Fantasia Fest 2021 Interview: Alexandra Pechman on the Rules of “Thumb”

When Alexandra Pechman and Kate Adams went out looking for a dress that the latter would wear in “Thumb,” they were looking for a very particular kind of red.

“I feel like you can sometimes tell the kind of horror you’re in by the color of the blood, and I felt like finding the color of her dress would be really important for establishing our red,” said Pechman, who may not have had all the time in the world to look for the perfect outfit in prep for her ferocious short, yet wasn’t about to compromise on the color. “We’re giallo-tinged. It’s not a tomato red, and it was pretty amazing because Kate and I went sourcing for a red dress and it’s a deep, arty, crimson red that’s still not totally realistic, but may be a little closer than a splat red.”

It’s one small detail of many that makes all the difference in the world in “Thumb,” the directorial debut of Pechman, who brought an exacting eye from her time spent covering the art world as a journalist. The cutthroat industry clearly prepared her well in other ways as she’s begun bringing horror stories to the screen, as she follows up her work as a screenwriter on the Blumhouse anthology series “Into the Dark” (“Tenacles”) with this terrifying turn behind the camera centered on the daughter of a famous performance artist Leigh Enders who has recently passed. Named after one of her mother’s most noted pieces, Thumb (Adams) faces the grim task of packing up her things, made all the more arduous by the surprise arrival of one of the artist’s oldest confidants Red (DeMorge Brown), who believes he’s entitled to one of her works. As Thumb notes, performance art isn’t something that can be possessed, only recreated at best and even before she considers handing over what she has, the two engage in a delicate dance around the crates that do exist of Enders’s work, captured in all its swirling glory by cinematographer Julia Swain, debating what her true intentions were.

Regardless of what conclusion Thumb and Red arrive at, Pechman honors the wishes of the deceased by leaving a last impression, dazzling the eye as blood threatens to be spilled all over Enders’ stark white modern abode as tensions reach a boiling point. On the eve of the film’s premiere at Fantasia Fest, Pechman spoke about how a college reunion of sorts gave way to this devilish delight, staying creative during the pandemic and elegantly choreographing madness.

How did this come about?

I was an art journalist for a long time and I used to talk to a lot of artists and curators and find out all kinds of crazy stories. When I was starting to think about what kinds of films I might want to make as a director, the answer seemed clear that I had all this experience in a really interesting world that I think really lends itself very well to horror. I was researching another script when someone told me this story about how she had been trying to include this long dead artist/architect’s work in a show, but her sister controlled her archive. This is actually a not infrequent thing in the art world where someone will get a hold of somebody’s archive, whether they buy it or they’re related to the person and restrict it, which I’ve always just thought is really fascinating as a creator myself — [how] your personal relationships with people could one day prevent you from having a legacy. Kate [Adams] and I were really fascinated with that idea and started talking about what if it was a mother/daughter relationship. That felt like really rich territory to explore and also really scary.

I noticed the COVID-19 compliance officer in the credits and it seems like exactly the kind of contained story you could make safely during a pandemic. Did this idea come to mind before or was it inspired by the limitations of this time?

Kate and I had talked about it before COVID, but I wrote a movie that shot during COVID, so that encouraged me to make it happen. I think a lot of us thought to ourselves it’s now or never and we had this window where the numbers were down in L.A. Also, thankfully, we only have two actors and it’s only in one location, so it felt like the circumstances were such that we could try to pull it off.

It sounds like Kate was onboard to star from the start, but how did you find DeMorge Brown, your other lead actor?

Kate and I have known each other since we were in college and had been working around each other in the industry, but had never done anything together before, so we really wanted to do that. And I had seen DeMorge in a short called “I Was There Too” and was really compelled by his performance and met him through a mutual friend. He’s a really funny actor, but also a really great dramatic actor and he knew so much about the art world, [especially] about performance art and artists and had really lived in that world in the past, so it was pretty clear that we had to do it with DeMorge.

So much of their relationship is expressed in their movement around the room – what was it like laying the foundation for that?

We did a lot of planning and luckily, we had a really great DP, Julia Swain, and a really awesome steadicam operator, James Marin and we were able to rehearse with the actors, [all] going into this balletic dance that actors are doing. You have put in the work to build something really structured — that’s what gives you the freedom to change it when it really needs to change, [and there was] just the chemistry between DeMorge and Kate and them really getting to hang out and getting to know each other finding that together during the shoot, you can’t plan for that, which is a great thing to happen.

[We had] just a lot of communication between all the different departments and Kyle Leeser, [our production designer] sourced our amazing crates, which actually belonged to artists – that giant crate that [Kate is] carving on at the beginning had just come back from Tate Modern. So it was just setting yourself up for success where I knew from working in the art world, there’s tons of different crates and I know people who work at galleries, so I could get some crates that people don’t want anymore or that they’ll lend to us. That was what happened.

You really create an artist’s life with the remnants around the house of Leigh Enders’ work. Was that fun to figure out?

It was so fun. Again, Kyle comes from a family of artists and gallerists himself, so he really understood what that world would look like. I knew I wanted it to feel really inspired by places like the Judd Foundation, and that very sunkissed, golden brown style of 1970s California/Topanga Canyon vibe. One of the things that bothers me the most when I see movies about the art world is when the fake art is trite or jokey and I really wanted to spend a lot of time conceptualizing what her art was and how her house and her advertisements and her shows might lend themselves to being scary.

The rhythm of this is really great, and with the steadicam, are you locked into a certain pace from filming or is there leeway you have in the edit?

I had a pretty strong idea in my mind of the pacing, particularly the ending where things start to go really fast, but we have a three-and-a-half-minute long steadicam shot and that scene was really interesting to shoot where we actually got it a lot earlier than the amount of takes that we did, so you wonder, “Wait, what if I want it to be a little faster and then I don’t have the faster version?” But the initial instinct was right and it was very cool to realize in the edit that a lot of the pacing that I’d imagined, and also having a great DP and actors and everyone coming together working really hard, it didn’t change that much from the original idea.

What was it like to put music on this?

So much fun and I’ve actually known Zach Robinson, who did the music since college — me, him and Kate all met our first week of school and now we made something together, which is really exciting. He and I talked about having a motif, like a Leigh Enders sound and there are certain little sounds that we are peppering throughout to indicate different kinds of ghostly occurrences that are happening. Zach and I talked about it being strings, and he knew of Ro Rowan, a really awesome cellist, and he sent me some stuff that they did and I just [thought], “Oh my God, this is amazing,” so it just all came together.

It came together wonderfully and as your first film that you’ve directed, this has got to be pretty exciting. Was it what you thought it would be like?

Yeah, I’ve written things that were produced and have been on set, so I knew what to expect in a lot of ways, but discovering things about myself and my style, whether that be in prep or on post, has been really fulfilling. I’ve actually already directed another short in March — a little one-day shoot in my bedroom that I’m really excited to finish, and I would love to direct a feature one day, so I definitely caught the bug.

“Thumb” will screen at Fantasia Fest as part of the Small Gauge Trauma shorts program virtually on August 10th beginning at 9:30 pm and August 12th beginning at 9 am.