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Liza Johnson

Artist turned film-maker Liza Johnson makes her feature debut with Return, a portrait of her hometown in Ohio starring Linda Cardellini, Michael Shannon and Tim Blake Nelson, which is screening in Cannes’ Directors Fortnight.

What inspired you to tell this story?

I was partly motivated by the desire to tell a story that takes place in a town like I grew up in — a small former steel town in southern Ohio. I also was inspired by some conversations

I had with a friend about trying to stay married after a military deployment. He had a lot to say about the gap of empathy which opens up between people who have been in very different environments. I felt like this was a story I wasn’t hearing about much in the news, which by its nature is always looking for a fire story or an extreme emergency. But this kind of intimate, everyday effect of separation was very moving to me.

Did you do any research?

Yes. I went back and spent time in the town where I grew up. I also spent time with women who had come home from military deployments in the current US wars. The character of Kelli is not based on any of them, or on any of the men I met, and the film doesn’t treat her like she’s a representative of all women soldiers. She’s just one character, but I wanted her to be plausible and it helped me a lot that so many people were willing to open up to me.

How did the movie get financed?

We partnered with Fork Films, which is headed by one of our executive producers, Abigail Disney. Abby is an experienced film-maker, and is very committed to women: she even runs a feminist foundation that is separate from her film company. And she has a PhD from Columbia [University, in New York], where she wrote her dissertation on the literature of coming home from war. So she is a pretty great match for the project.

Was it intimidating working with the great Michael Shannon?

No, it was a total pleasure. Michael is one of the most powerful actors I’ve ever seen, but he uses his power for the forces of good. His greatness that you refer to helped me when we were casting — it constantly challenged me to find someone like Linda, who could give it right back to him.

Where and when did you shoot?

We shot in Newburgh, New York, and in some other towns in the Hudson River Valley in October.

What is the best advice you’ve been given ahead of Cannes?

My editor, Paul Zucker, told me I should carry flat shoes in my purse.

What do you plan to do in your spare time on the Croisette?

I’m really excited to see other people’s films. On my list is Julia Leigh, Karim Ainouz, Lynne Ramsay, Gus Van Sant.

What’s next?

I have a new script, and also an unscripted project.

Return is screening in Directors’ Fortnight

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