Credit: Alex Abril
by Chris Cassingham Feature Articles Featured Film Interviews

The Texas of It All: An Interview with Lucy Kerr

June 25, 2024

Lucy Kerr’s debut feature Family Portrait is a startling discovery. An elliptical puzzle of a film that circles around a mystery that is never answered, it tracks the final morning of a family reunion, during which the matriarch suddenly disappears. This sudden vanishing doesn’t trigger some engrossing manhunt or unbridled grief, but rather exacerbates the family’s emotional stasis. The old money, Southeast Texas milieu on display — in subtle and not-so-subtle ways — provides the backdrop for a film whose very form grapples with fundamental ideas of representation, social pressure, and emotional disconnect, all while Katy’s desire to find her mother in time for the titular marking of social stature reaches unconcerned ears and pushes her to increasingly desperate states. Kerr’s vision of a world at a standstill, both emotionally and physically, is matched in confidence only by her ability to find ways of wrenching it free, and Family Portrait marks the arrival of a filmmaker with an unusual ability to wield the deeply personal to quietly, profoundly political ends.

It was a pleasure to speak with Kerr ahead of the theatrical release of Family Portrait via Factory25. During our conversation, we discussed the considerations between the “when” and “how” of representation, the particularities of upper-class Texas life, and the remarkable film that will inform her work from here on out.

Chris Cassingham: Can you recall anything in particular that ignited your curiosity and concern with image-making?

Lucy Kerr: Yeah, there was a lot of learning around the idea of image-making when I was at CalArts. I remember being introduced to Harun Farouki there, and Lacan’s mirror stage, in particular. My CalArts thesis film, Crashing Waves, was about a stunt performer, and at the center was this idea about all that’s not in an image. The image of violence that looks all slick and controlled, but then learning about the stories from these stunt performers of how scary it was and how dangerous it was to do those actions.

I also made a little film for a class that was the origin for the Family Portrait script. My family, my mom in particular, is really serious about Christmas cards every year. Everyone who knows our family is always like, “Oh, the Kerrs, they always have such a clever Christmas card.” One time we dressed up like the Spice Girls, which I think is in that film. So yeah, it’s sort of like this album representing a family as an institution and its prosperity each year. Everything we want to communicate to others about the family, those Christmas cards serve that role. So I started thinking about that when I went down to Texas for Thanksgiving, and we were taking a Christmas card picture, at the same location where Family Portrait was shot, which was my grandparents house. My mom had found all these Christmas-themed outfits like dresses and suits that were covered in Santas or snowmen and candy canes and stuff.

We’re all wearing those crazy costumes, and on the same field you see in Family Portrait. I brought a tripod and camera with me and I set it up and I filmed it, and when I watched the footage, it was like the scene in Family Portrait where everyone has their own trajectories and it takes 10 minutes before we were able to take the picture — this interestingly choreographed chaos. So that’s what this short film was made from, and then a few years later I started writing the script for Family Portrait, kind of stemming from that scene.

CC: I’m a Texas transplant myself, and a lot of the family’s social dynamics felt very familiar. I don’t know if it’s specifically a Texas thing I’m recognizing, but that’s what it felt like. Can you talk about maybe your relationship to this familial social environment, and how that relationship has evolved over time?

LK: I definitely tried to be very specific about each character, and then the Texas of it all and their relationship to that. And this is a specific, old money version of Texas, which is still very influential in the state, of course. For example, the library where they’re reading the Barbara Bush book, that bookshelf is all my grandparents’ books. It’s really interesting to go there because when they passed away and sold the house, all their books went there. And it’s really this shrine to American patriotism and exceptionalism. There are so many Churchill books and a lot of books on the Bushes, and World War II and World War I books. It just feels like a very militarized space with a sense of American excellence. But then in the film, I was trying to think about how that shiny image involves all this violence through colonization of Native Americans and people abroad. So it’s almost like that bookshelf is this desperate attempt to try to assert superiority while ignoring all of that.

