BREATHE: Finding Inner Peace In The Face Of Sorrow

In film, what you see can convey as much emotion and truth as what you hear. A simple look in someone’s eyes, or a physical interaction between two people, can often tell a better story than even a word of spoken dialogue. With actor/writer/producer Shanna Forrestall’s heartfelt short film Breathe, no words are even necessary to communicate the immeasurable sadness of human heartbreak.

Written and produced by Forrestall, directed by Michael Liu and executive produced by Neil Wells, Breathe screened during the Louisiana International Film Festival’s popular Louisiana Shorts lineup on April 21st, 2018. The four day festival, held annually in Baton Rouge, featured an entertaining collection of acclaimed narrative and documentary films from Louisiana and across the globe.

Co-starring Forrestall and Escalante Lundy, and featuring elegant artwork painted in the film by Canadian artist Jennifer Awad, Breathe immerses the viewer in a poignant journey through the human soul as it struggles to balance the devastation of a personal loss with the challenge of coping with that loss. Stripped of all dialogue, Breathe leans on its powerful visuals, and composer Carlos Garza’s touching underscore, to illustrate the universal impact of grief.

Shot on location in Lake Arrowhead, California during a visually spectacular yet chilly winter season, Breathe was challenging for Forrestall and her collaborators to make — and the weather conditions they faced weren’t the only obstacle that made the production an occasionally difficult experience. Doing a film that contained no dialogue from its actors was also a tough task for Breathe’s cast.

When “cut” was yelled for the last time on Breathe’s set, though, the spectacular effort put forth by the film’s primarily Louisianan talent made all those challenges worth enduring. In addition to discussing how her own experiences with grief led her to conceive Breathe, Forrestall elaborates on how Breathe’s simple yet impactful method of visual-based storytelling manages to say as much about the pain of grief in all its forms as it does the power of that emotion — without having to say anything at all.

Shanna Forrestall, co-star/writer/producer of the powerful short film BREATHE.

Chris Hadley: What is Breathe about?

Shanna Forrestall (co-star/writer/producer, Breathe): Breathe, in its short form, is basically about grief. We all encounter grief at some point. It can come from the loss of a person or a pet. It can also come from other things like the loss of a dream, or a loss of physical attributes; someone who loses their sight, or someone who gets a chronic pain disease. As humans, it’s part of the human experience to deal with grief. So, that’s what (the film)’s about. It’s about grief in all its forms; letting go of something that you loved, or cared about, or believed.

CH: Talk about the artist featured in Breathe, Jennifer Awad, and her role in the film.

SF: When art became such a pivotal part of the story, I actually wanted her (Jennifer) to be seen. She kind of, in my mind, represents (someone who’s) almost like a god figure that oversees everything. Even though we don’t know what the plan is, and we don’t know what the point is, something — or someone — does. On the set, we called her “the goddess”. She’s an artist, and she’s the one who helps us to visually tell the story through the painting.

CH: What (and/or who) inspired you to make Breathe?

SF: Breathe was based on a personal experience. I had never been pregnant. I hadn’t had a child, so it’s not a literal story. For me, I didn’t lose a child, but for me it’s based on just the experience of loss. I went through a really tough time a couple of years ago. When i came out of it, I was just talking to other filmmakers about what I had learned from the experience, and how it really changed my perspective on the world.

They encouraged me to tell my story through film in a short film. That’s how it came about. It was based on personal experience, and then I got to the point where I learned from that hard experience. Then, I wanted to use that experience to hopefully share and encourage other people that may be in a dark place in their lives.

L-R: BREATHE co-star Shanna Forrestall talks to the film’s executive producer, Neil Wells, prior to filming.

CH: From an artistic perspective, why did you decide to make Breathe without dialogue? What factored into that decision, and how does the lack of dialogue ultimately enhance the movie itself?

