Interview: Julia Bales on Showing Growth with “Uproot”

When conceiving “Uproot,” Julia Bales couldn’t possibly have imagined that the whole world would remain indoors, much like Greg (Ptolemy Slocum), the man at the center of her latest short whose despair can be seen in his unfettered beard and the plants that have grown to the point of turning his living room into a jungle. Grieving a loved one, he can’t find his way out, but that could change when his sister Nina (Joey Ally) shows up, making a long overdue visit before Greg is forced out of the place when he can hardly make rent when he refuses to leave the house at all.

Ironically, watching Nina coax Greg out of the house is definitely a reason for audiences to stay in as Bales, who has shown such a deft touch for revealing humanity in the most uncomfortable of moments with both humor and heart in previous films such as “Us Funny” and “Golf!” With a pair of moving performances from Slocum and Ally, paired with the intricate production design of Madelyn Wilkime, “Uproot” gets inside a make-or-break moment for its siblings in such a precise way that it proves transporting even when Nina and Greg are feeling stuck themselves. With the film debuting online today as a Vimeo Staff Pick — and can be watched right here below, Bales spoke about how she was inspired to tell a story of isolation well before it became so relevant, an eventful one-day shoot and opting for an online premiere at a time when many filmmakers are trying to find the best way forward for their films.

Before getting to the film itself, how did this online premiere come about?

We shot it back in October and did all of our [festival] submissions for the entire year and were planning to just wait and see what happened through the summer. I had a phone call with Tim and Madelyn, the [executive producers] – Tim produced it and Madelyn production designed it, early into this quarantine, just talking about you know what festivals are going to look like and what we wanted to do. We all agreed that getting into festivals and going to them is really important to us, but we don’t really know what that is going to look like for the next year and this short ended up being oddly timely, so we just decided that we wanted to try our luck with an online premiere. I love festivals, but I’m proud of this thing and I really just wanted to show it and Tim and Madelyn felt the same way, so we made that decision like okay, whatever happens with the rest of them, we’re going to do this instead. I’ve had a lot of other shorts not go the festival route and they’re things that I’m really proud of and I have been really lucky people receiving it well online, so I just wanted to get as many people to see it because I’m proud of it.

How did you and Tim and Madelyn all come together for this initially?

When I was a producer for many years, I actually produced for Tim at this company I was working for [where] he was a freelance director, and I worked with Madelyn as a production designer. So [Madelyn] reached out to me this past summer to just grab a coffee and came to me with the idea of her wanting to have a piece that just showed off a different side of her production design skills that was a little bit more in a stylized world, something where we created a world where plants were taking over, whatever that might mean in whatever capacity we could do. She and Tim were moving out of a duplex and they were like, “We still have some time on our lease, but we’re moving out, so we have this space, so we want it to be in this location and we would love for you to write and direct it.”

I’ve never been prompted to write something like that before, and so I went away [to think about it] and Madelyn and I met up again. We went through a bunch of different ideas — a lot of them went way more in a sci-fi route — and visually, they looked like they were going to be fun, but we couldn’t really figure out the point of the narrative. I did a little bit of workshopping myself, and I was talking to a friend of mine Sarah Mintz, who’s a great filmmaker, and [I told her] “I just feel really trapped with this idea” and she said, “Well, you should do something about feeling trapped!” I was like, “Oh, that’s a great idea.” So that’s how I pitched the narrative to Madelyn about an agoraphobe kind of going through something and using his home to build a safe environment and what it looks like to get kicked out of it. Tim offered to produce it, and edited it as well, so it was just like a great assembling of a team.

It’s interesting to hear the origin involved the duplex since it uses the location so well visually. I was particularly taken with an early shot where you shoot at an angle where Nina and Greg are separate, with her in the kitchen and him in the dining room and you can see the distance between them. Did you see those kinds of opportunities immediately?

With everything that I’m making, I want it to be a little bit different, whether it’s the genre or how I shoot it, so I’ve just been trying to challenge myself to open up what I do. When I sat down with my [director of photography] Luc [Delamare], I had this idea of keeping them really separate for a while at the beginning of the short. If you watched “Golf,” you know I love a good wide shot and I wanted to put as many wides in at the beginning so they feel separate and we also get to show off the space and kind of the messiness and the plants. The specific shot that you’re talking about is what I described to Luc as a Yorgos Lanthimos shot and because the location was ours to use, Luke and I were able to go in the week before we shot and just sit for three hours and go through every single shot and talk through everything. It was just great to collaborate with Luc. I knew I wanted to do something bigger and wider with this, but I didn’t necessarily have everything in mind until I sat down with him.

You’ve starred in most of your shorts. Was it different not having that burden of being an actor?

