Set in a tired and, for all intents and purposes, bleak motel Garrett Detrixhe’s The Girl at the Motor Hotel follows a young woman dealing with what appears to be the biggest decision of her life. Yet under the surface, the other choice she has made pierces her everyday life with painful realities and hot flash reminders of what she has been through. It’s a desperately precarious existence which is only amplified by the selfish acts of those who surround her. Choice lies at the very heart of Detrixhe’s short which he was always inspired to delve into from an individual rather than political level, something which particularly resonates following the deeply disturbing overturning of Roe v. Wade in the US. The Girl at the Motor Hotel shines a pinpointed light on the gravity and privilege inherent in such a ruling. Ahead of the film’s premiere on DN today we spoke to Detrixhe about the concept of choice which inspired the film, his instinctive method of shooting on set as well as employing a slower pace to fully express the turmoil of his isolated protagonist.
Your subject matter has been at the very heart of a lot of debate at the moment, what about abortion rights drew you to create the film?
The first draft of the script was written in October of 2019 which was a few months after Georgia House Bill 481 (known locally as The Heartbeat Bill) which banned abortions after 6 weeks of pregnancy. It got me thinking about the concept of ‘choice’ and what it looks like for different types of people to make certain choices and ultimately who bears the burden of the results coming from those choices. It all swirled together and formed the story you see in the final film. Most of my ideas begin with the setting. I like telling stories set in rural areas and I’ve always been interested in these types of 50s-era motor hotels, so I knew I wanted to tell a story in that world.
My goal was to try to bring it down to the individual level and explore the topic through a more humanist approach by anchoring it to Sherri’s personal experience dealing with the situation.
The two things we had to get right were ‘the girl’ and ‘the motor hotel’. I had seen Tatiana Harman in Ben Kalam’s film Washed Away and then found out that she was local to Atlanta, so I asked her to meet for coffee. I pitched her the idea and then sent her the script, and luckily she said yes. She was basically my only choice for the part, so I’m not sure what would have happened had she said no!
I spent four months of lockdown sitting in my basement looking on Google Maps to find the right motel to shoot in. Unfortunately, the style of motel I wanted doesn’t really exist anywhere around Atlanta so we had to start looking further north in North Carolina. We settled on a motel called The Rosewood Inn in Bryson City, North Carolina, which added a ton of challenges since it was three hours from Atlanta. But we ultimately had an amazing experience shooting there, and now I can’t see the film being shot anywhere else. My wife, Inés Michelena, edited the film so we had a great creative experience getting to work together and made the film in our house.
There has been such upheaval in abortion rights since you wrote the initial script, do you think you would have done anything differently if you were writing the script now?
Creatively, yes, there are always things you want to go back and change, but I wouldn’t add anything from a political standpoint. The film is inherently political given its subject matter, but my goal was to try to bring it down to the individual level and explore the topic through a more humanist approach by anchoring it to Sherri’s personal experience dealing with the situation. Sherri and Rich’s circumstances are similar in a lot of ways, but I always saw it as Sherri’s story that we were telling with Rich being someone who happened to come in and impact her. I was fascinated by the idea of these two lost souls out at the pool looking for connection but the way they are going about handling their lives is just too different for them to connect. Sherri is dealing with a heavy burden but knows that it’s temporary and is still striving for something greater. Rich sees himself as the victim and dodges his responsibility when he finds the right opportunity.
The film is inherently political given its subject matter, but my goal was to try to bring it down to the individual level.
I like to work organically with the actors, the DP, and the location to figure out the blocking and angles so I don’t tend to storyboard. I had a few shots in my head for certain beats but we had to figure out ways of staging them that made sense. The dolly back to reveal Rich by the pool was an example of that.
18 minutes could be considered on the long side for a short with such a slow start leading up to the cumulative moment. How did you set the pace in order to bind the audience to the screen?
The script was 17 pages so I knew from the outset that it would be longer than normal short films. I definitely worried about the length making it more difficult to program at festivals, so we cut a 15 minute version but it just didn’t feel right. I wanted to have a slower, more measured pace that matched the melancholic setting of the motel and to show the drudgery of Sherri’s experience. Ultimately, I had to just make the film that felt right to me so we decided to stick with the 18 minute runtime. We knew we ran the risk of losing some viewers with a slower pace but I love films that reward you for being patient and lay out new information without holding your hand. My secret weapon at the end of the day was Tatiana. Her performance makes you lean in and want to keep watching.
I wanted the setting to come across as isolating and melancholic, but not lean into any kind of stereotypes about rural America by calling attention to the older, more rundown look of the place.
Totally agree, Tatiana Harman’s performance enriches the film from start to finish. How did you two work together in rehearsals and really bring her character to life?
Because of the pandemic, a lot of time passed between our initial meeting and when we shot, so we had a lot of opportunities to discuss the project. We didn’t do any typical rehearsals or anything, but rather just had long conversations to make sure we were on the same page. I had my ideas about who Sherri was and how I wanted her to come across in the film, but all the credit goes to Tatiana for really bringing her to life. She told me after the film was done that she did a lot of her own research about post-abortion care and had some heavy conversations with friends that had abortions in order to be fully prepared. She really put in the work and I think it comes through in the film.
The Girl at the Motor Hotel’s outward appearance is dark and fairly grim (thanks in large part to the setting) whilst remaining highly polished, how did you work to set that visual tone?
Once we found the right motel to shoot in, we were mostly just trying to highlight and work with what was already there. We shot on an Alexa Mini LF that was donated by a DP friend, and the film’s DP supplied all of the needed lighting and grip gear. We shot for three days in the motel and basically had full access to whatever we needed. On the day, it was a constant conversation between my DP, Stephen Grum, and my Production Designer, Michelle Fogle, on how we wanted to dress and shoot the location. We were aiming for authenticity as much as possible. I wanted the setting to come across as isolating and melancholic, but not lean into any kind of stereotypes about rural America by calling attention to the older, more rundown look of the place. Stephen is incredibly gifted when it comes to lighting and really understood what the right tone needed to be for each scene. He wasn’t afraid to use shadow and contrast to explore the loneliness that Sherri was feeling. We worked with colorist Arianna Shining Star and she clicked right into what we were going for.
What are you working on next?
I’m currently prepping another short film called Encore about a queer musician in the rural south who lives in his car. I’m also developing two scripts with the hope that one of them will become my debut feature. One is called Salvage and is set in my home state of Oklahoma; exploring themes of masculinity, family, and community in rural America. The other is more of a mumblecore / Cassavetes inspired film about a millennial couple struggling to balance ambition and comfort.