Brandon Dermer on Reconsidering an Alien Encounter in “I’m Totally Fine”

Vanessa (Jillian Bell) is going through a lot already in “I’m Totally Fine” when Sandra (Karen Maruyama), the party planner tasked with throwing a celebration in honor of the launch of the organic soda line she’s created with her friend Jennifer (Natalie Morales), shows up at the mansion to ask for a final sign-off on the bill for the big night as finishing touches are being applied. Not much at the shindig is now of use to Vanessa, who tries her best to cancel at the last minute when she knows that Jennifer won’t be showing up, having tragically passed away only hours before, but a refund is just as out of reach when cupcakes and balloons cannot be returned and only the champagne would seem to be helpful in drowning away her sorrow. “I bet it’d be fun if you threw yourself a party,” Sandra gently counters when Vanessa comes up against her ironclad “no cancellation” policy, something that the would-be entrepreneur is loathe to find out.

However, it’s an idea worth exploring as Vanessa finds out when director Brandon Dermer and company were confronted with a similar situation, pulling themselves out of the depths of despair during the pandemic by renting a house and making a movie. In spite of the death at the heart of its premise, “I’m Totally Fine” becomes a bittersweet comedy, taking off once Jennifer does arrive at the rented manse, or at least something resembling her. Dermer and writer Alisha Ketry come up with a cunning devil’s bargain for Vanessa, who is allowed to have two more days with her best friend if only she’ll submit to being studied by the alien that’s taken over her corporeal form, maintaining some memories from the body it’s inhabited but lacking in any previous social graces. One might expect awkwardness to ensue as the two try to converse when they aren’t of the same planet, but the film posits a more uncomfortable truth that as close as Vanessa and Jennifer once were, they couldn’t possibly know each other as intimately as they thought, with Vanessa holding onto ideas about her friend that prevented her from seeing her evolve.

Still, as Vanessa is implored to talk about what it’s like to be human, she’s reminded of what that feeling is like herself when everything in her life seems so overwhelming and it seems fitting that summoning small memories become the building blocks to something far larger when that seems to be what Dermer himself is doing with the single-location production, letting the details of the lives his characters have lived fill the rooms. With “I’m Totally Fine” now being released in a limited theatrical run and on digital, the director spoke about how he conspired with longtime friend and “Workaholics” mastermind Kyle Newacheck to get something off the ground at a time when it felt like movies couldn’t be made, parlaying his experience in music videos to get a crucial track for the film and balancing the tricky tonal dynamics at play with such versatile actors as Bell and Morales.

How’d this crazy thing come about?

This came about in the midst of 2020. Life is uncertain as is, and 2020 was the most uncertain. It really brought my anxieties and stresses to the forefront and I really had to look at them and really tackle them head-on. I thought about things that were going on in my life and my friends’ lives, all these things that we had planned for 2020, personally and professionally and what if the rug was taken out from under us. I realized that the moment I let go of the control and accept that I had no control, I was really able to be present and enjoy life again, so I really wanted to explore that feeling and I thought what better way than through an alien. [laughs] I approached Alisha Kerry, a writer I’ve known for years who’s super-talented and we started looking at our lives and our own personal relationships and friendships.

I’ve loved her work because it’s always deep heart with deep, deep huge absurdity and a lot of these stories in there, like the Papa Roach story, all of these are things that have happened to us in our real lives and we looked at it where you think you have control, you think you know everything, but really we’re just all figuring it out and the more present you can be, the more you can enjoy it. So as we started cracking open the story and looking at what it is like to experience grief, we started unlocking all these new moments within our characters.

I saw a lot of Newachecks as executive producers as well as everyone above the line in the crew – were you able to green light yourself instead of taking this out to financiers?

Really, Kyle produced this film. This is a Newacheck production. Ketry and I were working on the idea, and Kyle is an old friend of mine. I saw that he directed a commercial over Zoom and I was about to direct my first COVID commercial, so I asked if we could get on Zoom and just have a conversation and we’re talking about what we’re working on and I sort of pitch him this concept of wanting to explore control and giving up control through this absurdist device. He was like, “I’m in, I want to make this. I want to make something truly independent. Let’s go make something truly independent.”

How do you get your two fabulous leads?

Alisha and I were thinking Jillian Bell and when we spoke to Kyle, it was like, “I swear we’ve been thinking Jillian Bell, but I know you guys have a relationship.” I’ve been dying to work with Jillian and Alisha’s a huge fan. We shared the script with her and it just completely resonated with her own experiences of loss and dealing with anxiety and stress and we said to her, who else have you been interested in working with and she said, “Natalie Morales.” And Alisha and I’d also been wanting to work with Natalie and Kyle has [too], so it was very kismet in this sense. Everything came together in a very kismet, organic way.

The other star of the film becomes the house. Was that location in mind during the writing process?

