Writers Talking About Anything but Writing
Words By Laura Villareal and Lyd Havens
An Interview with Lyd Havens on The National, A24 films, and Wikipedia
Writers Talking About Anything but Writing is a series of interviews in which we ask writers to take a break from trying to document the world and just kinda chill out in it for a while.
Laura Villareal (LV)
At first I wasn’t sure that I’d seen any A24 movies, but I realized all the offbeat films I had seen over the last few years were by A24. How would you describe A24 films? What do you love about them?
Lyd Havens (LH)
There was a point in 2016 or so where I suddenly realized that almost every film I had seen in theaters and absolutely loved had been produced by A24. I think in the age of The Remake, and every single company being bought by Disney, it can be very easy to feel nihilistic about movies and believe that nobody has any original ideas anymore, but the movies coming out of A24 prove that completely wrong. You can categorize a lot of the movies together, but each movie is a different experience. Like, I personally think that A24 especially succeeds at good horror and coming-of-age films, which are obviously very different genres, but in a way they can also go together really well. I’ve joked before that The Witch (directed by Robert Eggers) is a really interesting coming-of-age movie, but really, how much of a joke is that?
Great point! It does feel like “the age of The Remake”! What are your top five A24 films and why?
- Moonlight—I can’t say anything about why this film is so amazing that hasn’t already been said many times over by much more eloquent people, but if there were ever such a thing as a perfect film, I personally think this is it. It’s visually stunning, every performance is fantastic, the score is beautiful (I’ve had “The Middle of the World” in my top 100 songs on Spotify every year since 2016). Also, I took a class last year where I had to write a screenplay, and the example I returned to the most often was Barry Jenkins’s screenplay for Moonlight. If you haven’t read it, it’s just amazing.
- The Florida Project—this came out the same year as Lady Bird, which I liked, but in that year’s conversation about movies that depict complicated mother/daughter relationships, I wish this one had gotten more of a spotlight. I’ve also never seen another film that better depicts how kids actually talk and act, especially kids growing up in really shitty circumstances. And even though the movie is really heartbreaking, you can tell that the child actors had some fun, too, which is a welcome respite from stories about child actors having the complete opposite of fun.
- Midsommar—until a couple years ago I was absolutely not a horror movie person. I couldn’t handle them at all, and I still question how I actually made it through Midsommar. I have a lot of thoughts on how Ari Aster handles mental illness, but for the most part this movie has stuck with me in an oddly cathartic way. Florence Pugh is fucking phenomenal. There are parts of her performance that still haunt me, but in a way that’s bizarrely comforting. Also, this movie somehow convinced me I needed to study abroad, which I’m currently in the process of applying to do over the summer. So, I guess I owe it a lot.
- Swiss Army Man—there’s literally no other movie like this one. The beginning is so ridiculous, and I think I read a lot of articles about how at film festival showings people would walk out in droves within the first 10 minutes just because they thought it would be some sort of DudeBro comedy. But it takes a really sharp turn in tone, and by the end I had cried as much as I had laughed. I haven’t gotten to watch it since I first saw it in theaters, but it was an experience in the best way possible. I’m also kind of biased though: I really love Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe, and seeing them together in that fever dream of a movie was a dream come true.
- The Witch—a lot of my love for this movie is honestly rooted in the memes about it, but it was also the first horror movie I was ever able to sit through on my own. Around the time I watched it I had also just finished a history class where we had to read The Scarlet Letter, and it was really interesting to see a take on the Puritans that was both fascinating and horrifying.
There are a lot of A24 movies I haven’t even watched yet and really need to that very well might one day end up in my top five, including The Lighthouse, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Ginger & Rosa, The Farewell, and A Most Violent Year.
Someone should pay you to review movies, Lyd. Swiss Army Man was such a strange movie—ever since you recommended it I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it how it possibly came to be. If you were to write a movie for A24, what would it be about?
Oh my god, you’re incredibly kind to say so! I often find it difficult to eloquently talk about the things that I love, so it means a lot to hear that.
