Of the many ways in which you come to identify with Jess (Jasmine Batchelor), the bright, idealistic woman at the center of “The Surrogate” who has her most core beliefs challenged by complications surrounding her pregnancy, the most affecting may be how she becomes gradually and almost imperceptibly overwhelmed by the situation she finds herself in after her best friend Josh (Chris Perfetti) and his partner Aaron (Sullivan Jones) begin to have second thoughts about their decision to ask her to carry their child to term. Their reticence isn’t unjustified when two months into the pregnancy, it’s learned that the baby is assured to be born with down syndrome, but for Jess who has already started to take pride in appreciating the ability to bring a new life into the world, the idea of a difficult life ahead pales in comparison to the joy she’s taking in the moment, even when it seems like the entire world is closing in on her with reason.
By the time Jess is in too deep, you realize that writer/director Jeremy Hersh’s gripping debut feature has snuck up on you as quietly and completely as the impossible decision that its lead is faced with that will define the months and years ahead. With a sharp, empathetic script and powerhouse turn from Batchelor, who subverts her radiance from demonstrating wide-eyed optimism to express a battle-tested self-confidence as Jess begins to reexamine the connections she’s made in her life from the people right in front of her to more abstract ideas about her purpose, “The Surrogate” is undeniably powerful, and it seems simultaneously unfair and yet somewhat fitting thematically that the film has not had the smoothest path to the public, having its premiere at SXSW was cancelled earlier this year where both the director and star surely would’ve been hailed as breakout talents.
As a result, it may take some time for “The Surrogate” to be recognized as one of the year’s major discoveries, but surely it will start this week when the film begins streaming in virtual cinemas and Hersh graciously hopped on the phone to talk about how he crafted such a complex and affecting drama, his collaboration with Batchelor and developing a subtle but effective camera style that doesn’t call attention to itself as it captures a relationship that grows increasingly fractured.
How did this come about?
I feel like the seed of it was being at queer festivals in 2013 with my thesis short film, realizing how cool it is that there is still this audience of queer people who want to see stuff, but that most of what was available was falling into a lot of classic tropes. Either the queer protagonists were these martyrs who were perfect and therefore not that interesting as characters, or the movies were kind of light and silly. I wanted to make something that would hold up a mirror to that type of audience of mostly white, well-to-do cis gay men and look at relationships between gay men and straight women, which is obviously a huge classic trope that I grew up on, and the sometimes weird power dynamics in those relationships. I started researching surrogacy, which I really didn’t know anything about, and then I started going to this community center in New York called Gigi’s Playhouse for People with Down Syndrome and became friends with people there, so I became fascinated and the script grew out of the research.
When the film touches on so many different conflicting viewpoints, was it a challenge to interrogate yourself to the point where each of these characters were fully justified in their perspective?
For me, a really good crucible of whether a project is worth making is whether it is still interesting to me the artist when I’ve been thinking about it pretty much nonstop for years and years? There were a lot of years of trying to get [“The Surrogate”] produced and not making any headway and I don’t actually know the answer to most of the questions posed in the film, but I pretty much agree with most things that are said, so there’s a part of me in every argument that is made. Not to give a spoiler, but there’s the moment where Josh is saying “As gay men, we’ve been through so much…” and that was me trying to look [directly] at the ways in which gay white men sometimes deny their own privilege, which is something I’m sure I’ve been guilty of, and [throughout] there’s little [specific] things like that where it’s like I want to look at X, Y, Z, but for the most part, most of the arguments that are made in the film are something that at some point I have agreed with and there’s a lot of me in all of the different characters.
Jasmine Batchelor is phenomenal in this. What first sold you on her to play Jess?
She just had an essence that reminded me of the character and it’s hard to put into words. It’s funny because in general, I’m not a fan of the audition system [because] I think it can be humiliating for actors. You’re not setting a person up for success necessarily by leading them through that process, so for most of the cast, my casting director [Erica Hart] and I chose most of the cast just based on their previous theater work we’d seen, but for Jess, we met through the traditional audition process and [Jasmine] was just was very easygoing and it was as much about the person as it is about their delivery of the material, and she just got what I was trying to do. We cast her quite a bit before we actually ended up shooting, so there was a long time of she and I talking, She’s also a really great dramaturg and a lot of the conversations we had definitely led to changes in the script.
