At first it doesn’t seem like a good thing in “Circus Person” that Ava (Britt Lower) has been blessed a big imagination, her mind running wild with the revelation that her fiancé has been cheating on her with a woman named Luna, picturing all the ways that she could be more interesting than she is and starting to hallucinate that her fish Tomato can start talking to her. Still, the mental contortions turn into physical ones when that big brain is let loose to begin thinking beyond the obvious paths towards recovery, quite literally running off to join the circus where for as many singular performers there are, the feeling of isolation drifts away.
Naturally, a sizable tent is required to house the motley crew of entertainers, but it also proves necessary to accommodate the many talents of its star/writer/director Lower, who has been a wry, winning presence on shows ranging from “Casual” to “Man Seeking Woman” and shows she’s capable of so much more behind the camera. As her on-screen alter ego Ava gets creative in turning her heartbreak into growth as a person, Lower crafts an inventive story around falling back in love with herself, using her body as a canvas to express her emotions in animated paintings and marshaling misfits and daredevils in the desert to thrillingly show the safety in numbers when there’s a shared desire to be different.
Like any big top attraction, there’s plenty of wonder in “Circus Person” as well as how Lower pulled it off, and after its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival was cancelled earlier this year as a result of the coronavirus, the charming short is back on the road virtually, recently winning an audience prize at the Nashville Film Fest en route to stops at Mill Valley this week and LA Shorts Fest next. With the film promising the same sense of escapism over its 17 minutes as its lead experiences, it was exciting to speak to the multidisciplinary artist about how she was able to bring her love for a number of different art forms together in her directorial debut, working through the logistics of helming a film she’d be acting in – occasionally in body paint, and letting nature take its course to let her know she was onto something special.
How did this come about?
There are a lot of little seeds that have been planted over the years. I have been writing the feature-length version of the film for maybe seven years and I got a little antsy about a year ago and decided I was just going to make a short film out of it. I took a cross-country road trip from Los Angeles and New York in the wake of experiencing my own heartbreak and at the end of that trip, I saw the very last Barnum and Bailey Circus show of all time. It was experiencing the end of my engagement alongside the end of this historic circus company that really helped me contextualize that endings are a chance to begin again.
What led you to the circus?
I’ve been enchanted by the circus my whole life, having grown up alongside my mother as a face-painting duo, traveling to various summer festivals painting kids’ faces. I was introduced to the kind of working class artisan lifestyle when I was a teenager and that’s where I started getting very curious about people who make their living walking on tightropes, building drums and performing magic. It was really that experience with my mom that made me want to tell the story of art forms where you really become the art — [with] body art and circus art, you are the art. [laughs] It’s like art that does stuff, and this is the beginning of a longer film anthology series that I’m planning to produce more of. There’s a lot more circus stories to be told.
It struck when you’re making this film, you’re putting on a circus. Did you know a lot of these performers before and did they come as a group or were you casting individually?
It was a combination of both and you’re correct, I not only had to cast a film, but I had to cast a circus. It was an utter delight. We actually collaborated with members of a group called the Flynn Creek Circus up in the Bay Area, and theirs is the tent you see featured in the film. We also had some local L.A. actors who were circus performers and a lot of the cast are just friends of mine who have a really cool energy and a circus person vibe.
It seemed like you’re putting a lot of trust in the people around you as you’re the center of this story when you’re directing. What was it like putting together a crew?
It was so important for me to have a team who I felt could really uplift each other and also have an egalitarian approach to the filmmaking process. Every day we would circle up in the morning and I wanted everyone to feel like they had equal say in creating the atmosphere and building the moments that made it into the film. I really credit my creative producer and editor Alex Knell, who was on set helping be my on-set eye when I was in front of the camera and my incredible producers Sam Fox and Desiree Staples, who just helped me every step of the way when I was just like, “Ummm, this is my first time and I don’t know what’s going on.” It was a lot of making myself vulnerable and being okay with admitting I didn’t know sometimes.
