Interview: Claudia Myers, Writer-Director of Above the Shadows
If we want to be seen, we first have to see others
Claudia Myers is an American screenwriter, director, and producer (Fort Bliss, Kettle of Fish) and an associate professor in Film & Media Arts at American University’s School of Communication. Her latest movie, Above the Shadows, starring Olivia Thirlby, Alan Ritchson, Jim Gaffigan, Tito Ortiz, and Megan Fox, is a story of a young woman who has faded to the point of becoming invisible and must find her way back with the help of the one man who can see her.
In her interview with Storius, Myers discussed writing and directing Above the Shadows, the personal story behind the movie, the challenges of filming realistic mixed martial arts (MMA) action, and her approach to storytelling.
STORIUS: What major themes do you explore in Above the Shadows? What do you want your audience to take away as they exit the movie theater?
Above the Shadows is fundamentally about how we see ourselves. The irony of our hyper-connected digital age is that it’s also an age of isolation. We desperately want “to be seen,” to feel validated and connected, yet we entrench ourselves in our own perspective and we lose sight of the bigger picture. The story suggests that if we really want to be seen, we first have to see others.
STORIUS: There are quite a few movies about an invisible human living among others (e.g., Ghost), but your film gives a new twist to that idea. Your protagonist doesn’t turn into a ghost; instead she becomes invisible simply because others stop noticing her. It almost sounds like you are replacing the supernatural element with a philosophical one. How did you come to that idea?
Above the Shadows is inspired by my childhood. For a variety of reasons — my mother’s prolonged battle with cancer, our sibling dynamic, my own insecurity — invisibility didn’t feel like a metaphor when I was growing up. It felt like a tangible state of existence. So it wasn’t a stretch to want to tell the psychologically grounded story of a young woman who has literally faded from people’s awareness and wants to find her way back into the world. That said, while the script has a personal point of departure, the feeling of being overlooked and misunderstood is familiar to a lot of people as they transition to adulthood. In that sense ATS can also be seen as a universal coming-of-age story.
STORIUS: Is your depiction of invisibility in some way an allegory for the ever-growing role attention plays in our society, thanks to the ubiquity of social media?
That’s a big part of it. The fact that people’s careers and reputations can be made — or destroyed — overnight says a lot about how we allow others to define us. Having gone from MMA champion and media darling to a “nobody” working as a bouncer, Shayne is invisible in his own way. As for Holly, who is literally invisible, I was intrigued by how easily she could navigate the world through technology — paying rent and buying groceries online, having conversations via text. It’s sobering when you think how little of daily life requires actual physical interaction.
STORIUS: Above the Shadows is billed as fantasy and romance, which is a very different set of genres than your previous movie (Fort Bliss, starring Michelle Monaghan and Ron Livingston). How do you go from a real-life drama about an active-duty single mother to a fantasy movie? What attracts you as a writer-director to this variety of genres?
It was certainly a change to go from Fort Bliss’ raw naturalism to the stylized magic realism of Above the Shadows. At the same time, what attracts me to any story is whether I feel connected to the journey of the protagonist and what it has to say about the world. Genre and style are secondary. As different as they are, Fort Bliss and Above the Shadows both explore the concepts of resilience and identity. Both feature female protagonists who are struggling to define themselves.
STORIUS: How does being the writer on your movies affect the casting process? Michelle Monaghan, who was a fantastic choice for Fort Bliss’ lead, mentioned in one of her interviews that you sent the script directly to her agent. Does that mean you typically have a specific actor/actress in mind when writing a character?
I don’t usually write a script with a particular actor in mind. When the casting process begins, that’s when I start to approach things from a directorial standpoint. I have a general idea of the type of actor that may suit a role but I try to keep an open mind. Sometimes less obvious casting choices can be really exciting. I would also stress the importance of working with a good casting director, who understands the characters and the overall vision for the script. I’m lucky to have worked with Sig DeMiguel and Steve Vincent on both Fort Bliss and Above the Shadows.
STORIUS: Do your characters typically evolve as you work on a script? Did they evolve in Above the Shadows, and if yes, how?