And then I take my own, personal relationship to it. The house itself, which is imposing on land, and this lawn that’s perfectly kept up by sprinklers that take water from the river, and the river is sinking in order to keep all of these houses on the river looking beautiful and perfect. And then there are bigger things about Texas, like how private property is so important, and the presence of oil. That’s the part of Texas that the family is from.

At the same time, I didn’t want it to be a stereotypical depiction. We don’t know what the family’s politics are exactly. They seem slightly progressive in some ways, and in others they’re more Republican, or something like that. But that’s when it can be more dangerous, when they’re seemingly liberal but still upholding these traditions. The Dad especially has this warmth, but just as easily embodies a libertarian, conspiratorial mindset. I also think it’s this individuation and individuality that’s very dangerous in Texas, where you have to be self-sufficient and you don’t take government support. There’s no sense of collectivity or community. And in the family, that’s kind of what erodes it, that’s what erodes them, because they’re unable to express their grief with one another. They’re annexed and unable to come together in community and loss, and be vulnerable with one another. So that’s something I was thinking about. And there are little lines in the script to express that, like the sister saying, “Oh, he didn’t even know how to jumpstart a car,” or something like that.

CC: You mentioned the father just now. Could you talk a little bit about the mother character, because so much of the film hinges on her presence, or lack of presence. I’m curious about what you wanted to reveal or investigate about this modern, Southern matriarch character.

LK: The backstory for the family in the film is that the Father is maybe the one who grew up wealthier, who’s born into old money, or into oil, and that the Mother isn’t from quite as wealthy a family in Texas. That’s what I was thinking. And in a way, that’s why this family album, and this need for the family picture every year to present this lack of conflict, is so important, or why maybe she wants her family’s image to be perceived a certain way by her social network. Even down to the little details of whether the peppers in their lunch are diced or in strips point to why this image is very important to her.

And in my own family, I grew up in Houston, and everyone in my family fulfilled these expectations about a certain upper class social life: debutante balls, sororities in college. And when I go home for Christmas there are hundreds and hundreds of Christmas cards strung up on the wall, all over the house. There’s this sense of everyone looking the same, wearing the same thing, standing the same way, smiling the same way. I see the mother as wanting to participate in all that. And Deragh Campbell’s character Katy, I think, surprises even herself with this desire to make her mother happy or to fulfill her mother’s desire, probably because she seems like a black sheep. So I think that makes it interesting and builds this suspense around what is really happening that the mother knows and that maybe Katie knows, but no one else does? The question of why the mother would disappear becomes even more terrifying to me because of this unspoken understanding.

CC: What have you learned in the process of making this film, or through your studies, about a film’s ability to be representative of something versus the limits of merely having representation in it? These feel like perennial, existential questions about what films can offer us, and you and the film are clearly interested in grappling with them.

LK: That’s a really good question. I was nervous about it in a way because it’s based on my family. It’s not that each character is based on a specific family member. For example, the sisters in the film share traits of all my sisters. But I wanted to be true to myself and how I experience things. And I also wanted to make sure that I don’t come across as thinking I know best or am an authority on this world, or in some way better than the rest of the family. I think Katy also has her flaws, and there are limitations to her understanding of the world in relation to her family. For example, we learn that she doesn’t fully understand her boyfriend’s insecurities and frustrations as an immigrant about his place within their family unit, just based on where he’s from, and how people treat him because of that. So it was really important to me to not come forth saying this character is better than the rest or something.

I wanted to be invested in each of the characters’ desires and each of their relationships to the family picture. When I talked to the actors as well as [directorial advisor] Rob Rice, we would go over their individual relationships to the picture. And some of them would have a relation to the picture that the others didn’t know about. With Grace with her baby, the picture is actually super important to her. That’s why she’s already dressed for the picture in the morning. She wants to kind of be in the middle of it with her baby when they’re taking that.

