Chase Williamson in "Whiskey Fist"

SXSW ’17 Interview: Gillian Wallace Horvat on Breaking All the Rules with “Whiskey Fist”

Gillian Wallace Horvat is a risk-taker, so it’s only natural that an ex-boyfriend would bring her attention to a short film contest put on by a liquor company in which one would write a short screenplay lionizing such a trait and if it was deemed worthy, they would win the opportunity to direct their film and work with a major producer and actress. Having recently won the Grand Jury Prize for Midnight Shorts at SXSW for the wicked comedy “Kiss Kiss Fingerbang,” featuring Kate Lyn Sheil and the late Anton Yelchin, Horvat seemed like just the kind of up-and-coming filmmaker that they were looking for. Then she read the fine print of the contest rules.

“There were all these hilarious rules that they’re bound by because alcohol advertising has certain stipulations. You can’t show anybody drinking and there’s other rules like no unprotected sex, no illegal activity,” says Horvat. “I thought, I’m going to send them a script, but then I looked at the rules and if you even sent it to them, they own it for forever and it’s such an opportunity to get fucked.”

Taking that notion to its natural conclusion, Horvat was inspired to put pen to paper anyway. Rather than making a glorified liquor commercial, the director instead allowed the ludicrous rules surrounding the contest to become a mother of invention as they gave birth to “Whiskey Fist,” a film in which a man gets impregnated by a bottle of unnamed bourbon. Like the conception of the film itself, what begins as a dirty-minded joke grows into something more serious and even poignant as Justin (Chase Williamson) begins to comprehend the extent of male privilege and sympathizes with what the women in his life – his co-worker Ashley (Megan Mercier), his mother Karen (Heather Kafka) – go through on a daily basis as his bun in the oven grows. Outrageous though it may be, “Whiskey Fist” is grounded by its sincere performances, particularly from Williamson and Kafka, and a keen sense to heighten reality in a way that reflects our own as Justin braves going to work when he starts to show and earns the ire of anti-abortion protestors when he considers ending the pregnancy.

Shortly before SXSW gets underway, Horvat spoke how her ire at the ad industry and the recent redoubling on the war on women conspired to create “Whiskey Fist,” as well as the unexpected influence of Yasujiro Ozu on the film’s visual style, being careful with using her cousin’s award-winning real estate office as a set, and her triumphant return to Austin.

How did this come about?

I was looking for stuff to do after “Kiss Kiss Fingerbang” and my ex-boyfriend showed me this contest online. I felt hesitant to begin with and when I looked at the contest more closely, I realized it was really contractually exploitative to the filmmaker. [The rules] were written like a legal document that was very much in the brand’s favor, so even if they didn’t make it, they owned [the script] in perpetuity, and I thought it was really meretricious and really dishonest that they were pitching it as an opportunity for emerging filmmakers when really what they wanted was thousands of free ideas and good publicity. This contest came right after the new season of “Project Greenlight” and seeing what happened to that guy, who you can’t help but feel sorry for because he does seem talented, nobody can come out a winner in that situation and nobody does, except for Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.

[So I thought] “Yeah, I’m going to send them a script of this guy who ends up taking a risk by getting fucked up the butt with this alcohol brand’s product and he gets pregnant and his life falls apart.” It started as just something I blurted out, but when I started thinking about [the idea], I was thinking, “That’s kind of interesting, with what’s going to right now with the slow rollback and the war of attrition against women’s reproductive rights. There could be something here.”

Around the time I did “Kiss Kiss Fingerbang,” I got a manager and I saw this career trajectory like, oh yeah, finally now a feature’s going to happen, everything’s going to go in one direction. But that’s pretty much never how it happens. There’s always dips and dales and my manager and I split ways in November, so I was like it’s going to be so much harder to get a feature going. Making a short for me was the right thing to do two years ago to get people looking at my work, but time has passed and I thought I should show that I can keep doing this. So that was one reason [to] do another short. But the other was the response to “Kiss Kiss Fingerbang,” which was so polarizing. There are people who love it and people who hate it and there’s nobody who really feels ambivalent about it. This time I wanted to make a short that was more of a crowdpleaser, not that people would feel ambivalently about, but something that was less disturbing and a little more political. And seeing the hypocrisy of this advertising/branding contest made me feel vindictive against the advertising/branding industry, so I made that character an intern at a branding company.

