Kit Zauhar on Respecting Spaces in “This Closeness”

When Kit Zauhar was asked at the hometown premiere of “This Closeness” at the Philadelphia Film Festival last fall what happened to the characters at the end of her latest feature after the credits rolled, she didn’t have an answer. This wasn’t playing coy. She explained that as soon as a story ends on the page, it does so in her mind as well and the writer/director/actress has never been one to give backstories to her cast either, instead insisting on being present in the moment with them and allowing whatever intuition they have for their characters to naturally manifest.

The approach has no doubt yielded a live-wire energy in her work, first turning heads with her 2021 feature debut “Actual People” in which a return to Philly for a soon-to-be college grad, whose plans are entirely destabilized by a sudden breakup with her longtime beau, places her in the anxiety-inducing uncertainty of the past and future. “This Closeness” sees Zauhar occupying a similar space when this time her on-screen character Tessa is accompanying someone else to their old stomping grounds in Eastern Pennsylvania, feeling a bit like a second fiddle to her boyfriend Ben (Zane Pais), who has a high school reunion to attend. It isn’t only the AirBnB that the two stay in where Tessa doesn’t feel exactly at home when Ben starts hanging around his old friend Lizzy (Jessie Pinnick), but that is less of a bother than the rental’s host Adam (Ian Edlund), who sticks around for the weekend and makes an already small apartment feel that much more cramped when he plays video games in the room directly next door to where Ben and Tessa sleep and can’t help but bring up the residual sorrow he’s feeling from recently losing his mother.

There is no small irony in the fact that Tessa is an online-famous practitioner of ASMR videos that can calm the senses while “This Closeness” plays out as always being less than a step away from a full-blown panic attack as Zauhar cleverly scrutinizes people’s capacity for staying inside bad situations rather than risk attempting to do better. Whether it’s Adam clinging to his grief and burrowing deeper into his mother’s old place, Ben resorting to his less enlightened high school self or Tessa caught in a relationship that she’d do well to extract herself from, the film transcends its single setting to open all sorts of doors about why alternatives are usually left unexplored when people are more comfortable with the devil they know and if the characters feel like the walls are closing in, Zauhar creates an opposite experience, opening up the space for consideration with airy compositions and a natural wit emerging in the contradictions.

Wafting through the air in Austin last year as a breath of fresh air when it premiered at SXSW, “This Closeness” is bound to come across as a cool breeze as it helps to kick off the summer season with a theatrical run beginning this week in New York and recently Zauhar spoke about how she’s continually been inspired by her roots, establishing such a strong level of trust with her cast and making progress in a perilous moment for indie film.

How did the film come about?

I had the idea when I was finishing “Actual People,” and it was a product of COVID in that I originally started writing it as a play and then everything shut down and I thought when is live theater even going to be a possibility again? So I thought about maybe making it a film in the same fashion as “Actual People,” super scrappy and very, very low budget and then “Actual People” got into Locarno, so I started pitching it around during that time and ended up getting it greenlit by Neon Heart productions, [which produced] “Shiva Baby” and then we got to make it as a movie.

You’ve maintained your films haven’t been autobiographical in almost every respect, but is it a coincidence that this shares the idea of going back home to Philadelphia in common with “Actual People”?

I like putting movies there because obviously it is like this essential part of myself that has been tucked away as I become more of a New York filmmaker, but I do think there’s something very special about the spirit of the city and the intricacies and nuances of how it’s different than other cities in America, which I like to put into my movies in some way because in some ways, I have been affected greatly by living there. The whole like premise of this film is that they go back for [Ben’s] high school reunion and this year I did go back my high school reunion in Philly, so it was my meta experience that I put into the movie.

We actually had the intention of shooting “This Closeness” in Philly earlier on just because it’s where I’m from and I miss it a lot. It’s a really great place to shoot because it’s a big city, but has a small town energy, so instead of being annoyed by film shoots being there, people are really enthusiastic, which is just a very welcome change of energy. But that turned out not to be financially feasible at the end of the day, especially for shooting in an apartment.

