There is hope in the air at the start of “Danny’s Girl,” with Cleo (Rémy Bennett) writes to Danny (Danny Dikel) two days out from meeting for the first time in person after corresponding online for the past little bit. Both cleary have been in the dating pool for a little longer than they would’ve liked, and perhaps have certain peculiarities that have prevented them from finding the right partner, but Cleo’s already looking forward to meeting Danny’s pet iguana Jontar and he doesn’t waste a second embracing her upon seeing her at the train station. They both carry certain expectations, but Cleo brings something else with her — a mysterious box that changes the course of their relationship, for better or worse, and it is there that all bets are off for Emily Wilson’s wonderfully madcap comedy short.
Although “Danny’s Girl” grows ever more absurd over the course of its 13 minutes, involving food fights with squash and some light bondage, Wilson pulls off the magic trick of having it become progressively more humane as Cleo and Danny’s idiosyncrasies begin to line up in unexpected ways and their desires that seem so antithetical to one another at first, both informed by the typically ascribed ideals for their gender, are distilled into a pure feeling they can have for each other, however twisted that may become. And Wilson is sure to put Cleo and Danny in knots, with a wily camera capturing all the crazy physical contortions the two put themselves through as an extension of the emotional ones they begin to make after Danny opens the box.
With the film’s premiere as part of the Midnight Shorts Program at Sundance, Wilson shared how this deliciously deranged love story came into her head, achieving the film’s distinctive visual style and making sure even the most mundane shots could be turned into something intriguing.
How did this come about?
Basically, I was inspired by my friend, Danny, who is the lead because he’s a really good physical comedian, so I wrote this script with him in mind, and [thought], what scenario and what world could Danny inhabit and be this oddball, goofball character?” I’m influenced by R. Crumb, so I like extreme facial expressions and from there, I’m a sucker for romance. I just love interpersonal drama and weirdness, so I then came up with this idea for Cleo, and [wondered] what would be the worst case scenario of these two people who are so looking forward to meeting? I really wanted to explore the psyche of online dating, but also an interpersonal weirdness.
One of the things that was so exciting to me was how you express the frustrations related to the expectations of their genders. Was that always in mind?
Yes, I feel like with the character of Danny, he does have this sweetness and he’s kind of an outsider – he owns a lizard – and I always wanted him to be like, “Yes, he’s a man, but he’s not necessarily masculine alpha male.” And then [Cleo] comes in and she’s more seemingly conventional. The actress has short hair and we gave her extensions and the actors and I were joking, like, “We want her to be feminine. What do feminine, basic women wear?” They wear sometimes, a floral dress, but they put a jean jacket over it and it has a little edge. So we were actually very aware of how these two characters would come up visually, and then she comes off as very sweet at first and then it just pivots and it is a play on female dominance, so that was always the intention.
What sold you on Rémy to play Cleo?
I had Danny read with all the actresses and [he and Remy] just had great chemistry. She’s also a trained actress, she studied in London, and from the beginning she was always digging into the emotional side and the backstory of the character and I’m like, “Wow, she cares a lot.” She’s not just going to play this character for comedy. She’s going to really play this character like a real person, which is incredibly important, just because the premise is kind of wacky. She’s also a filmmaker in her own right. She loves cinema, she knows all the weirdo films, and she just is a champion for films in general, so it seemed like the right fit all around.
Since there were rehearsals, is there anything that comes out of that process you weren’t expecting that you were able to bring into the film?
There definitely were. The interactions between the two in that car scene, just how they’re kind of bumbling, we rehearsed that scene a lot and they came up with some really cool nervous energy stuff and I tweaked the script accordingly. Also, we really figured out the perfect amount of flirtation in rehearsals. We were like, “What does Cleo wants versus what does Danny want?” We also choreographed the final scene, when they connect for the first time physically and they came up with some really good ideas. We always tried to add little moments of physical comedy wherever possible.
