Q & A with Director Nat Lezra
Your film is about the psychological consequences of urban conflict. Tell us about the inspiration behind this film, its setting and its characters.
This film came from a few different places, things, and scenarios. The genesis of the story was in an interest I had – and still have – in exploring my own relationship with cinema violence. I was raised on violent films. Luckily, those films were also largely good, thoughtful pieces of work (at least I think so). A partial result of that upbringing was a fascination with the idea of consequence in relation to violence. If I see enough violence on-screen, both in a fictional and non-fictional context, can it define how I relate to the world? That was a big question I wanted to explore. So, I thought a good way of looking at it was writing a scenario where somebody witnesses absolute violence, and seeing how their life would go having had that experience.
The film is a tragedy, as it had to be. My feeling at the time was that the only really responsible way of telling the story was to force the viewer to watch the protagonist fall prey to the violence around him, engage in it, then become aware of it. I wanted the viewer to feel complicit in the tragedy.
When I wrote the early drafts of the script in 2012, I’d also been thinking about a number of national tragedies that had happened in prior months and years. Not long before I submitted the script to my thesis advisor, a number of high profile killings had taken place. I thought about what it would be like if one of the victims that year had been my brother. Then I thought about what would happen to my mind if I saw my brother killed in front of me. So, I researched, I looked at what people considered to be “realistic” depictions of violence in fiction film, then I extensively watched footage of some of these tragedies, and interviews with survivors and witnesses. The story that ended up being produced as my thesis film was about a young man in Boston witnessing the death of his brother, and how that trauma would take hold of him in different ways. The film is a tragedy, as it had to be. My feeling at the time was that the only really responsible way of telling the story was to force the viewer to watch the protagonist fall prey to the violence around him, engage in it, then become aware of it. I wanted the viewer to feel complicit in the tragedy. In that sense, the film also became about processing regret.
More so now even than in 2012, the act of steeling yourself to violence – particularly gun violence – seems to be a fact of the American experience.
Tell us more about the title, and about what ‘soft eyes’ means in today’s world. Is it about privilege?
It’s about desensitization. More so now even than in 2012, the act of steeling yourself to violence – particularly gun violence – seems to be a fact of the American experience. The film’s title is almost literal. At a number of points in the past few years, there was a feeling that almost every time you went to a news site or turned on the TV, there was some new nightmare to process. A cop murdering a child. A movie theatre shooting. A sociopath stalking a campus with a high-capacity rifle. You had to adjust the way you saw things – your country, its news, its people.
You made several stylistic choices as to how you portrayed violence in this film. Can you tell us about your motivation behind these decisions? Do you feel that as a society we’ve become desensitized to violence (both real and fictional) and this influences you as a writer?
The choices behind the depiction of violence were made to emphasize the trauma of witnessing sudden violence. One act, one moment, one trigger pulled changes the reality of the main character completely and irrevocably. Examining the consequences of that one act is a big theme in what I write and think about. A lot of that has to do with my being from a secure and stable background, where violence wasn’t on my doorstep or a part of my life in any physical way.
I see the news. I see footage of shootings. I see Hollywood try to interpret and commodify it. In doing that, I participate in it from the safety of a laptop.
I engaged (and still do) with violence – the motivations behind it, the act of it, and its ramifications – voyeuristically, like most. I see the news. I see footage of shootings. I see Hollywood try to interpret and commodify it. In doing that, I participate in it from the safety of a laptop. So yes, I am desensitized to it to a certain degree, as are many. It’s a really complicated thing to address, though. I have the luxury of making the choice to engage with it by watching those videos, the news, etc. Many don’t have the luxury of that choice, that distance. So, I really want to emphasize that I’m speaking for myself when I say I feel desensitized, and from a very removed perspective.
In your fundraising campaign for the film, you stated that the most important aspect of this production is accurately and responsibly capturing elements of our society that often go unnoticed or ignored by governmental and social institutions. Do you feel the healthcare system is complicit in this marginalization?
Complicated question. I do, though it’s important to define what I mean. When one says the healthcare system is complicit in the marginalization of an area or group of people, one means that the structure of that system is slanted in a way that grants some people access, and others less or none. The broad structure is flawed in that way, and is angled away from the problems of certain sectors of society. That in mind, there are parts of the healthcare system that I don’t think one can fault, or suggest are complicit in marginalization necessarily. I don’t think drastically understaffed 24-hour ERs are at fault for not being able to quickly meet the needs of every person in their waiting areas. They’re a part of that system. So is some of the recovery work being done.
I think the legislation surrounding addiction – treating it as a crime rather than an illness – is dangerously outdated and misinformed.
I would say that there’s always more and better work to be done in areas where addiction is prevalent, and where there’s violence that can be addressed. Now, I think the legislation surrounding addiction – treating it as a crime rather than an illness – is dangerously outdated and misinformed. As is, by extension, the legislation surrounding the underground or criminal economies that employ, exploit, and hurt addicts. In my mind, the focus should be as much on changing those laws, re-ordering legal priorities to effectively care for and support victims of violence and addiction, as on trying to enact a complete overhaul of our healthcare system. These are some of my thoughts on this.
What are your thoughts on the ability of a film to impel social change…specifically to make people and communities healthier?
Like all art, cinema certainly has the capacity to ignite change. At its best, cinema is about empathy. It’s about relating. Even in showing us dark, sometimes perverse, difficult characters and stories, cinema is asking that you enter another person’s mind or experience and see if you can feel something. That’s empathy. The goal of a good film should always be to force the viewer to reckon with a part of themselves. If you can do that, reach someone and make them realize there’s something we share, or that needs to be talked about, then your work is helping people grow. And the more work – fiction, non-fiction, written, visual, etc. – that’s out there inspiring empathy, the healthier our public discourse will be.
The struggle is getting the work seen by communities hungry for the discourse. With VOD and the internet though, that’s becoming easier, so I think there’s cause to be optimistic about film’s power to help.
Since film was born, we’ve seen its power to spark social change. Few things in media, mainstream or otherwise, are as powerful as a sharp, provocative, well-timed documentary, for example. The same is true of narrative film. The struggle is getting the work seen by communities hungry for the discourse. With VOD and the internet though, that’s becoming easier, so I think there’s cause to be optimistic about film’s power to help.
What can you tell us about your upcoming projects?
I’m in the midst of post-production on my first feature film, which examines the gentrification of Echo Park, Los Angeles from the perspectives of three different populations in the neighborhood. I’ll also be shooting a short documentary covering the inauguration in Washington DC, and have a couple other projects cooking away.
Nat Lezra is a writer and director living in Los Angeles where he is currently working on his first feature film. He attended NYU and Emerson, and recent films include No Place for Soft Eyes and Young Bull.