AFI Fest 2023 Interview: Sabrina Doyle and Ron Eli Cohen on Letting Their Imaginations Run Wild in “Go for Grandma”

“Do you know what a has-been is? I pray you never find out,” Blake (Justine Lupe) tells her young son Lucian (Austin Schoenfeld) outside of his elementary school in “Go For Grandma,” with both having a lot to learn, though only one of them actually has classes he can take. Life hasn’t been easy for the mother and son since his father moved away and after enjoying a comfy life that he provided for, Blake isn’t eager to get back into the job market after putting aside her career aspirations and taking care of Lucian, who unfortunately now bears the brunt of her frustrations. The two may be bonded by blood, but they are truly an odd couple when she no longer sees any wonder in the world and that’s all he can see, having a wild imagination that he can escape into where he can have dragons and unicorns for friends, and while she is hardly encouraging, having her own dreams crushed, his curious mind is nurtured by his grandmother (Amy Madigan), who lives just across the street in a far more Bohemian flat than the one Lucian and Blake share, always painting something and there to answer the call, both literally by walkie-talkie and figuratively, when her grandson needs some help getting to sleep with a bedtime story.

If Lucian is inspired to think even bigger, one could say director Sabrina Doyle, with an enormous imagination of her own, is doing the same with her latest project, a half-hour short that has the scale of a spectacle quadruple its length and beyond that in budget without sacrificing the equally complex but much more intimate issues of a family in flux. For a director with a flair for the unexpected, it’s a delightful surprise after making her feature debut with “Lorelei,” a compelling modern-day folk tale starring Jena Malone and Pablo Schreiber as high school sweethearts who reignite their relationship after his return from prison and sees him step gingerly into the role of being a father to her kids, and with a script from Lucian Nakazato-Patterson, Doyle is once again able to see the wisdom of both the young and young at heart in “Go for Grandma” when Schoenfeld’s precocious Lucian can soar across the skies in his mind, but is brought back to earth in becoming more and more attuned to the sacrifices that both his mother and grandmother have had to make as they’ve taken one more responsibilities as adults.

“Go for Grandma” is a glorious coming-of-age story, made all the more so by its seamless incorporation of special effects and on the eve of its premiere at AFI Fest, Doyle and producer Ron Eli Cohen spoke about how they pulled such a massive undertaking together, bringing artisans from around the world to work on the short and meeting the demands of both a tender tale of fraught family dynamics on set and visually expressing the boundless creativity of its characters.

Sabrina, how did you get interested in this?

Sabrina Doyle: I came into it very late. A producer I had known in film school, Dawn, was already working on the project, and it was getting bigger and more expansive than people had originally anticipated. They really needed a safe pair of hands to steer the ship directorally, and I came in quite late, about three weeks before shooting in New York, but there was a lot to get done in those three weeks. We hadn’t cast at that point and we just started building the set, so there was a lot to do, and when you put your head down, there’s a lot you can get done in three weeks. And what I saw in it were those magical films that I had grown up with in the ‘80s, like “The NeverEnding Story,” “Labyrinth,” “The Goonies,” and “E.T.,” these wonderful flights of fantasy that take you off into other worlds and, back in the day, weren’t scared of being a bit dark around the edges as well. That’s what I wanted to lean into.

You flirted with fantasy in “Lorelei,” but this was a full-fledged step into an effects extravaganza. Was it that much of a leap for you?

Sabrina Doyle: Yeah, my AFI thesis film was a science-fiction set on a mining ship in the asteroid belt, which was quite ambitious for a student film, so I had toyed with VFX a long time ago. The technology was not as advanced as it is today, and what you could do was more limited, and then with “Lorelei,” we had a few VFX shots, but not very many of them. But this was a whole other adventure, shepherding this film through the amount of VFX that it has as an independent film. Because most films that do this have studio support and as an independent film, we had to navigate that ourselves and it was a huge learning curve.

Ron Eli Cohen: It’s been an amazing project with a lot of challenges and learning curves. I worked with Sabrina on something maybe six, seven years ago, and when she started post [production on “Go for Grandma”], she called me and said, “I’ve got a project you [might want to] want to jump on? And Sabrina’s Sabrina — she’s pretty amazing, and I think she’s incredibly talented. And then it was a lot of intense VFX and in the end, we ended up having VFX in five different countries. We were in Egypt, Serbia, London, China, and the U.S. and I think there’s 187 or 200 VFX shots all in. We brought on my co-producer Scott Anderson, just a really amazing guy who did “Babe” and “King Kong,” and with him and the VFX supervisor Robert Moggach, we just started looking at any VFX [companies] we could find of quality and of note, and we ended up with some great ones. We got really lucky.

Was it difficult to marry the naturalistic performances that you obviously prize with the demands on that kind of set up where the VFX are put in in post?

Sabrina Doyle: You always start with the actors. The spectacle is empty without that, and I like sweeping audiences away. The films I like the most are both intimate on the humanistic and personal level, but also they lead you down the rabbit hole, don’t they? And we were able, thankfully, to do both on this.

It starts with casting and we were cast amazingly well. Justine Lupe is extraordinary in “Succession,” but I think you really get to see what a wonderfully versatile actress she is. She’s so good at playing baddies and ice cold women, but then you dig beneath the surface of it and there’s warmth and humanity there. She has claws in this, but then there’s an unexpected tenderness as well and I love that about her as an actor. And Amy Madigan, of course, brings so much warmth, you feel immediately feel you’re in safe hands, when she’s on the screen and certainly on set, she was a a real grounding point. The day that Amy Madigan came to set, everyone was on their best behavior and the crew really raised their game. Everyone wanted to impress her, not just because of her name, but because of how she conducted herself on set. Her first few days on set, she wasn’t even on camera, but she came in on her days off just so she could read opposite Austin because she didn’t think it was fair to have him not have that, so she really took the lead there and made sure that she was a grandmother figure to him off screen [too].

