The thought to become a filmmaker kinda snuck up on Ben Petrie. He was in high school, unaware that he had been staying longer and longer after school to work on projects for class.
“Every single time you get assigned a school project, you try and figure out how can I make a video instead of a Bristol Board presentation,” said Petrie, who had become accustomed to sticking around until 6:30 pm, editing by himself well after others had gone home. “I saw movies every week with my mom, but actually making them didn’t come about from making films, but [instead making these] silly school projects/videos about nematodes and just trying to pump in as much cinematic integrity as I could into them, eventually realizing, ‘Oh God, I think this is what I really want to do.’”
Naturally, the idea for his breakthrough film, “Her Friend Adam,” crept up on him in a similar fashion. The short, which premiered at Sundance earlier this year before playing dates at SXSW, Seattle and Cannes, among others, began life as a funny notion for a sketch stemming from a bout of insecurity Petrie suffered when his girlfriend, the actress Grace Glowicki, was having a conversation with a friend and he was hit with an inexplicable surge of jealousy because of the intimacy they had with each other. Yet it wasn’t until Petrie was standing in a dollar store in his native Toronto a couple weeks later, well after his feelings had subsided, that Taylor Swift’s kiss off to resentful exes “Blank Space” crawled into his ear and dramatically changed things, in every way.
“I was totally possessed by this song and I ran right home, turned on my iPhone voice recorder and just started improvising aloud in my room about a guy who’s really jealous about his girlfriend’s friendship with her gay best friend,” says Petrie. “It was like an exorcism of all this jealousy that I guess I still hadn’t quite fully processed in my subconscious that all came out in one big three-hour spat. All of a sudden, there was a script [for the short].”
While it came together quickly, “Her Friend Adam” isn’t easily forgotten, enlisting Glowicki and Petrie to inhabit similar roles as the ones they filled in real life but becoming something considerably more far-reaching. In playing the restless artist Liv and the green-eyed Robert, Glowicki and Petrie dance delicately — at first — around Robert’s feelings of jealousy towards Liv’s platonic pal, but as those emotions turn into demonstrations of distrust, the film explores the danger of thinking a partner is a possession. This is particularly true with as fierce a performance as Glowicki delivers as Liv, a dizzying force of nature that turns from warm free spirit to a ferocious hurricane when Robert suggests she and Adam (Andrew Chown) might be getting too close.
With the film debuting this week on Vimeo, available to watch now right below, Petrie spoke about how the personal and professional intertwined for “Her Friend Adam,” harnessing the energy of both his own creativity and Glowicki’s riveting turn as Liv and the film’s even wilder ride on the festival circuit.
When the situation comes from personal experience and Grace is your partner on screen and off, what’s it like to hand that script over?
There definitely was a little quiver of trepidation, but the characters in the film, as much as they are informed by Grace and I, are also so different than we are. I think Grace had a couple moments of like, “Where is this one coming from?” But pretty quickly, it’s separate enough that we were able to launch into it as a piece divorced from our own relationship.
Did you always know you’d be acting in it yourself?
I didn’t. I pictured a good friend of mine playing the lead, but then because the script came about through me verbalizing it in my room, all the words my character spoke were ripped so directly from my own vocabulary that it became very difficult to plug somebody else into the role. Once the script was written, I showed it to a friend of mine and he said, “Well, this is exactly the way you speak, so you have to play this role,” so it was a happy accident I got the chance to do that.
One of the things that’s very clever in the set-up is that almost immediately, Grace’s character Liv graphically admits to having some stomach problems earlier in the day after which your character Robert immediately goes to kiss her, as if you’re going to be accepting of her no matter what before the conflict sets in. Was that something you thought pretty early?
Whenever I think about the structure of the film, I always wish I could take more credit for constructing that cleverly, but it all came about just very organically from this improvisation session where I was just feeling out what was going to happen next. That [scene] came about not because I thought it would say something revealing about their partnership, but because when I was trying to embody the headspace that I thought this character was in — he would move forward to kiss her because he didn’t know exactly what else to do and he was just trying to make contact with her. I didn’t design it so much as one moment informing what would happen much later [but rather] this moment happens and then that causes a reaction, emotional beat by beat.
Does the final film actually resemble what you initially came up with from improvising it?
The film is pretty much the script verbatim. We really obsessed over all of the words and dialogue to get them exactly as they were on the page, so the beats are all right from the script. What we did play with quite a lot on set was how we delivered each of those lines. We tried not to go into each of the scenes with too many preconceptions of saying this line this way or that way, so the way we’re delivering any given line would be ridiculously different from each other, so even though the movie is verbatim to the script, it felt like I was editing an improvised movie because we just let ourselves be really free about how we approached each of the lines. Every take, we started fresh.
