SXSW 2021 Interview: Whitney Call, Mallory Everton and Stephen Meek on Having the Humor Required to Start “Recovery”

After many other years when the intimidation of all the elements required to pull off any film were too daunting to consider, Whitney Call, Mallory Everton and Stephen Meek started to see things differently in a year when the mere act of stepping outside carried risk.

“We wanted to make something because we’ve been waiting for a long time to be able to make something, so [we thought] why don’t we just make it happen now because who knows? 2020 could be a do-over year where no one cares what you did this year,” says Call. “And that’s how it ended up actually getting done.”

It terms of gusto, it shows that Call, Everton and Meek went into filming “Recovery” with the idea to dance like no one’s watching, but in fact, people have gotten to enjoy it this week at SXSW where the plucky comedy premiered against all odds. Like the countless other considerations that went into being produced when COVID-19 was a concern, the trio built around their limitations, crafting a shoot in which each part of the filmmaking process from script to a first cut was divvied up into two-week increments to hit the winter festival deadlines in October and likely benefitting the film by adding an extra bit of authenticity to the frenzied road trip undertaken by Albequerque-based sisters Jamie (Call) and Blake (Everton) to pull their Nana (Anne Sward Hansen) out of a nursing home facing a coronavirus outbreak in Eastern Washington.

While the two fear what awaits them and greatly underestimate the difficulty of the 20-hour drive that Google Maps has made it sound to be a snap, “Recovery” sees the siblings make the best they can out of the trying circumstances, even if they’re continually interrupted by the loose ends they’ve left back home such as the pet mice Jamie typically tends to as a 4th grade teacher and having to worry about their carefree sister Erin (Julia Jolley), who in her infinite wisdom booked a cruise at the start of the pandemic. Call and Everton bring a natural chemistry to the sisters, having been best friends since they were nine, and as “Recovery” rolls on, the ability to lighten the mood becomes as an effective a weapon against the ravages of the virus as any other.

In the midst of the online festival, Call and Everton, who wrote the movie together besides starring in it, and Meek, who would serve as co-director with Everton, spoke about how they pulled off the production and found the humor in such a hopeless time, as well as good things to come out having to think fast on their feet during a fast-paced filming process.

At what point during the pandemic do you think we’ve got to make a movie?

Mallory Everton: It was about three months in. Basically, we started talking in June because we were losing our minds. I was so isolated, I had moved to L.A. right before the pandemic — fun fact — which was terrible luck, and we started talking about it, just like, “What can we dream about? Can we finish a script together? Maybe we should just start talking about things we can write.” Eventually, we started asking, “We’ve always wanted to make a feature, is there anything we could make right now? Maybe we can use this dead space in our lives to learn how to make a feature and learn as much from the process as we can.” Around the end of June, we started talking about bottle movies — movies that take place in very few locations — and we watched “Locke” and “The Trip,” these British movies that take place mostly in cars, and we thought, “We might be able to do something like that.”

Stephen Meek: You have the charisma of a Tom Hardy, right?

Mallory Everton: Sure. [laughs] But it was a relief to work on a comedy and to just stretch our muscles after three months of a whole lot of nothing…

Whitney Call: Not just nothing, but for me mentally, I felt like I was never going to work on anything again. I’m sure a lot of people were in this mental state, but I [thought], “Well, the pursuits I’d have before this for anything in my career have just stopped.” Anyone that was maybe going to fund a movie that I wanted to make probably won’t have much money after this year and there were all of these dominoes where it just felt like our future as we know it is not going to happen. So we decided, “What if we just take it into our own hands? What do we have power over right now?” We initially thought, “Well, let’s do a road trip movie. That’ll keep it simple.” Until we got into production when we realized just how much work we’d given ourselves. [laughs] But when we started writing it, it really felt like the wind was at our backs.

One of the things that really impressed me was how visually it’s an interesting movie and you keep it alive aesthetically. Was it difficult figuring out how to film in a car and deciding the places you wanted to visit along the way?

Stephen Meek: It’s actually a relief that you’re saying that because we definitely felt as we were filming this, “There’s no way that people are going to be interested in just seeing these two in the car for literally 70%, 80% of the movie.” But we had a really great director of photography, Brenna Empey who was able to make everything just visually sing. We did a lot of different car rig stuff. Somebody basically lent us a process trailer — we still paid for it, but not nearly as much as it was worth — and we could set up and hood mount everything to host this trailer stuff. We really had a lot of resources just donated to the movie, and that helped in terms of breaking up what may be would otherwise be a fairly monotonous premise.

