Director Jessica Sanders Journeys into the World of VFX in Her Latest Film
Interview by Mike O'Donnell / Editor of the WNW Magazine
Academy Award-nominated Director Jessica Sanders has definitely tackled her share of harrowing topics, ranging from wrongful imprisonment to the Holocaust. Yet no matter how bleak the subject, she always manages to serve up an original and refreshing take. Part of this stems from Jessica's ongoing interest in exploring the surreal and absurd, often with elements of quirky humor. This tension between levity and heft has served each of Jessica's films incredibly well, and perhaps none more than End of the Line. Jessica's latest film certainly has its otherworldly quirks, but make no mistake: she is still documenting themes of power, inhumanity, and abuse at a time more prevalent than ever. Presented by Refinery29 and TNT as part of the Shatterbox Anthology, End of the Line was an official selection at 2018's Sundance Festival. It stars Simon Helberg and Brett Gelman and tells the story of a lonely man who goes to the pet store and buys a tiny man in a cage.
In our interview below, we talk about Jessica's 13-year interest in adapting Aimee Bender's short story, and how her background in commercials and short form helped prepare her for translating the bluntness of Bender's prose. Jessica also pulls back the curtain on her first foray into visual effects, revealing the preparation involved and the importance of occasionally disregarding that preparation. End of the Line may appear worlds away from her earlier documentary work, but her past projects have served as the perfect foundation for exercises in improvisation and collaboration.
Jessica seems to feel most at home when pushing herself and her audience out of their respective comfort zones. End of the Line was the perfect opportunity for Jessica to prove herself to no one more than herself. "I did it to challenge myself. We had stunts in the movie, we had 67 visual effects shots, we had large art prop builds. I want to be able to direct any kind of story." For Jessica, The End of the Line is the start of something new.
Mike: Does your latest project "End of the Line" and the whole experience feel like you’re entering new territory?
Jessica: This film definitely marks a big shift in my creative life. I’d never done a visual effects film before and I’ve wanted to make this film for 13 years, since I first read Aimee Bender’s short story. Jumping into surrealism and world building has been a blast and I’m excited to be doing more of it in the future.
Mike: It seems like there’s already quite a bit of hype building around the new film.
Jessica: The film explores power and its abuse which is very timely and why I think it’s resonating with audiences. The film is also about men and power but told through a female lens (female writer, screenwriter, and director) which is another reason I think it’s getting a lot of attention.
Mike: What about Aimee Bender’s short story pulled you in and made you see the cinematic potential?
Jessica: Aimee’s writing is so visual and the image of a tiny man in a cage always stayed with me. I loved the visual metaphor of this Big Man with a small, limited world, in contrast to the Little Man who has a big world filled with love; he’s also well-traveled and cultured. Bender’s story is short, but covers themes of power, desire, loneliness - it’s funny, dark, and totally unexpected. I've always been interested in exploring structures of power. Whether it's my films about wrongful imprisonment or the Holocaust, I am attracted to deep human themes, but told in an unexpected way that is hopefully on a more positive angle.
Mike: Previously, you’ve done narrative work that exists solely in the real world and documentary work with initiatives like the Innocence Project. Is this your first dive into Surrealism and visual experimentation?
Jessica: My first student film at Wesleyan University was about a girl born with a birthmark of the Great Wall of China on her stomach; she meets a boy with the great pyramids of Egypt on his stomach. It’s called “Los Angels” and it was shot on 16mm film. The surreal, absurd, and quirky humor are things I’ve always been very interested in exploring.
Mike: Who are some filmmakers that shaped that interest? Or did it stem from more of a literary place?
Jessica: I’ve always loved surrealist fiction and for this film it’s based on a short story. I’m also inspired by filmmakers like Federico Fellini, Pedro Almodovar, John Waters, Spike Jonze, Andrea Arnold and Alfonso Cuaron, who incorporate humor and deep human themes, as well as building worlds that are slightly off-kilter but still grounded.
Mike: It seems sometimes like science fiction and fantasy give artists the vehicle to be more direct with social commentary without feeling heavy-handed. If you're like "This is about this" in a realist work, it immediately becomes kind of a turn-off. Whereas if you go at it from this alternate or even subversive angle, you can almost make grander messages more digestible.
Jessica: Definitely! And when I tell purely non-fiction or grounded stories, my angle is always “How can I tell it differently and in a way that hasn't been done before?” With End of the Line we were able to explore deep themes of inhumanity and powerlessness in a way that starts playful and becomes very unexpected.
Mike: Did you attempt to stay true to the world built by Aimee Bender, or did you feel like you really needed to read between the lines given how short her story is?
Jessica: Aimee’s writing is so specific even if the story itself is short. Details like the Little Man wearing a tweed suit or the objects in his cage. I dug into those details and embraced them. I recall feeling like the world was pretty fleshed out. But then, working with my creative team, it was so fun to expand upon it. Aimee came to our premiere and she loved the film and participated in our Q&A. She said she was taken aback because the film was how she imagined it. She wrote one sentence about the pet store and it was exactly the pet store she had imagined. She wrote me the next day and said she had a dream about the film. I definitely feel like we were on the same creative wavelength. I think she was really excited with how it turned out.
Mike: Aimee Bender’s story seems to have little interest in preparing the reader for what will happen next. I think that’s partially economical writing. But it also just felt like one minute the Big Man and the Little Man are enjoying each other's company, getting to know one another, and then the Little Man does something that mildly annoys him, and it becomes, "Okay, I'm going to start torturing you now.” There’s just no foreshadowing, which makes the events feel like they're naturally transpiring. And you definitely capture that bluntness in your short. It was really tough to watch, going from, “This is so whimsical and fun” to “Yeesh! Don't throw the little guy across the room!”
