Director Marielle Heller on Shepherding the Story of ‘What the Constitution Means to Me’

Director Marielle Heller on Shepherding the Story of ‘What the Constitution Means to Me’

December 2, 2020

One major question in any filmed theatrical production is how much to replicate the experience of seeing the original work on the stage. Or if that’s even possible at all. In that sense, there’s a kind of democratic approach in “What the Constitution Means to Me.”

The Heidi Schreck-written play is an incredibly personal look at how the founding document’s legacy has echoed throughout both her family and the country overall. Before the show’s Broadway run came to an end in late August of last year, director Marielle Heller filmed two performances and a rehearsal of the work. The result, a full-length production now available to stream on Amazon Prime Video, preserves not only Schreck’s performance, but the emotional atmosphere that surrounded everyone who was seeing it in person those nights.

Aside from being Schreck’s longtime friend, Heller had been through a similar stage-to-screen trajectory with “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” which existed as a theatrical work before she adapted it into her debut 2015 feature film. Heller wanted to offer the chance to use her experience to help shepherd Schreck’s vision.

“We couldn’t plan every shot the way we would do for a movie because we were filming it live and calling the cameras live,” Heller said. “It was a fun discovery in the edit of what we had really captured and what it felt like when the camera moved quickly between Heidi and [actor Mike Iverson] in an exchange or what it felt like to just sit in that space with no movement. That’s what I love about camera choreography in general. It is its own storytelling. It has its own blocking for a reason.”

One of Heller’s most striking choices is sometimes framing Schreck from behind her. A camera behind the set captures her and the lights illuminating her as she steps to the center of the stage, right up against the edge of that space (in Schreck’s own text of the play, echoing the words of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, the “penumbra”) between her and who she’s addressing.


Heidi Schreck and Marielle Heller

“We used six cameras, and we moved two cameras for every performance. We always wanted to be able to show the story from multiple angles,” Heller said. “At times, you feel incredibly close to her and at times you feel how wide the space is, and how brave it is that she’s telling the story to so many people in a theater. And at times, you want to just be right up close with her eyes and experiencing when she skips a beat or takes a more-pained breath. I was in awe of was how brave it was for Heidi and how hard it was for her to perform it every night. It was trudging up the ghosts of her family in a way that was really painful, and I wanted to highlight what that journey was like for her as a person.”

Part of the power of that connection and of capturing the theatrical spirit is letting some things stay unknowable. Toward the end of the show, as a prerecorded audio clip plays, the camera catches a moment where Schreck whispers something to Iverson. (A majority of the play is delivered by Schreck, but Iverson is one of two performers who share the stage with her of the course of the nearly two-hour runtime.) Heller wanted to preserve the audience’s recognition of that kind of spontaneity while letting the two performers preserve that memory in their own private way.

“They always had an exchange in that moment. They had their own almost-hidden language between the two of them,” Heller said. “They were so aware of the times when they were communicating something that the audience would or wouldn’t necessarily feel, but when they knew there was a shift that was happening. There are these moments where she’s looking to him for support, or she’s passing to him and saying, ‘I need you to take this on, because this is too heavy for me to hold.’ And he would say, ‘Okay, I’ll take this for you.’”

The timeline of this particular project coincided with another major development for Heller. Weeks after production, she traveled to Berlin to film her role in the Netflix series “The Queen’s Gambit.” While she says the two projects exercised different parts of her brain, the time between filming “Constitution” and returning to edit the finished film did offer some time for reflection.

Even when filming the performances last August, the plan was to incorporate audience reactions into the tapestry of the piece. The intervening months make those offstage cuts feel less like observing spectators and more like capturing a renewed spirit of democracy.

“When I was growing up, I feel like even with the best, most progressive understanding of our country’s history, there was a sense of, ‘Well, certain things are in the past and certain things are in the present.’ And I feel like right now, we’re in this moment where we’re where we’re saying, ‘No, all of those decisions that were made in the past are directly affecting our lives today,’” Heller said. “How are they affecting our privilege? How are they affecting our generational wealth? How are they affecting our housing opportunities? How are they affecting our schooling? I feel like this play challenges the audience to reexamine all of our larger cultural structures in a way that is really, really powerful, which is why I always wanted the audience to be able to be part of it. I wanted the at-home audience to feel like they were still having that collective experience with a bunch of strangers in the dark.”

“What the Constitution Means to Me” is now available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.

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