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Writer-director Adrian Murray on fragile truth and tragic humor in “Retrograde”

The Wisconsin Film Festival presents the Toronto-based filmmaker’s latest film on Friday, April 8, at the Chazen Museum Of Art.

The Wisconsin Film Festival presents the Toronto-based filmmaker’s latest film on Friday, April 8, at the Chazen Museum Of Art.

Header Image: In the first scene of the film, Molly (Molly Reisman) and her new roommate Gabrielle (Sofia Banzhaf) look back startled at a police officer’s car off-screen after Molly is pulled over for careless driving on King’s Highway 401. Gabrielle holds a potted parlor palm that partly obscures her view out of the windshield and passenger’s window.

Typically, the pursuit of justice in cinema is inextricably entangled with the crime thriller or mystery genres, but as much as we all may indulge in some of network television’s most rote (but entertaining) devices, their scenarios are sensationalized rather than relatable. Writer-director Adrian Murray inverts the formula in the perfectly calibrated Retrograde (2022), a 74-minute “comedy” that painfully details the bureaucracy and psychology involved in challenging a traffic citation issued for careless driving. We all know (or perhaps are that) someone who’s been slapped with a speeding or parking ticket, or narrowly escaped one.

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In all its modesty of presentation, Retrograde, has far more on its mind in plumbing the depths of a twentysomething character, Molly Richmond (Molly Reisman). Molly grows increasingly convinced that the traffic ticket is the symbol of personal attack and injustice, and that the constable’s (Peter Frangella) behavior is a microaggression from an authority figure against her gender beyond his purview of the law. “I didn’t do anything wrong,” she exclaims, refusing to settle any scenario that would close the matter but compel her to simply admit she was partly at fault.

In the process of retaliating somewhat rightfully, Molly becomes even more of an officerial interrogator towards her friends and anyone who could be a potential ally, negating any righteous pursuit she once had. The banal fallout of Molly’s initial run-in with a constable along King’s Highway 401 in Ontario pits serial analysis against intuition and pairs brilliantly with repeated allusions to the astrological from Molly’s new roommate, Gabrielle (Sofia Banzhaf), who was in the passenger’s seat when the constable pulled Molly over.

Murray nails how mutually agreeable people can view and react to a given situation so differently, exploring the awkward misunderstandings in everyday human interactions that filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch have done throughout their careers—but with an even more cutting edge. Aided by long, engrossing takes by cinematographer John Palanca, Murray creates rich contrasts throughout his tight script in even the most basic of Molly’s interactions with her coworkers and ex (played by Murray himself).

Ahead of the Wisconsin Film Festival’s one (and only) screening of the film on Friday, April 8, at 6:15 p.m., at the Chazen Museum Of Art, Murray recently spoke with Tone Madison via phone about his endeavors. He touched upon the origins of Retrograde spurring from an astrology reading and listening to an argumentative podcast, the preference for writing self-destructive characters, defining the film’s genre, the incompatibilities of definitions of “truth,” and the drive to keep making films (with awkward premises or not).

Editor’s note: This interview contains spoilers for Retrograde (as well as Murray’s first feature, Withdrawn).


Headshot of writer and director Adrian Murray

Tone Madison: Since Retrograde had a virtual premiere earlier this year in late January with Slamdance on January 27, will this be your first time watching it with a public audience outside Toronto or maybe anywhere? If you’ve watched it with others before, how was the response? (Since this question was written, Adrian Murray’s scheduled visit to the Wisconsin Film Festival was cancelled.)

Adrian Murray: So, I haven’t watched it in a room full of people not involved with the production. I’ve only watched it together with my wife, who’s one of the producers, Sennah Yee. The editor [Marcus Sullivan] and I—oddly, we’ve not watched it in the same room together. We’ve just been going back and forth over email a lot about it. The closest thing I got to experiencing people’s reactions to it who weren’t involved in the production was Letterboxd reviews during Slamdance.

