I’ve never been a fan of AIs. I’m terrified of them taking over our lives like doing our jobs, taking care of us, replacing us as partners. There’s also horrifying possibility of them going rogue and wiping out the human race. It’s this way of thinking that makes the new film Blank – filmmaker Natalie Kennedy’s first feature length – so unnerving. Blank, described as “A desperate writer signs up for a fully A.I. operated retreat to cure her writer’s block, but when an unforeseen software glitch occurs, she gets trapped inside her unit with an unstable android and no communication with the outside world.” (IMDb) is exactly what I don’t want to happen. To celebrate the release of the film, I chatted with Natalie, and star Rachel Shelley, about what drew them to the script, aging in Hollywood, and more!
PopHorror: I really enjoyed Blank a lot. Rachel, I’m a huge fan so this is an honor to speak with you.
Rachel Shelley: Thank you!
PopHorror: My first question is for both of you. What intrigued you about Blank, and made you want to be a part of the project?
Natalie Kennedy: For my first feature film, I really wanted to make something about AI, a kind of sci-fi AI, and I wanted a drama element to it. So I searched for a script on a site called InkTip and found Stephen Herman’s script, Blank. And literally I was like, “Is this written for me?” It was literally everything I wanted. I started reading it and got like two pages in and I was like, “This is the one! This is so good.” It was so well written and so well developed, and I absolutely loved it. The producer, Rebecca-Clare Evans, went “You can’t possibly know. You have to finish the script. Don’t get over excited.” And I was like, “I just have a feeling.” And I literally finished it in the car driving back from Pinewood Studios and I was like, “This is the one I want to make.” We got the green light and went ahead of it. One of the things I loved about it is it’s got strong female characters in it.
Rachel Shelley: Yeah!
Natalie Kennedy: It’s kind of like a two-hander but it’s got all the smaller roles in it. Wayne (Brady), of course, is fantastic in it and I loved his performance. But it was really about Claire and Rita as the central core characters, and that’s what really drew me to it.
PopHorror: I agree with the strong female characters, and that’s something that I always appreciate. It’s really nice to see.
Rachel Shelley: Yeah, and I agree with everything Natalie said there. I think when you read scripts, quite often they either grab you or they don’t, quite early on. This definitely grabbed me very early on, and I loved the idea that it was pretty much, for my character, for my perspective as a performer, that it would be a two-hander more or less and it would be intense. There were some elements to it that I loved. I thought it was great that she was the age that she was, as well. I know that sounds silly because obviously I am the age I am, but this character could have been any number. I mean, it could have been a man! It could have been played by a man; it could have been lots. It could have been a younger woman. I loved the fact that I was able to play it as an older woman, and it was the two of us, and there’s so many layers to that. I loved the fact that it’s basically character driven, and it’s about people. But there is the science fiction element, and there’s the AI that I find fascinating. It’s a really interesting subject explored really well. I’d been reading a book about it as well. It just came alive to me very quickly, and immediately as I was reading it, I could see it. I could see what was happening, I could see how it would feel, how it would look. You just respond. I don’t know what that is. It’s a visceral thing, isn’t it? Maybe it talks to you about your own experiences, whatever it is it pulls you in. And I loved the fact that Claire was layered and had such a dark, interesting history, and there was just a lot to unpack about her. The writer, and my husband’s a writer. That feeling of writer’s block. There’s a lot going on there, I think. It’s not a simple AI, it’s not a simple horror, it’s not a simple science fiction. It’s a lot of different things packed in together.
Natalie Kennedy: If you don’t mind me interjecting there. It’s really interesting that you mentioned the age of the character because that’s something that was really important to me as well. I’d like to see more representation of different age groups, rather than if you see a woman in the lead role, she’s got to be young. I want to see all different ages, all different races. That’s something that didn’t come out as much on the female characters in this film, but I think we need representation across the board.
Rachel Shelley: Yeah, for sure. It’s good. And it fits so well, her character. I don’t know, did Stephen write Claire as someone who looked like me? Do you know?
Natalie Kennedy: It could have been somebody younger. He didn’t specify the age, but the direction I wanted to go felt like she would have been a more mature woman. And maybe Stephen did have that intent, I’m not sure. But we did look at different age groups for the role and I just really felt that having someone with a bit more experience, having lived a bit more, I think was an interesting route to go down.
Rachel Shelley: Yeah, I know because I think it also brings out a slight bitterness in Claire.
Natalie Kennedy: Yeah.
