Sophie Kargman on Finding Her Way as a Filmmaker in “Susie Searches”

There’s a lot of things Susie Wallis (Kiersey Clemons) has to do part-time in “Susie Searches,” attending Wade College in Ohio where she’s a part-time student, working part-time at Bonanza Burger to pay her tuition and tending to her mother Anne (Jammie Patton) who has been ailing for years with multiple sclerosis. Yet it is another part-time occupation that threatens to become a full-time responsibility when an opportunity to bolster the ratings of her true crime podcast presents itself when Jesse Wilcox (Alex Wolff), a fellow student at Wade, goes missing and her proximity to the case leads her to have enough information to solve it. However, one mystery opens up an entirely different one for Susie once she’s rescued Jesse without finding his captors and with a local sheriff (Jim Gaffigan) more concerned about the whereabouts of Sandhill Cranes after his wife turned him onto birdwatching, she ends up with far more responsibility than her internship at the police department would seem to entitle her to.

If Sophie Kargman’s debut feature sounds like it goes dark, it is constantly buoyed by the indefatigable spirit of its lead character, whose willingness to burn the candle at both ends becomes as much of a concern as any other in the whodunit. Quite literally brightening up the world around her with her taste for turquoise, adorning everything from her bedroom walls to her laptop, Susie’s steps into the shadows, be they online where seeking the approval of unseen masses with the listenership of her podcast comes at a cost or in her investigation where she’s introduced to things that she’s never seen before and perhaps no one ever should be. It’s a tonal tightrope that both Clemons and the film’s writer/director walk quite admirably in a film stocked with a murderer’s row for a cast, whether they’re proved guilty of any crimes or not as Rachel Sennott, David Walton, Ken Marino, and Dolly Wells show up to spice things up.

After premiering last fall at the Toronto Film Festival, the colorful caper is arriving in theaters and on VOD this week and Kargman spoke about her own careful plotting to begin a career in directing after starting out as an actor, developing “Susie Searches” as a short first and bringing together all the elements from music to graphic design to deliver such a thorough investigation of a specific character as the amateur sleuth strives to go pro.

I know this started out as a short, but you already had the feature in mind. Did the exercise of making it as a short first or seeing the reaction to it change your ideas about the feature version?

Yes, I actually starred in the short as an actress and when you’re making shorts, you don’t have a lot of money — I did props, the pickups, the drop-offs, and it was very scrappy. Our plan was to do the short film, prove the concept and the screenplay for the feature at the same time and we went out [to potential producers with those] in tandem because in this industry, people are looking for reasons to say no and this was a way to get them to say yes. My goal was to show what I could do, not only as a filmmaker, but that I understood the very unique tone of “Susie Searches,” [walking] the line between a dark comedy and thriller. But I realized after the short that I could not be in the feature. As much as I love acting, I could only direct because there was so much to do and going into the future, I [thought] I definitely will not act in this one.

That leads me to ask, I know you’ve got an entire crew to draw on [for the feature], but one of the things that I was so impressed by is how you had to create so much media in order for this story to work — there are countless social media accounts and various TV news channels. What was it like laying the groundwork for this world of the film?

We had an amazing graphic designer named Matt Brunson-Clein out of New York, and I’ve been such a fan of his work for a long time. I actually cold e-mailed him and he’s done a lot of really interesting docs and he’s incredibly talent, but he hasn’t done a ton in the narrative space and this was an opportunity to get into that world. Everything that you see was actually shot on blank green screens and we put that in all in post, but it was a lot. We also had an incredible VFX supervisor, Chris Wells, who is a long time collaborator of mine, and he [would] comp the graphics into the computers and onto the cell phones. But there was a lot of media and I probably will stay away from that moving forward because it’s a process. [laughs] It was also a lot of fun because there’s so much you can do there, and there’s a lot of chuckles to ourselves in the nuggets that we put into the media.

The music also has a lot of personality to it. What was it like to work on?

That was Jon Natchez, who is one of my all-time favorite collaborators. I had sent out a “Susie Searches” Spotify playlist to everyone in the crew [because] I think music is a really great way to establish tone, especially with a film like this, where you’re toeing the line between satirical and thriller, and John and I had talked very early on about the type of music that I wanted — this non-traditional percussive sound, [with] a lot of violin and then strange beats. John actually wrote a few things very early on long before [even] pre-production started and sent them to me, like the “Susie Searches” podcast song, just so we could start sharing [ideas]. He blew it out of the park. I would send him something and he would take that and elevate it. He’s a real, real talent.

The story itself is so topical, but at the same time, the style of it seems like you’re pulling both from a retro vibe and a present day vibe. How much did you wanted to connect it to a certain moment in time?

I wanted it to feel like a cautionary tale and for this world to feel elevated. It’s not a naturalistic mood, it’s a world unto itself and it’s a satirical thriller, so I wanted the visual language to reflect that. [For instance] color theory is really interesting to me, and we set about doing the greens and blues in places where Susie felt really comfortable. Like her room was green, her mom’s room was blue and then Bonanza Burger, where she worked, was a place where she felt really comfortable and that was green and blue. Then the places where she didn’t feel as comfortable, like the school is more orange, burnt amber tones, and then the places we were using this bright yellow chartreuse color [was] for when she felt very out of her depth, and all this is not totally based in reality, but it reflects what our reality could become. So the color, the production design, costume design, music, all of it was really important for my department heads to be in sync. Communication is incredibly important, and hopefully you can see that that all melded together to create one common tone.

That’s true of the performances as well and knowing your own background in acting, were there things you wanted to give your actors that you would have wanted from a director yourself?

Absolutely. Ultimately, everyone, whether it be your producers or your cast or crew, wants to feel safe, and that’s why I storyboard. Preparation is essential, and as an actor, I learned a lot from being on sets where the director wasn’t super-prepared and I couldn’t believe that. That idea of people waiting around and [thinking], “What’s going on?” I felt that as an actor, and going into “Susie,” it was important that it was the opposite and my actors always feel they were safe and that they could try things out. Because I was an actor, I think like an actor and I pride myself on the fact that my actors could feel very proud of their performances in this movie and know that they could take chances and that I was only going to choose their best takes to put in the cut.

Was there anything that happened once the film started taking on a life of its own that you could get excited about?

The best part of filmmaking is the collaborative process. You come in with a lot of ideas and then you have your collaborators, whether it be the cast or the crew, my department heads — Sam Hawkins, my costume designer, Conor Murphy, my cinematographer, and Adam Reamer, my production designer, and my longtime editor Christine Park, who is with me from the get-go and very intrinsic to my storyboard process, and everyone is taking my ideas and building upon them and elevating it.

“Susie Searches” opens in limited release on July 28th and is available on Prime Video, Google Play, and Vudu.

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