Chris Terrio’s Heights

Living in the northern hinterlands of Washington State, perhaps I’m more susceptible to luxuriantly photographed Manhattan fantasies about articulate, witty New Yorkers than most critics.

Heights, a feature debut by director Chris Terrio, celebrates its essential New York-ness as few other films have. Along with the screenwriter Amy Fox, the impressive cinematographer Jim Denault, and a flawless cast, Terrio tracks a day in the life of Isabel (played by Elizabeth Banks), a woman in her twenties, who balances her upcoming wedding to a handsome young attorney (James Marsden) with her struggle to establish a name for herself as a photographer. From the Chelsea flat that she and her fiancé share, to the Condé Nast building, to the theatre district of the Upper West Side, Heights has an irresistible site-specific authenticity.

The visual exhilaration of this movie encompasses a number of superbly executed split screen effects. In the best of these, a mother and daughter walk to meet each other while conversing on their cell phones. Diana (Glenn Close) strides on the left side of the frame; Isabel has the right half. The filmmakers use medium shots so that you can see the entire person—no talking heads here—as well as the city sidewalks behind her. At one point, the women come within sight, and with the screens still split, they walk toward each other until, moving from the right, the two letter-boxed screens elide seamlessly into a full width single frame again. The split screen device, in the hands of Terrio and the film’s editor Sloane Klevin, conveys laconically what mere cuts wouldn’t, and it fuses content with form aesthetically, pleasurably.


Heights, however, might not be quite as delicious if it weren’t so impeccably cast. As Diana Lee, a star of stage and screen, Close plays off our sense of her as an icon. In this role, she suggests the kind of freedom that Katharine Hepburn had at her peak in the 1930s and ‘40s. Close’s Diana doesn’t suffer excessively as other Close personae have; she’s pure elation. At the beginning of the film, Diana critiques students as they rehearse a passage from Macbeth. She interrupts their pale misreading and recites the same lines, which, in her cadences, awakens the poetry and the drama that her students miss. The scarier subtext of Diana’s criticism is that it applies equally to the young actors in her class as to entire generations of passive, apathetic consumers.

At the end of the lesson, Diana admonishes her inert students to “Take a risk sometime this weekend!” Terrio and Fox don’t belabor it, but that is their lesson to us as well. Heights began as a one-act play by Fox; as Terrio embellishes the work, it looks at the ways in which men and women who toil in the arts—an occupation that demands intense self-motivation—cannot quite steel themselves for (to borrow Stewart Stern’s expression) “going through splat.” One young actor pines, “I can’t keep doing fringe festivals.” Yet who will take that leap up to the next level for him? And the same for Isabel, who wishes to photograph subjects other than weddings and children.

They’re trying to rise to something,” Terrio said, when I met with him at the 31st Seattle International Film Festival, “and they don’t even know what they’re trying to rise to. But there’s sort of a sense that ‘I should be in a higher place than I am.’”

Heights also features the playwright and monologuist Eric Bogosian in a few scenes. Having caught Bogosian’s one-man show Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll a couple of times in the early ‘90s, I found him almost unrecognizable as Henry—a soft, airily effete stage director who trades backstage banter with Diana. (“Married and gay! Darling, where’s your husband?”) Fifteen years ago, Close and Bogosian would have seemed inconceivable as acting partners. Here and now, as if under a spell, they are just right.

heights_terrioTerrio, a native New Yorker born in 1976, holds an MFA in Film Production from USC. His first intimation of a big break came when he joined Merchant Ivory on their adaptation of Henry James’ The Golden Bowl. As a literary researcher, Terrio’s job was to find short stories for Uma Thurman to read, to help the actress get into the character. From that, he moved into more of a hands-on role, assisting James Ivory on the set of Le Divorce. The late producer Ismail Merchant believed that Terrio could bring off a film of his own; the resulting work, released this month by Sony Pictures Classics, doesn’t disprove him.

N.P. Thompson: Heights is such a stunner, visually. I didn’t know until the ending credits—because I never look at a press kit ahead of time—that your director of photography was Jim Denault. And I thought: that’s why this movie looks so good—you had Jim Denault. How did the two of you collaborate on the film’s imagery? His use of color is just exquisite.

