Shot over the course of two days on Memorial Day weekend, Actress Dana Sorman turns Writer/Director for short Psychic – the story of a $10 palm reading which escalates when a woman receives an unexpected offer to rid her of the cause of her ongoing existential crisis. To coincide with the film’s online release today, DN spoke to Dana about the twists and turns of transforming Psychic from a traumatic personal experience into a successful proof-of-concept short and beyond.
This is a story which has its basis in your own experiences, what was the reality of that situation?
I’m often asked, did this really happen? My answer, it didn’t all go down exactly like that but it is all true. I went to see a psychic for a $10 palm reading because I believed there was something rotten inside of me. What I wasn’t expecting was an offer to get rid of it. That night triggered what I now refer to as my psychic-coma and when I woke up, one year had passed and I had given $20,000 in cash and jewelry. There were many synchronicities during that period of time. I couldn’t believe what she was predicting and what was actually really happening. I felt high. Addicted. Adrenaline-soaked. It felt so good to feel like someone was guiding me because I didn’t believe I could navigate myself.
There were many, many alarms. I would feel my gut reverse-punch; telling me to stop. But I didn’t want to lose whatever I thought I had accumulated so I hit override and continued. The level of shame I felt at the end was all-consuming. It was like I didn’t know who I was. And I definitely hated this person who now had “succumbed to psychic scam” etched on her emotional CV forever. I buried it for years. Never breathed a word of it. Terrified of anyone finding out. But I did come across lots of message boards with people posting experiences very similar to mine. So I knew I wasn’t the only one.
How did the idea of depicting this story develop into a short film format?
I initially developed the project as a television pilot. That was my background. I made a living as a television actress and I understood the financial model of selling a pitch or script and receiving money even if the project died before anything was shot. But this story did not want to be a television show. I remember sitting in the theater watching The Big Short and receiving this wave of intuition during the end-credits. I turned to my friend and said, “I’m going to make a movie one day.” He was like, “Cool.” But it felt big to me because I had never considered that before.
Some months later, my friend Ian Keiser was in LA and we met for coffee. Ian’s company, Easy Open Productions, produces and finances micro-budget features. I pitched Psychic as a film. He loved the idea and then I spent six months teaching myself film structure and writing the first draft. It was an amazing thing to write knowing I had at least one person who was interested in reading (and potentially making) what I wrote.
I spent six months teaching myself film structure and writing the first draft.
We planned to jump straight into financing and making the feature. The short started as a test-shoot. Ian and some other people were encouraging me to go out and shoot a few scenes to get my feet wet. I had made a few things before but it was mostly me and my friends teaching ourselves to use DSLR cameras or me alone in a bathroom recording myself improvising with my own reflection (which became my first acting reel). I think they were expecting me to just shoot some dialogue in my apartment but I decided to see how far I could get without a budget.
I chose four scenes from the first act of the script. I found all of the locations for free. I wrote to Jason Peters, an incredible light installation artist, and he agreed to let me use one of his 8-foot geometric pieces for the Psychic Ava scene. I cast my friends. It was coming together in a pretty full way. It felt bigger than a test shoot. It was evolving into a proof-of-concept.
When it became clear that I was going to need actual money to rent gear and hire a small crew, Ian and I had a conversation and we decided to use part of the money Easy Open pledged for the feature and invest it into the proof-of-concept. A lot of people told me I should definitely NOT do that. It’s true that it was a risk. The amount Easy Open was offering wasn’t enough to make the feature but it was substantial enough that if the proof-of-concept didn’t um, prove anything…it would’ve felt like a big loss. Ultimately, Ian was incredibly encouraging and I felt like it was the path I wanted to take so we did it.
As this was your first foray into short film directing how did you go about assembling your crew?
I didn’t know any cinematographers and I didn’t have any work samples that conveyed the kind of film I intended to create. But I was working as an art gallery director and through that experience amassed a bank of photographic images that really turned me on. So I compiled some of those into a sequence expressing the visual arc and used that to say, “Hey, this is what I’m doing…” I was shocked by how far that carried me. I was able to attract an entire team of people I had never worked with before from that one folder of forty pictures.
Katie White came on first as a producer and the rest of the team fell into place like dominos after that. Katie is a powerhouse collaborator and it is a joy to co-create with people who bring their full energetic selves (and top-notch connections) to a project.
Psychic’s cinematography makes great use of reflections and lighting design throughout. Could you tell us more about creating the film’s strong visual aesthetic?
In the bathroom scene between Benji and her Dad, I love the way the mirrors fragment and amplify. I scouted initially at night so I hadn’t anticipated the daylight from the frosted glass window reflecting into that levitating square which reads to me like visual psychic tension linking them together, keeping them enmeshed. I had scripted a slap but the moment that really makes my blood curdle is when he grips my face with his hand over my mouth.
