Meredith Johnston had reached a professional standstill. She graduated from the theater program at DePaul University in a BFA in acting, yet for all her skills as a multitalented artist, being a musician to boot, she had become stuck in a cycle of auditioning for ad campaigns she was unlikely to ever book.
“I’m really bad at faking enthusiasm for things, so I couldn’t say anything without totally making it look like I hated my life,” says Johnston, who took matters into her own hands. “I’ve been writing scripts since I was in second grade and they were pretty bad back then — mostly plagiarized — but I knew that I could probably write myself something that I could play pretty well.”
This will strike most as an understatement after seeing “Pet Names,” Johnston’s captivating collaboration with director Carol Brandt, in which she plays Leigh, a post-collegian at a crossroads, taking care of her bedbound mother in her hometown, exhausted simply by going through the motions. She’s taken to talking to her pet flamingo outside her home while she smokes and will go to parties where she feels alien for having not left them in the past when she dropped out of grad school, so at her mother’s insistence, she arranges to go on a retreat to a nearby forest, impetuously bringing along her friend Cam (Rene Cruz), with his pug in tow, to let off some steam. Instead, the two, who have a more complicated relationship than is immediately apparent, present more thorns in each other’s side than the branches that poke at their tent, challenging one another with their intimate knowledge to reexamine where they are in life.
Presented in an unfussy full-frame, 4:3 aspect ratio with simple, elegant camerawork from Dana Shihadah, “Pet Names” gradually grows as complex in execution as all the emotions that stir inside Leigh and Cam, fighting against regrets they already have and disappointments that seem particularly pronounced when everything is moving so fast around them and they feel stuck in the same place. While Leigh struggles to gain traction, the same can’t be said for the crew of “Pet Names,” an impressive film by any measure and as it worked its way into the hearts and minds of audiences at SXSW, Brandt, Cruz and Johnston spoke about heading into the woods to make “Pet Names,” making the rare feature in Wisconsin and how the shooting schedule influenced what unfolded onscreen to give the raw, intimate drama an extra dose of realism.
How did this come about?
Carol Brandt: Well, Meredith had a life and then wrote a script about it. (all laugh)
Meredith Johnston: That’s pretty…yeah, I like that.
Carol Brandt: I had met Meredith on a film she made previously directed by my producing partner Marty Kaszubowski. She was great in it and I wanted to keep in contact, so we did just that and sent scripts back and forth for a couple of years after we wrapped the film. She sent me the script to [“Pet Names”] and we made a couple adjustments to it, but ultimately, I thought it was really well-written and a really great story, so I was really excited to produce it and direct it.
What was the impetus for the screenplay?
Meredith Johnston: It’s based around this experience I had in high school where my mom got very ill and I had to take care of her. It was during summer vacation and I remember I kept being like, “But it’s summer!” and I couldn’t go out because I had to change IVs in my mom’s pickline. It was a weird experience where I just had to grow up really fast and I felt that that was an interesting place to start a character, and I wanted to keep it close to who I was at the time. Now looking back on it, I see Leah as a lot less mature than I am now — hopefully [laughs] — but I wanted to keep it truthful to what was going on.
Rene, how did you get interested in this?
Rene Cruz: I knew Meredith through a mutual friend. At the time, I was living in Los Angeles, grinding through the acting racket out there, acting very enthusiastic in commercials…
Meredith Johnston: You’re better at it than I am!
Rene Cruz: I am! [laughs] But Meredith and I were talking on the phone just about our frustrations with acting and the way we were unhappy and she told me about this script she had written that she wanted me to take a look at it.
Meredith Johnston: I wanted you to say yes right away! Right away!
Rene Cruz: And I said, please let me read the script first because I have no idea if this is good or not. [laughs] And it affected me so profoundly that I called her the next day and said, “I need to do this film. Please put me in it.” Because it was the first time I recognized myself in a character I had been asked to play and I didn’t want to pass that up.
Something that seemed really exciting about this was that in addition to acting in it, I noticed Rene helped with the music and of course, Meredith wrote the script – by investing yourself in more than just a single role on set, did that create a different experience?
Carol Brandt: Meredith actually is a composer for the film as well. The final song that the credits roll over is her singing and the opening song is also hers.
Rene Cruz: It’s under her stage name.
Meredith Johnston: It’s sneaky… you guys are nice to bring it up, though.
Carol Brandt: Yeah, Meredith’s credits on this film go from writer, actress, associate producer, and composer and then Rene – actor, composer, and then Harper [Robison] is dogfather.
Rene Cruz: I just think that’s the right way to do it when you care about something.
Meredith Johnston: There’s so many brilliant artists out there that I think their work deserves to be shown and Rene and the other musicians in the movie are also people that I think that we all believe in wholeheartedly, so why not use that opportunity to make it something that feels unique to the time, but unique to the person too?
Since Harper, the dogfather, and Chato are sitting in the room with us, how did he make it into the film?
Meredith Johnston: The celebrity of my life is my childhood pug dog Floyd, who is a girl, but we named her after my grandpa and my mother is obsessed with pugs. We have pug pillows and pug couches. It’s…a lot. If I take you home, it’s like too much pug. So I had to write a pug into the movie and then Chato is a local pug celebrity in Milwaukee, so we actually are really lucky that we got him.
Harper Robison: Yeah, he’s booked. [laughs]
Rene Cruz: He’s been on the red carpet many times, actually.
Carol Brandt: He was the Special Good Boy at the Milwaukee Film Festival.
