Capture the sense of ennui and displacement sometimes felt by those standing on the border of adulthood, Twentysomething sees recent college drop out Sam grasp for a handhold in history as events on her 22nd birthday spiral out of her control. Impressed by this depiction of a young woman emotionally adrift from the world around her, I caught up with Director Avital Siegel to discover how strong female mentors and peers helped to define her cinematic voice and how she used email as a tool for building intimate relationships between her actors.
How much of Twentysomething is drawn from the anxieties about the future and growing up you’ve experienced in your life? What sparked the initial concept and then how did that develop to encompass some of the film’s larger themes and symbolisms such as the comet and one’s place in history?
I set out to make Twentysomething because I was just really confused. I didn’t know how to qualify or articulate this sinking feeling that was swirling around in my chest. I started writing the film as I was just about to leave college and set out into the world of grown-ups. I didn’t know how to reconcile that the person I looked at in the mirror wasn’t the person who I thought I should be.
At first, Twentysomething was a way for me to try to work through all the jumble that was in my head. I needed to figure out why I felt so lost and what to do about it. The funny thing is, I never could quite write an ending to the film. I was writing and re-writing the final scene mere days before we went into principal photography. I didn’t know how to give my character, Sam, a sense of resolution because I didn’t have one in my own life…to be honest, I’m struggling to figure it out. I even embarrassingly Googled “What does it mean to grow up?”. I went down the rabbit hole of online message boards but nothing helped me feel less lost.
I’ve always been interested in the concept of time and how we understand it at different points in our life. I constantly feel like I am racing against the clock and jogging in place. I wanted to explore time as an antagonist and yet how it is also the most precious gift we have in life. How can both of those things be true?
I feel people are often looking for answers or signs and want to feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves. In the film, Sam keeps hoping that the comet, this huge cosmic sign, will bring her a sudden sense of clarity. She thinks that being part of a historic event will give her life the gravitas she is so urgently searching for; it will give it meaning. However, the moment passes in an instant and she still feels the same. Those grand visions of space or her immersion in history as seen in the reenactment village are all her desperate attempts to make sense of her place in the world. They are meant to capture those lump in the back of the throat moments that I felt while being lost.
These issue of listlessness and a lack of direction on the cusp of adulthood is a well-trodden path in cinema. What new perspectives did you want to bring to the subject? Do you have favourites from the genre and did you bring any aspects from them into Twentysomething?
I really wanted to make this film different by focusing on a female protagonist who isn’t necessarily ‘likeable’ in her pursuit of selfhood. There’s often this idea that female characters should always be charming or sweet if they’re also going to have a major flaw. Well, that’s bullshit. I knew that I wanted to truly showcase how young women are constantly bombarded with assertions of how they are supposed to interact with the world around them, how they are meant to receive or show love and who they are meant to be. It was important for me to make this coming of age story different by not allowing Sam to ever be at her best. She’s having a really crappy day and should act like it. But, I wanted people to see that just because a female character is struggling and acting out, doesn’t make her any less of a good person. It just makes her a real person trying to make sense of her place in the world.
There’s often this idea that female characters should always be charming or sweet if they’re also going to have a major flaw. Well, that’s bullshit.
While writing Twentysomething, I kept re-watching two of my favorite films; The Graduate and Lost In Translation. Both of those films use silence so effectively. I am by no means comparing my short to those great movies but I hope that I was able to incorporate some of those quiet melancholy moments in Twentysomething that are also a little bit funny. I got the idea of the self-help tape from Lost In Translation because Scarlet Johannsen listens to one in the film. I really loved how you could sense she was embarrassed to be listening to it but was desperate enough to find a sense of understanding about her life that she listened to the tape anyway. And the underwater shot was my little homage to Benjamin Braddock in the pool.
The story very much relies on Juliette Monaco’s performance as Sam to take us through. How did you find her and what prep and onset work did the two of you do to build her performance?
