No one in the Pride family seems particularly enthusiastic to return to Austin at the start of “Mother’s Little Helpers” where their matriarch Joy (Melanie Hutsell) appears to be living out her final days, though her imminent demise isn’t even what may be causing the most stress. Even before learning Joy’s diagnosis, eldest daughter Sadie (Kestrin Pantera) has already resolved not to let any of her siblings know that she’s pregnant, while her brother Jude (Sam Littlefield) has an ankle bracelet to worry about tipping off his probation officer when he sneaks out on Grindr dates at night, her sister Lucy (Milana Vayntrub) is loathe to be pulled away from her medical practice and her other sister Julia (Breeda Wool) is sneaking pills, calming her nerves in a way that none of the various religions she’s attempted to observe have succeeded at. Joy, once a famous music photographer who may have spent more time hanging out with the likes of Van Morrison than with her kids during their formative years, could’ve encouraged her children to go their own way, but never could’ve imagined they’d be this far apart.
Of course, the only way to make a scenario like this work is to believe the Prides were at once close to begin with so there’s actually a sense of loss, which there is when Pantera, playing both the voice of reason both onscreen and off as the film’s director, gathered some of her closest friends to make “Mother’s Little Helpers,” gave them considerable ownership over their own characters and the film itself — you’ll notice the main cast has both writing and producing credits to go with their top billing — and set them loose for a wild weekend in which the crazier the revelations become, the more relatable they become to each other as well as the audience. The touching dramedy, which made its world premiere at SXSW, didn’t only involve a homecoming for the Prides, but for Pantera, who with her husband Jonathan Grubb have become a staple at the Music and Film Festival with RVIP, a party RV they’ve been driving into Austin every March for the past decade.
It turns out the skills accrued from hosting one of SXSW’s hottest shindigs when paired with a strong command of editing and tone can yield a film brimming with life and while in town for the debut of “Mother’s Little Helpers,” Pantera, Littlefield and Wool took a moment to talk about the alchemy that was allowed to percolate on an unusually collaborative set, drawing on their own personal family experiences to inform the characters and setting up a shoot where a loose production can ultimately turn into a sharp, focused final film.
How did this come about?
Kestrin Pantera: It was a story that had been kicking around in my head for long time after I had attended a few family deaths — originally, the story was inspired by the life and death of someone who had a wristband at South By year one — and felt like a very unique and personal experience each time it happened, but then the more I talk about it, I realize there was nothing unique about it at all. After about three years of sitting on it, I finally talked to Breeda and Sam, both of whom I had been friends with for years, and [discovered] we experienced almost the exact same level of loss in the exact same time frame. Finding out that we had this shared experience, we had the availability at the exact same time and we all wanted to make a film on this topic, it was like a little happy miracle that it came together because they’re the most talented actors I know and working with them has been a dream come true.
Sam Littlefield: It was really fast and incredibly collaborative and unlike anything I’ve ever done. Everyone was the specialist of their own character or story and the speed at which we worked and the level of commitment that everyone was embracing for the process was so exciting and really different.
Everyone in the family is credited as a writer and as a producer, so how much was on the page to start out with?
Kestrin Pantera: A lot of it was strategic. If you’re going to con a bunch of people to work on your movie with no preparation and starting out with a very limited budget, it’s like what can you offer actors? A lot of people make improvised films and they take the credit for it. They just steal the people’s best jokes and then put their name on it. And both of these people are so talented, I knew we were going to riff, so it’s like why don’t we start with the riff and just shave it down from there. I knew I could take credit for it, so it was like what can I offer you that’s going to make you have something cool to take forward in your life for your IMDb profile and career as a writer/producer in your own right?
Breeda Wool: Yeah, but Kestrin’s style of filmmaking is completely made by Kestrin Pantera. It’s like its own very radical, really extraordinary place to be on a set, and this movie is indicative of what she can make as a filmmaker, I’d be so curious to find out where that goes because there was a general feeling on set that everybody knew what they put in is shared by everyone, so down to the person who was preparing the food for us, it was like all these people came in to support not because of any specific “here’s what you get for doing this thing,” [but rather] everyone wanted to step up. And that’s so specific to Kestrin — [she] creates from community, so when you participate as a creative person in that environment, you can also create from community and I think what people will see with this movie is something that feels touchable, something that feels like their life or their experiences because we made it straight up from our guts and out.
Kestrin Pantera: And as an actor, I feel like every actor has questions about a script and wants to put their stamp on it and of course, you’re going to come up with better dialogue, so why not start with Sam saying whatever he wants to say because ultimately I’m going to edit it anyway, so why not give Sam the moment to really be at it because I know he’s a talented writer in his own right…
Sam Littlefield: [laughs] Yes, what about my writing this whole film…tell me more. [laughs] [Seriously] we keep talking about what was so interesting about this, but there was a general sense of abundance amongst everyone, so I feel like what’s great about the film is every character is really bringing themselves to it. It starts from the top down — Kestrin developed this atmosphere of “Bring yourself, bring what you have” and then I’ll do whatever I’m going to do to make the film I want to make. That’s why there is this really great sense of authenticity about this film that I’m proud of, coming from everyone.
Breeda Wool: Yeah, a lot of directors and producers [say] they want to create an environment where artists can take risks, but this was an ideal work situation where you could be as expressive and take as many risks and feel encouraged to make mistakes.
