I’m ashamed to say it, but it took Seri DeYoung and I nearly 30 minutes to figure out how we could video chat our way to an interview. I didn’t have FaceTime. She didn’t have Skype. We messaged each other over Facebook’s instant messenger: “I think Facebook has video chat,” she typed.
We tried for an embarrassing amount of time to enable Facebook video chat, dammit, before we realized that we needed to be friends for it to work. Like, on Facebook.
For festivals, you have to have a method and a plan of attack.
Now, I’ve never admitted to being a whiz at anything with buttons and motherboards. I certainly hope Seri hasn’t either. What I wanted was to interview Seri in as human a form as I could, aside from meeting her in Phoenix, halfway between Albuquerque and Los Angeles. I wanted the realness of a conversation. The ebbs and flows. The inflections. The laughter. Things you don’t get with return-to-sender email interview questions.
Of course, I was interviewing Seri about her short film In Touch, which fittingly examines our use of technology and what gets lost or missed in exchange for its convenience. (I’ve never been more proud to have a dumb phone!) I wanted to know about the film, the statement it makes, and why we as filmmakers are prone to making statements in the first place. She answered my questions gracefully and as face-to-face as we could get. Our interview is below—but first, here is the film, presented for the first time online. Enjoy.
Josh Stuyvesant: When did In Touch release?
Seri DeYoung: It was end of 2014. I shot it in 2014. And our first festival was Fall 2014.
How did it feel to get into festivals?
My first film, Daisy, went to festivals. Just a couple. One overseas. United Festivals, which screened In Touch, was my first time doing the whole Q&A experience. And that was really fun. The movie’s topic was one that people really loved to chat about. It was almost more like people didn’t so much have questions, but that they had such strong opinions about the movie. I’m really happy it’s something that gets people thinking and excited. It’s fun to get that reaction.
How did you go about getting into United and the other festivals?
I’ve had two short films go to festivals. I’m close to finishing post on my third, so my experience with it is still pretty limited. You have to have a method and a plan of attack. Here’s my subject matter, here’s who’s involved; these are the festivals that might be interested in that subject matter or these certain people. The fact that I’m a woman means that I can apply to all the female filmmaker film festivals, and that’s groovy.
A thing that I’ve found to be extremely helpful is applying local, and of course that’s very easy in Southern California. There’s a buttload of local festivals here. You couldn’t even submit to all of them unless you wanted to spend buttloads of money.
Shooting silent gives you a lot of freedom and ability to not spend money on sound people.
That’s another thing. Festival fees are not cheap. They’ll hit you anywhere from 30 to 100 bucks, so being selective and really doing your research is pretty important if you don’t want to spend thousands of dollars.
In Touch did really well. I actually didn’t submit it around that much. I think I submitted to a dozen festivals and got accepted into six of them. That’s a pretty good rate. With Daisy, which was seven minutes long, it was my first outing. I’d never directed or made anything before, so I was proud that it got in anywhere. But I wasn’t picky enough, I didn’t do enough research, I submitted to like 30 festivals, and got accepted to three. So there’s 10% versus 50% with In Touch. I’m still trying to figure out why that happened. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that In Touch is four minutes long, purely for the fact that it works well in programming. Festival organizers may have a little extra time for a quality four-minute film instead of trying to squeeze in another 12-minute film.
I didn’t even think about it until it started happening. That’s why it’s also probably doing so well. But I think not a lot of people make very short films. It’s tough to make a very short film that still gets a point across, has some substance to it, but isn’t a music video.
What’s the difference to you in the manner of storytelling between a short film and a feature-length film?
I have watched tons of short films recently, and I’ve noticed you can usually break them down into two general categories. On one side, I’ve noticed a lot of films being something the filmmaker is looking to launch a feature from. Like “Hey, here’s a short version, and if you meet me after, here’s my feature-length script of the same concept.” It’s used as a funding tool and as a way to explore their own subject matter.
The other side is more experimental. Where you have more freedom with the form. If you do that first format, you want to stick to the typical narrative structure, beginning, middle, end; you watch it and you want to see the whole movie. Whereas In Touch, as well as my first short film, were really simple concepts that I felt like I could explore in each their own way and get it done in under ten minutes.
From your vantage point, what is the landscape for films that are actually saying something?
This is a conversation I’ve had with so many of my filmmaker friends. How many superhero movies do they have to make? I love superhero movies. The first Iron Man movie. Batman. But is that the only blockbuster that can be made nowadays?
In the studio world, we’re seeing a lot of timidity. The more money someone has, the less risky they’re willing to be with it. There’s that side of it.
Then there’s the indie side, the Netflix side, the Hulu side, where there’s a lot of really cool avenues for people to get their work out. For myself, that’s where I see the most promise. I would love for the studio system to start adjusting, but I feel like that might happen at a glacial pace. It doesn’t even seem to be on the horizon. What is on the horizon, what’s right in front of us is Netflix is producing their own original content. I mean, I just saw a trailer the other day for a Hulu original movie.