Did you know about this particular apartment in advance? Because it uses the structure of it with those adjoining bedrooms so well.

It’s just an AirBnB in Williamsburg. We set certain parameters for how we wanted the space set up. The rooms had to be connected, which is actually pretty rare, because obviously that’s an easy way to create some privacy issues and when we found this place that worked really well, the guy who rented it to us was really really awesome and very enthusiastic, which you find very rarely when trying to rent like a real space for a film shoot, so it worked out really well.

The compositions are quite striking, making great use of a limited space and expressing a lot about the characters. Is blocking something you’re thinking about at a script stage or do you get to the place and figure it out?

My scripts are really something for the actors, probably more similarly to a script for a play where it’s really just text and movement so something that could be interpreted. I also get freaked out when I see scripts that are super [detailed with] a delineation of what kind of shot and composition it’s going to be in because maybe coming from a theatrical background, text is very much about the interpretation of intention and movement and emotionality from the actors, so a lot of how we got to the composition was just working with our amazing DP Kayla Hoff.

Do you know what is? It’s like Tumblr 2.0, but it’s like my secret inspiration compiler — it’s not a secret, a lot of people have it — but we work together making an and for me to get these compositions, I wasn’t just looking at film stills. We were looking at a lot of photographers I admire like Hellen van Meene and Rineke Dijkstra to inspire these compositions you see.

Was there time to rehearse?

We did do a lot of rehearsal just because so many of the shots are these sustained takes, [which] are much more theatrical and God knows you’re not going to go on stage only having rehearsed like twice. You’re going to try and get as many rehearsals in as possible and I had the luxury of having Ian and Zane cast for a very long time before we were able to shoot, so there was a lot of prep for that in various ways, not just rehearsal but readings and fine-tuning the dialogue to match both of them as we moved through the editing process of the script. Rehearsal is really crucial and what I always advise directors, even with very small budgets, is you don’t need a budget to rehearse if all the actors are on board to do It. You should try and do it as much as possible.

You’ve spoke about the power of intimacy, which you really feel but must be hard to achieve when it’s so subtle. What was it like to get on set?

I think intimacy is something that has to be cultivated and maybe that’s the thing you can do more when you have both long takes and also rehearsal, but I also think intimacy comes from assurance in yourself and the people involved. Even with “Actual People,” people think it’s a very intimate movie, even though it’s kind of crazy — people are going in and out — and my character is certainly not someone who is welcoming tenderness in any way. I don’t think this is a tender movie either, though it’s a facet of intimacy that I’m extremely interested in when it is about the different ways in which we give assurances both as filmmakers and as characters to the other players both on and off camera to have competencies and also vulnerabilities come through. A big thing is just the fact that I am in the movie as well and I put myself in equally vulnerable situations as the other actors. That in itself [instills] a level of trust and also dampens any possible power dynamics or hierarchies [that might typically exist] on set and there’s going to be more intimacy because people don’t feel so guarded maybe.

It’s really important for me to be friends with the actors I’m working with, so Zane and Ian and I are really close now and we were before we even started shooting. My producer Ani Schroeter who’s really been on board with the project for over a year and maybe even two before we started shooting — you develop these intimacies with people just by virtue of working on something and then also just liking those people.

Did the Ben and Adam characters inform each other as you developed them, reflecting these two different strains of toxic masculinity?

Both Ben and Adam’s characters are embodiments of two different trajectories of the “toxic white male” and I’m always really interested in people who’ve been shaped not by physiological or basic developments growing up like if they were unattractive or attractive, but how these men were shaped by a society in very different ways growing up. Both Ben and Adam, if you just were to take a like picture of them without the costuming we put them in, they’re two very attractive tall white men who could easily get dates on Hinge, but it’s way more interesting to think about how they use their social currencies or didn’t use them throughout their developmental years. I’m sure trauma, especially for Adam, has led to two very different kinds of men, both of which embody these banal evils that we’re so accustomed to seeing now.