Tone Madison: I’m one of those people. [Laughs]

Adrian Murray: Yes, I saw. [Laughs] I was very happy with the response there.

Tone Madison: Yeah, seemed like it was overwhelmingly positive, I would say. What was the impetus for the screenplay and scenario in the film, with Molly contesting the citation for careless driving? Why did you specifically want to make a movie about this sort of passing encounter in our lives and the sort of perception of it as a microaggression? And please don’t say it’s because you are Molly, or this happened to the lead actress Molly Reisman. [Laughs]

Adrian Murray: [Laughs] No, it did not happen to Molly, but the inspiration for this came from the astrology side of the movie. The real-life [event] that inspired me was a party, and someone was giving me a birth chart reading. And I was disagreeing with everything they were saying about me. But everyone around me—all my friends—were like, “Oh, no, this is totally you.” It was that kind of disconnect of what I saw and what others saw that made me interested in this premise. Then, the ticket came in because I wanted the character [Molly] to have an interaction with an authority figure where they’d have different ideas about what the truth was. ‘Cause I wanted this movie to explore how fragile the idea of truth actually is. And so I thought the ticket that spirals out of control was a funny way to get those ideas across. It had the opportunity to have kind of a Larry David- [or] Curb Your Enthusiasm-esque humor to it.

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Tone Madison: What are your personal views on astrology? Do you not subscribe to it? Or do you maybe take it seriously?

Adrian Murray: I don’t believe in it. Just through doing the movie, The same way I don’t believe in a religion, I take it seriously, because it’s something others take seriously, [and] it’s part of our lives. So, I do not get regular readings. I can’t remedy how the position of the planets in our solar system would affect our lives on this minute level. That said, my writing partner Marcus Sullivan and I, for fun, got a reading not too long ago with a friend who we respect and is very good at doing astrology readings. We were very surprised at how accurate it felt that time. So, I can’t say whether it’s true or not. I still don’t believe in it, but I take it seriously as a human activity. […] The fact that it can reveal certain truths to you about yourself—there’s a certain validity to that despite the fact that it doesn’t work with our general idea of what truth is—this is the stuff that really intrigued me about the film.

Part of the reason I have such trouble explaining it verbally is because that’s what the film does for the better. You have a bunch of characters, but incompatible ideas of what a truth is, but not of them are entirely irrelevant. Gabrielle is using the astrology stuff to reveal inner truths, a tool of self-reflection. And as a tool of self-reflection, you can’t entirely invalidate it, because no one can know your internal state except for you. That’s not something others can really observe. But then, as Molly’s describing, the only truth is the actions that people perform in the physical world. And then you have the cop who’s saying, “Well, actually, the only truth is what is legally true, which is what I say is true.” All of these have their purpose in our lives, but none of them are compatible with one another if you look at the methodology to arrive at the truth.

Tone Madison: Yeah, that ties in with the film Police, Adjective, which I’ll get to in a bit. But very eloquently said. Thanks. To move on to an additional question—speaking of Molly, was this role designed specifically for Molly Reisman, as the character shares her name? Or was it a lot more of a fine-tuned process to find the right person who fits the determined “it’s the principle of the thing!”-type of character, who I relate to, or related to for much of my life. Was casting everyone else any different from Molly or any different from your other feature, Withdrawn?

Adrian Murray: It was written for Molly. She was in my first feature, and I thought she was really good there. After I had this idea, I wanted to write something for her to [in order to] work with her again. That said, the character isn’t entirely like Molly as a real person. Molly would never find herself doing these things. [Laughs] That said, she can be a pretty intense person. And so I thought she would really nail it, and I think she did. But mostly, she’s a friend who I wanted to work with again. She was the first one cast. Some of the other characters were also cast from friends I had worked with in the past. So, we didn’t audition them, but we did hold general auditions. The character of Gabrielle came from an audition. We had [Sofia Banzhaf] read against Molly and do some improv, and I thought she really nailed it. [Banzhaf] is also a filmmaker from Toronto, and one of the producers [Sennah Yee] actually knew her from the poetry community here in Toronto. And she knew of my first film and wanted to audition for this.

