Do we ever really want to know what people actually think about us or do we merely think we do? This basic line of thinking, which came on the back of a boozy night out with friends, led filmmaker Neal Mulani down a rabbit hole of exploration and self-reflection, emerging on the other side with cringe-inducing comedy short Tell Me Something I Don’t Know. Inhabiting the terminally flawed character of Cary, Mulani’s comedy draws elements from the thriller genre as his narcissistic birthday boy dials dramatic tensions up from bad to worse when he forces his reluctant friends to engage in a health spot of character assassination under the paper-thin guise of a party game. It’s a concept that could have easily just been played for laughs alone but after an extensive gestation period, the perspective of age prompted Mulani to dig much deeper. Premiering online today we speak to Mulani about leaning into discomfort, maintaining the flow of the film’s driving dialogue and what exactly goes into a ‘camera bible’.
Did this idea actually perchance stem from real life events?
I came up with the idea four years ago during my senior year of college. It felt like everyone was getting sick of each other as we approached the end of school, living together, going to classes together, and spending time on the weekends together. One night, my best friend and I went out and we were clearly on each other’s nerves. But interestingly, with long-standing friendships, you sort of lose the wherewithal to outright say what’s bothering you about someone as time goes on in an effort to uphold facades and keep things cool. I got really drunk and made an Irish goodbye, wrapped up in my own thoughts about what I could possibly be doing to bother my friend who was giving me the cold shoulder. My birthday was coming up in two months so on the Uber ride home, I wrote a note in my phone that said “for my birthday, have everyone write a complaint about me.” When I rediscovered the note a week or two later, I was like “….you’re so fucking annoying” but I also found the idea of that birthday party to be a really interesting hook.
I quickly put together an outline and tried to get the project off the ground as a senior thesis by having my friend, Kathryn Winn, write a skeleton draft to submit. That wildly different draft wasn’t selected, but I promised to revisit the concept someday. Naturally, that came two years later in summer 2020, when the concept felt more pressing than ever as we were forced to sequester ourselves with our friends, lovers, family, and roommates during the depths of COVID-19. There was a lot of interpersonal turmoil and tension to draw upon and I had a lot more to say than I did in 2018, so I did a bunch of page-one rewrites and developed it with my producing partner, Lottie Abrahams, who I was living with at the time. We’d check in every week while developing the script and have really cathartic conversations about friendships that had fizzled out, or our past experiences of getting the ‘ick’ for someone. Having that open space to talk about those relationships honestly helped me better understand the psychology of the characters I was writing and specify their back story as well as how they would interact at the moment in time that is our film.
Above all, I guess the film is a cautionary tale about the price of giving into your deepest anxieties and insecurities.
While the film is outwardly about friendship, a lot of the conversations through the development process were about self-perception, anxiety and insecurity. We were interested in unpacking that universal and primal desire to know what your closest friends really think about you and where that comes from. It’s relatable but it can be reckless. What do you do when you get the ‘ick’ for someone? Why don’t we have an acknowledged, collective social understanding and language for breaking up with friends the same way we do with romantic partners? The character of Cary, who possesses barely a modicum of sensitivity and absolutely loves to start shit, became a fun vessel to explore the messiness of those questions.
Of course, the film is a comedy so we wanted to explore the humor in all of the social politics behind the game at the center of the film, the absurdity, the self-deprecation, the discomfort. And the genre elements and thriller flourishes were a tool for me to convey the heightened, gnawing anxiety beneath it all and just how ridiculous it can truly feel. Above all, I guess the film is a cautionary tale about the price of giving into your deepest anxieties and insecurities. That can end up leaving you more isolated, disillusioned, and damaged than just leaving certain things unsaid. Ignorance is bliss!
Additionally, this is the first comedy short I’ve made after being really hesitant about approaching the genre for some time. I’ve always been scared of a comedy short feeling like a disposable punchline or sketch. I wanted to make something that was fun and entertaining, but had a little more on its mind and told a complete story. Hopefully by the time the credits roll, you’ve had a good laugh or two but you also feel a closeness to the characters, as if you’ve endured this exhausting evening alongside them.
After giving the concept and script time to simmer until you worked on it again, what do you think developed from the initial idea?
