Hollywood Veteran Discusses Loss, #MeToo Movement and ‘Spiritual’ Film
In her directorial debut Change in the Air, Dianne Dreyer explores how hope slowly arises after loss and grief; “I very much want people to look up,” she says.
Currently playing in select theaters, Change in the Air presents a curious study in contrasts. The drama plays as a small-town mystery — and a dreamlike fable. It’s at times a comedy of errors, while also grappling with addiction, suicide and unexpected loss.
The independent drama marks the directing debut of Dianne Dreyer. The Long Island native has worked on Hollywood films for nearly three decades. Her lengthy résumé includes producing romantic comedies like You’ve Got Mail, as well as script supervisor for The Bourne Legacy and recent hit A Quiet Place.
Change in the Air ambles forward at a leisurely pace, long forgotten in the age of Marvel blockbusters. For the director, moving the audience emotionally starts with visual symbolism. “I just loved this bird element in the screenplay more than I can say,” gushes Dreyer. “It stands as a metaphor for the rest of creation. And what do birds do? They sing.”
Music drives the story, notably “Anthem” performed by Grammy Award winning singer/actress Macy Gray. Dreyer assembled an impressive cast for the indie film led by Rachel Brosnahan, star of the Emmy-winning The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. It also includes Aidan Quinn (Legends of the Fall), Mary Beth Hurt (The Family Man) and Olympia Dukakis (Steel Magnolias).
In a phone interview, Dreyer shares about her eclectic religious upbringing, the loss that changed her life and what message this movie speaks into the current cultural moment.
Coming Back From Devastating Loss
Why did you choose this film to make your directorial debut?
Dianne Dreyer: Because I felt a very strong connection to the core idea. Someone comes into your life, you are attracted to them in some way and you have no real idea about what you’ll learn from them. As time passes, you realize their presence or influence over you has left a lasting imprint to help you cope with something that arises in your own life.
That’s what happened to me. I lost my brother in a lightning storm in 1983. When we had this loss in our family, suddenly all of the other people who have lost children in their lives came out of the woodwork. You realize it’s not unique to you.
About five years prior, I met a person. We were both secretaries in an advertising agency. I learned that she was one of 10 children and had recently lost the sister she was closest to, to cervical cancer.
Had I not forged that friendship with her, I would have been completely unprepared for this tragedy that happened five years later in my own life.
How does Change in the Air explore the ways people try to cope with loss?
Dreyer: This story has two couples at the center, both in marriages of 50 years or more. In one sequence in the movie, Arnie finds his wife Jo Ann on their living room sofa.
She is a person with the deepest, darkest secret, and she had drank to get to sleep. He knows her hiding spot, where she keeps the liquor. He knows everything about her.
It illustrates a truth. Even though you’re married to someone who will carry your secrets to their grave, that might not be the person who can help you heal. Forgiveness begins with yourself — and with confession, which is much more public than the person who is charged with holding your intimacy as close to his heart as possible.
You see marriages break up over loss, and people dive into addictions because of it. As a society, we are farther and farther away from addressing grief. We’ve managed to delay loss as people live longer. Grief is not something we examine or feel until very late in life.
Everything you face in life is potentially a building block to making you a better person. As much as the tragedy of my brother was devastating, I’ve come to look back on that event as one of the most pivotal events in my life. Without it, I don’t think I would have become the person I became.
Defying Fast-Paced Culture
The story is set in a neighborhood that feels like the 1950’s, with no cell phones or technology in sight. What was the intent with this?
Dreyer: Cell phones make people look down, and I very much want people to look up.
Many people of an elder generation are not convinced technology is making life better. We’ve experienced that with our cast, trying to get them to do publicity for the movie. You say, Just send her an email. But they don’t check email every day, and some don’t have an email. My mother had a cell phone, and she kept it in the car. It’s hard for them to get on board with it.
Communities like the one in this film still exist. They are in a bit of a time warp, which is why suburbia is often joked about now. Lots of people still live in those communities and love the open-air, single-family dwelling with a tidy garden.
As to the locations we chose for this film, we needed a neighborhood with the fewest number of fences. People in this country love to build fences — I don’t know why! It was important for the plot to establish that people could see each other.
