Emma Westenberg’s "Bleeding Love": The Family Affair Depicting A Touching Portrait of Connection and Resilience By Katie Vickers

In an industry often preoccupied with flashy spectacles, director Emma Westenberg's latest film, Bleeding Love, stands out as a testament to the power of authentic storytelling. Recounting the story of an estranged father and daughter as they undertake a road trip across America, this poignant tale delves deep into the intricacies of family bonds, addiction struggles, and the transformative journey towards redemption. Having premiered at South by Southwest in 2023, the film is now showing in UK cinemas.

The film begins with the two nameless characters unwittingly sharing a car as they drive across the country. Westenberg's decision to keep the characters nameless wasn't arbitrary; it was a deliberate choice rooted in the desire to make them relatable on a universal level. "In the original script, there were no names, and I really liked that choice," Westenberg shared in our exclusive interview. "For me, it feels weird calling your parents by their first names, and that allowed the film to be relatable. The characters are more defined by their roles and relationship to each other."

Working alongside real-life father-daughter duo Ewan and Clara McGregor was a truly special experience for Westenberg. Their natural chemistry and deep understanding of each other's nuances added an authentic layer to their performances. "Both of them are such professional actors, and they come on set as professional actors, and then on top of that they are father and daughter," Westenberg reflected. "So when we’d go into improv, they could pull from their own relationship and really know each other, so they know how to respond to each other."

In crafting their characters' journey, Westenberg delved into the nuances of their relationship, exploring how years of estrangement had shaped their interactions. "Where are they at the beginning of their journey? How would she act towards him?" she mulled. These questions formed the basis of their collaborative exploration, with Westenberg guiding them through the emotional complexities of their roles.

Clara McGregor, who not only starred, but produced and co-wrote the film with Ruby Caster and Vera Bulder, infused both a warm wit as well as emotional turmoil into her role. "Clara is very funny and very quirky," Westenberg remarked, "We wanted her to be pulling [her father’s] leg all the time and using that to push him away in a playful way." Yet beneath her playful facade, Clara's character grapples with unresolved pain and resentment, mirroring her father's own struggles.

As the film unfolds, tensions between the father and daughter come to the forefront, underscoring the tumultuous nature of their reconnection. "There is tension throughout," Westenberg observed, as the daughter undertakes a journey of self discovery and her father desperately attempts to connect with her, “They are always one-upping each other.” This push-and-pull dynamic reflects the complexities of their relationship, as they navigate a journey marked by moments of conflict and vulnerability.

At the heart of Bleeding Love lies a commentary on taking control of one’s own destiny, marking pivotal moments of growth and self-realisation. Westenberg explained the significance of this, drawing parallels with the father-daughter relationship. "So much of the movie is about mirroring in the way we portray and frame them," she explained. “I think a big part of becoming an adult is taking control of your own path and destiny” and the push and pull of their relationship is “part of that”.

Indeed, the film's original title, You Sing Loud, I Sing Louder, perfectly encapsulated its essence, but Westenberg revealed that practical considerations led to a change to Bleeding Love. While initially hesitant to let go of the original title, she recognised the importance of clarity in audience recognition. "It was hard to give it up because I really loved that title and I think it suits the movie really well," Westenberg admitted. "But people would forget it and say it the wrong way round, so I also understand [the change]."

Throughout the film, Westenberg masterfully navigates the balance between heavy themes of addiction and familial struggle and moments of levity and humour. In her approach to storytelling, Westenberg drew inspiration from her own experiences and observations, infusing Bleeding Love with a rich cast of characters and encounters. "[The characters] meet all these people on the way," Westenberg explained, "and I was really looking at trying to see what each character reflected in their relationship and what they could bring out of them; [whether they] bring them closer or draw them further apart."

Westenberg's experiences in America throughout her tenure in the country also provided inspiration for the diverse array of characters encountered on the journey. "Over the last ten years, I have lived in America and I did so many road trips and met so many interesting people," she reflected. "And that is one of the cool things about the US - there are so many different types of people who can be eclectic and eccentric."