How long would you let takes run? Would you run through the entire script in shooting it or did you shoot this in segments?
It’s closer to the former. We did do a lot of long, locked takes, but the film was divided into quarters, so we would do the first quarter of the film all at a wide [scope] 10 times and then in closeups five or six times each, then move onto the next quarter. We were doing takes that were a good four or five minutes long for each shot because doing it in briefer stints, when you’re trying to get a shot of a couple of lines, it’s harder to allow yourself the freedom to say a line with a new kind of spontaneity and then have the other person respond to that spontaneously, so doing long takes of the scene gave us that freedom to be able to really respond anew to what the other [actor] was doing in a way that [we could capture a] rise in tension or awkwardness naturally and organically.
You’ve said the climax of the film, in any definition of the term given that Grace simulates an orgasm, changed how you decided to shoot this. How so?
Grace and I rehearsed really heavily for the film. We probably did 10 rehearsal sessions in an actual rehearsal space and close to when we were going to shoot the movie, we rehearsed the orgasm scene for the first time. It was always supposed to be the most intense part of the film, but Grace just brought a vulnerability and an emotional realism to that scene that I could not have anticipated and seeing that, it became quickly apparent that shooting the film as we had planned to, which was going to be a Woody Allen/Gordon Willis-static-wide elegant [style], it was going to be unbearable to watch. It was going to be cruel to her character to have her go through that from such a detached perspective of a static tripod shot and to view that level of vulnerability [from a perspective] that feels objective and detached, so it became very quickly clear that we needed to go in there and be in that scene with her. Once we changed that, we reworked the visual treatment of the film backwards just to try and make it so that by the time we got to that scene, her character had the support she deserved at that point of the film for that scene to really fly.
How did you find the apartment to shoot this in?
We did a lot of hunting down for the right location. The whole thing takes place in one apartment and [generally] that’s not a very visually exciting place to stay for 16 minutes, so we wanted to get a place that was as evocative of the vibe we wanted to create as we possibly could. We spent a lot of time on Craigslist trying to find the right apartment to no avail and eventually, I ended up walking through the streets of Toronto with the film’s producer Kristy Neville, just posting flyers on people’s doors, saying “Hey, we’re shooting a film. We’ll put you up in an AirBNB for 10 days if we can shoot in your apartment. Can we come and check it out?” So many people gave us a call and all of the places that we saw were so much better than what we were finding on the Internet. As soon as we saw [the location in the film], it was the one. We dressed it and Grace spent a couple of nights there before we started shooting, so it could really feel like her place.
She’s credited with doing the paintings on the wall.
Yeah, all of the paintings other than the Minnie Mouse painting she did herself in that space. It was so important we could really make it feel like her studio because when Robert goes over to her place at the beginning of the film, it feels like he’s walking into her nest. Setting up that dynamic by having her really acclimate to that place and have it feel like her territory that he’s trying to ingratiate himself into was really important to us.
There’s a great moment where your character Robert gingerly walks up to Liv’s phone, sitting on top of a record player, after she leaves the room, with a great mischievous track “Spinning Out” by Switches playing in the background as if it’s a devil on your shoulder telling you to read what’s on it. How did that song choice come about?
The scene itself was written originally in a more utilitarian way, and the song I originally had in there was Patti Smith’s “Set Me Free” [because] I was just listening to some Patti Smith one day and this song came on and I just started to imagine the scene where I go on to her phone — as soon as I heard the song, it just delivered the sequence right to my brain. Then after Sundance, when I found out we were going to go on the Shorts tour that Sundance does, we had to get rights to all of the music and we didn’t have the rights to that song, so we spent so long trying to find a song that would be a good fit. There’s a great music supervision company in Toronto called The Music Supergroup and after a long time, they found us the tune that’s in the film now. It became this really terrifying thing [to think] oh my God, are we going to be able to swap out the song without fucking the movie? But thankfully, those guys found a good track.
Since this one has really taken off, did this feel different in making it than any of your previous shorts?
We were so shocked that it got into Sundance, just because that’s beyond what you expect could happen, so in retrospect, it’s hard to really even remember what it felt like doing it. I wish I could go back and trace what the hell did we do right? Looking back, it feels like we were drunk the whole time and we got a really great stroke of good luck. It didn’t really feel that much different from other filmmaking processes that we had in the past, so it’s funny trying to grapple with what combination of buttons did we hit differently.