Filmmaker Julia Kots explores complicated grief in “Inez & Doug & Kira”

Filmmaker Julia Kots explores complicated grief in “Inez & Doug & Kira”

When filmmaker Julia Kots set out to make her debut feature film, “Inez & Doug & Kira,” she knew she would have to adapt the writing to fit a micro-budget. Contained to primarily one location, the script edged toward drama, turning away from the comedic beats that Kots typically writes. The result is a dark film that weaves an intricate web between the film’s three title characters to reveal how even the most intimate relationships can leave room for the unknown.

Structured across three timelines, “Inez & Doug & Kira” presents a nuanced exploration into themes of mental illness, suicide and love. Written, directed and edited by Kots, the film opens with the death of Inez, who is the fraternal twin of Kira and a friend of Doug (Kira’s fiance). What ensues is a visually compelling survey of how the two remaining characters process their grief. While Kira and Doug sort through what their sister and friend left behind, Inez lingers through a series of flashbacks and dreamlike sequences.

Following its premiere at Woodstock Film Fest in October, the film is the opening selection of the Big Apple Film Festival, which kicks off Feb. 10. Ahead of its screening, we spoke with Kots about structuring the film, writing about mental illness and working within constraints.

First off, can you speak a little bit about the title “Inez & Doug & Kira”? How did the relationship between these three characters inform the structure of the film?

In the story, Doug meets Inez first, falls in love with her, is spurned, remains her best friend, then is introduced to her fraternal twin sister Kira, with whom he forms a romantic relationship. So it’s a triangular relationship with a lot of family and romantic tension. In general, a triangular relationship naturally lends itself to dynamic storytelling possibilities due to its inherently unstable nature, but what’s specific to these characters is that, although there’s constant tension, Doug and Kira really begin to fall apart once Inez dies. It’s almost as if they can only function as a trio. There is an allegory to the id, ego and superego — although, whereas the Id can readily be assigned to Inez, Doug and Kira start off as the ego and superego, but gradually swap those symbolic roles as the story develops.

Tawny Cypress as Inez in "Inez & Doug & Kira" by Julia Kots.
Tawny Cypress as Inez in “Inez & Doug & Kira” by Julia Kots.

It’s not a title that rolls of your tongue, that’s for sure. It was a working title, and I even held a contest for anyone familiar with the script to come up with a better title, but nothing worked as well. It’s just a story of these three people and their messed up, co-dependent relationship. I try to comfort myself that at least it’s not as bad as “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” or “Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene.” One good way to remember it is that it does acronym to IDK. That was a coincidence, but one that I think works well in terms of Doug’s fruitless pursuit of figuring out why Inez killed herself: it’s unknowable.

The film progresses through a series of dreams and flashbacks, all filmed with a unique look. How did looping through time and blurring the line between physical spaces help to drive the narrative? And were there any challenges to that?

The film is essentially a mystery, with clues being revealed in flashback and dreams. It exists in three spaces: the present, which opens the film and moves forward; the past, which appears in non-chronological flashbacks; and a surreal space, which begins as dreams, but then develops a magical realism to it, especially when coupled with substance abuse. Each one has a different color space. The present is rather cool; the past is warmer; and the dreams are darkly warm, distorted and have superimposed footage.

It was something we did during the shooting and in post, and it was a very delicate balance that was difficult to achieve. I needed there to be a clear visual cue to the viewer to let him know what he’s watching, but I also didn’t want something like a cliched dream ripple dissolve. I think the cinematographer, myself and the colorist did manage to achieve that delicate balance, but it’s definitely a film you need to pay attention to as you’re watching, and, needless to say, it is best watched in a single sitting.

In various script drafts, I experimented with different chronological permutations of the flashbacks, and the one that I settled on is actually very purposefully structured. I spent many an hour with index cards covering my entire bedroom floor, rearranging the scenes for optimal emotional and plot effect.

Julia Kots filming "Inez & Doug & Kira."
Julia Kots filming “Inez & Doug & Kira.”

