Director Samm Hodges short drama Tender explores the continued generational passing on of male violence. It concerns the life of a young man named Damon, played in a breakout performance by Alexander Hubble, who continuously finds himself in a whirlwind of familial chaos. In order to convey the sheer intensity of Damon’s world Hodges employs a one-shot strategy or at least a seemingly one-shot strategy. Through a combination of clever camerawork and subtle edits, Hodges is able to craft a smooth flow, keeping the audience inside the visceral emotionality that is achieved in a typical oner. Fresh from its world premiere at Sundance Film Festival, DN caught up with Hodges to talk over the personal genesis of his film, the process of casting lead Actor Alexander Hubble, and the challenge of balancing a polished edit with vibrant, spontaneous, and unconstrained performances.
I read that Tender is a quite a personal project for you. When you were developing the idea for it, what was the goal you set out for yourself?
For this project, my main goal is to ask questions rather than give answers and at the center of that is something very, very simple: what is a kid like this supposed to do? What do we expect from him?
What spurred the single take-like format? To immerse us within Damon’s world as quickly as possible?
To build as much of Damon’s crisis as possible into a fairly short film, I wanted to both communicate the chaos of his world and how trapped he feels. Keeping a ‘single’ take for as long as possible during incredibly difficult scenes makes the audience trapped with him. He doesn’t get to cut ahead so neither do we. Kyle Deitz, our cinematographer, and I leaned into a handheld feel and carefully rehearsed blocking, while still allowing spontaneity in the performance. The actors are incredible in this, and I firmly believe that our job on set as a crew is to accommodate the emotionally vulnerable work the actors are doing.
I wanted to both communicate the chaos of his world and how trapped he feels.
We had marks, but on the best takes, sometimes marks were completely blown. No two takes were ever exactly the same, which made splicing takes challenging, but I always chose performance over perfectly hidden cuts. Some of the times we cut are pretty simple to spot, but others are pretty much invisible, there are 42 edits in the eleven minute ‘oner’.
Who were the collaborators you worked with to pull this off and what would you say they brought to the fold?
Huge credit to Kyle for lighting a 360 world in a way that feels both cinematic and natural. He also operated, handheld, for two days straight. Insane! I also want to highlight the work of our Costume Designer Jillian Rose Keenist and Production Designer Courtney Evans Powell. Jillian is a longtime collaborator who knows me better than I know myself sometimes. I would never have thought to bring a Miley Cyrus shirt for JD, but I loved the complexity and contradiction it brings to the character. This was my first time working with Courtney and we had a very limited budget, but she completely redressed a very ‘authentic’ location. I’m from this world and when I walked in, I felt at home in the worst and best ways.
Could you talk about casting Alexander Hubble? What was it about him that made you think he’d be perfect for Damon?
It was actually a long process to find the right lead for this. It’s a film that relies on an actor carrying big emotional shifts in a single take, oftentimes without dialogue. It’s also a role written for someone with a body type widely denigrated by Hollywood. Despite widely publicised body positivity movements, when you go to actually find a fat actor to play the role of a fat character, it’s surprisingly difficult. Fat kids get told they can’t be leads, they get told to lose weight, they get pushed to the side. It’s a problem.
I firmly believe that our job on set as a crew is to accommodate the emotionally vulnerable work the actors are doing.
In the end, we went intensely local, mining personal connections. One of our Producers John Magaro, also an incredible actor from First Cow, The Umbrella Academy and Past Lives, knew a talent coach in Pittsburgh, near where we were shooting. When he reached out, she asked if Alex might be a good fit. He auditioned and we were blown away. Daina Griffith, that acting coach and amazing actress, ended up playing the cashier in the short.
Now that this project which was so personal has been realised and shown in front of audiences, how are you feeling about it?
It’s a difficult watch, it’s not going to be for everyone, but I’m deeply proud of what this team accomplished. Everyone leaned in, and I think that shows.
How did you go about visually realising that visceral final sequence?
For the end sequence, much of that is fully CG, using a combination of Houdini, C4D (octane) and lots of character pipeline tools. I leaned on Justin Nixon and Luke Ewing as much as I could but ended up spending way too long building and rendering those scenes.
Oh, also, the kid who plays ‘young JD’ at the end is my son Pax. Thematically, the main thing I’m exploring here is generational masculine rage. What did my dad give me, what did his dad give him, what am I passing on to my son? Having Pax in the film made an already personal film even closer to my heart.
You mentioned earlier about balancing the spontaneity of your actors’ performances with your handheld camerawork, how much room was there for improvisation around the blocking required? Are you a fan of encouraging your actors to play inside scenes or certain lines of dialogue?
I’m a big fan of allowing actors to do whatever it takes to make the scene feel real. I feel like any actually confident writer isn’t focused on word-for-word accuracy. The goal is immersion. So, with both blocking and dialogue, I’m very open to changes, but I try to structure that improvisational process in a way that is productive for the whole crew.
Thematically, the main thing I’m exploring here is generational masculine rage. What did my dad give me, what did his dad give him, what am I passing on to my son.
What I like to do is start with a standing read of the script, and talk through any lines that we want to adjust there. Lock that in, then move on to blocking. I’ll pitch what I’m thinking in general, allow the actors to fuck with it, then we’ll do some half-speed walk throughs. Once that feels natural, we’ll bring camera in and make sure everything is working, and let the DP and actors dialogue a bit to make sure everyone’s on the same page. From that point on though, we really try to hit our marks. That way, everyone gets to adjust things in a way that helps them thrive, but we don’t lose our day either. In this case, 95% of the dialogue is pretty much word for word as written, but that last 5% really matters to me, and to the actors too.
And lastly, what will you be working on next?
I’m pitching a couple of TV series right now, one of them in the UK with Gemma Whelan and one in the US with David Duchovny. It’s a weird time for TV, but I’m really hopeful we get to make those series as they’re both very close to my heart. I’m also putting together my first feature, set in the same world as Tender but not really an extension of the short directly. More details soon on that hopefully.