There were a few things where the morning of a shoot day, Jasmine would say “I don’t really understand this piece of text, this line or this paragraph,” and we would basically rewrite together or I would write and she’d be like, “That’s still not really right,” and then we would talk about it, so I was really interested in the collaborative process. What was great about Jasmine is that she’s a writer herself, so she definitely authored the character with me.
What kind of room was there for the actors to bring themselves to it?
We didn’t have a ton of time to actually rehearse and the little bit of a time that we did have, I wanted to devote most of it to building backstory, doing improv between the three main characters in the time that leads up to the film before the film’s timeline starts to build chemistry. But my philosophy with actors in general is that the script is a blueprint, but I’m giving you responsibility over the character, so if there’s anything you want to rephrase or change, please feel free to do that. You don’t ask my permission ahead of time. Do it in the take, and if I don’t like it, then I’ll tell you, “Hey, let’s actually try this as written,” and so far, the type of improvisation [that’s in the film] very much stays within the general rubric of the scene.
This is terribly abstract to ask, but it seems like structurally, the film is really clever in how it shows all these various permutations of family that aren’t necessarily by blood. Was it difficult to figure out how to embed those ideas of connection?
That’s not something I consciously thought about, but my hope was to treat this type of family planning where it’s a queer couple using a surrogate, [and] it’s that type of family that I think a lot of times we refer to as nontraditional, as neutral and it’s just the canvas upon which the story happens. Obviously it complicates it, not because of the sexuality [involved], but the fact that there’s three voices in that situation. But we talked about how if there’s a viewer who [thinks] “Whoa, surrogacy is so crazy,” and it’s hard to wrap their mind around it, that the movie demands that they catch up. I didn’t want to hold the hand of someone who has never heard of a gay surrogacy before and that’s why partly I like how we have it set up at the beginning where it’s on the viewer to just figure out [from the three people in the scene together] if this is a couple and this is their friend. If you make the assumption this is [Jess’] boyfriend or as the waitress assumes, that’s her brother and your default assumption is heterosexual, then hopefully you feel a little bit stupid. [laughs]
That seems to extend to the camerawork that seems to increasingly comment on the scenes it captures as it grows more emotional with Jess. What was it developing a style for this?
The main conversation I had [with Mia Cioffri Henry, the film’s cinematographer] was that Jess is somewhat disempowered at the beginning of the film. She’s not taking control so much of her own life and she a little bit defined by these relationships to these other people, so she’s smaller in the frame. Then as the film goes on, the camera moves in closer, and she starts to literally take up more space — more of the frame — and the idea was also that the camera starts to pivot on her axis more so as the character is taking more control, she’s actually taking more control of the viewer’s perspective. Another idea was that in the beginning when the three main characters are on the same page, we can be in a single shot [where] it’s pretty easy to fit all three of them in the frame and then as their relationship becomes more strained and breaks down, the camera has to do more work to try to get them all in the same shot, so we have certain moments of the camera moving around, trying to capture all of them and then there’s also more cutting because the camera has to be able to see all three of them [when] they’re physically more separate.
Was it any different making a feature?
I don’t know that I have that interesting an answer other than this was way more of a marathon and it was crucial to me that there be social and political ideas that were being explored in this, which is not really true of my last short “Actresses.” That was a character study and I’m happy with that, but in the many years that this took to make, I definitely had a lot of self-doubt and a lot of rejection, so every time [that happened], I was thinking, “Is this even worth it? Is this movie even going to be good?” The answer I could always fall back on, even when I was really down on myself and my own artistic abilities, is that it doesn’t matter how good the movie is because if it can still provoke conversation about these topics or encourage anyone to research these more, then it’s still a net positive. That sustained me through the long process.