In filmmaker Andrew Balasia’s comedy drama Souvenirs a friend-for-hire balances his time with his peculiar clientele as he prepares for his most challenging assignment to date, becoming a father. Balasia tells his story across a series of scenes in which his protagonist plays out the different roles required of him with clients, who vary in their degrees of being wonderfully weird. During these scenes, Balasia is able to narratively break down the fundamentals of human interactions whilst stylistically managing to highlight each encounter through a hazy, dreamlike atmosphere comprised of a vivid colour palette and serene cinematography. DN had the pleasure of speaking with Balasia about his desire to explore the basis of human interactions, the real-world story his film is based on, and the technical production behind his almost-psychedelic aesthetic.
What did the beginning of Souvenirs as a project look like?
I read an article in The Atlantic a few years ago profiling a business in Japan that offered “friend-for-hire” services. These services seemed like a form of therapy, assisting those in need by filling in a void of physical companionship that they longed for. In some cases these arrangements would require heavy research, writing scripts, character backgrounds and development, costume styling, and rehearsals, a very similar process to the medium of filmmaking. This idea stuck with me. I loved imagining where the line between a transactional obligation and a natural intimacy would occur. I wondered how many sessions it would take for a true bond to form outside the synthesis. I also questioned the ethics of this service when brought into the public sphere where unsuspecting people would be conned into belief.
What role was the companion in the article hired for? Was it any of the roles that feature in Souvenirs?
In the film and also in the article, the ‘Friend’ is hired by a single parent to play the father of a newborn baby, an annuity which has no end, the child and external family members the recipients of a planned illusion for a ‘greater good’. I started people watching in shopping malls and food courts, daydreaming if relationships were real or arranged, preconceived copies of the real thing. This concept as a vehicle felt boundless with the number of potential characters and interactions that could be explored.
Conceptually it’s also quite interpretive too. Have you heard any other takes on the film’s meaning from audience members or your crew?
My DP Ben Mullen had another take after he read the script in which this character expresses the plight of the freelancer: an individual plagued by the commitment to multiple clients resulting in the lack of a personal life entirely. I enjoyed this perspective, yet I wanted the protagonist to be OK with this arrangement. If he practices the virtue of piety then his clients are his religion. Not pharisaic, but devout.
These services seemed like a form of therapy, assisting those in need by filling in a void of physical companionship that they longed for.
What drew you to cast Alex Zhang Hungtai and your other actors in the film? The scenes are centred around their interactions and the casting must’ve been crucial.
Alex Zhang Hungtai, who plays the lead role of ‘Friend’, is an avant-garde jazz musician and I think his background brought a centred approach to the role, able to improvise on a whim with the other actors if they went off-script, especially with Sandy Honig, who plays Friend’s pregnant client. She’s one of the funniest comedians I know and we pretty much re-wrote her entire scene during rehearsal as I tried to keep up with her comedic flow.
Jordan Raf, who plays the lonely VR game developer, came to me with this ‘tick’ he discovered while watching a Gary Busey documentary, which had me crying. Surprises like this are why I really look forward to taking a script into rehearsal for the first time in the hopes of throwing it against the wall with rewrites and fresh takes.
Each scene also has a distinct tone and colour. What was the thought process behind that creative decision?
Working closely with my Producer Dylan Redford, Cinematographer Ben Mullen, Production Designer Alex Constable, and Costume Stylist Charlotte Patterson, we had ample discussions during pre-production to make sure each scene had a different color palette and tone that would cater and speak to the specific client our friend-for-hire is interacting with. Since the film isn’t completely linear and is told through vignettes, we wanted to make sure that this approach wasn’t too rigid, but fluid and tethered to some sort of singular feeling.
Each scene had a different color palette and tone that would cater and speak to the specific client our friend-for-hire is interacting with.
That fluidity comes across throughout, there’s almost a haziness to each scene too.
The opening scene is ambiguous as to what is actually happening, so we wanted the production design to be hypnotic and alluring to draw you in and keep you there. For the ending, we wanted it to feel foggy and hazy, dream-like, as the protagonist is now ‘in the future’, handicapped by a failing memory. We also wanted to make sure the environment was not specific to any time or place, effectively rendering an artificial reality.
How did you achieve that look technically? Were there any specific lenses you used to achieve that dream-like aesthetic?
Ben and I decided to shoot digitally to mirror the synthetic nature of Friend’s business model. We shot on an Alexa Mini with Todd-AO anamorphic lenses, lenses made in Los Angeles in the 1980s. We decided to shoot anamorphic as we really wanted the close-ups of the protagonist’s clients to feel stretched and wide, as if we’re experiencing Friend’s clients through his emphatic gaze, really seeing them.
Do you ever see yourself expanding Souvenirs into a potential sequel or feature?
I’ve always seen this concept as a feature and this short gave me the flexibility to chew on some ideas I wanted to test out before devoting myself to the longer form, especially with tone and characters.
What are you working on next?
I have a finished feature-length screenplay based on Souvenirs that I’m looking to get into production. I’m also currently finishing an installation film I directed for artist Mario Ayala and his solo show at Jeffrey Deitch Gallery opening in September.