His 2007 feature debut may have been titled Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer, but writer/director Jon Knautz has become a filmmaker notable for movies providing women with complex, meaty roles. Sure, the films he directs and co-writes swim in the more shadowy side of the lake, but works such as The Shrine, Girlhouse and Goddess of Love are notable for their compelling female leads and character driven stories.
This also applies to The Cleaning Lady, Knautz’s latest movie, co-created with regular collaborator Alexis Kendra. As well as performing co-writing and producing duties, Kendra also stars as Alice, a “love addict” feeling trapped in a joyless affair with a married man. To distract herself from this, Alice befriends Rachel Alig’s shy Shelley, the cleaning lady in her building. Shelley is badly scarred, and Alice begins to discover that the damage may be more than just skin deep.
We caught up with Knautz to discuss the making of The Cleaning Lady.
*Note* This interview contains some spoilers.
Rob Wallis: When did the idea for The Cleaning Lady begin?
Jon Knautz: I’ve had this in my head for many years. Sometimes an idea just takes forever to come to fruition. I finally pitched it to my co-writer one day and she loved it. Then she started adding in her own ideas, which I thought were amazing. After that we just ploughed into the script.
RW: Were there any particular influences, cinematic or otherwise?
JK: I once worked with a fellow who was essentially the seed of Shelly’s character. He shared some similar qualities, but he wasn’t crazy…at least I think he wasn’t… He was actually a really sweet person. He just had this mysterious aspect about him where he wanted to know everything about you, but never revealed much about himself. Even where he lived was shrouded in secrecy – I drove him home one night and he had me drop him off next to a forest. He said, “I can walk from here.” Then he disappeared into the shadowy trees. True story.
RW: The performances are great across the board, but especially those of Alice (Alexis Kendra) and Shelly (Rachel Alig). How did you go about casting those two key roles?
JK: After writing the script together, I knew Alexis would be perfect for Alice. She actually wasn’t planning on playing the role; she had a ton of responsibilities already with producing and production designing. But I knew Alexis was diehard enough to take on a leading role as well, so I kind of forced it on her, ha! My favorite memory of Alexis on set is when she was tied up in Saran wrap during the torture scene. After we called cut on one of her emotionally intense takes, a PA pulled the knife out of her tied-up hands and replaced it with a cell phone and she immediately flipped to producer mode and ordered the crew a second meal because we were in overtime. Then the phone was replaced with the knife and we rolled into her next take where she had to cry and scream with crazy emotion. It was hilarious. She’s a rock star.
Rachel was someone I had worked with previously and I knew she would really sink her teeth into the role. Once she found the right tone for Shelly, everything just fell into place. It was definitely a fun role for her to play and I hope she’s proud of her performance.
RW: There’s an interesting shot where Alice and Shelly are framed in two parallel doorways. Was the idea of contrasting these two very different characters important to you?
JK: Yes, very much. I wanted each of them to be as opposite as possible, right down to their color pallet. I wanted Alice to seem full of life and Shelly to seem dreary. In a lot of ways Shelly is kind of an empty shell and she lives vicariously through others. The shot you mentioned is one I discovered on the location scout. It was a great way to kind of show them in two different worlds.
RW: How much of the film was shot on location? Did you have to do a lot with a modest budget?
JK: Most of the film was shot on location. We found some really great spots that were already close to the vision I had. Especially Shelly’s house – that place was a real shithole. It was perfect. In terms of our budget…well…we didn’t have 10 million dollars, but we had enough to execute properly.
RW: The desire for perfection seems to be a key theme? Could you elaborate on that?
JK: I wasn’t really trying to say anything about it on a personal level; it was simply a theme that grew out of developing Shelly’s character. Shelly’s idea of perfection comes from her underdeveloped mind. In a lot of ways Shelly has never really grown up. Since her childhood was such a nightmare, her only happy place was her dollhouse and the Barbie doll that lived in it. And of course there’s nothing ever wrong with Barbie; her life is perfect. Shelly took that ideology and now projects it into Alice, since Alice reminds her of that perfect little Barbie life.
RW: What Shelly does is monstrous and yet she remains at least vaguely sympathetic. How did you go about striking that balance? What was your understanding of her psychology?
JK: I love the idea of sympathizing with a character and then realising they’re dangerous and unstable. As a viewer you end up having mixed emotions, which I believe engages you more in the story. When you know you have an evil character, you must find ways to make them likeable if your intention is to keep them sympathetic. The best use of that is in Scarface – Pacino is clearly a bad person, but he has admirable qualities, like his ambition, or that fact that he won’t kill women or children. Shelly is clearly evil but you feel for her because she was terribly abused as a child and she has a very innocent, sort of puppy dog-like vibe to her as an adult. That, plus the fact that’s she’s hideously scarred, you’re heart just kind of goes out to her.
I didn’t spend too much time trying to understand Shelly’s psychology. Alexis and I talked about it during the script writing process but only to an extent. I definitely have some opinions, but I wanted to keep a certain distance from explaining Shelly’s actions. If it gets over explained then it just sits there on the surface and takes away from all the mystery.
RW: The acid scene is tough to watch (for obvious reasons). How did you achieve the effect?
JK: Our FX guy Kelton Ching handled all of that, along with Shelly’s make-up. Kelton’s the man; he’s great to have on set. I don’t want to give away his secrets but he had some fun tricks up his sleeve in order to pull off all of our effects.
RW: The ending does leave room for a sequel. Is that an avenue you’re interested in pursuing?
JK: Sequels are strange entities. I never make a film with the idea of a sequel getting made. They’re a numbers game – if the first film is financially successful, then everyone jumps to make a sequel. I’ve never thought about The Cleaning Lady Part 2, but I guess anything’s possible.
RW: Finally, what’s next?
JK: I’m busy directing a true crime documentary at the moment. I also have a few scripts in the mix, currently shopping them around. I’m sure my team and I will be diving into another flick soon enough.
[su_youtube url=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zX7_vR2MkF8″]The Cleaning Lady[/su_youtube]