You seemed to have a lot of fun with the art on the walls, blaring memes like “Brand Lives Matter.” Where did those come from?

It was really fun coming up with the slogans — Dayna [Smith, the production designer] made those and that was part of me showing that I felt that branding really does an excellent job of mixing high and low into the most appealing setting, and that seemed like one of the most apt acts of co-optation that I could think of. It just seemed like that is something that a branding office would appropriate to use for their message and show how cool they were on so many levels, taking these Ed Ruscha fonts and slogans and put them on these posters that look like the posters that you see stapled to telephone poles advertising local concerts.

With that opening scene, you also establish well how rampant the sexism is as Justin and his co-worker Ashley are visited by another co-worker (Peter Vack) who speaks to them completely differently based on their gender. It seems like it may be another sly act of subversion that the camera initially trains on Ashley before turning to Justin, as if it’s her story you were going to tell. How did you come up with it?

I had to put the exposition there in the beginning of showing Justin not having any sympathy towards the situation that the one woman in the office was facing, just feeling to him like, “Not my problem.” And the point was to make it his problem, and I also wanted to show him getting absorbed in the latent misogyny of the office culture, which is not necessarily an outward misogyny, but a kind of culture of entitlement and to make that as funny as possible. And I have heard from other people with the script saying, “It was surprising it ended up being Justin’s story,” so I did end up making that less of a jolt by having the camera start with him when he comes through the door, but it was his story from the beginning.

How did you get the cast for this?

When I took “Kiss Kiss Fingerbang” to Cucalorus, I saw Harrison Atkins’ film “Lace Crater” and it was one of the best films that I saw last year. Chase [Williamson] has a very small part in that, but he does it so perfectly. He has incredible reactions and really interacts with the rest of the cast really well. and he’s a good ensemble player. When I put together the idea for “Whiskey Fist,” I thought his eyes are just perfect for this because they’re so wide and they bulge a little, which is exactly what you want for somebody who has to have comedic reactions all the time. At the same time, he’s conventionally handsome, so he’s a great leading man — you want to believe that he has the kind of privilege that I’m suggesting he has in the film. Lindsay Burdge to introduced me to Chase and I thought that he would think that it was too weird and he would never want to do it, but instead he turned out to become one of my best friends. We were just supposed to get coffee in Silver Lake and we ended up spending eight hours together.

Then for the rest of the cast, I always wanted to work with Peter [Vack] – he liked “Kiss Kiss Fingerbang” so he was definitely down for it and he actually went to school with Chase at USC, so they really wanted to work together. Megan [Mercier], who plays Ashley, was my old roommate and I wrote that part especially for her because I’d heard her complaining about all the jobs where all of her bosses were idiots and it was so hard for her to act like she didn’t know. We went out to a few people with the mom part and actually Winona Ryder really liked it, but she couldn’t make her schedule work, but that was a dream come true to know she actually liked it. I was asking different directors [about the part, saying], we need somebody who can cry, has comedic timing, is a good actress, looks like she could be Chase’s mom and has big eyes with an innocent look on them. And [“Saturday Morning Massacre” director] Spencer Parsons was like, “It sounds like you’re describing Heather Kafka.” I looked at her credits and I knew she was in my friend Bryan Poyser’s movie “Lovers of Hate,” so I saw that and I saw her “Leftovers” episode, and I thought I’d be lucky to get her. She read the script and she flew out from Austin. A lot of people made sacrifices to do the film — sacrifices of time, sacrifices to get themselves out here [to Los Angeles] and stay out here. I was really lucky.

The office building is also really distinctive with its sliding doors with frosted glass lines. Where did you find it?

That was very fortunate. It’s my second cousin’s real estate office and he wanted to make sure we kept it in really good condition because that office has won design awards. We had to get liability insurance, which was a huge thing in the budget, but it was really perfect. And [the building] allowed me to do a lot of the shots that I’d been wanting to do because I wanted to experiment with showing more naturalistic emotional relationships, like between Justin and his mother, and I really wanted to reference Ozu, who shows melodramatic family relationships in such a compelling way. That’s not how I felt 10 years ago. I never used to like Ozu, but as I got older, something has changed in me where it all feels very real. I always liked “Record of a Tenement Gentleman,” and I took a lot of frame grabs from “Equinox Flower,” his first color film, and just studied the way he put things on baby legs. He shot through the studio floor, but we put [the camera] on baby legs and also let the lines of the space that already exist to help create the frames. I thought it worked for him, so why not?