Given the chance, I’d love to write a screenplay that takes place in Idaho, the state I currently live in. When I moved here, I was struck by how beautiful, solitary, and kind of terrifying so much of this state is. It’d be a great setting for a visually stunning horror film, or a visually stunning coming-of-age film, or something that’s both. There are some really great novels that use Idaho as a backdrop (I’m mostly thinking of Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson and Idaho by Emily Ruskovich), and already some amazing movies (Smoke Signals, My Own Private Idaho, and of course, Napoleon Dynamite), but there’s room for so much more.
My first encounter with The National was seeing Ragnar Kjartansson’s A Lot of Sorrow at a MAC Montréal in 2016. The band played “Sorrow” for 6 hours; as time passed the song changed, and I began to see how complicated the song was. I’ve seen you talk about music a lot on Twitter and in your writing. What makes The National’s music so special?
I’ve liked The National since I was in high school, and remember distinctly wanting my poems to someday do what their lyrics always seem to do for me. Their lyrics are obviously pretty poetic, and sum up a lot of very relatable feelings of longing and dry self-awareness, but I think what makes a lot of them so impactful (at least for me) is the fact that repetition plays such a huge role in a lot of their songs. Repetition makes things easier to remember, so I like the way their lyrics often stick with me. But there’s one verse that’s repeated in two different songs (“29 Years” and “Slow Show”) that were written years apart, and Matt Berninger sings it in two completely different ways: “You know I dreamed about you / for 29 years before I saw you / you know I dreamed about you / I missed you for 29 years”. On the first song, he almost sounds drunk, and the line is cool, but doesn’t really make me feel much. But 6 years later on “Slow Show”, he sounds steadier, older, and more matter-of-fact. The reprise of that verse in a completely different song, in addition to the varying ways it’s presented, just makes me emotional. I haven’t even been alive 29 years yet, and still every time I hear that verse, I feel it in my bones. I think that’s what makes their music so special, at least for me: their songs are very specific, and yet it’s so easy to see yourself and your emotions in them.
Wow, that’s an incredible observation. I really like the idea of coming back to a line from years ago and making it new again. Do you know of other bands that repurpose lines like that years later?
I can’t think of any other bands that repurpose their own lyrics (though I’m sure they exist), but I did think of this: Laura Marling, one of my favorite singer-songwriters, first got started singing backup vocals for the band Noah and the Whale, and also dated their frontman Charlie Fink for a time. They broke up; Laura left the band and went solo. She has a song on her album I Speak Because I Can called “Blackberry Stone” where she sings, “I’d be sad that I never held your hand as you were lowered / but I’d understand that I’d never let it go”, and Noah and the Whale had a song called “Hold My Hand As I’m Lowered” that she sang on. It took me years to make that connection, and when I did—ouch.
I hadn’t made that connection! What album would you recommend for someone wanting to get into The National for the first time?
My personal favorite albums of theirs all came out back-to-back between 2008 and 2013: Boxer, High Violet, and Trouble Will Find Me. I think both the composition and Berninger’s lyrics are at their prime in those three albums, so I almost always recommend that folks start with one or all of those. Trouble Will Find Me is my personal number one, but in terms of getting started, High Violet might be the best.
Wikipedia is as quintessential as Google. Do you ever go down Wikipedia rabbitholes? What do you enjoy using it to research most?
Oh, absolutely! One of my favorite rabbitholes to go down is starting with some sort of monarch and reading their page, then reading the page of their successor, and on and on and on, stopping to read related pages about heirs who died young, revolutions, natural disasters, guillotines, etc. The one I find the most interesting is the Romanovs in Russia, starting with Michael I and ending with Nicholas II and his family. It’s a pretty lengthy rabbithole, and it gets pretty bleak, but it’s fascinating, especially taking events like World War I into account. From a young age I knew that history is absolutely wild, but Wikipedia is honestly what got me so ferociously interested in it.
That’s fascinating! Do you have any strange facts you’ve come across in your Wikipedia searches that have stuck with you?
Off the top of my head:
- Richard Kuklinski, a famous hitman for the mob, used to watch Wile E. Coyote and other cartoons to get ideas for how to kill people.
- During the filming of Titanic, somebody spiked a pot of chowder that the cast and crew ate with PCP. Dozens of them became violently ill (obviously), and the culprit was never caught.
- This isn’t so much a strange fact as a recommendation for a rabbithole to fall down, but the “List of premature obituaries” and “Faked death” pages are absolutely wild.