By Yonca Talu
The spellbinding lead of Slow Machine talks about bringing to life the character of a capricious actress, a role tailor-made for her.
Borrowing its title from a Philip Larkin poem, Paul Felten and Joe DeNardo’s debut feature Slow Machine (2020) taps into a zeitgeist of fear and paranoia through the story of an impetuous actress’s fling with an enigmatic counterterrorism agent in New York. Shot on 16mm and a low budget over several years, the film was written for lead Stephanie Hayes, who delivers a fierce, multifaceted performance as a woman for whom fiction has the upper hand on reality. Intercutting between the protagonist’s past and present, Slow Machine is at once a tense chamber drama permeated with the city’s turmoil, and a spontaneous hangout movie that unfolds at the pace of musician and supporting actress Eleanor Friedberger’s hypnotic vocals.
Hayes joined me on Zoom from her native Sweden—where she’s currently based after years of being a Brooklynite—for a conversation about Slow Machine’s inception and making.
Slow Machine’s protagonist shares many biographical traits with you, including your name, nationality, and profession. To what extent did you identify with the role?
Slow Machine’s protagonist is actually a combination of Paul [Felten, the writer and co-director] and me, or rather a version of Paul in a Swedish woman’s body. [Laughs] Paul was able to express a lot of his anxieties, concerns, thoughts, and feelings through the vessel of my silhouette. So I identified with the role mainly in relation to him. Paul and I met at a dinner party in 2014, and he was going to see the Richard Foreman play that I was in at The Public Theater [Old-Fashioned Prostitutes (A True Romance)]. We met again after the show and had drinks, and one day he just said: “I’m writing a script with you in mind.” And I said: “That’s great. Let’s do it.” So Slow Machine is a meeting of our energies and a testament to the “Get a camera and make movies with your friends” approach. There was a comfort on set that made going out for beers afterward a seamless transition.
Was being a theater actress an asset for performing Slow Machine’s artful and expansive monologues?
Paul’s writing rolls off the tongue despite being stylized, so saying the lines felt effortless. But on a technical level, I’m not at all intimidated by holding a lot of text, sustaining the shot for a long time, and being in charge of the rhythm. Film actors usually don’t have control of the rhythm because anything they say or do can be edited away. So it was really nice to be trusted in that regard on Slow Machine. Also, shooting on 16mm created a sense of urgency and a bit of panic, a sense of “Please don’t screw it up” because sometimes we didn’t have any more film left. But when something went awry, I didn’t interrupt the scene. I just picked up the ball and ran with it since I felt responsible for the movie.
“Stephanie’s identity is blurry and fluid. She can easily bleed into something else, believe it, and be fully in it, which makes her an exciting actor but also dangerous
You and your co-star Scott Shepherd’s performances powerfully complement each other in sexually charged sequences that oscillate between playfulness and gravity. How carefully did you and the directors map out and rehearse those interactions?
We had a loose map and did some rehearsals, and Scott Shepherd [who plays Gerard] and I drew on our theater training to stage the more physical scenes together. But Paul and Joe [DeNardo, the co-director and cinematographer] gave us a lot of freedom to move about without being concerned with hitting marks. I’ve never done a big-budget film, but I know from friends who have that there’s a strict choreography to adhere to, whereas on Slow Machine there was space for expansion. Joe was just another player in the room, another dancer in the waltz, as he operated the tiny and old camera. And Paul was very smart to cast two actors who already knew of each other and had a playful energy. I really enjoyed working with Scott because of his fearlessness—you can throw anything at him, and he just takes it and rolls with it.
Was it written into the script that you would speak with a Texas accent in the storyline featuring Eleanor Friedberger and her band in Upstate New York?
Yes. I remember saying to Paul: “I know an amazing dialect coach from grad school. Can we get it into the budget to work with her so that I can nail the accent?” And he was like: “I don’t want you to nail it. I want it to be good but not polished.” So I was explicitly told to do my idea of a Texas accent, that is to say a Swedish-British interpretation. [Laughs]
It’s almost like Stephanie’s persona there builds on her impromptu role-playing session with Gerard, in which she embodies a Texan woman.
Yeah, exactly. She sort of chooses that person to step into. Some people are strongly realized as themselves, but that’s not the case with Stephanie, whose identity is blurry and fluid. She can easily bleed into something else, believe it, and be fully in it, which makes her an exciting actor but also dangerous to herself.
How did you feel about your scene with Chloë Sevigny, which stands out as the only moment in the film in which you’re the listener rather than the storyteller?