I wrote the script for ATS over several years and it evolved quite a bit over that time. The biggest challenge was the ending. What would it take for Holly to be seen again? I knew romantic love wasn’t the answer. I also didn’t believe self-love was the key. I wanted Holly to have agency in the climax and use the premise of her invisibility to say something about what it means to be connected to others. It was a process of trial and error and it was frustrating at times. I put the script aside for a while and worked on other projects. Then I experienced a personal loss that made me think back to my childhood and reassess my experience. That’s how I eventually arrived at an ending that felt both truthful and satisfying.
STORIUS: Can you walk us through your process of identifying the right characters for a story? For example, why did you decide to make the only person who could see Olivia Thirlby’s character in Above the Shadows an MMA fighter?
I knew that Shayne’s character had be Holly’s opposite on the surface. That’s why he is an athlete, someone who is defined by his physicality. It had to be an individual sport so he could be uniquely spotlighted for his abilities, so the question became what kind of sport. I was drawn to wrestling but worried that it might not be dramatic enough; I thought about boxing but many films already feature boxers. It occurred to me that MMA would allow me to combine those two sports, as well as others. I also felt that MMA was fresher and more unpredictable. In terms of his backstory, Shayne is a former celebrity who has suffered a fall from grace, and Holly bears some responsibility for his downfall. This connection is important. Thematically, Shayne is someone now living in a state of social “invisibility.” Like Holly, Shayne harbors feelings of abandonment and betrayal but doesn’t own the full story of how he got to that point. As the movie unfolds we discover that Shayne and Holly are in fact kindred spirits.
STORIUS: What was the biggest challenge in making this movie?
I wanted the MMA fights to have a high degree of realism so the biggest production challenge was pulling off these scenes with little time and on a limited budget. We had 21 days to shoot the film and the script had 26 locations so it was already a daunting schedule. Fight scenes are time intensive so the first step was to make sure that our lead actor, Alan Ritchson, was well-prepared going into production. Ahead of the shoot, Alan trained daily for six weeks with a fight choreographer and his coaching team to learn the basics of MMA. At the same time, he learned the choreography of the fights. He worked incredibly hard and it paid off during the shoot. To add to the realism of the MMA sequences, all of Shayne’s opponents were cast with actors who had fighting backgrounds. Tito Ortiz as Attila is no less than a former UFC champion! Having an expert like Tito on set was hugely valuable.
Our other strategy was to partner with a professional MMA organization for maximum realism and production value. We worked with Alliance MMA, who agreed to let us film one of our fight scenes during a live event so we would have the benefit of a real audience. In the middle of the event, the broadcast cameras were turned to commercials and we had 12 minutes to shoot with our actors in the cage. Because they were so prepared, we were able to pull it off with two cameras. It was an intense experience and the energy in the scene was palpable. And with strategic partnerships such as the one with Alliance and with the Borgata Casino in Atlantic City, we were able to give the story the look and scope of a much bigger budget movie.
STORIUS: What’s your advice for our readers who aspire to become writer-directors? What are good ways to get there?
My best advice for any aspiring writer-director is to start off with a good script. Unlike filmmaking, writing is cheap. Many directors (myself included) get their start with short films so I would suggest starting with a short rather than a feature. Make sure you watch a lot of shorts, break them down, and analyze them so you can understand how the story was developed. If you’re someone who wants guidance, needs deadlines, and enjoys peer feedback, consider an online or local screenwriting class. Another option is to read a good book or two on screenwriting before jumping in. Inspiration and instinct are great, but there’s a craft to screenwriting that is extremely valuable. Once you have a solid short script, find a community of peers and make it happen. A good short doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. Film festivals are a great way to showcase emerging directors’ work and expand your network.
Good writing and directing take practice. If your first short isn’t a great success, that’s not an indication of your future prospects. Continue to challenge yourself, learn from your mistakes, and keep at it. There isn’t a single path to become a director, but the one thing most successful professionals have in common is passion and persistence.
Above the Shadows
Twitter/Instagram: @ATS_Movie | Claudia’s Twitter: @claudiamyers
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