Photo: Christopher Messina
Fourteen, written and directed by Dan Sallitt, traces the friendship between two women through their young adulthood. Jo, a social worker, finds it increasingly difficult to function in the world, to arrive at appointments or to keep commitments. Her substance use is the apparent cause, but those close to her suspect an undiagnosed mental illness. Her friend Mara, who has looked up to Jo since their middle-school days, tries to help when she can and backs away when Jo’s erratic behavior becomes too difficult to endure, in a seemingly endless cycle. Over the course of a decade, as jobs, boyfriends and apartments come and go, the powerful bond between the friends stretches but never completely snaps.
Tallie Medel, who played the precocious teenager Jackie in Sallitt’s previous film The Unspeakable Act (2012), takes on the very different role of Mara, who copes with the difficulty of making room in her adult life for her troubled childhood friend. The charismatic Jo is played by Norma Kuhling, who is currently featured as Dr. Ava Bekker in NBC’s drama “Chicago Med.”
Fourteen, Sallitt’s fifth completed feature film in a 34-year career, began as a production problem. The circumstances of Sallitt’s day job – he is a technical writer for the city of New York’s IT department – made it unlikely that he could take enough contiguous vacation time to shoot a feature in the manner to which he was accustomed. The need to film in small increments, with time between shoots to accumulate resources and accommodate the job, led to a project that spanned approximately a decade in its characters’ lives, with the gaps in the story corresponding to, and benefitting from, the gaps in the shooting schedule. “As a general rule, low-budget filmmakers are well advised to observe the unities of time and place,” says Sallitt. “Filmmaking is much easier if your story has two main characters and one main location. And this practical consideration creates a need for concentrated stories with a strong dramatic concept, and a microcosm that stands in for a larger human condition. I like this kind of movie, but after one has done a few of them, one starts to run out of new chamber-sized ideas. So it was exciting to be forced into a new kind of story, one that would have been logistically overwhelming for us had we shot it in one go. I was able to put drama in the back seat and focus more on the entropy of life, on the cyclical and unchanging aspects that first present themselves when we look at ourselves and others. This is probably the kind of movie that I’ve been most drawn to as a viewer in this period of my life, and the opportunity opened up lots of creative doors.” Starting from a few key scenes, Sallitt developed a story of psychological decline, partly based on bits of the lives of friends and acquaintances. “The subject matter lent itself well to a story that jumps through time,” Sallitt says. “And I liked the idea that the characters wouldn’t have to follow a downward arc, that time gaps could be used to show happy or hopeful interludes when we least expect them. From the outside, an unhappy life can look happy 75% of the time. That’s the lesson Maurice Pialat’s films taught us.”
The role of Mara was written for Medel, who was part of the project from its inception. Finding Jo was more difficult, with several actresses tagged for the part at various times. Kuhling, not yet selected for “Chicago Med,” pursued the role fervently and was cast in the summer of 2016, four years after Sallitt first told Medel the story that would become Fourteen. The key role of Mara’s young daughter, who knows Jo only as the heroine of her bedtime stories, was still uncast when shooting began. But the right actress had been under the production’s nose the entire time: Lorelei Romani, the five-year-old daughter of Sallitt’s regular makeup/hair person Kelly Miller, was a natural for the role, and “stage mom” was added to Miller’s other duties. A number of actors who had previously worked with Sallitt came on board in supporting roles: Strawn Bovee, whose collaboration with Sallitt goes back to 1985, as Mara’s mother; Dylan McCormick, star of Sallitt’s 1998 Honeymoon, as Jo’s boyfriend Conor; Caroline Luft, memorable as the psychiatrist in The Unspeakable Act, as Jo’s mother; Aundrea Fares, the mother in The Unspeakable Act, in a small but entertaining role at the film’s climax; and Evan Davis and Ben Sloane, promoted from bit parts in The Unspeakable Act to speaking roles in Fourteen.
The shooting script of Fourteen is divided into nine time periods, but it proved impractical to schedule a separate shoot for each period. Principal photography was finally broken up into five shoots scattered between March 2017 and August 2018, for a total of 22 shooting days. The original, much shorter shooting schedule was extended by many circumstances, including Kuhling’s “Chicago Med” casting. “Any film production is a target for fate,” Sallitt says. “Someone who’s made as many films as I have, and who sets up a spread-out low-budget shooting schedule with so many points of failure, deserves all the grief he gets. Fortunately, delays between shoots only enhanced the on-screen feeling of time passing.” Medel and Kuhling rose to the challenge, keeping a sharp focus on the shape of the characterizations despite the shooting gaps and their busy schedules. And, as the film’s time periods were mostly shot in chronological order, Sallitt was able to edit whole contiguous sections of the film between shoots. “I tend to overplan my movies, so the opportunity to edit the film as I was shooting didn’t feed back into the process as much as it might have for a different production,” Sallitt says. “But it’s a huge psychological lift to see what you’re working on while you’re working on it. I have a tendency to forget why I ever wanted to make a film once I start making it, but editing scenes along the way helped keep my eyes on the prize.” Shooting mostly took place in a variety of locations around Brooklyn and Manhattan, but key scenes were shot in Katonah and Briarcliff Manor in upstate New York, where Mara and Jo grew up.
Fourteen tells its story through the perspective of Mara, who appears in every scene of the film. “If you describe the plot, Jo is the central character, the movie’s organizing principle,” says Sallitt. “But in a way that’s an excuse to show everything about Mara’s life, all the undramatic things that create a full picture of her. She is to this movie as Nick Carraway is to The Great Gatsby: the observer observed.” Far from plot-driven, Fourteen spends most of its screen time in day-to-day activities that bear only indirectly on Jo’s crisis. We see and hear quite a lot of Mara’s career in elementary education and Jo’s in social work; watch their relationships come and go (in this realm Mara mysteriously seems only slightly more stable than Jo), notice their living conditions changing, and finally linger on Mara’s journey through single parenthood. Through this seemingly random collection of fragments of Mara and Jo’s experiences, the theme of Jo’s losing battle against life is sketched like a fine line. “When one thinks about it, this film is really unbearably sad,” says Sallitt. “Most of the time, one doesn’t think about it, because of the energy of youth and the pleasure of comradeship. But I think we owe it to Jo to acknowledge, if only briefly, that there is no consolation for losing her.”