One of the nicest out-of-the-blue surprises of the 2014 edition SXSW was Fort Tilden, starring a pair of up-and-coming actors, Clare McNulty and Bridey Elliott. At this year’s Sundance, Elliott returns to the festival circuit with a funny, unsettling short film she wrote, directed and starred in, Affections. Elliott and her producer, Sarah Winshall, joined us recently to discuss the making of the film.
Paste: Why don’t we start out with how the two of you met?
Bridey Elliott: We met at Kim’s Video in New York. We both worked there about two years ago. We were both clerks at the video store together.
Paste: That’s fantastic.
Elliott: Yeah, we really liked each other, but we never really hung out besides work. And then when I moved out to L.A., Sarah had moved out like a year before. So we got together, and we actually hung out, which is what you do in L.A.
Sarah Winshall: Then Bridey had this short that she wanted to make, and I was leaving my day job for a distribution company to focus more on producing. It sort of was perfect timing.
Paste: Fantastic. I hope with all the women reboots, you know, Ghostbusters and all that, I hope y’all can write the all-female version of Clerks.
Elliott: Oh yeah, we could do that! Totally. We have lots of stories, and there were only like three girls at the video store so it’d be pretty funny.
Paste: Tell me about the development of the script and the idea, like how did that germinate? And how did you decide to make that into a short rather than making a feature?
Elliott: Well I’ve only made comedy videos that I put up on the internet right away. And when I moved out here, there was sort of a stretch of time where there was nothing really happening and sort of, you know like L.A. is, sort of empty and stressful. So I think I was just trying to get myself out of the slump by thinking, I really want to do something that I’ve never done before and I want to take more seriously. So I think I sort of just wrote it and then I saw that it was a short. I didn’t decide to make a short film. It was just, I wrote a script that was 17 pages long, and it was self-contained, and then I thought, This could be shot. And Sarah had just talked with me about producing more and had just left her day job, so the time between the development process and shooting was really, really fast.
Winshall: I think there was one revision we had, like one round of revisions we did. But the script was pretty solid from the moment I got it, and then we were shooting two weeks later.
Paste: Wow. That’s very inspiring for all those aspiring filmmakers out there. If you’ve got a really good piece of writing then you can get it ramped up really quickly.
Winshall: Well that’s something I’ll say about Bridey, once you’re ready to do something, she’ll just do it. And I would say, “Shouldn’t we wait like another month so we can figure it out?” and she was like, “There’s nothing to figure out, we have the script, it’s easy. It’s not like we have any crazy special effects, like we just need to go, we just need to do it.” And we did, and I think that really served us.
Paste: It’s a very sort of Joe Swanberg, Duplass Brothers approach, at least in the psychology of it. Take what you’ve got available to you and take your piece of great writing and go shoot the damn thing and move onto the next one, right?
Elliott: Right, there’s no need to do all that.
Paste: I wanted to ask in the writing process about what it’s like delving into a character that’s so unusual—that has such a very different take on life, I guess, and is a little bit inscrutable as well. And then as a different but related question, what was it like in the acting part of it, playing that role? And were there differences in how you saw the character?
Elliott: I think for me writing it, it really springs from this kind of natural place of my state of anxiety that I’m kind of always living in. So in the process of writing it, I think I sort of talked about a lot of things in spurts. I think this character kind of overshares and I naturally do that to make myself more comfortable with someone, you know? I don’t know, I bring up a really dark story or something, and I think this character is that person. But I think she’s comfortable being that way all the time, or at least that’s how she functions. So really it’s just me, myself, and this kind of fragmented version of myself. You know, where I’m being led by this constant search to not be anxious.