We have some wonderful set photography where she’s sitting on a piece of scaffolding because we filmed those scenes [of them interacting] in two different locations — the stuff facing the child’s window and in his bedroom, we shot on the soundstage, and then the stuff facing the grandmother’s apartment [across] the alleyway was shot in a real New York alleyway and then our editor Banner [Gwin] stitched them together really seamlessly to make it look like it was one location. But that was really hard for the actors to do, filming a scene in two parts and the emotional continuity, but also [keep] a physical continuity and making sure that the spaces look like they’re the same space and everyone just did a tremendous job with that.

Thankfully, we also had the luxury of quite a long shoot for a short film. We shot for 11 days. And that allowed us to do some of the big spectacle stuff. For example, we spent one day shooting on Wall Street, and you have your meat and potatoes of the project, which [are the scenes] is in the apartment, but then you have the kind of scenes where you break out and see a bit more of the world. And generally on short films, it’s really hard to do that because you’re short on time and you can’t afford to spend a day filming something that’s only going to be on screen for a few seconds. But we were able to do that on this, which was amazing.

Ron Eli Cohen: And for me, VFX is sold best with good acting. Wall Street’s a great example for Lucian. The VFX are beautiful and we spent a lot of time on them. But it’s really sold when you have the reverse of him and [you see] his moment of wonderment and joy. The same with the dragon — that was Sabrina’s brainchild, and I love it and think it’s pretty incredible, but I think as an audience, it hits home when you have that reverse [shot of] the actors and you see their emotional reaction to it. And I think Sabrina did a pretty beautiful job of that, grounding it in the performance.

It is a pretty stunning dragon, however. What was it like to design?

Sabrina Doyle: We were very lucky to have Tully Summers, an amazing veteran creature designer in Hollywood who did the original concept art for this. We spoke about dragons, and the European dragon style, which is the St. George dragon with the wings that you see in “Game of Thrones” versus the Asian style of dragon, which is a more serpentine shape without wings — basically, the dragon that’s in the “NeverEnding Story” called Falkor, who was always in my head as the original dragon who didn’t have wings. He was more like a canine dragon and a lovable dog in a furry snake body. And I loved the mash-up of different animals combined into that dragon, so we started with that idea and that it would be a red dragon because the dragon evolves out seeing the fire truck for the little boy and red is what spurs his imagination. So it’d be a red dragon that had a puppy-like quality, and we would incorporate elements of other creatures.

Actually when I dug into it, [I learned] a lot of dinosaurs had fur and feathers as well, which none of us think about, but the latest thinking on them and recreations do incorporate feathers in the design, so those were the conversations we were having and then Tully came up with a few designs — one that was kind of a bit more awe-inspiring, and the other very alien, and then the one that we went with, which in the end felt it was most convincing as the product of a child’s imagination. Then we were really lucky to be able to mix our film at Skywalker Sound, and we asked the team there to come up with a sound for the dragon. Originally, the editor and I had used an elephant in temporary sounds until [we did a] final sound mix. And we [still] don’t know what Skywalker [put in], they never actually told us what it was. They created a dragon sound based on two different animals they combined, and [when I heard it] I was like, “This is great. This is the sound of our dragon. But out of interest, what two creatures did you use?” And they’re like, “We’re not telling you. Because if we tell you, it’ll break the magic and it’ll break the beauty.” I think we should maybe make a prize for whoever can guess.

I don’t want to play a part in demystifying things any further than I already have, but it’s a special film. What’s it like to start getting it out into the world?

Ron Eli Cohen: It’s really exciting for me just because you put your heart and soul into something, and you try to make it as perfect as you can. And then you go into it knowing all the things that didn’t go the way you wanted to, but there were things that did and all that really doesn’t mean anything until it’s out in the world, so you hope that what you put into it gets across to the audience and that it means as much to them as it does to you. It’s really Sabrina’s film, so I can only speak to what I personally responded to when I saw her work and you hope that gets into the world because the film has a really sweet message that you don’t see as much. The ’80s films that we grew up on were magical and wonderful, but so human as well and I feel that there’s a bit of a dearth of those kind of films that deal with serious subjects and they’re very real and and complex, but they also have this magical element where you actually feel inspired at the end, so I hope that that’s what makes it into the world.

Sabrina Doyle: And what I really like about how it turned out is that this is a film that doesn’t talk down and it creates a big screen spectacle for children, but I think it’s a film that children can watch with adults and both parties would get different things out of it. I also thought it was important to give those adult actresses their moment and a scene that hints at a much deeper story, and obviously, that’s not the main thrust and this is Lucian’s story from a child’s point of view, but I think we give them enough to feel that there’s something substantial underpinning that, so you have these big actors who bring their experience to a story of a child’s imagination. That’s what I love about those ’80s films as well. It takes childhood seriously, and a broader piece of it is I’ll often think about how difficult it must be to grow up now in a post-COVID world with social media and climate change and how disempowering it must be, so I really like the idea of a film that allows the child to control the narrative. I certainly feel that stories in many ways saved me growing up and in difficult situations, you retreat into the land of stories and fables and it can really help, and for Lucian, the writer of this, I think that was impetus for writing the story and us in making it.

Ron Eli Cohen: Yeah, [Lucian] said to us one of his impetuses was to [express] the power of imagination for children going through difficult situations. That was a real touchstone — the redemptive power of imagination, hope, and love.

“Go for Grandma” will screen at AFI Fest in Los Angeles as part of Shorts Program: Young at Heart on October 29th at 11 am at Chinese 2.

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