Even as little as five years ago, when someone said, “I made a movie and it went straight to VOD (Video on Demand)” it was looked at as being cheap and of low quality. But it’s not like that anymore. With Netflix, I don’t think their original movies are going into theaters. As far as I know, it’s a movie made by Netflix that’s going be released on your computer and your iPad. It’s a brave new world, it’s looking really cool, it’s unchartered territory. For people who will be able to make the most of this, the rules aren’t really set yet. That’s what’s most exciting for an up-and-coming creative who has something to say but isn’t attached to a big studio yet. I feel like that’s their avenue.
But to me, it’s about what I need to express. What are the stories that are living inside of me? If you’re a person and the stories living inside of you are about a superhero who swoops in and saves the day, whether that superhero can fly or whether that superhero is a fireman—if that’s the story inside of you, it needs to come out, and you might have good luck with studios.
The human experience is a bit more complex than pixels on a screen.
Me personally, one thing isn’t necessarily better than the other, indie versus studio. I think when the story in me comes out, I can look at it and ask where the best chance of its survival is.
You can’t necessarily shoot yourself in the studio foot if that’s the best way for your story to proliferate.
Right. It can be a little daunting to realize how many options there are nowadays. It’s practically endless.
How big of an undertaking is a 4-minute film?
Comparatively, I’m just finishing a short film called Still Life that I just whittled down to 11 minutes. It’s got dialogue in it, so I had to hire a sound person to record the sound. And I literally just met with my sound editor yesterday. So that’s two people I didn’t have to hire for In Touch. That’s not so much about the length, but the style of shooting silent. Silent gives you a lot of freedom and ability to not spend money on sound people.
And I shouldn’t say that any 4-minute short film is easy. But for this one…I mean you saw the thing. I had three locations. There wasn’t a lot of action, moving around. It was really, really, really simple. I think I spent a total of five hours shooting the party scene. And for the individuals looking over the computer it was a one-hour shoot for each. Not so bad!
I did everything. I didn’t need to hire a cinematographer. I just went out and bought colored lights. I did a testing day, screwed in my lights and tested it all out, and I said, “Awesome, this is what it’s going to look like.” I made my shot list and it was donezo. When you can do everything, that makes it really easy. If I only have to wait on me, I can get it done.
Would you recommend that an aspiring filmmaker makes a film doing everything themselves?
Yes. I say that knowing it might not yield the best quality product. Robert Rodriguez talks about this in his book Rebel Without a Crew. The more capable you are, the better director you’ll be. Like if you sat down and edited before, you can have a more direct conversation with your editor because you know what they’re doing. If you’ve created your own lighting setups, you can have more effective communication with your cinematographer, or your gaffer for that matter.
Let’s talk about the content of In Touch. Where does it sit with you? Why tell this story and make this statement?
I think, as an actress and storyteller and person, I observe people a lot. I consider it part of my job but also part of my nature.
And I’m not a fan of the ways in which people have integrated technology, and how convenient it is, into the way they engage socially, specifically romantically. And I shouldn’t say “they” and exclude myself from it. I’ve definitely partaken in the desire to have immediate gratification. Especially in terms of how we deal with our feelings romantically. I think anyone who’s ever fallen in love or had a crush or been infatuated with someone knows the overwhelming sense of anxiety. Technology has given us this ability to relieve that anxiety and take they mystery out of the experience. I think that’s lame. I don’t think it makes you grow as a person. I don’t think it puts you in a position where you can really connect with the other person and what’s really going on with them.
That’s completely what In Touch is about. The human experience is a bit more complex than pixels on a screen.
What is your responsibility as a filmmaker to tell the stories you feel passionately about?
It’s a double-edged sword of altruism and being completely self-serving.
I feel so strongly that this is a message people ought to hear, hence the four-minute format and the fact that it isn’t a feature film about digital communication (please, god, let more of those be made). Hopefully, this is something people can look at and absorb and let it have a bit of an effect on them. If all it does is prevent a viewer from texting someone, and instead, waiting until he sees that person in person. Maybe they’ll allow these moments of true connection, looking someone in the eye, being in their presence, and feeling their energy versus the phone’s version. That’s the one half, the altruistic side.
The selfish side: It’s like there’s an itch inside of me that I need to scratch. “I need to make this so I can quit yakking about it to all my friends!” I just feel like there’s something within me that I personally need to satisfy. Maybe I’m a more selfish artist than most, I just know that pretty much any story that I’ve come up with is more along the lines of having an itch inside of me that I need to scratch.
So combine that with trying to find that itch that lives in other people too, where hopefully this story provides the same thing for you, communally speaking, that it does for me. Find the question, answer it.
Or at least explore it.