Santa Barbara Film Fest 2023 Interview: Julia Bales on Going to Parts Unknown in “Followers”

There’s a gentle surreality to the opening scene of “Followers” when Emma (Taylor Misiak), who is new to the neighborhood catches Wendy (Joey Ally) in the street, tending to her dog and wants to strike up a conversation. Instinctually, one might worry they might be at risk of being swiped by a passing car, yet they’re in relative safety, standing on a patch of land where it only looks like they’re in harm’s way. It wasn’t necessarily what writer/director Julia Bales had in mind when she first conceived the film, but there couldn’t have been any better introduction for what comes next in the unsettling short.

“In Hancock Park, there are these wide neighborhood streets with these beautiful houses, but that was just going to be something budget-wise and time-wise that was impossible to find, so I was on location scout and we went and looked at the house and thought, “This house is perfect, let’s look at the street,’” recalls Bales, who had gone to look for locations with her partner Jim Cummings. “And the street was so packed with cars and so narrow that it was just never going to work, but we saw this dead end — this beautiful park with this little grassy patch, and I just set up my camera and had Jim come stand in the center, and said, ‘Let me just see what this looks like.’ This is not what I originally planned, but I love the symmetry of it too. It just was a stroke of luck.”

Coincidence is a matter of opinion, both behind the camera when it’s clear that Bales’ eye has only continued to sharpen over the course of films like “Golf!” and “Uproot,” and as “Followers” unfolds and Wendy has the sneaking suspicion that meeting with Emma, who subsequently invites herself and her partner Mike (Bill O’Neill) over for dinner, was no chance encounter. The two won’t be neighbors for long when Emma may be moving in and Wendy’s on her way out, already set to move to Malibu with her significant other (Cummings) with a successful business as an influencer, but in conversation with Emma, she has to wonder whether all the information she’s putting out online, even as careful as she is about curating her personal image, is coming back to haunt her.

Bales, not one to tip off an audience as to whether they should laugh or recoil in horror as they cringe, lets Wendy sit with this discomfort that no amount of red wine will quell, and “Followers” finds a unique way to capture both a part of the culture in Los Angeles and a broader element in the social media age where raising your profile is often rewarded but can have unintended consequences. Making great use of its wide framing as dinner is served, the film will look fantastic on the big screen when it premieres this weekend at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival and on the eve of its debut, the filmmaker spoke about how picking apart her worst thoughts led to the tantalizing short, finding her note-perfect cast and poring over the details that fill the film with life.

How did this come about?

It was 2020, I was at home on the internet a lot and I just became really fascinated with the influencer YouTube culture. I find it incredibly interesting how in entertainment and in Los Angeles, they report on when people buy houses. There’s a Web site called Dirt [where] it’ll just be like, “This person bought a $6 million home in the Hollywood Hills” and then it has all of the Zillow information for that house. I was [thinking], “What would I do if I was like a bad version of myself?” It would be so easy to find where someone lives because you can just Google Reverse Image Search and all of these things that are very easy to do to figure out where people live and I [thought], “Well, if it was someone I really liked, I would try to become their friend, but in a natural way. Bring my dog, they have a dog…I know what coffee shop they like going to.” And I just thought it was a really interesting premise, if I just use my powers for bad, and then I talked to my partner Jim about it and he’s like, “I think you should write it,” so I just started working on it and it was this natural progression of just being really fascinated by how both open and intrusive we all are.

It seemed like your most ambitious short with the number of scenes and a bigger ensemble. Was it different?

Theoretically, I’m trying to close the chapter on short filmmaking and kind of move into maybe the feature space, so I wanted this to really be something that was more ambitious for myself and we shot it over two days — I usually shoot in a single day. But whatever short I do, I try to make them different, just for me and for an audience, even though they’re all rooted in these conversations that are grounded. The writing itself took a long time, just because I really wanted it to feel incredibly natural, and once I found the location, everything else came into place and I really wanted this to be something that felt different and a little bit bigger. I also told myself I’m not going to worry about a post-deadline because I want this to be the best version of what it can be. We shot it last January and I think we picture-locked and sound-locked in August, so it was an eight-month post and I was working in between, but I wanted it to be as beautiful and big as it can be within the confines that I had.

You save yourself some trouble when it’s a film about the virtual space, but none of the film actually lives there. Was that tricky to figure out?

It purposefully wasn’t in consideration. I find when I watch things that are modern and have to do with technology, it’s too heavy-handed with social media, even though social media is something that is so ingrained into our lives. It just kind of turns me off, so I never want the technology of it all to be a main character. It almost becomes too timely and I always want things to feel evergreen, even if we’re talking about things that are modern technology or something about the future.

I imagine Jim and Joey Ally, who was in your last film “Uproot,” were in mind from the start, but how did this cast come together?

Yeah, as soon as I finished the first draft, I knew I wanted Joey to be the influencer. I love working with her and she is someone that just fit the bill of this person who can captivate a room, but you would also want to be friends with her. She’s a really nice person who’s grounded, but also has like this commanding presence and could totally be an influencer if she wanted to. She talks a mile a minute and I just love her as a person and an actor, so I wanted her to be that character and Jim probably would be the second person because I was looking for someone who be able to match Joey, but also be the calmer presence for her in the couple.