Rachel Shelley: That you’re able to see every now and then. She gets a bit drunk and she’s a little bit happy drunk but then she’s a little bit sort of… Not vicious but you know. She’s got a lot going on and it reveals stuff like she obviously feels hard done by some aspects of her life, and obviously she has a tortured background. It’s interesting that at her age, all of that can be more apparent than a younger woman. It wouldn’t be quite so deeply felt, I don’t think. As tortured.
PopHorror: I love this conversation about the age, because as someone who is progressing through my 40s now, I appreciate the older women getting a more starring role. And I agree, the bitterness that she had? That’s how I would, and I think I’m getting more bitter as I get older. I felt that and I thought it was very realistic. So thank you for this conversation.
Natalie Kennedy: Very important.
Rachel Shelley: I think we talked about this before, didn’t we Natalie? Before we shot. The idea that when she’s broken down, and me as an individual, as an actor, I know that there are a fair number of jobs that I’ve gotten simply because of the way I look or looked when I was younger. And I know that. I know that for a fact, but it’s also great to play a role like this where maybe I go in, my character goes in and I’m quite put together, but then I fall apart completely, and I’m pale and I’m destroyed physically. I start to be destroyed physically and I start looking my age. Look old and look battered, I think. It was great.
PopHorror: You have not aged since The L Word, let me tell you. You look exactly the same.
Rachel Shelley: Thank you! [whispers] I have.
PopHorror: Rachel, with this dealing with such sensitive topics like isolation and the trauma that she endured with her mother, what do you draw upon to bring your character to life, and was there anything that you were adamant about bringing to your character?
Rachel Shelley: Oohh. Was there anything that I was adamant… ? I think when we discussed the character, which we did a lot beforehand with Natalie, I think we were all on the same page, weren’t we? About what to bring and all these elements of her trauma, her history, it’s all being covered up. She drinks, she tells lies. There were various versions of the script that I read before, some elements of which didn’t make it into the final script. But actually, was so useful, don’t you think Natalie?
Natalie Kennedy: Yes, definitely.
Rachel Shelley: They were so useful to build on and although they haven’t made it on screen – we haven’t even shot some of them – but they were really useful to build all of that up, I think. Her relationship with her agent as a writer. There was a lot of history like that that came along. I don’t think there was anything that I had to fight for. I think we were on the same page.
Natalie Kennedy: We really agreed on a lot. We had long conversations about the character and about the backstory – where she came from, where she was going. We just really connected on how she should be portrayed. And I actually had to do very little on set because we did so much in the development stage, and Rachel just completely got it. She was amazing. She brought the character to life!
Rachel Shelley: When you read a script, as you did Natalie on this script, you see it very quickly. When you can just see it fully formed in your head as soon as you start reading, then you know that it’s a hit for you. For your creative process, it’s already a hit because you know that you’re responding to something, you know that you’re eager to get going, you know all these things. It’s quite immediate so I felt like it was all there on the page, and it was obviously sparking things within me that you don’t even really… As an actor that you don’t really question, you just go, “Well that’s what it is. I can feel that. I just know it; I can feel it.” What did I draw upon? Well, like I said, there was a lot in the script that then didn’t appear on screen, which was very helpful to create that. To create those layers. We had physical scarring at one point, didn’t we?
Natalie Kennedy: Yup, that’s right.
Rachel Shelley: That was really effective, like physical pain as well as the emotional trauma that she’s gone through. Incredible layers there already. I think anyone who works in creative fields of any sort, even if they haven’t had writer’s block, I think they can appreciate that feeling of frustration with your creativity, where you feel like you’ve got something inside you that you can’t quite release. I’ve spoken before about it being a lump of clay or rock and inside is this beautiful sculpture but you’re not quite sure how to find it. You know it’s there. That feeling is something I think all creative art forms, everyone’s experience that sort of feeling. There was a lot to draw on. Her age, her frustrations. I’m 53 now so I’ve definitely got the age and the frustrations, all that stuff. There’s a lot of it just there, and obviously you bring part of your own life, and your own stories, and your own feelings, you combine it with what’s on the page.
PopHorror: One last question for you both. What’s your favorite scary movie?
Natalie Kennedy: The Shining for me. I absolutely love The Shining. The Shining was actually a big inspiration for me with the film. I drew a lot on the tone, and slow pacing, the creepiness, the isolation. That was a big inspiration for me with Blank.
Rachel Shelley: The Blair Witch Project was one of those films that stays with me.
Thank you so much to Natalie and Rachel for taking the time to speak with us. You can catch Blank in select theaters, and On Demand now!