Director Chanel James and writer-director-star Taylor Garron chat with Selome Hailu to explain the nitty gritty of making their naturalistic Zoom film, as of yet, at a social distance over just seven days.
“If you were ever a middle school girl, you know what certain things mean, and that they don't actually mean what they appear to be, and what a certain look means,” says Taylor Garron. “There are lots of things that are not said, but that are definitely loudly communicated.”
This is true of pubescent communication, yes. But it’s also the reality faced by as of yet’s 20-something protagonist, Naomi, as she grows apart from roommate Sara, her longtime BFF turned kinda-racist-Covid-partygoer.
Garron and Chanel James met five years ago working together on The Things We Do When We’re Alone, James as director, Garron as lead actor. So in the summer of 2020, when Garron got the chance to write a Covid film, James was a natural choice for co-director. The screenplay (or rather, screen outline) came together in June and July; they filmed for a week in October.
A tight timeline and social distancing guidelines eliminated the possibility of a real rehearsal process, so Garron leaned on music as a way to help the actors connect with their characters: “I was so excited to just give them [things to listen to.] I was like, “Go away! Go and listen to this song over and over again!”
Watch the film, then work backwards—the flirty dynamism when Naomi (played by Garron) goes on Zoom dates with Reed (Amir Khan) came from the contrast between one indie pop playlist and another full of metal. The bubbling tension between Naomi and Sara (Eva Victor) was informed by melodramatic ‘80s bangers. It makes sense.
Throughout the process, James and Garron could lean on the reassurance of indie royalty Mark Duplass, their executive producer. In a Tribeca press conference, he named James and Garron some of his “favorite spirits,” sharing that, that in a time of doubt, “I was like, ’This is a perfect time to take some swings at things. If these movies suck, no one knows we’re making them so we don’t have to show anybody.’”
Duplass also cited gratitude for the effort of lead producer Ashley Edouard: “She’s doing about 35 projects for us right now. She’s holding down many, many forts.” Edouard, for her part, comes across as the team’s calmest member, confident in how well as of yet works. “As much as we all want to take 2020 completely off the calendar, I think it was a year that we were really able to confront our feelings,” she said. “And being able to talk about it in an art form is beautiful.”
There are several little bits of the film that feel autobiographical: you cast Taylor’s real-life friends to play Naomi’s friends, and Taylor’s real parents as Naomi’s parents—even the fact that your profile picture in the movie is your real Twitter profile picture. Were you just working with who and what you had, or were you intentionally trying to make something that resembled your life?
Taylor Garron: It was autobiographical only as far as that there are a couple traits that Naomi has that I also have, but I think that Naomi and I are very different people. You know, in college, when you’re a young person who is in a very white place with other young people who are all learning things that you’ve already had to experience… There is a certain learning curve in living with people who are from a different background than you. So, definitely in college, I had those experiences. But as someone in my twenties, I have moved past ever tolerating that from a roommate. Sara would not have been my roommate in real life. I would have moved on by then, kicked her off the lease, et cetera, et cetera.
In terms of the characters being played by my real life friends, one part of it was because when you're making a movie in person, you have the opportunity to do rehearsals and chemistry tests and screen tests and stuff like that between actors. We did not have that luxury because we shot everything totally contactless. There actually wasn’t really even a script—we wrote an outline, the conversations were all very improvised. So it made more sense for me to cast my friends who I knew I had chemistry with already.
The conversations were so personal and lighthearted and off the dome, and it’s easier to do that with someone who you already have that kind of rapport with. So it was a creative decision in that way, and also... like, yeah, we made like a low budget film with who we had at the time.
Chanel James: We would do a lot of side convos. We’d take the actors aside and really ask them, “What have you been doing during quarantine?” Or when we’re flirting with someone, like, what are some of the topics that we choose to try and get the date?
Also, every character was given a specific playlist. I made the playlists personally. That’s my obsession. So everyone had that to listen to and ingest before we started shooting. So Reed [played by Amir Khan] had a very distinct playlist sound, thrash metal and screamo, and those conversation topics come out in his personality when he hangs out with [Naomi], versus Sarah [played by Eva Victor] who has a bit of ‘80s drama, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. [For Naomi], we had a lot of what Taylor actually is into. That’s why we've got Pavement in there, and some Animal Collective references.
So those things we definitely wanted to play with, because a lot of quarantine was sitting around and chilling out and listening to music and being by yourself and watching a ton of the same shit that you’ve already seen, and really feeling comforted by that. We wanted to put some of that medicine in there and have fun with that. For me, [quarantine involved] a lot of cooking, as well as the tunes. And watching a lot of movies! My only goal last year was to just watch—I mean, Letterboxd, I’ve been on this app.