In the original screenplay, what you might call The Andy Griffith Show milieu of it was more pronounced. That’s one reason why, in all possible cases, I cast people of color where it could work: the mailman, Macy Gray’s character Donna and several others.
Faith, Family and the Power of Music
At a crucial moment in the story, one character sings the hymn “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” From what spiritual and religious influences does this film draw?
Dreyer: I grew up in a household where my father was Jewish, and my mother was Catholic.
When she married my father, nobody changed faiths. I went to a Catholic school and church every Sunday, while my brother had a bar mitzvah. I began to see how those faiths could interchange, and we could still be a happy family without anybody “switching sides.”
Our family had strong bonds. After dinner every night, the kids would join my father in the basement to do a puzzle. It was his way of having us contemplate our day without putting us on the spot. We’re all focused on the puzzle, and he’s doing this little prodding to get us to tell him what was going on in our lives.
Maybe we’d watch something on TV as a family. My dad didn’t like movies that were sad or hurtful in any way. He thought there was so much pain and suffering in the world around us. If you weren’t going to be entertained or laugh, why bother? It is a good feeling to go to a movie that makes you feel something and think about something.
How does this film speak to the importance of faith in society?
Dreyer: There are people in my life who have raised their children without any faith or religious education. That’s obviously their choice. But how are their kids ever going to understand Renaissance or Medieval art? Over centuries of humanity, structures have been built in service of honoring God — whether in love or fear of God.
We have invented all of this imagery to carry our hopes and dreams towards a savior. In American culture, music has been fundamental to the experience of faith and communication.
I believe a song is a form of prayer. Music is integral to this story, especially at the end where a group of students perform the song “Anthem” by Leonard Cohen. Without that song, I couldn’t have made this film.
It’s a summation of what the movie is trying to say. The lyrics of “Hallelujah” are spiritual without being religious. Leonard Cohen was a folk songwriter, born a Jew in Canada. Then he embraced Christianity, then later Buddhism. His songs display a fundamental faith that is universal.
What if every single person of faith, no matter what that faith is, actually lived by their beliefs? As a society, we would be in a much happier place than I think we are at the moment.
Responding With Grace and Truth
This film’s themes seem relevant to the #MeToo movement consuming Hollywood. What has been your response to the cultural moment our nation is in?
Dreyer: We are in a very difficult time defined by accusations and denials. Accusations have been pent-up for so long. Then denials are due to the cultural and legal consequences for admitting that one did or did not do something. People are scared of what the ramifications could be.
When the #MeToo movement started, I was working on a film. One young woman I worked with heard from a guy who had forced her into a sexual encounter when she was a freshman in college. He remembered what he had done and sought her out on Facebook. He wrote privately: “We didn’t know any better. I’m sorry. I hope this finds you and you can accept my apology.”
She told me, “He wrote to me out of the blue because of all the stuff that’s happening, and I don’t know what to say.” She was inclined to let it go. I told her she should write to him: Thank you. This is a beginning. Now that you’re bringing it up, would you like to talk about what it made me feel like?
He had initiated an apology and took this moment to mean something. We start by being honest with ourselves, which is rare to see. Someone accused could say: “Yes, that might’ve been true though I don’t remember. If I did do that, tell me how to begin.”
Hopefully, we’ll see some good come out of the #MeToo movement — but people need to be cautious. It’s filled with barriers and people making claims very publicly that others are unprepared for. The world is on a pace now that’s unprecedented in history. This movement is going to end terribly if it continues on the trajectory that it’s on.
There is a lot of truth in the verse, “The truth will set you free.” You can deny, accuse and falsely accuse. If it’s a false accusation — or a false denial — the only person it’s going to hurt in the long run is you. Holding on to a lie and living a lie is like a festering wound in yourself. It never ends gracefully.
What I hope people take away from this movie is that forgiveness begins with yourself. You have to confess to yourself and someone close to you. Maybe if you start there, then you can get to another place.
Rated PG for thematic elements and brief language, Change in the Air is now playing in select theaters, on iTunes, Christian Cinema and other video-on-demand platforms. Explore more of The Stream’s films coverage, and sign up to receive top stories every week.