I thank my lucky stars every day that Juliette Monaco’s manager had her come in to audition for the film. Not only is she an incredible talent but she is also a great friend. Twentysomething was my senior thesis film at NYU, and we posted a casting breakdown online. We saw over a hundred actresses for the role of Sam and Juliette immediately stood out to me. During callbacks, Juliette haphazardly kept redoing her hair in a messy bun while reading her sides and I just fell in love with how natural she was in front of the camera. She wasn’t afraid to mess with her hair or fidget and these little mannerisms felt so true to me.
We had the great luxury of rehearsing a fair amount but the prep that I would say was most useful was that Juliette and I just immediately began sharing our own stories. We are close in age and just very quickly established a strong bond. We talked a lot about our fears and desires for our future and how they related to the script.
Before filming, I had Juliette and Ben Fankhauser, who expertly played the role of her boyfriend, Jake, email each other once a day for the weeks leading up to principal photography. I told them I needed them to swap stories about events from their childhood and eventually graduate to confiding vulnerable or embarrassing memories. It was very important for me that the two had a level of intimacy before even stepping foot onset. It allowed them to feel like they had a shared history – just like their characters.
During filming, I always tried to let the actors play around with the script and was very loose with the exact lines as long as the original intention remained the same. Juliette, Ben and Kevin Kolack (George Washington) are all such masterful improvisers and elevated the script far beyond my expectations. I always tried to separate Juliette out from everyone else on set to help give her this sense of loneliness, and I always just took extra takes because I just wanted to see what she would do next.
During the shoot you used a mix of cameras, what were the practicalities behind those choices and what informed the style and design of the film?
NYU offered to provide us with the Sony F3 and we liked the Sony look for the film. Our Director of Photography, Carlos Flores Espinoza was also our Editor and Colorist. He assured us that he could grade the footage to give it the film quality we were looking for. To remain consistent, we stuck with the Sony FS7 for our pickups and the FS700 for the underwater photography. Our main decision to use the Sony F3 was that it was free and we wanted to save every penny for what was in front of the camera – be it costumes or props.
We didn’t want any grand camera movements to distract from this natural aesthetic.
It was important to me that the camera style was incredibly naturalistic and didn’t call attention to itself. Carlos helped come to the decision that we would rarely use a tripod even for static shots so that there was always a slight natural movement to the camera. Everything was intended to feel true to life and we didn’t want any grand camera movements to distract from this natural aesthetic. The only time we wanted a major departure from this style was when Sam jumps underwater as we wanted this climactic moment to feel incredibly impactful and stand out from the rest of the film.
Could you tell us more about your key collaborators on this project?
I was incredibly lucky at NYU to meet collaborators who champion my work and point-of-view. I met my Producer, Evan Metzold, on the first day of school and he has dedicated every day since to helping me achieve my vision – be it scrappy, silly shorts that were kind of half-baked or Twentysomething which is my biggest undertaking thus far. Evan is such a talented producer and writer/director in his own right. He is incredibly creative and gives amazing notes at the same time as being able to secure prescription blue-colored contacts for an actor that I decided I needed on the morning of a shoot. He is a jack of all trades and always manages to achieve the impossible. Evan is someone I hope to work with for the rest of my life and is a producer you can always count on to be a true partner.
Director of Photography, Editor, Colorist:
Carlos Flores Espinoza changed the way I see film and the world through art. We met early on in NYU as well and he helped show me that every image in a film has a meaning and evokes a feeling. He gave me his copy of Making Movies by Sidney Lumet and my life has never been the same. He is such a talented Director of Photography but doesn’t shoot at all aside from this short. Carlos is an incredible editor and storyteller and this film is as much his as it is mine. He is the hardest working person you will ever meet.
Gaffer, Camera Operator, Underwater Unit Director of Photography:
Matthew Heymann is another crew member that I was lucky enough to meet early on at NYU. Matt’s eye is unparalleled and he is an exceptionally talented DP. His spirit and energy on set is such a joy and I know that I can always trust his opinion on set to tell me if something is off. He made Twentysomething such a wonderful experience.
