An old movie plays in the background as “Fuck Me Richard,” a decidedly contemporary one begins with Sally (Lucy McKendrick) getting lost in the less complicated romances of Golden Age Hollywood. Laid up with a broken ankle, she’s had nothing but time to stay tuned to TCM, but boredom leads her to scroll through dating apps as well, unlikely to set anything up when she can’t get off the couch, but letting her imagination run wild with the potential matches based on their pictures, eventually settling on Richard (Nathan Wallace), a stranger who she decides to give a ring. In McKendrick and Charlie Polinger’s downright diabolical dark comedy, Richard takes Sally places she couldn’t get to otherwise as their virtual booty calls threaten to turn into much more.
While Richard remains unseen, the two get intimate beyond detailing their sexual appetites, sharing details about their mothers and when Richard informs that his is in desperate need of surgery, Sally doesn’t hesitate to write a check and although this perhaps isn’t a pure act of altruism when she’s led by her raging hormones as compassion when her own mother has recently passed, it nonetheless places her in a deeply vulnerable situation that McKendrick and Polinger exploit to dramatically while Richard attempts the same financially. A con may be at the heart of “Fuck Me Richard,” but McKendrick and Polinger prove themselves to be the real deal as filmmakers when the film is every bit as seductive as the early calls between its central couple, evoking the transactional nature of modern relationships well before routing numbers are exchanged and how easy it’s become to fall for the idea of someone based on an online profile rather than who they actually reveal themselves to be in more socially isolated times.
With “Fuck Me Richard” premiering this week in Austin at SXSW as part of the Narrative Shorts section, McKendrick and Polinger spoke about how they came to join forces in the first place and setting up McKendrick as an actress with such a dazzling one-woman show, as well as adding all the small, telling production details that make for such a lively comedy.
How’d this come about?
Lucy McKendrick: It started [during the] COVID lockdown and I was anticipating an ankle surgery. The walls were coming in on me as they do, and I was thinking back to other times in my life where I had been vulnerable. One of them was when I was in grad school and I broke my arm and I was living in a foreign country — being America — and [feeling] very isolated and lonely. I was like, “I need some help. I need a boyfriend.” So I went out about trying to find a boyfriend, meeting people and looking around and I found this guy [pointing to Charlie]. But that was the impetus for me to go back to states in my life where it felt very lonely and vulnerable and then thinking about more extreme directions and so that could take and how that could manifest into behavior which is weird and trolling.
Charlie Polinger: [Like an] intimacy vampire. And then I feel like [Lucy] had this thought of who best to be a vampire but a scammer who’s also a vampire in a different way and to work backwards so you realize that actually there’s kind of a double scam happening.
Lucy McKendrick: Yeah, we’re all getting so much scamming content online and there’s always a victim, but I think when you dig into it, especially some of the extreme cases, people put on a hood of naïveté because they want this thing so much and they don’t want to say [they’ve been scammed] because they’re certainly victimized, but there is like a participation of the victim, so I was interested in seeing what that could look like.
You really get at that point so succinctly in that opening scene where there’s an old black-and-white romance playing on the TV and yet she’s scrolling through a dating app where you get the idea of something less romantic and more transactional. Was that tough to crack?
Lucy McKendrick: It was a long time to crack. We started the movie so many different ways.
Charlie Polinger: But [Lucy] always felt like there’s this aspect of this character where she’s sitting around taking painkillers and watching all these old romance movies and living in a world of this old time fantasy that is very much a counterpoint to the world of 21st century dating that she actually lives in.
Lucy, did you always imagine that you were going to star in this? And was this actually shot amidst the treatment for your leg?
Lucy McKendrick: It wasn’t. I actually thought at one time maybe I would do it after I had the surgery and my ankle was actually in a cast, but when I got the surgery, I was incapacitated with pain and off my head on pain medication, so there’d be no way that I could logistically make a movie. I’m so glad we didn’t do that. But I did I think I was gonna act in it, and then no, and then yes, and then no, and then yes. [laughs] I first wrote it [thinking], I’d been a writer/director transitioning to acting, and then I started to do it, and I didn’t know if I could and didn’t feel confident about it. Then we started casting people and I [realized], “No, I want it to be me. I’ve written it for me, so I think the only person I can cast in it is going to be me.”
Phone conversations actually aren’t always that easy to present on camera when you might not necessarily have someone to react to in the scene. Was Nathan actually on the other end of the line to engage with?
Lucy McKendrick: We tortured Nathan. [laughs]
Charlie Polinger: Yeah, we went a little method on it and had Nathan in a different room on a different floor because it’s actually a house that we cheated to look like an apartment, so we had to have him as far away as possible on speakerphone where they couldn’t see each other’s faces. He’s not just standing behind the camera saying the lines, but Lucy was really interacting with a voice in real time and he was interacting in a room the way that the actual scammer would be. It ended up being a bit of a headache for sound because of the slight delay of the phone, we had to redo all the audio eventually, but for the performance and the authenticity, it was cool.