SF: Well, I kind of knew from the beginning that was what was going to happen. We debated at one point about, you know, “does it need a voiceover to start it out, or to wrap it up, or to make the story clear enough?” Then, we tried a little bit and I just said, “no, it doesn’t need it.” As a filmmaker, I came to a point where I really wanted to simplify the process. I’d gone through a real phase in my history as a filmmaker. I started really big, which was kind of naive and crazy.

For my first short, we had, like, 70 people work for me for free. It was huge, and it was a couple of days. It was massive. We had all these extras. After that project, I was like, “oh, Lord! That was crazy!” Then, I started just paring down what I did with film until they got very simple.

I went to the smallest format I could find. I went down to old, old cameras with wind batteries doing the black and white with no sound and only music. I went down as small as I could go; one actress, one location. How small can I make a film and tell a story?

Breathe was kind of coming back up that spectrum, but I still felt like the simplicity and the alone-ness was best exemplified by lack of clutter. So, if you look at it visually with sound, and obviously with no dialogue, all of those things contribute to the feeling of isolation and solitude. I think that’s part of the story. That’s part of what I was trying to convey because we’ve all been in those dark spots.

You feel alone, and it doesn’t matter how many people are around you. It doesn’t matter how many people want to help you. It doesn’t matter what kind of support system you actually have. What you feel is alone, because no one can completely understand where you are and what’s happening inside of you. That was a big part of why that choice (using no dialogue in Breathe) was made, because I wanted it to be quiet. I wanted you to hear yourself in the story.

I wanted you to hear every little moment, and I think we’ve done that. When she stops and takes that breath on the side of the road, it’s like that moment is so big, but it’s so small. It’s just a breath, but it’s so big because we’ve all had that moment where it takes everything in you to just breathe. I felt like those moments would really stand out if the rest of the film was basically silent.

L-R: BREATHE director Michael Liu and co-star Escalante Lundy.

CH: One such moment, namely the final scene with you and Escalante, really stood out. Talk about the way you approached producing that scene.

SF: That moment, that payoff to me was so big because you only hear yourself scream in that moment. We actually talked about, “should you hear her crying? Is it weird that you don’t hear her crying?” When we pulled it out, and when we looked at it, we said, “no. No. This feels like dropping off a cliff.”

That’s what it feels like in that moment when you finally feel the depths of loss. It’s like jumping off a cliff. It’s a silent scream. That’s what she was feeling all along, but she wasn’t letting it out. That’s what she was feeling and nobody knew. I think there’s just so much more power in it (the scene), because it’s silent.

That’s where we became extremely dependent on our composer, which was why I chose Carlos Garza (composer) to begin with. I worked with him a couple of times. I had met him on an indie horror film that I did that just came out, and we actually won some awards for that film. After that, I utilized him on another of my short films, and when I came to do this one, I just thought, “who can tell this story?” There was no one else I wanted to do it but Carlos, because he understands the intricacies of emotion.

He actually composes music (with) all these different instruments, and (he) understands these different voices as they need to speak. We talked a lot, when we went into post-production, about how each character needed a voice, and what emotion we wanted people to feel at different parts of the story; how we wanted to even mislead them a little with the Escalante character (the “man”), and how we wanted them to not know exactly what was going on.

We wanted to tease out the story, and to tease out the relationship. I thInk he just did a beautiful job of doing that. As much as we visually told it, the story would not be there and you wouldn’t get it without that original score, because it really makes things happen.

L-R: BREATHE first assistant director Nicole Lovince and film co-star Shanna Forrestall.

CH: Your appearing on screen with Escalante, and the representation of his character, was pretty much open to anyone’s interpretation, along with the point of view of the characters from what they were feeling at the time.

SF: Right. I’m from the South. I did date a black man at one point in my life, and I know how that can be misconstrued. So from the beginning, when I started writing this story, I saw Escalante in the role because he’s a very dear friend of mine. I knew he was the ying to my yang. We’re a really good balance — not only visually, but energy-wise, and i knew that he had the intricacies that I needed in that male character.

