When I caught The Möbius Trip at Glasgow Short Film Festival in March, I was instantly struck by the way it took anxieties surrounding a relatable scenario – a family going on a long car journey – and pushed them into a truly nightmarish scenario. Audiences seemed to agree, with Simone Smith’s film winning a Jury Special Mention award. Using claustrophobic framing, overlapping often foul dialogue and experimenting with hallucinogenic imagery, it expertly depicts a bickering Scottish family trying in vain to find a wedding in the middle of nowhere; striking a chord with anyone who has spent more time than they would wish to with their immediate family. Smith joins us below for a conversation in which we dig into how being with family can bring out your inner madness, shooting almost entirely within the confines of the car, and finding the film’s more visually outré tone in the process of post-production.
The Möbius Trip starts with a very relatable scenario: an endless car journey with your family to the depths of nowhere. It is already a nightmare before anything even happens. Was this something that you experienced? Why did you think this was ripe for a trippy interpretation?
I’ve experienced some intense car journeys, but this specific car journey is not something I’ve experienced literally, luckily! But for years, I wanted to make a short film about a family taking a road trip. A seemingly ordinary trip to a wedding party, but instead of reaching their destination, they find themselves stuck together in a kind of dream space psychological hell zone.
When I started constructing characters and story details, everything became a metaphor for that greater contradicting idea. The endless cycle of comfortable dysfunction.
When I started to write the script, the pandemic hit and I’d just had a baby. New motherhood and being in that solitary space gave me the freedom to play and imagine. There was this joy and euphoria, yet paradoxically, life felt chaotic and primal. So the ideas flowed from a creative subconscious place. Old memories, darker reflections and observations. Not just in relation to me but around the people closest to me. It was like I was drawing from a place of pain and madness, and the idea of confining that madness inside a vehicle and alongside your own flesh and blood really compelled me. And so, in honouring what inspires me creatively and where I was emotionally, I wanted to express the film, not in a straight-cut linear way, but on a more psychological, experiential level.
I always think of family as a strange unit with its own internal logic. How much did you think about the interplay of each character and how they relate to the whole?
A family unit with its own internal logic, yes that’s so true. I think the family unit also represents home. One we’re stuck with, for better or worse. No matter how much I think I have grown in my unique separate life, the moment I’m with family and an old trigger hits, it doesn’t take long for old patterns to emerge and all hell to break loose. And yet there’s this natural comfort too. When I started constructing characters and story details, everything became a metaphor for that greater contradicting idea. The endless cycle of comfortable dysfunction.
I imagined each character living in their own little toxic world with their own self-destructive habits in which they take comfort but paradoxically want to escape. The mother for example – played by Fiona O’Shaughnessy – notices her husband’s drunk driving, but obsesses over her pair of ripped tights. She takes comfort in a blanket, and this blanket gets grabbed at by her daughter, mirroring that need for comfort yet also showing a desperate need for attention. Later, when the mother dances with the blanket, a symbol that once brought comfort now represents freedom as she breaks free from confinement. However, the same symbol of freedom also takes on a threatening quality.
The ideas flowed from a creative subconscious place. Old memories, darker reflections and observations.
I wanted the characters and actors to embody contradictory emotions and ideas associated with the perplexity of feeling trapped, not only inside a family unit and the confines of a car, but inside anything that feels toxic or suffocating, and even inside the mind itself. The characters, and the whole world’s mood and atmosphere, needed to feel complex in texture and detail because I wanted to get inside these darker complex layers about the strangeness of the people we love and their toxicity. The ones who comfort us, yet also cause us pain and confusion. And we are left to cope with all that messy stuff without any means of escape. In this family’s case: just trying to drive to a wedding.
What was it like trying to cast the family? What did you do to make them work together so well? Were there rehearsals or did they spend a lot of time together?
My dream was to cast an ensemble of actors who would look and behave like a real family, all with distinctive faces and natural charisma. The first priority was to cast the mother who would set the personality tone for the whole family. I saw a headshot of Fiona O’Shaughnessy on a casting sheet and felt totally drawn to her. I researched her online and watched her do a red-carpet interview. Seeing who she was in real life in that off-the-cuff interview was great because I saw this vulnerability and unpredictable edginess. Then I watched her acting in Utopia and saw her utter fearlessness. I loved her instantly. Then everyone else magically fell into place.
The daughter Ivy was played by Mirren Mack. She was like a little mini Fiona, a fearless electric force. Then when watching Stephen McMillan’s audition tape, I saw this depth and emotional intelligence in his eyes that made him perfect for the role of the son, Jacob. He and Mirren even resembled Fiona, which felt like it was all meant to be! Finally, Andrew Flanagan (Tommy Flanagan’s wee brother) had a Glaswegian cool toughness that made him an exciting fit for Clint, the father of the family.
With their total commitment and enthusiasm, I felt this electric chemistry emerge, and they became the Möbius family.
Before filming, I gathered the cast for improvisational play, emphasising the importance of creating a genuine family dynamic on and off the screen. I said they could feel and do whatever they wanted and allowed them to deviate from the script at any time. With their total commitment, and enthusiasm, I felt this electric chemistry emerge, and they became the Möbius family. It was a beautiful thing to watch. Their love and respect for one another was undeniable, and having the freedom to be themselves with each other allowed for authentic and wild performances that exceeded every expectation. I had an utterly amazing experience working with these actors. It was the most magical aspect of the filmmaking process for me.
