When describing her new film, Alice Eve immediately pulls out a T.S. Eliot quote: “To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.”
It’s the idea that there’s an inherent streak of artificiality running through many of our relationships, that we act our way through much of life. It perfectly describes Benedict Cumberbatch’s mystery-shrouded John Harrison in Star Trek Into Darkness, whose identity has been a source of constant speculation for months. But Eve isn’t quoting Eliot in relation to Star Trek, in which she plays Dr. Carol Marcus, but a film that you'd think is as wildly different as you could possibly imagine: her Tribeca Film Festival indie Some Velvet Morning.
“It’s an emotional hostage crisis,” Eve says of the film, which, written and directed by Neil LaBute (The Wicker Man, Lakeview Terrace), comes across like an extremely tense two-man play... or one-man, one-woman play. Stanley Tucci plays Fred, a middle-aged attorney who’s just left his wife for Eve’s Velvet, a prostitute whose relationship with him, he thinks, became something more than just that of a hooker and John. He shows up on the doorstep of her Brooklyn brownstone, suitcase in hand, only to discover that Velvet has other, less emotionally invested feelings about their relationship.
Over the next 82 minutes they engage in a tense, even violent, conversation that lays bare their deepest insecurities and reveals Fred and Velvet to be participants in a vicious cycle of co-dependency. As much as they try to connect, you sense they are, like Eliot’s quote, preparing faces for each other that the other wants to see, and never being honest. “They’re stuck on a carousel of acting it out and acting it out, trying to make the same thing work over and over, until either their pain goes away or their relationship seems more real or just something different happens,” Eve says. “And that may be the definition of insanity. They’re trying the same thing over and over expecting a different outcome, when there’s no indication that there ever will be a different outcome.”
The entire film takes the form of an extended dialogue between Velvet and Fred, set wholly within her upscale townhouse. One’s first reaction upon seeing Some Velvet Morning may be that it’s a spiritual cousin of Richard Linklater’s conversation films. But the dialogue-centric Before Sunrise trilogy takes the form of city symphony reveries, while Some Velvet Morning is a claustrophobic pressure cooker in which something horrendous may erupt between these two people.
And it eventually does. “It’s more a kindred spirit of Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage and Faces, and of course Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Eve says. “It exists in that tradition of European, pre-Dustin Hoffman cinema.”
Some Velvet Morning also draws heavily on the theater background of its creator, Neil LaBute. Eve’s character, Velvet, a high-priced call girl capable of not only fulfilling the fantasies of her clients but making them believe them, came out of a dramatic monologue for the stage that the actress had collaborated on with LaBute. In that reading, Eve inhabited the role of a “working girl,” to use the euphemism, and LaBute liked her interpretation so much that he expanded the character into the one we see in Some Velvet Morning. Turning an extended conversation between two people into a movie, however, was a greater challenge.
“The screen is more about active, forward movement than the stage,” Eve says. “The intimacy of the cinema demands that we are following a story.” LaBute, Eve, and Tucci, and their tiny crew gathered in Park Slope, Brooklyn for four days of rehearsal to find a tidal rhythm in the Velvet and Fred’s conversation, with that “forward movement” building to a big, brutal, unforgettable climax. Coming from the theater where improvisation is generally frowned upon, LaBute didn’t encourage his actors to ad lib while shooting but instead suggest ideas during the rehearsal period. “For example, originally there were going to be two instances of me applying lipstick in the film,” Eve says. “But in our very theater-like rehearsal, we decided that felt repetitive, that there was a need for a moment of respite, so I said that Stanley should put the lipstick on my lips himself for the second occasion.”
Considering the volatility of the emotions Eve and Tucci were expected to project, creating a little levity on set, and during rehearsal, was essential. “Stanley’s a very light soul,” Eve says. “Stanley and I went to lunch together every day and spoke about our own love lives, which are I suppose very different but just as complex as everyone’s are. He would fall asleep in the dressing room and I would wake him up and tease him. We got along very well.”
The shooting itself took place over only eight days, in June 2012. That experience was the microscopic opposite of the six-month shoot Eve had just completed on Los Angeles soundstages for the other movie she's starring in this month, Star Trek Into Darkness. But as different as the two movies appear to be on the surface, the nature of their respective productions wasn’t that dissimilar: “Star Trek is this grand juggernaut of a vision, but when it came down to it, most of my experience of filming it was just J.J., Chris [Pine], and me, just like how on Some Velvet Morning it was just Neil, Stanley, and myself.” Running through 23rd century San Francisco is the same as viciously chatting in a 21st century Brooklyn brownstone? In the end, they’re both games of make believe.
Follow Christian Blauvelt on Twitter @Ctblauvelt