David Bowie and his legacy have been felt by many people across this dimeson and to more that we have yet to discover. Popular songs like “Life on Mars”, “Let’s Dance”, “Heroes”, and “Space Oddity” are just some of the great hits played over the airwaves that have influenced people in music and film.
The day that the legendary rock star died was a heavy day among fans and was a rough way to start off the year of 2016. You can say that it might’ve caused a butterfly effect that led writer and director Liz Manashil on a course to create the film Speed of Life.
The movie stars Allison Tolman (Emergence and Good Girls) as June and Ray Santiago (Ash vs Evil Dead) as Edward. The beginning of the story is set on the night of David Bowie’s passing where June views of her relationship with Edward are put in perspective. To add icing to the cake, Edward falls into a temporal rift. From there, we jump to a future where an older June, played by Ann Dowd, is dealing with her impending 60th birthday and the sudden reappearance of her lost love.
I had the fortunate experience of talking with Liz Manashil on her creative process for Speed of Life and how David Bowie became an influence on the movie.
Speed of Life. That’s a reference to David Bowie’s song from his Low album, correct?
Liz Manashil: Yeah. Which was released today—like 4 years ago today, or whatever. But his album was released today. Isn’t that nuts?
I did not even know that.
Liz Manashil: Yeah, I just found out on Twitter. Twitter told me.
Was that always going to be the title of the movie?
Liz Manashil: No. The original film was a horror film, actually. And so, we went through various different names. I think if I remember, Plan B was one of the names that we came up with for a while, which is not a good title for a film. And then eventually my producer Josh, or JD Compton, suggested we use a Bowie’s song. I agreed. I thought that was a great idea. He came up with the name. He looked at his [David Bowie] discography and thought that that song was the most appropriate. When I listened to the song, which I had heard many times before of course, it just felt right. It felt like the best title for the movie we could come up with.
I saw an interview about you putting the story together. And like you said, the concept of the film was his death was gonna be in a horror film and it helped you get over your writer’s block. Have you ever used Bowie as an inspiration or helped you put perspective on your life other than in this film?
Liz Manashil: Wow. No. Never. I consider myself really, just like a fair-weathered fan. I knew probably more songs than most people knew, but I don’t know all the lyrics. I couldn’t tell you the year of all the albums. I’ve seen The Man Who Fell to Earth maybe once. But when he died, it didn’t seem like it was possible for him to die. I had kind of a system shock thing, where I remember walking around the house or going to work and feeling like half of myself. Like, not fully there. So, I think him dying was more of a recognition of mortality, not necessarily, it was him, but it was more my response to his death. I’m a fan, but he never entered my life in the way he did with this film in any other similar way.
I am a fan of David Bowie and I am actually going through his discography now. I remember when he died, I think Trump had just been elected and thinking to myself, “How can this year get any worse?”
Liz Manashil: I don’t like to be publicly political, and actually, I have a lot of friends and family on both sides of the political spectrum, but I do think in 2016 a lot of things changed. He’s just in our movie for a second. We don’t want to have Trump in the movie, but just Trump being president could very well have ripped the fabric of space and time itself. There’s something about 2016 where a lot of things that we weren’t expecting happened.
At the beginning of the movie, there’s a flashback of June putting on the Ziggy Stardust symbol on her face as part of her identity. Was that intentional? Did you want to hammer in the importance of his importance to this girl?
Liz Manashil: I didn’t want to rush into the resources of our film all the time. I really wanted it to speak for itself. But we tested a lot of different audiences and a lot of people were saying, ‘Look! Bowie only popped up once or twice and you should integrate him more.’ We were like, ‘We would love to! But legally we can’t.’ We want to tribute him without exploiting him. So, the idea of that credit sequence was to reinforce her love, reinforce that this is a lifelong love, and then also show her as a fun character because the opening scene, she’s angry. And then as a June as a fifty-nine-year-old is depressed, so let’s show her as having some life to her as well. It serves a lot of plot for us.
Whose idea was it to have the lightning bolt necklace?
Liz Manashil: Thank you for noticing! You’re the only person that’s noticed! Like, really! I’ve talked to a few people and no one’s ever mentioned it. With the collaboration between me and our costume designer, Aoife Baker and we wanted them to each have one thing so that we can connect the two of them. Like, we have their hair color, the same name, and yes, the other things, height. But we wanted them to have some sort of token that referred to Bowie. So that was me and Aoife. For like a year, maybe six months afterward, I would wear that lightning bolt around my neck as, like, a little memento of the shoot. It’s so cute. So, thank you for noticing.
