Reminiscent of a certain brand of slow-burning 70s horror, Janina Gavankar and Russo Schelling’s Stucco sees the scars of old relationships manifest themselves in ugly, and sometimes monstrous, creations. Stucco, Gavankar and Schelling’s debut short, was scheduled to play this year’s SXSW festival alongside a workshop with Gavankar on the practicalities of the special effects used to construct Stucco’s creature antagonist. However, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, SXSW was cancelled and we find ourselves here with Stucco online for your viewing pleasure. It’s a bittersweet release as Stucco was given the Special Jury Recognition for Creature Design award from the festival and deserves its time on the big screen, which is why we strongly encourage you to dim the lights, experience this stellar short from the comfort of your socially-distant space, and then read our conversation with the filmmakers about the making of Stucco, SXSW and adapting to the new world.
So, who’s mad idea was it to create a story about a woman who’s interior world falls apart both metaphorically… and literally?
Janina Gavankar: We have to preface: No, we did not mean to release a piece about a woman self-isolating the day a pandemic hit.
Russo Schelling: I wrote the first draft of this movie in one sitting, to understand a perspective I wasn’t getting. I sent it to Janina.
JG: It was like he had a fever dream. I said, “We’re changing a lot of it, but we’re gonna make this thing”.
RS: Our first ending was esoteric and dreamy, more Tarkovsky-esque. Janina knew it had to have more teeth, pun intended. It was always going to be about anxiety and depression, but that’s where we as a team come in. I dream something up and Janina forms it into a reality.
JG: Art-house horror is a beautiful genre where you can speak in analogy, but if you’re too vague, there’s nothing to identify with. We all know the more specific a story is, the more universal it somehow becomes. But then we couldn’t crack the ending. We had a solid month when we didn’t have an answer to what was on the other side of that wall.
Favours will always be the most important and expensive thing on a set.
RS: With the help of a song by the band La Dispute called The Last Lost Continent we found the inspiration for our ending. From there we punched up the script, daily.
JG: Tighter, clearer, cheaper. I rewrote that cop scene as Rutina Wesley was on the way to my house.
RS: This is just what you do on smaller sets, you make it work. I need to highlight Janina’s swiss army knife mentality. Not only is she a fierce creator, she moves mountains as a producer. Every fancy aspect of this project is because of her fifteen year career in Hollywood. Favours will always be the most important and expensive thing on a set.
JG: I mean, thanks? The other way to look at it is the only way I’ve ever gotten something done as a creator was to also learn how to be a producer. It’s just been artistic survival.
Did you both draw from different creative pools then, in terms of who you wanted to be a part of Stucco?
JG: The first thing I did was go to my friend Frank Ippolito, head of Thingergy, to ask if he and his team would work on it. I knew we didn’t have a movie without him.
RS: They’re top tier creature makers and the biggest reason we won the special grand jury recognition at SXSW.
JG: As soon as he said yes, I went to my friend at Zeiss Lenses, and not only did they lend support, but they brought on Red and EFilm. They only had one rule: We had to use a cinematographer they approved. We knew if we could convince Quyen Tran to work with us, we were golden. She’s a legend in the making.
RS: Quyen elevated this project in almost every possible way. A veteran DP has your back, but a legendary DP makes everything better… she is the latter.
JG: We were in pre-production when I was shooting The Way Back, so I pitched sequences to Ben (Affleck) and talked through the story. I called a bunch of overqualified actor friends and asked if they’d come work for a few hours.
RS: Suddenly we had a ridiculous cast for this weird short we were shooting in her house.
JG: We were like “Holy shit, this thing is gonna look classy!” We shot in the middle of season one of The Morning Show, and they were so supportive that they let me use my trailer for production meetings.
RS: That show is made of actors and creators. They get it.
We want to know that we’re working with you because you had something we don’t, not because you point the camera where we tell you to.
JG: We did storyboards with Livio Ramondelli, who also did our throne concept art. It’s a huge part of prep for us, so we’re in a mind meld together, with our entire team. But, you know, you can have every shot in your head, but your cinematographer is probably going to have better ideas. And of course they are! You’re smart to defer to them.