You wouldn’t know it from the film. Had directing been something you wanted to do for a while or was it this specific story that compelled you?
I’ve been lucky to work with a lot of actor-directors over the years as a performer myself, directors like Noel Wells, Lynn Shelton, Chris Lowell and Ben Sinclair and getting to work with those individuals on set was really the permission I got to finally give it a go myself, particularly Noel Wells, who paved the way for me to act and direct in something at the same time.
Is there anything that you may not have planned for, but it’s in the film and you like it now?
I would say 90% of the film was a miraculous blend of meticulous planning and also really happy surprises. My favorite moment was when we were actually shooting these solo pieces – one of the actresses Lexi [Powell] was on the lyra [the aerial hoop] and all of a sudden in the background, a white egret flew into the shot. We caught that and then it flew over near the white Honda CRV that’s in the film and very quickly, Alex [Naufel], the DP was like, “Britt, run over to your car.” And that scene made it in the film. It was completely unexpected where Ava’s at her car door, she sees an egret that’s in the background and then it takes flight. It was a complete gift from nature.
You have a really magical location. Was it in mind from the start?
Yeah, we got super lucky. It’s a film ranch just north of Los Angeles and they happen to already have a couple of RVs and campers on the property. What I really wanted was some kind of body of water for the final moments of the film and I originally envisioned it in a giant lake where Ava would be floating in the water. What they happened to have was this beautiful creek with a tiny waterfall and like I said, it was a lot of planning, but what was there was perfect and I’m a big fan of using what is available.
This may not be exactly what you’re talking about, but one of the wonderful things in the film is how there’s this really fun music that you can see being played live during a scene at night and it interacts well with the rest of the score. Was that planned for?
My friend Kai [Lillie] actually wrote that melody of the diegetic music and Govind [Kumar], the violinist, and Jakob [Berger], the accordion player, they all met that day and within a few hours, they were getting along so beautifully, they basically played all day long and that set the tone for this. I think they called the tune that they were improvising around, “March of a Vagabonds,”, so that was a real gift that they were able to play for us and help with the communal party vibe. In terms of the other music for the film, Jason Lesser, [whose] music project is called Dream Tape, contributed the main soundtrack part of the film and he’s just an incredible artist. That music came from a place of him writing during his own heartbreak, so it was a perfect fit for the soundscape.
Those opening scenes where you express heartbreak in animation using your own painted body are also quite exquisite. How did that come about?
What’s interesting is we shot all of the live action stuff in October of last year and I had written into the script these body-painted animation sequences, but I wasn’t quite sure of how to implement them into the film itself. About two months into editing, I threw caution to the wind and said, “You know what? I know it’s technology I’m not familiar with, but let’s try the body paint animation.” I collaborated with my longtime friend and colleague Christopher Agostino, who’s a world renowned body painter and our cinematographer Alex Naufel, and we rigged a way of doing a stop-motion body paint that is very basic, but the effect is really powerful. I’m so glad we took the risk and tried it out.
Do you feel the same way about directing in general?
Yeah, I love it. I liken directing to being a combination of you’re an art teacher, a basketball coach and I infused some of the yoga teachings I’ve learned over the years, so it’s this great job where you’re setting the tone, you’ve invited everyone to the party and you give people the tools and the medium and you let their genius go to work.
Even though you couldn’t have predicted this would be the way this would initially go out into the world, what’s it like getting it out there and start to have people engage with it?
It’s incredible gratifying to connect the communication loop, right? To make something and at least right now to be hearing feedback through online messaging. I’m really looking forward to the day when I can watch it in a theater with humans in it, but making the film has been such a healing medicine for me and I hope folks can take away the healing medicine that is baked into the film as well. I think it’s a time in which community and radical love are themes that we can all get behind and I’m hoping that it continues to reach people’s hearts in that way.
“Circus Person” is currently screening virtually at Mill Valley Film Festival through October 18th and will next play at the L.A. Shorts Film Fest as part of Drama Program #8 from October 19th through 30th.