People grieve differently, and I wanted to show that because you don’t know that man is grieving as well until the end. You don’t know how much he loves until later in the story, and I wanted it to be that way because sometimes we judge people.

When a family loses someone, some people grieve big and loud and verbally in all these ways. Other people carry their grief deep inside. They may not say it, or they may not do big manifestations of that grief, but it’s there.

I also wanted to validate the differences in the way men and women — or maybe different personality types — grieve. He (Escalante) was a perfect representation of that. When I started to write the story, I saw him from the beginning. At one point, I just looked at it and went, “wow. If this big black man is following this white woman around, then someone is going to get the wrong idea.”

I was like, “well, let’s just use that and have a secondary story; a secondary message.” It’s done really well, because when we screened it we sometimes had a dialogue on race there, and we were able to address that. We were able to talk about that, like what kind of preconceived notions do we have because a big black man with a skull cap is following a white woman?

When you watch the movie again, you see there’s nothing threatening in his face — ever. He is love. That man is love, but sometimes when someone is big or it’s a big male especially, we immediately assume danger. It just kind of played that way, but then I was really happy that it did, because another thing that’s kind of important to me is that people should really be judged by their heart only.

I have to remind myself that all the time, too. Don’t just judge by how someone dresses, or their physical appearance. That’s nothing. It doesn’t tell everything. Look into the eyes of someone. Look into the heart of someone, and then judge there.

On the set of BREATHE in Lake Arrowhead, California.

CH: What was the production process like, including for the final scene between you and Escalante?

SF: We ended up going to Lake Arrowhead, California, which was a great choice for us because I thought mountains would give us scope and perspective. I thought it worked really well, especially when I finally got to see the film on a big, actual massive full-sized screen. I was like, “yes!” It plays because you feel alone in a room, but when you’re on the side of a mountain by yourself, you (really) feel alone. I think it just increased the scope of alone-ness (in the film). It increased the scope of the big picture.

The snowy landscape helped that. People relate winter with the time when things sleep, or die, before a rebirth. I think it was just a good representation of where she was at in the process. It was beautiful. The challenges with that (filming in wintertime) was that we had snowstorms on the weekends. We had three wrecks that weekend — all minor, thank goodness — but we had three wrecks because of snow, sliding and ice.

Our cameras froze up at times, which put us behind schedule. There were definitely some challenges with the weather, but I think that at the end of the day, the landscape was worth it because it just supported everything emotionally and visually and viscerally that we were trying to say.

When it comes to making a movie without dialogue, I personally love them. My favorite projects that I’ve ever done in my life have been ones with either no dialogue or projects that were very much improv; even feature films I’ve done that have allowed a lot of improv space, because I feel you can be really natural when no one’s telling you what to say.

L-R: BREATHE make-up artist Megan Hebert works with Shanna Forrestall.

As an actor, I prefer to watch and to give performances that are simple and authentic. I think that not having dialogue to rely on is a good way to do that. It’s really just about emoting without doing it too much or too big, and Escalante is a perfect actor for that. He can just stand there, and if you look closely you’ll pick up so many things from him. That’s what the camera does. It looks closely. I knew I could trust him with the story.

When he gives me that look across the car with the coffee, that’s another pivotal point in the film because I cry every time. I’ve seen the film a hundred times and that’s where I start crying, because when you’re in that dark space, all someone has to do sometimes is just to look at you with love to touch your heart.

When someone is going through a hard time, we’re always worried about “what should I do?” There are things that we can do sometimes, but sometimes there’s not anything we can do but stand there and allow space for that person, (and to) let them know “I’m here, and I love you.”

To me, that’s what that look from Escalante (when he was) across the car said. He was following her because she wanted to make sure she was okay. That cup of coffee was that. It was “I’m here, and I love you.” He gave her her space, and he waited for her to give him permission to approach. When she was ready, he was there. That is the crux of everything.

