SXSW 2021 Interview: Jess Brunetto on Growing Closer to Something Drifting Away in “Sisters”

“We could make it a game, a drinking game,” Andy (Mary Holland) proposes in “Sisters,” not long after she arrives at the home of her mother (Florence C.M. Klein) where her older sister Emily (Sarah Burns) has spent the last few years taking care of her with diminishing returns, making it the time to start divvying up her belongings. The pair hasn’t seen each other in a while, so long ago that a boyfriend has come and gone for Andy — Emily can’t recall that the proper pronunciation of his name David is not Day-vid, but Da-veed, and that Andy can’t remember what it’s like to be back in the house she grew up in, hoping to have put her past behind her when she moved to New York in the hopes of starting an acting career, but united by circumstance, the two find they have more in common than they might have when they were growing up as they begin placing color-coded stickers on the items they plan to keep for themselves.

Finding the fun in this naturally bittersweet ritual isn’t limited to the cocktails that Andy starts mixing in “Sisters,” as it marks an auspicious narrative debut for writer/director Jess Brunetto, a longtime editor on some of the most worthwhile half-hour comedies of the last several years, whether it’s “Broad City,” “Man Seeking Woman” or “Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens.” With their mother virtually comatose in the living room, Andy and Emily entertain each other if for no other reason than to keep away the eventuality they’re about to lose such a key figure in their lives, but after the strain it’s placed on their relationship to each other when Andy has been allowed to live her life while Emily has dutifully served as a caretaker, the two can relate to each other again when they’re at a crossroads with neither knowing what the future holds and both holding in a lot more pain than the other knows about.

A host of emotions are let out over the course of the 16-minute short, but the one that emerges most strongly is exuberance when it isn’t only the bold color choices that come to define each character are so striking, but the playfulness with which it tackles such a dramatic subject and watches Andy and Emily tiptoe around what to say to one another. As it premieres at SXSW as part of the Narrative Shorts program – and is available here for a limited time on the Support the Shorts 2021 platform presented by Mailchimp and Oscilloscope, Brunetto spoke about the inspiration behind the film and marshaling the resources to do the story justice, as well as creating an immediate sense of family history with the film’s intricate production design and finding a strong central duo to build around.

How did this come about?

In my day job, I’ve been editing comedy for years and I’ve been really wanting to make the move to directing, so for me, I just took it upon myself that I really need to put my own work out there and find my own voice. The catalyst for this was drawing upon my sister and my brother-in-law’s [experience] taking care of his mother until her passing in their home, coupled with a fictional version of what me and my sister had talked about, [thinking about] what happens when it comes time for our parents, if they get to that situation? Quite frankly, the baby boomers are retiring at a rapid rate before the pandemic, and it’s this bigger thing that’s happening in our society. More and more people are becoming caretakers for their family, so that was something that I was very interested in, but wanted to just make it playful and entertaining.

You’re able to do all that and work in a bunch of different tonal registers. Did your experience as an editor inform that?

That’s definitely true. I’ve been working and playing in different genres and tones since the beginning of my career. To take it all the way back towards the beginning, I worked on a couple Michael Moore films and during those jobs, it was the most serious subject matter, but our task as the editors was, let’s make it funny and that is such a challenge sometimes. So I really wanted to push as much humor in this as possible as I had learned over the years [because] that really resonates with an audience over feeding them facts. The medium is a form of escapism, so I never fought that while writing and directing it.

You thread that needle beautifully. From that opening shot of that bed in the attic, it gives you such a strong sense of Emily’s situation. Did you have the house in mind?

It was a little bit of luck. We shot it in L.A. and I needed to make sure the home wasn’t too glamorous. I wanted it to feel small and comfortable, so you would really believe a single mom and her two daughters would live in this house. The home is actually [that of] an editor I worked with on “American Vandal,” Andy McAllister — I had a couple of editor friends who are both homeowners who said, “We really want to help you. And if it works for you to shoot in our homes, you can have the location for free,” and one interesting thing that happened is, originally in the script, the mother was supposed to be staged in her bedroom. But once we did fall in love with this house, [we realized] all bedrooms were too small to shoot in with a medical bed and then, crew and gear, so we ended up staging the mother in the living room, which I actually think elevated the movie in so many ways. It gave Sarah and Mary a lot more personal interaction with the character of the mother and [became a] constant reminder of what it is like to care for an ailing parent.

