Sundance 2021 Interview: Julia Baylis and Sam Guest on Looking for Life in the Spaces In Between in “Wiggle Room”

It’s the kind of place you never want to find yourself at, but it’s a testament to Julia Baylis and Sam Guest’s enormous skill that there’s no place you’d rather be in “Wiggle Room” than the inside of a low-rent insurance agency office tucked inside a strip mall on the edge of town. It isn’t easy for Daisy (Deanna Gibson) to get to for any number of reasons, its location on the fringe of the city making it difficult to reach and even harder when you learn she’s wheelchair-bound, though the distance isn’t as much an obstacle for her than the courage it will take to confront someone there about the wheelchair ramp that was installed at her home just a little under a year ago that the insurance was supposed to pay for, yet now is threatened to be removed when the bill is coming due.

From the first woman Daisy meets at the counter (Vilma Donovan), who’s more concerned with a coffee spill than her claim, to a Timeline Insurance agent (Sam Stillman) who can’t be bothered to veer from the company line let alone to look up from his desk, the odds of any satisfying resolution for her issues are clearly stacked against her, yet in the span of 13 minutes, Baylis and Guest watch the determined young woman shrewdly navigate all the elisions and misdirection that is thrown at her as she tries to settle a case she knows for certain that she’s in the right. The writing/directing duo have a few tricks up their sleeve as well in leading an audience to confront their biases and spring some delicious narrative twists on them, and “Wiggle Room” becomes that rare short that tells a immensely satisfying story that’s far larger than its running time would suggest, creating the space for surprises and leaving you feeling as if you’ve really gotten to step into someone else’s shoes for a brief but impressive moment.

With its premiere this week at the Sundance Film Festival where it can be streamed for the duration of the festival, Baylis and Guest graciously took the time to talk about the time they spent waiting rooms to bring such remarkable detail to “Wiggle Room,” as well as the inspiration behind it and finding their charismatic lead.

How did this come about?

Julia Baylis: A couple of years ago, we had a friend that suffered an injury that resulted in paraplegia, and we really struggled with how to grapple with what was happening to him. We felt as artists and filmmakers, knowing the power of visibility, we really wanted to make something that centered around a character who he could see himself in and feel empowered by. But it was very important that the story was universal and something that, through this character, we could all relate to what they are going through, so that led us to the horror of insurance agencies…

Sam Guest: Something that Julia, as a Canadian, had experienced, just the chaos of it and the absurdity of it, and to me, as an American, just turning a blind eye and not wanting to deal with it as much as possible, so it was this combination of these two things coming together, figuring out what’s the story there that we really want to tell.

I may be drawing a connection where there isn’t one, but from your earlier documentary short “Chimera,” it seems you’re attracted to these places that are hidden in plain sight or underground. Even though virtually everyone has been in a place like this, was there a lot of research to get the sensations just right as you have it in the film?

Sam Guest: Yeah, [“Chimera”] is very different than what we’re trying to do now, but I think Julia and I love this aspect of forgotten places. We always have this memory bank of places that we’ve been to as kids that feel so specific, but yet you see them everywhere. When you pass by strip malls, there’s an insurance agency, and there’s this, there’s that and that’s where our inspiration comes from.

Julia Baylis: The little secrets in life.

Sam Guest: And in finding this location, we scouted a lot of insurance agencies. Even if they weren’t the place that we wanted, we’d take pictures of stacks of papers that were piled up, and computers that were from the ‘80s. These places feel like they’re stuck in time.

Julia Baylis: But one thing that was really considered in designing the space of the agency was that I’m from Canada, so I experienced a lot of immigration offices, and just when you’re crossing the border, suddenly you walk into this room where you are completely given over to the whims of these other people. The space doesn’t feel like yours, and you suddenly are trapped in this Kafka-esque world, where your fate is handed over to someone else. And you just have to sit and hope. That’s really what was going through our minds and we were like, “How do we take that experience and just push it to an absurd level where everyone can watch this and be like, “Oh, I’ve been there” or ‘I know what this feels like.'”