Did Twentysomething’s ‘long short’ running time of 30 minutes require that you take a different approach when constructing it during post as compared to your previous shorts? Was maintaining audience attention a concern, especially knowing the short was destined for an online audience?
The length was definitely something intimidating for us all to approach in post-production. Luckily, I was privileged to be working with my frequent collaborator and editor, Carlos Flores Espinoza, who is a true talent and teaches me something new every day. Originally, we didn’t realize that the film would be so long as the script was only 20 pages. We ended up omitting a few scenes and did multiple test screenings to get feedback. This lead us to eventually shoot the sex-scene that is currently in the film in place of some scenes that were not working. We shot that new scene two years after principal photography. Post took a long, long time but we knew that we needed to take our time to get it right.
Ultimately, we came to realize that the film is as long as it is meant to be.
It definitely was a major concern of ours that people would be bored with the longer runtime and we constantly tried to get the film down to at least 25 minutes. However, because of the 24-hour structure of the film it soon became evident that major scene cuts started to mess up the timeline. We then tried making thousands of little trims throughout but found that removing those little moments where the audience could breathe actually made the film feel longer. Ultimately, we came to realize that the film is as long as it is meant to be, and hope that audiences connect despite the long runtime.
Taking a look at some of the BTS of the underwater shoot I have to ask, what happened to the rather cool underwater shot of Sam and her bike?
We found the amazing company, Aquamedias, which is based out of Montreal for the underwater photography. They are such pros and it was such an incredible experience to shoot those sequences with them. I had brought along the old bike that Juliette had used during principal photography just in case we had time to shoot some images of her riding the bike underwater for the poster image. With only a half hour left, the crew quickly secured the bike and got some really cool shots. However, we soon decided that it was too avant-garde for the poster and didn’t fit the film tonally. We had to switch to a different poster image, but will never forget lowering that rusty bike into a pool in Montreal.
Twentysomething’s social media presence often highlights the imbalances of gender diversity in the world of film. As a director, what positive experiences have bolstered your ability to make the work you want, in the manner in which you choose?
I am lucky enough that in high school I had a strong female mentor, Alysia Souder, who helped me find my voice. She led the acting/writing troupe I belonged to where we would write a full length play and then put it into production. Alysia instilled in me early on the importance of staying true to myself and leaning into my artistic sensibilities. She taught me that it’s okay to be proud of myself and stick to my guns – that it doesn’t make me a bitch. But that’s not say she didn’t tell me when my writing wasn’t very good or my performances weren’t strong enough. Her praise felt like something you had to earn and that made it all the more special.
I am lucky to have met other ‘Alysia’s’ later in life. My fellow female filmmakers at NYU constantly made great work that pushed me to be better and their input helped shape all of my work. Their ability to keep creating despite being taking less seriously than their male counterpoints on set, helped me grow a tougher skin as well. That sisterhood of female filmmakers is something that I hold very dear.
After graduation, it has always been my fellow female colleagues who bolster my confidence and hold me up when I don’t think that I can accomplish my goals. At The Weinstein Company a particular female executive would give me notes on my work and helped me stand in my power. She is a boss and helped me understand that it’s okay to project an image of strength. These role models influence all of my writing and directing.
What can you tell us about the debut feature you’re developing and your forthcoming web-series?
I am currently writing a feature about a retired female athlete who must figure out how to reclaim her life after her soccer career is over. She can’t live off the largess of celebrity, as she was a lower ranking player and instead must figure out a new path. This young woman doesn’t know who she is without soccer and must try to come to terms with herself without this sport that she loves. Our identity is so closely tied to what we do and I want to explore what happens when that is taken away from us.
I am also currently gearing up for production on a comedy web-series that pokes fun at student filmmakers.