We spend a bit of time with June in the future and there are those mandated monitor systems that are like Google Home and Alexa. Was that a bit of social commentary that you were trying to interject into your story?
Liz Manashil: Yeah, it’s a twofer. One is, we have a Google Home. We have an Alexa. They are nosey. They’re nosey little objects in our home. If I had my druthers they wouldn’t be here. My partner just loves these little gizmos. So, we have them. But with that and like an iPhone tracking your health and the Apple Watch, and all of these iterations of systems that know our pulse and know our heartbeat and know every thought that comes out of our minds. It seemed only naturally if you’re writing a science fiction film to turn that into government surveillance. The other part of it was, if you’re making a science fiction film and you have a very low budget, use as much invisible technology as you can. So, the idea of audio surveillance, that’s something we can control at a low budget level that it requires a little bit of visual effects, you know, those monitors that are set design. But it doesn’t require a massive visual effects budget as well.
Just a follow up on the technology. I think the craziest sci-fi aspect of your story is the fact that the hyperloop got completed. Like, that’s never gonna happen.
Liz Manashil: Thank you also for noticing! No one’s ever told us about that either. That’s amazing! I know. I know. A girl can dream. There are a few things like that, like um, the coastline is probably not going to erode to Phoenix, Arizona either. Maybe in 100 years, something can happen.
I am happy that the bees did make it through. Another one in the futuristic setting. June and Samuel, they reach the age of 60 and are shuttled off to almost a prison for old folks and the government got involved to mandate this law. Is there a bit of backstory on what caused that to happen?
Liz Manashil: There’s a little bit of worldbuilding that we don’t express in the film because honestly, the story is really about June and her loss and her relationship with Edward and how that kind of splinters off—that’s not the right word—and how he disappears and how that traumatizes her. But in my mind, it just makes sense with what we already have. We don’t seem to really respect our elders, so we box them, and we don’t treat them well and once they hit a certain age, we’re not really taking care of them—we’re kind of putting them out of sight. And the age of sixty was chosen to be satirical. Sixty’s very young, in my eyes, it really is. And I chose the age of sixty because a) that’s Ann Dowd’s age—she’s around that age, but b) to really push the point forward in terms of uncertainties. I live in Los Angeles where—I don’t know if you live in Los Angeles—but it’s a very surface obsessed culture and that’s also what I’m pointing, too. The idea that once you hit thirty, you’re no longer valuable to society and we wanted to take that to extremes with the film.
That kind of breaks my heart because I’m thirty-five and I’m like, ‘Ah, people don’t value me.’
Liz Manashil: Right? And there’s always references to things that I’m like, I’m losing touch with what people are talking about. It’s really interesting and there seems to be this appreciation and adoration of youth. I’m thirty-five as well, so I feel the exact same way you do.
The cast that you got for this is pretty impressive. Were they your first choices when you were thinking about who should play these characters?
Liz Manashil: I got to work with these amazing actors. I don’t know if it came down to if Edward [Ray Santiago] was the first choice. I remember we went to Ann Dowd first for that role and when she came on board, everyone else kind of came on board to work with her and she really brought all the heat to the project. Allison [Tolman] is one of my favorite actors and my partner Sean [Wright] is in the film so he is always the first choice. We count ourselves very fortunate to be able to work with all these people. And I cast the film myself. I usually cast my projects.
Yeah, I read in one of your past interviews you take it upon yourself to cast for your projects because you feel like if you have direct contact with them the actors know that you get what you want and the message doesn’t get muddled between you and the casting directors.
Liz Manashil: Maybe I’m just lucky, too. Maybe, somehow, I’ve been able to lock down talent in a way others haven’t. But I actually just think a lot of directors and producers get to have casting directors. If I were working at a higher budget level, I would love to work with a casting director. I think they’re so beneficial for production. For me, I want more of the money to go on screen, and so I take on the responsibility, but also, it’s a learning experience as well to understand how to communicate with agents and managers and how to lock down talent per project.
Ray Santiago has really great chemistry with Ann and Allison. When he falls through the rift in space, it’s like he hasn’t missed a step with the older June. Did you need to coach the three to kind of keep the chemistry going or did they come out with that on their own?
Liz Manashil: That was all of them. When we were casting the Edward [Ray Santiago] role, we actually showed some of the footage of people who auditioned to Ann and Ann looks at the footage of Ray and was like, ‘This guy. I wanna work with this guy.’ She didn’t say that phrase. That’s not what Ann sounds like. But she identified him as a good person to be on this project just like we thought he would be amazing to work with. Allison watched the footage as well before we officially cast Ray. So there was a kind of, before we even got into production, there was a kind of communication between all three of them.
