This “Lessons From” column aims to spotlight low-budget films that filmmakers might find educational for the creation or development of their own projects.
In 1970, Barbara Loden premiered “Wanda,” a feature film that she wrote, directed, and starred in. Wanda would end up being Loden’s only directorial effort, having passed away ten years later at the age of 48. Prior to Wanda, Loden had gotten her start as a Broadway actress, where she won a Tony Award for her performance in After the Fall, directed by her husband, Elia Kazan. She would also appear in two Kazan-directed feature films, including Splendor in the Grass (1961), in which she portrays Warren Beatty’s loose-cannon sister.
While performing on Broadway, Loden started to have her own idea for a feature film. As things started to come together, she made the decision to direct the film herself, having realized that no potential directors understood the film, and particularly the character of Wanda, in the same way that she did. With a budget of $80,000 (which would later rise to a little over $100,000) Loden directed Wanda in parts of Pennsylvania and Connecticut with a small crew of four people, which included a director of photography, a sound operator, an assistant, and herself. The look, and the style of Wanda, is reminiscent of other low-budget independent films of the era, particularly from the French New Wave movement, as well as the films of John Cassavetes (who had similarly started as an actor prior to his work as an independent film writer/director). Looking in particular at Wanda’s anti-Hollywood and low-budget techniques, independent filmmakers would benefit from watching Loden’s film.
At the beginning of the film, Wanda is introduced as a drifter, moving through her life with little agency, or even self-respect (in an early scene, she earnestly suggests that her sister’s baby is crying because she is nearby). Once the audience is introduced to the character and the spaces that she inhabits, Wanda is shown arriving late to her divorce hearing, where it’s revealed that she has two children. She grants the divorce, and asks that the father be granted sole custody of the children. In the next scene, Wanda is fired from her job. Any ordinary Hollywood film might use this information to show Wanda at a low point, after which she will decide to make a change and improve her life circumstances. This version might even present something that Wanda is passionate about, leading her to apply herself to that thing, so that she can take agency over her own life. But that doesn’t happen. Instead, Wanda continues drifting through life, attaching herself unsuccessfully to different men, before taking up with a criminal, who treats her horribly and puts her in harm’s way. These decisions, and the story as a whole, sidestep many Hollywood clichés, bringing the audience closer to a character that feels authentic and less motivated by writerly decisions.
In a 1971 New York Times interview, Loden discussed inauthenticity in film, saying:
“I really hate slick pictures… They’re too perfect to be believable. I don’t mean just in the look. I mean in the rhythm, in the cutting, the music—everything.”
An “anti-slick” quality exists in Wanda, not only through the rejection of typical film structure, but everywhere else, from the camerawork and performances, to the editing and sound choices. Loden’s cinematographer was Nicholas T. Proferes, who had worked in documentary filmmaking prior to his work on this film. This background proved helpful, as the film feels like it was shot cinéma vérité, granting every scene an observational quality.
Loden’s naturalistic lead performance, and those of the actors surrounding her, heighten the camera’s close observation. Prior to starting on this film, Loden had stated that she never particularly liked films because people were never represented as looking realistic. Rather, she said, they looked “perfect,” and without flaw. The characters of Wanda do not align with this “perfection.” Each of the characters are on the margins of society, fitting perfectly into the grimey atmosphere that the camerawork, and use of location, capture so well. The performances read more naturalistic, rather than the “slick perfection” that Loden had seen from watching other films (Loden also added to this authenticity by casting many non-professional actors). Loden’s lead performance as Wanda feels very natural, as well. Each of her scenes are very understated. She never delivers a large, declarative monologue stating why she behaves how she does, or why she thinks about life in a certain way. She merely exists in her own depressing reality, surrounded by self-centered people in an indifferent world.
The film’s editing choices also reject typical Hollywood standards. No effort is made to put extra weight on any of the characters’ words. In conversations, Loden will often hold on one character, allowing space for long pauses, and even keeping the camera on the same character while the other person, off-screen, delivers their own lines.
Loden also makes use of naturalistic sound. Each room is depicted exactly as it is. There is no nondiegetic sound or music that is inserted to heighten emotional investment. These decisions add to the dreariness of Wanda’s world, as she is never able to escape from her own reality into the “slick” fantasy-version of her life. Wanda is at all times treated like a real person, a real woman. The film as a whole is a lesson in understatement.