Made in tandem with the release of Angel Olsen’s album of the same name, Director Kimberly Stuckwisch’s short film Big Time is a visual counterpart that combines Olsen’s sonic journey of self-discovery with a dreamlike cinematic landscape. The film takes three songs from the album and intertwines them with a nightmarish narrative that sees Olsen separating herself from her past. The beauty in the short is in how Stuckwisch is able to smoothly move from one song’s distinct setting to another without it ever feeling jarring, allowing the personal emotive journey at the centre of the entire piece to feel totally cohesive. DN spoke with Stuckwisch as Big Time arrives online to learn more about how she closely collaborated with Angel Olsen throughout the film’s production, the themes of self-actualisation she wanted to interrogate, and the perks of working with a small crew on an ambitious shoot.
When did you and Angel Olsen first begin your artistic collaboration together?
Angel and I had worked on Like I Used To in the spring of 2021 with Sharon Van Etten and immediately knew we would be lifelong collaborators and friends. So, when she hit me up in the fall of last year about the album she was recording and a long form piece, I jumped at the opportunity. She wanted to encapsulate what had been going on in her life at the time; some pretty heavy life-altering events. Both of her parents had suddenly passed, soon after she had come out as queer. After many deep heart to hearts, it became apparent that our piece should be a place of healing for her and for those going through similar challenges and loss.
Was anything in her music that you especially connected with when first listening to the album? A particular song maybe?
Angel had written a song called Through the Fires where one of the lyrics is, “and walk through the fires…” and when she told me that my heart stopped like she was speaking directly to my life. I had literally walked through fire seven years ago in an accident that left me in a burn unit for a month with 11% of my body burned. Angel and I talked a lot about trauma and the importance of acknowledging one’s past in order to move forward and rise higher. It was this initial connection that sparked a friendship and understanding unlike any other. It all came so naturally, so effortless. Like I was talking to someone I had known my whole life. We’ve since come to realize that we have a bizarrely strange amount of things in common, including the fact that we share a birthday… January 22nd.
How involved was Angel creatively with what you were doing with the film? What intrigued you about creating a narrative across a selection of songs from the record?
While writing the album, Angel was having these super visual dreams. There was one in particular, the night she found out her mother had died, where she was in an elevator that got stuck six feet underground. When the doors opened, she found herself in this Narnia-type land where time didn’t really exist, a place outside of time. She sent me a long voice memo recounting the dream and expressed she wanted to explore something similar for the video for Through the Fires. For Big Time she laughed and said that she had always wanted to perform at a queer rodeo.
So, the challenge then became, how do you take these ideas and marry them into a cohesive narrative? I think that a lot of album movies have a hard time doing that. They often string together videos without any particular story, so it’s like watching a series of music videos back to back. With this one, we really wanted the story to come first and for it to be a homage to Angel’s mother. We included an actual voicemail from her mother with sound bytes from an interview that Angel gave soon after she passed, interspersed throughout the film. It really was such an honor to be entrusted with holding and caring for such deeply personal material. It was a gift to me and has forever changed my life.
There’s an unspoken trust there when someone hands you their most personal thoughts, fears, joys… You have to keep it close, protect it, do it right.
For Angel, in her words, “it was really an emotional and raw process and felt almost at times like a spiritual clearing, that by putting myself in the story and moving pieces of it around, I also personally had to re-examine my losses and find a new way to process the events that actually took place in my life. Though most of it is scripted, it is probably the most intimate work I have ever made and shared with the public…”
How long were you working together on the film, was Angel involved in each aspect of the production?
The entire project took about six months from start to finish with Angel and I working hand in hand every step of the way. With such personal material, it was imperative that I make sure the writing was honest and the intention true to what Angel wanted to put out in the world. There’s an unspoken trust there when someone hands you their most personal thoughts, fears, joys… You have to keep it close, protect it, do it right.
We wrote the script in December and then went into pre-production and production in January. Then, I went off and filmed my first narrative feature Canvas in Tennessee. That was probably the hardest part of the entire process as I found myself deep in post for Big Time while also filming a feature. After each shoot day on the film, I would work with my editors Ellis Bahl, who is also a writer on the album movie, and Matt Michener to get it over the finish line. I don’t think I slept for about two months straight. Ha!
You touched on it earlier but what do you see as the narrative and thematic throughline in Big Time?
Big Time is the story of light versus shadow told through a non-linear surrealist dream space that poses one central dilemma, “What lengths must one go through to let go of the past in order to step out of the darkness and accept one’s true self?”
It’s a story that targets deep-rooted complexities such as how our unconscious deals with repressed sexual identity, the hardships of letting go of our past selves in order to step into self-actualization, and the guilt we hold when dealing with loss. For one reason or another, we all have parts of ourselves that we struggle to forgive as well as a part of ourselves we are afraid of exploring or that we think society won’t like, so we push those parts down into our unconscious psyches, into the shadows. Big Time is the story of drowning in those fears before releasing your light.
