As a child actress growing up on the sets for films like Panic Room and Catch That Kid, Kristen Stewart learned early on to pay close attention to the director behind the camera. “That’s your boss,” she tells Yahoo Entertainment about her earliest memories of watching filmmakers at work. “You look to that person for everything. When a movie is really good, it takes a lot of people’s efforts. But what starts it is something so singular with a specific perspective. Even when I was really little, I knew that my job was to listen to that [perspective] and hold it like it was precious. And even as a little kid, I was like, ‘F**k, I’d like to hold that myself one day and share it!’”
Flash-forward to the present day, and the now 27-year-old actress is sharing her own directorial debut with the world, the evocative short film Come Swim. After premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in January, the 17-minute production is being released today as part of Refinery 29’s Shatterbox Anthology, which provides a platform to emerging female filmmakers. Starring first-time actor Josh Kaye, Come Swim grew out of a recurring image that embedded itself in Stewart’s mind several years ago and became the linchpin for a half-realist, half-impressionist portrait of a man whose mind is plagued by memories of a failed love affair, to the point where he feels like he’s drowning even on dry land. We spoke with Stewart about how she relates to the character we see onscreen and whether she has any desire to direct a Twilight-style blockbuster.
Yahoo Entertainment: You’ve said that the idea for Come Swim originated with the image of a man sleeping at the bottom of the ocean. Where did the vision come from?
Kristen Stewart: Initially, I was just fixated on the idea of a person that’s so over-aware of what’s essential to them — what they’re really in need of — but are unable to absorb it. So even at the bottom of the ocean, the most ultrahydrated place in the world, they’re dry. When you’re in your own head, your pain and struggle seems so dramatic and unrelatable. And yet it’s so universal! There isn’t any feeling that somebody hasn’t had before you. Once you’re in it, it feels all-consuming, but when you step back, you go, “What the f**k have I been doing?”
For me, the film tapped into that feeling of being mentally underwater: There’s so much buzzing around in your head, and you’re just in need of a moment of clarity.
Exactly. He’s punishing himself with memories and can’t really organize them. He can’t put them somewhere easy to process. I wanted to externalize a very internal sound. When he starts out, he feels things are whizzing by him, and he can’t grab them, but they also won’t go away. It’s about waking up in the morning and going, “Wow, I’m allowed to use my mind! It’s not controlling me.” When you’re in that state, easy things seem hard.
Is there something about the modern world that exacerbates that? You place the character in settings like a busy office and the front seat of his car, where there’s a lot of stimuli.
I wanted to put him in places that were normal — stripped-down environments without much detail. We don’t have much time to get to know this guy really well, so what I wanted you to focus on was your own projections of doing mundane things like getting up and going to work. But he is always cubed in: his office cubicle is small, the car is small. It’s only once he gets outside and finds the ocean that he allows himself to breathe. He has regrets about his relationship that have sent him into this existential crisis, and even though he hates swimming and water, he realizes he’s got to let himself float. Water is stronger than us, and if you fight it, you’re just going to f**king tire and drown. But if he lets himself look like a dork and bob around in the water, when he gets out he’ll be cold, but he’ll also realize that he’s not going to have to try and control everything.
The character’s circumstances are intended to be universal, but in working with Josh Kaye did you discover that men and women have different responses to this kind of mental state?
I think there are big differences between him and I, but more on an individual level. It doesn’t really have much to do with gender necessarily. The character in the story isn’t necessarily me, but I wanted to be as close to it as I could. The main difference between us is that I’m a little bit more explosive. There are a few things in the film that I’m so excited I didn’t do myself, because he grins and bears it whereas I think I would be a little more dramatic. He’s never acted in anything before, so he wasn’t trying to prove anything to me. He was just realistically in this environment and allowed whatever memories or ideas to stir him.
You incorporated paintings you made into the film via a process called “neural style transfer” as opposed to traditional CGI. Was that a process you had a hand in developing?
No, I have a friend who works at a VFX house and she was familiar with Bhautik Joshi’s research. I spoke with her about my painting and how I wanted it to feel illustrated in the film; I wanted parts of the movie to feel like a painting. I was talking a lot about grain and how to do that, and she told me about this guy who could take a physical painting and apply that style to a moving picture. So he helped us out, but I think it was something he came up with, and when the movie came out it was a good chance for him to talk about that process. I was lucky to be able to do it and take those two mediums and put them together. [Stewart is listed as a co-author of an academic paper about neural style transfer that’s on file with Cornell University.]
Has working on big-budget movies like Twilight and Snow White and the Huntsman made you leery of incorporating CGI into your own films?
Not at all. Initially, I thought I was going to need a lot of digital work on Come Swim. I had this long list of shots, but after we went out and shot everything I kept crossing them off my list during post-production, going “I don’t need that one, I don’t need that one.” We did minimal digital work, because everything we did physically was so cool. All of the makeup work on Josh was practical and worked. I really like it when you only have to use a small amount [of CGI] to patch things up and refine them. If you can get as much as you can while taking f**king pictures, that’s what looks the most immersive.
Would you ever want to direct a tentpole film yourself or does that not hold any interest for you?
Maybe, because I do like to suspend reality — not in a way that’s fantasy, but to get inside someone’s head and really feel embedded in something internal. Because a lot of times it doesn’t resemble what you’re seeing on the outside. So I think I’ll want to make small movies; I have no interest in making huge movies, although I like working on them as an actor.
One of your earliest movies was Panic Room, directed by David Fincher. Do you recall observing any part of his process on set that you held onto for your own work?
That was the second movie I ever made. I was lucky to have that experience so young because it was so labor-intensive and for all the right reasons. I always want to be in movies where if you have to work tirelessly and endlessly, and if it has to hurt and you have to do it over and over again, you get something that really matters at any cost. That’s what you do — you just do f**king anything to get it. That [feeling] probably started on that movie.
It certainly feels like the fans that have grown up with you through the Twilight films are embracing the work you’re doing now. Are you conscious of how they’re seeing you evolve as an artist, and do you hope they take any lessons from you as the develop their own creative voices?
Yeah, of course. No one is so special as to have any kind of original thought or feeling that nobody’s had before you. But I really do follow my gut as to the things I’m drawn to artistically and hope that there will be someone out there that feels it too. For that, I’m lucky. I don’t think about the greater narrative [of my life] or alter my decisions to say things to people. But I feel that if you’re really honest about something and are exploring something that feels worth it, there will be other people interested in it too.