Tone Madison: Did you mention an event that she was reading at?

Adrian Murray: Oh, Sofia is an author. And my wife [Sennah Yee], one of the producers, knew her from the Toronto poetry community. They’ve done readings together and have had publications in the same press.

Tone Madison: Oh, that’s interesting. Coincidental.

Adrian Murray: She also knew a thing or two about astrology, so that helped.

Tone Madison: Was Sofia a reference for you in terms of the screenplay at all?

Adrian Murray: The very last line of the film is actually one of hers. If you remember the last scene, Molly comes home, and she’s showing Rose (Bessie Cheng) sort of how the birth chart works. In the script, I just had them continue to discuss how birth charts work while Molly putters away in the kitchen. But Sofia felt that there wasn’t a lot to talk about there, so she came up with the last line of, “It’s a snapshot of the universe and your place in it,” which I think perfectly sums up the movie and what Molly was fighting against throughout. That was some great input from her that ended up changing the script. And there are little things like that throughout from all the actors. Most of the scenes are one continuous take and a static shot. On average, we did maybe 15 or 18 takes. About five in, you start to get feedback about lines to change ’cause they’re just not gelling. Or there are different places you want to take it. Those often come from the actors.

Tone Madison: Wow, that’s a lot of takes.

Adrian Murray: [Laughs] Yes, it’s a lot of takes, but we can do that because there are so few setups in the day. You’re not rushing to shoot your coverage, which is one of the reasons I like shooting this way. You get to spend a lot of time discovering the scene as you go, which is a fun part of the process for me. Part of it is budgetary, ’cause then you don’t have to have a whole legion of grips and crew ready to flip the set over super quickly.


Gabrielle (Sofia Banzhaf, center) does a sign reading of Molly (Molly Reisman, left) on her phone in their house with fellow roommate Rose (Bessie Cheng, right).

Tone Madison: Continuing with a line of questioning about writing characters, Withdrawn is also heavily constructed around the awkwardness that is innate in human interactions. I love that you don’t shy away from the pettily annoying minutiae in our lives that is often connected to money. Do you have an effective method for writing dialogue? Had that changed at all in the five years or so between Withdrawn and Retrograde?

Adrian Murray: They were very different for having a similar result. Withdrawn was all performed from a 15-page outline. So, there was very little dialogue actually written. There was just one spiel that the character Dean (Dean Tardioli)—it’s sort of the sales pitch that he gives to the lead character (Aaron Keogh). And we wanted to have that written out, because it’s a rehearsed thing on the character’s part. But, all the other dialogue was improvised. Similarly, we would do a lot of takes, around 15, so we had time to find the scene. But we weren’t starting from a completed script, whereas Retrograde was starting from a part of it being entirely scripted. It was a 100-page script or so. Writing dialogue the way I did in Retrograde comes from the process of discovering it the way we did on [the set of] Withdrawn. An observational approach.

Tone Madison: Speaking of Letterboxd earlier, one of the comments that first caught my attention before I saw this at Slamdance was your fellow Ontario-based writer-director Sophy Romvari saying you “write dialogue like a mother fucker.” [Laughs] And after watching, I would totally agree! There’s an element of psychological self-sabotage to Aaron in Withdrawn and also in Molly in Retrograde that’s fascinating to analyze. But, as you just told me, the dialogue in Withdrawn is mostly improvised. So, I’m split—[Laughs]

Adrian Murray: Well, I’m glad. I think I’m attracted to self-destructive characters. Maybe that speaks to how I see myself. [Laughs] I find self-destructive characters easier to write.

Tone Madison: It’s on a smaller level than you’d see in a traditional crime drama or something with a bigger budget produced in Hollywood.

