As Christine Turner has learned, sometimes the way to take on big subjects is in small bursts. A year ago, she was at the Tribeca Film Festival with “You Can Go,” a nine-minute short in which S. Epatha Merkerson of “Law & Order” fame played a high school principal who invoked her own experience to relate with a troubled student (Charlie Tahan) potentially on the verge of harming himself or others, capturing the intangible way that a feel for what needs to be said at a precise moment can make all the difference, and only a few months later, she was shooting “Hold On,” which makes its debut at the Sundance Film Festival this week in the Shorts Program #4, where a young man named Troy (Jimmie Jeter) is asked to take responsibility of his grandmother (Bethann Hardison) for the day, only slowly learning the way they can communicate since she has long been without a voice.
While her characters only gradually come to understand one another, Turner has a deft touch when it comes to poignantly depicting situations that are often opaque, her empathy clearing the path for a connection to be made with the skill there to illuminate it. This is particularly true of “Hold On,” which cannily divides itself into two separate scenes, sans its brief opening, where a casual breakfast between Troy and grandmother in the light of morning gives way to an afternoon spent in a dark bathroom where the old woman struggles with dementia and her grandson scrambles to find how to give comfort to her, eventually landing on an unexpected but beautiful peace offering in song. With a vibrant color scheme and intriguing framing, one can take the emotional temperature of the room while being allowed while the space between characters starts to collapse.
Shortly before Turner, who first made a name for herself in documentary with the 2013 profile of a African-American mortician in “Homegoings,” made her way to Park City for her first Sundance, she graciously took the time to speak about the inspiration for “Hold On,” the unexpected moments that found their way into the film and how her experience in nonfiction and narrative filmmaking have informed each other.
How did “Hold On” come about?
I spent about a year-and-a-half volunteering with a hospice organization here in New York and during that time, I came to know an elderly woman who had dementia. I saw her for just one hour once a week, so it was on a weekly basis, but in that time I learned a lot from her just about how to communicate, so some of the film is very much inspired by my experience of working with her. She spoke very little and then as her language skills continued to decline, we had to find meaningful ways of connecting.
Was that a difficult idea to build a film around?
The idea [for the film] came to me because my experience of being in a single location and working with this other woman, it seemed only natural that I would set it within the confines of a home where someone like herself might spend all their time. Also, in terms of making the film on my own, it just made sense because I knew that I wanted to make the short, but I had to do it with the resources that were available to me, so I wrote something that I thought I could film on a weekend, essentially. We shot it over the course of a single day, and that’s something I wouldn’t have been able to do without the talent and the generosity of the crew. They were great and knew how to think on their feet, and that’s why rehearsal was also important, so we had that time in advance and the actors came really prepared and ready to work.
How did you find your cast?
Bethann was a pioneering African-American runway model in the 1970s and in the last 30 years, she’s done a lot of work around advocating for diversity in the fashion world – on the runway, in magazines, things like that. That’s really how I came to know of her, but in casting an older woman, she was one of the first people that really came to mind. She has that really striking quality of presence. I didn’t know if she was interested in acting, but when I was able to speak with her, it turned out she had actually spent some time training as an actress unbeknownst to me. She had not pursued a career in acting, but this project came along and I think she was really delighted to do it and take on a non-speaking role that she thought would be challenging and I was really happy to have her.
Then as far as the male lead, Troy, my producer and I had reached out to our circle of friends asking for recommendations and we were fortunate to interview a number of Julliard students. Jimmie [Jeter] was the first person we brought in to audition – this was two weeks before he graduated [from Julliard] – so he came in, auditioned, graduated and two weeks later, we filmed. It all happened very quickly, but he was really great to work with. I’m really looking forward to seeing what he’s going to do next. Now, he’s playing the role of Corey in the play “Fences,” which is being staged at the Pioneer Theater in Salt Lake City [now] at the same time as Sundance, which is really exciting. The three of us had a really good time in rehearsal, just discovering different ideas and working together to bring both of the characters to life.
Did you leave much room to tailor what you wrote to the actors?
The film is very much scripted, but there’s not a lot of dialogue, and there’s an incredible amount of detail, which made] rehearsal interesting. Jimmie had commented the way that he learned lines for plays, there’s some program on his phone where he would be able to [memorize] the lines [because the app] would spit the words out and it would come back to him, but in this case, it really required [physical] practice and doing each of the actions.
In the process of doing that, little moments would be uncovered. I think the biggest was that in the script, I had not identified what the specific song would be that closes the film. I asked Jimmie if he had any ideas, and this was something we talked about in advance of rehearsal, so during rehearsal, he brought five songs. Some were lullabies, some of them were African-American spirituals and he sang each of them to both me and Bethann. The three of us narrowed it down to maybe one or two and the final song that’s in the film, “Hold on Just a Little Longer” was something that he had come up with and now, it’s actually the title of the film. He knew from growing up, so it was nice to bring in these personal touches from all of the collaborators and I was very grateful that he could sing so beautifully.
I noticed that the family photos that you show early on were actually brought in by the actors.
Yeah, I like the films to have a personal touch to them, so I asked all of the actors if they would share some photographs that we might include in the film and they generously all did. Some of them are actually my own family photographs, so it’s a combination of Jimmie, Bethann, and also the mother played by the wonderful Joanna Rhinehart, who also brought some photographs.
Visually, you’re able to very clearly distinguish the two rooms that the majority of the film takes place in – the light yellowish room where they eat breakfast and the bluish bathroom – and they say so much emotionally. How did you build the film around them?
We wanted to take a very naturalistic approach and the brownstone that we filmed in in Harlem is already a fairly darkish space, so we were working off of that, allowing the blacks to go [deep] black and the whites to pop. It had a very warm feel because we were filming during the summer and it has that sunlight, so we just accentuated that, and then in the bathroom, it naturally had a cool feel – the walls were blue and in post, we played towards that, so those were decisions that were informed by the environments themselves. But we emphasized and brought them out to reflect the emotional state of the characters, so certainly during breakfast, it would appear to be any other breakfast and then things take a turn in the bathroom and [the colors] reflect that sobering feel that you come away with in the film.
You’ve had an interesting career thus far, moving from narrative shorts to a feature documentary (“Homegoings”) and back to narrative shorts. Did you recommit to narrative filmmaking or is this simply the way things have worked out?
Yeah, I had made several short films while I was at NYU where I went for undergrad, but I fell in love with documentary and I had the opportunity to work in documentary immediately upon graduation with a filmmaker named Stanley Nelson. It’s a storytelling form that I love and will continue to work in, but at the same time, I just became interested in returning to some of my fiction roots and that’s what these last couple of shorts have been about. To me, it’s all storytelling – some stories feel right for doing a fiction piece and other stories are better suited towards being documentaries – and as a filmmaker, it’s exciting to be able to work in both formats, and also exploring the intersection between the two because certainly we’ve seen how much fiction has been influenced by documentary filmmaking and vice versa. I think you see some of those two overlap and meet in different places, which is exciting creatively.
“Hold On” will play at the Sundance Film Festival as part as Shorts Program 4, which will show at the Redstone Cinema in Park City on January 21st at 6:30 pm, the Broadway Cinema in Salt Lake City on January 22nd at 3 pm, the Yarrow Hotel Theatre in Park City on January 24th at 3 pm, and the Holiday Village Cinema in Park City at 4 pm.