Pete Ohs had been so satisfied with the experience of making his previous film “Youngstown,” beholden to no one as he filmed by himself off the grid in Ohio in 2019 after making the larger-scale “Everything Beautiful is Far Away,” that he had planned to make it an annual event. Then the pandemic had other plans.
“I was like, “I guess I’m not going to make a movie this year,” says Ohs. “But then once we got later into 2020, and I feel people started to get a handle on what it feels to be in a pandemic, I started to realize, ‘Oh, maybe there is a way to make a movie and that’s when I then returned to the drawing board and got on AirBNB and started [thinking], ‘What is it that could be made during this time?’ It feels really good that even the pandemic didn’t stop creativity.”
“Jethica” was about as safe a production as there could be under the circumstances, shot about as far away from civilization as one could get in the New Mexico desert with a cast and crew of under 10, but it feels dangerous in other ways, wildly inventive as it draws in on Elena (Callie Hernandez), a drifter introduced having sex with a stranger and then compelled to tell him why she won’t be going home with him because of a reunion with her old friend Jessica (Ashley Denise Robinson), chased out to the prairie by a stalker. While the physical threat of violence seems to have dissipated, the psychological terror remains, particularly when the trailer that Elena invites Jessica to hole up in is on land with a history of ghosts. When dealing with the dead is an inherently strange activity, “Jethica” takes an unusually compelling shape when Elena and Jessica engage with the supernatural as if they would with anyone in the flesh when anything in their mind is as present as what’s physically in front of them, making for an occasionally creepy and strange yet altogether delightful film.
Although many buck the system by keeping their production footprint small, few have the skillset that Ohs has honed over the years as an editor and cinematographer on his own projects or a collection of talented friends he can bring in front of the camera to realize his distinctive vision so strongly, though as singular as his work is, the multihyphenate would be the first to insist it’s a group effort, not only crediting all the actors as co-writers of “Jethica,” but opening up his post-production process to scrutiny and collaboration on Twitch. With the film making its world premiere this week at SXSW, the consummate filmmaker spoke about how developing such a rewarding way of working for him led to such satisfying films for everyone else, keeping “Jethica” short and sweet and how the film would come to reflect the experience that was had on set.
Is it true this all grew out of the location of the AirBNB you found?
Andy [Faulkner], one of my best friends and somebody I collaborate with who acted in my previous movie called “Youngstown,” and I were talking about making another movie together. He had lived in New Mexico and [said], “We should do something there.” That’s when I got on AirBNB and started looking around for an interesting place, and I did the thing where you can adjust the slider [to see] how expensive it is. I brought it way down and I said it needed to house five people under a hundred dollars a night then different places come up on the map. Some of them are in the cities, like Albuquerque or Santa Fe, but then there are some on the outskirts and I thought, “Those are going to be where the more interesting spots are going to be,” so I started clicking on those. One of them is this trailer on these lovely people’s ranch, just in the middle of nowhere. Even the picture on AirBNB was already a beautiful cinematic image and I started imagining a story that would take place in that trailer.
I knew I wanted to work with Andy and my friend Callie Hernandez, so I started thinking, “Okay, who lives there and why?” That’s where [the idea of] this woman who’s hiding because something bad has happened in her life [came from]. Then I was talking with Danny Madden, another filmmaker friend whose film “Beast Beast” I edited, telling him about this next movie I want to make in New Mexico with this trailer on a ranch in the middle of nowhere and he pitched me this idea of another dead person [on the property]. Basically he was creating a role for his brother Will, which I was more than happy to add to it, and it just grew out of that. [He also] connected me with Ashley Denise Robinson because he had met her through a Vanishing Angle project, [and it was a process of] telling each of these actors the general idea of what the movie is and listening to what their thoughts and ideas were about it and going from there.
It doesn’t seem like this could be improvised, but all of the actors are credited as co-writers. How involved were they in building the script?
I’ve had some conversations about the way I approached making this movie with a bunch of different people and some of them have likened it to experiences they’ve had building theater productions, where they develop a play with actors through a lot of rehearsing. It’s not that we did a lot of rehearsing, but it was very collaborative in the sense that the characters were fully developed with the actors who were going to play them, even [a question like] what should your name be? From the day-to-day standpoint, we would write the dialogue of the scenes the night before just through talking it out. I would write the lines on my iPhone Notes app, and be like, “Okay, so here’s the scene and you probably say this” and then they’d [say], “What if I said it this way?” And [I’d ask a question] and then they would respond in character the way they thought they would respond. Because we were shooting chronologically, it was like we were just living the story one day at a time the way the characters were too. Which was very enjoyable, but then also it was why these actors make so much sense to be co-writers because they are experiencing things that their characters are and then they’re the ones thinking about, well, what would I do next? It was a group effort basically every day.