This proved a little more difficult than usual for the cast and key crew. Films are normally shot out of order, but even our “order” is out of order, so everyone had to be very on top of the story timeline. I actually created a linear timetable of all the events in the script, giving them very specific dates, like, Tuesday, Dec. 9, 1997, etc. And I sent that to all cast/crew for reference.
Our edit was more straight-forward, partially because of this story structure. The scene order is not interchangeable because of the tightness of the plotting and the way plot information is revealed. So you couldn’t, as in many editing processes, try to flip scene order. Also, I pre-planned this shoot very specifically, mainly due to the fact that I’m a professional editor. It was all pre-visualized and drawn out (I do extensive overheads to scale — think of interior design plans — with each character move, camera angle and camera move).

That was really the only way I could shoot a feature in 16 days. So there wasn’t much footage to fool around with in the edit (although I did manage to create two new scenes in post!). I did edit this film myself (in addition to writing, co-producing and directing), because we couldn’t afford to hire an editor, but also because I’m a damn good editor, and I know this material so intimately that I never even looked at the script-supervisor’s book, which I normally keep as an arm-rest during narrative edits. (The script supervisor takes detailed notes about every take and then the editors refer extensively to those notes.) The efficiency of writing, directing and editing myself was extremely satisfying.

The relationship between the sisters is revealed to be particularly intense. How did you develop those characters and what were you exploring about their relationship?

Inez and Kira are fraternal twins, and the idea of twins has always fascinated me. I actually have another feature script about fraternal twin sisters, that one a dark comedy. Twins are the perfect literary foil, a great set-up to debate nature versus nurture. Just like Doug’s character, I sometimes wonder whether twins are better people, since they are born having to share and not being the center of the universe. Most likely not, but I sometimes like to imagine it that way. I also think that it’s probably the closest relationship you can have to another person, having shared a womb with them. It’s also the most intense kind of sibling rivalry you can have. Inez and Kira experience both extremes: you see how comfortable they are with one another physically, like in the scene with the hammock, which is very womb-like. You can also see how everything for them throughout life has been a bitter rivalry: men, jobs, pregnancy.

Tawny Cypress, as Inez, and Talia Thiesfield, as Kira, in "Inez & Doug & Kira" by Julia Kots.
Tawny Cypress, as Inez, and Talia Thiesfield, as Kira, in “Inez & Doug & Kira” by Julia Kots.

The twin relationship was also very important for the suicide. I believe that suicide is one of those things that makes either all the sense in the world or none at all. The twinship gives Kira almost an extra-sensory power to understand Inez’s ideation, although Kira herself is completely mentally stable. As she explains to Doug in the dramatic blow-out near the end, she understands Inez, whereas Doug simply can’t. And also, at the very end, with the flashbacks, I focus on how the loss is even more severe than with a regular family member, because at one point, Inez and Kira had been a single unit.

You focus a lot on objects: the objects Inez left behind after her death, the smoothness of the bathtub, the softness of the scarf. Can you talk about the significance of that in building the world of the film?

It’s mostly an interior movie with people talking. So one of the ways I tried to make the experience more visceral was through the tactile world of the film. Everyone’s felt the cool porcelain of a bathtub, cuddled in a scarf, savored a spray of perfume. It’s also an additional way to introduce characters to the viewer. The character of Inez is constructed through other characters: in flashbacks (Doug’s, Kira’s, George’s, Louis’s memories), dreams/surreal states (which are essentially Doug’s mental projections, with some magical realism thrown in), but also through these objects (or Doug’s handling thereof). There’s a subtle tension between which way is more accurate. Which is the true Inez? None of the above, probably, but there’s a case to be made that the objects are most objective. And they do hold clues, which, one by one, help uncover the truth.

Michael Chernus as Doug in "Inez & Doug & Kira" by Julia Kots.
Michael Chernus as Doug in “Inez & Doug & Kira” by Julia Kots.

How did you approach themes of mental illness and suicide? What did you aim to convey to audiences?

I have been interested in exploring mental illness and suicide, cinematically, for many years. The suicide rate in the US has gone up by 30% in the past two decades, especially in people with mental illnesses like bipolar disorder (what the title character Inez suffers from). I believe it is imperative that we use every venue of discourse — including film — to bring this uncomfortable subject matter to the forefront of our social consciousness and consider the mental health crisis in this country in its fully complex and nuanced form.

