Kanopy Conversation: Interview with Samuel Tressler IV, director of LEDA (2021)

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We recently had the pleasure of interviewing Samuel Tressler IV about his fabulous folk horror film LEDA (2021). Below, you will find our conversation covering a range of subjects from behind the scenes details, inspirations, and aesthetic choices. Read on to gain insights from the filmmaker, then see the feature on Kanopy by going to www.kanopy.com/product/leda. And remember, all you need to access Kanopy is a card from a participating library.

Kanopy: Before we jump into a conversation involving your film LEDA, we’d like to know what it is about this medium that has led you to pursue a career in filmmaking? We all approach cinema from various perspectives and we’d love to hear your story as it pertains to a passion for moving images.

Tressler: I grew up watching films and love the escapist aspect of the medium. It has a hypnotizing effect on me that I don’t experience as much through any other type of art. When I discovered more classic and obscure arthouse films a bit later in life, I became passionate about film as an expressive art form and started to experiment in it myself. Technical elements such as pacing and shot choice through montage, lighting, effects and photography combined with actor performance and a temporal narrative provide such a rich set of tools with which to express concepts and emotions and impact an audience. I wanted, and still want, to see how I can take all of this and find a voice that falls somewhere between escapist fantasy and conceptual art.

Kanopy: The narrative of your folk horror film draws inspiration from the Greek myth of Leda and the Swan. A subject routinely incorporated into painting and sculpture, it’s not one we’ve often seen on screen. Can you tell us what drew you to this story and why you thought it was ready for a cinematic adaptation?

Tressler: My friend and co-writer of the film, Wesley Pastorfield, is a painter and had recently finished a piece on Leda & the Swan when he proposed the idea of doing a film based on the myth. The amount of potential themes to explore intrigued me immediately; pregnancy, divine intervention, sexual and childhood trauma. We started researching and couldn’t find any true screen adaptation or a detailed story of the character Leda as a person. Most artistic renderings focus solely on the meeting at the pond, we decided instead to focus on the human element of the myth and create a psychological character study of who Leda might be and what effect her experience with Zeus might have had on her. I’m a proponent of film as an art form, or at least viewing cinema as a meeting point of art and entertainment, so to bring an iconic subject from art history to life on the screen was an exciting opportunity.

Kanopy: The period in which the film is set is never clearly defined but is alluded to through sets and costumes. It would appear to be the Antebellum South, but we’d be interested to know what time you hoped to convey and why you chose that over the original setting in Greek mythology.

Tressler: The lack of a truly defined setting or time period was by design. I wanted the film to have a dreamlike quality, relatable and recognizable, but not confined to real life. The mid-19th century feel was chosen to give the piece a timeless quality, not subjected to being seen strictly as a period piece but also a step outside of modernity. We used the myth as a starting inspiration but the story and characters are our own, so it seemed best to remove it from the context of ancient Greece.

Kanopy: The first thing viewers will notice about LEDA is its lack of any spoken dialogue. Can you tell us why you opted to tell the story visually, without any dialogue whatsoever?

Tressler: This was a big challenge in making the film and the story evolved many times throughout the process to try and get it right. Through my studies I became fascinated with the silent film era, with several films such as Murnau’s Sunrise (1927) being inspirational turning points in my life that changed the way I view cinema and its potential. With the restriction of not having sound, early masters of the medium discovered the concept of pure cinema through editing and use of a subjective camera to experiment in ways of impacting or expressing ideas, emotions, and feelings to an audience. I wanted to pick up where they left off, not only to challenge myself, but to see if it would be possible to create a wordless yet character-centric feature that still captivates viewers. I hoped that the lack of spoken word would draw the viewer in to the film, making it a more visceral and meditative experience than a casual watch.

Kanopy: One of the most striking aspects of the film is its use of rich black and white photography. Can you tell us why you opted for this aesthetic choice and how it was achieved?

Tressler: In conjunction with setting the film outside of a specific time period or place, the black and white palette was also intended to immediately separate the film from reality. Having this separation is important in my work, creating a piece that stands apart from reality while reflecting upon it. All of the technical elements were designed to follow Leda’s emotional journey, so myself, cinematographer Nick Midwig and gaffer Grey Adkins worked closely together to develop a scale of contrast between light and shadow that increases in turn with her inner turmoil. We also used certain filtration to help visually separate the different times within the film; infrared black and white for dream states and softening filters with anamorphic lensing for flashbacks.

Kanopy: Adeline Thery plays the title character of LEDA and delivers a powerful performance in a role utilizing no dialogue. How did you come to cast Adeline and what direction did you give her? Throughout the film she supplies intense looks that convey emotion via nuanced facial gestures. We’d love to hear how you both arrived at this level of intensity.

Tressler: Nearly every shot of the film centers on Leda, so we knew early on that the film would rely heavily on whomever we were going to cast. We initially spread a large casting net online and, coincidentally, Adeline Thery was our first zoom audition. We did callbacks with a handful of actresses, but with her background in physical theater, enthusiasm for the project, knowledge of cinema, and skills as an actor it was clear that we couldn’t have met a better match for the role. When we finally made it into production Adeline became a leading role of the crew as much as of the cast, helping with rewrites and producing. This was my first time working with professional actors and the process was very collaborative, rehearsing to find what about the script was working or not for the performance. Many actors could have easily played too expressive to make up for the lack of words and this would completely break the immersive quality of the finished film. Adeline was able to bring that necessary nuanced intensity all on her own and her performance is one of the main reasons I think the film does draw you in as I had hoped. My on set directing often focused on camera and blocking, if the acting needed adjustments it would usually just be me saying, "perfect, but slower this time." We did however spend many days training and practicing for all of her stunts; horseback riding, holding breath, falling, etc.