There’s a danger and mystery to Chloë’s story that pulls you in but also allows you to exhale and rest for a while from the film’s anxiety-driven rhythm. So I felt privileged to just sit there and listen to her without being the scene’s driving engine. When Chloë [who plays herself] and I showed up on set, we had our hair the same way, were wearing the same clothes, and found out that we had the same tattoo on our hand. So even though I’m supposed to embody an unfamous version of her, it was this weird moment in which we were like the same person.
It’s never clear whether Slow Machine’s characters are telling the truth or lying. Were you as uncertain as the audience about the line between reality and fiction as you navigated the story?
Slow Machine’s characters are constantly shaping their narratives and making up stories around their identities, especially Gerard. I kept feeling like he was both who he says he is and not, and that’s also evident in the cinematography—Stephanie and Gerard’s scenes in that creepy room in Queens look staged and theatrical. Also when he shows up at her AA meeting and warns her about a subway bomb threat—I asked Paul whether that was true, and he was like: “I don’t know. What do you think?” And I said: “I don’t believe him. I think he’s using this to create some adrenaline.” But I also think Stephanie finds Gerard’s ambiguity titillating and enjoys the adventure he’s taking her on.
Although it barely shows New York, Slow Machine transported me back to my life there and specifically to the summer of 2016, when there was a tension building up in the city in the aftermath of major attacks in Europe. I’ll always remember how palpable the anxiety was on the subway. Did that paranoid climate consciously feed into your performance in Slow Machine?
Paul definitely wrote from a time in which the political climate was tough in New York. But I don’t think people knew how to identify that rising anxiety. It’s like COVID, which is affecting the way we move through life and the choices we make, but which remains a vague threat out there if you haven’t experienced it firsthand. But the paranoia is inherent in Slow Machine’s protagonist and amplified by New York’s unsettledness. I don’t think I would have known how to walk with anxiousness down the subway stairs [following Stephanie’s first encounter with Gerard] had I been living in Sweden at the time. It’s a different walk from that of the person visiting New York and thinking: “Wow, this is so cool.” When you go down into the New York subway, something takes hold of you, and you start clutching yourself and tensing your jaw because it’s both thrilling and nerve-racking.
Slow Machine’s nervous mood is enhanced by the underexposed slow-motion footage of you eerily staring into the camera while dancing. What does that image mean to you?
That image comes from a performance I created and performed in a downtown New York theater in 2014, before I’d even read Slow Machine’s script. Joe wanted to try out the camera and shot hours of footage of me warming up and doing weird exercises. But the way Slow Machine is assembled is uniquely Paul and Joe’s vision, and I could not have anticipated the look and feel of the film from the scenes we shot. Sometimes I was concerned about the story being too vague. But once the editing and soundscape came in, they offered me enough of the piece that I was looking for and made the experience more complete.
How did you experience shooting Slow Machine intermittently for several years?
Slow Machine holds a very dear place in my heart because I became a mother three months before we started shooting, and my daughter was about two and a half years old when we wrapped. So I know where I stood in my own identity as a mother at each stage of the shoot, and Paul and Joe were part of my daughter’s upbringing and had to work around it by letting me breastfeed on set. [Laughs]
Did you channel your own motherhood into the movie’s epilogue, in which Stephanie improvises a bedtime story for her daughter over Skype?
My main parenting trick is improvising fantastical stories that settle my children into a sleepy lull, though they don’t resemble the story I tell in Slow Machine. While shooting the scene, I remember feeling a great sense of grief of having failed as that little girl’s mother and being absent from her life. Stephanie’s a continuously unsettled person, which is why the father has primary care. I also remember I had to worry less about the meaning of the text and just focus on taking myself on the journey of telling the story. The character is so absorbed by her own storytelling that I think she’s meant to be a really good actor, in the sense that she can’t be fully in her body and has to try on these different skins over and over again.
There’s a similar trancelike feeling in the scene in which Stephanie gets drunk and sings loudly in Swedish in front of Eleanor and her bandmates.
That’s an old Swedish folk song I knew from when I was a teenager, and it’s about an impotent rooster. All the hens in the pen go on strike because they think he’s useless. Then another rooster arrives, and he’s super virile and makes love to all the hens. But there’s this one hen named Agda who’s very disappointed because every time they’re supposed to make love, he just plucks her feathers. So she asks: “Why don’t you make love to me like you do to the other hens and instead pluck my feathers?” And he replies: “Because I love you more than everybody else, and I will make sweet love to you, but I’d like to see you naked first.” [Laughter] I had a strange moment of dissociation while singing the song and evoking my adolescence through it, then looking around and seeing Eleanor and her bandmates, who had no idea what I was talking about. So it was once again this feeling of occupying several identities at the same time and not knowing who the true me was. •
Yonca Talu is a filmmaker and film critic living in Paris. She grew up in Istanbul and graduated from NYU Tisch. She is a regular contributor to Film Comment magazine.