Palm Springs ShortsFest 2023 Interview: Erin Vassilopoulos on a Restless World in “Step Into the Mattress”

There’s a moment where things snap into place even as they look like they’re falling apart in “Step Into the Mattress” as Becky (Eleanore Pienta) and Linda (Eudora Peterson) debate the best way to improve sales at Dreamy’s, “your one-stop shop for quality mattresses when you need them the most,” as the two salespeople are obliged to repeat to the increasingly precious few customers who come through the store. Their boss Diana (Constance Schulman) has tasked them with brainstorming a “golden slogan” that will lure new business with advertising, but passing the time as tumbleweeds threaten to pass through the shop, the two debate the merits of upselling when the chances of a sale are slim to begin, with Linda less inclined to give the hard sell, fancying herself as a body language expert while Becky is far more willing to go all in. The opportunity to prove her point presents itself midway through their conversation when a hapless young man (Keith Poulson) walks into the store aiming to buy two twin mattresses for a guest room and all hell breaks loose once Becky commits to pitching a premium adjustable for his master bedroom instead, with the blizzard of the dizzying hustle taking shape in a whirlwind around the poor guy.

“That scene was really fun because Keith and Eleanore know each other really well and I felt like that should be a moment where we see this woman as unhinged, so the camera should feel freewheeling and a little messier,” said Erin Vassilopoulos, the writer/director of the wickedly funny short. “I think doing these smaller projects and I have also directed some music videos recently has been really helpful, working with a couple different DPs and try some different shooting styles because through film school and my shorts and then ‘Superior,’ I have been developing a style, but I feel I’m still figuring that out and it’s worth trying different things.”

Few directors are as careful in crafting their compositions as Vassilopoulos, which is why it’s so exciting to see the writer seizes the chance to cut loose after her beguiling 2021 feature debut “Superior” in which real-life twin sisters Alessandra and Ani Mesa play siblings who switch lives. The filmmaker finds another dynamic duo in “Step Into the Mattress” with Pienta and Peterson, whose sales associates may have a different attitude on just about everything but end up bonding over their new product, a latex vacbed that clings to the skin like intense pressure they feel in their daily lives. Though Linda calls Becky “a one-layer lasagna,” the film discovers plenty going on underneath the surface for both and what can be appreciated purely as a zesty broad comedy lingers as something as deep and rich as the bold colors that Vassilopoulos often brings to her productions when its characters feel free to speak about their sense of isolation once any concerns about how it looks to the rest of the world that wants to force them into a box because of their appearance or social standing falls away.

When Vassilopoulos’ work has been laced with an irresistible sense of surprise, it is quite a pleasant one this summer to see the filmmaker being celebrated from coast-to-coast this week, with “Step Into the Mattress” making its world premiere at the Palm Springs Shortsfest over the weekend surely en route to a thriving run on the festival circuit and a celebratory screening of “Superior” on June 30th at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as part of the fourth annual “The Future of Film is Female” series where the director will be on hand for a post-screening Q & A with her co-writers and leading ladies. In the midst of a busy schedule, Vassilopoulos graciously found the time to talk about all that she’s been up to lately, the excitement of experimentation and testing out vacuum-sealed beds.

How did this come about?

I’ve been developing this feature for a while now and I got a grant towards the feature, but it was specifically a production grant, so we weren’t able to use it for pre-production and it had an expiration date, so basically the grantees said, “You can’t use it for anything else, but you could write a short that’s somehow in the same world.” There’s a mattress store in the feature, but tonally it’s very different and the characters are different, so I decided to try my hand at an absurdist comedy in part. In my research for the feature, I came across the vac bed, which is the nighttime hobby that [the characters] have in the store. And I stumbled on that and researched it for the feature, watching videos [of how it worked] and then it reminded me of a mattress ad I had seen, so those two things superimposed [on one another].

