Carrie Brownstein’s work has always turned our expectations of the world on their head. As a musician, in Sleater-Kinney and Wild Flag, Brownstein has written songs with real meaning, taking on political and social topics other artists avoided. As an actress and writer, Brownstein has perfected the art of satire, first with breakout series Portlandia and now with The Nowhere Inn, a film co-written by Brownstein and St. Vincent’s Annie Clark.
The film, in theaters and on digital September 17th, is deeply unexpected—and one that’s best to go into knowing as little as possible. It’s framed as a documentary about St. Vincent, intercut with musical performances, but The Nowhere Inn becomes a pensive, tongue-in-cheek look at identity and persona. Brownstein plays a version of herself, a filmmaker tasked with making the documentary about St. Vincent interesting, and she and Clark also explore their real-life friendship as the story unfolds.
For Brownstein, who has recently penned a biopic of the band Heart (which she also plans to direct), The Nowhere Inn was a way to explore some significant questions about who we are and how we present ourselves to each other. We spoke with Brownstein about how the film came to be, its inspirations and why she feels art is best created off-center.
Observer: Where did the idea for this film come from?
Brownstein: It started from conversation that Annie and I have had kind of perennially as friends who happen to be in similar creative spheres, about authenticity and relatability and veracity. Also, our genuine affection for music documentaries and what they reveal and what they keep hidden. It stemmed from an ongoing discourse. But as we started to write it we realized that we didn’t want to approach music in a linear way. Part of the magic that draws us to it is indescribable and ineffable. We wanted to capture some of that impossibility and to ask to more questions than we provided answers. And to turn things on their head. It was a process that kept revealing itself to us until we were able to draw a handful of influences and throw out the idea of a straight-up documentary and make something that embraced what we love about film and music.
What were some of those influences?
Things like Persona. Things like The Man Who Fell to Earth. Phantom of the Paradise. Lots of Nicolas Roeg. The movie Privilege. Weird, esoteric movies, I guess.
Had you and Annie written anything together before this?
No. We hadn’t really. As Annie was beginning her Mass Seduction press cycle she had asked me to help her write some little interstitials for fake interview answers. So I remember we sat down in L.A. and spent an afternoon working on that. But our friendship has always entailed certain kinds of collaborative give and take. We sent each other snippets of songs or lyrics or ideas. We have a lot of trust in each other’s feedback and constructive criticism, so it wasn’t at odds with the dynamic we already have.
Would you describe this film as a documentary or is it something else?
It’s completely scripted, so I don’t know. That would be a real mindfuck to be like, “No, this a pure documentary. That’s Annie’s family and this is how we both are.” People would be like, “Whoa, that’s crazy.” That’s a great question because I don’t think I’ve had to describe it to anyone. I always just say, “You have to see it.” I haven’t been tasked with describing it. Someone in an earlier interview said, “This movie has been described as a meta documentary.” I didn’t come up with that, but sure. Maybe it is a meta documentary. I guess it requires some kind of neologism. But it’s just a movie.
One of my favorite ways to see something is with no background. Like when someone recommends a film to me I usually say, “Stop there. Don’t tell me anything about it.” No matter what the genre is. That just allows a submersion without preconceived ideas. You’re always operating in relation to the narrative you had going into it. If somebody tells you “The movie is like this” then your experience is shaped by what you assume you’re going to be watching.
As you were considering the concept of identity, did you come up with any sort of answer as to why we’re so obsessed with the rock star persona?
I don’t feel like we were seeking answers as much as we were aiming to explore and ask questions and enjoy the 360-degree trip of exploration and discovery. If anything, I’m more interested in maintaining mystery than I am in unraveling it.
What was the main question you wanted to pose?
For a practical and almost personal level we were thinking about why there is such an onus on celebrity—and often female celebrities are more tasked with this—of being relatable and being likable. Of exposing something vulnerable and tender, but then also simultaneously needing to be larger than life and unattainable. It seems like an impossible contradiction to uphold. I think that was definitely one of our questions. Why it’s necessary to know. Why you would want all of that magic exposed and revealed. To me, that seems antithetical in the space that art occupies, and not just music. To surrender to something I don’t think requires full cerebral awareness. There’s an emotional relationship to art that I don’t think requires biographical detail.
We were exploring that, but we were also interested in reveling the unknown of someone. Respecting and even allowing oneself to be kind of frightened and disarmed by how much you don’t know. How much you might never be able to know. To question what your relationship is to something that always feels just out of reach. Especially in this age of hyperawareness and instant gratification and a very voracious desire for detail. I think we were trying to explore that in a friendship, too. You’re always trying to peel back that layer, like “Is this really you? Is this really you?” And ending up at the answer of “Oh, maybe this isn’t really me either.” Which is one life’s longest journeys: Trying to get the core of who we are. And, for the most part, we were trying to have fun with all these things. Do a dance around all of these ideas in a way that is hopefully entertaining and not heavy-handed.
In the film, your characters talk about how making art can mean always feeling at odds with the world at large. Do you actually feel that way?
My feeling is that I’m very perplexed by this idea that the things we value are always at the center or the zeitgeist. We value the nowness. When you look back so much of what resonates are things that are actually out of step with their time. They’re ahead of it. They’re concomitant to it. They’re maybe behind it. But they’re not in lock step. And I think we’re just in this strange time where we’re supposed to be showing up fully formed and maybe that’s good for people and relationships, but I don’t know how good it is for art. The artist’s job is vacillate and find the outer edges of things and not just be aiming for the exact bullseye. There shouldn’t be a bullseye. To me, that is just the most conformist thing.
Personally, I struggle because we’re like, “Oh, we’ve got to be aiming for that bullseye.” But there’s something that feels so grotesquely capitalist about this idea of an artistic bullseye. How could that bullseye not be a product of mediocrity and capitalism. But then you’re like, “Wait—I do want that!” So you aim for that far edge and hope people come meet you over there. There’s a lot of value on things hitting now in the moment and it takes a lot of patience and faith in yourself to trust that if you’re not right in that fiery core of normalcy that people will still find you.