Some of the most significant developments were fleshing out the characters and imbuing the film with the thriller flourishes, it was a very low-key dramedy when it was first written and things stayed relatively grounded and civil. But I’d say the biggest change above all was giving the film a clearer perspective on its themes, self-perception, and the changing tides of friendship, by digging deeper into Cary’s point of view and writing an ending that reflected those themes. When I look back at earlier drafts, it feels like the events of the film just happened at a bit of a distance. I don’t think I had the set of personal experiences when I was 21 and first came up with the concept to know what I actually wanted to say about friendship by the time the credits rolled.
I’m very glad I made it now at the time I did, there’s a disquieting melancholy to your mid-20s when you’re a couple years out of school. Whether it’s distance, timing, or a lack of common ground, you realize how hard it is to maintain the friendships that defined those years; that can be difficult to accept and send you spiralling as you try to salvage those relationships, or even just recreate the spark from the beginning. And maybe in tandem with that, you’re renegotiating your identity as a full-fledged adult and a big piece of that is wondering “well I don’t even know who I am – what do other people think of me?” Everyone wants to know what their friends say about them behind their backs or in their diaries, whether they actually ask the question or not. So those emotions I was experiencing a few years out of school allowed me to ground the film in a clearer perspective. You know that Cary is making the situation worse with every choice he makes, but it comes out of a very recognizable and human compulsion to try and understand how other people see you and restore an expiring friendship that carries a lot of history. The intentions are relatable but the execution is questionable, to put it lightly.
It was basically like a villain origin story packed into a short film.
When I picked the script backup in 2020, I wanted to dive deeper into the insecurity that drives this self-serving game and get into Cary’s head: POV shots, muffled voices in the other room, spending some alone time with him as he recalls the flashbacks. It was basically like a villain origin story packed into a short film. We spent a lot of time honing in on the concept of self-obsession, where that comes from and how it rears its head and tracking that within Cary. And then the ending was something that also crystallized later on; the movie as a whole is very loud, energetically, but I wanted to end on a quieter note. There’s a tragic short-sightedness to narcissism. There are some transgressions you can’t come back from and yet despite that, Cary keeps going. He’s alienated everyone so profoundly but his only desire the next morning is to continue stoking the fire.
You’ve mentioned so many of the factors which affect Cary’s character, how were you able to make us hate him yet at the same time feel pity for him?
Another major change in development was leaning further into that distaste! The tricky part with writing Cary was fighting the instinct to paint him as too much of a victim. There was a different dynamic going on in earlier drafts of the script that wasn’t very reflective of what actually happens when someone gets ’the ick’ for a friend. Alma was at the vacation house from the get-go, acting icy and hostile toward Cary. She was doing a little too much for a character who’s supposed to have thrown in the towel. And Cary was clocking this weird attitude and venting to Quinn about it, so he felt a bit more pitiful and justified in his actions later on. I remember there was a distinct inflection point in our development process, where Lottie (producer) and I pondered what the absence of Alma would look like in the first half of the script. The only thing more painful than someone being mean to you is not paying you any mind at all.
My hope is that despite how transgressive and shocking Cary’s actions are, people feel the desperation, pain and insecurity that drive his antics.
And there’s a real desperation to explore there when you sense someone pulling away from you. By removing Alma from the first half and having her show up late, it opened Pandora’s box of opportunities to show Cary spiral, planning things to a tee, speculating and obsessing over her absence, vying for her attention with the viciousness of his barbs in the second half. That shift allowed me to lean into Cary as this relentless hurricane who leaves no stone unturned. But my hope is that despite how transgressive and shocking Cary’s actions are, people feel the desperation, pain and insecurity that drive his antics. You’re hopefully like, “sure, maybe I haven’t shoved someone into a pool but I get why Cary feels angry and I’ve felt some version of that before.” I’d also hope people see Alma as a little culpable for leaving Cary out to dry for so long, too. In my eyes, there’s a lack of decency on her part in not being honest with Cary about her true feelings. That’s at least how I balanced the scales a bit in my head so that I was able to play him.
The film makes me laugh out loud yet also curl my toes in anxiety – could you tell us more about treading that fine balance?
I’m so glad to hear that! I guess I would say that laughter and anxiety are cut from the same cloth: discomfort. Our goal was always to lean into the uncomfortable truth, and both sides of that coin — the funny, frivolous side where you’re confessing to someone that you have them muted on Instagram and the utterly cringeworthy part where you’re reading your best friend’s diary aloud to them in earnest. You know nothing good can come from that but it’s like watching a trainwreck in slow-motion.