In your Sundance Meet the Artist video, you spoke about creating a contrast between the exterior and interior worlds. Structurally, was it interesting to figure out how much time you wanted to spend outside this office before coming int?

Sam Guest: The majority of the film always took place in the office and we wanted the office to be its own character, and to exist as the fourth character and have its presence [felt], so then the exterior world always had to be this abrasive, chaotic experience, but the interior world had to be abrasive and chaotic, but in a very different way.

Julia Baylis: A loud quiet. The outside world we wanted to be this picture of capitalism, especially what’s tied up [between] America and insurance agencies. It’s a product that you’re being sold and you buy that then has power over your body, so [the outside] was supposed to represent that assaultive, in-your-face [attitude of] “Buy, buy, buy, 99 cents!” where it was purely that experience of being visually screamed at.

It was quite powerful, as was your lead Deanna. How do you find her?

Julia Baylis: We worked with our incredible casting director [Michele Mansoor], and she is an expert in street casting, so we would scour online and reach out to people.

Sam Guest: She did a huge casting call and we saw really, some great tapes of people…

Julia Baylis: And late one night I was searching on a local Chicago news site, and I came across a story on Deanna, basically chronicling what happened to her. At age 17, she was at a house party, and she got shot by a stray bullet and became paraplegic. I was just so touched by her story and thought she was so incredible, I reached out to her, and she responded and was excited to try acting. Her best friend is actually an actress, so she trusted us.

Sam Guest: Kylah [Collins], who plays Rhonda in the film.

Julia Baylis: Yeah, we flew to Chicago and we met [Deanna], and she was a natural on camera, and she just was really our guide in terms of the story and bringing all her experience into the role. We couldn’t have made it without her.

Is there anything that she brought that you may not have been expecting for the character you wrote?

Julia Baylis: The thing that was most surprising with her was just how much of a natural she was, and how much she was just able to zone in and access these emotions. Sometimes when you are untainted by the industry, you come in with such a fresh take and such a lack of self-consciousness, and we were just surprised by how confident and natural she was on camera.

Sam Guest: Also how emotive she was and how much she could convey with her face. These were all things we were considering in the audition process. But there was a huge difference between even just the audition with Deanna, which was amazing, but then getting to set with her and having everyone there, seeing her in the space as this character. It was this synapsis of everything, and it inspired us to just make it as best we could.

The camerawork on this is just marvelous – it has a curly quality as it works the room at any given time. How did you figure out the style of it?

Sam Guest: We had an amazing DP Guillaume Le Grontec. He’s French and he’s shot a bunch of short films and some features. We came across his work and just reached out on a whim. And we were lucky enough to fly him [over] from France and we really talked with him about textures, about tones, about colors. He had a very specific idea of how to bring like this cold winter feel into the film, which we really loved. He came here, he stayed in our apartment, and he shot the film.

Julia Baylis: It was really important to us that the person behind the camera really was a total foreigner to the world that we were building to come with a totally fresh take. Because the experience in this world is so personal to us, we wanted that kind of new lens into it, and to bring that edge. He really did that, and he calls it the special alchemy between American filmmakers and French DPs, like something happens. And I think it we’ll chalk it up to that. We come from such different worlds that when we comes together, it can create this interesting combination.

Sam Guest: It creates a universality in some ways, because we’re coming at it from different angles.

I feel something definitely happened here. What’s it like getting the film to Sundance, and having it come out into the world?

Sam Guest: It’s thrilling. Most importantly, Julia and I spent a lot of time editing it. COVID happened right in the midst of editing, so we were really bogged down, really focused, and we didn’t know what the future of film was like. We didn’t know what the future of Sundance was going to be. All these things had turned upside down, but we were really focused on making the film that we wanted to make and we felt like we got to that point, so it’s extremely exciting that Sundance feels the same way.

Julia Baylis: Also, it’s such a bizarre year that we’ve all gone through, so it’s thrilling that this is happening, and just shows that how important something like Sundance is to keep us energized and excited and…

Sam Guest: And continue engaging of thought.

“Wiggle Room” will be available to stream at the Sundance Film Festival as part of Shorts Program #3 beginning on January 28th at 7 am MT.