A connection I made that might not exist for you was between how calm the setting is in both the spare walls of the apartment and the subtle sound design – when Tessa is an ASMR practitioner, it adds an extra layer of meaning – but were those things tied together in your mind?

The fairness of it was hearkening back to theatrical productions in black box theater and a lot of guerrilla-style productions that I love. I’m also not someone who’s very concerned about busy/objectively beautiful sets. Sometimes I find it really distracting. This is also my homage to Hong Sang-soo is this bare set to allow action really to be the star, which I think it should be most of the time. And obviously there’s the ASMR aspects to the sound, but there are a lot of subtle sound cues that we work in [because] I do think sometimes when you’re in a space for so long, you feel like a co-conspirator or in some kind of antagonistic relationships with the atmosphere around you. Especially in New York, you feel that a lot, like you’re having an argument with someone and the most Insane rap song starts playing outside. Things like that are the beautiful irony of the atmosphere of a city and something we wanted to play with a little bit, like in the fight scene between my character and Zane’s character where the heat starts getting louder and louder throughout a long take and it’s very subtle, but it’s something that we worked on that really makes it feel like a film set in Philly. It has trolleys rolling by and unless you’ve been to Philly, you might be like, “What are these rolling sounds outside?” But in Philly we still use a trolley system, especially in West Philly where I grew up, so that’s a subtle nod to creating atmosphere and creating location just through sound itself.

The sound of breathing during Tessa’s scene with Lizzy, played by Jesse Pinnick, really becomes all-encompassing. Was that fun to create?

Yeah, that was cool. It was really hard because we were really trying to make it not feel completely like a horror movie and people had been [saying] you need to make this more like a horror movie because it’s the only thing that makes money. Historically, I don’t know how to make money and I’m fine with it, but it was trying to reach that balance and I watched “The Wonder,” [with] Florence Pugh, which I really liked, but it has insane sound design and it would also play with the idea of human voices in this way that felt very ethereal and atmospheric and often was disconcerting, but it certainly wasn’t bending toward any sort of horror expectations or meaning, so I really appreciated that. That was a very big reference point for the soundscape in this movie.

It’s all the more singular because you don’t attach yourself to a particular genre and I know we’re a year removed from South by but like What’s it been like getting this out into the world?

I don’t know. The indie film world right now feels like a bit discombobulated and decentralized in a lot of ways and also this film has been harder to market in some ways than “Actual People” because it’s not a movie about a young woman being crazy, which there’s certainly a built-in audience for, and because there’s sexual content in it that’s uncomfortable and explicit, there are reasons that make it a harder sell. But in some ways, this is more the kind of movie I want to make. “Actual People” is something I’m really proud of and I’m like very truly grateful to it as this ever-evolving entity that really did change my life. But when I was in college, I didn’t think I was going to make a coming-of-age movie as my first feature. It just happened because of resources and timing.

So it’s been a good lesson in terms of this being the kind of movie I want to make and [seeing] this is going to be the continuous challenge of how to get it out there in the world in a way that feels that like it honors both everyone who worked on it and also the audience who wants to see it, which I think there is —it’s one of those things that they didn’t know they wanted it until they got to see it. So it’s been semi-harrowing, but I think you could probably ask that of any like contemporary indie filmmaker and they would probably say something very similar. It makes you more grateful though for everyone who does support it because you see the the hardships that come from supporting a movie like this and to everyone who helped finance it. I’m really grateful to everyone who has supported it and obviously to Matt at Factory 25. It’ll be on MUBI July 3 and they’ve just been so supportive of me since the beginning. It’s not like anyone signed on because they [thought] “Cool, this is going to make us all our money back and more,” but because they believed in me and in the story, so it makes those things feel all the more precious, but I constantly am in this this state of amusement and confusion about how the indie film world can continue going the way it’s going.

“This Closeness” opens on June 7th in New York at the IFC Center.

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