Lucy McKendrick: [When] Nathan came to set, we’re like, “Hey, Nathan, go sit in that room and don’t leave for the whole day” because we could call action at any moment, so I think it was a very weird and lonely experience for him, but I definitely do think he came out being like, I definitely feel like he got into the headspace of a lonely dude sitting in a room with the internet and nothing to do and it created that environment for him.
When you filmed that way where there was a natural cadence to the conversation, was there anything that changed your ideas of this once the dialogue started coming alive?
Lucy McKendrick: That just happens constantly. It’s always changing and unfurling and from the script to putting it on its feet, it’s ever evolving and you come to realize the themes and the characters and the people that you’ve created because it’s intangible when it’s on paper. It’s like, here’s a cool story, and then you have a house and there’s a girl and for me as an actor, once you step into that space [of a set], so many emotional and contextual things about this character’s life start to click into place. Like I’d written this character as desperate, but I hadn’t really fully been able to understand that and that happens in every creative department when things start to become tactile. Everything changes on the day.
Charlie Polinger: Yeah, just the logistics of how one interacts with a telephone versus the notion of this off-screen partner [were something to consider] but when it’s actually a phone and where you put the phone in the shot will change the entire pitch [of the conversation] and the way that she would say the lines [where] she might move herself to be closer to the phone — that object became very charged, so it was interesting to see how that would completely change the blocking of a shot from what we had pre-visualized.
The production design is really wonderful throughout this — the rug she has and the colorful wallpaper in the bathroom. What was it like to create that environment?
Lucy McKendrick: The space was [initially] messy, and I was like, “No way.” But our production designer Eloise [Ayala] was like, “It’s amazing. You just can’t see it.” She was the one who really pushed for it and what we were really trying to achieve in the look of the film was to balance this 1950s glamour and the beautiful delusion that’s going on in her head [with] the gross reality of the situation, which is this lonely girl in her apartment with a broken foot, who’s horny and desperate. And [Eloise] was looking at the green and like some of the mirrors were on the wall and the rug, [which gave] this ‘30s or ‘40s vibe in the architecture of it, and she was the one who did all the work to clean it up and make it what it was.
Charlie Polinger: She fully transformed it and turned a house into what seems like this little apartment where there was like a city backdrop hanging out the windows to make it look like it wasn’t on the ground floor. And she was adding fake pipes and fake buzzers and peep holes — all that wasn’t there and she was throwing it on and adjusting it as we were getting the shot up.
Lucy McKendrick: Also turning [the place] into a dreamscape with the billowing curtains and the dirty dusty mirrors. She just did everything to make it seem this ephemeral, transient place that doesn’t really exist.
Charlie Polinger: She and the cinematographer Steven Breckon were looking at all these Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec paintings of opium dens [with] this fabric hanging and women in beds that became our guide moving forward [with] fabric everywhere and this sense that things are melting with the drapes.
Lucy McKendrick: Yeah. The production designer described it as “I just want you to be like this fungus that’s like growing out of the space and I was like I dig it.
Was lighting an interesting part of this? The emotion in the room really comes across through it.
Lucy McKendrick: We really wanted to create two environments that were within her head and the reality of the situation, and we wanted the lighting to reflect that as well, so when we’re doing the romance and we’re cross-fading and the lights are like soft and glowy, then we contrast that with the fluorescence of the bathroom or the final scene.
Charlie Polinger: And we had an amazing cinematographer helping and we’ve worked with him for years since film school, so I feel we have a shorthand at this point. He really took advantage of the windows in the space. It’s very inspired by the 1960s Italian films like “The Conformist” where there’s these very intense beams of light coming through and she can be walking in and out of shadow and light.
Lucy McKendrick: We also originally we had a couple of dream sequences, but for the story, it made sense to strip it down to only the sex sequence, but [where] we’d have the strobing and the lightning [effect] be very harsh and direct contrast to the rest of the movie, so it became more obvious that it was inside of her head and her fantasy.
You pulled it off brilliantly and now it’s set to premiere at South By. How are you feeling as it’s getting ready to go out into the world?
Charlie Polinger: It’s just exciting.
Lucy McKendrick: We already met some of the other filmmakers and there’s just such warm, positive film community energy.
Charlie Polinger: It seems like South By is so good at fostering that and we cannot wait to go and see as many movies as possible and try to see some bands. It’s just awesome that there’s all these different mediums thrown together in one city over a few days. It’s going to be a total carnival and that’s very exciting.
“Fuck Me Richard” will screen at SXSW as part of Narrative Shorts Program 2 on March 15th at noon at the Alamo Lamar E.