To sum up this film in a sentence is easy. It is also a mistake. For there is so much more to this story about a pregnant young woman who returns to her hometown in Florida to escape her problems for one weekend, that defies the simple description. Written and directed by Jacob Halpren, Claire at Seven Months is an elusive piece of magic which simultaneously tickles you with humour, teases you with romantic possibility, and touches your heart with melancholy in just eighteen achingly beautiful minutes. Grounded by two magnificently authentic performances by Emily Althaus (Claire) and Matt Barats (Cody), the dramedy centres around the brief but momentous encounter between two almost complete strangers, diving into themes of escapism, fear, loneliness and intimacy, but never drifting too far from a belly laugh or a gentle tug of the heartstrings. This delicate tonal balance, handled with the lightest of touches, is at the heart of this warm and witty cinematic triumph and it has firmly cemented Halpren as a director to watch out for. DN is thrilled to present the premiere of Claire at Seven Months and to chat with Halpren about the challenges of writing about a pregnant protagonist, avoiding cliches and the search for the perfect music track that both reflected the main character’s state of mind and charmed the audience.
What was it about this particular story that inspired you to write it?
This story’s creation was inspired by a few different things. I had made another short, Martini Night, the previous year with Emily Althaus, the lead who plays Claire, and that process was such an enjoyable experience, we had talked about wanting to collaborate on something together again.
While Martini Night was basically one contained scene, I wanted to write something with her in mind that was a bit bigger in scope, while still maintaining an intimate character piece. I also wanted location to play an important role and had always wanted to make something down in my hometown in Florida where I had certain places and spaces in mind. So, this beach-centric narrative grew from there. I was interested in this idea of a weekend getaway, but where the one thing you are trying to escape inevitably ends up getting brought to the surface. Over the writing process, I had some pretty surprising emotional responses to things that were happening in my own life. So I began to explore how these unexpected feelings can sometimes be the ones that hit the hardest.
Usually, when a film is centred around pregnancy or motherhood, it’s either about the joy or torture they bring. At the very least you are practically guaranteed to see a baby at some point. Why did you choose to steer clear of these tried and tested tropes?
I was definitely conscious that the subject matter wasn’t a lived experience, so that was probably one reason why I initially strayed away from the pregnancy tropes I had seen in films previously. I was also more interested in exploring the universal human emotions at the heart of Claire’s journey. I wanted the focus to be on a person going through a tough time, who just so happens to be seven months pregnant. It’s a snapshot of this weird, unexpected weekend right before she embarks on this new journey of motherhood. I hope there is an all-inclusive takeaway in that it shows that unknown strength you find within yourself when faced with life’s hardships, and how when your immediate surroundings and support system crumble, you may find comfort and catharsis through the most unlikely of places.
I wanted the focus to be on a person going through a tough time, who just so happens to be seven months pregnant.
You touched on how your narrative focus had shifted from Martini Night to Claire at Seven Months, but I’d love to know how your experience of making the two shorts differed on a practical level during the production process.
Martini Night was far more contained, from the one location to the majority of the short being one take. So when it came to the production of Claire at Seven Months, it was more of a challenge to try and create a similar level of intimacy with the characters because we were moving around to different locations with varying setups over the span of 4 days. The biggest difference and challenge came in post-production though. With Martini Night, because it is essentially one long take, it was pretty easy for the co-writer/director/editor, Steven Ross, and I to visualize what the final cut was going to look like on set and allowed us to picture lock within a few days of wrapping. Claire was a far longer process where the first cut was over 27 minutes! It took months of trimming (what I now see as unnecessary) lines and whole scenes to find the right pacing and flow of the narrative, and was a huge learning experience in editing on the writing side of things before heading into production.
Emily and Matt are simply mesmerising. Had the two actors worked together previously or was their onscreen chemistry down to luck and talent?
I had met Emily through our mutual friend and cinematographer of both Claire and Martini Night, Ryan Nethery, so we already had a working relationship and friendship going into this. With Matt Barats, he was recommended by a writer friend in the comedy world and I thought he could bring something really dynamic to the Cody character while still maintaining a level of humor. They only ended up meeting for the first time a couple of days prior to shooting, so I got really lucky with how great their chemistry was! I do think a lack of rehearsals worked in our favor and kept a certain energy and freshness going into shooting that might have staled if we had more time to toil over specific lines and behavior. It also helped to naturally create those awkward moments I was going for.
The film is so successful in walking the tightrope between humour and sorrow. How did you find that tonal balance?
I think I’ve just always been a fan of films that find that perfect balance between humor and sadness. Those are the stories I gravitate towards because they feel the most true to life. My go to viewing leans towards what others might categorize as uncomfortable moments. Films like Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure, Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria and his 2018 English language remake, Gloria Bell, were all big influences in shaping characters and that aforementioned tonal balance. I wanted to keep the viewer constantly guessing where things were going over the course of Claire’s weekend. We start off in this idyllic, ostensibly peaceful beach getaway and then an unfortunate series of events leads to a bizarre evening on the couch of some guy you sorta remember from high school. You’re not sure whether to laugh or cry at the absurdity of it all and in Claire’s case you end up doing both.
It’s rare for a male director to make such a thoughtful and nuanced film about a mother-to-be. Were you ever worried that you were out of your depth or that you weren’t doing the subject justice?
I was hyperaware of the fact that I was a male filmmaker making a film with a pregnant protagonist, so one of my main concerns was making sure I wasn’t depicting anything inaccurate. For example, something as small as changing Claire’s sleeping position on the couch after a meal was a detail I had previously never thought about. But learning that it’s dangerous to fall asleep on your back while pregnant, was something I wanted to make sure wasn’t glossed over. Ultimately though, it wasn’t just about getting things right, but being aware that everyone’s experience is incredibly unique. So I wanted to stay true to a narrative about a woman who just wanted a break from it all, who was tired of being asked and discussing at length what it feels like to be pregnant and to show that she was much more than just a pregnant woman.
It’s safe to assume that you’ve never been pregnant so were there any books, films or people in your life that you drew inspiration/information from?
I’m at an age now where more and more friends of mine are starting to have kids, so I was naturally inspired and informed by my social surroundings. It also helped that my Dad was an OBGYN (obstetrician-gynaecologist). Emily had coincidentally played a pregnant character more than once before, so she was able to bring those previous experiences to the table and help shape the character as well. As far as film inspirations, Tully had come out during the course of the writing process so it was an interesting reference point to compare another pregnant character at a very different stage in her life.
I was hyperaware of the fact that I was a male filmmaker making a film with a pregnant protagonist, so one of my main concerns was making sure I wasn’t depicting anything inaccurate.
Why OMC’s How Bizarre?
I knew I wanted Claire to have this big cathartic breakthrough triggered by a song that wasn’t inherently emotional. It felt like it would make her response all the more powerful. So I spent an embarrassing amount of time listening through playlists of nineties and early aughts radio hits and basically began a long, slow process of elimination. How Bizarre ended up taking on this double meaning and was also a happy accident as it works great as a lullaby with the “ooh baby” line! Originally, Cody was supposed to pull out an acoustic guitar and play a cringey, all too earnest acoustic version, but since Matt didn’t know how to play guitar we turned it into a karaoke scene which, as you’ll see when you watch the film, ended up being for the best.
What are you working on next?
I’ve written a couple more shorts – one that’s a larger, absurdist satire, and another that’s more contained about an awkward exchange in a parking lot between two people from different generations. The latter walks that similar tonal line of humor and tragedy and is one that I’m actively trying to figure out how to make safely during this time while we wait for the world to slowly open back up.