I was really nervous shooting the vomiting scene because I was like, “Guys, we can’t get this carpet dirty. Otherwise, my cousin is going to kill me.” So we put tarp everywhere – [including] on Chase’s lap and Chase was like, “I’m really good at throwing up. Don’t worry! Nothing’s going to get anywhere. I know how to do this.” Of course, that was the moment that my cousin decided to surprise visit the set. And I was like, “Nobody tell him that we’re shooting a vomiting scene. Nobody let him look through the tap. Nobody let him see.” And everything was fine.

It seems like the anti-abortion rally must’ve been a crazy day of shooting as well. What was that like?

It made me feel kind of guilty. Sarah [Winshall], the producer, and I talked about it and she said, “Do you want to shoot outside a Planned Parenthood or a women’s health clinic?” I thought it was just going to make too many people uncomfortable, hearing the awful things that people yell in the film, even though the film is firmly on the side of women’s rights.” So we shot outside a dental clinic in Silver Lake on Sunset Boulevard and I asked a lot of friends who could give up their Sunday morning and come out and do this. A lot of people said yes and we had a lot of fun. Dayna and I, again, made all the posters and she did such a great job because Dayna made them all as if some were by different people and some were by the same people. She’s a legal secretary, not a production designer, and she only really works for me. I think this was her last project, but she’s amazing. Those laminated boards on the walls of the office – she put those in herself.

Fandor is listed as a presenter. What was their involvement? Will they ultimately distribute?

I was so lucky to have Fandor involved because “Kiss Kiss Fingerbang” was a really hard movie to get distributed. Shorts generally don’t get distributed, but Jonathan Marlow [a co-founder of Fandor] saw it and really, really loved it and sold all of Fandor on it. It’s been on and off their most popular film on the entire site, and Jonathan, who’s no longer there, and his protege Amanda Salazar, who’s no longer there, were running a program called the FIX Filmmakers Shorts Program, which was made so any director who already had a film on Fandor could pitch a short to them and as long as they could do it for a certain amount of cash that Fandor was going to put up, and the same amount of cash [could] be raised in the Kickstarter, and they liked it, they would approve it.

I was one of the last two projects approved for the FIX Shorts Program before the regime change. It was me and that really brilliant animator Lawrence Jordan. But it was really crazy because we were supposed to shoot in May, but then people’s schedules made us push it back to September and we found out the regime change had resulted in their lawyers putting a freeze on releasing funds in August, so we didn’t really have some of our funds up until the week before [shooting]. It was really scary. But that is filmmaking and that will happen to me again. Part of Fandor’s deal is that once the film goes on the festival circuit, it will get six months exclusivity on the site and they’ve just always been so supportive.

What’s it like returning to SXSW after the triumph of “Kiss Kiss Fingerbang”?

The “Kiss Kiss Fingerbang” fans will always have a really important place in my heart because I really opened up a vein to make that movie and really pushed people to love me in spite of it. But I want to see if “Whiskey Fist” has a wider appeal. That was definitely the challenge that I set myself in this film was to make something that was not quite so provocative, but really representative of my style and who I am. [The films] are definitely companion pieces. They’re both adult fairy tales. They have the same vulgarity to them, but it seemed important with [“Whiskey Fist”] to bring people into a world that was recognizable so that it could be more shocking when things got weird. Hopefully, it’s not boring.

You know from the opening notes of the score before it even starts it won’t be. How did you get that riff?

That’s Phil Beaudreau from “Kiss Kiss Fingerbang.” He did all of the music again and I gave him certain temp music like Lalo Schifrin, Swedish House Mafia, Phil Collins with Genesis and he built something really original around it. He’s good at finding his own leitmotifs. I really like his piano theme because he played it and I was like, “This reminds me of the ‘Candyman’ theme in a really great way.” And he’d never heard that. [laughs] He’s just as good as Phillip Glass. What can I say?

“Whiskey Fist” will play at SXSW as part of the Midnight Shorts program on March 10th at the Alamo Lamar at 11:30 pm, March 12th at the Alamo Lamar at 8:30 pm, and March 16th at the Alamo Ritz at 9 pm.

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