Interview: Julia Bales on Teeing Up a Difficult Yet Rewarding Conversation in “Golf!”

Shortly after “Golf!” made its online debut on No Budge, Julia Bales was amused to see it categorized by Vimeo under the “Drama” section, being pretty sure she made a comedy, albeit a deeply uncomfortable one.

“That was hilarious up top, but I do think it’s a really serious subject,” says the writer/director in tackling the tricky topic of sexual harassment with her latest film. “And I think even in the most serious moments, there could be something funny and vice versa, so I really like that it is more grounded.”

You can’t help but smile upon seeing the ingenuity with which Bales finds a way to insert a female perspective into conversations that have long been dominated by men, both in a figurative and physical way with “Golf!”, hitting the links under a bevy of makeup to play Hank, a middle-aged man who can afford to go to shoot 18 holes on a whim with a pal (Chris Doubek). Engaging in the kind of “locker room talk” they wouldn’t dare in mixed company, the afternoon grows awkward when conversation turns to the night before, leading Hank to pull aside his caddy Bud (Bud Galloway) to apologize for making a pass at his girlfriend Montana, a server at the country club. Not eager to lose steady work, Bud is as reluctant to engage as Hank is, yet the two indelicately dance around Hank’s inability to directly apologize to Montana, as the club member sees offloading that responsibility to avoid confrontation as part of what he pays for.

As sickening as the situation is, particularly Hank’s sense of entitlement, watching both men squirm as they attempt to save face is rich with comic possibilities and despite working in a much lower vocal register, Bales’ unique voice comes through loud and clear. After previously partnering with “Thunder Road” director Jim Cummings both in front of and behind it for “Us Funny,” the filmmaker’s solo effort extends a fascination in people who want to do the right thing but struggle to do so, often unprepared to think beyond their own self-interest. Although Hank has an especially thick skull, Bales slips inside it with ease, articulating what her onscreen alter ego can’t about why he’s unable to say exactly what he does to Bud to his girlfriend.

While “Golf!” is available online for all to see right now, it will make its big screen premiere this week in Los Angeles as an official selection of the Hollyshorts Festival, followed by an international bow at the Leicester International Short Film Festival and to mark the occasion, Bales spoke about the origins of the short, the considerable work required over time to get into character and making a film involving a pricey sport on a budget.

How did this come about?

I’ve done a lot of stuff about relationships and I got to a point where I wanted to do something a little bit different, even though obviously there’s people in a relationship in this short. I really wanted to do a short about apologizing by proxy because I feel like that’s something that we’ve all done or have been on the butt end of it where someone’s so embarrassed that they are like, “Tell so and so sorry for me.” It’s usually in a relationship, and it was interesting to talk about this ownership and also the fact that sometimes you have to actually apologize to people and it turns into this thing about men and women. Jim [Cummings, the film’s producer] and I were sitting in an airport one day and I told him I really want to do a short film about a masculine sport – my parents owned a bar when I was a kid, so billiards was a big deal, so initially I wanted to do something about that, but I thought that’s going to be way too expensive because of the way I wanted to do it. It was all large crowds and big spaces. So he’s like, “What could you do that is still pretty, but on a smaller scale?” And I [thought on] a golf course, I only need the tiniest amount of space. I don’t need the whole golf course. So it started from a production standpoint.

I also just wanted to do something really different from anything I’d done previously, so it was an amalgamation of things that came together. It started with just the conversation [between Bud and Hank] of “Tell her I said sorry” and when I was acting it out, I thought it was really funny for [Bud] to just keep saying the same line, of “Yeah, man, that’s great, but you’ve got to talk to Montana,” and [when Jim and I] were acting it out, I was being the guy Hank, so I said, “Oh, I think I should actually just be Hank. I think that could be really funny and weird.” It took me a good six months to write it, but I’m really happy with it.

When you’re writing this, the #metoo movement is in full effect, and this seems like a conversation that could be happening anywhere in this moment. Was it an influence on the film?

When I started to come up with just the storyline of it, I knew that it was going to lean a little bit more into that world and this conversation and I do find it really interesting because a lot of shorts that are out there about this subject will go either like 0 to 1000 where this happened and it’s awful or this happened and it was okay. But something that’s really realistic and isn’t really talked about is this weird middle, uncomfortable conversation that’s probably happening where Bud is trying to do the right thing, but is probably uncomfortable and Hank is this guy who just doesn’t get it and at the end, Hank is just left being the wrong one and you still don’t know, “Well, is he going to apologize to Montana?” So I wanted to showcase something that didn’t have a solution, but showed this person at their worst. And it’s also about classicism. This guy is golfing, which is a very expensive sport you have to be upper middle class [at least] to go to a country club to play, and that’s a whole other industry to talk about.

What was it like to develop Hank as a character?

