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Q&A: Marielle Heller on Bringing What the Constitution Means to Me to Amazon

After directing Oscar-nominated performances from Tom Hanks and Melissa McCarthy, the director turns to a work of radical theatrical democracy.
  • Marielle Heller (right) directs Heidi Schreck's What the Constitution Means to Me. (Amazon)
    Marielle Heller (right) directs Heidi Schreck's What the Constitution Means to Me. (Amazon)

    With the recent news that Broadway's lights will remain dim until at least May 2021, things are looking pretty grim for fans of the theatrical experience. Luckily, there's a bit of refuge coming from an unlikely source: Hollywood. Two of Broadway's most talked-about shows in recent memory are debuting on TV this week in dynamic cinematic renditions. A day before HBO brings audiences Spike Lee's vibrant vision of David Byrne's American Utopia, Amazon is giving its subscribers a chance to see Heidi Schreck's acclaimed Broadway play What the Constitution Means to Me through the eyes of director Marielle Heller.

    Heller vividly captures the sparks that fly when the personal collides with the political in Schreck's iconoclastic, interactive show. What the Constitution Means to Me begins primarily as a monologue where Schreck assumes the persona of her teenaged self, a seasoned orator who traveled the country participating in Constitutional debate contests. From there, the show expands to include Schreck's present-day self deliberating on the strengths and shortcomings of America's founding document. It concludes with a debate between Schreck and a real-life young debater as they argue whether or not to abolish the Constitution, with one audience member making the decision based on the arguments presented.

    Heller's humanistic streak, as shown in her films Can You Ever Forgive Me? and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a perfect match for Schreck's impassioned work. Her keenly empathetic eye strikes that tricky balance between preserving Schreck's vulnerable performance and enhancing it through cinematic technique. In a conversation this week, Heller explained her long relationship to the play, how she approached the material, and what she hopes audiences gain from the show as it makes its streaming debut.

    Had you been following What the Constitution Means to Me for a while? I noticed at the end of the credits that your father-in-law [Tony Taccone, former Artistic Director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Berkeley, California] commissioned the show on the West Coast.

    [laughs] He did! I've known Heidi for probably 15 years. We both came up in the downtown theater world of New York, and we've known each other for many years. I had seen the show in an earlier incarnation downtown years before I got involved. So yes, I've been following the show, and I knew that it was happening at Berkeley Rep and all of that.

    How do you go about navigating the role of a director in a medium that tends to place the playwright in the rarefied ‘auteur' status that you would hold in film?

    I looked at this project in a different way than I would a movie that I was directing. This was Heidi's vision, and I really came on board as a producer and director in order to facilitate her vision. She told me that she wanted to have the show filmed, and I thought as many people as possible need to see this play. I would do everything in my power to make that happen. I had just started my [production] company, Defiant By Nature. Our whole goal was to help amplify the voices of people who we believe have something to say that matteres, and this felt like it fit in so perfectly... It was really more to bring her vision to life, if that makes sense.

    I'm curious how you went about translating the play's traditional proscenium-based staging into a more cinematic work.

    I don't think, even when you're sitting in a theatrical house, that your experience is from that wide proscenium, the actual visual space that you are seeing the place through. That's not how you feel it when you're in a space with somebody; there's an intimacy. When I saw the play originally, it was in such a small theater [that] there was a real intimacy. So, for me, with the way that we designed the shots and filmed it, we were trying to capture as intimate a performance as we could within this bigger space. [We] let ourselves come close to her in moments when it felt like it was warranted and go wide when we needed to feel the sense of a more communal experience that we were having as an audience. It was a fine line, but for me, it was always about trying to capture the most vulnerable, honest performance we could from Heidi.

    Maybe you had no choice because the Helen Hayes Theater is so small, but how much were you working through camera blocking and other cinematography with Heidi?

    She was less aware of where the cameras would be or how we were going to film. The cinematographer, Christian [Sprenger] worked that stuff out. She was very involved in the edit and how it all ended up feeling in the end. I think the hardest part for Heidi, truthfully, was that we had to raise the house lights significantly in order to film the audience. She was so used to looking out into the darkness, and then suddenly we'd raised the house lights on such a vulnerable performance. I don't think she was too pleased with me, but in the end I think it made it made for an evenl even more vulnerable performance.

