TIFF ’19 Interview: Sofia Banzhaf on the Wilderness of the Dating Scene in “I Am in the World As Free and Slender as a Deer on a Plain”

There’s a buzz in the air as Sofia Banzhaf’s “I Am in the World as Free and Slender as a Deer on the Plain” begins, with the morning sun flooding the frame as a delivery truck pulls up outside. The anticipatory cacophony of strings makes it feel as if the world’s full of possibilities, but it isn’t long before reaching the quiet of night when Banzhaf spies a young woman (Micaela Robertson), scrolling through Instagram to realize the options available to her as a potential mate are slim. Still, as a film, the multitalented artist’s latest short vibrates with the sensation of making a discovery, rooted in something primal as Banzhaf sets about what can come across as a perverse reworking of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” following her heroine through a series of late-night encounters with men (Spencer Macpherson, Daniel Maslany, and Andy McQueen) in which she finds it difficult to get a read on what they want, though it unfortunately takes the awkward experiences to figure out what she does as well.

“I Am in the World as Free and Slender as a Deer on the Plain” is made with all the confidence and wisdom that its central character is eager to attain, and Banzhaf invests it with a wry sense of humor in both the circuitous conversations that can make courtship maddening and an aesthetic airiness that can make a sense of freedom seem confining when having all the choice in the world becomes its own burden. As an artist, Banzhaf has liberated herself to tell stories in a variety of ways, starting out as an actress in such films as “Closet Monster” and “Silent Retreat” before segueing behind the camera to make the shorts “Diamond Day” and “Seven Stars,” and writing the novella “Pony Castle” in between, and all her talents will be on display at this year’s Toronto Film Festival where not only “I Am in the World as Free and Slender as a Deer on the Plain” will be making its world premiere, but “Black Conflux,” in which she appears in longtime friend and collaborator Nicole Dorsey’s feature debut.

Shortly before the very busy week kicks off for her, Banzhaf spoke about her first time at TIFF as a director, trusting her instincts when it came to casting and creating a whole world for the film on a small, practical scale.

How did this come about?

I wanted to write something about dating that reflected my own experiences and [also] about a young woman exploring her sexuality in a way that didn’t feel like it was sexualizing her or sensationalizing anything about her- to make the protagonist really remain very much the subject, not the object. So I wanted to create these vignettes of the feeling she gets from being with these different men in experiences that weren’t black and white, that were in this grey area of dating where you’re not sure whether you’re having a good time or if you’re being taken advantage of. Are you the one taking advantage? Like who has the power? It was important for me to explore the power dynamics and follow that. It’s funny because I wrote it in early 2016, before the election, and I was looking for references for it, but I couldn’t find anything. The closest I could find was maybe Claire Denis, and it was so crazy to me that there wasn’t anything really like this, so I really felt I should make this.

I can’t think of anything like it either, and it begins with such a distinctive opening shot that I wouldn’t want to spoil, but did it come to mind immediately as a way to start this?

Short films come to me very complete. I usually write them in one sitting – and obviously I rewrite them a lot after that, but I just knew that was the opening shot because I feel like with what you’re doing is almost like a poem. It’s just like a feeling, so I find it easier to do it all in one go because then I have more access to what I actually want to make, and I always knew that was going to be the beginning of the film, and I wanted the meaning of it to be a little bit ambiguous.

How did you find your lead Micaela Robertson?

I was helping Calvin Thomas and Yonah Lewis, who are directors who have a movie at TIFF called “White Lie” this year, [with] casting a movie called “Spice It Up” that they had been working on for a really long time, so we were seeing all these young women coming in and they cast [Micaela] in “Spice It Up,” but I always remembered her from the auditions. So when I was casting for my short, I just gave her the script and we met once for coffee and I’m like, “You’re perfect.” There was no audition process for any of my actors. All the guys are pretty much people I’ve worked with before, so I felt quite comfortable casting them. But Micaela was the biggest risk because I hadn’t actually ever seen her work besides that one day, and it was funny – a week before the shoot, she invited me to a play she was doing. On the way to the play, I was like “God, I hope this is good because I’ve never seen her.” And then she absolutely blew my mind, so I left and I was like, “Thank God, that was so good.” This is only her second time on camera, but she’s so talented and I’m really excited about her trajectory after this.

Is there anything you do for your actors that you’d want from a director when you’re in their shoes?

I just try to create an environment that’s very relaxed. Your actors can really feel free to play if the set feels like there’s good vibes and people aren’t super stressed out and of course, when you’re working on an indie film with no money and no time, the stakes are extremely high at all times. But I think we created that energy and aside from that, Micaela and I talked a bit beforehand where I would get her take on the character and we would expand a little bit on that. I think one of the major parts of directing is casting, so once you’ve made that decision, I really trust in people’s intuition. And then when you’re on set, it’s just a matter of gently guiding them, but really letting it feel like it’s coming from them.

What I love about making shorts is that it can be an intuitive process. With a feature, there’d obviously be a lot more prep work and there’d be different steps I’d take with my cast, but I love not being super-precious about things and I think that it would be awesome if I could keep cultivating that feeling while making a feature, but obviously, it gets a little bit more tricky when you’re working with that many people for that many days with a bigger budget.

This is pretty ambitious in its own right with the idea of vignettes requiring a number of different scenes and settings. What was it like to create the spaces each of these encounters would take place in and the mood?

Yeah, we were really lucky. My friend has a pretty big apartment on Bloor Street in Toronto, so we actually used this one apartment as three different places in the film and we didn’t have to shift units. We were able to shoot there the whole day and it looked like all these different places, but really it was just this one place. And I had a lot of discussions with my DP Bobby Shore to figure out how to cleverly shoot things so that it looked like different spaces and then with our production designer, we figured out how to use different color schemes for each space to make them feel distinct.

Did anything happen with this once it started taking on a life of its own that you now really like about it?

I feel like I ended up arriving pretty much very closely to what I wanted, but the way I got there was more complicated than I initially thought because what you see on screen is essentially the order I wrote it in. However, in the edit, we spent a long time playing with the order. In fact, we had picture locked it in the reverse order that you now see it and I wasn’t totally sure it was perfect. I just wanted to take a month to just sit with it and luckily I had that time. I was traveling and I was able to just not watch it for a while. When I came back to it, it was super clear to me that I had to go back to the original order, because when you’re so in it, you just lose perspective. You get bored of seeing the same thing and you play around, but at the end, I’m like, “Oh no, I want this to be exactly how I pictured it initially.” So the last scene you see wasn’t originally supposed to be the last scene, but I liked that because that was never supposed to be the ending and when we had it like that, I thought, “Oh, this totally works and I understand the feeling behind it and that is the feeling I was going for.”

TIFF is obviously a homecoming for you, but what does it feel like to be attending as a director?

It’s awesome. Obviously, it’s a huge confidence boost to be invited as a director and it definitely gives me some juice to keep going. Even though you shouldn’t rely on outside validation, obviously, it does help. [laughs] I’m excited to see the other shorts. There’s some really cool stuff this year. And there are so many people that I know at the festival this year, it feels in a weird way like a graduating class. Nicole Dorsey, she’s a close friend of mine and Yonah and Calvin — all these people that I came up with, if you will, so it’s really nice to all be there together.

“I Am in the World As Free and Slender as a Deer on a Plain” will screen at the Toronto Film Festival as part of Short Cuts Programme 3 at the Scotiabank on September 7th at 7 pm and September 13th at 5:45 pm.

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