Chris Terrio: That’s the thing. Jim is a poet with uncorrected fluorescents. He lets things go green and go blue, and he was very deliberate about that. We tested all kinds of film stocks to see what New York would look like at night, with filters emphasizing the blue-green glow of the city lights. Being that it’s a film produced by Merchant Ivory, I right away wanted to distinguish the visual style from their other films. I wanted it to have an urban edge that might be unexpected in Merchant Ivory. And I looked at several DPs; then finally I came across Jim and I’d been a fan of his from Boys Don’t Cry, The Believer, and then more recently I saw Maria Full of Grace, which he filmed in such a beautiful way, and I thought if we could take Jim’s signature lighting and add to that a more classical shooting style, in terms of composition, then we’d have something unique. Because this film isn’t terribly daring in the way that the camera moves: it doesn’t rove around or gyrate up and down. We wanted to let the actors move and let the shots be composed for the most part, until the end where, by design, it breaks apart a little, and to combine that with an adventurous lighting scheme. Jim’s really versatile on the set. He can light something with a bounce board and flashlight if he needs to. Or you give him a Technocrane and giant helium lights, and he can do gorgeous things.

NPT: I was especially dazzled by the rooftop sequence with Matt Davis and Elizabeth Banks, with the skyline shimmering in wide angle behind them, and it’s nearing twilight. The colors and the composition are unassumingly spectacular; it felt like a color counterpart to how Gordon Willis used black-and-white in Manhattan.


CT: Oh, Gordon Willis was exactly the person we were consciously emulating in some places. There’s just nothing like that movie—when you see a good print of it, it’s just extraordinary photography. He was definitely an influence. That scene in particular, we weren’t going to shoot it that night because it had been raining on and off; instead, we shot Michael Murphy’s scene as a New York Times editor, in a room in that same building, and then finally it cleared, it looked like we had twilight. We said to Michael, “Do you mind if we go try to do this for an hour and a half?” and he said, “No, I’ll read the paper—go,” and we went . . . We were lucky to get that scene.

NPT: And the use of water, the bodies of water that surround Manhattan—they become a presence, too.

CT: Having grown up on Staten Island, I know Manhattan as an island. I know it as the distant island that you go to. A lot of the movie takes place on the west side, and the Hudson River in the morning and at night is a big part of the film’s milieu. I’m also fascinated by the world of On the Waterfront, because my grandfather was a longshoreman. So, the west side of Manhattan holds a slightly romantic appeal for me. I like those scenes where characters stand on a balcony or a roof with the lights of the river in the distance, and then in the morning when the sun’s coming up, the ferry’s coming in, the traffic’s on the West Side Highway, and the city’s starting over again. Whether everyone is still as fucked up as they were the night before, somehow there’s a bit of optimism to it.

NPT: I also love the split screens in the movie. How did you decide to make them part of the narrative?

CT: The very first place where I began thinking about it was a scene where Isabel comes on two characters on a rooftop and discovers something about them. I was worried that reaction shots—Isabel turns, and then they turn—would look like a sitcom or a farce. So, I thought, what if we had to watch Isabel watching these characters, seeing all three at the same time? I began to think about splitting the screen there, then I came up with the scene where Diana and Isabel are on cell phones and eventually meet up, which is a very New York thing, and probably a very Seattle thing, since this is a walking city, too. Then we built the others into it, and I thought they had to do a lot with A), the photography, because suddenly you’re more conscious of watching the film when the screen moves like that, and B), the multiple screens are visual shorthand for the simultaneity of a film that takes place over the course of a single day, for the multiple perspectives within it. Sloane Klevin, my great editor, and I worked hard figuring out exactly how split screens would fit in. And further, there would be a way to go with this that’s kind of a Mike Figgis avant-garde way of letting the screens go crazy, but we thought we’d restrain ourselves and give an even approach to it.

NPT: Your use of split screens is as elegant as De Palma’s, especially in the shot of Diana and Isabel in profile just before the frames merge again.

heights_posterCT: There’s a funny story behind that scene. That was probably my biggest nightmare day, because I’d had this high concept that it was going to be done in one shot, we’d have two Steadicams, the actors had to remember all their lines; we didn’t have enough money to close off the streets, so basically those people walking are just normal people. We had to get a take where nobody was looking in the lens, and it was in focus, and all these things…the actors were on radio mics, and I was sitting two blocks away at the end of the shot with headphones on. Actors forget when they’re on radio mic that I can hear everything they’re saying, even when they’re not on camera. So, Glenn is outside the St. James Theatre where The Producers is playing, she’s getting ready to do the shot, I’m listening on my headphones, and Mel Brooks walks out—he’d been there to watch a rehearsal or something—and goes, “Glenn, what are you doing here?” And she says, “Mel! Oh my god, I’m shooting this movie and, you know, the director, he’s got two Steadicams in the middle of the day in the middle of midtown, no crowd control, one take—not gonna happen!” Two blocks away, I’m slinking down into my chair, wanting to disappear off the face of the earth. But then we got it in the first take right after lunch, and I was praying that the shot was all in focus, which luckily it was.

