“I have so much planned for us — conversation, art, melody, laughter, reflection, retrospection, drama, stakes — always stakes,” the indefatigable Sissy St. Clair (Sophie von Haselberg) says upon welcoming audiences to her Saturday Night TV Special in “Give Me Pity,” which surely you’ve sought out as it makes its premiere at the Rotterdam Film Festival this week, but feels as if you’ve stumbled upon it channel surfing at three in the morning. With St. Clair’s gold lamé gown bound to catch the eye, you won’t flip past as the entertainer will do anything to keep one tuned in, enduring countless costume changes, stabs at her dignity in answering invasive mailbag questions and the rigor required to roll around belting out “You’re a Grand Old Flag” at the top of her lungs with only the suspicion that an audience is applauding at home when she’s performing for only the skeleton crew around her on a cold soundstage.
Indeed, the stakes always seem as high as they must feel for St. Clair in Amanda Kramer’s wicked recreation of a late ‘70s variety hour when whether or not the world is watching, it’s evident how hard its star is working to have her voice break through in spite of the crippling self-doubt that tells her she needs to work even harder. Although a skeevy masked man (M. Diesel) can be occasionally seen lurking on the edge of the set, Kramer illuminates something far more insidious throughout “Give Me Pity” as one can start to see St. Clair sweat, chasing after acceptance and fame that she feels eludes her even while she’s obviously got a show with her name above the title. Sketches in which she may seem like she’s innocently poking fun at herself end up skewering both delusions she may have about what success looks like, but also a society that promotes unreachable standards while actively stymying certain segments of the population from ever seeing it, and as St. Clair tucks in remarks about friends baking her fat-free cookies as a child to take a hint or giving the entertaining answer before the honest one, she ends up exposing far more of herself than she’s even conscious of in the performance where she lays it all out on the line.
“Give Me Pity” is actually one of two features Kramer was able to pull off this past year that is premiering at Rotterdam this week, which just recently opened with “Please Baby Please,” which stars Harry Selling and Andrea Riseborough as a 1950s couple on the Lower East Side swept up in the national break from Eisenhower-era conformity and will screen a retrospective of her other work including her previous features “Paris Window” and “Ladyworld” and shorts “Bark,”“Requests,”“Sin Ultra” and “Intervene.” The festival may serve as a useful container for audiences to find her films, but they break boundaries in all other ways and recently, Kramer spoke about how she was able to take five days of filming with von Haselberg and turn it into something so expansive as “Give Me Pity,” breaking conventions both in style and substance along the way.
How did this come about?
It’s like when you have a weird fantasy in your mind and you don’t think anyone is ever going to help you make your strange, bizarre, nightmare dreams come true, and then they do. I had the idea to write a monologue film with dance and song, more like a variety show, and I know how esoteric and specific that is, so I never really assumed that it would move forward. I just started writing the monologues and letting it all spill out. Then when I had a script done, I gave it to [Rhianon Jones] an executive producer I know, just hoping she would take a read and she did. It was fast from there. I was not expecting her to be so engaged and come back with such thoughtful feedback, so as soon as she said she was in, I was like, “Well, I’m going to make this happen no matter what.”
Was the loose framework of a variety show something that was freeing when you might be able to do things you wouldn’t do in a traditional feature or even a short?
Yeah, that’s what I strive to do. There’s enough straightforward narrative out there and there’s the potential for so many different ways of seeing, viewing, imagining. I feel like the film is linear. I don’t feel like it’s experimental. I think that that would be rude to an experimental filmmaker. My story is about a woman and that’s very clear, and my visuals are clear, but I am experimenting in the form, and I think that filmmaking will benefit from more of that.
What was it like to find Sophie to play the lead?
When I wrote the film, I was imagining someone quite older, but I don’t know why. I thought I would find someone like Bebe Neuwirth or Patti LuPone, somebody who is a little bit more old school Broadway. Sophie and I have a mutual friend, and the idea came to me in a flash after this script was done, and right before I went to go speak to other actresses. And I thought, “Who knows if she’ll ever do it?” It’s such a random question, but she was the first and only person I sent the script to to act in it. She was enthusiastic and I was ecstatic. I was like, “Well, I don’t need to go to anybody else,” and then the film took on a new life when I envisioned her in the role.