CJ: It was literally all of my quarantine. Quite honestly, my goal was 300 and I watched 302 films last year.
That’s awesome. We’ll definitely have to link your account. Taylor, since Eva Victor is your actual friend, I assume your relationship in real life doesn’t look like Naomi and Sara’s.
TG: No! Absolutely not!
So what did she bring to that character, what kinds of conversations did the character emerge from, what conversations did it inspire?
TG: Eva Victor is just an incredible actor. Very, very talented. Eva is a close friend of mine, we wrote a book together that just came out, we record podcasts all the time, and we met each other writing and editing at Reductress. So we go back many years, and have come up in our comedic sensibilities and our writing and our careers alongside each other. We’ve dealt with the rejection and the dating stuff and the friendship stuff alongside each other in our twenties in Brooklyn.
A lot of that kind of foundation was helpful to building out our characters’ friendship in the film. But it was really, really difficult to relate to [her] in a way that was negative, because Eva is so not like that as a person. Our relationship is so chill and fun. As soon as we got filming, we were like, “Oh my God. I'm so sorry. I love you. It’s okay. This was weird. I'm so sorry.”
I imagine the process of directing and shooting such a contained film like this is different from a more “normal” (for lack of a better word) feature. What was your collaborative process like as directors? What did shoot days look like?
TG: As a director, [I have to get] into the thick of a scene before I realize where any actor needs direction. Obviously I wrote this film, so I have this vision of what it looks like in my head, but also I love to trust my actors. I was kind of hands-off for a while, because I wanted each actor to be able to bring what they thought they should bring to the characters. And I think that where we ended up was a nice combination of the very specific vision that my control-freak ass had in my head, and also what the actors saw as who their characters could be.
CJ: We had to get certain beats in each scene, and that was in the writing. So when it came down to directing it, it was just kind of going off to the side, having conversations with the actors about what they wanted to bring to the scene, and surprising each other. I’d go off with [Amir] and we’d chat about what he was watching, what he wanted to talk about, come back, and then I’d talk to Taylor about the same thing for Naomi, and then just kind of letting improv take it.
And then when it comes to the situations that were outside of the video calls, the more “film” moments, I thought a lot about [the painter Johannes] Vermeer. How a lot of us might’ve been looking in our houses during Covid... like a lady at a window... washing a cloth. It just felt very ‘olden’. I really wanted to capture that visually, when it came to the stark differences between being on a phone call and being alone, like you were in your own artwork.
Yes! That’s something I loved about this film. The juxtaposition of these intentionally awkward and messy online interactions with some really beautiful and careful visual choices—like the purplish lights in Naomi’s apartment anytime she’s not on the phone, and the close, low shots you take of her walking across the floor.
TG: There were shots we got where I was like, “Oh wow, I was thinking about it like this, and we got it like this instead, and you know what, I liked that better.” And that’s co-direction, baby!
I knew that so much of this film was going to be video chatting and Zoom, and there’s not a lot of flexibility in how we could make that look. So I tried to make sure that we were cutting it up with other visually interesting shots. That’s where my idea of the feet running across the floor [came from], as opposed to just seeing Naomi in one spot and then in the next shot Naomi’s another spot.
Or, shooting out the window from both perspectives. That was really fun, and it was another way for us to shoot something in a socially distanced way, contactless. Not only were we far away from each other because I was shouting to my neighbor out the window, we also were far away from each other because in June 2020, people didn’t want you yelling in their face—I frankly still don’t.
Mark and Jay Duplass have worked on several pandemic-themed films at this point. Besides as of yet, they also produced 7 Days, which is another Tribeca comedy, and Language Lessons. As well as being general champions of indie cinema. At what point did they get involved in your film, and what insight did they bring to the table?
TG: I got introduced to Mark in May of last year. Some of my work had been passed along to him from a mutual friend, and he liked it and wanted to work with me. He pitched the idea of me writing a film, specifically one that we could shoot contactless. He asked me if I had any ideas off the top of my head... and I told him I didn’t, but to give me two weeks. So he gave me two weeks and emailed me like, “Hey, you got that idea yet?” And I was like, “Yeah, of course!” And so I pitched this idea to him, he liked it, and that was where we started.
I would send him a draft, he would give me notes, and we would have calls about it. This went on for a month or two. He’s been involved since the start, Mark specifically, since it was just an idea, before it was even written. He's a super kind, generous angel. I love Mark.
CJ: I have looked up to [the Duplass brothers] since high school. Every single movie [they’ve worked on]. Knowing their vision was a part of this was really cool. Just being fans of their work and appreciating how much they’ve pushed [indie filmmaking] forward. We were in this situation with this film where the production industry had changed so much last year. We were getting the opportunity to use a different medium to make our film. And it just had me thinking about The Puffy Chair, and their start. How they were like, “Fuck it! Let’s make it this way! Let’s get weird!” Knowing that we had them in our corner gave us the spirit of just trying things out and staying true [to ourselves].
