If one were to read the synopsis for “After Her,” you’d probably get a stronger sense for who its lead heroine Hailey (Natalia Dyer) is than by watching the film itself, though that’s by design.
“I always joke [Callum’s] not the main character, but everyone wants to think he is,” says the film’s writer/director Aly Migliori, referring to the guy (Christopher Dylan White) who can be seen scouring the woods for Hailey after she’s gone missing in the arresting short. “It’s [because] of this classic male voyeur positioning [that] we naturally embody this male-oriented gaze — it has to be a guy that goes looking for her, but it’s really about her and his throwing away of her and society’s throwing away of her.”
Dipping into sci-fi, “After Her” is naturally multidimensional, yet Migliori extends that quality to how cleverly she has created the space for probing an audience’s preconceptions in her latest film, using a standard issue plot of a young woman’s disappearance to illuminate how a character such as Hailey has so often been portrayed as lost in relation to what she means to the men in her life while insisting that she’s been there all along for those who take the time to look. The filmmaker is careful not to overly define Hailey so as to let your imagination run wild, which it does anyway since in following Hailey and Callum into a cave fro which only one of them returns, “After Her” transports audiences into another realm, though you can never be sure whether what you’re seeing is from the natural world or beyond, given the evocative way Migliori and co-cinematographer David Raboy make familiar environments appear foreign and unexplored.
It’s a journey to the unknown well worth taking and audiences along the East Coast will have that opportunity sooner than later as the film is working its way from the south to the north, premiering this past weekend at the Florida Film Festival and moving onto regional debuts at Atlanta, Sarasota and IFFBoston. In the midst of a busy travel schedule, Migliori spoke about the short’s ambition, both thematically and practically, as well as the happy accidents that contributed to the film’s casting and narrative arc.
How did this come about?
My last short was a bit more traditional and I felt like I was making something that was more for someone else than myself, so this film was really inspired by [asking] how do I make that something that is particular to me, [and] not just that I’m going to make a story, but a story that’s commenting on something that is almost this perversion, which is the way that women are portrayed in thrillers and crime dramas [while] still being this experimental, nonlinear sci-fi, so [it’s] basically my two favorite types of movies I tried to make into one. It was a very liberating film for me.
How’d you find your Hailey?
I started off working as an [assistant cameraperson] to pay rent, which was a good way to learn about cameras, and also assisting directors, and it was a good way to learn how to be a director, and one of the first ones I assisted [was] Leah Meyerhoff, who had this feature, “I Believe in Unicorns.” I got to know Natalia very well from it, but interestingly enough, I ran into her on the street and [she was with] one of our other friends from that film, Peter Vack, and [I asked], “Do you want to make this short with me?” And Peter lives in my neighborhood, so he [said to Natalia], “Ohhh, you have to do it.” So I credit Peter and Natalia for taking a risk on a very weird film. That was it. She truly trusted me pretty implicitly from the beginning and she’s so talented. She’s really a force. I’m a fangirl and a friend, but mostly a fangirl. [laughs] She’s just great.
She really brought the “Twin Peaks” [vibe] because I feel like there’s this “missing girl” aura of a story — how did she deserve it, how did she not deserve it. It’s really interesting how we characterize women as deserving or not of death in these crime thrillers. [There are shows like] “The Killing” where it’s like “Oh, of course she got killed” because this character is sexually promiscuous and young, or she’s getting into drugs, and then oh no, she’s a virginal young woman. “True Detective” really does it, [where] it’s like she ran away from home with this guy and she’s part of this brothel in the middle of the woods, so I think there’s something really interesting about how we characterize a good or bad girl in film and whether or not they’re deserving of their fate, and Natalia did a great job of trusting that.
It was interesting for me to read the description of the film after actually seeing it because I felt that Hailey was more strongly defined there than in the film, purposefully. Was this a situation where you found yourself stripping away certain things to allow the audience to fill in things for themselves, especially when you’re editing the film yourself as well?
I did want to operate in stereotypes and in film tropes, and I really wanted [the audience] to start relating to her in a particular way right from the beginning. I didn’t want to challenge [those preconceptions] until [a certain point], saying, “Oh, you expected this of her, and yet that’s not true,” but [then asking] why did you expect this of her? It’s hard because there’s not a lot of dialogue, and I can’t have a plaque next to it, if you catch my drift. It’s not in a museum. [laughs] But of course, that’s the medium we engage in, so it is an interesting obstacle, especially in a short. “Solaris” was a huge inspiration, and I feel in a feature [you can have] this kind of nebulous story that’s becoming informed by itself and you’re letting it confuse you and I tried to confuse you as much as I could get away with on the short, but maybe that’s too much for some people. Ultimately, I hope for it to be a ride with all of these metaphysical and deeper meanings to it, but at the end of the day, I also want people to just enjoy it and watch it. It’s not that long. [laughs]
How did you find Christopher Dylan White to play Callum?
