Having long lost count of the number of films we’ve seen since Directors Notes began, experiences of narrative surprise tend to be few and far between, so when a short truly takes us somewhere unpredictable we sit up and take notice. Today’s DN premiere Holly Goes to Therapy from LA-based filmmaker Cat Ventura achieves this (and much more) in spades. A film which despite its rewatchability we’d definitely recommend you go into blind, enjoy it below after which Ventura reveals the importance of pacing in paying off reveals and how her own excruciating therapy session inspired this delightfully surprising comedy.

Believe it or not, Holly Goes to Therapy was inspired by a real therapy session I had. It had been a rough year and I was on the hunt for a therapist. At my very first session, one of those therapists decided to try some “Inner Bonding” exercises with me. Which, in my opinion, is not something you should bust out on the first date. She led me through an exercise where I had to talk to my inner child, Little Girl Catherine, for an excruciatingly long amount of time. I only continued with the exercise because I would have felt bad for being honest and saying, “This isn’t really doing it for me. Can you just let me cry on your couch?” I left the session super pissed and extremely embarrassed. After a couple of days, I still couldn’t shake how uncomfortable the whole thing made me and I knew I had to turn it into something…and I knew a puppet must be involved. I wrote the script pretty quickly and after a few passes with my producer, Assaf Ben Shetrit, it was ready to go within a few weeks.

I knew I had to turn it into something…and I knew a puppet must be involved.

After working with Bunraku puppets at CalArts, I knew my foray into puppetry was not over. At school, I was fortunate enough to work with Janie Geiser, who is an incredible puppeteer, filmmaker, performer and visual artist, and I was smart enough to keep in touch with her post-college. She built the puppet and was gracious enough to lend it out for our shoot. We’ve screened at 13 festivals and every time Little Girl Holly is revealed the audience always has an audible reaction. Every. Time. I’ve heard audience members curse at the screen, gasp, scream, clap, laugh hysterically, etc. It makes me so happy.

In preparation for our shoot day, we had one very long rehearsal with our actors Hugo Armstrong and Nikki McCauley. We all took a deep dive into the script and figured out the beats and specific moments we really wanted to nail during the shoot. They were so generous with their time and thoughts and impulses and together we added some new shape to the scene.

We were then joined by our puppeteers, Baxley Andresen and Marc Witten, and that’s when the rehearsal really started to come alive because Little Girl Holly is another acting partner. It is so fascinating to watch puppeteers work, not only do they have to listen and react just like our actors, but they have to work (non-verbally) in tandem with another person in order to make another ‘person’ come to life. It’s pure magic. When I told people the puppeteers would be visible the whole time it seemed like a surprising choice. But your eye will always go back to the puppet because that is where the operators are directing all their energy. Plus, I didn’t want to hide how Little Girl Holly was being operated. As far as I am concerned, they are one complete unit and the three of them represent Dr. Lovejoy’s therapeutic ‘technique’.

My costume designer, Sami Martin Sarmiento, created some serious movie magic with the costumes. She designed two duplicate sets for Holly, the human and Little Girl Holly, the bunraku puppet. The duplicate set was rigged for special effects for the explosion scene. Both of the rigged human and bunraku costumes had hand sewn magnets and faux seams with fishing wire attachments for a quick release as the costumes were “blown away”; including the bra and underwear!

I’ve heard audience members curse at the screen, gasp, scream, clap, laugh hysterically, etc. It makes me so happy.

We shot HGTT in one day on a stage (in an actual theatre at Cal State Univ. Northridge) on a C300. I didn’t want to shoot in an actual office because it would have been too confined for the cast, puppeteers, gear and crew, so my production designer, Efren Delgadillo Jr., built us a three walled set that we could easily maneuver for coverage. We used props and furniture from the CSUN stock and my art director, Taylor Brooke Anderson, hit the jackpot and sourced all those porcelain dolls from a friend of hers (among many other things, of course).

Aside from going into overtime by an hour (yikes), our shoot day went pretty smoothly. The most difficult part was the timing of the explosion scene, something we really weren’t able to rehearse until we were about to shoot it. Our costume designer was on the ground to pull the cord(s) for the tear away costumes, our hair and make-up artist assisted with the “puppet guts canon”, which was a nerf gun loaded with orange Jell-O and our production designer Efren rigged an air compressor to shoot confetti through PVC pipe. And I was at the monitor maniacally shouting cues for all of these things to happen.

If I had to go back and do it all over again though, I would make sure to shoot the reaction shots with Little Girl Holly sooner. We were literally down to the second while shooting the puppet’s coverage and although everything we got was gold, it was so fun to work with her and the puppeteers I knew we could have continued to get great footage.

Another fun fact, I was almost four months pregnant the day we shot and that was the last day I was able to button my pants.

I have a deep love for big, beautiful hair and I knew I wanted to see that on screen. Luckily, my lead actress Nikki McCauley is not only insanely talented but also has the most beautiful head of big, curly hair. I have to toot my own horn here and say that I made the wig for Little Girl Holly, who is a natural brunette.

During the editing process, my biggest goal was the pace leading up to the reveal of the puppet. It’s a bit of a slow, serious, quirky burn which makes the payoff that much more surprising and strange. My editor, Sarah Smith, did an incredible job with the opening sequence. The build of the music as Holly navigates the confusing hallways was a great anchor for the audience as the piece began. I found this especially important because you never know what is going to be programmed before you in a festival and it gives the audience a chance to quickly adjust to another world.

It’s a bit of a slow, serious, quirky burn which makes the payoff that much more surprising and strange.

From start to finish the project took about six months. I was doing the final sound mix at 39 weeks pregnant and had accepted the reality that I would not have this film completed by the time my son was born. This sounds silly, but I asked my son to not be born until the movie was finished. Due to several last minute tweaks and some scheduling conflicts with my other collaborators, his due date (2/16) came and went and I had neither a baby or a movie. But I had to give up on the idea of having this film done because it was starting to get to me….so I let it go.

And on February 20th my son was born.

Also, on February 20th, while I was in labor, I got the email from my editor saying the film was officially complete.

Two babies, one day.

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