    I wondered about the house lights because I did not remember them being that bright when I saw the show!

    We just had to because it was so important to me that we got to capture true, honest audience reactions.

    How did you choose when to cut away to the audience? It struck me as a really nice complement to the way Heidi uses humor to defuse the show's more tense or fraught moments.

    The show sort of disarms you, and part of that experience of sitting in the dark with other strangers is having this very emotional experience that makes you laugh and cry. We were trying to create that as much as possible with this version so that you're aware of the unique experience that you're having in viewing it. A lot of it was about what we found. When we would have an audience reaction that just felt particularly poignant, we would use it.

    Were you able to catch her in a way that she wasn't expecting? I often think about how in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood you didn't explicitly tell Tom Hanks that you'd be pushing in on him during the "What Do You With The Mad That You Feel?" number, and it's one of the most extraordinary revelations in the film in part because he's so unaware of the camera.

    There were fewer opportunities like that since we were filming her live performance in front of an audience. I definitely had a lot of weird ideas, which I ran by Heidi, and thankfully she was game for. We poked out one of the pictures on the back wall and stuck a camera behind her so that we could kind of catch her from behind. I imagine she thought that was a pretty weird idea, but there were fewer chances for me to just sneak up and surprise her on this than there was with Tom.

    You make sparse but noticeable use of over-the-shoulder shots as really powerful punctuation. How did those come about?

    I just wanted to be able to kind of shine a light on how brave the performance that she's giving is. When you see the size of the house, you realize the scope of what she's doing. We use it sparingly, as you said, and if it got overused, it would be kind of weird. But there's something so powerful about what it feels like to be standing on a stage looking out over an audience. We also use backstage shots of her getting ready to come out and we're with Rosdely [Ciprian, the teenager who debates Heidi at the end of the show] getting ready to come out to give that sense that this is a live performance, and it's hard to do every night. Can you imagine what it would feel like to be her?

    *SPOILER ALERT*

    Why did you choose to use a performance where the audience chose to "abolish" the Constitution when the majority of audiences chose to "keep" it?

    It was not an intentional decision, it was just the debate that we captured that was the best, truthfully. It is a very live event, and every night is different. Like you said, more often than not, they chose to keep it. But that was the best debate that we captured, and Rosdely is just on fire in that debate. But that was part of why we did give all of those details at the end to show this was not how it always went. This really was a live event.

    I was glad to see the final tally of how many audiences chose to abolish vs. keep – I was keeping an informal total from my friends going to see the show.

    That was Heidi's idea to put that in at the end. It would have taken a lot of foresight, but it would have been interesting if, over the course of the show, she had kept track of what was happening in the current events of the day or the weeks that people chose to abolish versus keep. If you could have come up with a pattern, it would have been fascinating.

    I read Heidi said that there was a big spike of "abolish" votes after the Kavanaugh hearings.

    Yes, she told me that.

    There's quite the split screen effect between What the Constitution Means to Me being released this week and the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett...

    Oh, I know! Who could have predicted that? Obviously, none of us would have predicted or wished for that. It's just so sad, the news about Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

    What do you hope the film offers audiences, both in this immediate moment and in the future?

    Obviously, I think this is an important moment for us to be reflecting on our laws and the viability of our laws. And I think there is such a major debate happening within this country that often has very little nuance. I think Heidi's show offers a huge amount of nuance and makes you think in ways you've never thought before. It shines a light on parts of the Constitution that I knew very little about before watching her show hundreds of times now. I think it's a really valuable skill for us all to think about our country and our Constitution with some honest reflection and not just pure reverence. The good and the bad, it takes a certain amount of nuance. I think it's a skill we're almost losing at this point because people just plant their flag – I'm on this side, or I'm on that side.

    What the Constitution Means to Me drops on Amazon Prime Video today, Friday October 16th.

    Marshall Shaffer is a New York-based freelance writer, interviewer and critic whose work can be found regularly on /Film, Slant and The Playlist. You can follow him on Twitter at @media_marshall.

    TOPICS: Marielle Heller, Amazon, What the Constitution Means to Me, Heidi Schreck