When locating an appropriate setting to open “Snowy Bing Bongs Across the North Star Combat Zone,” it was only natural that co-directors Alex H. Fischer and Rachel Wolther would settle for nothing less than outer space. Operating from an entirely different realm than mere humans, the stars of the film — the Cocoon Central Dance Team, comprised of Tallie Medel (“The Unspeakable Act”), Sunita Mani (“Glow”) and Eleanore Pienta (“See You Next Tuesday”) long ago left the earthly trappings of their days as undergrads at Emerson College, entertaining guests at their apartment and eventually building it into a transcendent stage act and web videos where their gleeful non sequiturs and ability to choreograph chaos were just as likely to turn heads as their deft hip swivels.
But for a film that doesn’t immediately adhere to the laws of gravity, there’s a surprising amount of it in “Snowy Bing Bongs,” a completely absurd, but entirely on point send-up of surviving the slings and arrows of show business. In between slyly subversive dance routines dressed up in Technicolor wonder that place the film confidently within the storied lineage of Hollywood Dream Factory musicals, “Bing Bongs” is intercut with black-and-white vignettes that pull back the curtain on the glamour, exposing the horrors of auditioning, the unforgiving machinery of a movie set and the pressures of keeping up appearances, particularly for a young woman in the industry. However, these realities only hit home when presented so surreally, as the Bing Bongs endure a ride every bit as disorienting and often sublime as they take the audience on in moving from the outer edges of the universe to the center of the world on a MTV TRL-esque showcase.
For Fischer and Wolther, the road to making the “Snowy Bing Bongs” was just as much an adventure, spreading the film’s 12-day shoot out across a year and coming up with a level of invention, along with gifted collaborators such as cinematographer Ashley Connor, scenic designer Meredith Ries, composer Jake Leckie and stop-motion animator Lucy Munger, to match the Bing Bongs’ dancing without losing a step. In the midst of a barnstorming tour across the U.S. that began at BAMCinemafest this summer and has continued with stops in Los Angeles and Birmingham this past weekend at the Sidewalk Film Fest, the co-directors spoke about teaming up to create the most fun you could have at a theater this summer. (It is now available to watch on Topic.)
Rachel Wolther: We actually met through Cocoon years ago because they were commissioned to do a show for the New York City Marathon and they hired both of us to work on it. Alex and I had collaborated on [other] stuff with me as a producer and Alex as a director and then we both wanted to make “Snowy Bing Bongs,” so we thought “We’ve got to do it together. We both want to do it real bad.”
Alex Fischer: [laughs] Yeah, we decided to do it together, which can usually be a recipe for disaster, but in this case turned out pretty great.
Rachel Wolther: Now we’re best friends. The end. [laughs]
Alex H. Fischer: The Bing Bong bond.
How did you figure out the shape of this?
Rachel Wolther: We were adapting Cocoon’s material from their live show and they don’t work from scripts [since] they’re dancers, so we made a transcript then we made a script and just worked through it. Because we didn’t have any money, we were only able to shoot two scenes at a time, so we did like four or five shoots and we had a lot of time in between to shape it.
Alex H. Fischer: Yeah, they did this one-hour live show and it was [usually] in a black box theater with some visual elements, some props, but we had to think about what they were getting at. We worked with them a bunch with all these aesthetics based on this [idea] of different eras of Hollywood, [which] seemed to fit them pretty well because there’s this wholesomeness to them in the same way that there’s a wholesomeness to old Hollywood musicals, so when you mix it with completely ridiculous humor, it worked nicely.
One other thing I would say about the live show is that it was chaotic and you never knew what was coming next. Any scene or sequence that happened you thought maybe now you’d understand what this show is about and then they just went like totally tangential in the other direction, so we wanted to keep that alive. But the live show [also] kept you entertained the whole time because it was full of joy, so those were the main goals.
Eleanore had mentioned that the individual vignettes for each of the Bing Bongs grew out of monologues that were performed as part of the stage show. What was it like adapting those for the screen?