Adrian Murray: Totally. It’s a matter of stakes. The stakes in both movies are largely intellectual and internal for the characters. The biggest stakes that Molly encounters is that she might have her license revoked, which is significant. But she’ll also come out of it just fine. What she really loses at the end—she has to lie to her housemates in order to keep her pride intact. And, with Aaron, the ending of [Withdrawn], he just continues his self-destructive spending habits.

Tone Madison: He’s going to Europe! Right?

Adrian Murray: Yes, exactly. What you thought was the credit card company calling to reprimand him for not paying his bills was actually them raising his credit. And he immediately uses it, falling into a bigger trap. He’s a victim of himself but also of larger forces at play around him. Both characters are, really. Caught up in these whirlwinds.

Tone Madison: You mentioned the influence of Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective (2009) on this film, which I think resists concise summation, but it essentially boils down to a nearly 20-minute shot in a police captain’s office about dialectics, or the art of investigating or discussing the truth of opinions, at least as it’s defined in the Romanian dictionary. I see this scene transmuted to Retrograde when Molly “crashes” Rose’s get-together, arguing with Gabrielle about the meaning or significance of astrology in front of the group. Your scene is less of a formal interrogation, and it’s more about semantics and alienation, but there’s also the overarching shadow of moral law there, same as in Police, Adjective. The quote from the movie is, “My perspective is that I’m not seeing what you’re seeing.”

Have you extensively studied sociology, law, philosophy, or even astrology beyond writing and directing

Adrian Murray: I haven’t formally studied sociology or epistemology, which is the study of how we know what we know. That’d be the most relevant one for Retrograde. Because these are characters who haven’t formally studied it, I didn’t want to bring too much academic knowledge to their perspectives. But what I did do was listen to a bunch of podcasts with people talking about this. One key one for me was a discussion between [clinical psychologist] Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris, scientist and author. Jordan Peterson’s big thing is that he hates postmodernism, which includes a breaking down of a top-down dictated truth. But then he’s on this podcast arguing for this very relative concept of truth against the scientist [Harris]. I found this conversation really funny in a cringey way. You have these two proud, irritating characters derail an hour-long podcast because they can’t agree on a very general definition of truth, and end up trading veiled insults through academic language. So, that was actually a big inspiration for this final scene. 

And then, formally, the way it plays out in Police, Adjective—I took a lot of inspiration from that scene, as you mentioned. Police, Adjective and Retrograde are similar in that there’s both characters struggling with authority. In Police, Adjective, the guy Cristi (Dragoș Bucur)  is struggling with his boss because he doesn’t want to arrest the kid [a suspected drug dealer], which is much more high-stakes than what Molly is going through. But she’s struggling with the authority of this police officer.

Tone Madison: Well, it’s more of her fighting against bureaucracy in general than just the officer. It’s more about what he represents. Is that—Sorry, I’m telling you what your film is really about. [Laughs]

Adrian Murray: [Laughs] No, you’ve got it. Yeah, the cop is sort of the tip of the spear. And there’s everything behind it that Molly has to go against. The whole system that’s maintaining his idea of truth, of what a truth is and should be. Which boils down to his perspective at that moment versus Molly’s. Police, Adjective is very concerned about, literally, the language of truth, and how language dictates truth. And, as you said, this definition—the Romanian definition—of “police.” And whether or not this kid is going to jail hinges upon this definition.

Tone Madison: They’re talking about the word “conscience” first, right?

Adrian Murray: Yeah, they go through a few. [Cristi] says he doesn’t want that on his conscience. So they break down what the word “conscience” means in order to discredit what Cristi is feeling. He’s not as eloquent as his boss, and so the boss gets to win through his eloquence there, which has drastic consequences. Retrograde isn’t concerned with the verbiage of truth, but the different uses of it. So that’s where they differ.

Tone Madison: I found Retrograde a lot easier to watch, I think, because Police, Adjective almost takes the approach—it feels like an English 302 course, at times, watching it with subtitles. It’s so rigorous and thorough. I’m assuming Poromboiu has a background in linguistics or English—err, sorry, no! Romanian. [Laughs] Language, I guess.