Kanopy: Water plays a central role in your film and is laced into numerous scenes as we see Leda bathe in a tub and repeatedly enter a nearby pond/lake. Given its prominence in the film, does water serve a symbolic function in the narrative? And what challenges, if any, did you experience in filming around this water?

Tressler: The film certainly does return to water time and again. For me it’s primarily narrative foreshadowing, but can also be seen as a mental shadow cast on Leda from the occurrence at the pond. Some image or element needed to stain her mind from whatever actually happened to her and that stain became the presence of water and the image of an egg. Shooting on and around water is certainly a challenge, especially when working with a 70 lb dual camera 3D setup. We built slider rigs to suspend the cameras upside down an inch above water, constructed a 9 foot tall adjustable catwalk to be submerged in the pond and even shot underwater. In all, we spent days with half of the crew in wetsuits and waders. We also had to consider temperature for swimming scenes and rescheduled several shoot days, yet in the end Adeline still had to swim in a frigid pond during an unseasonable June. She had to hold her breath upside down, walk on water, and act with open eyes while submerged. I now agree from experience with the common advice of avoiding having to shoot on, in, or around water.

Kanopy: Since the source material involves Zeus appearing to Leda in the form of a swan, an actual swan is shown within your film. While viewers are accustomed to seeing animals (especially trained dogs, cats, and horses) in film, a swan is not as common. Can you give us a behind the scenes look into what it was like filming with a swan and how open this animal was to the filmmaking process?

Tressler: The most difficult part was finding a swan. I had done some test shots with wild swans in a community lake, but these were anything but controllable. We did have a wrangler for horses and dogs and one even for doves and a hawk, but nowhere could I find a swan handler. Finally, on craigslist of all places, there was a swan for sale. We adopted him and moved him into the menagerie of my parents’ farm. We had a large crate for him that he would travel in for shoot days and surprisingly he was an incredibly relaxed talent to work with. We would sit him in the shot and he’d flap his wings or stare at the camera and it was that easy. He would get a bit excited when shooting at the pond and swim off to do his swan thing, but he was friendly and never irritable, even with many crew around. We named him Zeus.

Kanopy: Beyond the story of Leda and the Swan, what other works (be those cinematic or other forms of art) did you refer to for inspiration.

Tressler: I explored many of the other adaptations of the myth, the poem by Yeats for example has a few direct references in the film's finale. As Leda’s divine pregnancy also reflects that of Mary, I included many paintings of her in my research as well. Much of the inspiration also came from cinema; the effects of Méliès and Cocteau, German Expressionist lighting, the surrealism of Epstein and Buñuel, and so many other filmmakers and films became more direct points of reference; Repulsion (1965), City Girl (1930), Les Amants (1958), Orpheus (1950), L'Atalante (1934), Images (1972)the list goes on. Some of these influences became a bit more toned down as the project was polished but many are still recognizable.

Kanopy: LEDA is your feature film debut as a director, but you’ve crafted short works in the past. We’re big believers in short-format films, as they often lend themselves to experimentation. We’d love to hear what it was like transitioning from shorts to a feature-length work for LEDA.

Tressler: I agree that the short form is great for experimenting. In such a condensed format one can completely focus on a central idea or emotion, which lends itself well to the type of concept-based filmmaking I like to do. Expanding to the feature format was intimidating and proved to be a learning process all the way to the end. With a feature, you’re much more tied to having a through-line narrative and deeper characters, both of which had been either non-existent or fairly 2D in my short work. This led to many adjustments and changes along the way, with the script transforming considerably during production and even in the edit. The scheduling of a larger crew and the costs of production made everything take so much longer. The project was completely independent and funded and produced by Clark Kline and myself, plus 3 different crowdfunding campaigns. This led to a shooting schedule that spanned 11 months, with breaks for Clark and I to work enough commercial gigs to be able to afford the next stretch. During these shooting breaks I also I began creating shorts again. This helped me to feel like I was still able to play with the medium and express myself more immediately while I waited patiently for the whale of the project to move along. I’d also say that with a longer format it becomes more difficult to objectively view the piece by the time you finish it. There are so many little changes possible throughout a feature-length runtime that it can be a challenge to maintain a view of the picture as a whole and to not lose yourself in the minutia. To be honest, it wasn’t until we finally premiered the film in a full theater that I was able to appreciate and be proud of what we had made.

Kanopy: And now that we have welcomed LEDA to Kanopy, could you name a few other #filmsthatmatter to you? Especially titles that viewers should see after watching LEDA.
Tressler: It’s truly a satisfying honor to be added to a slate of so many amazing films. Here are a few post-Leda recommendations and why they are "must sees." Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946) for Cocteau’s practical effects and poetic photography. His Orphic trilogy is my favorite but I played Beauty and the Beast for my cinematographer to give him a visual sense of fairytale and magical realism that I was striving for. Last Year at Marienbad (1961) by Alain Resnais. The way that Resnais plays with time within his films is unlike any other director I know. The Tenant (1976) by Roman Polanski. A quirky psychological thriller with some humor. Alphaville (1965) by Jean-Luc Godard. Arthouse sci-fi noir, I don’t think it gets much cooler than this. Dead Ringers (1988) by David Cronenberg. Cronenberg is a master of genre, but this film is so much more than a simple body horror. Every time I watch it it takes days for my head to stop reeling. The several shorts of Maya Deren that are on the platform as many reviews have compared Leda to her style. The series Masterworks of American Avant-garde Experimental Film…There are so many more pictures I could call out, but we’ll leave it at that.