It is fitting that Bridey Elliott’s directorial debut “Affections” begins in mid-conversation as if this isn’t the start of something, but rather catching on to something already moving full speed ahead, with Elliott’s character (as seen above) recounting a rather traumatic experience she had at a 3rd grade spelling bee, all but paralyzed by having to decide whether her teacher asked her to spell “tax” or “tacks.” The young woman in the short film may feel lost, caught in a relationship that leaves her wondering if the grass might be greener elsewhere – even in the arms of a bum she encounters on the street – but Elliott feels right at home, confidently directing herself as a woman unsure about everything.
Elliott has been behind the camera before, making videos for the web showcasing her various comic creations, but following her turn in the unexpectedly poignant “Fort Tilden” last year, in which she played a hipster who learned she needed to grow up, “Affections” taps into a similarly circumspect vein for a fully realized character study. Underlined by a mischievous string score from Kristen Reilly, the film is punctuated with Elliott’s knack for uncomfortable humor, turning the tables on the transient who comes on to her and harassing a poor old man in her neighborhood (Bud Cort), all in a futile effort to feel less alone. It’s a beautifully bittersweet film, and before its debut this evening as part of the Shorts Program 2 at the Sundance Film Festival, Elliott spoke of the frenzied 48-hour production it was born out of, the film’s initial inspirations, and making her first official film as a director. [Note: The short can be watched below.]
I moved to Los Angeles about a year ago now and it was the quintessential LA story of “I’m going to make it in LA!” Then it was just this stretch of months where nothing was happening for me. I was wanting to direct something and this came out of that kind of lonely state that I was in at that point. I’m so used to making small things through the internet like comedy videos, but I wanted to make something a little bigger. I told my friend [Sarah Winshall], who produced it with me, about it and she was on board right away. It was almost out of necessity, like, “I need to make something. I want to make something.”
This actually started as more of like a comedy where my boyfriend cheating on me with an elderly lady next door, and I am cheating on him with this homeless man down the block. But a tendency of mine is [towards stories about] someone searching for something they need in other people that they really have to give themselves whether it is acceptance or validation of some kind. But I always got a kick out of the idea of stalking a cat-caller. That would be my revenge if I could do it, so it came out of this idea of going after a strange person for something you can’t find anywhere. It has to come from within.
One of the things that I really loved about this, and it’s right off the bat, is how you’ll enter a scene as it’s already happening, which gives it a certain energy. When we meet your character, she’s halfway through a story about an embarrassing childhood memory, for instance…
Yeah, that’s really just a shade of my personality. This character is an over-sharer. She really says these deep-seated truths about herself in little spurts to people that really don’t care, or it’s not really appropriate for them to hear about it, and I feel like I do that [personally] as a way to get comfortable with someone — to tell them a secret about myself, whether they’re into hearing about it or not. But I also wanted to create a rhythm because it is a short film — there’s the montages of her life with her boyfriend and how their mornings work, too — and I wanted it to feel self-contained where you weren’t left feeling like you wanted to hear the end of a conversation or that a scene felt like it should be longer. I just wanted to really get to whatever was important in that particular scene.
In the [scene with the] hairdresser, she’s obviously talking about her boyfriend, and then with the homeless man, there’s that awkwardness of them [together] — she’s not really aware of it, but she can’t really find common ground with him. So it was a choice just in terms of the script. I didn’t write the script thinking this is a short film. I wrote it as maybe a little play or just something for myself.
Coming from a performing background, was the editing process, particularly in terms of how you could visually construct joke, something interesting to work with?
My whole thing was to really get across that there was no self-awareness of jokes. I wanted it to feel almost deadpan in that she’s not aware that she’s acting crazy or saying inappropriate things. In terms of the style, I didn’t really care about landing a joke. If the joke didn’t land, I felt that was all the better because that’s just how the character is naturally, so I wasn’t too worried about whether it came off funny. It was more just her being true.
Because it is a short, it’s particularly potent how you use the character’s hair as a visual way to show her emotions. How did that come about?
The seed of it [was that] I actually did have an experience where I got a haircut right after the death of a friend and it was definitely a grief haircut to change myself and start a new day. But I hated the haircut. So I thought [this character]’s trying to transform. She’s trying to not be herself. And I think getting a haircut is, for a lot of people, therapeutic, but It’s just when that goes wrong, it doesn’t lead to any sort of therapy, so I grew out the most generic looking girl haircut for this and flipped it.
You also appear to have spent a significant portion of the shoot with makeup smeared across your face for one punchline. Did you actually have to wear it for a full day?
It was actually a 48-hour shoot, so the first day I had it on my face for part of the day, and then the second day, it came off and we had to match it, so it wasn’t on there the entire day, but definitely a good amount, so much so that I forgot about it.
Wow. 48 hours. Was that a crazy shooting schedule?
It was, but at the same time, all the actors are my friends and I’m very close with my producer and the DP [Michael Wilson], so there wasn’t any stress that wasn’t just about getting it done, and in fact, I think it added to the performances — this rushed, awkward [feel] because it’s like no one wanted to be in a scene with my character for too long because I would just devour them with my problems. But yeah, it was crazy.
Bud Cort has a nice, small cameo as one of those people scared off by your character, looking every bit as startled as he once was in “Harold and Maude.” How did he wind up in that role?
I was actually a production assistant a few years ago on a TV show and Bud was a guest star on it. I was the one who would lead him to set and take care of him for the day and we hit it off. He is so sweet to me and has been for the past five years. He never misses my birthday or Christmas, you know. He sends me a card and he’s just been like Uncle Bud in Hollywood. So I asked him if he wanted to do this, and he was all for it. He is just the sweetest man and has the best stories.
The score was also quite wonderful and created a great rhythm for the film. How did that come into the mix?
That was my friend Kristen Reilly, who is an amazing musician. I had in mind a ‘60s Vashti Bunyan or Margo Guyran sort of score with twinkly, throwbacky-type music. When I told Kristen, she immediately sent us just one thing and we were like, “Okay. Yeah, this is perfect.” It just captured the mood completely and I feel it is a huge part of the film. You see how the music mirrors the psyche unraveling of this character and I love that.
Was directing a movie what you thought it would be?
It was so satisfying, but it was such a whirlwind. There were times where we were shooting where I was also putting on makeup and we’re going through it really fast, so it felt like I was directing, but I was also really trusting of the cast and the crew. The only sign I had that this was going well was that I felt emotions during the scenes, and I think a lot of people did. We were working with a great group of people, so while it was a directorial debut, I just felt like my involvement was to be the leader, but we were all kind of leading since it was an experiment and we were all doing our part.
“Affections” will show at the Sundance Film Festival as part of the Shorts Program 2, playing on January 22nd at 6:30 pm at the Redstone Cinema 1, January 23rd at noon at the Broadway Centre Cinema 6, January 25th at 11:30 am at the Prospector Square Theatre, and January 28th at noon at the Temple Theatre.