Then she started essentially performing the show for me over FaceTime, because she’s in New York and I’m in Los Angeles and as she was doing it she would nail jokes differently [than I had envisioned]. She would see humor in different parts. She would see sadness in different parts. She would obviously add her own tone to everything, and the character was morphing in her own tone and voice as soon as she started to perform it. She would say, “Give me direction, let me know where I can change.” But I didn’t have much direction because she just seemed to embody it and then give it the length that it needed to have. I was just an audience member at that point enjoying myself.
There’s this great idea of something ugly lurking at the edges of the frame, actually personified with a masked man. How did that come in?
When I was a kid, I used to go with my parents quite often to see “The Phantom of the Opera,” and I always loved this idea of this lurking figure beneath the opera who had this disfigured face and this mask. It was romantic and sexual and sad and lonely and nostalgic, and it isn’t until you get older that you realize that that is just super eerie in a way that is a questionable. He’s essentially a deformed stalker who is trapped in the bowels of an old building. It’s much more demented when you look at it outside of the musical space, and I love that, so why not just be demented? And I think that vanity can breed a monster. I’m not the first person to think that, but with traditional body horror and stuff like what Cronenberg used to do with psychology can create actual physical manifestations of terror and horror, I’m really interested in manifesting a physical thing that has to do with your ego and the loss of your mind.
Was it actually a challenge to recreate this look specific to the late ’70s/early ’80s production values?
Yeah. That’s just a lot of research, a lot of study, I’m such a fan of old TV variety shows and specials. And my DP Patrick [Meade Jones] and his gaffer Quinton [Brudos-Sommers] are just geniuses with creating that lighting scape and helping to provide a mood of an era. That’s also has so much to do with the special effects that come later. But in general, if every department is on board and every department knows what you’re doing, you can get this seamless look. That’s about the brilliance of the artists that work together because I’m only one part of it. And the rest of them are providing hair costumes, makeup, lighting, prop, sets, and giving me the full picture of the era.
My costume designer Jamie [Ortega] was just like, bigger shoulder pads, more sequins, and everything crazy we could find we brought in for Sophie to try on, and [Giulio Carmassi and Bryan Scary] are pretty impressive composers and musicians just generally and this is their landscape where they work best — ‘70s and ‘80s Broadway musical meets disco. I just sent them a million different disco songs and diva numbers from the era and we came on a sound.
It looks like you had a blast in post-production too.
Oh yeah. The post process is definitely a space for another draft of the script. Once you have all of your footage, then it’s the perfect time to ask what the movie itself wants. Sometimes it wants a cross fade and sometimes it wants a crazy spiral coming out of it. And when you work with a great editor and great post supervisors who are doing sound and visual effects, everything can start to be manipulated so that you can take something that’s straightforward on the page and turn it into some saying way more surreal and abstract.
I’m not a visual effects person. I’m barely on the computer as it is. But you describe something that is almost ephemeral and you don’t know what they’re going to look like. You can imagine them, but you can’t quite imagine what they’re going to be, and as soon as we got to that layer, it was like watching a new film. It was like seeing things in it I had never seen before and it was like an elevation that I couldn’t have been happier with. That was a part of the process when the film really changed and cemented itself as what it is.
Was this actually your first time back in a studio since the pandemic started?
Yeah, I shot a feature that was on location in Montana, but this was my first studio set and being on a stage. It was great. Every film now is a miracle because it’s just so difficult to get through. But being on the stage was incredible because small crew, big room, everybody has a lot of space, we’re constantly tested and it was a thrill to be back.
What’s it like to have two films in Rotterdam along with a selection of your shorts? It must be amazing, but also a little bittersweet since it isn’t taking place in person.
It’s an honor, but also such a strange thing. I’m a fairly obscure artist and I make work with a small team of other artists, so to be given an honor like this is wild. Rotterdam is a very impressive place to show a film and if you are showing there you’re always showing amongst some of the best in the world. It’s not America-centric which I really appreciate, it feels global, so it just means that they see me as in league with peers that I admire. I’m speechless at how much I admire them. And I’m happy no matter what. We don’t need to be there. That’s the cherry. The film lives and it exists outside of any physical realm. That’s the joy of being alive now as we can still watch things and we can still enjoy imagination without having to physically be anywhere. So I’m happy.
“Give Me Pity” will screen virtually at the Rotterdam Film Festival beginning January 29th, available in the Netherlands. The full “Focus: Amanda Kramer” program is here.