RS: It’s also simply about collaboration. We want to know that we’re working with you because you had something we don’t, not because you point the camera where we tell you to. That’s a priority for us.
JG: My proudest moment was when we were wrapping out and a lot of people wanted to stay and hang. Quyen said this was just what she and her team needed because it was so collaborative. I could’ve cried.
RS: A lot of times you see people just counting down until the Martini. Once you include people in on the process your crew steps up. They want to stay an hour later because they feel like their finger is in the pie and their finger should be in the pie!
JG: I think a finger pie should be in our next thing. Zak Bagans calls the crown a ‘finger helmet’. We love that guy.
I’m curious to know at what point in the project you decided to act in it, was that part of when you first developed the script? And did having a co-director help alleviate some of the pressure?
JG: Directing and acting at the same time is a pain in the ass. I wouldn’t have done it if we didn’t have to. I’ve done the back-and-forth on music videos I’ve made, so I’m kind of used to it, but it’s very helpful when you’re a directing duo. For many shots we only had time for one take. Russo knows the performance bar-level I expect, so I can just look at him for a silent reaction because he knows if I’ll be pissed with the footage later.
RS: We’ve been in each other’s brains for five years. We know every look, mannerism, and cadence of how each of us communicates. She just gives me a look and we instantly have an understanding, whether it be “go again”, “try something new”, or “fuck off!”.
With all those moving parts, and the number of special effects, how did you find the editing process?
RS: The first thing we did was hand over our footage to our Editor Barry Goch and say, “We don’t want to see this for a week.” For me, after shooting something I need time away to reflect and decompress. Shooting something in three days that needs at least four days will really fry your brain.
JG: Russo flew back to New York, too. He hasn’t moved to LA yet, so we did post apart. We used festival submissions as deadlines. A tight turn around meant no reshoots and staying scrappy. We kept saying this false-bravado line to keep everyone moving quickly. “Well, we come from TV. We always move fast.” It was a fake-it-til-you-make-it move. But it worked!
RS: I think the cut we did for Cannes is what brought us to the cut you see now. We had to whittle the runtime down to fifteen minutes and we made so many compromises that we just knew what was essential.
JG: Too many compromises. I hated that cut. Obviously, because the piece is now seventeen and a half minutes. But you’re right, it showed us what was essential.
RS: Janina and I love how ruthless editing can be. We tried so many different versions.
JG: Then we started asking smart friends for opinions. I took my laptop to Gavin Oconnor’s office, hit play and paced around the Warner Bros backlot, hyperventilating on the phone with Russo for the entirety of the film. He gave us incredible notes, mostly on clarity. We cut our own trailer. I always thought it’d get replaced by someone else’s when we started the distribution process, but it’s stuck.
RS: This was our narrative directorial debut. I like to call it my first professional film. This is the amalgamation of all of my experience of the last five years.
JG: It’s highly autobiographical for both of us in different ways. We had to get it out of our bodies. We’re just so happy people are finding it relatable. Our sweet, sweet, weird little baby.
How did the cancellation of SXSW affect yourselves as filmmakers? You were due to be part of the game awards and present a workshop on Stucco in addition to the film’s screening, right?
JG: We were going to do a panel with Zeiss lenses, who were integral in making Stucco happen. I was going to co-host the game awards. We were pretty devastated. Not just because we wanted to have people see this piece on a large screen with the sound system it was meant for, but because we wanted to meet other filmmakers, watch their films, and really feel the community.
We kept saying this false-bravado line to keep everyone moving quickly. “Well, we come from TV. We always move fast.” It was a fake-it-til-you-make-it move.
Please tell me we’ll be seeing a creature feature from you soon?
RS: We’re writing a monster film that is set in India, but that’s as much as we can say right now.
JG: And shaping up the low budget feature, spiritual successor, to Stucco.
RS: Not the feature version of the same story. We’ve told it.
JG: No need to repeat ourselves.
RS: It’s a magical realism family drama.
JG: More on both of those in the coming months.
Stucco is one of the many great projects shared with the Directors Notes Programmers through our submissions process. If you’d like to join them submit your film.