I’ll hand over to my extremely talented DP Chris Westlund to detail his experience and technical approach to the cinematography:
“For Psychic, I was inspired by the amazing visual references Dana presented when we first discussed the project, which were tonally dark, gritty and felt naturally lit. These photos felt like scenes from a movie but also felt so real. Like they could be from someone’s diary. With these images stewing in our minds we implemented handheld camera work throughout the piece as well as shooting with natural light and practicals, occasionally augmenting with soft sources like Arri SkyPanels. I try to use this approach whenever possible and sometimes locations require more work and more lights.
I was extremely lucky to be able to shoot in such incredible locations that we had for Psychic. I could shoot any angle and it would look great! We paired this approach with the cinematic look of the anamorphic lenses to help drive Benji’s story and keep it striking and vivid. This could also be said of the compositions, which were far from typical straightforward coverage. Dana pushed me to keep looking for something different and more interesting in each frame.”
How long was the edit and did the film’s structure change much during that process?
Post was about three months. My Editor Amanda C. Griffin was on another project so I did the rough cut myself. Then Amanda took the footage and had the inspired idea of including snippets of YouTube psychic infomercials. This wound up being an electric vehicle to convey some of the larger themes of the feature and magnify the scene selections; connecting them with the whole.
If the proof-of-concept didn’t um, prove anything…it would’ve felt like a big loss.
What reception did Psychic receive during its festival run?
Submitting to festivals was a new experience and I didn’t know where it would land. When we received word that we would premiere at Marfa… it started making sense. Oh, right. I was an art dealer. I made an art film. Cool. Right. Yes. This is where we belong. Then we found out we were screening at The Museum of Modern Art in New York and my heart exploded. I used to represent artists whose work hangs in MoMA. Now I am the artist whose work hangs in MoMA. Fucking wild.
Has the experience of making Psychic shifted your perspective of the earlier you who was taken in by the scam?
This is a loaded question and I love it. When the earlier me was engaged with the psychic, I oscillated between complete and utter loyalty and desperate suspicion and fear. When she told me something that came to fruition — loyalty. When she asked for money — suspicion. I did not know how to hold space for both realities so I decided to override my fear and file it under resistance to change and removing emotional blocks; instead of honoring my gut alerting me to real danger.
Now when I look back (and this is also the point of view I’ve assumed as filmmaker) I recognize the psychic as gifted AND scamming me for money. I see my relationship with the psychic as a mirror of my relationship with my father (someone who loves me and is also abusive). In the film and even more so the feature; I spin these parallels to ask the question — what happens when our primary relationships contain both love and abuse? How many of us turn on ourselves rather than bite into this duality?
I’m extremely curious and always felt there was more to our world’s OS than what science could prove. After my experience with the psychic I shoved all those inclinations aside. But in the making of this project; the way opportunities and resources presented and aligned; it was tough not to feel some bigger synchronicities were at play helping me realize the film. It reconnected me in a primal way; rebooting my internal guidance system. I allowed myself to feel the magic and let it lead or at least keep me company for a little while. I had grown tired of carrying it alone so this was a welcome reprieve.
Did you learn any lessons whilst making this short which you’ll arm yourself with going into the feature? How will we see Benji’s world open up in that longer version of her story?
Yes. I will RELAX. I’m laughing. I mean, of course there will be stresses and challenges and doubts. But whereas before I felt like I could make a film; now I know I can. The scale will be larger but I’ve got some street cred now to help loosen my grip and allow the flow. I used to believe it was my responsibility as director and writer to know all of the answers. Now I understand my role is to facilitate the conversation and trust my instincts.
Whereas before I felt like I could make a film; now I know I can.
Arrival is one of my favorite films and I obsessively read and listened to every podcast and interview about its creation. The screenwriter said Denis Villeneuve encouraged them to strip the script to as spare a framework as possible; so there were moments even they did not fully understand. I love this sentiment. Space must exist for the otherworldly to transmit. Moonlight was another film I obsessively researched. Barry Jenkins said that once they were in principal photography he trusted everything that happened was occurring for the betterment of the project rather than to sabotage it. I definitely experienced this when I watched all of the footage to assemble the rough cut. There were times when shooting that I internally knew what I was getting without watching the monitor (and was accurate) and others, when I didn’t (and worried) but discovered what was captured, was even better.
In terms of story, the short ends with Benji accepting the first psychic offer. Now their work begins! The feature follows the evolution, transformation, magic; debilitating fear, pain and doubt as Benji puts it all on red, so to speak, to rebuild her life, heal wounds and understand who is really in charge.