It is unlikely you’ll be able to look at a soft serve machine quite the same way again after “Twist,” Aly Migliori’s nail biting new short that serves up vengeance cold. Certainly you know Hannah (Helena Howard), the minimum wager serving up cones won’t after the intense 10 minute window into her life that Migliori provides, although it’s likely she lost any romantic notions regarding ice cream after her first day on the job. On her feet all day serving one family after another from the inside of a hut encased in protective glass, she’s eager to clock out and we’ll on her way down the road home when a gang of men slightly older than her ask if she can open the place back up with clearly more on their mind than a frozen dessert.
Although the uncertainty of the situation clearly registers on the “Madeline’s Madeline” star’s face as she wonders what to do once all hell is about to break out, Migliori doesn’t lack confidence in staging a rebellious and muscular spin on the story of a girl’s loss of innocence and realization of her own power, concocting an inventive siege thriller that marries visceral action with expressing Hannah’s internal struggle. Opening with an upward shot of the nozzle of the soft serve dispenser that seems as if it would be more appropriate for military use than culinary, the film is constantly subverting cultural totems to expose the threats young women see all around them that far too many others don’t, ultimately showing that strength knows no gender. On the eve of the film’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Fest, Migliori spoke about how “Twist” grew out of her feature adaptation of her previous short “After Her,” figuring out the film’s arresting use of light, and occupying a busy Jersey ice cream shoppe in real life for an overnight shoot.
I’ve been writing the “After Her” feature, and started working on this as a scene, but I realized how strong it could be as its own entity, it’s own characters, and a unique voice. I thought it would be interesting not to have all this backstory and not have this be in this larger world- just a slice of this girl’s experience. So it really is from the same mindset and world as “After Her,” [where it’s] all female-centered genre films trying to show the female story; and this doesn’t have to be told only in traditional dramas. Like “Alien” is a great example as a parable for womanhood, not just so literal.
It’s so funny that you bring up “Alien” because in a sense, stylistically, this seems like “Aliens” when compared to “After Her.” Was it fun to play with a different genre?
Yeah, I would never want to be typecast as this or that type of filmmaker because I feel that genre is such an amazing way to create character and use suspension of disbelief and have these larger-than-life stories that ultimately show something about culture. “Twist” is able to tell a story parabolically about growing up and the loss of naivete. Not every relationship with a boy is a romcom or a Disney film and so many women who have seen “Twist” say “I’ve had those knots in my stomach before,” and honestly, “After Her” was trying to tell the same story — learning to make decisions and keeping yourself closed is part of growing up as a girl — but in making “Twist,” I [thought], “Wait, I can also do this through a dialogue and character-motivated tension, which is very different.
Did you have this ice cream shoppe in mind before shooting?
It is an amazing location. I should say we completely built it, but we didn’t. It’s called Magnifico’s and they were so generous. It was in the middle of the summer, which is their peak [season], but we were like what can we do to make it here? I wrote it in an ice cream shoppe because I love that nostalgia myth and turning that on its head, and the fact that it already was this very retro ice cream shoppe was something we were looking for and when I walked in, the way it was labeled felt like the pantry in “The Shining.” We found that place through scouting heavily, thanks to our location manager and co-producer David Olmsted, and it was still super decked out [with] the way we lit it.
We were able to have an amazing, amazing director of photography, Cory [Geryak], who is a legend in his own right. He the chief lighting technician of much of Christopher Nolan’s work, and I’m so grateful because he read the script and just signed on. And it’s a short. The relationship was so amazing — it felt like we were reading each other’s minds. [We wanted to capture] that Edward Hopper falsity of the American dream and the loneliness of it. We really tried to push that, especially using the windows and the framing.
Yeah, the shock of red for me is a really strong reappropriation of that color as a female color – obviously periods, birth, violence, the womb — all of these elements of women are so rooted in this color.. And I used it a lot in “After Her” too, and as [“Twist”] goes on, it gets more into the darkness of adulthood, so as the film moves, the red becomes much more present like literally getting your period. This is about her becoming a woman, or at least becoming awakened, so that was super important.
That’s part of what makes her walk down the street late at night so moving, even though she’s obviously somewhat fearful of what might happen since she’s alone. How did you pull that scene off?
It was actually really hard. You have to really make it feel motivated, like [she] wouldn’t be turning around [in another direction], so it can’t have a curb, but for safety, it had to be a place that had to be just paved, so that when we were shooting, we weren’t in the road for any of the filming. Then as far as lighting it, some of those are practical. We got really lucky that there’s a fire department across the street and they have a community center in there, so we had an amazing holding [area] inside. Then we had our side to light, [which we did] at this gas station. I’m really grateful that between our lead producer Zander Fife and David, who was location manager and co-producer, they really found places that were seamlessly practical for production without getting in the way of the vision. I really didn’t have to rewrite anything. We really did shoot the script. And it was a steadicam for that day, so we were able to be a little bit more lightweight and that was my friend Mike Thackray, who came out and made it happen. This was all made with friends.
We haven’t even gotten to Helena Howard as your lead – how did you team up with her?
She’s a true talent. I feel so lucky to collaborate with amazing actresses because they create the character and they become your character and Helena was fantastic. She really changed through the film and she would even [suggest ideas] like, I think “Hannah right now would fight a little more…” I would be like, “You’re right.” So I really appreciated the collaboration and she’s so smart, so it was a lot of fun. I had a great team, and it was a very cool experience to have so many actors on a short that brought so much to it. I loved it.
This seemed like a 180 from “After Her” where you’re wandering around in the woods with two actors and this you’re in this one specific location with a large cast and crew.
I know! I just don’t want to be put in a box. I think “Twist” takes up the slack that “After Her” puts down and hopefully that will prove my abilities as a feature director. That was a goal of it as well, but I wanted to experiment with dialogue and character-driven tension and the [narrative] wasn’t making the decision. The character’s dialogue was. And “After Her” was poetic in a way of finding these visuals and filming over months and this was like, “Let’s get it done in three days and not think about it.” [laughs] So they are polarities in a way, but at the same time, they’re telling very similar stories or at least I hope they are.
What’s it like to be premiering at Tribeca?
It’s really a dream come true, between all the cast and crew based here, except for Cory and post sound. All in, it’s going to be great. It’s like having it at home and it goes without saying, it’s such a privilege to be at Tribeca. I’m very, very humbled and grateful and I’m excited [because] I think it’ll be a really great block with a lot of great films. And “Apocalypse Now” is one of my favorite films, so I’m super-excited to have a filmmaker badge because I’m going to try to get in [to the premiere of the remastered Final Cut] at all costs.