When “Fry Day” premiered recently at SXSW, it was only when audiences were left breathless that Laura Moss could exhale.
“It was terrifying for me to see it on a big screen for the first time,” Moss recalls. “I watched it through my fingers. But there was a moment where everyone gasped and it was them realizing a few seconds before [the main character] did what was going to happen and that was a really magical feeling. I realized the movie worked.”
“Fry Day” does that and then some. Moss, who stepped into the director’s chair after starting her career in production design, shows off a film both terrifying in its evocation of everyday evil that exists all around us and in announcing a scary talented new filmmaker who finds a genuinely peculiar and intriguing moment in history to set a taut and chilling coming-of-age story. Set in 1989 at the height of the sensationalization of serial killers, “Fry Day” follows a 16-year-old girl (Jordyn DiNatale) into the Ted Bundy BBQ, an event held just outside the Starke State Prison in Florida on the evening before the mass murderer was executed, where the locals celebrated wearing xeroxed masks with Bundy’s face and T-shirts emblazoned with “Burn Bundy.” While the girl is there to make a quick $2 per Polaroid picture she snaps for revelers, she takes up an invitation from a guy she was in English class with, promising her the “usual mayhem,” and ending up in far more than either of them could possibly know.
In just 16 minutes, Moss creates a completely absorbing experience of a night you know will stick with this young girl forever, forever changing her perspective on the world. The film is alive with the crazy real-life details of the evening where the excitement over an execution only deepens the unsettling feeling the girl has as the night progresses and shot with an exacting eye by cinematographer Greta Zozula, the haze that grows in the air from dusk till dawn reflects the morally murky territory that’s being entered. Not surprisingly, festival programmers across the country have been booking the film left and right, including this week’s Tribeca Film Festival and shortly before the premiere in Moss’ hometown, she spoke about the inspiration behind the film, the unexpected benefits of shooting a film almost entirely at night, and flipping certain genre expectations on their ear.
Technically, it’s my thesis film for NYU’s Graduate Program, but it actually came about because I’d been working on a feature film about a misdiagnosed sociopath [in] this age of celebrity serial killers in the late ‘80s and I came upon this real event – the Ted Bundy BBQ that eruputed across the street from the Florida State Prison where Bundy was executed in 1989. I was wowed by it. It’s a really stunning, disturbing event, and I felt like it’s the perfect backdrop to explore some of the ideas I was working on in the feature, but with completely different characters and just a chance for me to play in that world.
Why were you drawn to that era in the first place?
It’s hard to explain, but I’ve been a horror nut since I was a little girl, and I don’t want to speak for all female fans of horror, but I feel there’s an inherent tension in really loving a genre where most of the works in that genre tend to portray violence against women in a very callous way. I like being scared and I like the way horror helps me confront the things that I’m afraid of, but at the same time, I understood that usually these horror films -[where] the female characters were busty, stupid women that didn’t take off their high heels when they were running, and were being punished for their sexuality – weren’t aimed at me as an audience member. There’s a lot of inherently problematic stuff that I’ve experienced in the genre, so this felt like the perfect backdrop for me [with the idea of] a girl dealing with her fascination with this Bundy BBQ and reckoning with how the barbecuers make her feel.
You’re making a short, but you’re staging this big event with lots of extras. What’s it like to recreate the Bundy BBQ?
It was amazing. My co-writer Brendan O’Brien and I went down to Starke, Florida to research the event and we got to interview people who actually were there and experienced the location. But we actually shot it in New Milford, Connecticut because our resources were all New York-based. so it was interesting to try to get a bunch of strangers into this field to celebrate Ted Bundy’s execution. It involved a lot of flyering, a lot of good will from the New Milford Film Commission and we had two 15 [passenger vans] come up from New York with our friends who were willing to come out, but I also went to every karaoke bar in town in the weeks leading up to the BBQ and pitch the movie. I did some karaoke and met all the locals and the great majority of people were New Milford natives, like mothers, children, grandmothers who wanted to come out for a day of fun, so it was an amazing two days.
I’ve heard that was shot upfront. Did that create a certain vibe for the shoot?