Rachel Wolther: That was a challenge for us. because when you’re in a theater and they’re talking directly to you, that’s one experience, and [we had to ask ourselves] how do we use the tools of film to make it a fun movie? But adding that was the most fun part, because their raw material is so good, it’s like working with the best clay and making it the best way we could make it. Because we’d worked with all of them for years, we knew their strengths and their interests and it was fun to [think], “What’s the most fun thing we could do beneath this to do this bit? What’s the most fun location or music?”
Alex H. Fischer: Yeah, they were also our client in a way because they also were the boss. They didn’t turn down many of our ideas, but we definitely thought about how to make it so it would work for them. We knew Sunita would love to play herself as a high schooler, a middle schooler and as an infant [in her vignette]. And Tallie’s monologue had the same dialogue [as it did onstage], but we were like, “What if it’s in the context of her being this celebutante taking us backstage?” Eleanore’s had the most work I think because it was such chaos [during the scene], but she had a lot of input about casting and moments in her scene too.
For their live show, they [also] did lots of things to match the fact that they needed to change outfits and get rid of all the gaps in between. It’s just the three of them. They didn’t have any stagehands. So what we got to do with the movie was to find creative ways to get from scene to scene. That was really important to making the movie more fun to watch, and one of my favorite parts [was] thinking about how one scene can go to the other, so if we had sequences that were added into the movie that weren’t in the live show, [we had to ask ourselves if] they pulled you way out of the world and made you think oh my God, this is all part of one universe? That was a thread we kept going, but it was little adaptations here and there, like with the face dance, we got to have a curtain drop from the ceiling and then do a transition there whereas in the live show, they just got under a sheet and poked their heads out, which is really funny live, but would’ve been really dumb in a movie.
Rachel Wolther: We were working with this amazing cinematographer Ashley Connor and we were on a limited budget and we had limited resources, so it was like how far can we push this? How weird can we make it? How funny can we make it using our resources?
Alex H. Fischer: Yeah, you work within the limitations. A lot of people do a bad [is] good kind of [comedy] and we didn’t really want to do that. We just wanted to make it look as good as we could, but it’s going to have a handmade feel sometimes. With the face dance, it came out incredible and it really was a king-size bedsheet with some colored lights behind it and the talent of Ashley. She just made it look good. Like the pool scene [earlier in the film], some of the closeups in that shot could be in a beauty commercial, which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, but [Ashley] knows how to light them to look incredible, so it was a mix of low-budget aesthetic sometimes, like the space sequences [that introduce the Bing Bongs], which were just shot in my living room, and then trying to make them look bigger than the world could possibly be like with other sequences.
A good example of that might be a really cool stop-motion animated sequence from Lucy Munger, in which the Bing Bongs explore the afterlife. How did that come about?
Rachel Wolther: That was the one scene that Alex and I kind of made up out of the ether. [Scenic designer] Meredith Ries had drawn the Bing Bongs characters for us to use for a different part of the movie and we just kept talking about them, like I was obsessed with them. I had a JPEG and kept saying we’re going to do the animated adventures of the Bing Bongs. We realized we needed one more scene that had dialogue between the three of them because [we thought] we’ve just got to get them together again and then it happened [that] Lucy’s just been a friend for years and we were trying to come up with some way to [work together] and I kept pitching her [to] do this bit for this scene, and she was like, “No…” Then we finally found something where she was like, “Okay, that could be a good use of my talent.”
Alex H. Fischer: Yeah, we had made most of the movie beforehand and we had this Bing Bong mythology – [this] book that floats through space, so we tried to build on this mythology, but also once we started going down that path, [to] make it completely not anything that explains anything, so it’s just a funny scene that’s completely ridiculous, but it does give you a taste of another dimension of the Snowy Bing Bongs.
The book that’s in the film doesn’t open – you just see the cover – but you mean to say that if one were to open it, there was a full mythology?
Rachel Wolther: We had a lot of PDFs. [laughs]
Alex H. Fischer: We had all sorts of ideas and we did make a big book to get people interested in [the project], especially to take it seriously. We just loved thinking about all this stuff and like we could’ve probably gone even deeper into the Bing Bong stuff, but it was still the right length for the movie.
