Sundance 2020 Interview: Bridget Moloney on Building Something Special with “Blocks”

Bridget Moloney had just gotten back from a camping trip with four other families when the call came from Sundance that her short “Blocks” had gotten into the festival. She was unable to answer the phone, preparing a much needed bath for her kids.

“So I called them back and there was a lot of shouting,” says Moloney, who had to save her own screams of happiness until her children’s were calmed down. “[My son] needed help on the potty, so it was also all very on brand for me when I found out we got into Sundance. I was like, ‘Hold on one second, my life is changing. Hold on. Hold on.'”

The writer/director could only dare dream of this moment when first conceiving “Blocks,” but in fact, having reality intrude on it couldn’t be any more appropriate as the first step for the comedy about Ashleigh (Claire Coffee), a harried mom who struggles to carve out space for herself as her two young children (George and Phoebe Sinclair) have come to dominate her days, to the point she begins to throw up building blocks. While no one, including her well-meaning husband Eric (Mark Webber), can help with a cure for this unique form of nausea, Moloney’s refreshing short sees Ashleigh find her happy place through her ingenuity and considerable strength of will and although “Blocks” is obviously inspired by personal experience, it is these qualities that likely most accurately reflect the filmmaker, who ably balances the film’s surreal conceit with keen observations about domestic life and motherhood, all with sparkling wit.

While Moloney has graced Sundance screens before as an actress, “Blocks” marks her arrival as a director and it is quite the entrance, making Shorts Program 1, of which it’s a part, a must see in Park City. Shortly before heading to the mountains, she spoke about already reaching a professional summit with the film, its intersection with her real life and how a background in clinical psychiatry has given her an edge in her current occupation. [Update: Now it can be watched directly below.]

How did this come about?

I made it as part of AFI’s Directing Workshop for Women, so I submitted the script when I applied to be part of the program. I’m the mother of two young children, so I had been thinking about shooting something that was a nice visual representation of some of the feelings I experienced as a parent. I had come up with this image of vomiting plastic toy blocks and just cleaning them off and putting them away with all of the other toys and I was like, “That’s really fun. I wonder what that would be if I opened it up.”

This isn’t what you’re referring to, but it does become a really interesting survey of all sorts of biological functions. Was it interesting to think about all of them in creating this?

Well, yes, a big thing I was really taken aback by when I became a mom the first time was how much body fluid there was all the time everywhere. I was nursing my kids, and [with] the baby, you’re just constantly cleaning their various fluids. I found these e-mails I sent to my husband because he went back to work and I didn’t for a long time when my first child was born, and I catalogued the different, disgusting smells in the house, which I’m sure he was thrilled to receive [where] I’m like, “It smells like poop yogurt in the downstairs bathroom.” [laughs] So I was thinking a lot about biology in my real life [as it applied to “Blocks”] and then I was interested in exploring becoming a parent and what that does to your body and how this also exists in the same world where you’re talking about sex and those fluids and then in the next moment, you’re wiping a child’s bottom. I put it all in there.

Both Claire and Mark are parents in real life. Was that important to you in casting?

It was because it’s sort of a paradox — when I’m talking about the film, I find myself very quick to say I love to my children, because I do, and I really love being a parent, but it’s also very weird and hard sometimes even when it’s going great, and I feel like other parents really get that. Mark has four kids and he really loves them and being a parent, but he also has a joke that the best game to play with them is who can be the quietest, so it was important to me to find people that understood this tension between being so happy and feeling so lucky to have kids and then to build a hut and hide in it. so that was important to find people that got that.

But it’s funny because for a little while, I was like, is this too niche? And [the film has] actually played really well to people who don’t have kids. My cinematographer [Jake Hossfeld] doesn’t have kids and when we first started prepping the movie, he was like, “I’ve got to tell you, I’ve been thinking a lot about my mom. She made dinner for us every night and we just ate it and we didn’t really think about what that meant.” [laughs] And I was like, “You should tell her that.” People were thinking a lot about those relationships when they were working on the movie.

Were those your kids in the film?

Yes, and they don’t want to be in any more of my films, which is fine. [laughs] I don’t think this is the right move for any of us. But it was very sweet. My daughter actually has decided she wanted to be a director not an actor and I support that fully. And those were my kids in my house, so it was very in the family.