I was also very inspired by Eleanore Pienta, who plays one of the leads Becky. I met her at a festival back in 2015 and I had been following her work for a while, so I [thought], “Well, maybe I’ll write something small in a mattress store with Eleanore,” and she actually introduced me to Eudora — I had seen a little bit of Eudora’s work, but didn’t know her [at the time]. Getting to work with them and the other cast was great — they’re all super-talented comedian actors In New York and we also shot during the pandemic, so it was slightly stressful from a production standpoint, but it was really fun.

Did you actually find a mattress store to film in or did you have to haul all of those beds into a space?

Yeah, we found a a family-owned mattress store in Yonkers that was really nice to let us shoot there because we only had this grant to use and it was pretty low budget. At some point, I was kind of like going down the path of “Can we build this on a stage?” But it’s just too expensive and we brought in some stuff, but all the mattresses and the colors were there [already], so we really just enhanced the store and they gave us two days to shoot [while] they were closed.

I never shot something like just in one location, maybe [other than] another short I’ve done but it was very different. And I worked with Darryl Pittman, a [director of photography] I had worked on a music video together a year prior, and I was trying to embrace the artificiality of this store and create a heightened, bizarre sales floor, but without being able to change the space. It was definitely a bit different in all respects from what I normally am up to, but it felt good to try something new.

There has usually been an underlying comic tone to your work, but was it interesting to bring it to the surface?

Yeah, I think there’s always at least a little wink to things that I’m writing and like a little bit of camp, but this was definitely like pushing that full throttle into absurdist territory. I don’t know if I could picture writing something like longer in this tone, but it felt like because the world was so contained, it could be like this. And “True Stories” comes to mind — this is one of my favorite movies, and I was thinking about that and I do think there’s some crossover.

Was there anything that came up that you might not have expected that changed your ideas about this?

We had to improvise a little bit with the vacbeds because it was hard for the actors to stay in for very long. We tested them in advance and had someone [on set] who’s worked with them. She actually works in a BDSM dungeon and had familiarity with them and I tested it first just to make sure like the actors could see [it was safe], but it was a little bit claustrophobic being in that thing. That scene [where the characters are inside them] became a little more impressionistic [where] we started shooting pieces of it, staying on their faces and we were having to break that up quite a bit and I actually like I like how that scene turned out, but otherwise it was pretty planned in advance for how we were going to shoot [because] we only had two days in the store.

Was it coincidental the color of the vacbeds matched the outfits of the leads or did one lead to the other?

I found that color called Atomic Orange really funny and we got the vacbeds first. Then our costume designer, who I worked with on Superior, and I were looking at suits and liked the idea that there was some like echo there that the suits that the women are wearing are near the color of the vacbeds that they end up in, so that was definitely planned. And the vacbeds are custom-made and they’re pretty hard to find, and at that time there was like a shortage of latex — there was a supply chain issue, so I remember there actually were not very many colors [to choose from], but I really liked that color — it felt zany and really fit into this world.

You’re also able to do something really cool with the music where the score seems extrapolated from the end song. How did that work?

Yeah, I had worked on a music video for The Wants prior to this and I had that song in my head and initially I thought Madison Velding-VanDam, who is in the band, was maybe going to do some original score, so we started editing with that song, and it really fit the tone and the rhythm that I had in mind, and he was happy to adapt the song. We used the stems from the existing song and he adapted that and he added a little bit of score to the vacbed sequence, but the song was the spine of the score.

It looks like an exciting time for you, both with this and with the screening of “Superior” at MoMA next week.

Yeah, we got to have some theatrical screenings when “Superior” came out, but all of our festival stuff was virtual, so we still haven’t had that many in-person screenings and I am super grateful to be part of that series. Caryn Coleman, who runs this organization The Future of Film is Female, has run this series every summer for the past few years and has been super supportive of “Superior” and actually gave us a small finishing grant for “Step Into The Mattress,” so there is a little bit of crossover there. I’ve never screened anything at MoMA, so I’m super-honored. Ani and Ale [Mesa], are going to be at the screening for Q&A too, so it’ll be a nice little reunion.

“Step Into the Mattress” will continue on the festival circuit and “Superior” will screen at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on June 30th at 7:30 pm and is also available on Blu-ray through Factory25 and streamable on Criterion Channel.

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