David Gutnik On Materna And The Representation Of Vulnerability
Updated: May 8
By: Nancy Naghavi
With the use of network structure in its plot, Materna, the debut feature of David Gutnik, shows the lives of four women and their lonely lives in New York City. The director co-wrote the screenplay with Jade Eshete and Assol Abdullina, who play the protagonists in the film, and one can see its effects in the story and the performances, all of which seem to be influenced by the films of Nicholas Ray and John Cassavetes where the director has attempted to show the different aspects of vulnerability and isolation found in the lives of its characters. A very social conscious film, Materna focuses on the economic problems in American society and offers its own perspective on injustice, the rise of populism and the burst of hostility and hatred toward others in the United States. Winner of Best Actress (Assol Abdullina) and Best Cinematography for the U.S. Narrative Competition category at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival, I had the opportunity to interview the director where we discussed the process of writing the screenplay, performances, and the film’s elegant musical score.
Nancy Naghavi, UniversalCinema Magazine (UM): What was the source of inspiration for the film?
David Gutnik (DG): The idea for Materna was conceived when I was at my most vulnerable. At the time, my co-writers, Jade Eshete and Assol Abdullina, were going through difficult experiences of their own, and the three of us found ourselves wanting to confront our most sensitive personal conflicts in our work.
Jade, Assol and I are also New Yorkers, and it is impossible to speak about the film without talking about New York City, where the film is set. Every New Yorker experiences this tug of war in our hearts between a place that feels so communal and so isolating at the same time. Materna was borne of that tension.
UM: I wonder if you can explain your script writing process. Do you stick to 3act structure for writing, if yes how did you develop it here?
DG: The writing of Materna began with private conversations between me, Jade and Assol. Working closely with creative producers Emily McEvoy and Liz Cardenas, we adapted our own real stories into a collaborative script, and Jade and Assol went on to assume their own fictionalized roles on screen.
On a plot level, Materna examines class divisions, technological isolation, generational disruption and political polarization through the eyes of four New York City women at crossroads in their lives. But on subtext level, we structured the film around the psychological and emotional spine of a single heroine’s journey.
So the film does bear the traces of a 3-act structure. Rooted in ancient tropes and life cycles, the 3-act structure is hard to shake entirely. Even in the most radically-told stories you’ll likely find a beginning that presents a problem, a middle that fleshes it out, and an end that resolves the drama.
But Materna does ultimately defy the 3-act architectural framework with a Rashomon structure that undermines any single governing truth in the film, in the end leaving the audience to ponder humanity’s shared fate.
UM: The film raised a few questions regarding affirmative action, identity politics and the conservative attitude towards it. We could deny it or stop to address it properly by labeling its proponents, but the good or bad part of the society is not happy with the identity politics and feels alienated because of it. How do you think that the medium of cinema could respond to this intelligently?
DG: I’ll try to answer your question. In Trump’s America, much of the discourse about our differences often seems hopelessly irreconcilable. Materna aims to engage with and reframe this dialogue in a way that at once recognizes real, meaningful differences between people—differences that have profound socio-political consequences on people’s lives—while also giving expression to the commonalities in our shared human experience.
In my approach to some of the political subject matter we came to wrestle with, I turned to the work of director Nicholas Ray. Light years ahead of their time, Ray’s films changed my life. Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause asked audiences to sympathize with a gay character in 1955 America; Johnny Guitar was one of the first feminist westerns; In A Lonely Place and On Dangerous Ground took on toxic masculinity; Bitter Victory was an anti-war screed; Bigger Than Life was a send-up of the all-American family that is as shocking now as it was then. These were radical political films that were personal, character-driven and grounded in some of the most vulnerable performances ever captured on screen.
I wanted to navigate similarly sensitive terrain with equal intimacy, working always to root the film in the main characters’ perspectives. Materna is a film that happens in bathrooms, living rooms, kitchens, bedrooms, the battlegrounds in our homes. I wanted to delve with extreme closeness into our most personal, private spaces to tell a story of modern loneliness and interconnection, while also capturing this very volatile moment in which we find ourselves, drifting further and further apart from one another. I wanted to allow for conflict, to watch characters disagree, change their minds, and grow. If the film is successful, it will allow for audiences to do the same.