I also believe that in a truly free society, citizens deserve full bodily autonomy, which extends beyond reproductive rights. I think that people who are going to commit suicide need to have a safe and dignified way to do it, with respect to the loved ones left behind. I am very concerned with end-of-life issues, especially with our world’s rapidly aging population. I think our society has come a long way: Dr. Kevorkian served eight years in prison, and now we have five states where physician-assisted suicide is legal. But there’s still a long way to go with a country that offers more religious fundamentalism than health insurance.

So there are various political stimuli for this script, as well as personal ones. A number of scenes have been sourced from the lives of my friends, as well as my own life. Yet, the story, as a whole, remains a work of fiction. And, most importantly, it does not seek to offer any answers. I think all I’m trying to say with this film is that we need to have more conversations.

In a pivotal moment, Doug, a recovering alcoholic, decides whether or not to drink again, and it becomes such a pivotal moment in his journey to self-destruction. How did you approach that internal debate, and what made you decide to film it the way you did?

I was very specific with language in the script — about the way the amber-colored liquid plays on his face when he holds the bottle up to the light, etc. So it was very clear to my cinematographer how it should look and feel. He (Freek Zonderland) and the gaffer (Alan Blanco) did a fantastic job lighting it and creating such a haunting, yet heart-breakingly beautiful look. When Doug finally takes a swig, his face is completely in backlit, with the light only playing off his eyelashes; this is not only to evoke the darkness of his mental state, but also to give the viewer an opportunity to impose his own emotions on this moment. The viewer is not given a facial expression to read; the viewer has to fully invest himself to imagine what Doug is thinking and feeling.

Michael Chernus as Doug in "Inez & Doug & Kira" by Julia Kots.
Michael Chernus as Doug in “Inez & Doug & Kira” by Julia Kots.

And I always envisioned that the shot would last through two swigs, just stay without cutting for the time it took him to swallow, feel the heat of the liquid running down his throat and make the decision to take the second swig. The audio is very important here, very evocative. We paid a lot of attention in the mix to the sound of glass, the sound of the seal of the screw-top breaking, the sound of the swallow. And, of course, our composer extraordinaire (Lambert) created a beautiful cue, using both silence and music to build up feelings of suspense, dread, heartbreak and inevitability.

We actually had a hard time finding a whiskey that would let us use their product in the film. We called all of them and as soon as they learned the context, they said forget it. Which is a little annoying. I mean, obviously alcohol will be used in unflattering contexts. But then I remembered that two guys I went to school with created an artisanal whiskey right here in Brooklyn (Kings County), so I emailed them and they said, sure, knock yourself out. It’s a very unusual looking bottle and a couple of whiskey aficionados have complimented me on choosing such an obscure brand, but, like most things in independent film, it was by necessity.

A majority of the film takes place in one location. What were the logistics of that?

Eleven out of 16 shooting days were done in Inez’s house. When I was gearing up to write this script, I knew I was going to have an extremely small budget; therefore, it would mostly have to be set in one location. The budget ultimately dictated the story. My short films and most of my other feature scripts are comedies. And although “IDK” has flashes of quirky and dark humor, it is a drama. That really was due to the budget. I realized I don’t know how to be funny on such a small budget. Comedies are paced faster, ergo, have more scenes and more locations. I had to keep the number of scenes down, so each scene went on for longer. And it’s true that old Hollywood comedies could sustain long scenes (e.g., “His Girl Friday”), but I think it would be difficult to write something contemporary with such long comedic scenes. Also, it’s a bit of an indie filmmaking cliche — people get together for a reunion/Thanksgiving/wedding in a single house and comedy ensues — that did not resonate with me as a writer.

Behind the scenes of "Inez & Doug & Kira" by Julia Kots.
Behind the scenes of “Inez & Doug & Kira” by Julia Kots.

One of our backers was kind enough (or crazy enough) to let us take over his house for 11 days. It’s okay; we’re still friends. It’s a historic house in the West Village and although it has 5 separate levels (we filmed the space as if it has 2 levels), the footprint of the house is extremely small and so we were all clustered on top of one another — c-stands in your face and everything. Even though we were a very small cast and an extremely small crew, we were still way too crowded. You can see how narrow the staircase is. It was also challenging for it not to get visually boring, so I had to get extra creative to squeeze the most out of rather restrictive spaces, utilizing a lot of mirrors, architectural elements like banisters, etc.

This interview was lightly edited for clarity.

Top Image: Julia Kots filming "Inez & Doug & Kira."