I knew I wanted it to be a big, luxurious home because this was supposed to be a party to celebrate this monumental occasion between her and her best friend, this thing that they’ve planned for for years, so I wanted to represent that and also the isolation of how she’s [now] there alone. Everything that she’s planned for has changed. prior to finding these specific homes, I knew I wanted it to take place in a home. At the time, my fiancee actually was working for this company called Avant Stay that does luxury rental homes, and I said, “Hey, I would love to check out some homes” and we went to Temecula, we saw that home.

I was also really inspired by the film “The One I Love” and how they utilized that [single] location. They shot every part of that house and really utilized it, so we wrote the film in the beginning in an evergreen home scenario and then when we found the house, I did these very long walkthroughs where I would drive out to Temecula, walkthrough with my phone, shoot every single angle, come back, send them to Alisha to rework the script. We didn’t want to change the context of the scene, but also maybe we leaned into some of the things that the home had to offer. It was incredible and we ended up renting three homes from them and we lived and shot everything in Temecula in 10 days.

Given that it’s two actors in a location, are you more or less able to shoot this in sequence so there’s a build?

Yeah, we shot a majority of it in sequence and some of it unfortunately we weren’t able to, but a lot of it we were. We made a map of the emotional arc between the two – when they were close and when they were apart. To Alisha’s credit, she really did the tightrope act in the scripting of making sure that you were laughing when you were supposed to laugh, you were feeling when you were supposed to feel in those moments when they were getting really vulnerable and it’s how maybe we all cope with it by telling a joke. And Alisha was on set with us every single day and we were all learning so much every day through the performances because tackling the idea of a non-emotive alien that starts to pick up on human cues and emotion and experiences her own emotion was a very interesting task to track. Natalie is reacting off Jillian and Jillian is reacting off Natalie and we’re learning these nuances, so we were constantly improv-ing and reworking the script. We filmed the script and then we would tweak and adjust, but it was extremely collaborative. Everybody was there all day every day and Natalie and Jillian were there as so much more than actors. They were executive producers and in the truest sense involved in the creative.

Natalie seems to have a particularly risky role when she’s got to have that otherworldly voice. What was that like to work with?

We had a lot of conversations prior to filming, and we talked about how the alien in another movie could just be the gimmick, but if we could have people come in and think the alien is going to be one thing and then show that it becomes this other thing, we could really win. I’m also just a huge fan of genre films, like I love Jeff Bridges in “Starman,” and I think when you commit to an absurd device like that so much, but you add humanity, it really works and [in this film] it you care for her journey as much as you care for Vanessa’s, that’s a win, so [Natalie] committing to the alien and letting that evolve, she did an incredible job.

When Harvey Guillen comes to the set, is he as much a jolt of energy as he comes across on screen as a latecomer to the party?

He was a shot in the arm because the majority of the film was the two actors and we are filming in this house and not leaving this location, and to bring someone in [during the pandemic] it’s a whole thing – testing, testing, shoot and get them out – and Harvey, yes, was this bolt of energy, so funny and we talked about the depth of the film and what it meant, but also explore it through comedy. We wanted you to laugh and cry and he totally got that. He was there to make us laugh.

And you alluded to Papa Roach earlier, which I wouldn’t want to spoil as far as the story’s concerned, but “Last Resort” might not be an easy get for a film on this scale. What was it like to license?

Music is a huge part of my life and I grew up playing in not-so-good bands in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. I’d like to say I’m a failed musician-turned-director — I’ve been a music video director for over 10 years — and when I was thinking of songs and artists that were very impactful when I was in the 7th and 8th and 9th grade with my best friends who I’m still friends with to this day, Papa Roach came to mind. I was actually able to mine this photo of me, [Jacoby Shaddix] the lead singer of Papa Roach and my two best friends outside the Metro in Chicago, so I was able to get a hold of their manager Ian, who’s actually a friend I met 12 years ago. I wrote this letter to the band and got it to them via Ian, just explaining the importance of the song, the importance in the 8th grade of meeting the band and how some of my friends weren’t able to attend the concert and meet them and how they felt and I included this photo. I just really talked about the personal connection and they were onboard.

There’s a really sweet cover version that plays over the credits as well. How did that come about?

Kyle [Newacheck] had that idea and he went to a producer buddy of his who said, “I work with this incredible artist Emma Zander.” They concocted this beautiful cover, which will be on Spotify [soon] and we’re also releasing a music video for it as well.

What’s it like to have a feature under your belt?

I’m just thankful every single day. I’ve had movies set up at places prior to this that just fall apart. In another life, I was an assistant to a producer/manager and saw projects go all the way up to almost get greenlit and fall apart or get shelved. The fact that we were able to pull this off in a pandemic and tell a story that we wanted to tell and that it’s going to be coming out, I’m over the moon grateful.

“I’m Totally Fine” will open on November 4th in Los Angeles at the NoHo 7 and in New York at the Village East and will be available on digital and on demand.

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