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FilmWatch Weekly: Q&A with the director of Oregon-made ‘Lorelei’

Making a compelling movie about "folks who don’t normally get the Hollywood, or even the 'Portlandia,' treatment."

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“Lorelei” director Sabrina Doyle.

For the second time this month, an Oregon-made film about characters on the margins of society is opening. Like Pig, which centered on a hermit-like character living in a remote forest, Lorelei concerns itself with the lives of folks who don’t normally get the Hollywood, or even the Portlandia, treatment.

The debut feature from British-raised, Los-Angeles-based writer-director Sabrina Doyle, Lorelei stars Pablo Schreiber as Wayland, who finds himself back in his hometown after serving fifteen years for armed robbery. Almost immediately, he bumps into Dolores (Jena Malone), the high school girlfriend he left behind. He’s drawn back into her life and that of her three kids, each named after a shade of the color blue: Dodger, Periwinkle, and Denim. Trying to stay focused on the righteous path, he’s nonetheless temped back toward the biker-gang life that landed him in prison.

That standard synopsis doesn’t do justice to the textured humanity that Doyle brings to both the lead characters and the supporting ones, almost all of whom are played by Oregon actors. That includes the child actors Chancellor Perry, Amelia Borgerding, and Parker Pascoe-Sheppard, each making an impressive acting debut, especially in light of the sometimes intense material they’re tasked with.

The film was shot in 2019 and was scheduled to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival before it was cancelled in 2020. I spoke with Doyle mere days before her return to Oregon, where she’ll participate in Q&A sessions after screenings in Portland, McMinnville, Salem, and Eugene this weekend. Questions and answers here have been edited for length and clarity.

Jena Malone and Pablo Schreiber in “Lorelei.”

Q: Lorelei depicts a lower-working-class milieu and the people in it with a clear but empathetic eye, something that seems more common in films made by directors who didn’t grow up in the U.S. How did your own background in London affect your perspective on this environment?

A: I did not grow up in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, but I did grow up in a blue-collar family. I’m a first-generation high school graduate, first-generation college graduate, most of my family were manual workers, so I grew up knowing what financial hardship was. A lot of films about working-class characters tend to be very issue-focused, and sometimes, even with good intentions, they can verge on sadism—the characters are put through the ringer to illustrate the hardship of their lives. I wanted to make a film that celebrated resilience and interiority and dream life and that didn’t flatten the characters out to explore an issue.

Q. What inspired you, then, to set this story in the Pacific Northwest?

A. Well, I’d say that the most seminal thing I watched as a young person was Twin Peaks, which twists all the symbols of the Americana I grew up on into something darker and more interesting. I found that really intoxicating. So part of the reason I wanted to film there was its mysterious forests and waterfalls, beautiful on the one hand but concealing secrets and dreams—or, in the case of Twin Peaks, nightmares. But I was very conscious of not growing up in the Pacific Northwest, not being intimately familiar with it, so for a year and a half before shooting I travelled up and down between Los Angeles and Oregon and took the time to go to tons of small towns, knock on doors, and speak to people.

Q: You’ve said that the character of Wayland represents a different sort of template for masculinity than we normally see in a story like this. Can you expand on that?

A: That actually relates to the genesis of this movie. The way I got to make this is, I was approached by a retired businessman who had always dreamed of making a film and decided to finally pay for one. He wanted to make a movie about a stepfather, because he had raised four children who were not his biological children. He said it was the hardest thing he’d ever done but also the most rewarding. In finding my own take on that story, I thought a lot about Paris, Texas, which is a film about getting a second chance at masculinity and fatherhood. So I wanted to create a character who had a lot of room in his life for growth and change. We’re so hung up in the West with the past, that it can become what I call toxic nostalgia, where you get so hung up on the past that you can’t see what’s right in front of you. For Wayland, becoming about to let go of this life that he should have had, could have had, and embracing the life that he does have, is his journey.

Q. I recognized that some of the film was shot in Banks. What other areas or communities did you shoot in?

A. We shot a lot in Banks, the longest we spent in one place. We shot in Washington, Multnomah, Clackamas, and Marion counties. The waterfall scene was shot at Latourell Falls. The church scenes were shot at the Colton Lutheran Church. We found that church because we were simply driving around the countryside and drove past it. We shot there for two days and I was at a gas station at one point and I saw this guy who had the most interesting face. I told him we were making a movie across the road and asked him if he’d be an extra in it. He said, well, what’s the movie about, and I told him we were shooting a scene in a halfway house with someone who’d just been released from prison. And he was like, that’s kind of my life, I’ll come be an extra if someone can watch my dog. And he’s in the movie.

Parker Pascoe-Sheppard, Jena Malone, Amelia Borgerding, and Chancellor Perry in Lorelei

Q. You were blessed with a pair of talented lead actors, especially for a relatively low-budget first feature. What was the process of casting Pablo and Jena like?

A. If it had just been me, it would have been a huge challenge. But I had Kevin Chinoy and Francesca Silvestri, who had produced The Florida Project, on this, and that helped the process. Even though it was my first feature, it was decidedly not theirs. Pablo has played a lot of tough characters recently, and while Wayland is tough, he’s also capable of real tenderness, and showing both of those sides in one role was appealing to him. And this was Jena’s first major role back after having a child, and she really related to the vulnerability of single mothers and the idea of imperfect motherhood. They were both so committed—at one point, to save us money, Pablo lived in the pop-up trailer that he drove up from L.A. behind the house in Banks where we were shooting for a week.

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Q. One thing that distinguishes Lorelei from a lot of other blue-collar stories is the use of occasional dreamlike, surreal moments, which contrast with the otherwise gritty realism in really interesting ways.

A: Thank you for mentioning that. A lot of films set in this sort of milieu adopt a sort of documentary aesthetic—hand-held camera, washed-out colors—and it’s almost like, look, it’s authentic because it’s being shot this way. But that’s a very literal interpretation of those lives. It was really important to me to show the interior life, and to make use of the tools of cinema to explore that inner life. For me it was about paying attention to the fact that these characters have dreams, things that they reach for, inner lives that are incredibly rich. If you limit the characters to their physical circumstances, you are missing something that’s really important.

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Lorelei opens at the Living Room Theaters on Friday, July 30. For details on the cast and crew Q&A sessions around the state this weekend, visit https://www.lorelei.love/.

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since. As the former manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, and later the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité, he immersed himself in the cinematic education that led to his position as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, Mohan pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017. He can’t quite seem to break the habit, though, of loving and writing about movies.

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