We all have parts of ourselves that we struggle to forgive as well as a part of ourselves we are afraid of exploring or that we think society won’t like.
Those fears seem, to me, to manifest themselves in this dreamlike space. There’s a haziness to the film that makes it feel like a different reality.
Just like in dreams, Angel finds herself in a recurring nightmare, encountering the same group of people over and over who try and trap her with their ideologies. “Bury your truths,” they tell her. “Find content in the despair…” However, they all have one thing in mind – to hold her down and steal the very thing that makes her whole. In the end, only when she opens herself up, is light able to give insight and understanding to the shadow.
In Big Time, we find Angel stuck in a motel room where, through the use of sound clips from a real life interview, she gives us a glimpse into her innermost thoughts. We are unsure how long Angel has been in this room: a hell of sorts. We know she came here for a reason though, to set out on a journey to burn her memories.
Did you draw upon any other stories or pieces of art that dealt with the idea of separating yourself from your past?
This idea of exiling one’s self from their former life and career originated from the Book of Illusions by Paul Auster. We soon find, however, that this cathartic act only serves as a temporary band-aid. The real self-work arrives when Angel dives deeper into the unknown… quite literally when she drowns herself. Throughout the film, we introduce Beau. This though is not a love story. It’s in fact a much deeper construct. Beau serves as the white rabbit, a metaphor for Angel’s shame, guilt, past, love, and loss who leads Angel further and further into the unconscious until her eventual self-acceptance and release.
Do you have a favourite scene or moment in the film that you’re particularly proud of?
There are so many moments that I love during the film. Storywise, the call from her mother always gets me. It doesn’t matter how many times I watch the movie, I still tear up at the sound of her mother’s voice. It reminds me a lot of my mom. There’s also a part on one of the interview recordings that we used throughout the piece where Angel mentions not calling her mom enough. I have struggled with those same regrets in my own life with my mother.
As for some of my favorite moments of the piece, I get goosebumps when I see what Ellis Bahl did with the edit during the climax of All The Good Times. It’s the moment in the song when we begin quickly cutting between microscopic cellular photography shot by Andrew Droz Palermo, a fire, Angel in a shadowbox, and Angel trying to run herself over. I also quite enjoy the visuals for Through the Fires. We were on the side of a mountain when we shot that, it was super late at night and about 20 degrees outside. We had to carry all of our gear and all of the set dressing up a very steep cliff via a rope ladder. It was probably one of the hardest things we’ve ever done. Also, like the children say in the scene, we were indeed “losing light” and filmed the table scene all in about one hour’s time. Little fun fact too about the shoot, Angel and I look a lot alike so I doubled her for a lot of the driving scenes and I’m also the one who drowns her in the bathtub during the climax of the film. Talk about surreal. Have to give her mad props too though as she learned to drive a stick shift on Big Tujunga Canyon!
How was the shoot in general? Did it take a while to cover each of the locations?
All in all, we shot for nine days with a very small crew of five to six people total, except for the big dance day for the Big Time music video. We also shot a majority of the film at Ian’s and my house, converting our bedroom into a motel room and building the elevator in our front yard. I’d much prefer to work with a small crew as everyone gets a chance for creative input and to really shine in their positions. We work like a family, where everyone’s ideas are heard and respected.
Speaking of that family, how are you feeling on reflection of everyone’s hard work now that the film is out there in the world?
The end result of the film truly felt like a culmination of everyone’s talents, the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. I’d like to take the time and give some special shout outs to some of the crew family that have been with me all of these years and have had an equal hand in developing and executing each project and idea.
We work like a family, where everyone’s ideas are heard and respected.
Ian Blair has been my producing partner since day one and really deserves a lot of the praise. He’s been instrumental in the development of the ideas and really just makes miracles happen every day. He’s not only a producer, he’s a magician who can mold himself into any position. There have been times we couldn’t afford more than two crew members so Ian would step in and do it all, including 1st AC’ing, drone operating, gaffing, DP’ing, art directing, PA’ing… you name it, he’s done it. If you ever get the chance to work with him, run for the opportunity. He will make you 1000000x better at your craft and he’ll make you laugh while doing it.
Justin Hamilton, my cinematographer, is also a name you should know. I started working with him about two years ago and the level of love and attention to detail that he gives each project is unmatched. You won’t find a better collaborator out there. We also have stepped inside several toxic lakes in California together… so there’s that.
What can we expect from you in the near future?
Currently, I’m in post on my first feature film that I directed alongside my best friend Melora Donoghue. I’m also developing an album short movie with Margo Price for her next album and writing my first movie that I hope to be my next full length narrative project. In my spare time, I’m just trying to grab some poles and go fishing.