When Kerem Sanga arrived at a bar in Chatsworth to shoot a pivotal scene in which his two leads kiss for the first time in “First Girl I Loved,” he was far from enchanted.
“It just seemed very normal and I thought this bar has to become a magical place where the lights change color and they’re about to kiss,” Sanga recalls. “I was worried how we were going to transform this place, but Ric [Diaz, the cinematographer] did a great job of lighting it, Susannah [Lowber, the production designer] did a great job dressing it and by the time we put the music over it, it just all came together.”
That has a way of happening on Sanga’s films – and in such a way that the writer/director himself usually has trouble explaining, but then again, that’s what makes them special. Just as Sanga took the story of his parents’ unexpected pregnancy when they just starting college to provide the launchpad for his previous comedy “The Young Kieslowski,” he drew on the inspiration of his family once more to write “First Girl I Loved” after his sister came out, yet the film isn’t about that, but instead imagining what came before. In spending time with Anne (“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” standout Dylan Gelula), a teen who knows who she is but has yet to figure out how to get what she wants, the film flips the script on most high school-set stories as her struggle to articulate her desires gets her into trouble, not a lack of verve (of which she has plenty), particularly when her longtime friend Clifton (Mateo Arias) begins to see her in a romantic light and she becomes attracted to Sasha (“Deadpool” star Brianna Hildebrand), a popular softball player who isn’t entirely comfortable with the way she’s perceived.
The way people look at one another is part of what’s so intriguing about “First Girl I Loved,” which cleverly is structured at first around an encounter between Anne and Clifton that begins quite playfully as they snag a bottle of $4 wine from a local liquor store and uncork it samurai style, only to grow more serious as they edge towards Anne’s bedroom, with the same event in the past being viewed differently every time when filtered through what you come to learn about each of the characters in the present. But what makes the film stick to the ribs is the compassion Sanga has for all of the characters on hand and an eagerness to understand them when they may not even understand why they behave the way they do just yet. It’s a beautiful film, not only in the aesthetic sense where an ethereal score from John Swihart and slightly hazy, subdued cinematography from Ricardo Diaz give way to vivid bursts of emotion from the trio played by Gelula, Arias and Hildebrand, who add all bring their own color, but in its genuine soulfulness.
After taking home a prize earlier at Sundance this year as being the Best of the NEXT section, “First Girl I Loved” recently debuted on VOD and digital and for the occasion, Sanga spoke about how he lets his curiosity lead him into the stories he tells and finding the structure of “First Girl I Loved” well after shooting, as well as how a community formed around the film.
You shrewdly build the film – or at least the first half of it – around this scene between Anne and Clifton where you see how differently they see the same incident, though you don’t suggest you’re aligning with one perspective or another. How did the idea to structure this come about?
I always wanted to tell the story in the emotional order [rather than chronological] – like when [Anne is] dealing with each part of that scene, you see the part of the scene that she was mentally dealing with before she’s dealing with it, and we thought the whole movie is jumping off that. We also wanted people to get into Clifton’s character earlier on and roll it out slowly instead of all at once – it was better to dole out [the scenes of them] hanging out, stealing the wine all the way through the bedroom. [Originally] I actually had it as one sequence and then we did a lot of rearranging in the editing room.
We definitely had the ideas [of seeing it through their different perspectives] in mind while we were shooting it, but by structuring it the way we did later [in the edit], we got a lot more critical of what points of view do we have here and when would it make sense to discover those points of view? It made sense to discover those points of view when Anne herself is discovering those points of view [and understanding them for herself], so if you want to go on the journey with both of those characters, you want to understand what’s going on in both of their minds. That includes Clifton as well. So you become a participant in the scene instead of somebody who’s just taking it all in passively and to me, that’s when a film really engages me – when I feel that I’m getting conflicting points of view.
Were you careful to give that kind of consideration to the entire cast?
Yes, in writing the script, I try to imagine it as each different person’s movie and make sure that nobody is acting to suit somebody else’s story. That’s what I really wanted to embrace [having] people act the way they would, the way you would define them as a person and [seeing] wherever that might lead – see where that goes. It was in the script, but the editorial process brought out all those different points of view more.
Since this deals with female perspective, and particularly in regards to sexual orientation, is there a point where you give yourself the permission to tell this story?
