When Melissa Finell was looking for someone to play Caroline, the upbeat therapist to opposite a misanthropic scientist named Serena (Anna Lise Phillips) who requires her services to get back in her employers’ good graces after an inappropriate outburst, she was pointed to Jill Alexander, an actress with just such a radiant glow, yet Alexander was about to go on vacation to Hawaii.
“She put herself on tape and it was a good audition, but I needed to be able to talk to her,” said Finell of casting her first feature “Sensitivity Training.” “We had to Skype from when she was in Hawaii and every couple of minutes her four-year-old kept interrupting her because they were on vacation. [Jill] would be talking to me about the script and then her daughter would be like ‘Mommy, mommy,” and she would have to say, ‘Mommy is busy, honey’ [in a way where she was] annoyed a little bit, but never letting her daughter see that she was frustrated with her, [still] being so sweet and kind. I could see those two layers and thought that dichotomy is actually what Caroline is going through in the story. It was funny, but I also really felt for her. It was just a real moment for her in her life.”
Finell didn’t only observe such moments before making “Sensitivity Training,” but she was able to capture them in the final product, a candy-colored comedy that’s as sweet as it looks, but has a center worth chewing on as Serena is trained in the fine art of being human after devoting all her energy to studying bacteria, on the verge of a major breakthrough when she’s suspended from her job. While the film flirts with a traditional opposites attract tale, Finell subverts expectations as neither Serena or Caroline are exactly who they might be pegged as by one another, with Alexander and Phillips making a fine comic duo, and taking advantage of those personal misunderstandings to lead to unexpected places.
Just before a warmly received premiere at the L.A. Film Fest, Finell spoke of making her feature debut and the very real science that went into it, as well as embracing genre conventions to upend them and learning where writing and directing intersect and where they should diverge.
It started as an idea I had a about three years ago now for a very misanthropic character who goes too far with a colleague and gets forced into sensitivity training with this bubbly, opposite personality type. After that initial genesis of the idea, I learned about the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, who gives these amazing, generous grants to filmmakers telling stories that deal with scientists or science in general. I knew it was a workplace comedy and it clicked for me that Serena, the main character, really should be a scientist because she has a very precise personality, the kind of person that corrects people’s grammar. I thought about it and was able to submit that for the grant competition and was able to become a finalist, where they paired me with a scientist that helped me with my research while I was writing the script. I won the grant and put it together from there.
How much did learning about the actual science help the story?
I learned a lot about it, and there were two elements of it that I was interested in. The microbiology itself supports some of the themes of the movie and what her character is going through. Her character is very guarded. She has a lot of defense mechanisms and in microbiology, they deal with vaccines and antibiotics, so there is a lot of protecting oneself from outside things. That, for me, could help symbolize and illustrate what was happening internally for her by coming up with this new species of bacteria she’s studying, so I did a lot of research to try to understand what that could look like.
Then something broader I did research on was just the interpersonal nature of working in a university lab. I visited a lot of labs at UCLA and scientists were really candid with me and let me observe them and bring in my actors to observe them because there is the whole social reality to that kind of work environment that I wasn’t familiar with. My whole art department also got to work with scientists and we had a lot of fun in the lab. We spent a good, full week there figuring out the whole choreography. Of course, there are certain liberties we took for the needs of the story, but the spirit of it is very accurate and I’m pretty proud of how we were able to collaborate with different scientists and learn a lot ourselves.
The film also really embraces certain romantic or buddy comedy conventions in order to upend them. Did you do your research there too?
Yeah, definitely. Whenever I’m making a film, I watch a lot of the classic examples of whatever the genre is that I’m working in and I watched a lot of buddy films and romantic comedies, which are two sides of the same genre. It’s a theme that I’ve returned to in different ways — putting two opposite personalities together, whether it’s platonic or — showing how people who may appear mismatched at first end up really needing each other at that moment in their lives. I made a short film, “Disaster of Preparedness,” a couple of years ago about a couple that’s been together for some time and they get stuck inside their apartment in New York during a hurricane and are forced to come to this turning point in their relationship. It’s very much an odd couple, [with] the very uptight character and the very laid-back character and the uptight character wants to know about the future and the laid-back character doesn’t want to talk about it. For a while, you probably wonder why are they together? Then things heighten and you see in a clinch, how they actually really work together in a very specific way. When I was making “Sensitivity Training,” I started to notice this is a recurring theme in my work — I can’t say exactly why, but it is an important element to many comedies — very strong characters [with] conflict often coming from people’s personal differences.
One of the things I loved in the film was the montage of hate. Was there a day dedicated to shooting those scenes where Serena was yelling at people?
That was a lot of fun and always a really key moment to me in the script. This is a good way to talk about writing versus directing because when I wrote it, it was all just one long monologue. When [Serena and Caroline] were sitting outside and Caroline asked her, “What do you hate?” It just continued from there. When I working with the [cinematographer] to get ready for a shoot, we started talking. We were like, “Do we keep it all there?”
As a director, I thought, [we could] do all of these single takes of little paragraphs of the speech. The idea is that she’s just going about her day very casually and it’s very easy and cathartic for her to just spew out, without pauses, all of these things that she hates. But what’s inside, between the cuts, is that time is passing and there’s a lot we’re not hearing, so by cutting from one location to the other, it actually makes it funnier than if we were to do it all at once. It implies that this is going on for hours and hours, completely uninterrupted while she goes about her work in the lab or drinks her coffee, so that was a lot of fun to think about, what should those little settings be and having it all end in that lower-energy setting, the break room. It’s one of the first times you see Caroline be a little bit annoyed, but of course, she’s still very kind, saying, “That’s funny, thank you” — that was a fun way to end it. That was really fun to think about, from the script, through production.
Yeah, it’s definitely different in a lot of ways. My process was more or less the same, it’s just that it was a lot more of it, in terms of just the volume of material that you’re preparing. In terms of how I work with my DP, production designer, costume designer, actors, that’s something I’ve developed throughout making shorts and was able to carry through to the feature. But you need a lot more resilience just to get through it and always be doing your best work the whole time.
Another interesting creative difference is that in a short, if it’s really well done, every moment and every single line is so important to the film whereas in terms of how a feature functions, there are scenes that are more important than others. Some are really about getting from one important beat in the story to another, but it’s not necessarily the most dramatically important scene. Especially in independent film, you have to think where am I going to spend most of my time? Where am I going to spend most of my coverage and which are the moments that we can do more economically and still function in a way that’s needed for the film? In some ways, it takes a little bit of the pressure off. That’s something I learned while I was shooting it and then in post, there were a couple of moments where I looked back at a certain shot or I realized that during the shoot, it feels like the whole movie is in that shot or scene. Later on when you’re looking, you’re like, okay, that shot lasts for about two seconds and then we’re on to the sixth one. That’s a nice thing going from short films to features.
What’s it like to premiere in Los Angeles?
I’m really thrilled to be premiering at the L.A. Film Festival because I love Film Independent. I was a Project Involve directing fellow in the past, so it feels like a homecoming. It’s an all-L.A. crew. We all came out of the UCLA directing program together or the photography program, and we had a lot of fun being out in L.A., shooting at a lot of quintessentially L.A. places. It’s really perfect for us to be here for our premiere.