Rachel Wolther: Alex made a flow chart, I just want to say, that we worked off of.
Rachel Wolther: The craziest shoot day was probably our last live day when we did the big finale scene because [the studio] was giving us an incredible deal, but we really had only like one day to pull off that song and dance sequence and for rights reasons, we had to do two versions [of the shoot]. We were in Los Angeles, so we were pretty much working with a brand new crew [since] we shot most of it in New York with our New York people. The Daniels [the executive producers on the project and former classmates of Cocoon at Emerson] hooked us up with some friends who were down to work on it in L.A., but we really hadn’t met anybody more than a few days before and Sunita was out there working, but Tallie and Eleanore flew in two days before, so we just had to make it work and it came out, miraculously, amazing.
Alex H. Fischer: Yeah, we didn’t want it to look cheap because the whole point was [the Bing Bongs] were supposed to be on a pseudo-future MTV and Reggie Watts introduces them and brings them into the studio and then they do their dance – and there’s all those scenes, including the car scene, so it was a lot in one day. Reggie Watts came on the day before [shooting] because our good friend John Early couldn’t do the movie and [Reggie] was only available for an hour and our crane was way too big because we used what we got, so I got this giant technocrane in this not giant studio.
Rachel Wolther: [laughs] I still have nightmares about that crane.
Alex H. Fischer: It was a lot of moving parts to pull it off, so that was the most chaotic day, but it wasn’t tense. We had a good time.
It looks fantastic. But you had to shoot two different versions for music reasons? Because you have a lot of great original music in the film, did you actually plan for that or do it out of necessity?
Rachel Wolther: We did the music in a very stupid way.
Alex H. Fischer: I think we did it in the only possible way we could’ve done it, which was really hard and I don’t think we’ll ever do it again, but Cocoon choreographed all their dances to pop music we could not afford. Some of it we ended up getting the rights to it and it’s great, like the Vonda Shepard song [“Looking for Something” in the scene] where Sunita dies and [the Bing Bongs] are mourning her and they love mourning her so much that even when she comes back to life, they continue to dance together. That song was in the original and Tallie really loved that song when she was a kid and Vonda Shepard let us use it for the festivals. And there were other songs that we could not use, so we had friends that we reached out to to do music that matched the choreography, but of course it had to be different. It was actually really great. We got to custom [create] some of the lyrics and some of the aspects of the songs we were able to change and I’m much happier having a bunch of original music in the movie than what we had before because it really feels like a whole piece now.
Rachel Wolther: And we got some amazing tracks. The song [we use] right before [the Bing Bongs] go into the Q & A is called “Reach Me” by this artist Denitia who just writes amazing R & B songs, and we met her through a network in Brooklyn. The music gave us lots of great collaboration opportunities.
Alex H. Fischer: Yeah, I think we only use 30 seconds of it in the movie because it comically cuts out, but she wrote a whole song for it and it’s on her album now. It’s a really great pop song. And that’s what we needed. It’s almost impossible to go out to somebody [and say], “Okay, we need a high production value pop song with this kind of voice and this kind of vibe and [will] match the choreography exactly,” but it all just worked out. That was probably the most stressful part of the whole moviemaking process because if the music wasn’t good, the whole movie would fall apart.
What’s it been like to hit the road with this?
Rachel Wolther: It’s been awesome. We’re doing a bunch of festivals in the fall and the reception has been amazing. With other films, even films that I’ve been really proud of, people haven’t been going bananas like this. This is so joyful because it’s such a comedy, there’s always a great party. It’s been really amazing.
Alex H. Fischer: Yeah. It’s unbelievable. People keep coming up to us to say this brings me such joy. That’s pretty exciting. When you’re making a movie, you kind of forget, right? You’re like I think this is good, right? I think so?
Rachel Wolther: [laughs] Yeah, we love it, but we’re obsessed with it, so it’s nice other people like it too.