NPT: I wanted to thank you for reviving the split screen as a cinematic option, because a week or so ago I saw Thomas Reidelsheimer’s new film Touch the Sound. His images are glorious, but the cuts annoyed me. He creates such unusual patterns with water and light, and I thought, instead of pulling away from them to go back to interviews or to performance footage [the movie documents the Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie], why doesn’t he show us everything at once?

CT: Producers often—Ismail Merchant pretty much left me alone—but producers get worried about things like that. When we showed Heights to Sundance, there was someone there who talked to Sony and said, “Well, we like the film but you should be aware that the critics are going to cream him on those split screens because they’re so dated and they’re so this and they’re so that.” Sony reported that to me, but they were supportive about keeping them in, so in the end, the movie stayed exactly as I wanted it. But people get nervous any time you start playing with the medium in that way, even if it’s a pretty tame way to play with the medium.

NPT: You and Denault play inventively in how you photograph the James Marsden character, Jonathan, as he makes a phone call from his law office. Instead of placing the camera in the room with him, you shoot the exterior of the building, with all the windows above and below and out to the side, so that he’s boxed into this one little corner viewed from a distance. We see how trapped he is in this upwardly mobile prison.


CT: I’m glad you saw that, because that’s a tribute to my father’s 30 years of writing manuals for a company. I remember visiting his workplace when I was 8, and the sense of being boxed in was so acute. So I had this idea of trapping Jonathan in that world, and there are all these boxes and frames within frames everywhere. We shot that from a hotel room across the way, but we couldn’t tell them we were making a movie, so we just did it guerrilla-style since we couldn’t get a permit. This shows you how nervy Ismail Merchant is: after we’d been filming up there for an hour, after demanding that particular room because it had the best view of the other building, he went and said—we’re not happy with the room, we’d like our money back. And he got it!

NPT: When you were studying English literature, did you have the desire then to be a filmmaker—guerrilla-style or not?

CT: In college I acted and directed in theatre; when I was in grad school in England, I found myself hanging out at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art all the time and not doing any of my course work at Cambridge. That’s kind of when I began getting tipped off that I should do something else.

NPT: Who made an impact on you, cinematically?

CT: I like Altman and Fellini and P.T. Anderson. Probably one of my favorite movies is The Passion of Joan of Arc, because to me it’s all about the close-up and what cinema can do that theatre can’t. I used to be a snob about the theatre. Why bother making movies? It’s so much better if you can see a real performance at the theatre. But then The Passion of Joan of Arc showed me there’s a whole interior world that you can’t necessarily get on stage.

NPT: Speaking of the stage, I love the chemistry, visual and otherwise, between Glenn Close and Eric Bogosian, playing an actress and a director who are confidants. I would never have pegged these two for a collaboration, yet they’re so at ease with each other, especially in the scene at night on her balcony where she sort of leans into him.

CT: That’s one of my very favorite relationships in the movie. Glenn and Eric hadn’t really known each other before this, but they took to each other immediately. There’s a certain kind of friendship that I think is rarely seen in movies, which are these old friends who are almost more intimate than any lovers could be. Especially with people in the arts, you get this kind of friendship where there’s a man and a woman who don’t have a sexual relationship but have just known each other for 30 years and that they have a certain kind of familiarity and intimacy.


NPT: Eric was here in Seattle a few weeks ago to promote his new novel Wasted Beauty, but at the Q&A I attended, everyone kept asking him about Heights. The movie had already press screened, and people wanted to talk about it. I asked him what it was like to work with a first-time director, and he said that some first-timers he’d worked with tend to be intimidated by their DPs, but that you knew exactly what you wanted and what you were doing.

CT: Well, my mom sent him a check to say that. No, it’s easy to work with them because they come from the theatre—Eric and Glenn come to work ready to roll up their sleeves and figure stuff out. There’s no sense of “Miss Close will descend from her trailer now.”

NPT: How much of Glenn’s improvisations reshaped Diana?

