When lockdown offered unobstructed time for discussion and analysis, Director Tomás Whitmore and Musician Kyle Harvey took a dive into their own relationships with social media and the ways in which constantly tweaked algorithms dictate our behaviour for maximum engagement. Already at work on a feature film together those conversations and a location access countdown turned their attention to the making of scintillating short Allie & I. However, what at first appears to be a story about the draw of a burgeoning new romance so intoxicating that nothing else matters, seductively reveals itself to be an allegory for the ever-present assault on our always-connected mental health. Across Allie & I’s 27 minute running time Whitmore delicately explores the addictive intricacies of our need for others’ validation and attention through stunning visuals and a hallucinatory aesthetics, heightened by alluring and powerful performances from co-writer Harvey and the mesmerising Kota Eberhardt. DN jumped at the opportunity to speak to Whitmore about the well thought out, evolving marketing plan (something we’d most definitely advise) he created for the recently Staff Picked short to push momentum, the challenges of putting together a score to work with the layered dramatic tensions within the film and why he didn’t want to spell things out for the audience.
Where did the outlandish concept for Allie & I originate?
The film started from the seed of an idea that Kyle had about exploring his relationship with social media. Having been catapulted to a level of fame as a young musician in his early 20s, he’s spent a lot of his life being very conscious and aware of the image he projects online. However, after the 2020 lockdown he started to think a bit more about how social media and more specifically its algorithm was affecting his behavior and view of the world. We discussed how we are all in our own relationship with the internet and social media, and that if you want to be ‘successful’ in today’s age, it feels impossible to do so without a social media presence.
Participating in social media means you have to consciously put effort into how you present yourself.
Doesn’t matter what you do, whether you’re a musician, a filmmaker, or even a chef, people’s first question is what’s their Instagram. It’s an inescapable truth. Participating in social media means you have to consciously put effort into how you present yourself. This act is often influenced by what the algorithm warrants as worthy of attention, so in turn, a lot of our self-worth as a culture is determined by a pre-set code that determines what is worth looking at or being ‘loved’ online.
As Kyle and I developed the idea further we realized that personifying our relationship with the internet/social media via the character Allie was a really intriguing way into the subject matter. It’s a great, complicated relationship to explore. One that we all fell for. Who didn’t love Instagram or social media when it first came around, we all believed it put the power back in our hands, but what we didn’t realize was that we were being turned into the product. So with all that said, the idea stemmed from our shared experiences of being online and coming to the realization that we didn’t like the way it was altering our behavior. We saw the metaphor of Allie, and the toxic relationship Mann has with her as a direct reflection of all of our relationships with social media.
Were you at all worried that audiences might find the connection with Allie and social media too in your face? How did you play into the mystery of that connection?
I took a very strong stance on keeping Allie mysterious from the beginning. I love movies that make you think when the credits roll so I didn’t want to explain who she was entirely. Of course, it’s pretty obvious that Allie isn’t what you thought she was at the beginning of the film, but it’s still not entirely spelt out for you.
Regardless there’s really no wrong answer, which is why we ultimately chose to keep the meaning behind Allie more mysterious.
Who is this mysterious being that is so spell binding? What does she represent? Yes, there’s a connection between social media and Allie, but exactly which part of social media she’s tied to isn’t explicitly said. Of course we have an answer, but it’s ultimately up to the viewer to interpret. I’ve had several people who rewatched the film tell me that they were able to spot all the clues we sprinkled throughout the story as to who Allie is. However, out of all the people who rewatched the film only a select few have properly identified what Allie actually is. Regardless there’s really no wrong answer, which is why we ultimately chose to keep the meaning behind Allie more mysterious.
How did you go about moving forward with the film after developing the initial concept?
At the time of our brainstorming, Kyle and I were writing a feature film together and he was living in the house featured in the film which happens to be an old LA case study house, and he thought it would be cool to shoot there, but we tabled the idea knowing that we could always come back to it after finishing our feature script. However, a few months later he received the news that he would need to move out of the house so we had a decision to make. Write the film and produce it in 30 days and shoot in this incredible architectural house, or wait and shoot it at a later date in a different house. We knew we had to strike while the iron was hot, so we pushed to make it happen. While I sorted through the notes and conversations I’d had with Kyle and his writing partner Jesus Araujo, my Producer L. Vertel Scott got moving on production. I wrote the film based on Kyle, Jesus, and mine’s general outline in two weeks, and Vertel immediately took the script and got casting going.
Kyle had written a seven page version of the story that was a rough sketch of the idea. After a few brainstorming sessions with Kyle and Jesus to flesh out the reason behind the project, I retreated to my basement to finish the writing. The two weeks I spent down there were the best part of the process. I loved all the ups and downs of getting the idea fully fleshed out onto the page, partially because the pressure to deliver a shootable script in two weeks time meant there wasn’t a lot of time to overthink it. This project needed that pressure. If we wanted to shoot in the house where the film is set that meant we had to get the script down and shoot the entire film in three weeks.
What do you attribute to your speed in getting everything and everyone together so quickly?
It was all about the team we brought together. If I wasn’t writing I was running around selling every one I could on the project. That process started with our Casting Directors Christian Bustamante and Samantha Blake Goodman, they delivered in bringing Kota Eberhardt to our attention, who as you can see completely steals the show as the titular character. My Producer L. Vertel Scott and I took them out to dinner, but since I was in the middle of writing we didn’t have a full script for them to read. Kudos to them because that didn’t stop them from diving into the conversation head on.
