Secrets can weigh heavy and who among us hasn’t experienced the fraught atmosphere of a family get together when there’s a tension in the air so palpable you want to reach out and snap it. Chubby initially seems to be a tale of two halves, the first part of the film leaving the viewer questioning what is going to ensue with scenes ingeniously progressing from one to the next, keeping the audience on the edge of their seats as it inches towards the unavoidable, yet horrifying truth of the situation. Writer/Directors Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli of dm films have rightly seen critical acclaim for their exceptionally personal film and DN had the pleasure of speaking to the pair about their considered methods for broaching such a weighty story on screen.
Why were you both inspired to write a film about such a weighty subject matter?
Dusty and I both suffered instances of sexual abuse in our past which sparked our desire to write Chubby. Together we wanted to write a script that deals with the very complex feelings we had both experienced as abuse survivors; feelings of blame, doubt, minimizing our trauma and downplaying the abuser’s actions as ‘not so bad’ in order to absolve them. Through opening up about our own personal stories, we discovered that very often the burden of responsibility falls heavily on the shoulders of the victim.
We didn’t want to make a film that passes judgement on Jude’s family.
This was a common theme among other abuse stories we encountered, with victims believing they have caused, or been active participants in their own abuse. These deep-rooted feelings of culpability often began with feelings of family shame, fuelled by social stigmas. We didn’t want to make a film that passes judgement on Jude’s family but rather examines the way in which they deal with the situation in order to open up a conversation around sexual abuse within families, which is still such a delicate and taboo subject.
The bond we garner from the two lead actors is phenomenally strong yet worryingly unsettling. How did you go about your choices and the filming of their dynamic?
Creating a believable and unique dynamic between Jude and Noah was integral to us. We wanted the audience to become enchanted and intrigued by their distinct bond so that the moment of abuse is as much of a betrayal to them as it is to Jude. We knew that casting Jude was going to be incredibly difficult. Not only did we want to find a precocious young girl with an infectious energy who was able to be herself on camera, but we needed to find someone who was comfortable with the difficult subject matter. We posted our casting call everywhere we could think of and auditioned hundreds of young girls before we came across Maya Harman.
We had seen Maya’s headshot when searching local after school acting programs and asked her to tape an audition. She was in Montenegro with her family at the time, but she recorded her scenes with her older brother on vacation. Maya’s mom included a blooper reel of outtakes with her tape, and as soon as we watched it we knew — she was Jude — we had to cast her. We always had Jesse LaVercombe in mind for the role of Noah, as we worked with him on our previous short Slap Happy, and during the rehearsals we spent most of our time just hanging out with him and Maya, sharing stories and playing improv games.
What challenges did you find using a first time actor for such a sensitive role?
It took time getting Maya comfortable having a camera on her, as this was her first film. But as soon as we gave her permission to mess up she really came alive. We used end boards for every shot so that the actors were able to improvise in and out of the scenes and to relieve the pressure at the top of the take. On set we often directed Jude thorough Jesse — getting him to do specific things that would impact her during the take — and his energy and commitment to the role helped immeasurably in getting Maya to the level of comfort you see on screen. We shot 20 minute takes (over 20 hours of footage), playing games on camera, and trying lots of different techniques to capture the right energy and spontaneity.
Using long lenses so we were able to stay quite far away from the actors yet still have this very claustrophobic look and feel.
What processes do you use as a directing duo?
Our whole directing process is very collaborative. We don’t divide and conquer but instead work as a hive mind, strengthening and adding to each aspect of the filmmaking process. We wrote the script for Chubby together in the same room, often improvising in character and using the best parts. This was not an easy shoot by any means. Dealing with the incredibly challenging themes, directing a first time young actor, and working with a very small crew made for a very intense experience. We both came out of the other side battle hardened, with a new resolve as creative partners.
Your discerning camera angles throughout really add to the film’s tension, what techniques and equipment did you use to infuse that tone?
We shot Chubby on the Red Monstro, using long lenses so we were able to stay quite far away from the actors yet still have this very claustrophobic look and feel. We used all natural and practical light, which enabled us to be very nimble and mobile and gave the actors a lot of freedom in the space. The shoot was 5 days, and we had a 30 page script, so it was tight. Particularly working with so many young actors, where you can only have them on set for a certain amount of time. It definitely took some creative scheduling!
Chubby 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.