TG: They also gave us the immensely beautiful gift that was Ashley Edouard—
CJ: Oh my god, yes.
TG: —who was our main producer. She works for Duplass Brothers Productions. I think this was the first feature that she produced with them by herself. And I just cannot give her enough praise. She’s just the most organized, the most jolly-at-four-o’clock-in-the-morning-Pacific-Standard-Time, just the best person and the best producer. So big shout out to Ashley Edouard.
CJ: Massive. Massive.
To make sure I’m understanding you correctly when you’re talking about contactless shooting—were you filming yourself, Eva filming herself, Amir filming himself?
TG: All the conversations that were happening on Zoom or FaceTime were actually happening on Zoom or FaceTime. We were screen-recording them in totally separate locations. I was the only person on set for six of the seven days. Even the regular camera shots of me in my apartment—our director of photography, Jamal [Solomon], had remote access to the camera that we got sent to my apartment; he could zoom, he could do certain settings on the camera—but I was in charge of setting it up on a tripod and putting it where it needed to be.
I’d set up the camera, and then I’d hop into the shot and sit where I needed to be, and they’d be like, “Alright, now move it to the left.” And so I’d hop back up and move it and then hop back in the shot, and they’d be like, “Alright, why don’t we move it back a little bit?” That was part of the fun. I was, like, the PA, I was the key grip, I was the best boy. Who would have thought that that was something that you could do until we had to do it?
And then how did that seventh day of in-person shooting work? Who was there?
TG: It was me, Eva was there, Amir was there, and then our director of photography was there. So it was four of us total.
Chanel, you were never there in person?
That’s awesome. That’s so impressive to pull off.
TG: And neither have ever met our producer Ashley. She actually just touched down in New York. She just texted us, and we’re gonna meet for the first time at Tribeca, which is very exciting.
Last question: I’d love to hear you talk about any films or filmmakers that influenced you while working on this film, and during your careers in general. What are the films that made you want to be filmmakers?
CJ: Can I say many?
CJ: So like... the Duplass brothers. I’ll just start there. Definitely Puffy Chair. Lynn Shelton, RIP, I miss her. Thank goodness for her, and everything she did. Your Sister’s Sister, Touchy Feely. I followed that whole team, that whole squad. Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha, and also with her, Hannah Takes the Stairs. That movie was one of the first movies that gave me the courage to make films.
I love Miranda July. I love The Future. I still have to see Kajillionaire, I haven’t seen that yet. Céline Sciamma, Girlhood and Water Lilies. Cameron Crowe, obviously, Almost Famous. Clueless. Now and Then. I have lots and lots of movies I love. But a lot of them are coming-of-age films and then all these wonderful indie filmmakers who have encouraged us to do what feels right. Joe Swanberg. Andrew Bujalski. Am I answering right? Did I do it? The movie Beeswax. But yeah, those are my answers. I hope I did enough of them.
Oh, and I have to add—please put Barry Jenkins on there. And Medicine for Melancholy. I think that’s it. Oh, and the music video for “Sic Transit Gloria” by Brand New. [This wasn’t everything—James later sent an email asking to mention Channing Godrey Peoples’ Miss Juneteenth and to write that Richard Linklater is one of her favorite filmmakers.]
TG: My list will be much shorter. I studied film in school, and I found myself in a very experimental mindset. I took a lot of foreign film classes and I have this obsession with French film. And not just from France, kind of the French diaspora. So I love—I mean, La Haine is not from the French diaspora, it is literally French. But also movies that were made in the French African diaspora whose names I can’t pronounce, but who were all taught to me by my favorite professor, who actually gets a shout out in the credits of this film! Professor Demetria Shabazz at UMass Amherst. She’s great.
I also really love Alejandro Jodorowsky. Watching those films when I was a teenager, just discovering that I could, like, smoke weed and hang out with my friends after school, and then come home and watch The Holy Mountain and be like, “Whoa.. you can make a career off of doing weird shit like this.” It inspired me because I think I never really felt connected to blockbuster films. Or wanting to make films that everybody would love. I was always more personally drawn to films that were kind of weird and niche-y.
Hmm, what else? I mean, I say this in the film—well, Naomi says this in the film, but it’s also true of myself—I have pretty bad ADHD, that I’m finally medicated for, but I only actually remember seeing one film in my entire life. And it is the Judd Apatow-produced 1996 film, the Kenan Thompson vehicle, Heavyweights. To me, that’s cinema.