Director Meredith Danluck Explains How a Personal Tragedy Inspired 'State Like Sleep'

The writer-director sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss how the mystery "suited the emotional complexity" of her personal loss and how she and her friends reacted to it.

The new thriller State Like Sleep, released on Jan. 4, came into being after its writer-director experienced an unprecedented personal tragedy.

"I had a friend who took their own life, and that was really a traumatic experience and reverberated in this way where I saw not only myself but a lot of other people in that friend group searching for some kind of answers or creating different narratives to explain the situation. It dawned on me that those feelings lined up with this idea of the mystery," director Meredith Danluck said in a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter: In Studio. "Ultimately, there are no answers that are going to resolve anything, nothing is going to be reversed. It's an unanswerable question. So I felt like the genre of the thriller, of the mystery, just suited the emotional complexity of that situation."

State Like Sleep follows a widow (Katherine Waterston) searching for answers surrounding her husband's death. Her exploration is complicated by a family health scare on one hand, and a charismatic stranger (Michael Shannon) on the other.

Waterston's lead character is in nearly every scene, so finding the right actress was a crucial component to the film. On working with Waterston, Danluck said, "I love every aspect of working with her. I was drawn to her because in the things I had seen her in, you could tell she had this deep interior life, this kind of intelligence, almost like Frances McDormand."

Danluck added that "being able to look at her and know where she's at even if she's saying one thing but knowing that she's thinking or feeling motivated by something else" was key to the role.

The supporting cast includes Michiel Huisman, Luke Evans, Mary Kay Place and Shannon, who plays against his usual villain/outcast type. "I was watching a late show and Michael Shannon was on. He was wearing a suit, and he was really charming and funny, and I thought, 'Michael Shannon is really attractive. Weird,'" Danluck said.

"He's one of those people that's incredibly powerful," she continued. "His energy is very powerful. He walks into a room and he can channel that energy into being very scary, which is what a lot of people hire him to do. But he can also channel that energy into being extremely funny and charming, and when he turns that on it's magical."

In addition to her film's cast, Danluck also spoke about the hardships many independent filmmakers face, even if a script, such as State Like Sleep, is chosen for a coveted spot in the Sundance Labs. "Coming out of the Sundance Labs you feel like you've won the golden ticket," Danluck said. "Then it was three years later I made the movie."

When asked about how she dealt with the unique challenges of being an independent filmmaker, she said, "There's this exercise in faith and humility. Those are the two things where you have to have faith in the movie and really believe that it's going to get made but also an amount of humility that your ego will get crushed in the process and that's not a bad thing because ultimately, it's not about me and my ego. It's about getting the movie made. That's the most important thing, worshipping at that temple. It's a brutal process and so much rejection, and there's a lot of judgment. You have to be in love with the movie and know that it's going to get made."

State Like Sleep is in limited release in theaters now and available on digital and on demand.