Sometimes I Think About Dying interview | Director Rachel Lambert talks cottage cheese and living well

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It’s a rare film that can find genuine joy in an office ice-breaker. We asked Sometimes I Think About Dying director Rachel Lambert how she did it.

Sometimes I Think About Dying stars Daisy Ridley like we’ve never seen her before.

Painfully introverted, lonely, and hemmed in by routine, Fran (Ridley) distracts herself from her office-prison by imagining all the ways she could die. She could crash her car. She could hang herself from a crane. She could meet the wrong kind of snake.

Pulling her out of her morbid reverie is a new co-worker, Robert (Dave Merheje). Playful Slack messages turn into a date at the cinema. A date at the cinema turns into an invite to a murder mystery party. Still, Fran stays closed off, struggling to break out of the comfort zone she’s occupied for so long.

It’s a melancholy, insightful look at the trials and tribulations of office life, one undeniably shaped by the pandemic it was filmed in. We sat down with the film’s director, Rachel Lambert, to talk about Dying.

Read more: Mental health & wellbeing matters: resources for those going through difficult times

What was it that attracted you to the script?

Well, it was a couple of things. One was just the way it was written, because it was written by theatre folks, by playwrights. They’ve since moved into cinema and TV, but I think they still bring with them a sensibility from that world, which is where I started.

It didn’t have a lot of visual data. It didn’t, for instance, stipulate where they worked, or what kind of work the characters were doing. It didn’t direct on the page; it left a lot open for me to build and make up and interpret. That kind of invitation to collaborate is very rare.

The other thing, from a thematic standpoint, was, you know, it came to me in November 2020. We didn’t even have vaccines distributed yet, and here was a film that was asking the audience to follow [Fran] on this journey. It begins in a place of fraught, ill attention towards the minutia of a day, but by the end really celebrates those things. I feel like my journey through 2020 was very similar.

That’s something we tried to really exploit when we were improvising in the office space – to highlight and put attention on these aspects of human life that we often overlook or take for granted, that are actually full of such character, humanity and humour. I wanted to make a film that celebrated that.

It’s been so interesting in the last couple of years or so, it almost feels like you can tell what got greenlit and produced during lockdown and during the pandemic. Were you conscious that you were making a COVID-era film?

I suppose that an artist’s job is to filter and reflect and understand their times using the tools around them. You don’t get to determine the tools, or even sometimes the figures that you get to use. But if you’re an artist, you can make something out of anything. And I think if you are absorbing your time, if you are living in your time, and you’re paying attention to your time, it will inform the choices that you make, whether you like it or not.

So no, I don’t think it was conscious. I can now reflect and build in the reasonings and the influences. But at the time, it was… she [Fran] was just chewing, and I wanted to watch that. I saw what she touches in a day and what she looks at in a day, and that was what was filling my day. That was calling all of my attention. I think it all filters in that way.

It’s such a great performance from Daisy Ridley. She pretends to like cottage cheese so well.

Yeah, I believe that Dan [Maughiman, production designer] made that. That was a vegan version of cottage cheese she ate on top of a patty. A big part of the film for me was, when people are eating or drinking coffee, we really watch them do that for that different tonal effect.

I definitely started to feel bad. But Daisy is such a trooper. That’s what makes her such a great leader: the work is so vital and important to her.

sometimes I think about dying party
Fran (Daisy Ridley) will go to drastic measures to escape an office party (Credit: Vertigo Releasing)

You mentioned you came from more of a theatre background…

In terms of my professional life, yeah. I’ve been making films since I was very young, but I don’t come from a part of the country where that’s an available path, really. But you can always go to City Theatre and then maybe teach or something. Theatre was something that you only needed a room of people to do, it felt like an art form that I could make anywhere, with any amount of money or time. So that felt more realistic to me, frankly.

Exactly. Would you say that’s informed your filmmaking? Do you think you have a sort of theatrical style? More reactive, more immediate, maybe?

I think the theatre informs my attitudes and my work ethic more than the product. I’m a huge believer in being done, for instance, because I’m used to people buying tickets for opening night when you’ve just started rehearsals, so you just have to make decisions and get things locked down. I feel a lot of responsibility around that.

But I tend to be a very loose mama when it comes to my artists. I feed them with all the artistic stuff that I’ve come up with and then my job is to create the conventions within which they can play, you know? I build that sandbox for them to quarrel in, so wherever they look there’s something that’s informed, that puts them on the right path. And I think that theatre does train that pretty hard.

I think the other thing about theatre that informs me is my regard for actors and my understanding of that instrumentation. Going through five or six weeks of rehearsal, you know, you learn how to stay out of their way, how to treat them as a department head of their character. I’m sure there’re other ways too.

That sense of freedom is really interesting, because the camera feels deliberately so static.

Yeah, we only moved the camera three times. It was supposed to only be two, but there’s a little sneaky one…

But yeah, the grammar on this one was very much driven by rigour and decision and intention. And all that rigour is there so you can set up and know where the camera’s meant to go and what looks right. But hopefully me and Dustin [Lane, cinematographer] have done so much work that the actors don’t even notice that. They shouldn’t. The only time they noticed is when we finished the workday two or three hours early because we only did three setups!

sometimes I think about dying
Fran and Robert (Dave Merheje) have a heart to heart. (Credit: Vertigo Releasing)

The office banter and the office politics felt so specific. Was that all improvised or did that come from the script?

There was a scripted scene for those, but we didn’t just do the scripted scene. There were times we used the script like a skeleton, or like tracks – you can always come back to the tracks if you’re getting too far off. And sometimes the cast would build these new skeleton structures just by doing a bit that keeps working.

But you know, five minutes of Meg Stalter going off about texting and driving, even if we don’t use it, it’s not only going to create the right energy in the room, but it’s going to bond your ensemble, right? It’s doing more in terms of building glue for that group than I could ever do.

You were filming during the Delta variant, right? Did that help the group bond faster?

Yeah, and that’s also what the movie’s talking about, right? Let’s not take for granted that we’re all in the same room together. Let’s not take for granted that here’s somebody who’s making your coffee today. It was definitely affecting us. And I think we all allowed that in, you know?

Because I think that when we think about dying, what we’re really concerned with and preoccupied with and worried about is how well we’re living. How meaningful it is, how full it is, am I doing it right? And that can frustrate us, and that can scare us and it can pull us inward.

But the world is outside of us. I think you’ve got to be able to find the absolute joy in taking a couple of dollars out of your wallet and buying a doughnut. You can be like, “wait, we invented these things, and I can get them whenever I want?” And you’re just eating bliss, you know? I think that’s how you get over this anxiety about living well.

Sometimes I Think About Dying arrives in UK cinemas on Friday 19th April.

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