You know the head pounding, cheek reddening morning of hazy embarrassment after the “what the hell did I do?” night before? Well, for anyone who has ever found themselves forced to investigate their own social crimes (and those of us who have been called as eye witnesses) Director, Writer, Editor Graham Mason’s minimalistic short Phone Story will ring an uncomfortable bell of recognition. Impressed by the creative economy of this social faux pas detective short, I caught up with Graham to find out how he embraced the challenge of storytelling through 218 text messages and 4 phone calls.
Do I sense a basis in reality for this detective story into last night’s social embarrassment?
It’s not based on any one specific event, but it is certainly inspired by those groggy “What the hell happened?” moments that can happen after a party.
The deliveries to camera have the stark feel of a casting session, but were actually sparked by Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads series for the BBC, what was it about that series that you found so inspiring.
On a surface level, Talking Heads inspired Phone Story because it’s told through characters speaking directly to the camera. That gave me the creative spark of a technique, and then it evolved into its own thing. And as I was writing my script, I read Alan Bennett’s scripts for Talking Heads with the hope that they would leech into my project. They have a wonderful sad-and-funny tone, and they do all the plot exposition through dialog, which is hard to pull off.
Did you ever consider having the characters deliver their text monologues from their respective locations instead of against the plain coloured backgrounds?
I did consider having the characters do the dialog from their respective locations, but eventually decided against it — I think having real backgrounds may have made the texts confusing, and ultimately would have been distracting. My hope was that the viewer would buy into the style of the video, which is minimal and abstract, and then focus on the plot, which is more grounded and messy. I liked that tension, how it almost felt like doing a magic trick.
I love that cringe-y feeling, when a moment is both funny and harrowing, it’s my favorite kind of comedy.
What notes did you give your actors to inform their performances?
It was pretty straightforward – each actor went through all their lines in script order, with me reading the other parts. We took our time and did a few takes of each line until it felt like we got it right, or found some options for the edit. If a line wasn’t feeling right, we would talk it over briefly and then revise it so it felt better. And sometimes the actors improvised as well, which is always fun. The general performance note I gave was to play it small and subtle, because the camera was going to catch everything with no distractions.
Was there a particular reason you largely drew your cast from the world of comedy?
I see a fair amount of comedy in NYC and know people from that world, so it was easier for me to reach out directly to comedians. And I wanted it to be funny! For example, when Ed finally gets Jessie on the phone, there are moments in that scene that are funny to me, even though it’s a pretty rough moment. I don’t know if it would still have that underlying comedic vibe without having performers like Gary Richardson and Mitra Jouhari.
Ed’s inability to get out of his own way is frustratingly painful at moments. Was it difficult to walk that line of cringe without it teetering too far and losing the audience?
I wasn’t too worried about losing the audience, because I pretty strongly empathized with Ed’s character throughout, even when he’s screwing up. And I feel like by the end of the movie you sense that he’s had some moments of self-awareness or growth. I love that cringe-y feeling, when a moment is both funny and harrowing, it’s my favorite kind of comedy and something I’m looking for.
I was also taken with the rhythm of the film, not just in the actors’ pauses but also in the sky breaks you use. How did you find the right pacing?
It was a process of gradually tweaking the edit until the rhythm felt real. It took a while for me to figure out the sky breaks. In the earlier cuts there were no breaks, and it felt too dense. You never had a chance to catch your breath. And it didn’t feel like actual texting, where you can have these dramatic pauses. So at some point I came up with the cuts to the sky to create those pauses, and I started using the iPhone text sounds, which I think also helped make it feel more real.
What’s up next for you?
I wrote a web series that I’d love to make this year. It’s a character-driven comedy about messy lives, but it all takes place in a talk show format. Lately I am trying to write big and think cheap!
And finally, do you have any emoji advice for new filmmakers?