CT: They did reshape Diana quite a bit tonally. Glenn said to me, “I don’t want to play a caricature. I don’t want to play the diva who sweeps into the room.” And I felt the same way—I wanted you to be able to see Diana at her vulnerable moments when she’s alone, alone in front of a wall or alone in front of a mirror, because otherwise she would be a histrionic type. I love Dianne Wiest in Bullets over Broadway, but that isn’t what we wanted here. When Diana’s complaining about the dress she wears onstage as Lady Macbeth, that comes from Sunset Boulevard, because Glenn would always have these long trains trailing behind her, and we were trying to figure out exactly the moment when Diana would stop the rehearsal [for the Scottish play]. She thought it would be because of her dress, so we went with that. Then as the character developed during the shoot, and I saw what she was doing with it, that’s when I re-wrote her end. When she reunites with her daughter and recites to Isabel, I gave Glenn those pages, I think, two days before we shot. I used a poem that I’d had to memorize when I was in third-grade; it had a resonance with Isabel’s name and seemed to me like a bedtime story that Diana might have sung to her daughter. But when I saw it on the page, I went, uhhhh, I don’t know, this is kind of—this could be the false ending. Then I remembered: I’ve got Michael Jordan here. I’ve got the only person who maybe could pull off this athletic feat of acting. So I’m just gonna go for it and let her do it. And then as soon as I saw her, I believed that Glenn was Elizabeth’s mother, and I believed that these two were the only people they have in the world at that moment.

NPT: Yeah, I thought it worked beautifully. You could easily picture Diana reciting her variation on the Edgar Allan Poe when Isabel was a little girl—to comfort her then.

CT: Exactly! I love the long pause she takes before she even starts reciting, because she’s completely at a loss for words, and then she thinks of a shorthand that they have between them. In close-up, for my money, there’s no one else who could have done that as well as Glenn.

NPT: For me, it was a double coup, because I had never liked “Annabel Lee” particularly, until I heard Glenn Close read it. That line —“The moon never beams without bringing me dreams”— you can’t get that kind of inflection and emotion she brings to it—you can’t get that out of your system, or I can’t.

CT: I can’t either, and you begin to hear the music that’s inherent in the words. But also, I told Glenn when we were doing those takes that I saw a little bit of defiance in her in one of them, and I told her to use that, and that ended up being the one we used—where Diana looks at Isabel almost defiantly, like it’s an us-against-the-world kind of thing. The funny thing was we ran out—that scene cuts to a high shot for the last words of the poem; the camera ran out right at that place. We used right up to, “bringing me dreams of the beautiful…,” Glenn looks at Elizabeth—roll out! So we were that close to not getting that moment that Glenn did. That last foot of film saved us. Glenn had told me this nightmare story about filming Gertrude’s “There is a willow grows aslant a brook” speech in Hamlet for Zeffirelli. She said that her best take of it, which she will never ever be able to recreate, was out of focus. I was always hyper-conscious that, God, if we get Glenn to do something extraordinary, I just hope it’s in focus and that the camera doesn’t roll out.


NPT: One more Glenn question, and then we’ll move on. The opening scene of Diana as she critiques the young actors’ staging of Macbeth — was that Glenn’s idea?

CT: No, Amy Fox wrote that. But a lot was added to it because we couldn’t afford 200 extras to come and be the Juilliard students. Our extras casting guy, Keith Gunthorpe, went around to acting schools and put up signs that said, “Take a Master Class in Shakespeare with Glenn Close—FREE—Lincoln Center Library on Thursday,” and I swear to you, we had a line down Lincoln Center Plaza of people to take this. So we have all these real acting students who are there, and Glenn just lit up. We’d done the scene in rehearsal, without them, but with them, she suddenly became like a Baptist preacher at the pulpit. I’d given her the CDs of Maria Callas doing master classes at Juilliard. In those CDs, you can hear Callas not only being a diva, but you can hear that she cares about the students, and she cares so deeply about the material that she could almost shake them. Because, like Diana, she wants them to do it right.

NPT: I wanted to talk about a few of the other actors. With Rufus Wainwright, did you have to direct him at all or was he a natural?

heights18CT: He’s a natural, but he isn’t used to the camera being in that close. Sometimes I’d have to tell him, “Say that…look up this way…look here,” just to keep focus, because he’s so smart, and his mind is going in a million directions at once. You just have to get him to laser beam his intelligence in one direction. That’s really all I had to do—harness his energy. But he’s great. John Light, who plays some scenes opposite Rufus, and I talk about how whenever we were in the room with Rufus, we wanted him to like us. Because Rufus is sort of aloof, and you find yourself working overtime to make him like you, like you’re back in school and you’re trying to make the cool kid think that you’re cool, too.