And in terms of acting that part, again it really is how I act, so it wasn’t a big, weird, How do I get into this character’s head? It was my own head, it’s a part of my head, just a part of my forehead. [laughs] So yeah, I think the hardest part for me directing it and acting it was just not being sort of so emotional, not having my emotions really cloud my head when it came to logistical questions, like what’s the next shot, you know, or what are we doing? There are particular moments in a movie where you do feel things in the whole movie, and that was something I really enjoyed from the process, where I thought that was a good sign. Like I’m feeling things and the other actors who are my friends are feeling things. That was just a good sign that we were all kind of living it. And it was rushed, it was all rushed. The shoot was 48 hours and so the anxiety of it was there.
Paste: Having written and directed and acted and produced before, you know, everybody talks about how do you direct and act at the same time? To me, what’s way harder than producing or doing any of those other things at the same time. I vowed never to do that again; I’ll do any of the other combinations, or I will produce, but I will never do both. So Sarah, tell me how you saw your role—you know, sort of safeguarding Bridey to stay in an emotionally creative place as an actor and director and not having to worry about the rest.
Winshall: Right. The word you said was safeguarding, and I think that is a big part of how I thought. Something that happened early on was we made it so fast. I read the script and I was like, “Yes, it sticks to me and it’s something we should make,” and it was important to me. I could see Bridey’s vision really clearly, so the whole process was just making sure of everything, because Bridey couldn’t always be seeing what we were filming because she’s in almost every scene. So it was like making sure what I was looking at represented what she wanted it to. And I did a lot of AD-ing, basically, which was a great experience because I hadn’t done anything like that. Before I’d always been more of a logistical producer, I guess.
So in this case, my creative discernment and the ability to really feel like Bridey and I were on the same page about what kind of movie we wanted to make really served us. Especially at times where, I don’t know, when we’re shooting the Bud Cort scene and getting to direct Bud Cort in my backyard, which was unbelievable. That scene is such a weird scene and getting it right is hard. And we wanted to make sure he was comfortable and professional and wasn’t put out by being in it, because it was such a nice thing that he wanted to do the film in the first place. So having to lead the crew and directing him and Bridey and making sure that we were keeping true to Bridey’s vision and, you know, making sure we weren’t losing our light and all of that was probably one of the harder days, half days we had. But I think because we had such a good team, and in the moment where I was getting discouraged there were other people that were able to step up and make it happen, it worked out pretty well.
Paste: For aspiring filmmakers who are thinking about going out and shooting their own short, what’s either the one thing you would do differently next time or the one thing you’re so glad you did this time?
Elliott: I’m really glad that I used all my friends as the cast. I know a lot of actors peripherally too, and there was some spot in my mind that thought, oh maybe this person or this person, but using, like, my boyfriend as my boyfriend. Everything to me that added to everything, like my relationship with all my friends, really informed the characters even though they weren’t playing themselves. It was just super trusting. Everyone trusted and was trusting of everyone else, so that was everything. There was no pressure because they were just happy to be there.
Paste: And that’s not always the case on a film set.
Winshall: On a different note, I’ve produced a couple of other tiny movies in the past with mixed results. When I started this one I made sure that, one of the first things I said to Bridey when we started, was, “What do you want to do with this? Besides just making the movie, what’s the point of this?” I would say to other filmmakers, yeah, making the movie is the most important thing, but before you start, something that will determine so many little choices you have to make would be knowing where you want to go. I’ve produced films in the past without asking that question and when the shoot’s over it’s like, “Well, what now?” And then you can lose momentum really quickly and you have all this footage or you have this cut and you have no sort of clear idea or, like, a team that’s assembled with the same goals getting it to where you want it to be. So that was a big thing that I think I learned coming up from producing other friends’ work and not asking that question, and I’m glad. I think that made a difference for us on this shoot.
Michael Dunaway is the producer and director of 21 Years: Richard Linklater, a New York Times Critics Pick starring Matthew McConaughey and Ethan Hawke; Creative Producer for the Sarasota Film Festival; Movies Editor of Paste; host of the podcast The Work; and one hell of a karaoke performer. You can follow him on Twitter.