It’s intriguing to me that Ashley sounds like the person you didn’t know in advance before casting her and in a way, she’s the distant one in this situation. Is there a correlation there?
Not that it was intentionally that way, but I do think that’s a natural product of the process. She definitely knew the approach going in or knew it as well as she could have and I tried to describe what it’s going to be, but it’s not very conventional. She’s a creative person who does her own writing and picked it up pretty quickly, but I do think the nature of who everyone was coming into the project is reflected in the story as well, which is cool. It’s like the movie is also a documentary.
Was the framing there from the start? It’s instantly intriguing to see this is the conversation that Elena wants to have after sex.
No, the container element, which I say is like “The Princess Bride,” came after the first assembly was done. [We were] just reflecting on it like, “What is this movie? There’s no script, so I didn’t know what we were making — even when we finished shooting, I thought, “is this a 40-minute thing?” Then after seeing the full assembly and feeling really good about it, I took a step back and [asked], “What else is missing?” I watched it with John Bowers, who was the composer, and I feel like I had just seen “Titane,” so I was like, “My movie doesn’t have enough sex in cars.” [laughs] And that made us laugh, but the other thing I obviously liked about the container of it is this is a ghost story. This is a story to be told around a campfire, so the idea that it’s somebody telling the story adds this nice other layer to it [of] is it real or is it not? Is it just her story that she’s telling to this other person? It has that kind of question mark.
Then John adds a really simple but affecting score with this curious tickling of piano keys. How did you go about recording it?
The evolution of the score was one of my favorite parts of making this movie. I livestreamed the post-production process on Twitch, so for a month every day I was at my computer streaming my screen to the Internet as I’m putting the movie together and my friend John, who did the sound mix for “Youngstown,” saw that I was doing this live stream and he had the idea to be like, “What if I made music while you were editing and I streamed it? You could then pipe that into your stream.” Just the idea of that made me laugh, but I said, “Okay, sure.” And as I’m editing, he’s just creating various vibes that fit the scenes that I’m assembling, so he was there for two weeks as I’m making the movie, he’s also making music. All of that stuff he made ended up being 95% of what the score is, some of which he actually live scored to the moment. As I was watching a scene back, he was doing stuff and the way he had done it, and the way it lined up in that moment is then what I replicated in the movie we’re now watching. And I hummed this little four- or five-note melody, which John then played on piano, and then we peppered in throughout the movie as this theme. It felt good.
When it’s such a fluid process, was there anywhere this goes that really took you by surprise?
A big part was going there with no expectations about what it was going to be, but thinking, we’re going to make this movie about this woman who has a stalker and this other woman who’s gone through this trauma and knowing these are heavy topics. We were taking it pretty seriously, but as we were making it, [we were] starting to feel this is a fraction of what these people who go through these experiences are feeling. That naturally led us to seek humor as a form of release from that weight, which is why the movie then takes this really interesting trajectory and shift into this other zone that wasn’t pre-planned. That was completely unexpected and exciting. When I feel I’m either doing something wrong or something that I have no references for, that’s very exciting. I’m not saying I’m doing something that has never been done, but I’m not sure I’ve seen a movie that starts the way “Jethica” starts and ends in the place that Jethica ends. You’re probably not supposed to do that. I feel like you shouldn’t do that, but we did it and it kind of works.
It’s funny because a 68-minute movie is also something that would seem to be frowned upon and yet anyone I’ve recommended the film to see that as one of it’s selling points.
I very much am letting it be what it is and I agree that short movies are great. Movies are getting too long and we’re saying if somebody’s going to judge something because of the run time is too short, then that’s fine. They can do that. But the run times of movies are based on other stuff. One of them it’s supposedly based on the amount of time a human can not go to the bathroom. Then also there’s an old history of there being A movies and B movies, and the B movie is not a lesser quality, but it’s shorter because it just plays first [in a double feature]. I think there can and should be room for all different lengths of things. A story should just be however long it takes to tell that story and no longer.
What’s it like getting “Jethica” to SXSW?
It’s great. It’s one of the biggest film festivals and we shot this movie just over a year ago with nobody knowing that we were doing it. It’s as small as anything could possibly be. And that’s really neat to me. There’s also something healthy [to that] where my first narrative film took years to make, which is so common, and then the ultimate premiere [feels like the] release of this movie needs to justify five years of blood, sweat, and tears, and there’s something nice and light that this release is not some big, heavy release. There’s no weight involved. It’s actually just a very nice, fun, light way to share a movie with a bunch of people and hopefully they enjoy it.
“Jethica” will screen again at SXSW on March 18th at 2:15 pm at the Alamo Lamar C.
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