It is all too easy to thrust violent images into the face of an audience in an effort to force them to address the harsh realities of difficult subjects, but the best filmmakers use the tools of cinema to evoke empathy and understanding rather than shock and awe (and potentially alienate) viewers into awareness. Commissioned by not-for-profit organization SOS International, The Rabbit Hole from LA-based writing and directing brothers tao/s (Aaron and Winston Tao) takes the latter approach, leading to a grounded and considered depiction of the thorny issue of child sex trafficking which ultimately serves to be more impactful. From its opening moments, the 6 minute short envelops us in a story where the purity of childhood hopes and a strong sisterly bond are disturbingly undercut by the stark realities of child exploitation and abuse born of poverty and enacted by a trusted caregiver. It’s a hard watch, but one which effectively fulfils its mandate of conveying the horrifying reality of the situation, and also demonstrates tao/s’ humanistic approach of using the power of cinema to highlight important social issues and causes. DN is honoured to present the online premiere for this eloquent piece of work and were able to speak to both Aaron and Winston about the shaping of The Rabbit Hole’s visual language, experimenting with form to convey the lasting effects of trauma and their diligent casting process which was paramount to the creation of the film.
This is a project which predates your involvement, how did you come to be working with SOS International on The Rabbit Hole and what stage was it at when you got involved?
The project originally came from some other directors who, after working on a couple of rewrites, were unable to take on the project due to schedule commitments. They then reached out to us to gauge our interest and, although we knew the script needed a complete rewrite, we immediately resonated with the idea of what the client was wanting to do. The original script was 15 pages, covering various locations, and was more about the journey of one girl being sexually abused and exploited. We knew we had to condense the story to fit the budget and timeframe and also wanted to make the story more emotional – between two sisters – rather than focusing on the journey of one girl.
Because of how the script came to us everything moved incredibly fast – probably one of the fastest projects we’ve worked on to date out of all our social justice films. We revised the script over a weekend, focusing our attention on strengthening the story between the two sisters, and simultaneously condensed everything to one location in order to logistically pull off filming.
In order to really feel the immediacy of the issue, we wanted to put the audience in the shoes of the perpetrator, the camera had to be the observer.
We are immediately immersed in the sisters’ bond which is clearly essential for this story. How did conveying that core relationship translate into your choices for how best to convey the scenarios presented in the film?
For us, the visual language was one of the most important elements. From the very beginning, we knew we had to both film from the girls’ perspectives while simultaneously feeling observational. This is because, in the end, we knew that it was always going to be observational – one shot; one take. In order to really feel the immediacy of the issue, we wanted to put the audience in the shoes of the perpetrator, the camera had to be the observer. So, to keep the visual language consistent, we knew we had to work backwards from the end shot.
This meant observing the girls’ interaction in the beginning – not relying on cuts or music or anything other than purely observing their relationship so the performance was everything to us. Since there would be no cuts, we spent quite a lot of time casting, then rehearsing as much as we could. We were constantly revising the script based on the actors we were auditioning. Seeing how they’d adapt, how they listened to each other, how they looked together on screen. Once we cast our talent, we’d schedule in time with the actors to block, rehearse, and shape their performances as much as we could – in callbacks, wardrobe fittings, etc. It was a constant shaping, chiselling, and sculpting process.
The production team didn’t have a huge budget to work with at all and yet everybody went above and beyond to make this project as impactful as it could be. Casting was the most complicated and took the most time, so our producers worked as hard as they could to make sure we had the right talent.
With such high requirements for your young actors around this incredibly delicate subject, what were you looking for in their performances and how did you know when you had the right pair?
The tricky thing about acting in a subject matter such as this is that there is a temptation to convey how ‘scary’ it is. But the audience already knows that the situation is terrifying. In reality, the most terrifying aspect of all of this is how mundane it is. How normal it is for the people who are living in it, day in and day out. And how most individuals who are trafficked are done so by a loved one that they trust. So above all, that’s what we needed to convey through the acting: a sense of trust between the characters that were being portrayed on screen and so the chemistry we were looking for needed to showcase the camaraderie between the sisters, and the level of trust they had for their Aunty as well. The most refreshing thing about working with children is that they either have it or they don’t. It’s very black and white. They are either living in the moment, and the moment is alive, fresh, and new, or they are pushing for the moment and it’s very forced.
The most refreshing thing about working with children is that they either have it or they don’t. It’s very black and white.
When Andrea came in to read for Bella we knew immediately that she had an emotional maturity beyond her years. The first thing she said when she walked in was something to the extent of, “Hello. I just want to say thank you so much for having me read for this role. I am very excited and I appreciate it very much.” And she’s only eight years old! Bella was our main priority as an actress, so we concentrated on her first as much as we could and paired the other actors around her. We needed to see who had the ability to portray the camaraderie of a realistic sibling relationship and the juxtaposition of feeling incredibly alone in the end. It is very tough to do, and it was immediately evident that Andrea was the only one who could really do it.