I’m big on addressing hard topics in my films, and helping people figure out advocacy. How do we help people when they’re in a tough place? My films deal with all kinds of topics, but I think that’s a relative theme that runs through a lot of them. In a difficult space, how do we be a human? How do we love? How do we be? That moment, for me, was everything.

Neil Wells, our executive producer, was extremely instrumental in shooting that scene. I told him that this was hugely important. My director, Michael Liu, had a lot more experience being a DP (director of photography) than he did being a director, and he wasn’t giving a lot of notes. I didn’t want to be in my head trying to direct and act at the same time.

So, i had Neil behind the camera and I said, “Neil, just tell me when we’ve got it. You know us. You know us as people. You know us as actors. I wanted to be so simplistic, but it has to be real.”Neal directed us to get that moment, and I’m so happy with what I saw on camera. I said, “that’s it. It’s that simple.” It’s that ‘I see you, I’m here, I love you’ all conveyed in that one little look; that one hint of a smile that Escalante let out. He’s so perfect for stuff like that.

L-R: BREATHE executive producer Neil Wells and co-star/producer/writer Shanna Forrestall take to the red carpet prior to the film’s world premiere at the Louisiana International Film Festival in Baton Rouge, La.

CH: How has having Breathe be part of this year’s LIFF Louisiana Shorts lineup benefitted the film?

SF: We held on to the film for a while. We were tying to decide what we wanted to do with it. Finally, I was like, “you know what, let’s send it to LIFF,” because what I love about what Chesley (Heymsfield, LIFF executive director) is that she brings together the community but she makes it much broader than that. She’s also extremely supportive of our (Louisiana) filmmakers.

CH: How has your involvement in LIFF, and that of Breathe, benefitted both your film and your work as a filmmaker?

SF: I was so excited when we found out that it was going to be in LIFF, because (a), it’s a great venue, (b), Louisiana is home for me and i knew that some of my friends and family could be there for the premiere, ©, I still consider myself part of the Louisiana community and there were so many Louisiana people involved in the film.

All my best friends and key crew flew up from Louisiana to help me make this film. Escalante flew up. Karen Clark did wardrobe and props. Megan Hebert did makeup. Nicole Lovince was my first AD (assistant director). Those are all Louisiana people that came up to support this film, and that meant a lot to me. To have it premiere in Louisiana at one of Louisiana’s biggest festivals, and at a festival that is as supportive of its filmmakers at LIFF, was a perfect way for this film to make its debut in the world.

CH: What do you hope people will take away from watching Breathe?

SF: I hope that it makes us more aware of ourselves and of other people. Like i said, I believe that grief is just part of the human experience. We’re all going to face it, whether you have a pet that dies, or you lose a child, or you lose a spouse, or you lose a friend or whatever. Your house burns down. Your house floods. How many times have I seen that in Louisiana?

When I’ve done post-disaster work across the world, how many people have I (seen) grieving because what was comfort, safety, home, and family (to them) is gone? Grief comes in so many ways.

I just hope that this movie makes us more aware to pay attention to our world, because chances are no matter where we are — in a grocery store, on a street, at a concert, at work, or wherever we are — someone around us is grieving. It’s sometimes the little things that we do, or don’t do, that can help someone in that tough place. It’s a human condition, so why not just help each other when we can?

We even need to be aware of our own grief. Sometimes we carry things we don’t realize we’ve been carrying. Every time we screen the film, I inevitably have people send me emails and texts that say, “wow, I didn’t realize that I was carrying such and such, but this film had helped me to breathe. That’s everything you need.

That’s everything, because when I went through that season, I just wasn’t sure I was going to make it. I was so sad. I just wanted to lay down and die, and I know I’m not the only person who’s felt like that. If I can help somebody else to breathe, and to just exhale something they need to exhale or inhale some hope, then that’s everything. We’ve done what we set out to do.

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Chris Hadley

Writer, @SnobbyRobot, @FSMOnlineMag, Writer/Creator, @LateLateNewsTV