Yeah, it was great. [laughs] It was a lot different and challenging, but then also easier because also you don’t have to run back and forth doing different things. And it was really great working with Joey and and Ptolemy [because] I feel when you’re acting in something that you’re also writing and/or directing, you basically know what you want for the character, but it was great to sit down with actors and have this conversation of what does this character want and “would they really say this”? I feel like I’ve missed out on that conversation sometimes when I’m in my own shorts, so it was great to have that meeting of the minds, building out the characters even more.

How did Joey and Ptolemy come to mind for this?

I knew Joey for a bit – she’s a fantastic director. She went to Sundance with “Partners” and did “Joy Joy Nails,” but I saw a short film that she wrote and [acted in] called “Are You Still Singing?” and there’s a scene in it where she’s sitting in her car and she’s having a conversation over FaceTime with an ex. It’s really painful, but also really real and casual and then kind of funny, and when I rewatched that it just felt like the right person to play Nina because it felt similar in tone for the opening shot. I reached out to her and I was really, really lucky because Joey literally wrapped her first feature, the day before we shot, which she was writing, directing and starring in, so I was shocked she said yes. I don’t think I would’ve if I were her. I would’ve been like, “No, I want to sleep in.” [laughs]

And I just started watching “Westworld” for the first time while Madelyn had approached me, so Ptolemy was fresh in my mind, but I also had seen him on a show called “Adam Ruins Everything” that a lot of my friends had worked on, including Tim, and he has a way more comedic role in that, so I [thought], “Oh, this guy would be great. He really balances drama and comedy really well.” It was a shot in the dark, but I sent him an e-mail, saying, “Hey, I know we have some mutual work friends. I would love to send you this. You can say no,” and he was so nice and reached back out.

The short film is incredibly different from what I thought it was going to be because of them in the best way possible. It took on such a serious tone and it really is way heavier in the middle of the story than I thought it was going to be [when] I thought it was going to be more of this casual, awkward conversation. They didn’t meet until we shot because we all decided that because these siblings are estranged, we shouldn’t really all hang out together, but they both were both on the same page separately and it was really great.

There’s a slow push-in shot that lets the climax of the film really come across strictly on Greg’s face, watching his reaction to Nina’s plea. What was it like to get that?

It was so beautiful to watch. Luc and I had discussed it going a couple different directions at first, like how we wanted this moment to happen, [thinking] do we want to stay on Joey during that whole monologue? But I decided I wanted to see this person’s full arc of having to make this decision and having to take this huge leap. As someone that hasn’t done such a heavy drama in a really long time, especially something that I’m not in, it was a great reminder that you need to take a lot of time to sink into those moments. We shot [the whole film] in one day, so we had to hop around and shoot things out, but with those specific moments, we just had to sit and read through a couple pages just so Joey and Ptolemy could get into that moment and really feel it emotionally.

That opening tracking shot of Nina arriving at Greg’s house is also something to behold. Did that take some time to get?

Oh my God, it was so stressful. [laughs] It was so great, but again, we shot it in one day. Luc and I had rehearsed it with Joey the weekend before and just the physics and the logistics of the single take, having the car, moving around in the neighborhood and we have the neighbors in that shot too, timing them all out – it was a little hectic in the moment. The great thing about single takes is that once we got a couple that were great, we could move on and our steadicam op [Connor Smyers] was fantastic. And I wanted it to be white hot outside so it felt a little bit more uncomfortable than when you go inside where it’s this cool, calm, eerie space. We shot it in the middle of the day, so we did part of the heavy [emotional] stuff inside, went outside and then we had to go back in and finish it out, but because of that, it really was time and sun dependent, so we were on a strict time budget.

I really love how it turned out. There’s some stuff like Joey hitting the curb that was not intentional, but I’m so happy it’s in there. When Tim and I would go through the edit and watch all the takes [of that shot], we got some really great takes — and I’ll always say thank you to Luc, my DP for doing these crazy things with me — but that one with the accidental curb bump was the best.

Nina’s on the phone the entire time — did Joey actually have someone to bounce off of for the rhythm of that?

At first, we tried it without because Joey and I rehearsed it the weekend before and we were like, “I think we got this.” But then it was difficult with so much going on, so what ended up happening was because I wrote it and I knew the inflection of what it needed to be, I ended up walking down the street, reading the script and doing the timing with Joey. I just gave Luc the monitor and I was like, “You know exactly what we need to do. You know when it’s not going to look good. I trust you. And Luke and Tim were my eyes and I read the lines with Joey.

You obviously conceived of this way before we all were huddled inside, but you can’t help but think about the present moment when watching a film about a guy that needs to get back out into the world. Has the meaning of it changed for you at this time?

It’s similar but different where I look at it and it makes me want to reach out to people I haven’t necessarily kept in touch with even more and make sure that they’re doing okay and I hope that if people take something away from it, it’s calling their brother or sister or maybe being a little bit thoughtful of how we’re all dealing with this a bit differently and we have to meet in the middle.

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