I’m very interested in the relationship between the screenplay and the final product. The dialogue overlaps and there’s a lot of chaos and confusion. Was this something that you had written into the film?
Some of these ideas were written into the film but many new ideas emerged during production and during the edit. I also edited the film myself and knew in advance that this would be the most challenging phase because I love editing and experimentation. I knew this process would always take me into the wild. This can be unnerving, but definitely exciting because this is where I really feel the life of the film. This is where it speaks to me. I think working spontaneously and instinctively, whilst honouring limitations, really allows your truth to emerge and creates a kind of limitless potential.
Considering how claustrophobic the feeling is, I’m extremely curious how you actually filmed within the car. Was it difficult logistically?
Yes, to start with, it was a logistical nightmare. I’d never set a film in a car before and also didn’t go to film school so had zero car-scene knowledge. I had also been told years ago never to work with animals or children, or set films in cars, but since I’d already worked with children and animals, the car challenge needed to get checked off the list! My plan, as always, was to rely on good research, good problem-solving skills, and keep blind faith that somehow it would all work out. Breaking down the technical process of filming in a car – my research started off relatively simple. I Googled, “How to set a film in a car – DIY” and got some excellent tips and advice.
Then once I got DOP Nick Cooke on board, we opted to use both a studio with a projection wall, and real-life filming in a car on a road. We did two days in-studio and two days on the road. Prior to this, we also rigged the camera to Nick’s car and we spent an additional day and night driving up and down the Fenwick Moors capturing road footage from all angles, front, rear and side, which we would use as projection footage for the in-studio days. We even worked with the local council and a traffic management company to block off a road, and also used a drone for the first time! It all seemed quite insurmountable but when making a film I live for these kinds of problems and so miraculously we pulled it off – and all during Covid restrictions!
Was it shot on film? The type of colouring and grain really help to immerse us in this world and tease the possibility of future trippiness to come. Tell me about how you thought about the type of camera you would use and if there was any colouring in post.
We decided on the Alexa and maintained a claustrophobic 4:3 frame. In the colour grade, we applied a minimal colour palette, and then VFX added grain. These decisions took careful consideration and thought, but every decision was always based on the bigger ideas of the film. So for the world to feel immersive, it went far beyond the choice of the camera and colouring in the grade. I worked very closely with every film department from the very early stages so we collectively shared the same vision and intention.
I Googled “How to set a film in a car – DIY” and got some excellent tips and advice.
From camera, production design, car, props, sound, costume, hair and make-up – every detail had to evoke the right kind of energy and emotion, so every department’s creativity and craft was essential in bringing that energy to life. And it was great as everyone was really on-board and brilliant. From the colour and age of the car to the colour palette and textures of the props and costumes – everyone deeply considered how each element would enhance that timeless, surreal, damp retro-influenced atmosphere.
The hallucinations and alternate realities that eventually take over the film are very impressive, with overlays, changing colours, special effects and backward dialogue. I’d love to know how you approached these sequences and the tools you used to achieve them.
I love experimenting and feel the post-production stage is a bit like working with actors. It’s similar in the sense that the process is exciting and uncertain, and you can only work with what’s directly in front of you, and try to make adjustments that align with the bigger idea. Describing the intricacies of the way I edit is not easy because so much is created through trial and error. Although I have a clear vision of what I want, I like to stay flexible as I see everything as constantly in flux. And whilst it’s great to have large volumes of incredible footage, it also means countless directions to take a story. This was the most challenging phase for me – establishing the structure and psychological framework – but once done, I enjoyed experimenting with the mood and atmosphere. I felt so grateful for every moment captured, all of it allowing me to play in this wilderness space and get hands-on with the footage, throw away convention and go a bit crazy.
Working spontaneously and instinctively, whilst honouring limitations, really allows your truth to emerge and creates a kind of limitless potential.
What was the reaction like at Glasgow Short Film Festival? I saw it won Jury Special Mention!
I’d been working on the film for about two years and for a large chunk of that time I was working from home in the edit. I felt pretty alone with the film at times, and many times felt the need to completely escape from it, so when all the final components eventually came together it was beautiful to get that recognition and see how positive people responded to it.
Finally, what are you working on next?
I’m working on my first feature film It’s Too Late You Can’t Save Me – a biblical psycho-spiritual mystery that follows a young mother trying to save herself and her child in a dystopian world. The project is being produced by Leonora Darby from Tea Shop Films and has received development support from Screen Scotland and BFI Network through Short Circuit’s first feature strand.
Besides my creative work, I’m a full-time parent and yoga practitioner and will soon start teaching yoga lessons. It can be challenging to balance everything, but I’m finding that each aspect of my life inspires the other beautifully.
The Möbius Trip will next screen on May 30th at Shorts on Tap in London as part of Women in Revolt, a showcase of films made by female filmmakers worldwide. It’s also been officially selected to screen at the Chicago Underground Film Festival, the longest-running underground film festival in the world.