For Mia, we were fixed on the idea of ‘less is more’. So our audition process revolved around searching for the person we felt could convey a sense of brokenness through the use of just her eyes for the shot when she gets pulled away in the brothel hallway. Sofía passed with flying colors. It also helped when it was evident that the two girls had a natural chemistry with each other. The project, to us, lived and died on the ability to fall in love with our actors from the opening scene. We knew that if we couldn’t immediately fall in love with the sisters, then the film would not be effective.
The trauma is disturbingly palpable whilst not being explicit, how did you go about conveying this both in your writing and direction?
We wanted to really try experimenting with narrative structure with this piece. Since we’ve already done traditional narrative with our other pieces, we wanted to explore something a bit different. Specifically, the feelings of sexual abuse and exploitation through trauma. One of the books Aaron is currently reading is The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel van der Kolk. It’s a very enlightening read that talks about when people go through trauma, their memory is fractured. They don’t remember things in consecutive order. Dates are misconstrued, timelines are incorrect, there are just certain flashes of images that come to mind that haunt the victims. So, that was one of the main things we were wanting to experiment with in this particular piece – first, in the writing; then the directing. How do we convey these feelings of trauma in a structured narrative? Is it even possible to do? We had never done or seen a jump in style like this before, so it was very exciting to try for us.
These kinds of films are always tough. Many clients in the social justice space are scared to really tell things how they are – understandably so. We didn’t feel hesitation or reservation from SOS at all but definitely knew that we needed to be extremely delicate with how we toed the line in telling this particular story. For us, what’s most important is making sure the relationships are strong because then the audience will empathize with the emotional journey. If you just focus on the atrocity of sexual trafficking, it’s hard to relate.
We had never done or seen a jump in style like this before, so it was very exciting to try for us.
We spent our writing time showing the dynamic of the sisters first. We knew we wanted to show their closeness, but also, how the process of sexual abuse and exploitation starts. Generally, it’s born out of cycles of poverty, lack of opportunity, and other family members who are already involved in the business. There are only a small percentage of kids who get snatched up on the street. So, it was important to us to convey that accurately.
At the same time, we knew that we had to accurately portray the sexual abuse cycle as well as the fact that it happens, many times, outside of the home. This was a challenge because of the small budget. So, we had to make sure that all of our ‘trauma’ scenes were able to be filmed in one location. That’s kind of how the genesis of the ‘feelings-based montage’ came about. What if we started it off as a narrative, and then moved into a more abstract place? Where we could still communicate sexual abuse, but not have to literally show them go from one place to the next and show the brothels and show the male traffickers/buyers and all that stuff.
The only scenes that we knew we needed were firstly a long hallway that we could PD to feel like a hallway in a brothel in order to communicate that it happens outside of the home, and secondly a different room that feels a bit nondescript for the end scene. We had a great scouting team, so after scouting a bunch of locations, we knew we found our home when we found this house that had everything we needed.
Were there any problems working with cast and crew around a language barrier on such a nuanced project?
The key creatives, including our producers, were all bilingual, so that helped a lot. STORY is very used to American projects, so that experience was great. We relied on our 1st AD as much as possible to communicate our direction. Her name was Mich Circuit and she was incredible with the kids, both her and our Producer, Paulette Arrieta. We used them both in auditions and rehearsals as much as possible to make sure that by the time we were rolling our actresses felt very comfortable with the direction coming from our 1st AD.
Another thing we did with our actresses was pay attention to what came naturally to them in their performances. So, we would constantly revise the script based on how they would say things, and what they would improv. This way, they helped shape the story, rather than us trying to force them to stay within a confined pre-determined sandbox.
There was an immense amount of respect from the cast and crew for the project, so that really helped in regards to addressing the sensitive nature of it all. Fernando Sanchez, who played ‘The Man’, had a military background and was very passionate about coming on board and using his talents to really bring his character to life. He spoke English so communicating with him wasn’t difficult in that sense. It was very difficult emotionally though, as he really had to put himself in the shoes of the perpetrator.
In the beginning, it didn’t seem to come very naturally to him. So we pulled him aside, and we were very honest with him. We told him that we didn’t believe him, and the reason why we didn’t believe him is because we felt he didn’t believe the situation himself. We didn’t believe that he was really enjoying this situation and if our goal is to make an effective film together, he needed to let himself get to this place emotionally. It has to be uncomfortable, we can’t play it safe. He has to secretly be excited about this, and that was extremely difficult for him to do, and understandably so. But once he got there, everybody on set could immediately feel it. It was extremely uncomfortable. But in the end, the film becomes more powerful because of it.
Sometimes the most basic direction is easiest to translate because everybody can relate.