It was a tough balance, though, and I admittedly wasn’t sure we had pulled it off until I saw the film at festivals and heard people laughing but also telling me during Q&As that they were anxious and nervous while watching it. Even if the comedy started to feel a bit stale by the time we delivered the film because I had heard the jokes so many times, I was confident in our cast, how much time we spent punching those elements up, and how much everyone made me laugh throughout production that I felt good about the comedy.
I think I became somewhat convinced over the course of the edit, though, that the tense, dramatic undercurrent and thriller elements felt a bit stilted or tacked on. I didn’t know if people would actually feel on edge or respond to that. But I guess what anchors those flourishes and makes them feel real is the fact that we spend enough time in Cary’s POV leading up to the game. You see the flashbacks to his golden days with Alma, you’re steeped in his paranoia of other people talking about him, and it leaves you wondering how far his vindictiveness could go. I tried to communicate that in my performance and I was very inspired by Blair Waldorf in Gossip Girl (lol). Cary’s bluntness is outwardly funny but you’re also taken aback by the concerning lack of self-awareness. You look into his eyes and you see the gears constantly turning in his head. So by the time you put a knife in his hand, it’s like… “if he’s already taken it this far, what’s stopping him from dialing it up another notch?”
Our goal was always to lean into the uncomfortable truth, and both sides of that coin.
After all of that detailed and rewarding character development and writing, how did the next stages flow?
As we moved toward prep, one helpful thing I did this time around as we closed in on locking the script was a table read/roundtable with some trusted friends over Zoom, which was immensely useful as far as better understanding pacing, getting a sense of which jokes landed better than others, etc. Once we felt good about where the script was in April/May 2021, we officially entered pre-production. I’ve known Sahil Kaur (who plays Alma) for years and always wanted her to play that part opposite me as Cary. I knew of Tyler Joseph Ellis and Shannon Sheridan (who play Dave and Quinn, respectively) through mutual friends at USC but had never formally met them. I sort of stalked them on TikTok/Instagram before reaching out through mutual friends. Thankfully, they really connected to the script, we had great initial conversations and they came onboard around the same time. Because the middle-end section of the film almost resembles a play in how the dialogue flows and goes on uninterrupted until after the climax, we treated it like a play and rehearsed extensively, sometimes over Zoom, sometimes in-person where we also had the space to come up with different jokes or better ideas for lines.
We finally shot the film at the end of July/beginning of August 2021, at the peak of the Delta variant wave in Los Angeles, at a beautiful house in Sherman Oaks (the valley) which is meant to stand in for Palm Springs. While the production logistics for a film like this (contained to one location, four actors) are fairly straightforward, we made the film for pocket change on a very tight schedule so there was a lot of preparation involved. Our DP, Luke Sargent, and I prepared a camera bible that had visual references for every single shot, along with floor plans of the house detailing the performer and camera blocking. We didn’t want the film to feel like a regular comedy short with shot-reverse-shot coverage, so the camera bible prep pushed us to be specific about finding ways to elevate our visual choices. We finally delivered the finished film in December 2021 after picture locking in mid-late October.
How did you feel through the whole process of the film fulfilling the multiple roles of director, writer and lead performer?
It was overwhelming but made possible by surrounding myself with people who I trust. I felt a lot of uncertainty throughout but I just kept pushing forward by leaning on those around me. When you’re acting in scenes and directing, you relinquish a degree of control by not being able to view the monitor or experience the performances from an arm’s length. So you find ways to make up for that, and one of those ways is calling on people around you to keep an eye on monitor and flag things for you or reassure you when things are working and it feels OK to move on. I prepared a lot with Luke, my DP, so we were really aligned on aesthetic, visual comedy, etc. and then my best friend was our 1st AC, so I knew that I’d have her eyes too. And Lottie (our producer), who was really crucial to the development process and understood the bigger picture we were trying to paint with tone and performance, watched camera rehearsals and had eyes on the monitor whenever she could.
This was my second time acting in a film of mine so there were elements of the workflow that I knew I wanted to improve upon from the last time I had done it. For example, this time we had a separate monitor set up so that by the time I had finished a take and walked over, playback would be ready for me to watch or scrub through if I had time. In my previous experience, we didn’t have that so I had to just take my DP’s word for it and move on, and that culminated in some tough realizations in the edit. To have that ability to occasionally check in and directly oversee what we were capturing was very reassuring and necessary.