UM: You mentioned John Cassavetes as a source of inspiration for this film. In what sense did his films and his unique method of working inspire you?
DG: I grew up in a Russian immigrant family in Brooklyn, New York. As far back as I can remember, I looked up to my older sister, who wanted to be an actor and took me to see my first movies. My sister was my hero. In retrospect, it perhaps is not surprising that when I started exploring movies on my own, I took to the films of John Cassavetes, a first-generation American director whose raw emotional work is rooted in his love of the actor. Perhaps because he was an actor before he turned to directing, Cassavetes was acutely aware that as a director he was nothing without his actors. The standard of performance and collaboration in Cassavetes’ films became a model for my own process and aspirations for Materna.
Cassavetes said, “It's very difficult to say what you mean when what you mean is painful.” This is a rather simple notion but gets at the root of much of human suffering. We spend much of our lifetimes lying about what we really mean, how we really feel. Not unlike the characters in a Cassavetes film, the characters in Materna hold onto their masks until they no longer have the strength to pretend. They must endure the catharsis of their own unmasking.
UM: You shared the screen writing process with Jade Eshete and Assol Abdullina. How was such an experience? Did it make it easier for you to work with both as actors?
DG: Co-writing with cast is an experience I wish I could replicate on every film. We built a level of trust and connection in the writing stage that carried us through production. By the time we got to set, I had already learned their signals for when they needed an adjustment, when they didn’t, what was helpful to them, and what was not. Just as important for directors as knowing what to say is knowing when to take a step back and be quiet.
UM: I was amazed by the beguiling performances in the film. How do you control actors in your film? What is good acting for you?
DG: Thank you for your kind words. That means a lot to me. In some ways, my love of actors is at the heart of why I’m a director.
An actor is somebody who is curious enough about people to pay them their undivided attention; empathetic enough to give full expression to someone else’s humanity.
Every time an actor walks into an audition, gets on a stage, in front of a camera, her job is to admit vulnerability, to reveal herself to strangers. If she can make me believe that she’s telling the truth, that her words, laughter and tears are real, she can save me, for however a brief moment, from my own fears. I can’t think of a single profession that requires more compassion, more courage, more wisdom.
UM: How is your working experience with Dop? Are you calculating everything before?
DG: We worked closely together to develop a visual language for each character, while taking care to maintain aesthetic unity. We shortlisted everything, but we allowed ourselves the flexibility to discover and adjust in the moment. Because we had a clear grammar rooted in character and perspective to guide us, we felt we could safely improvise as needed without fear of compromising the integrity of the overall tone and values.
One of the core ideas of our approach was this question of how to photograph absence, how to express the feeling of absence—of a ghost, or an absent mother, or a virtual being—visually and emotionally. We looked at Ozu’s wide shots. Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue was also a touchstone.
We also looked at Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s photography. We were dramatizing true stories in the film, so there is this tension of documentary and fiction occupying the same space. diCorcia’s photos possess this quality. The images are rooted in very real people and environments, yet tap into a psychic and emotional space where the characters really live.
We follow four women’s lives in Materna. But when we are with one of them, we are really with them. We tried to be as close and intimate as possible. Lynn Ramsey’s early work was especially informative. The magic act of for example Morvern Caller is the way it manages to transform intense introspection and interiority into the dramatic thrust and action of the film. There’s a plot, but the film’s true motor is the psychological storytelling.
UM: This is your first long feature film. How did you manage to secure the fund for the film?
DG: One of the benefits of our staggered production schedule is that it allowed us to fundraise gradually.
UM: What was the impact of Coronavirus on your film? Has it changed fundamentally your plan to release the film?
DG: We were set to world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on opening night of the program. Of course, the festival was postponed, so we are re-evaluating our world premiere and release strategy. I will say the US Narrative Competition jury gave us a boost with the Best Actress and Best Cinematography awards for the film. We have seen a spike in distributor interest since Tribeca’s announcement of the awards. So we are hopeful and optimistic about the film’s future.
This is not an easy time for anyone in the world, but there are new and unexpected opportunities. We may not be going to movie theaters for some time, but until somebody comes up with a cure for death and loneliness, cinema will always be there.