Q&A: Kimberly Levin on the Farmland Thriller ‘Runoff’

Note: This interview originally ran during the 2014 Hamptons International Film Festival, where Runoff had its East Coast premiere. Runoff opens Friday, June 26, in NYC. Director Kimberly Levin, cast and crew will do Q&As following select screenings June 26-28 at Village East Cinemas. 

The beauty of the land cannot mask the brutality of a farm town. As harvest draws near, determined matriarch Betty (Joanne Kelly, TV’s Hostages) confronts a few harsh realities: a failing business, her husband’s deteriorating health, and a family home on the brink of foreclosure. When presented with an illegal but well-compensated job offer (already turned down by her husband), Betty meets the challenge head-on. In Runoff, first-time writer/director Kimberly Levin follows Betty’s perseverance with astonishing narrative economy and bristling tension, anchored by Kelly’s indomitable central turn.


Please describe Runoff in your own words.

Kimberly Levin: The story unfolds in a place where on the surface there’s a pastoral beauty—it’s harvest time, the season is changing, the kids are making their costumes, getting ready for Halloween. But just beneath is the brutal reality of a farming town. Betty discovers a crisis threatening her family. Each way she tries to make things right is going to lead to someone getting hurt. In the end, she has to decide who to put first and who to sacrifice.

As the writer/director (and former biochemist!), what inspired you to tell this particular story?

Kimberly Levin: I was thinking about this idea that as human beings we have a unique ability to consider how our choices will play out over time. We make decisions in a temporal way. I can do mental experiments and weigh if any given decision is the best one for this moment. I can project where that choice will get me in ten minutes, and maybe the outcome is not so different. But when I keep thinking further into the future—maybe ten years from now or to some point when I’m no longer around—then what?

The film tells the story of people who are living close to the land, who understand better than most the compromises we make by putting this moment in front of legacy. Because legacy is this abstract thing we project to some distant time in the future. Until it isn’t. Until a choice we make today catches up with us a little faster than we thought it would. We make these little bargains every day.

There’s a moment in Runoff where Betty is literally backed into a corner in a dairy and offered a deal. We can feel the pressure on her, as she’s surrounded by the hydraulic pumping of milking machines, the claustrophobia of the animals’ bodies, the harsh glare of the industrial light. We can feel time collapsing around her. The decision she makes in this moment will have effects that she has no way to measure.


This is your first film, and your lead character is a very strong-willed woman who is willing to do anything to help her family. Does Betty have some of you in her? How did you and your lead actress Joanne Kelly work together to develop Betty’s indomitable spirit?

Kimberly Levin: Joanne and I are both pretty fierce and independent spirits, so that wasn’t a problem. I grew up in Kentucky and Joanne was raised in a rural fishing village on a small island off the coast of Newfoundland. There’s a real groundedness and strength that come from a connection to the natural world. For all its beauty, the natural order also has a ferocity to it. I think these two aspects fed Joanne’s performance and drive her character.

The film brings up environmental concerns in a unique way, with the audience being torn between wanting the family not to lose the farm on one side and knowing that their survival is dependent on questionable practices on the other. How did you balance these two sides of the story?

Kimberly Levin: In fact it’s this balance that creates the tension of the film. What’s unsettling about Runoff is that you find yourself rooting for Betty to make a decision that on another level you are very much against. So creating this balance in the film was actually what built complexity into the world and into the characters.  When things come to a real crisis point, Betty’s philosophy on how to deal with it puts her in conflict with her husband, Frank. And when their viewpoints are irreconcilable, she goes renegade.

As a first time filmmaker, do you have one piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers?

Kimberly Levin: There are so many forces of inertia that work against the making of any film. It will ask a lot of you and those around you. You will sacrifice sleep, hygiene, sanity—so surround yourself with good-humored people. Find collaborators who challenge you to become better. And in your darkest hour, remember how singular it is to be making a film.

What do you want HIFF audiences to take away from your film?

Kimberly Levin: I hope Runoff leaves them wanting to grab the person next to them, get a drink and talk. I want the audience to feel like they had access to a world that they’ve never seen before. I hope that there’s an image, a moment that they can’t shake.

What are you most looking forward to at HIFF 2014?

Kimberly Levin: Besides meeting other filmmakers and seeing their work, of course I’m excited for the two screenings of Runoff on October 10 and October 12. Our Sunday screening is in the Sag Harbor Cinema, which I’ve heard was originally built as a vaudeville stage back in the Twenties. There are so many amazing artists who have lived in the area. I like to imagine Steinbeck, E.L. Doctorow and Jackson Pollock taking in a picture in the same cinema where Runoff will play.

Runoff opens Friday, June 26, in NYC. Follow the film on Facebook and Twitter.

Kimberly-LevinKimberly Levin is a filmmaker and former biochemist. Her narrative feature debut is Runoff, which Variety called “riveting… inexorably powerful.” In development, Runoff was an Independent Filmmaker Project (IFP) Narrative Lab Fellow, an official selection of USinProgress and one of the top scripts in the Nicholl Screenwriting Competition. Levin is also an award-winning playwright and theater director who has worked On- and Off-Broadway. Her original scientific research on peptide chains known as hydroxy-methyl-phytochelatins was published in a widely used chemistry textbook. 


  1. Engrossing portrayal of a viscous cycle and a unsolvable catch 22. I have some confusion as to the burning acidic nature of the chemical she illegally dumped and the connection to the Dairy farm cows?