When you’re acting in scenes and directing, you relinquish a degree of control by not being able to view the monitor or experience the performances from an arm’s length
Prep is obviously important to any project but I think it becomes all the more crucial when you’re going to be acting as well, so it underscored the importance of being very clear about visual references and rehearsing a lot ahead of time. Finally, I occasionally found it challenging to be present as an actor because you’re fighting the self-reflexive urge to direct yourself and analyze every choice you’re making in real time. That’s something I want to improve upon in the future but the rest of the cast helped and gave me advice on how to stay loose and recalibrate whenever I felt stuck.
Can you go into more detail about putting together your camera bible and its role within the production?
The camera bible is something that our DP, Luke Sargent, introduced me to. He uses it on every project he works on and it’s a fantastic organizational tool. We had a lot of exciting conversations early on about our intentions and visual references and Luke was like, “This is great. But we could be talking about how much we both love this one movie or shot as a reference point and our interpretation of it could still be wildly different.” So for him, the camera bible is born out of a desire to specify exactly what we’re talking about with images, diagrams, and notes so we’re on the same page when we arrive on set.
I basically shot-listed the entire film in a spreadsheet like I normally do, and then we’d turn every shot into a slide in the camera bible (which was just a Google Slides deck), where we’d have all the technical information like focal length, equipment info (tripod/Steadicam/dolly, etc.) listed at the top and a floor plan beneath it with color-coded icons representing each character and the camera, and arrows detailing how they move throughout the shot. And there would be header slides for each scene, where I would add reference stills that we wanted to emulate as far as composition, color palette, etc. with annotations detailing how those aspects supported the overall arc of the film. As mentioned above, we shared this with the cast as well and they really valued it, not only for blocking but to understand the visual language of the film. And again, my background is in theater so I’m always looking for ways to bolster my visual storytelling, so I’m really grateful to Luke for giving me such a clear and helpful tool to work with.
The film’s sound design and music choices are all done with real finesse – who did you work with on these?
Thank you! I am really particular about sound and music and I’m beyond grateful to have had Alex Bologna (our sound designer and mixer) and Katya Richardson (our composer) craft the soundscape for this film. Starting with sound design, Alex and I chatted about the cut as soon as we picture locked and I described my vision for transitions, different SFX to accentuate, opportunities for source music. He was also our production sound recordist so he knew what he was diving into. The flashback montage where Cary’s getting ready for the game was probably the most fun we had because there were so many layers to toy with, and we used a lot of reverb and panning to create a psychologically fraught soundscape. Beyond that, we did some very surgical line rewrites through ADR to tighten up the last third of the film, whether that be changing an entire line, truncating it, or messing with the delivery of a single word or two. Alex was always game to spend a long time listening to different takes, letting me rerecord the tiniest of details, and integrating those additions as seamlessly as possible.
It’s so easy for a traditional comedy score to sound broad and generic so the tonal balance felt a little unprecedented for us.
Around the same time, Katya and I dove into the score. I started by sharing a playlist with some reference tracks and we talked through the tonal balance we had to strike. This score was a bit of a tough one to crack for that reason, you’re trying to telegraph the thriller vibe from the outset but you still want it to feel a little playful and parodic because it’s a comedy! And it’s so easy for a traditional comedy score to sound broad and generic so the tonal balance felt a little unprecedented for us. That said, Katya did such a fantastic job at trying different things in the first pass of the score and giving such a breadth of options to see what worked against the picture.
That ended up being our initial approach. There were a couple tracks in the first pass that immediately rose to the top, but the opening cue with the strings as Cary cut up the name cards was so perfect and I knew I wanted the rest of the score to evoke that instrumentation and mood. Lottie and I knew from the time we got our assembly cut that score was going to be our clearest tool to convey the anxious, tense atmosphere, so we just used that opening cue as our north star and Katya continued bringing such incredible instincts to the table. I still remember the first time I heard that “DUN DUN!” when Cary begins confronting Alma, I was immediately obsessed because it is both scary and absurd and captured the essence of the entire film in one sound.
What will we see from you next?
I’m currently producing a horror comedy short with Lottie that shoots in a few months and I’m in the middle of rewriting my next short, which is also a horror-comedy. But I’m very fickle, so who knows? I’m always toying with other ideas. I definitely want to expand on TMSIDK and I’m in the middle of figuring out what that looks like.