SIFF 2023 Interview: Chell Stephen on Turning a Fear Into Strength in “You’re My Best Friend”

You’ve heard this one before, or at least you think — a bump in the night causes alarm for a young woman (Romina D’Ugo) who goes to see if there’s an intruder at the start of “You’re My Best Friend,” but Chell Stephen’s wonderful new short is hardly what it appears at first as you see its lead peer down a hallway with a gargantuan knife in hand. However, the call is coming from inside the house, as they might say, when the unnamed woman is still reeling from a recent breakup that leaves her nerves particularly frazzled, awake for even the slightest sound that emanates outside her bedroom and she becomes fixated on what she learns is merely a cockroach, growing less fearful of what it might to do her than what’s expected of her to do to it when she can’t bring herself to stomp it out.

“You’re My Best Friend” comes to show the sleepless singleton start to put her foot down in other ways, starting to take back control over her life after feeling forced back into a dating scene she’d rather not wade back into and strike up an unlikely allyship with the bug she comes to call Livvie. Whereas the big, glowing neon heart that sits outside her bathroom first catches the eye as a fun decoration, it becomes indicative of all the life that’s coursing through the comedy, full of pink and purple-tinged chiaroscuro lighting and built around a performance from D’Ugo, who recently endeared with her winning turn in Chandler Levack’s “I Like Movies,” as spry and animated as the insect she engages with.

After first charming audiences abroad this past winter at Final Girls Berlin, the film is making its North American debut at the Seattle Film Festival as part of the Animal Instincts program, screening in person this weekend and available to stream later this month on SIFF’s streaming platform between May 22nd-28th, and recently Stephen spoke about how she was able to turn lemons into lemonade with this delicious short, transforming her apartment into such a lively set and collaborating with D’Ugo to build a memorable character.

How did this come about?

It’s a little bit based on a true story [after] I separated from my husband last year and I suddenly found myself being the person who had to kill the bugs, which previously wasn’t in my job description. I don’t like having to kill the bugs, but sometimes we have to do it and I just was thinking about that, having to deal with a literal large cockroach and it made me laugh to think that the cockroach would get in on the game with her, so I made some art out of life.

I’m glad to hear at least something good came out of this. Did you know where you would film this? It’s a great location.

That’s my apartment. It came out of necessity, but that was really fun, too [because] one, the price is right, but there was no way I could show up unprepared to that shoot. That would have been insane for me to not have prepped everything. I’m here every day and the production design was really fun to do. Because I live here, I did a lot of it myself and I had a friend, Allison, who helped me out on the day with pickups, and I was actually settling into the place [while] also being able to trick it out for the film and then call it all a tax write-off.

And the bathroom is not very big, and when I first brought my one of my producers Rebecca [the the apartment], I was like, “Okay, I know we’re gonna show this to a [director of photography] and they’re going to be like, ‘Absolutely not. We can’t shoot here’” But I really wanted [someone who wasn’t] a naysayer and Nick [Bupp, the cinematographer] was so down to make that work. We’re in the bathroom so much of the film that I wanted to make sure we were mixing it up and not getting really tired with the coverage and in the end, I actually did a pre-vis with a friend of mine. We just walked through and she stood in for the actors and I just took stills of everything and I realized while we were doing that, “Okay, we’re doing this move again,” so the scene where they are in the living room smoking was originally scripted to take place in the bathroom, and trying to maximize and stretch these locations or these rooms is definitely part of the indie game that I’m down to play.

Was the neon heart at the center of this hallway something you actually had as decoration? It does so much heavy lifting in the film – as lighting, as a cool prop…

I ordered that for the film, but it remains. It wasn’t in here previously. I wanted this anatomical heart and I ordered it from Etsy, and it barely made it, but you have to roll with it with indie filmmaking and I was like, “Well, if it doesn’t come, we’ll figure it out. We’ll do something else,” but when that did come, it was hugely important to the overall aesthetic and now when Nick [Bupp] and I talk about it, it’s such a big part of the lighting scheme.

It’s such a vibrant palette, as your films always have had. Did the color contrasts come immediately?

I mean that’s what I wish the world looked like all the time. I love big colors and Nick just elevated it and leaned into it. I wasn’t necessarily married to the pink and blue, but because most of it took place at night, we ended up settling on this blue that we liked [similar to] the moonlight and then I had chosen pink as the color for the neon heart. I also really love the living room scene where it has more of an orange, just to mix it up a little bit, but all of that came together naturally through my collaboration with Nick.

You have a great lead in Romina D’Ugo as well. How did she get involved?