When I made Crashing Waves, about the stunt performer, the opening quote was by Edward Said: “There is always this paradoxical contrast between the surface of an image, which appears to be in control, and the process which produces it, which inevitably involves some degree of violence.” That’s what that film is about. About the violence that this stunt performer undergoes in order to create something that appears sexy and controlled. And when I learned what wasn’t in that image — her experience of fear having to drive off a cliff into water, in a situation that wasn’t handled well, that just blew my mind, and I became so passionate about the loss that occurs when something becomes represented. And it’s not only an image, it can also be in what I’m saying right now, because I’m choosing words to represent what I’m thinking, but there’s a lot that’s being lost in that. There’s a failure, I guess, in being able to fully represent what I’m feeling and thinking through these words I’m saying. So that’s a big part of the film even if people don’t understand that, necessarily, when they watch it. I feel this loss — the loss of their cousin, and the loss of all the complexities in their family — when they take this picture. And that’s the kind of picture I see all over the house in other Christmas cards.

CC: There’s a deliberate contrast in visual languages in Family Portrait. The interiors are mainly long static shots, and the exteriors have a lot of elegant Steadicam work. In thinking about how you choose to represent something, do you also have an ethos regarding when to show something or not?

LK: Family Portrait is definitely different from Crashing Waves, because that is so spare, and the whole thing with the crashing waves is to not show what happened. In Family Portrait, a lot went into making those images that’s obviously not shown, so it’s not as radical as Crashing Waves in that way. But still, through the relationship of framing and sound, there’s sometimes this refusal, that’s also in Crashing Waves, to show something.

I didn’t even take a shot of the image that was from WWII, the photograph of my grandfather that was appropriated as if it was from the Vietnam War, because that was something that I wanted people to create in their minds. What I learned with Crashing Waves is that really specific language and sound are so powerful, what they can create in your mind. They make this three-dimensional experience that becomes really sensorial and physical, and I feel like that isn’t used enough in film. In television and a lot of films today, it’s just about what’s in front of you; there isn’t something being suggested that involves the viewer physically. So that’s part of the reason I wanted to do that, to create this really spatial relationship. I don’t know if it’s as political a choice as it was in Crashing Waves, but our bodies are so severed from those images, where we’re just smiling for the camera like in the Christmas card, that I wanted to activate the viewers’ bodies by doing that.

CC: You’ve programmed a screening of Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Pitfall at Metrograph in New York the same weekend Family Portrait opens. You’ve cited it as a point of inspiration for Family Portrait, and after watching it for the first time before this conversation, I can definitely see why. Can you talk about your introduction to Pitfall and what about it stayed with you while you were bringing Family Portrait to life?

LK: I was introduced to that film through my friend Blanche. We’re both fans of Japanese art from the ’60s and all the movements at that time. I was dancing with a company in New York, when I used to live here 10 years ago, and they brought in a lot of Butoh masters from Japan, because that was the training system for the company. Butoh was a kind of dance that developed in Japan after WWII in the ’60s, in response to the atomic bombs and as an evolution of Nō theater, but it was much more avant garde and expressive. And that’s what brought me to the film. I think the structure of it, that it feels like it’s spiraling in on itself, was super inspiring to me; and just how playful it was with the doppelgangers and the sound design, and the movement of these bodies falling in space. Falling has always been a big interest of mine, and features in some of my short films that will be screening on Metrograph at Home. I just found Pitfall sensorially and physically such a captivating film. It’s so urgent, and maybe his later films are more well-known and, maybe not more sophisticated, but less rough around the edges, I guess. But Pitfall has an urgent energy that I love. And also combining something like a labor struggle and this political ethos with such dream-like visual language is really inspiring and something I’m going to keep in mind for all my future films. How to pair things like that together, because they don’t have to be separate. It doesn’t have to be political and without these other elements, and it also doesn’t have to be dreamlike and apolitical. You can combine these things in really interesting ways.