We sat and discussed the meaning behind the story and our own relationships with social media. We shared stories about the highs and lows our relationships with social media had taken us on, which led to the discussion of who Allie is, and how entrancing she had to be for the film to work. We were so lucky to have them on the project, especially me, because the conversation around casting inspired me so much that I went home and continued writing after dinner. And that’s how the entire process worked. Each partner we brought on to the project started bringing something new to the film.
I knew I didn’t want to make a film with voice over, but the process of writing the script that way helped me to hear our main characters’ inner thoughts.
Even meetings with my Line Producer Valerie Bush and Production Manager Jack Fahay helped the script take shape. Early on I had written a version of the script that was entirely driven by voice over. I knew I didn’t want to make a film with voice over, but the process of writing the script that way helped me to hear our main characters’ inner thoughts. Valerie and Jack were so helpful in sharing their feedback on that version of the script even though it wasn’t what we were going to shoot. The whole process was really collaborative. What I learned most about it was that it’s okay to not have everything buttoned up and perfect. You can bring a rough idea to the table, in fact that’s the point of having a team you trust around you. My team made this project what it is.
Allie & I is so visually enticing, at what stage did you zero in on that look and what was the process of executing it?
Unless you live off the grid the majority of us are sucked into social media some way or another. I didn’t want this to feel like a “phones are bad movie”, so it was important to give the film an undeniably beautiful sheen to it. From the casting to the costumes and especially the cinematography, the film had to feel sexy, elevated, and captivating. It also doesn’t hurt shooting in an authentically restored Craig Ellwood AIA Case Study Home. We really lucked out with that location.
It’s beautiful to look at, but the more you watch it you realize there’s something dark happening underneath.
I have to give major kudos to our Director of Photography Drew Bienemann and our Costume Designer Andrew McFarland for crafting such incredible images to look at. Drew and his team worked really hard to give every frame of the film a lush sense of drama, we focused on bringing a very serious look to the film, every frame is rich with tension. It’s beautiful to look at, but the more you watch it you realize there’s something dark happening underneath. I love what he did with the shadows in our film and I loved what he pulled off. I am also very grateful for Andrew and the costumes he designed for Kyle, Kota, and Freddy. It’s crazy what he pulled off when you consider how every single scene we shot during Mann’s spiral has him and Allie in a different outfit, each a bit darker and more lost than the last.
Your production time is so impressive, what particular elements in post pulled that all together?
We shot for 5 days on location and after shooting was over we dove into post production and I edited the film as well. We were very ambitious and thought we could finish the post in 3 months but it ended up taking another 11 months to finish which at times was frustrating, but I’m grateful that we took the time to get it right. We struggled as life took back over after lockdown. The need to get back to work took a toll on our timeline, but if there any particular elements that really took the longest I can point to two things – first the music and second our marketing plan.
None of us wanted to drop the film without a sense of excitement around it, so we spent a lot of time prepping materials, teasers, trailers, and snippets so that we could keep the film top of mind within our networks for at least two weeks. We also anchored all of that marketing around a premiere we did at Brain Dead Theater in Los Angeles. Putting as much energy into marketing this film as we did into making it was really key to its success, and since we coordinated all this ourselves we felt it was best to not rush the process. Still, no matter how much time we gave ourself it was never enough! We could always keep working on it which we are! At the moment we’re still pushing to screen the film as much as possible, including everything from traditional routes like festivals to more experimental tactics like chopping the film up for TikTok. At this point we want as many people to see the film as possible.
Putting as much energy into marketing this film as we did into making it was really key to its success.
The music really drives the narrative, what guidance and inspiration did you give to Jonathan Snipes?
Music was challenging because the sound/tone we were chasing was so tricky to nail. We knew we had to get it right, so there were a few times in the process where we had to step away so that we could come back to it with fresh ears, clearing the palette. We were chasing this particular sound that could feel both optimistic and inspiring but also unsettling. Jonathan nailed it in the end, but it was a really tough process. Music is so hard because it’s such a feeling, and since Kyle and Jonathan are both incredible musicians in their own rights, my role was about finding a way to help them communicate while still capturing what I was looking for in the score. It took a handful of working sessions/conversations, but I truly attribute the quality of our score and sound to the fact that we took our time with it.
One of the biggest compliments I’ve gotten is that the film doesn’t feel like it’s 27 minutes long. I attribute this to the way our music choices push the story forward, and that’s truly a credit to Jonathan. He has an incredible music mind, and we were really lucky to have him on the project. We wanted to capture the unsettling sense of optimism and excitement the character Mann is feeling after he falls in love with Allie mixed with a dark and sinister undertone as he’s slowly dragged into the recesses of his own insecurities. Finding the balance was incredibly challenging, because we never wanted to over index on one side of the coin. All credit due to Jonathan for finding a way to walk the tight rope we asked him to so gracefully!
How does it feel to be awarded the coveted Vimeo Staff Pick and is there anything you can pinpoint which helped this happen?
It’s an honor to be recognized. Shout out to Blair Barnes for selecting the film. I know he had a chance to check the film out at our premiere at the Brain Dead Theater, so if I was going to credit anything to the selection it’d be a combination of Kyle and Kota’s performances, the filmmaking itself, and last but not least the chance to see the film in a dark room with other people. NOTHING beats that experience.
What are you working on next?
We’re developing Allie & I into a feature film, which will dive deeper into how the internet and social media have warped our opinions about the world and ourselves. I’m also writing a feature film set in the early 2000s about the breakdance scene. I was a breaker in high school so I’ve always wanted to shine a light on the community and how creative/resilient it is. With breaking set to be a part of the 2024 Paris Olympics it’s an exciting time to tell a story about the scene after its fall frame grace in the 80s. Outside of that I’m running my production company Off-Site Works with my long time producer and business partner L. Vertel Scott. We have a small roster of directors that I’m really excited to support and develop.