Adrian Murray: I think he’s studied it a lot. He has a couple films that orbit that subject.

Tone Madison: Are there other films in this kind of niche that deal with this sort of subject or dynamic that you’d recommend that you can think of?

Adrian Murray: There were no other films that were as close an influence as Police, Adjective. And I also wanted to avoid films that presented too literal a reference for me. My source material for the subject would come from things like the podcast I mentioned. I did a lot of research on processes of how you’d challenge a parking ticket, etc. I didn’t want to get it from another art form, I guess. There are plenty of other formal influences, but not on the same subject matter.

Tone Madison: It does feel unique in that way, I think. At least, when I watched it. I watched it before Police, Adjective, so—

Adrian Murray: I can be the original in that sense.

Tone Madison: That’s right. [Laughs] So, next time you can say you’re part of this new wave of Canadian filmmakers.

Adrian Murray: [Laughs] Absolutely. It’s funny, us Canadian filmmakers are making films in very different styles, I feel. You watch a bunch [from the] Romanian New Wave, and they’re all formally very similar. And the subject matter is also very similar. They’re all orbiting the same thing. Where, in Toronto, we’re very scattered.


Molly (Molly Reisman, foreground) realizes she missed something as her Lightning Board team stares on from the background. From left to right, Dean (Dean Tardioli), boss Susan (Meredith Heinrich), and Caleb (Meelad Moaphi).

Tone Madison: My next question is kind of a silly one, but I thought it’d be just interesting to set up this way. Some may see this film—they may watch it and say, “Well, this is a cringe comedy,” and I think that label may give readers or viewers the impression that there’s something forced or contrived about it or lacking in nuance, when my impression was the exact opposite, actually. For example, I saw a couple off-the-cuff comments related to the tension in this film as comparable to the Safdies’ Uncut Gems (kinda like Shiva Baby was in 2020). The comment was meant jokingly, but how do you feel about a film like that being used as sort of a present-day baseline for cinema that chronicles socially awkward tensions? I mean, if that’s what gets people to watch, then maybe it can be encouraged to a degree. But if you just observe the title with astrological association, Retrograde is a lot more intelligent than any superficial description or comparison is able to offer.

Adrian Murray: Oh, thank you. We tend to cringe when people go against the grain of what’s acceptable conversation or behavior. And so in Uncut Gems, these people are literally doing criminal things. Sometimes that can be cringe, because it’s so against the grain. Not to mention, we see the self-sabotage happening to them. If there’s similarities, you’ve got two characters going against the grain and self-sabotaging, and we can see that, but the characters can’t.

In Uncut Gems, we see [Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler)] spiral into further debt and danger. And with Molly we see her relationships eroding because of her obsession with this minor thing. That’s where the cringing would come from. I don’t mind it being referred to as a “cringe comedy,” but we actually had to really think about labeling this film when we were submitting it places. “Is this a drama? Is it a comedy?” I think of it as a comedy just ’cause I think it’s okay for people to laugh. I don’t mind that. But sometimes people watch and enjoy it, but they’re not laughing at all. It’s sort of a straight drama. Part of it is because the humor is so dry. You can either take it or leave it. And for some people, it’s not humor; it’s actually tragic what Molly’s doing to herself. We label it as a drama, because it’s okay to laugh during a drama. It’s not okay not to laugh during a comedy. I’m comfortable with people taking it either way.

Tone Madison: It’ll be very interesting—to refer back to my first question—to see audience response here. People who are maybe under the impression that it’s more of a black comedy, and others who don’t know anything about it, and even others yet who are more expecting a drama.

Adrian Murray: Mmhmm. Yeah, the festival’s part of the university there, as I understand it. There might be a certain acceptance of this “challenge” that the film poses in that sense.

Tone Madison: How would you personally pitch the sly, multidimensional narrative to people who are interested in the film just by reading the festival blurb but haven’t bought tickets yet?

