subtext with looks and glances and twitches and things, and the result is so rich. I felt like I was watching a movie when I was watching the audition, even though it was shot against a white wall. I was absolutely entranced, like when watching a nuanced performance in a Robert Altman film.
DP: I realized about the third or fourth year of Girls, that there’s much more to her than being a fast talker.
DB: You sort of assume the character and the actor are one. And Zosia’s nothing like that character on Girls, and certainly in this film she couldn’t be more different. She’s really good.
DP: Did you audition Jessica and Zosia together to see if they had chemistry?
DB: No. We just had a leap of faith. We felt we couldn’t cast the two parts simultaneously. We wanted to cast May first and then someone who’d be believable as her sister. So we cast Jessica and then found our Shiva, Zosia. The same with May and Shiva’s boyfriends played by Edi Gathegi and Joe Anderson, who had to fit with the two actresses. It was like a jigsaw puzzle. Somehow I felt that Jessica and Zosia would be great together. The first day they met, you just knew. They hit their roles running. I saw that they have phenomenal chemistry, which was absolutely essential because the movie is in a way about these two women falling in love with each other. Jessica and Zosia are now great friends. They’re hilarious together.
DP: Did you want them to know more about their characters than you did?
DB: Absolutely. By the time we started shooting, they had to know more about the characters; that was essential. And that’s why I insisted on having time with them before we started shooting to rehearse, so we could go through everything and I could encourage them to ask questions. By the time we ended that process and we actually start filming it, they understood the reason for every scene in the film and why they were saying what they were saying. To me, that part of the process is like magic, and it’s not just the actors but it’s across the board in filmmaking, with also your DP and production designer and everyone bringing you such great ideas you never would have thought of yourself.
DP: After the rehearsals, how long did it take to shoot?
DB: Nineteen days, short, in Los Angeles. Fortunately, we had a lot of time in pre-production to prepare and I had worked with a lot of my amazing crew on my first film, Obselidia, because there were always seven pages you have to get through each day. Also the film has some set-ups with guns and action, so there were some elaborate things to do. But the shoot went terrifically well. I met Jessica for lunch a couple of months afterwards, and she said it was the most fun she ever had on a shoot, and that it was the least stressed shoot she’d ever been on. I felt, “Oh, my god, I did my job fine then.” Because I was waking up at 7 in the morning, and in my head, I’m going, “Are we going to be able to do this? We’re never going to make it!” I just never showed that worry to my cast and crew during those nineteen days.
DP: So how is it having Bleeding Heart’s world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival?
DB: I live in Los Angeles, and I came to New York a few years ago because I received a Sloan grant by the Tribeca Film Institute, and thought that having a film play here would be a dream come true. And it is. It is fantastic.