I directed an episode of “Nurses,” this TV show like a Canadian “Grey’s Anatomy,” in 2020 and I cast Romina as a pregnant guest star and it was a big role. She came in, she killed it, and we just really hit it off and love each other and she splits her time between Toronto and L.A. and we talked about wanting to work together again, so around the same time that I had this idea, and I knew she was in town, I wrote it for her — in the script, the character’s name is Romina. It always has been. I came to her and asked, “Do you want to do it?” And she really jumped in. She does amazing work, and I knew from the TV world, there’s just never enough time [on set], like if the guest star doesn’t come in and kill it you’re like, “The day fell apart,” so she’s very good and we were a very small crew, so she wore a bunch of different hats for me. She did her own hair and makeup and we did the wardrobe together out of my closet. And she [would] AD herself and knew what looks to get into. She was just really down for the cause.

It’s really a one woman show for the most part. When it came to the bug, did she actually have anything to act opposite?

I made those noises on set when we shot it. I was knocking on the apple box that I was sitting on to give her something, but I did want her to have a scene partner, and I hadn’t exactly decided on who we were going to cast yet for the voice and we were still in a more intense COVID time and with SAG regulations, we were keeping the set super duper small, so I knew what the bug sounded like in my head, so I voiced [the bug] while she was talking and I was also puppeteering while directing in a green screen suit in a tub, so there would be fewer bodies in that bathroom and just living my truth, basically. [laughs]

Was there anything that came up that you might not have expected, but you could get excited about?

I don’t know how unexpected this was, but I wanted to have the production design evolve and it was really fun to work with Allison Jensen. The two scenes in the bedroom are very different and it’s really subtle [shifts throughout], like maybe he had a painting there and he took it, trying to allude to the fact that this guy has left and in the top right part of the frame in the early bedroom scene, you can see this square where it looks like a piece of art has been removed. That was really fun, and with the bathroom, too, there was an intentional transition in the visuals in there, going from [more muted colors] there into the full color, like, “Okay, we’re halfway through, so pull the bright towels to feel out that transition.

It was interesting to hear you and Romina picked out the clothes too when it seemed like there was an evolution there.

Yeah, it gets much more colorful. I had a lot of fun being able to feature a lot of women designers that I love, like the green that she’s wearing in the climactic moment is by this Canadian [designer] Laina Rauma and I’m a huge fan of her. I love clothes and I’m always half flirting with being in that department, so it was really fun to play with the colors and make it increasingly more bright and fun as she comes into her own but also get to show some love to some designers that I love.

There’s also a wonderful animated end credits sequence. How did that come about?

My dear friend Jesse Einhorn Johnson, animated those for me and funnily enough, many years ago we met through a now defunct like Women in Film listserv and she was an assistant camera on a branded shoot that we did and she ended up coming out on my last film “Fire Girls” in Canada when she happened to be in upstate Michigan at the time. She’s just awesome and she’s since been getting into doing these amazing animations that I just saw via her Instagram. They are the sentiment of the film where they’re sexy but not for the male gaze but [rather] women being in their element, so when I started the film, I [said] “Hey, would you want to do a couple of like quick animations for me for the end?” And I sent her some stills from it and was like, “These are some ideas, but do whatever you want.” And she came back with the brilliance, as she does. And actually, when we played it at Berlin, [the credits] weren’t done yet, so I’m really pumped [about Seattle]. This screening will be the first time I see them on the big screen.

It’s exciting for all kinds of reasons then. What’s it been like so far getting this out into the world?

Final Girls [in Berlin] was great. They are such a cool festival. I love what they program and what they stand for and they were so kind to us. It was chilly in February and we weren’t able to stay for very long, but it was great. The first time seeing it with an audience is always a little nerve wracking, but ultimately like they laughed in the places I wanted them to and sometimes you think, maybe this is only funny in my head, but it was a relief to feel that [reaction]. And it’s interesting to be back on the festival circuit because it had been a minute. Making this film felt really pure, like it was a return to my roots, paying for it myself and getting my friends together, doing the thing, like, and then I almost forgot about this part, so it feels like a bit of a win in that way that I’m like, okay, finally made it and I’m very proud that we’re playing [at SIFF now] and I’m happy for my team because when so many people work so hard on something, it’s just really nice to have it get some recognition.

“You’re My Best Friend” will screen at the Seattle Film Festival as part of the Animal Instincts shorts program on May 13th at 3 pm at the SIFF Cinema Uptown and available to stream nationally between May 22nd-28th on SIFF’s streaming platform.

Zeen is a next generation WordPress theme. It’s powerful, beautifully designed and comes with everything you need to engage your visitors and increase conversions.