Then when it came to the [other] couple, I felt really lost for a really long time. I did a couple auditions with a couple people and I’m friends with Taylor Misiak, but I assumed because she’s on television — she’s on the show “Dave” — there’s no way she would ever do a short film. I was talking to her boyfriend at one point and he was like, “You should totally consider Taylor.” And I was like, “Don’t you think she would be too busy?” She was so nice, and she was just that perfect person that is able to do this kind of “Single White Female” stalker, but also keeps you guessing because she’s so personable and charming that you leave going, “Was she stalking him?” Or “Was this just a weird misunderstanding?”

And the last cast member Bill [O’Neill], I had another filmmaker in mind, but he was picture-locking his own feature, so I tweeted out asking for actors that would be good at being an uncomfortable dinner guest. A guy that I went to a college party with that didn’t go to my school, DM’d me and said, “Hey, I have friends that have worked with this actor. You should check him out.” And I stalked him on the internet. [laughs] And I thought, “This guy has a great look” and we had a bunch of mutual friends and I reached out to him. The second that I saw the beginning of his audition, I thought “Yep, this is the guy.” So it did take a little bit of time and tweaking to find the right cast.

Was there anything that you might not have expected that you could get excited about?

Everyone brought a lot to their characters and a lot of it is word for word from the script, but Bill doesn’t have a lot of lines, but he does have a really important role and he brought everything into that character to make him kind of sad, kind of weird, but also funny, so you’re rooting for him, but you also know he may kind of be one of the villains of the story. He just brought a lot of depth to the character that I was just not expecting. And everybody brought something different.

My favorite part of shorts is when you have the time is to meet with the cast ahead of time, so with each person, if there are any questions or notes on the script, I would talk with them over a phone call or we’d meet up. It was the same with “Uproot” where Joey and Taylor would come in with questions and if I couldn’t answer them, we could answer them together. I feel like that was a place for us to edit before we got on set and really shape their character. Joey does so much background work that you don’t even see — we spent a lot of time talking about “Well, how did she get famous?” — but she gets really into creating the full backstory of the character.

You can tell that depth of character from the costumes — you get an influencer vibe from Joey’s outfits before you even find out that’s what she does, and with the Dodgers shirt, Taylor’s character seems to be character is trying a little too hard to be an Angeleno. What was that process like?

With short films, you end up sourcing a lot yourself or you end up asking the actors, so what I started doing with all my shorts is build mood boards ahead of time and for Joey’s, she was originally even more of a pristine, clean-cut vibe, like a makeup/wellness influencer and what we found together is taking the heart of that mood board and then adding a little of this confident vintage glam to it, which I think fits Joey really well. Then with Taylor, it was exactly that L.A. hipster girl uniform of a vintage tee and jeans. My friend owns a vintage clothing company, so I went there to shop through her inventory and she’s like, “I have this vintage L.A. thing and it could be really funny because she just moved here and she’s trying really hard.” So I thought that’s genius. And then for Jim, I just wanted him to seem like this influencer husband, very clean J. Crew vibe and for Bill, not messy because he’s very put together, but more like the wool sweater that he brought, [which] was just perfect. He wore it in the audition and I’m just like, “Wear that. That’s exactly what I need.”

You set a really intriguing tone with the camerawork as well – it has slow, creeping shots that suggest a thriller, but there’s an airiness more like a comedy. What was it like figuring out the mood?

I feel like I’ve always been a fan of working in wides, but I think I was scared to use them more in my last couple shorts, so I really just wanted to do something that really felt like me. And I’d been watching a lot of Ruben Ostlund before “Triangle of Sadness” came out. I watched “The Square” [where I thought] “I love the feeling of what is he doing with his DP [and asked myself] what am I responding to?” It’s just letting things play out. There’s another filmmaker Johnson Cheng, who has some amazing short films and he works in wides a lot and lets the locations be a part of the story, so I also watched a lot of his shorts beforehand and when Adam [Lee, the director of photography] and I talked about it and I walked him through what I wanted to do, we found some really great lenses. We shot on his Alexa Mini and I just knew that I wanted it to feel a little bit more uncomfortable. It’s not a horror at all and I wouldn’t even say it’s a thriller. It’s more of a psychodrama or I’ve been calling it a neurotic thriller because it’s all in her head, but I didn’t want it to feel so cutty with coverage because I just wanted the audience to really be caught up in the uncomfortable moments and the pure social interaction of all of these people.

I’m glad you described it because it was a blessing and a curse for me to try to when being indescribable is one of its best qualities. And I’m trying to remember – is this actually your first time playing a festival?

Yes and no. “Golf” played at New Orleans Film Festival and Hollyshorts and then Jim and I made a film many moons ago called “Us Funny” and that played at Palm Springs, but I feel like a completely different filmmaker, so even though it’s not true, I want to say yes.

“Followers” will screen at the Santa Barbara Film Festival as part of the Narrative Shorts 2 program: When a Moment Changes Everything” on February 12th at 2:20 pm at the Metro 4 Theater Auditorium #2 and February 14th at 4 pm at Fiesta 5 Theatre Auditorium #2.

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