A contemplation on grief and the sometimes unconventional methods which enable us to cope with the overwhelming emotions life throws at us, Erin Elders’ short film Penny Sucker sees a teen struggle to connect with friends and family following the unexpected death of his mother. DN asked Erin to share how the failure of a series of high concept projects engendered his desire to tell an emotionally grounded story with a coterie of like-minded collaborators.
I started writing Penny Sucker after a string of failed projects, all too weird for their own good. I was getting lost in concept (most of which involved some form or another of disgusting magic), creating stories that were tedious and lacked heart. So with this film, I wanted to keep it simple, a story about people trying to connect. I wanted the scenes to be intimate moments of sharing, connecting, or lack thereof.
Clint’s emotional comfortability within his relationships became our compass for the shot list and blocking. In our first scene between Clint and his father, Mike, the camera is locked off, with the two actors staged awkwardly, Mike standing behind Clint, looming over him. As the story progresses and they find common ground, our camera loosens up, culminating in a scene where Clint witnesses his father breaking down, captured in a hand-held oner. I know these are very simple ideas, but there is a powerful truth in simplicity.
Putting the cast and crew together was an organic process, sort of like assembling a neighborhood baseball game. I approached my friend King Orba, who I had previously cast in a music video, he then brought James Paxton on board, James brought Ili Ray, and so on. The result was a scrappy, but intimate creative team. We were able to establish our shared creative language very quickly.
We were living in the film, with no separation between on and off set.
Once the reality of our limited, self-financed budget set in, Jeff Tomcho (my DP) suggested Joshua Tree as a shooting location. It fit well thematically and has a tangible vibe, so we rented an Air BnB for a long weekend to both shoot and stay in.
We were living in the film, with no separation between on and off set. While this might not have been the ideal situation, it created a casual summer camp environment, where we could dig in creatively and get to a point where improvisation was possible. The moment where Ili Ray pretends to choke on a penny was all improv and is my favorite moment in the film.