What inspired the squash that Cleo throws at Danny? It’s one of the great moments in the film.
Thank you for bringing that up. I storyboarded the whole film, but that shot with the rack focus and the [squash] hitting the wall, that exact shot was my dream shot and it was one of the first shots that I thought of writing the screenplay. I’m generally flexible on set if shots change, but that was one of a handful that I was like, “No, we have to get this shot.” But why squash? I think visually, squash is just hilarious and it does mirror what was in the box, in terms of weight and tone and color. I was also eating a lot of squash at the time and the fact that it’s a gourd is just hilarious and also that the innards are so orange and slimy. The film color palette is very orange and green, so it played into that and I just love goopy stuff. I’ll go back to art from comics [where] I love “splat” and “splurt,” so I just love the idea of having a splat on the main character’s face, and because that immediately goes into an argumentative scene, the thought of [Danny] having this serious argument was just squash on his face, I just thought would be perfect.
You also have this really cool shooting style that mirrors the manic energy of the situations. What was it like to figure that out?
I come from a documentary background and I do a lot of editing, so I feel like I don’t get the exercise the creative muscle of shot selection, but I think about movies all the time and preparing for the film, I just spent a lot of time shotlisting and obsessing over what the camera would do in each scene, and really being like, what is the best way to tell this story visually? I love Robert Altman, so I love slow zooms and pans and wanted to include them when appropriate. Then I met with Hunter [Zimny], the DP, and we just went over what we thought was appropriate for each scene. He’s also such a cinephile, so we threw around references and films that we thought were cool.
I wanted to make this film so that people who watched it would be like, “Oh, I see a directorial stamp rather than just pointing the camera and letting the scene play out.” I really wanted to do the craft justice. So instead of just being like, ”How do we cover this scene with a shot, a two shot, and a reverse shot?” it’s like, “No, how do we make this seem cool and stylized but also in sync with the drama that’s playing out between the characters?”
Was it difficult to achieve that in and around a car, where the box revelation takes place?
Oh my God, that was difficult because you can only shoot a car scene so many ways. That scene was actually the hardest for me to make a decision on how to shoot it because I was like, “I don’t want it to be too traditional or standard,” and [generally] you can do a camera mount, [where] you can have the camera in the passenger seat and then do a reverse of the camera and the driver’s seat, but then Hunter was like, “What if we do a French over?” so the camera’s in the backseat. I was like, “Well, I don’t know if that’ll feel intimate enough.” And sure enough, we did do it and it does feel intimate. And that day, it was supposed to rain, so we were knowing that any moment it was going to start down pouring, but I really leaned on Hunter and Hunter just killed it.
The music in the film is also great, especially the last song. What was it like to work on?
[For] the song at the end, I was in pre-production and I became obsessed with Van Der Graaf Generator, a prog band, and there’s this one song called “Refugees” that I listened to every day for a month. It actually inspired the end animation sequence, and I was walking to work, listening to that song on repeat, and it came to me. I’m like, “Oh my God, it’s so beautiful and epic.” So I had that track in there as a temp for months and months, and then my friend Logan Olberg, who’s a talented songwriter, actually came in and made one that was just as good, if not better. It’s a different song, but tonally, it gets all the same emotions across. Then the original score is by Andrew Gordon Macpherson, a talented composer and who just got it. He’s just super-talented and he just has great instincts.
What was it like finding out you got into Sundance?
I’ve always wanted to go to Sundance since I was a little kid, and you don’t necessarily expect to, even if you have a film you think is good, because the odds aren’t really in your favor when there’s so many submissions, so this blew me away. I cried happy tears and it just put a bounce in my step … I still have a bounce in my step and I feel very happy and honored.
“Danny’s Girl” will screen at the Sundance Film Festival as part of the Midnight Shorts Program on January 25th at 9:45 pm and January 31st at 12:30 pm at the Redstone Cinema 1 in Park City and February 1st at 6 pm at the Tower Theatre in Salt Lake City.