I found him through Kate Geller at Chrystie Street Casting, who kindly took this on and he was fantastic. They told me he loves to work and he was just clawing at the cave [once we got to set] — I was worried he was going to hurt himself a lot. He’d lean over the edges and I was like, “Please don’t end this early.” [laughs] He was really the embodiment of the character. It is about twentysomething-year-old boys, and he is that age and he’s a really great actor, so I think they inform each other very well. He really took his time with it and it was a long shoot, actually, because there were some conventional scenes to it, but a lot of it was not conventional, so to get some of the shots we got, we really were taking our time and [Christopher and Natalia] were so nice about that.
There are some shots early on where it looks like you’re about to fall down the mountain yourself in chasing after the characters with the camera. How did you manage to not kill yourself in the process?
Oh my God, I know. The opening chase stuff, I was like, “I don’t know if I can do this,” but I share DP credit with [David Raboy], who did a great job, and in the script, it was supposed to be on the top of a hill [but] David realized that it was [better] deep down into a cave [after] we found a cave on that day. That was a nice moment we weren’t anticipating. He slid down the mountain and covered this and covered that. We shot it with two cameras at all times, so one camera would be [always] up hiding, picking off long shots — because shorts don’t always have that breadth, so [the idea was] just try to catch as much as I could to stitch it together [later] and create space to create tension. It was wild. It took a lot of location scouting. Zander [Fife], the other producer, twice went online looking at spelunking sites and messaged one of them on Facebook. The guy sends us the location and tells us, “You can’t tell anyone you’re going to this one,” [or] “This one you can.” It was in upstate New York, [where] everyone’s super-nice, and we got permits for everything. No one really cared. One of them was a cliff behind a school and they’re just like, “We just don’t tell the kids it’s back here.” [laughs]
The shots of nature throughout the film seem so precise as to intent – did you actually just find them scoping out the forest?
The opening shot is actually in Tennessee because I was going down to Atlanta for this ILM test at Pinewood and I brought my camera. On the way back, at five a.m., I got up and shot in these beautiful mountains of Tennessee, right by the Carolinas, and they were blue. A lot of the stuff with Christopher the second [part of the shoot], it was just me and two other people [with] Chris and I feel like we really got the staples, like when he climbs down into the cave, and then the cutaways, which was not nature. But we were realizing that we didn’t have enough time to do it right, so we added a day at the end [of the shoot]. It was just the three of us, super burned out, [but] we had time with Natalia and Christopher in that location, [so] during the dream, some of the shots are [from] there, and I was shooting it for four months intermittently before, so there are shots from the eclipse in there, and from road trips and I shot some underwater stuff, but it didn’t make it in.
Did anything in general come as a surprise during shooting that you’re glad made it in?
The opening scene with the mushroom, after the city stuff, [where Hailey’s] like, “Do you know what this is?” A woman was actually hiking out there [while we were shooting] and came up to one of the producers [Zander] and said, “Have you seen any baby’s heads?” And he’s like, “What are you talking about?” And she [insisted], “Have you seen any baby’s heads?” And he’s [thinking], “We’re in the middle of the woods, in the mountains, and someone’s about baby’s heads. This is disturbing.” Well, it turns out they’re a type of mushroom, and they do look like little skulls. So we were just playing around [during filming] and I’m like, “Natalia, talk about it,” so we made a little beat about it [in the story]. But then it motivated the second time she picks something up [which is a crucial plot point in the film] and we’re like, “Oh my God, it made it okay for her to pick something else up later.” It was such a beautiful moment. It made the film seem so much more nuanced than it was [at first], and then I’m like, “I’m an idiot. Of course, this makes it okay with you,” because in shorts, the question isn’t how, but why? Why are we doing this? And motivation is so hard in a short, particularly in my shorts because I don’t use so much dialogue. Of course, we [had to] flip it in post because we shot it one spot and we matched it where we ended up putting it in the story, but you can get away with those things when the story prevails. So if there’s one thing that was just wow, it was that. That really helped my pacing and tone.
What’s it like taking this out into the world?
It’s exciting, though I’m a little nervous because I do think it’s pretty weird. But I feel like I was able to make a short on my terms, and hopefully I get to keep on doing it that way. And I’ve had amazing people like Laura [Heberton, who produced it], Zander, and Peter [Albrechtsen, the sound designer] in my corner, so I’m really grateful to all of those who believed in it. Panavision actually gave me a free camera, so a lot of people were great and generous, and if nothing else, it’s an experiential film that you can just enjoy for 12 minutes and you can take what you want from it. Ultimately, women have had really amazing responses to it and that’s been so awesome. It’s this feminist parable and if they get that great and if not, I hope it’s this weird “Antichrist”-like movie that brings you through the woods.
“After Her” will play at the Florida Film Festival on April 12th at 9 pm as part of Shorts Program 4 (“I Need to Know”) at the Regal Winter Park Village. It will next play at the Sarasota Film Festival as part of Shorts Program 9 on April 14th and April 16th at 10 pm at the Regal Hollywood 11, the Atlanta Film Festival on April 22 at noon at the Plaza Theatre, IFFBoston on April 28th at 6:45 pm and April 29th at 12:15 pm at the Somerville Theatre, the Montclair Film Festival as part of the NJ Shorts 1 Program on April 29th at 9 pm and April 30th at 7:30 pm at the Clairidge Cinema, and the Nashville Film Festival on May 12th at 6:15 pm and May 13th at 12:15 pm at the Regal Hollywood Theatre.