NPT: He has sublime comic instincts. With an eyelash—not even an eyebrow—just an eyelash, that perfect conveyance of petty jealousy Rufus gets across when the John Light character, his date for the evening, merengues with Glenn Close. It’s so right on! Tell me about casting Michael Murphy. Was that another homage to Manhattan?

CT: Yeah. Manhattan is one of my favorite movies. When [producer] Richard Hawley and I were looking at our wish list—whom can we get who would be a credible, interesting person to have as a New York Times editor—we both thought of Michael. We called him in Toronto, sent him the pages, asked if he could come down for a day to do this, and he’s so game and so cool about it, he said, “Yeah. Why not?” The whole day he just had us cracking up in that room. I want to write something specifically for him. I have to figure out what it is, because I want to see him as a leading man again. There’s much range there, and warmth.

NPT: There’s a lot to these little throwaway things he does in that one scene, such as when he speaks to a colleague without even turning to her and says, “With your track record, why don’t you tell Isabel what marriage is like?”

CT: That was just Michael improvising. We saw that in the dailies and said we’re keeping it in!

NPT: Your most inspired casting choice was making George Segal a rabbi. There isn’t anything remotely rabbinical about him, yet that’s exactly why the actor and the character fuse so well.

CT: I didn’t want the rabbi to be the sage man on the mountain—the wise character whom our hero visits to get advice. The thing about George is that he’s so irreverent about everything. I felt that he could sell the first-act stuff that’s sort of comic, then later on, he could turn on a dime and play the minor key just as well. He didn’t read the whole script, I don’t think, so the first time he saw the movie was in Miami. I was ecstatic that George responded so well to the film and became our cheerleader down there. James Marsden’s favorite movie is Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and he can quote every line of it; the day I told James that George Segal was cast as the rabbi, he, first, nearly dropped the phone, and second, I said, “And you know what? I’m going to write a scene where you’re imitating the rabbi, so you’d better work on your George Segal voice.”

NPT: And supposedly Mia Farrow was going to play the Isabella Rossellini role of the Vanity Fair editor?

CT: I probably should have kept that quiet for Isabella’s sake. But I’d worked with Mia very briefly on a reading that I directed, and I think, Mia, when you look back at those old Woody Allen movies, she’s brilliant. On this reading, Mia would come up with five ways of interpreting a line that were all completely different and all completely credible. You could never even decide which direction you wanted her to go in. She was going to be in Heights, but she was doing a play called The Exonerated and her only day off was Monday. We could only shoot in the Condé Nast building at Vanity Fair on a Sunday when nobody was working, so the schedule went against us.

NPT: I haven’t said much about Elizabeth Banks. She seems to disappear inside Isabel, which makes her performance easy to underrate. You never see the actress; you just see the character in all her ambivalence about her career, her mother, her future husband.

CT: One of the things I adored about working with Elizabeth was that she’s unafraid to be unsympathetic. Isabel is a certain type of New York girl—the kind who went to prep school and inhabited the adult world from the time she was about thirteen. There’s a slight weariness to Isabel, and Elizabeth got that.


NPT: Aside from an early shot of Jonathan and Isabel in their apartment, walking around in their skivvies, there really isn’t any nudity in the film, and yet it’s one of the most sexually tense movies I can remember seeing.

CT: Well, in a way, I wanted you to see the characters naked right from the get-go, so that that tension is removed: we’re not waiting for James to take off his shirt or for Elizabeth to take off her shirt. Nakedness in certain non-American movies is more biological than sexual. People are naked in their lives. So I wanted to get that out of the way early and then later on keep it all hidden beneath their clothes. The question came up of whether there would be a greater number of sexual scenes, and I felt like there are a couple of scenes of sexual passion. One is between Jonathan and Isabel, when he’s pushing her against the wall and there’s a real tension to it. Later, there’s a tender scene between two characters, which I think is much truer romantically and sexually, without the forcing that happens in the earlier instance. I wanted those to stand in contrast.

NPT: Even Jonathan, at the beginning, denying having cigarettes when Isabel asks for one, then lighting up the minute she’s out the door…

CT: Yeah, there’s something weirdly, duplicitously sexual about that. But I also thought that to show James Marsden in his boxers at the beginning of a movie was… probably good.

June 10, 2005