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‘Sometimes I Think About Dying’: Q&A with the Director Rachel Lambert and actor Dave Merheje of the Oregon-shot film starring Daisy Ridley

The director and actor talk with Marc Mohan about filming in Astoria and working with an internationally famous movie star.

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Daisy Ridley in “Somtimes I Think About Dying”

The Oregon coast serves as a suitably gray backdrop for the day-to-day life of Fran, the introverted office worker at the center of Sometimes I Think About Dying. This off-kilter comedy about coming out of one’s shell marks a change-of-pace for star Daisy Ridley, from the interstellar byways she traversed as Rey in the Star Wars sequels to the cozy yet mundane confines of Astoria. It’s also a personal project for director Rachel Lambert, and the highest-profile project of her three features to date.

Sometimes I Think About Dying almost wears out its welcome early on, as Fran moves through her workdays in an introverted haze, barely acknowledging her banal but human colleagues. But, in the nick of time, a new co-worker named Robert (Dave Merheje) shows up to replace a retiring one and becomes, seemingly, the first person to bother trying to find out what’s behind Fran’s dour mien. What follows is a very low-key romantic tale that doesn’t hide how difficult it can be to forge connections in this world. I spoke with Lambert and Merheje, a standup comic best known previously for co-starring in the Apple TV series Ramy.

OAW: I write for Oregon ArtsWatch, so I’m legally required to ask you about the experience of filming in Astoria (and a bit in St. Helens). How did you settle on that location?

RACHEL LAMBERT: Well, my producer Alex Saks and I were discussing where in the world this film could be. The script was so rich in characters and themes, but it was also an incredible invitation because there was almost no visual data. There was no indication of where these people worked or what they did. And that gave us permission to invent. The script does mention that it’s a coastal town and mentions the fishing industry.

There was something about the West that felt right. The space, the tableaux, the individual against something vast, these felt right for the themes of the film. There’s something romantic and sweeping about the West. And the Oregon coast is dramatic and truly beautiful. We also wanted someplace colder to match our color palette. I had no familiarity with Oregon at all, so the first thing I did once we were greenlit was to get on a plane to Oregon. I was driving around looking at different towns, and Astoria was not on my list. But I drove through it on my way back to Portland, and I was so struck by how it feels like an heirloom, retrieved from the past but living in the present. And that feels like Fran. Choosing that town informed so many of our choices from that point on.

OAW: How long was the shoot? Dave, were you able to keep yourself entertained out on the coast?

DAVE MERHEJE: I ate a lot of clam chowder, I’ll tell you that. Alone, most of the time, surrounded by married people in restaurants.

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OAW: How did Daisy Ridley get involved, and was it surprising that the star of a global phenomenon signed on to this relatively small project?

RL: The casting process was so arduous! I sent it to her and she liked it immediately and said yes! I had gotten to know Daisy a bit because I made a film several years ago called In the Radiant City and she liked it enough to put my name on a list of directors that she was interested in working with. So I would often get scripts that she was attached to. I knew I didn’t have a chance of getting those jobs, but I was learning a lot about Daisy—her tastes, what kind of roles speak to her, what kind of writing she responds to. When I read this script, the first person I wanted was Daisy. We got it to her and she said yes very quickly.

OAW: I’m assuming that when she showed up for the shoot, she came with a huge entourage and a massive ego. Dave, how incredibly difficult was it to work with Daisy?

DM: Before we met, I was telling myself just to be cool about it, right? And then one day I came in to do some wardrobe, and I didn’t expect her to be there. So when I made the turn in the hallway, and there she was, everything I had worked on in my head just fell apart. I was so nervous. But she’s great, really funny, very down-to-earth. She taught me a lot in the scenes I had with her. And she made me feel real comfortable, because this is my first movie.

Dave Merheje and Daisy Ridley in “Sometimes I Think About Dying”

OAW: Was she able to operate incognito while in Astoria?

RL: She’s an actor, she’s a worker, she’s part of our team. She was an essential part of our producing team, our creative team, and the acting ensemble. She drove herself to set every day, which I think she loved, because a lot of times she’s not allowed to do that. And the drive to set is a very crucial part of the workday, where you have to set a very specific vibe. So I can appreciate that.

OAW: Speaking of the acting ensemble, I was struck by the casting of Fran’s officemates. It’s harder than it looks, I’d imagine, to find performers so perfectly suited for their roles that they can conjure a fleshed-out personality even without much screen time or dialogue. Some moments felt at least partially improvisational.

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RL: Yes, there was a lot of improv. There was full improv, there was mixed-use improv, and there were fully scripted pieces. So it was a nice grab-bag. We made sure to have time every day to play. I love working that way.

OAW: This may come out the wrong way, but what does Dave’s character see in Fran that prompts him to try to get to know her? The rest of the office seems content to let her exist in her almost pathological introversion, but not Robert.

DM: I think he thought she was adorable. Everybody else was pretty outgoing, and she kind of held back. I think he wondered why she was so quiet. And she does her own thing. Even though she was reserved, she was unique.

OAW: When Robert shows up, he stands out as being the most normal, well-adjusted person in the office. Although he does joke to Fran that he’s never had a job before—

DM: I thought that would be funny because it would be insane not to know what a staple remover is.

RL: That’s his coping mechanism. One of the things I hope the film demonstrates is that there’s the performance and then there’s the reality beneath. And fusing those things can take a lot of work. [Fran’s co-worker] Carol is a perfect example of that. In the first act, we see her one way, and in the last act, we see her totally differently. We see that private piece, the struggles. We don’t know really what any of these characters go home to. And I think what draws Robert to Fran is that he sees someone who’s incredibly unafraid to hold whatever space she’s in. She’s perfectly willing to say when she doesn’t like something. She’s authentic. She doesn’t feel the pressure to please everyone all the time.

OAW: There are some interesting directorial choices being made, especially in the unconventional framing, where different body parts will be at the center of the shots and sometimes heads or limbs will be outside the frame.

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RL: Those were certainly an expression of the fragmentation that is internal for Fran. [Cinematographer] Dustin [Lane] and I tend to pull a lot from fine art for our references, so there’s a lot of [Gregory] Crewdson influence. There’s also a book called Billable Hours by Robin Dahlberg, which is photos of office scenes, but just fragments—a hand tossing something into a garbage can, for instance.

OAW: Last question. Robert and Fran go to a movie that he loves and she hates. What movie was it?

RL: We made up a bunch of titles that sounded like old indie films that Robert would like. But, Dave, did you make up something in your head that it was?

DM: I don’t think I did at the time, but maybe it was Requiem for a Dream?

RL: [laughs] Can you imagine Fran watching Requiem for a Dream?

DM: All I know is that when I watched it, when I was much younger and still partying, I watched it with a couple other dudes and when it was over we were so depressed we had to go rent that Halloween movie with Busta Rhymes just to offset whatever that energy was.

(Sometimes I Think About Dying opens on Thursday, Feb. 1, at Regal Fox Tower. Thursday’s and Friday’s 7 p.m. screenings will include a Q&A session with Lambert and Merheje.)

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Photo Joe Cantrell

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 manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité; and 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, he pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017 and graduating cum laude in 2020 with a specialization in Intellectual Property. He now splits his time between his practice with Nine Muses Law and his continuing efforts to spread the word about great (and not-so-great) movies, which include a weekly column at Oregon ArtsWatch.

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