For the most part, communication wasn’t really an issue. There was one scene, however, that did prove difficult. During the scene where Mia is telling Bella that she will provide and take care of her in order to raise the money to get to Hawaii, that one shot took us over an hour to get. It needed to feel very intimate, and raw, but the girls were playing it as if they were extremely excited at this idea, and they seemed to have an unrelenting amount of energy. The more we tried to get them to settle into the scene in a gentle and intimate manner, the more worked up it seemed they would get. Although our AD and producer were both doing the best they could to help us communicate the direction, we weren’t sure if anything was being lost in translation. We finally had to pivot, and just ended up communicating to the actors that it’s late, and they’re tired – and we told Bella that she’s literally about to fall asleep and that seemed to work, haha. Sometimes the most basic direction is easiest to translate because everybody can relate.
Given the budget and time restraints you had to work within, how did you maximise productivity on the shoot and what was your gear set up?
Our budget was extremely tight, so we had to find a location where we could ideally shoot all of our scenes there. Once we found this amazing house that had so many different looks, Lluís Marti, our DP, was extremely proactive and always had the next location pre-lit to allow for a smooth transition into the next scene. As far as equipment goes, we decided to shoot with the Alexa Mini, with a Canon FD lens set that was rehoused by Ps Teknik.
How did The Rabbit Hole evolve through your post process?
We flew to St. Louis the day after we wrapped. We had 1 week to edit so we did the work with our friends at Bruton Stroube for both edit and sound design. The way they’re set up is very efficient and we’ve worked really well with them on a few of our past projects, so we knew they could streamline the workflow very quickly. Winston and I had done a pre-viz of the edit beforehand, so we already had a general idea of what we wanted.
Once we had a rough edit, Lucas Harger, our editor, reached out to other staff at Bruton to screen test. We would also send it out to get eyes on it from other people who did not know what the project was about. Initially, the montage images were done in a way that was way more abstract. But, during testing, nobody understood what was really happening. It was a bit too jarring. We were able to revise based off feedback and everything was completed within the week.
What were the key moments you knew you needed to keep from your edit pre-viz and how did that process help shape the film’s structure and narrative flow?
For the first draft of the script, when we jumped into the montage scene, it was just about listing certain feelings that initially came to mind. There was an image of two hands playing Cat’s Cradle with red string which we really loved. Another image we felt was strong was seeing black mold spread in the bathroom on the tile. This feeling of how the abuse is spreading, causing death in its wake.
We didn’t know what would work and what wouldn’t work. We generally prep with shot lists and scripts, but knew we needed to test this before we filmed. Normally, we opt not to do pre-viz but this project required such specificity that we knew we had to lean into it and one of our director/DP friends offered to help. After seeing everything in context, we ended up revising some of the abstract images to focus more on the people in the story, rather than just abstract images.
The most terrifying aspect of all of this is how mundane it is. How normal it is for the people who are living in it, day in and day out.
Also, our initial edit was just to test whether or not it would work to jump formats – from strictly narrative to the feelings-based montage. The way we had written it was more abrupt – where the Aunty is actually closer to Bella and is sitting at the table and then, out of anger, she slams her fist on the table bringing us into the montage. But, we realized from the pre-vis that it would be difficult. The transition was too fast and it would be confusing. We knew we had to somehow slow it down, but didn’t quite know how to do it. So, after thinking about it some more, we ultimately settled on transitioning with the light. We wanted to get this sense of ‘going down a dark hole’ with our actress as she watches Alice in Wonderland on TV. We knew it’d feel surreal, but we didn’t want it to feel too fantastic – where it wouldn’t be grounded in some sort of reality. So, we collaborated with our DP Lluís about it. He offered some great ideas and really worked with us to create the right look, mood, and feel.
Going back to those early test screenings, what changes did the audience reactions prompt?
On the first screening, the test audience was super confused. There was no narrative flow to the montage. It was edited purely based on feeling. But, that didn’t work for the test audience. They just sat there, scratching their heads and said how confused they were. We realized that we needed a more structured montage edit, so we worked with our editor Lucas, recrafting the footage, putting Mia’s journey first, and then focused our attention on Bella’s story. We re-tested it with a second group and then the feedback was that it felt too straightforward. There was no thinking, no imagination. So, after that second testing, we combined some abstract imagery into the narrative structure and that worked very well with our third testing group. That’s the edit that we ultimately tweaked until we landed on what it is now.
What are you working on next?
We’ve been writing a lot – just trying to keep honing and developing our voice. So we’re at a point right now where we have multiple projects that we’re working on. We have about six short films, two spec spots, two TV shows, and our feature that’s in development, Goodbye, Hurricane. We do need to pick one to officially be the ‘next’ project hahaha, but it’s looking like we’re going to shift gears to get our short film pitch for our feature, Goodbye, Hurricane off the ground.
Head over to the SOS International website to donate, and learn more about their important work and how you can help to fight human trafficking in your community.