Speaking of Milwaukee, was this forest a familiar place to you for this setting?
Carol Brandt: Meredith had actually written the script based on the Redwoods Forest in California, but budget restraints made us shoot in Wisconsin. That being said, Wisconsin is a very beautiful state and we shot in this amazing town called Lone Rock, which is very small, but they have this great mom and pop campground run by these two lovely people and the surrounding scenery, like the canyon in the woods, was around the Eau Claire/Baraboo section of Wisconsin, the driftless region where it starts to get really hilly and beautiful with all those trees. That really impacted how we shot a lot of the wide shots in the film as well because we really wanted to fit that natural beauty of the flyover state in there.
What was it like to make to make a movie in Wisconsin? They have a great filmmaking community there.
Carol Brandt: It is very easy to make a film in Milwaukee because so many people support it and the last five years have been a small boom in terms of the creation of the Milwaukee Filmmaker Alliance, this group of people who all support and work on each other’s projects. It’s a really great kind of co-opy thing that’s happening there and there’s very little competition, which is really refreshing. Everybody just helps each other out — I don’t think we paid a cent for any of our equipment we used because everybody was so excited we were making a feature because making features in Wisconsin is rare. They get made, but it’s rare and I was told we’re actually the first narrative feature from Wisconsin to make it into SXSW, which is insane. But I’m really hoping this will spark other people and other young filmmakers in Milwaukee to know that just because you’re in Milwaukee, you can still make a film and get it into a big festival. So I’m really proud of Milwaukee and how far it’s come.
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting on this?
Meredith Johnston: Yes!
Rene Cruz: Which one? (laughs)
Meredith Johnston: The scene day…
Rene Cruz: Oh, the big scene day!
Meredith Johnston: We had to reschedule some pretty pivotal scenes because it was predicted it was going to rain. Then of course, it didn’t, but we had to reschedule them anyway, so Carol asked if it was okay for Rene and I to shoot a few of the most pivotal scenes in one day, [including] the climax of the movie. We both were super down for it in the morning and then by the evening, we were wiped.
Carol Brandt: [looking at Meredith] The scene where you cry was probably just exhaustion.
Meredith Johnston: But I wouldn’t have had us shoot it any other way because those scenes have such an interesting quality in the performances because of the fatigue that I don’t think would be there [otherwise]. We would’ve been putting on a lot more because we knew it was one of the more important scenes and because we didn’t have anything left to give, it gave us a new performance…
Carol Brandt: You tapped into a new part of yourselves at that point.
Meredith Johnston: Definitely. More animalistic, more hangry. [laughs]
Carol Brandt: And the way we scheduled them, we tried to keep them chronological, so in the argument scene [between Leigh and Cam], there’s more energy and then as the scenes go on in the film, the more tired they get because they were actually getting exhausted. It was a long day.
There’s a moment around a campfire where it looks like the flames go really big, too.
Rene Cruz: Oh, it did!
Carol Brandt: That was real whiskey we poured on the fire.
Meredith Johnston: That was probably the hardest I’ve ever laughed in my entire life. No, that’s not true. But…
Rene Cruz: You had way too much fun.
Meredith Johnston: I did not know that laugh was going to come out of me once I poured that on the fire. It felt very sadistic when I was doing that. And we had a very small crew, but everybody on our crew for that scene was running around, breaking these giant pieces of limbs off trees trying to get firewood…
Carol Brandt: Because we were trying to light with just the fire. Our craft service guy was going to get wood for the fire.
Meredith Johnston: He would come back through the forest with, like, a whole tree basically and just was like, “Hey guys!” and crack it in half. It was crazy.
Rene Cruz: It was a team effort.
So if you used natural light for that, was that part of the general aesthetic for the movie?
Carol Brandt: Yeah, the cinematographer Dana Shihadah and I were really specific on how we wanted to shoot the film and how we wanted it to look – the 4:3 [aspect ratio], and all that, but the natural lighting was very intentional because we wanted it to look like they were actually camping. We didn’t want to beautify them too much or try to make it look like “glamping,” or whatever, so the most light we ever used was one light during the night scenes because the fire would just get too dark. But during all the day scenes, it was mostly reflectors. That was all we had at the beginning.
What’s it like to premiere the film at SXSW?
Carol Brandt: Indescribable, I would say. Still processing. I haven’t had like a shred of emotion all week because I’ve just been in work mode, but I’m convinced when I get home, I’ll just like sob because that’s how it goes. That’s how it was when we were done shooting too. I just got home and like cried. It’s healthy.
Meredith Johnston: For professional reasons, it’s great. [laughs] [Premiering here] still feels like a practical joke…
Carol Brandt: Yeah, when [Meredith] called me, we just cried and yelled incoherent things at each other for a while.
Meredith Johnston: I felt really bad for my neighbors because their walls are pretty thin. And it was early in the morning. And then I went to work and I was in a meeting on a conference call and I couldn’t focus, I was smiling so big. But this has been a completely surreal experience. I’m so grateful for it.
Rene Cruz: I’m just happy to be here, man. [laughs] I’m really glad you called me that one time.
Meredith Johnston: I know, Crazy how things go. [putting on mock enthusiasm] One phone call can change your life. That sounds like I’m a telemarketer.
See Meredith, you say you’re not good at selling things.
Rene Cruz: She’s good.
Meredith Johnston: I’m good at scaring people into things. [laughs]
“Pet Names” will play at SXSW on March 14 at 10:30 pm at the Alamo Lamar B.