Yeah, my feeling was I wanted to put into the actors’ bones the chaos of the night because so much of the film is actually pretty intimate. It’s [mostly] between a few characters and it’s very quiet outside of the BBQ, so it was important to me that everybody felt that energy and knew what the backdrop really was for them. Also, selfishly, I wanted to get it out of the way [because] I knew it was going to be the most logistically challenging part of the shoot and I could really focus on the actors for their performances.
How did you get this incredible young lead actress Jordyn DiNatale?
Jordyn’s amazing. My producer Valerie Steinberg is a theater nut who goes to see everything, so she had seen Jordyn in an off-Broadway production of “Recall,” where Jordan plays a disturbed teenager, and we brought her in to read. In fact, most of my actors have a strong theater background, and it was sobvious that she was the one. She’s a really accomplished theater actress and just did “Mindhunters,” David Fincher’s newest Netflix show, so my hope is that she blows up big time because she’s really wonderful.
She shares a great scene with Elizabeth Ashley, who also seems like a major get. How’d she come into the mix?
Again, it was my producer Valerie. I’d always been a fan and I thought it was a longshot. We’re a short film. There’s not going to be a lot of money here. [laughs] I was too shy to think about even asking, and Valerie’s like, “Let’s give it a try.” So we sent the script to Elizabeth’s agent and Elizabeth really responded to the material, so she very kindly agreed to do it. That was a thrilling experience for me, just working with such an amazing veteran.
There’s such great period detail. Was that difficult to achieve?
That’s actually my background. I make my living as a production designer for film, so my big fear was that I was going to be a nightmare for the production designer, micromanaging everything because I have very specific thoughts. But Grace Sloan, our production designer, had done period before and she was spot on. I was really impressed with her and with Liene [Dobraja], our costume designer because it’s so easy to make the 1980s feel like a cheesy John Hughes kind of vibe and I think that’s where designers can tend to go sometimes and both of them were really restrained and subtle with what they did and they did a lot with a very small budget, so I was grateful to them.
One of the particularly unsettling moments is at a barn with the words “Let’s wipe the smile off this face” spray-painted across it. Was that something you found in real life?
I don’t think it was on the side of a barn, but I think we did steal the language from the real photographs in that period. It’s modeled after a piece of graffiti that was probably written on a car. I have some great old photographs of the real BBQ, [where] there were signs where people rearranged the letters on theater marquees and fried chicken establishments with signs that were marking this occasion.
You must’ve had to shoot this mostly at night. Was that a challenge?
It’s the little things you don’t realize, like feeding people in the middle of the night in rural Connecticut. We budgeted for a normal catering situation and that’s not a normal catering situation. [laughs]So there were those things that snuck up on us. But the crew is pro – they were used to shooting at night, and after the field days, we switched to night and got in a rhythm there [where it was] really serene and peaceful and lends itself to focus.
It has a real spooky beauty to it, particularly visually. How did you find your cinematographer Greta Zozula?
[Greta’s work on the short film, shot on Super 16] “The Immaculate Reception” really spoke to me. She captured Pittsburgh and period in a really subtle way, and she just had a really organic approach to the material [in “Fry Day”]. I knew that we wouldn’t be able to afford to shoot on film, so we shot on the Alexa, which we got through NYU, but in terms of lighting, she’s very subtle. It was important to both of us that we had practical sources in the field that were visible. We didn’t want anything to feel overly lit or theatrical/stagey, and she’s just got an incredible eye. It was a pleasure working with Greta.
That naturalism contributes to the idea of everyday evil that’s so effectively weaved throughout the film, but when you’ve got an abstract idea like that, was it difficult to find a story structure for it?
It was easy to find that structure because it was built around that moment of realization that she’s not as in control as she thinks she is. She’s this smart, self-reliant young woman who finds herself way in over her head, which unfortunately is an experience I think most women have in coming of age. Something that’s been really powerful for me has been [having] women come up to me after screenings and saying I haven’t seen that moment on film before quite this way, feeling like you’re ahead of things and realizing how far behind you are. To me, this is the story of that moment.
“Fry Day” will play at the Tribeca Film Festival as part of the Shorts: Postcards program at the Regal Cinemas Battery Park on April 22nd at 6 pm and April 26th at 5:30 pm and at the Cinepolis Chelsea on April 28th at 5 pm and April 29th at 9:30 pm.