Jessica: Yeah, that's funny. I like hard cuts and I like the efficiency of her writing. I hadn't thought about it like that, but there's a quickness to it. It's visual and it doesn't meander. I'm also a commercial director, and I like short form. Maybe that helped in preparing me for capturing that directness. The other thing I liked is it's just a fact that there's a world that exists, with a big world and a little world living in tandem. You don't question this world or need an explanation. I like that kind of blunt, matter-of-fact approach.
Mike: So this isn't your first foray into Surrealism, but it is your first foray into visual effects, which your viewers must find pretty unbelievable. Upon reading Aimee Bender's story, you must have known that there had to be visual effects to even attempt to adapt it. There's really no other way to visualize this story. What was your process for finding the right visual effects collaborators? Obviously not having much experience in that world, was it based on professional recommendations?
Jessica:. I met with a number of VFX companies and ended up hiring Eva Flodstrom (who also happens to be a woman in a very male-dominated field). She’s worked on Star Wars and many major Hollywood films. I hired her because we shared the same aesthetic approach, which is a more tactile, human and warm approach to visual effects. It's always to service the story. I didn't want you to be like “Oh! This is a visual effects movie!” I wanted you to feel totally connected to the characters and not distracted by the VFX. Also working with my production designer Justin Trask, building a 30-ft cage, 30ft- giant penis, blending practical art builds with visual effects, it felt very tactile and human. Eva was amazing to work with, and it was a hugely collaborative effort with her, my production designer Justin and my DP Brett Pawlak. It was one of the best creative experiences of my life.
Mike: Do visual effects feel like something you'll continue to explore?
Jessica: Yeah, I did it to challenge myself. We had stunts in the movie, we had 67 visual effects shots, we had large art prop builds. I want to be able to direct any kind of story. I feel like now I can say “Hey, I have the same quality VFX as Downsizing or Star Wars.” I want to keep expanding worlds. I had so much fun with it.
Mike: So this being a film about control, can you talk a little bit about the behind-the-scenes process? Having a visual effects team coming in, did you feel like you had to give up more control than you might be used to as a director?
Jessica: I don't really feel like directing is about control. I mean, I definitely have a very strong point of view, but I'm very collaborative. Control is not really the right word for me. It's more like curating the right teammates and everyone being very clear on the vision and approach. I called my production designer a year and a half before we started, so it was light prep for a year and a half. Then heavy prep, once we got the team and the money, for about two months. It was a lot of work. I storyboarded, photo-boarded and shot listed everything. Then there was a several hour discussion per VFX shot with the team on how to best execute everything. By the time we got to set, we were so prepared it gave me freedom to then play with the actors and have fun because we were so clear on our approach. We didn't have time to waste on set to “figure it out.” And of course on set, things change. But my brain hurt every day. It was a lot. But fun.
Mike: Where do you feel you developed the confidence to go with that collaborative process? Being open to get a little looser and listen to people and learn. Is it just kind of a general curiosity?
Jessica: I think being a documentary filmmaker is amazing training and background to have as a filmmaker. You prepare, but then you have to be totally open because things always change. You have to be open to inspiration. You have to keep your mind and eyes open. Like "Oh, I like this shot!" Or "Let's follow this moment." That's where I think magic happens, and also where the best part of creativity happens. I work best by collaborating with amazing artists who are going to bring smart, creative ideas to build upon my own so we can create something even better than I envisioned.
Mike: Do you have your regular collaborators at this point, people you can rely on both on set but also off set to say, “Hey, I'm struggling with this. Can you talk me down a little bit?"
Jessica: Definitely, I have really good friends and confidants that I discuss projects and stories and show cuts of my films to. I also have crew that I love, but I'm also always open to working with new people. For instance, with this film, my production designer Justin Trask was my first call and I had worked with him on commercials, but everybody else for the most part was new. They are now part of my creative tribe. For every film it’s about finding the right people for the project. Because I wasn’t super-experienced in VFX, it was important to me to have a DP who had that experience and of course working with an amazing VFX Supervisor.
Mike: What was it like working with the two leads, Simon Helberg and Brett Gelman?
Jessica: I learned so much from them. They're incredible. Simon and Brett are really different in their approach. It's funny, because you have a great script but then you have these incredible actors elevating it. Brett Gelman is Big Man. He brought so much to the role that I wasn't expecting. With Big Man, there's not a lot of dialogue. A lot of it is communicated by the way he looks at the woman at his office or the way he looks at the Little Man. There's a lot of eye contact and emotion through reaction. He commands such a presence. Then Simon Helberg, who is Little Man, really liked to give me options and a range in his performance. Before the shoot Simon brought up a lot of Holocaust imagery and themes of oppression that he wanted to explore. I'm really collaborative, so I like having all these discussions about character and to be open to ideas and inspirations.
Also, it was important to me that both actors were on set with each other at the same time. Because of the visual effects, Simon would be looking at a tennis ball for his eye line as the Big Man. He’s not looking at the real Big Man, so the Big Man doesn't necessarily have to be there. But for me as a director, because it was such emotional material, it was important that both actors were there for each other to act off of and connect with each other. I think in some movies, that's not a requirement. But for me in this film, it was. I think it was critical for the authenticity and emotion of the performances.
Mike: Had either of the actors done visual effects work like this in the past?
Jessica: We built a 30-foot cage, a 30-foot penis... I don't think any of us had been on a film like this. It was out there. Simon was really funny while climbing on the giant scrotum set, he loved it. The whole crew did. We had an absolute blast making this!