Kestrin Pantera: But it was you guys bringing that to it. I just feel like I robbed a bank. It was like I conned them. They showed up and worked harder and prepared and took it very seriously so that by the time we were there, it was like shut up and turn on the camera and don’t fuck it up.
Breeda Wool: Kestrin’s doing a long con game where at the end of it, you’re just happy. [laughs]
This may be the best way I can ask about the entire process by focusing on a single line – at one point, Jude mentions Julia’s been a part of a number of cults. Is that something that’s in the backstory that can be riffed on or something that happens in the moment that then becomes canon?
Kestrin Pantera: That’s a loaded question. [laughs]
Sam Littlefield: Well, my mom is in a cult. A genuine one. And I think we all can relate to having a family member that’s an extremist of some kind, whether it be Mormon or really into Bitcoin or whatever it is. That’s a relatable truth in all families, especially with the climate that we’re in right now politically. People are so different yet still the same household.
Kestrin Pantera: And when we had a writing session, I got up and the movie was a big board and people pitched ideas. That was one of the ideas where Sam was drawing on his personal experience and Breeda “Yes, and”-ed it and it just became part of the story.
Breeda Wool: It was interesting. Every time someone said something they had an idea of, there’s like three other people in the room that had experienced it or had somebody in their family. But the main thing with Julia and the cults for me is it’s based on a collection of older sisters in general [and I could relate to this idea of] when you don’t have any ground to say, “This is who I am,” what you end up doing is you end up trying on a lot of coats where somebody else tells you who you are. So when we were making this, [there was] just the feeling of “I wish I could just put on a jacket and say this is who I am and know it” and as you see the movie and you learn more about our background and our past, it’s this feeling [for Julia] of there’s no world where I can exist and say this is who I am. It becomes very easy to become fanatical about identity and you become fanatical about saying, “This is who I am!” and you’ve got a group of other fanatical people saying, “This is who I am” but there’s some people in my life who have gone through that, and [it seems like] everyone in their family has people who really cycle through strong identities.
Kestrin Pantera: And religion’s a big thing. In the original concept of [the film, we were asking] what are the dualities here? Like atheism and religion and extremes of both sides – [so we’ve got] one sister [with Lucy, played by Milana Vayntrub] who’s a neurologist and a devotee to science and eschews all the spiritual, and then on the other end, [Julia’s] a reaction as this religious follower who’s desperately seeking love.
Breeda Wool: Yeah, [because] who’s more parental than Jesus, right? If you have a loss of a parent, you’re just like I wish there was some big, omnipotent guy who would just father me. [all laugh]
I don’t know how to follow that up.
Sam Littlefield: We went all the way around [with that question]. [laughs]
I usually ask this of documentarians, but was there a turn in the road of what you may have thought this was going to be and then it changed direction on you?
Kestrin Pantera: I was really focused and clear the entire time because I’ve edited enough to know that you shoot a movie and it’s this huge, collaborative thing in the room and then everyone’s going to leave you alone in the dark. You’re going to be stuck in front of computer for a year, so you better get what you need, so there was never a point that I forgot that, though there were a lot of explorations with characters, stories, dialogues and scenes. If someone had a scene that they wanted to add and we were able to accommodate for time and light purposes, it was like, “put it in! Put it in!”
We were also very strategic and efficient in that when the camera was moving or changing set-ups and we were waiting for a light shift, we were scheduling [the non-verbal scenes we’d be using for the montages] in and during the set-up changes. We were shooting B-roll and had a list of each character and a list of things and the times of day that I wanted that to occur, so it was very clean and efficient. Then we planned on there being reshoots, so it’s more of an iterative filmmaking process, just knowing that we would find a gap and so we planned a reshoot day where we would fill in all the gaps, so it was a really short, fast day.
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting?
Kestrin Pantera: What was really funny is our [cinematographer] Meena Singh, who’s a genius, had to assign another camera operator for one day and she only shot all the days where [all the characters] were happy and getting along and she [actually] brought up [at one point], “I’m kind of worried there’s no conflict in this movie. Like what is going to happen?” And then Jeff Powers, the [other camera operator] came in and on Jeff Powers day, everything went to shit! All of the [family] fight scenes happened in one really long day because we shot in sequence as much as possible, so everyone’s repressing their emotions and on good behavior until like the bottom of act three, and poor Jeff Powers, everyone was en fuego – like there’s so much intensity. [laughs] And Jeff is a very sweet gentleman and he’s like “Okay, okay, okay, okay, okay…like I’m going to go over here.”
Sam Littlefield: You’re so caught up in what you’re doing and also, it’s happening right in front of you.
Breeda Wool: Yeah, exploring improvising dynamics with friends when you’re having a family meltdown is maybe one of the most interesting things.
Kestrin Pantera: And there was a technical aspect too. It was all planned as it should’ve been, but we were losing light during our biggest fight scene, so there was a moment where I was like, “Shit, is this going to match?” And because I’m acting in it and I’m the director, I’m [saying to myself] “Just act,” but a lot of it was watching Sam and Breeda and being like, “Can I cut this together? Can we do it because the sun is setting? Is Jeff Powers okay?” do it again. But it was amazing just to watch Sam and Breeda work and have them repeat that extreme intensity of a massive emotional moment that is so grounded in truth and love and vulnerability and then being able to slam these punchlines in out of nowhere left and right. [I could say to myself] “Okay, do it again and sit back and watch them. It was like eating candy, like Christmas Day when you’re five.” It was magic.