Whitney Call: And the locations we wrote to, because we knew like, “Okay, we’re going to be making this road trip movie. We probably can’t leave Utah right now. It’s not very safe,” and that’s where we were stationed at the time while we were making this. Luckily, we have a lot of variety in the terrain out here, so we thought, “That could feasibly look like other states.” We’ve got red rock and deserts and mountains and we have different greenery as well, so we were able to cheat it a little bit to look like going from New Mexico all the way up to Eastern Washington. We could find little spots that Mal and Steven both scouted out that were able to look beautiful while still looking like a different place.

Because it’s difficult to actually use phones live in a movie, and you have all those wonderful reactions to the calls coming in, how were you creating a feeling of interaction?

Mallory Everton: We made it more complicated than we should have, for sure.

Whitney Call: COVID made it more complicated because we couldn’t schedule everyone the way we wanted them to.

Stephen Meek: We were hoping to have people’s voice recording and FaceTime calls for these two to interact with and maybe improv with, but we didn’t end up being able to film any of it until our last two days of our shoot, so they were mostly just interacting with themselves.

Mallory Everton: We would record voice memos of our own voices so that we could at least hopefully have the timing and the right reactions, and we would put earbuds in, I feel actually nervous about saying that because you can see it in some shots…

You could’ve fooled me.

Mallory Everton: But the reason is because we were trying to sync our reaction. We’d both gasp at the same time, and it would have been a lot easier if we had just scheduled things differently, but we just didn’t have that option.

The two of you have a marvelous rhythm to begin with. Did that rapport come naturally to create the relationship between these characters?

Whitney Call: That was written in really because we didn’t necessarily have a whole lot of time to shoot this. We knew we want to incorporate a lot of our natural chemistry already in the script so that we could have this memorize and we can just be ready film 15-20 pages in one sitting. Mal and I grew up together, and you can see in the end credits, we’ve got home movies from when we were eight, so we knew what voices we were going to bring to these scenes and how we would interact with each other, but we really just played a lot in the writing process and fine-tuned it to what we thought would be a good standard. On the day, if we had time afterwards, we would improvise some stuff, but really we [thought] we just don’t have time right now. We got to keep it tight and we’ve got to keep it like as natural as possible with the stuff that we’ve already played with.

One of the amazing scenes in the film ends up being this sing-along to what’s playing on the radio where I realized you had to make up the lyrics to every single song…

Mallory Everton: Oh gosh, and they were all just like temp songs we were finding online and trying to learn in like two minutes, right before we recorded them. [laughs]

Whitney Call: I think was the hard one was the Latin one…

Mallory Everton: That one was hard. Because it wasn’t a language we didn’t speak-

Whitney Call: “Can you memorize the Latin right here before we film?”

Stephen Meek: And I don’t think any of us fully realized until after, we were like, “Oh my gosh, doesn’t ‘Tommy Boy’ have a montage of them singing to the radio?” It was just in our collective conscience. But you guys had a great twist on it. It was very fun.

Was there a particularly crazy day of filming on this?

Mallory Everton: I’d probably say day one was the craziest day just because there were so many elements to it. It was like we were tripping over our shoelaces as we got started because our shoes weren’t on yet to an extent, but the first thing we shot was the rollerblading scene and we didn’t even know if we were going to use this scene, but we spent the first half day shooting shooting like a quarter of a page and then we go to shoot the wheelhouse scene and there’s a huge wind storm. So we had to reschedule that for some other day, and we didn’t get anything else from that scene done. Then we lost our location for the next day and we all got super sunburned and needed to be on camera for the next two weeks.

Stephen Meek: I think we all individually have stories of where we went to cry after that first day. It was pretty disastrous.

Whitney Call: Just to have that feeling of like, “We gave it the old college try, like maybe we shouldn’t make this.”

Mallory Everton: We were betting so much on ourselves and the first day was like, “This will not work.”

Obviously, you’ve seen it all pay off now that it’s at South By Southwest. What’s it like to get to the finish line?

Stephen Meek: We feel beyond grateful. There were so many wonderful people involved to help us, like the outside production company Soro Films, and so many people on our crew working at the top of their game and were willing to come on for two weeks in the middle of a pandemic.

Whitney Call: There’s so many people, Honestly, we made this film just to say that we can learn from this for our next film. That was initially why we wanted to make it. It was just to learn and soak up all of these experiences, so anything after that for us was the cherry on top and to get into like one of our pie In the sky film festivals is seriously the coolest thing ever. We’re so grateful and just hope that means this can reach as many people as possible because we really just made this to say, “Hey, we’ve all had a really hard year, but we were all isolated and let’s all connect together in this experience and feel a little more joy in what we all just went through.”

“Recovery” will screen at SXSW through March 20th.