Adrian Murray: The logline my editor wrote sums it up really well, which is just “a minor traffic citation spirals into an all-consuming obsession for a neurotic young woman.” That captures the tone of it perfectly. It’s a very neurotic film. [Laughs] For some that’s going to be challenging, and for some that’s going to be funny. What I wanted to make sure was that everything was intentional. I don’t think there’s a scene that’s wasted or unnecessary. Despite how verbose it is, I don’t think there’s a wasted line. Everything comes back, and I hope an audience goes in ready to think about truth. If they can laugh and cringe along the way, that’s great.

Tone Madison: Do you have further plans for Retrograde in terms of festivals or distribution? Before I started recording here, you said you didn’t have a distributor yet.

Adrian Murray: We’re still shopping it around. Anyone who’s familiar with making an indie film knows that it’s a bit of a challenge. There’s lots of digital opportunities, but the festival is likely the de facto theatrical run. There’s nothing I can say festival-wise yet before anything is announced. But there’s a couple more left in the hopper.

Tone Madison: Oh, that’s great. Are you working on anything else, either as a writer-director yourself or as a producer, in the next year or two, that you can talk about?

Adrian Murray: I am. I’m just writing right now, and we’ve had some talks with other producers because of Retrograde. But I’m writing a film that’s set at a workplace leadership retreat, and the premise is that an employee, one of the lead characters, is almost killed by his boss accidentally during an exercise. It’s about the tension that leads to over the weekend.

Tone Madison: [Laughs] That’s certainly ripe for more awkward comedy.

Adrian Murray: Yes, I think so. 

Tone Madison: I’m looking forward to hearing more about that in the future. And seeing it as well.

Adrian Murray: Thank you. Me, too. There’s a couple more. I’ve always got about four on the go, and I leap back and forth between them when I get sick of them. Never sure which one is going to be written first.

Tone Madison: Do you have any advice for young or aspiring filmmakers on where/how to get started? Or maybe you’d like to offer some sage advice for working through a microbudget feature once it’s a third of the way done, and people have hit a snag? You can dig into something that happened maybe on the set of Retrograde or Withdrawn if you’d like.

Adrian Murray: I’m not particularly full of sage advice, but for me, Retrograde came about as a way to make a film with my friends. I had big, sweeping sci-fi things that I wanted to make, but you need a budget of several million or so. I found it common for people to have these dreams, but use the budget as an excuse to wait on it and not to make it. I didn’t want to fall into that. I knew if I didn’t keep making films, they would just become a pipe dream. So, Retrograde was literally written and conceived as a way that I could make a film for no money. That opened the door for some grants here in Canada, and so we scaled it up a little bit and paid people, which is great.

The only advice I have, which is common—most other indie filmmakers would tell you that you have to make anything within your means. You don’t need to go bankrupt to do it. If you just have a camera and want to do something with just you, you can figure that out. I was really inspired by Richard Linklater’s very first feature called It’s Impossible To Learn To Plow By Reading Books (1988), which is a travelogue going across the country visiting friends. Lot of static camera setups that he just sets up himself and goes in front of the camera.

Tone Madison: Yeah, I’ve seen that. It’s quite good, actually.

Adrian Murray: Yeah, it was a big inspiration for me, formally and in the sense of—you see something and think, “Hey, I could do that logistically.” All the stuff artistically, you need to work at it, but if you find something logistically that you know you can do, you can imitate it. That’s a perfectly valid way of learning how to do this. Just get a film made, and that’ll lead to others.

In terms of the second part of the question about getting stuck, I found—the editing process of both these films took quite a while. That was where, at times, I felt stuck. But the way I got through that is by having a select few trusted collaborators who I could share ideas with and who I could talk to frankly about working through these problems. Sometimes filmmakers want to show [a project] to as many people as possible and kind of find a medium ground between the feedback. I don’t think that’s helpful. I like to keep it to a select few whose opinions I trust, who I can show my problems to and help me through them, as opposed to that broad approach of getting feedback.

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