I’m curious about a particular scene you did. It’s when Ed contacts one of his family members to find out what happened. It’s a really interesting setup and he’s in a field of white flowers but they’re out of focus while he’s still in focus. What was your mindset to create the kind of scene because we go on an emotional rollercoaster with him and that is personified in that scene?
Liz Manashil: We did nature in a very particular way in the film. In 2040, there’s not a lot of—we exactly where he wanted to say, but June doesn’t go outside. She came to be trapped in that house. Our production designer brought nature into the house in order to kind of fulfill that wanderlust that the character might have. In my mind, she didn’t go outside because she’s worried about ageism and she’s worried about not fitting into society and she’s kind of emotionally paralyzed. So, we have a bunch of nature inside of her house and it gives her life. Ray being in that field of flowers, it’s like there’s a lot of emotional richness associated with nature itself. I think that’s part of it. It’s not a long take but it is almost one take the entire scene. We wanted a very rich image for people to look at if they were gonna stare at it for like three minutes straight. That was part of it. It sounds logistical. Just using the opportunity to take in what could be just a very simple scene and maximizing it as much as possible is always the goal. It’s my favorite scene with Ray, he’s just so wonderful in it. And it was a pickup by the way. It was not part of the original production. We just realized we were missing an element of his story and so we just picked it up.
After an older June goes back to the rift and Ed is back with the new June, how do you think that conversation went after that happened?
Liz Manashil: I think it’s gonna take months and months and months and lots of words between them. That’s not a story that ends cleanly. I’d like to think Edward and June end up together. I also think that if my partner disappeared for a few days and just popped and then told me a story about wormholes and David Bowie and all these things it would take me a while to adjust. So, I always assumed that it involves more fight and more contention but ultimately that she would trust him, and they would kind of share this little secret together.
Do you think they would make it after this? Do you think Ed would finally change for June and they would have lived for years and years on end?
Liz Manashil: Yeah, I think they’re a good couple and I think they would stay together. A lot of interpretations at the first scene—a lot of people interpret the first scene as a “make or break argument” but, to me the fight that they have is the fight they have once a month. It’s not like she’s gonna break up with him and their relationship is in trouble, but this is the type of conversation that a fiery couple has on the regular. So, I was thinking of it as a really stable couple.
I know you appreciate David Bowie’s work. Do you see yourself using a little bit of Bowie, or a little bit of his DNA in any of your future work?
Liz Manashil: I mean it’ll be hard not to, just from experience. Obviously, I listen to a lot to his work and watch his performances and—it’s weird. It’s weird to make a movie inspired by them but not know them, right? So, I think it’s having respect for other things that contribute to the art will always be a part of everything. But I—I mean, I’m never going to directly reference Bowie again. I don’t want to get in trouble with the estate and I don’t want to turn myself into like, ‘There’s that Bowie girl, making those Bowie movies.’ But for me and my partner Sean we do—he’s in the movie and he’s always helping out with everything I do. We like to say, like, a “cinematic universe”. I mean we’re not Marvel but we do like our own little tiny version of it. So, there’s a lot of Easter eggs in everything we do. Like, the beer that Ray drinks is a beer label that we used in our first film. So, there’s just these little things that we do. So, what we would probably do, figure out a way to allude to David Bowie being in a wormhole in the next film in a very vague way. But I don’t think that—I don’t think I should—I respect him, I’m inspired by him, but I’m always very nervous that I’m going to be considered as exploitative of David Bowie’s legacy. And so, his DNA will always be there, but I may not always fill it.
I can completely understand that. I know that there’s a somewhat David Bowie biopic in the works but the [Bowie] estate—
Liz Manashil: Yeah, Stardust.
Yeah, and the estate has not agreed upon it. I think Duncan Jones has said something about this. I get what you’re saying because you don’t want to come off as exploitative. Especially—because the man’s influence goes as far as The Beatles. But some people just don’t recognize it as much.
Liz Manashil: Yeah. He’s such a hero. Like, I just adore him. And even releasing the film I was nervous that Duncan Jones would send me hate mail. Like, I don’t know. I don’t know if I’m insulating the estate in some way by making this movie. So, I’ve been very nervous about it. So, yeah. It’s just walking this tight rope is something that I don’t want to ever do again. But I’m very proud of the film.
Honestly, I think he would appreciate it because I think he would get the spirit of the film.
Liz Manashil: Thank you. I hope so. I hope he takes it as a compliment.
Speed of Life is streaming online and I highly recommend that you check it out.