That was probably the hardest part of this short was getting into that role. It took me a really long time. I got a recommendation for an acting teacher who I just sat and talked with about what it takes to be a man and he kind of calmed me down because this is months of me just being like, “I don’t sound like a guy!” That was kind of a mindfuck within itself, like “Oh, maybe I can’t do this.” But I sat with him and he [told me to] go out and rent a fat suit and walk around your house in your boyfriend’s clothes.” And then Jim and I drove up to Lake Arrowhead for a weekend and I drew the blinds and I wore the fat suit that I had and all of the wardrobe without the makeup. We just ran [the scene] over and over again, so that was really helpful.

Then as soon as we did all the makeup, it was the last 12 percent that I needed and then it was like, “Okay, cool, I can totally do this.” Lauren Wilde is a fantastic makeup artist and she really transformed it. I just felt the weight and the way that guys walk and stand and the way you put your hands in your pockets – that all really makes a difference and to imagine how I was rehearsing it four months before we shot it and seeing the way we shot it, just being in the full outfit and feeling the weight of Hank was incredibly helpful.

Did the voice come naturally or was that also over time?

It was over time. Yeah, this was a really weird personal journey for me. For the longest time, I thought the easiest way to sound like a guy is to do a really weird accent, whether or not it was a silly Southern accent or more Jersey accent, but it just sounded like a sketch. [The film’s] got weird elements to it, but I didn’t want that. Then I was on a plane coming back from a job in New York and “Dodgeball” was on. I was listening to Vince Vaughn talk and I was like, “Oh, he doesn’t necessarily have the most manly voice” and I just made that decision then that if I keep my inflections and the way I move my mouth and I’m very specific, I think I’m going to be okay. And the acting teacher [said], “You can change things also in post, but don’t let that hold you back.” We ended up pitching down by the tiniest amount in ProTools. But it was definitely helpful.

You’ve been in the situation before, but is it easier or harder to direct your own performance?

So much harder. Jim produced it for me, which was incredible and very helpful to have someone that I’m obviously very close with, pouring over exactly what I wanted. But then it’s like you’re in makeup, it’s heavy makeup and you get to set and things are getting set up, and you just get dropped into it, so it’s much harder than it has been on other things that I’ve directed. Once we started shooting, it really felt like it all clicked and then I felt like shooting with your friends, but it was definitely a lot harder in terms of getting everything sussed out.

How did you find the actor who plays Bud?

His name is [actually] Bud Galloway and he’s a friend and a fantastic actor. He’s so great in “Golf!” and I feel like a lot of things that he gets cast for…he might disagree, but he doesn’t always get to play the hero, so I wrote that for Bud because I knew he was going to do a great job. And I’m pretty sure he was a caddy in high school, though I might be making that up.

You integrated this idea of distance visually between these two guys during this uncomfortable conversation really well. How did you figure out the shot selection?

Yeah, my [director of photography] Adam Lee is someone I’ve worked with a bunch and I really love to collaborate with my DP because I come from a writing and performance background rather than the visual side of things, so it was definitely a collaboration. We spent a lot of time figuring it out, especially the opening shot because I really wanted Bud to take a backseat at the very beginning, but I still wanted you to see him moving around and I wanted to show off the course and keep it a little voyeuristic on a longer lens. I just wanted them to feel incredibly alone in this space and to show how vast the area was while they’re having this really private conversation, so everything had a purpose.

Where did you wind up shooting this?

I don’t know if I want to give it away. [laughs] We had to go two hours north to Apple Valley. I naively thought that because country clubs close for a day because of maintenance every week, in L.A., “It’s going to be fine. I only need one hole. There’s like 12 of us [on the crew].They can’t charge me that much.” But every place in L.A. was like, “$10,000.” So we ended up finding a place in Apple Valley that was so nice and were so accommodating. They had a massive golf course, so they were like, “We’ll just redirect traffic on the day, so no one bothers you.” But we had to go on a journey [to find it]. My producer and I drove up the night before and the crew came up and we covered gas and then we all went back at the end of the day, so it was a hike, but it was worth it.

When you’re out there shooting, does anything unexpected happen that you now really like about it?

Everything pretty much was planned out and we stuck to the plan. But I wanted the cinematography to be really pointed and beautiful and that’s why I told Adam, “You’re going to hate me, but I want to do this at sunset.” And he said, “No, let’s do it. It’s going to look really nice.” There’s the moment when we did two takes of Bud leaving me and the second take, thankfully, was the better take, but it was also the take where the sun went exactly down, so it worked out perfectly for camera and also for the story in general. I had hoped for that, but I didn’t think it was going to be so beautiful. Everything else went according to plan, thankfully.

“Golf!” will be screening in Los Angeles on August 16th at Hollyshorts at 7:30 pm at the TCL Chinese 6 as part of the “Time’s Up” program.

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