How did Mary and Sarah come into the mix for this?

A lot of it was me just sleuthing on IMDb. I had to put together who I imagined in my head could pull this off, and as a director, I’m very interested in taking comedians and putting them in more serious roles. A lot of them are insanely talented actors and they don’t always get to play or show us their full range of skills. It was really just once I had someone in mind, thinking, “Who do I know who might know her? And who do I know who would be kind enough to send an e-mail on my behalf?” In both those cases, it was through my connections working in comedy and somehow by the miracle of the film gods, I tracked down their emails and had people write them on my behalf to introduce us.

When they’re cast, was there anything that they brought that you weren’t expecting?

Yeah, there were always adjustments. The whole morning scene of Sarah eating breakfast with the mother and having a conversation with her was mostly improvised. I really encouraged them to take the material and make it their own because that’s something I did learn as an editor — sometimes the scripted lines are not always the best. If there is a playfulness and an openness on set, you can sometimes get better material, so I was very open to that. I was also open to them cutting dialogue. A couple times, Mary [said], “Can we try it without this line?” And I’m an editor. I get it. If it’s not coming out naturally for you, let’s try it without. The more flexible we all were with each other, it created the more natural performances that we were able to put on screen.

You also have so much history in this house through the production design, and I’ve come to realize I’m a big fan of Madelyn Wilkime, who’s worked on such shorts as “Waffle” and “Uproot.” What was it like building that family history through the props?

It was definitely one of my hardest crew positions to find the right person for. There was literally a point where I was like, “Am I going to production design this movie myself?” Thankfully, a director friend talked me out of it, and I got a recommendation about Madelyn from a comedy friend who had worked with her husband, Tim, who’s a writer/director. When I met with Madelyn, I had already honed in on the fact that I wanted to work with the primary colors, and do triadic color blocking, so basically, I assigned each of the women a color. The mother was all yellow. Emily, who’s [played by] Sarah Burns, was all blues. And then, Andy, played by Mary Holland, is all reds. So she really took that and ran with it. Our tastes clicked immediately. She found this amazing phone…

I was going to ask about the phone – it’s a showstopper.

Yeah, that is my favorite prop. It’s like sequins on the top and lined with fur, and it was blue. Again, that’s Emily’s color and it also has a very throwback vibe. I wanted everything in the house to feel like a time capsule of their childhood bedrooms. [Madelyn] also did amazing work with creating family photos. There was a whole painting in the house that she painted for us in primary colors, but it also had the function of covering the TV on the fireplace mantle, which I didn’t exactly want in the frame. In each of the bedrooms are magazine clippings of inspiring women — there’s Barbara Walters in Emily’s room and Princess Diana. And Andy is more punk rock girls, so she has of Ani DiFranco and Hole. So creating that backstory through the production design, she totally understands character and story and is able to bring that to the forefront of her visual aesthetic and design.

We’re still on the eve of the film’s premiere, but what’s it like having this under your belt?

It’s still a little fresh. Not a lot of people have seen the movie yet and of course, the pandemic has put a little kink in everyone’s plans. But I’m approaching it in two different ways. One is I’m using it as a springboard to work on my own feature films and try to launch into that world. Before the pandemic I was shadowing other directors I knew on TV shows, trying to learn the ropes, trying to get comfortable with that scale of production. “Sisters” was an opportunity to have a calling card with my own voice and my own brand of what I really can bring to the table, and my producing partner Christian Baker is also my husband, and even though “Sisters” was a solo project of mine, we work together a lot and we actually write together a lot, so I’m excited about where it’s going to lead. I don’t fully know the answer yet, but I’m so happy I made this movie.

“Sisters” will screen at SXSW on March 16th beginning at 8 am CST.