I was going to ask about the location – I hope all that messiness was really great production design…

I would too, Stephen. [laughs] But it was shockingly not that hard to make it look like that. Xiyu [Lin], the production designer came in one day, and we didn’t straighten [the house]. I was like, “I want you to see it in its full expression” and she took pictures that then she would pull up for set dec, to compare just to when the kids wreak havoc. But it was great. It was a huge savings to film in our house and our incredible neighbors let us use their backyard and downstairs for holding and catering, so it was very convenient.

Even though it’s expressionistic, this is a very personal movie, so there were a few moments where I was like, “This is so weird. We’re actually all standing in my upstairs bathroom, filming this in my own home,” and all of a sudden, I felt very exposed. The day that we shot the cleaning montage, the dining room table was very disgusting by design and [since] that is my dining room table, the minute I called “cut,” I started straightening it up really fast. And my production designer was like, “What are you doing? I’m going to get it all.” I thought, “Oh yeah, this isn’t actually my mess. I wrote this mess, but I don’t actually have to clean it up this one time.” So that was nice.

You find that sweet spot of magical realism in many ways through how vivid the colors are and the way the camera can glide into rooms. What was it like figuring out how to strike the right tone?

The camera language was something I spent a lot of time thinking about because so much of the movie is internal and I feel like I know why it’s happening, but we never explain it and [Ashleigh, the mother] goes along with it, so I was very conscientious of being able to tell this story as much as we could through the visuals of it and feel like we’re in her experience the whole time. That was really storyboarded and we had five days and it was 10 pages, so we had the luxury of time. I’m coming from more of a television world, so this felt very luxurious.

On the page, I thought it was funny, but I wanted to make sure that some of the more melancholy notes and that her sense of isolation and the weirdness [also] plays, so we talked a lot about how that could come across in the performance. And then of course, Ariel Marx, who did the music, was really big [to the tone] because I knew from the beginning, I wanted it to be all synth. I didn’t want to hear any instruments. You hear a guitar at one point, but I wanted it to feel very manufactured and I think that really helped push the tone, which is discordant but fun.

Since you come from an acting background, is there anything you do for your actors that you yourself had wanted from a director?

Oh yes, and this is also when you realize everyone’s different because I often offer my actors the opportunity to watch playback because it’s all I ever wanted as an actor, and I very rarely felt entitled to it. For some, it’s incredibly helpful, but I know some hate it, [yet] I am very big on being transparent about what I’m thinking and as an actor, I’m used to directors being like “Ok, great, perfect. We just need to go again because of whatever [reason besides the acting],” and often [I’ll be] like, “Is that true?” So I try to keep everyone in the loop as much as they need to be without getting too much in their heads about what I’m thinking because as an actor, I’m also like, “If you just tell me what it is, maybe I can just do it” instead of trying to finesse it.

I knew Claire did not like watching playback because I’ve worked with her before, but I always offer it, especially [for] the scene when Claire was on our bathroom floor for so long [after she’s thrown up for the first time]. Those blocks that were on the floor were coated with this viscous liquid that we kept calling the slime, which wasn’t really reading [on camera], so we kept tweaking the lights and pouring more on the ground, and [Claire] was like, “Hey guys, I’m all wet” and her pants and her sweater had gotten saturated [with the slime] and she hadn’t said anything. She was just being brave and when we broke to do stuff and I was like, “Watch what this looks like, because it looks really good, and I want you to feel like it’s worth it to be disgustingly coated in slime on the floor of my bathroom.” So that time she did, and [that’s why] I feel sometimes it’s helpful for actors to see what I’m seeing.

Did directing actually grow out of acting for you or was it always a goal?

It kind of grew out. I was always a writer and thenthe more and more time I spent on sets [as an actress], the more I was like, “I’d like to be doing that job” and “I think I could do that job.” It felt like the perfect combination of everything I like to do. Also, I have my masters in clinical psychology because about eight years ago, I was like, “I’m going to quit acting and become a therapist,” and I didn’t, but I started to get my hours to be a couples and family therapist and when I was really getting serious about directing, I was shocked because I thought, “Oh, I’m actually using those skills too,” like the level of attunement and listening and being really present with the actors on set. I make the joke, “You’ve got to be a shrink to work in this business,” but all of that training really helps. I get to use all of that as a director and now when I’m on set [directing], it’s like, “Oh yeah, this is where I’m supposed to be.”

“Blocks” will screen at the Sundance Film Festival as part of Shorts Program 1 on January 23rd at 6 pm and January 24th at 8:30 am at Prospector Square Theatre in Park City, January 25th at 6:45 pm at the Broadway Centre Cinema 3 in Salt Lake City, and February 1st at 5:30 pm at the Holiday Village Cinema 1 in Park City.