I almost don’t know how to answer that question because nobody cared what I was doing, so I was just doing this for my own fulfillment, and this might have some degree of notoriety now that the film has won Sundance, but at the inception, nobody was paying the slightest bit of attention to what I was doing. I was just writing it in a room and I could’ve just as easily kept this script on my computer and done nothing with it. At the point, I realized I could make this movie, it was too late to even ask the question, am I correct?
But to say I would answer that question, like anybody, you just have to try to be very sensitive as you would do with any character. Just try to put yourself in their position and try to understand them. If you’re really doing your job, you will think about all these things – race, class and gender – as just facets of their identity and when I had already had my artistic fulfillment from writing the script, my job just became seeing through what I imagined for all these characters.
She may have been an inspiration for me to start thinking about the whole thing when I really realized how much she and I had in common, but the overall appeal of this movie for me – the thing that kept me writing and the thing that kept me engaged from beginning to end – was the fascination that I felt with these people precisely because I did not know any of these people in high school. I didn’t have friends like them and I just didn’t feel connected myself to this story, so it just made me all the more fascinated to learn more and to try to be true to it.
How did you find Dylan? She feels like a real discovery as Anne.
She had coincidentally auditioned for “The Young Kielslowski” and we had remembered her tape, but in the interim, she went and got herself on the show “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and I felt she was someone who was really in control of what she was doing as a performer. That was very appealing to me, and our guesses about her were correct in that sense. She did a fantastic job. She’s really the identity of the movie.
The music also contributes so much to the feeling of the film – one of my favorite scenes in the film is where there’s an argument and the music obscures what they’re saying, but it’s as if that becomes the dialogue. How did you work with that?
The thing I don’t want to do with the music is underscore an emotion that’s already there or to bolster it. If what’s going on in the scene might seem sad, the last thing I would want is to put music that evokes sadness. I think what you want to do is put a counterpoint or another angle on what it is you’re watching so the cumulative effect is something that you couldn’t imagine without either the picture or the music. That’s why I like to [have the film and the music] not really coming together until later because you want to shoot it in a way where if you’re after a certain emotion, what you shoot and the music you write isn’t going to capture that emotion. It’s going to be how they work together, so you have to trust the back-half of the process.
John Swihart, the composer who wrote all the music, worked on my previous film, so I knew I could trust him and we spoke about what the score would feel like before we started shooting, so we were working from the same starting point and he was just writing for the emotion that we both were after. He went off and wrote a hundred pieces [with] all these different ideas and we listened to so much stuff he did. We found three of them we liked and built off of those three, and we were just very lucky to have somebody like that who I trusted his creative impulse and also someone who was so invested in the movie.
That seems like it was true of many of your collaborators, and of course, before shooting, you partnered with a lot of different groups like Out of the Closet. Did that give a different feeling to making the film?
It attracted people for different but related reasons. All of the crew had worked together on “The Young Kieslowski” and had a nice time doing it, so when you find that, you want to go back to that. And then it was attracting the actors for a variety of reasons, either [because] this was a role they weren’t generally offered or like you said, it was a story they felt was important to tell. [Because of] that combination, when we were filming, everybody was very close and seemed to like being there a lot, which has a huge impact on the movie. And the people who had the longest commitment to it were the producers and they were with it from right after I finished the script and they’re still with it, just because they believe in the movie. You can’t even measure that because when you’re making a low budget film, the biggest capital you have is people’s commitment and everybody brought that.
At one point, Jennifer [Prediger], one of the actors, pulled me aside and said, “You’re very lucky that you have all of these people working towards the same goal.” It was like I had this idea for a script and you know those car racing games where you ride over that little boost, and then it boosts the car? I felt like I was riding over this mile-long boost with people propping me up with their ideas and their passion. It’s one of the most fulfilling processes I’ve ever gone through.
What’s it been like traveling with the film?
It’s great. What probably took me the most by surprise is that I’m thinking of [this film] as a story and a film and I certainly believe in it, but then I go to a few screenings and there’s certain people in the audience usually younger women who — sometimes gay, sometimes straight — just have an overwhelming emotional response to it. They’ll tell me how important this movie is to them personally and I didn’t expect that. When I hear it, it somehow feels more important to me than this cinematic/artistic fulfillment. Somebody is now carrying it and it means something dear to them. It’s one of the more fulfilling ends that you can have to making a film is to know you really connected with somebody.