Drawing from her encounters with a multitude of personalities, Westenberg sought to imbue the characters in Bleeding Love with authenticity and depth. "I tried to use little pieces of these people in the characters in this film," Westenberg shared. Certainly, each bizarre and unpredictable character adds a layer of complexity to the narrative, reflecting the kaleidoscope of human experiences encountered on the open road.

Through these interactions, Westenberg recognised the importance of infusing moments of comedy amidst the film's exploration of weighty themes such as addiction and familial struggle. "I really like playfulness and imagination, and there is so much humour in reality," Westenberg remarked. "To be honest, I think lightness and humour make a story both more realistic but also more fun to watch," she remarked.

The visual and auditory elements of the film are also integral components enhancing the emotional depth of the narrative. Westenberg's meticulous attention to detail is evident in the visually stunning cinematography, which captures the evolving relationship between the characters with breathtaking precision. "The cinematographer is Christopher Ripley, and this was the first time we worked together," Westenberg shared. "But what I really liked in our initial conversations is that he is very focused on the narrative and characters." This collaborative approach allowed for a seamless integration of visuals that mirror the characters' emotional journey, from the claustrophobic and disjointed frames that reflect their initial separation to the vibrant and expansive shots that signify their growing connection. “As their story progresses, the visuals become more colourful and magical,” she explains. She specifically notes that as the story evolves, “we see the camera open up the horizon, and I think a big part of healing from substance abuse or other destructive behaviours is embracing that you are part of a beautiful world.” This is personally symbolic, as she shared “for me nature has always been very healing.”

Similarly, the use of flashbacks serves as a narrative device to deepen the characters' backstories and enrich the storytelling experience. "Oh thank you, I am glad you feel that way!" Westenberg laughed as I expressed my admiration. "It was a journey to get them in a place where it made sense." By carefully selecting moments from the characters' pasts, Westenberg creates a poignant contrast between their joyful memories and the stark reality of their present circumstances. "I wanted to show their different experiences and why [the father’s behaviour] was so hurtful to her [...] because obviously they had this bond," Westenberg explained. This juxtaposition adds layers of complexity to the characters and underscores the emotional weight of their journey towards reconciliation.

The musical score further elevates the film, evoking a range of emotions that will allow viewers to resonate with the story. Westenberg's longtime collaborator, composer Raven Aartsen, played a crucial role in crafting a soundtrack that complements the film's tone and themes. "Aartsen is a longtime collaborator who I have worked with on other movies and shorter projects," Westenberg noted. "He already made sketches for the soundtrack while we were on set so we could listen to them and gain an understanding of them." This collaborative process ensured that the music became an integral part of the storytelling, enhancing the emotional impact of key scenes and immersing viewers in the characters' journey.

Ultimately, Westenberg's emphasis on collaboration and her dedication to storytelling shine through in every aspect of Bleeding Love. As she reflected on the filmmaking process, Westenberg highlighted the joy of working with a talented cast and crew to bring this heartfelt story to life. "It was very much a collaboration with people I have worked with in the past couple of years," Westenberg shared. "But also intertwined with family connections, with Ewan and Clara, but one of the film’s producers and her husband and mother-in-law also star as supporting characters”. She fondly admits that it was a real “family affair, which only helped to remind me that you really don’t make a movie by yourself, you make it with a whole crew." This collaborative spirit infuses Bleeding Love with a sense of authenticity and depth, making it a cinematic experience that resonates long after the credits roll.

This collaborative spirit infuses Bleeding Love with a sense of authenticity and depth, making it a cinematic experience that resonates long after the credits roll.

As Bleeding Love makes its way to audiences, Westenberg hopes viewers will connect with its message of resilience, forgiveness, and the power of showing up for each other. In a world filled with chaos and uncertainty, Bleeding Love serves as a poignant reminder of the healing power of human connection and the possibility of redemption, resonating deeply with audiences long after the credits roll.