State Like Sleep, out January 4, is a movie about a woman waking up. Ever since her film star husband’s suspicious suicide, Katherine (Katherine Waterston) has been submerged beneath the surface of her life — in a state, perhaps, like sleep.
When she’s forced to return to their apartment a year after his death, Katherine finds a renewed sense of purpose. She’s going to find out what really happened to her husband — though her momentum is thwarted by her mother’s (Mary Kay Place) unexpected hospitalization. So begins Katherine’s odyssey through the streets of Brussels, from dank Euro clubs run by Stefan’s old friend (Luke Evans) to swanky lunches with his overbearing mother (Hélène Cardona), to confront what she couldn't bear to a year before.
But piecing together Stefan’s (Michiel Huisman) emotional state isn’t simple. In fact, it might not even be possible, because finding a concrete answer isn't the point of the film. With State Like Sleep, writer and director Meredith Danluck uses the structural framework of a mystery — Katherine "solving" Stefan’s death — to explore Katherine's stages of grief. That said, Danluck commits wholeheartedly to the mystery genre she’d chosen as a vehicle for Katherine's emotional journey. State Like Sleep ultimately culminates in a twist you won’t see coming.
We spoke to Danluck about the biographical elements of State Like Sleep, Michael Shannon’s sex appeal, and why unabashedly emotional movies (and emotional women) belong on the big screen.
Refinery29: State Like Sleep explores emotions — more specifically, a woman’s emotions, which are not always pleasant. Was that ever a challenge when pitching the movie?
Meredith Danluck: “Getting this movie made, I ran into this problem over and over again. Women are supposed to make people comfortable, or they're supposed to be sexy. Those are our two options. You can be sad because sadness elicits feelings of gallantry in men, but you can't be angry. Angry signals a call to action.
"Financiers were concerned Katherine's character would come off as angry or too emotional. Or that she wasn’t sexy enough. It struck me as this insane double standard. Even though we’re in this very progressive moment for women, so much of how we’re perceived is dictated by the media and by movies, by narrative. Having a movie that pushes those boundaries, having more characters like this that aren’t necessarily — that are atypical female protagonists, is important. I love Margot Robbie. She’s also extremely sexy. But this movie would’ve been different had it been with Margot Robbie. That maybe would’ve been more appealing to a lot of male critics.”
How did the idea for State Like Sleep come to you?
“It’s inspired by a couple of different things. I had just finished an experimental film project with Ben Foster that we showed at Sundance. I decided I was going to take some time off and work on a script, but all my ideas seemed inauthentic. Then, out of nowhere, this Belgian person calls me and tells me my mom’s in the hospital in Brussels, which is strange, because I used to live outside of Brussels. I had to go and take care of it right away. It was really intense. Ben said to me, ‘If you're serious about making a movie, just start writing things down. The best movies come from things that are real. The best movies come from real experiences.'
“So, I started working through past experiences: Being with my mom in the hospital, going back to this place that I had run away from because of a bad relationship, other aspects in my life that were unresolved — I lost a friend to suicide, and that was really troubling experience. State Like Sleep wound up being an amalgam of all of these experiences crafted into this narrative, kind of a mystery.”
Why did the mystery genre work well for a story about grief?
“I started really thinking of the state of mind I’d been in when I lost [my friend]. I become this amateur detective. Who was he with? What was he doing? If only I could put these puzzle pieces together. In Joan Didion's A Year of Magical Thinking, she spoke of doing the same thing. If you could only make sense of it, you could reverse it. If you could build a solid case as to why it shouldn't have happened, then it wouldn't happen.
“Once I figured out that I was writing a mystery, structurally, things became more clear. I thought, what if I mapped out the movie along the lines of stages of grief? The different emotional stages ended up tracking perfectly with a Hitchcock mystery. The genre of the mystery was the architecture that serviced the stages of grief.”
Let’s talk about the ending’s major reveal. We learn that Stefan’s mother, Anika, meddled into Stefan’s life and his relationship with Katherine, ultimately setting a chain of events into place. How did that twist come to you?
“Every mystery needs a ‘whodunnit.’ In this case, it’s a whydunnit. Why did he do this? Obviously, suicide is very complicated and it’s never one person’s fault. But there usually is some event that is the first domino to fall. I was trying to create an event that would push all of these other dominos out. The story needed to have someone to explain how this all could unfold. Anika felt threatened [by the couple moving out of Belgium] and hired a photographer to take photos of him. All of these things happened to create a mess that would push him over the edge. In some ways, she is a bit villainous, but there’s some level of empathy that you can have towards her.”
The ending is ambiguous. What do you think comes next for Katherine?
“The ending, for me, signifies Katherine being able to have love in her life again. Once you experience loss, it’s hard to accept love again because it’s risky. That moment where Edward [Michael Shannon] comes for her, and they hug — it’s this moment of her saying yes, I do need love in my life. Maybe it’s romantic love, maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s just in that moment, she needed a friend and she was strong enough to be vulnerable. That’s where it needed to end for her — a new approach. A new openness.”
Speaking of Michael Shannon. It was nice to see him in a leading man role, not as another villain. How did he come to be involved with the project?
“I had seen him on one of the late night shows while we were in the casting process. He was so funny and charming. He was wearing a suit and had this great haircut. Michael Shannon is hot. Who knew? My casting agent, Mark Bennett, thought it was a great idea, and luckily Michael’s agent did too, because the script got to Michael and he really responded. The rest is history. He’s one of those actors — and people in general — who’s got such a powerful presence. He can manipulate that energy into whatever direction he wants. Often that power has been changed into these villainous characters. In our movie that energy is channeled into his charisma, and it really works.”