SXSW 2024 Interview: Jessica Barr on Getting Audiences Wound Up in “Tight”

“Tight” begins with a shot of a couple running out of the sun, romantic when it could be seen as the dawn of a new day after they’ve had a baby or frustrating when the light is so bright it obscures their presence. Certainly, the new mother (Fabianne Therese Gstottenmayr) in Jessica Barr’s unnerving new short has felt a loss of identity since giving birth, not feeling a post-partum depression necessarily but certainly not feeling like who she once was, though she can be seen falling back on compulsive habits of the past such as wrapping everything around her in Saran Wrap to feel normal. Sex, which she once enjoyed, no longer gives her pleasure and a stray comment from her husband (Elliot Cross) about her body’s return to form post-pregnancy gets her wondering whether that happened naturally or not.

Bells ring throughout “Tight,” first in the young woman’s head and subsequently in Mel Guerison’s inventive score, that grow into alarms as Barr makes an arresting horror film for the times we’re in where bodily autonomy is seemingly up for debate. Raising the question alone is scary, but the writer/director pushes it to particularly frightening places with a fearless turn from Therese Gstottenmayr, playing the unnamed mother whose uncertainty about herself is bound to drive her mad. Best known as an actress from such films as “Sophie Jones” and “Can’t Seem to Make You Mine,” Barr clearly knows how to get plenty out of them, but would seem to demand plenty from herself behind the camera when tackling the most intimate of subjects in such a tasteful yet terrifying way.

With the film set to unsettle audiences in Austin this week with its premiere in the midnight shorts section of SXSW, Barr spoke about how she was inspired to make “Tight,” filming blind when she had the opportunity to shoot on celluloid and having risks pay off in all aspects of the production.

How did this come about?

It was funny. I was on a walk with a couple of girlfriends and you just start getting to the age where everyone’s talking about having babies and my friend just casually [said], “Yeah, but like the ‘husband stitch,’ would I be scared to have a baby?” And I was like, “What are you talking about?!?” And she brought up this procedure that’s very rare but happened in the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s that when you did give birth, sometimes your husband would insert himself to the conversation when the wife is on painkillers, instructing whoever is stitching her up to make it tighter, and I just [thought], that is like the ultimate horror to me. And I can’t ever [orgasm] from sex? That is horrible and evil.

At the same time, I also had a lot of health issues the past two years, and growing up my mom also had cancer my whole life, so I just had a lot of terror and trauma involved in going to hospitals and getting paired with doctors at urgent carethat tell you things that actually aren’t true and you need a second or third opinion. All of these things morphed together into this story of the horror of going to hospitals and getting the wrong information, but then also how it can be corrected by going to another doctor getting another opinion. When I heard about the “husband stitch,” it all came together.

Was directing something that was always of interest or did it become so in your work as an actress?

I think [started out] more like I really loved acting and writing and it’s one less person to figure out how to get them on board, and the first couple times I directed shorts I had been like so heavily producing all my stuff that directing was almost an afterthought. I just worked with actors that I really trusted and I did on this too, but this probably was the first time where I could actually direct people and have the space because we planned out all the shots to do that. It seemed very natural to me because I had prepped well and I had other producers helping me do the logistical stuff, so I could really just rehearse with the actors while the shots were getting set up. That was such a joy and this project taught me that I really do like directing when I’m not having to act in it and produce it so heavily.

You’ve got a great lead in Fabianne Therese. How’d the two of you connect?

Fabi and I met because we actually got the same grant from the Future of Film as Female a couple of years back, so I knew her first as a director and she had made this short that I thought was really funny and phenomenal. It’s on No Budge and she acts in it as well and I thought there was something so fearless about her personality. She’s so open and so blunt. She’s just a very emotionally available person and I hadn’t seen a lot of her other work [as an actor], but based off of the short I [thought], she would be amazing in [“Tight”] and I just hit her up. This was right before the actors’ strike and the writers’ strike was already going on, when we shot this, so everyone had time. If that strike hadn’t happened, I don’t think I would’ve been able to connect with her, but she was great. We had one rehearsal before we got there with the other actor talking through their relationship, and once we got there, we rehearsed the scenes lightly, but she’s so great and present. It was awesome to work with her.

There’s an amazing scene in the film that I wouldn’t want to spoil involving a mirror, but it probably would’ve been too explicit to ask of any actor and you find a way to not only pull it off tastefully but all the more interesting because of how it’s shot. Did you find more creative solutions when you couldn’t do something more direct?

Yeah, from the get-go, I [thought] this is a sexual film, but I don’t think you need to see it. I always think about the first scene in “Fleabag” where she’s having sex, but [the shot is just] on her face. It’s almost more terrifying to me [in “Tight”] to not see what’s going on and just have that super close-up. Then this is such a sound-heavy film with the bells [of the score] and the Brian Eno-like vibe and then the saran wrap with breathing and all that, so I wanted to challenge myself and I knew I don’t need to show things for something to be scary. We get that from the amazing actors‘ performances and their faces, so it was just awesome to have them do that for me because they were so capable.

You’ve got a great location as well for the couple’s house. Was there a search for that or some place you knew?

That was actually my godmother’s house, and what’s funny is I shot my first short film [at her last home] in Oregon, and she moved to San Pedro a year ago, and I just [thought], “This house is amazing.” The lawn shot [you can see in the publicity still] we got was over her balcony, which has this fake patch of grass and it was such a great location. I was so lucky. I [asked her], can we please do this? And she’s done it before, but letting someone into your house is sometimes crazy.  She was also my old acting teacher growing up, so it’s just a full circle thing.

That’s beautiful. And did you actually shoot on film? Because this has such a great texture to it. 

Yeah, we did shoot on film. Sarah [Whelden], my [director of photography] and I had really wanted to shoot on film and then my producer had access to a film camera for free through this program that he is involved in, so we just had all of these pieces and weirdly it was more cheap to shoot on film than it would to rent a whole camera [package] just because we had the camera and Tom Kuo at Company 3 scanned everything for us, which was awesome, so it just worked out. We actually didn’t have a video tap, so there was no monitor and I had no way to see the shots. [Sarah] would just line it up, take a photo on her phone and I would approve it and we had [already] shot reference frames for everything, so I already knew what everything [would look like] but there was definitely a lot of trust. I was very much just looking at the actors the whole time and that was a cool new experience because there was no way to watch it back and we’d only [do scenes] twice or three times max.

You’re impressing me way more than I already was with it, which is no small feat. What’s it like to get it to SXSW?

It’s so surreal. I literally thought South By was punking me. It’s the only thing I’ve made that from the beginning, I wrote it in one sitting, and then we shot it three weeks later and I was just [thought], “This works.” Sometimes you’re like, “This person’s going to be great in it, and I know what things are going to look like” since I also edited it, but normally I have some horrible thing that is uncontrollable [that happens], and on [“Tight”] I was just very lucky. Everyone’s energy was great on set. The crew was amazing and it all came together very naturally, and I’m just excited for people to see it. When “Sophie Jones” came out, the world was shut down, so I haven’t actually seen anyone watch my work in a theater with a lot of people and I feel lucky to see how people [respond in person]. To me, it is a funny film that’s also very uncomfortable, and I really just hope I can hear laughter. That’s what I’m most excited for.

“Tight” will screen at SXSW as part of the Midnight Short Program on March 10th at 6:45 pm at Alamo Lamar 5 and March 14th at 9 pm at Alamo Lamar 6.

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