Shot within the world-famous location of The Comedy Store and drawing on her comedy and stand-up background, filmmaker April Moreau’s short film dramedy Hysterical portrays a comedian’s experiences on and off stage in the wake of a recent traumatic event. Sparked by a desire shared with co-writer Emily Hanley, who also stars, to redress the lack of stories presented on screen about the difficult journey towards healing taken by those who experience sexual assault, the 15 minute film intelligently highlights the blistering anger, panic and avoidance behaviours of its protagonist as she navigates her emotional turmoil. Ahead of Hysterical premiere on the pages of DN today, Moreau joined us to speak about the support offered by the American Film Institute’s Directing Workshop for Women, using cleverly planned sound design to re-create the atmosphere of a crowded room and how she was able to convincingly convey the internal state of her brash stand-up comedian.
The authenticity of Hysterical is so refreshing, what made you decide to write a script talking about sexual assault around comedy?
We wanted to tell an unsensationalized story about the aftermath of sexual assault. We felt that there was a void of on-screen depictions of this subject that aligned with the reality of the experience, a reality that is often disorienting and leaves survivors unsure of how to proceed with their life. We ultimately hoped to present a story that would leave audiences with a feeling of hope, knowing that there is no ‘right way’ to heal. And even in the darkest moments of life, there is light to be found.
My writing partner, Emily Hanley, and I had discussed the idea of writing about sexual assault for years, but we were terrified of actually doing it. Emily and I both have a background in comedy, improv, sketch, and stand-up. Our early work together was firmly comedic in tone. We knew that writing about something as serious as sexual assault would require a pivot toward dramedy, which was a bit intimidating. I think we eventually reached a point where we had both grown up enough as artists and as people and we finally just felt ready to tackle it. And, while it’s true that sexual harassment and assault have been a huge problem in the stand-up comedy community, we didn’t set out to make a statement about that. We just set this story in the stand-up world because that’s the world we know.
We knew that writing about something as serious as sexual assault would require a pivot toward dramedy, which was a bit intimidating.
We were very fortunate to make this film with the support of AFI DWW+ (American Film Institute’s Directing Workshop for Women). This support was crucial in helping us weather the challenge of shooting during the throes of COVID. The pandemic began while we were in pre-production. Our entire production process was shaped by the necessity to adapt to the subsequent constraints. In many ways, this forced us to get creative and make more interesting choices than I think we would have in ordinary times. Additionally, shooting during COVID presented us with one exceptional silver lining: access to our dream location, The Comedy Store, a legendary stand-up venue in Los Angeles. Emily and I had both performed stand-up at The Comedy Store over the years, so getting the chance to shoot our film in that hallowed space was a very special ‘full-circle’ moment for both of us.
Emily Hanley is so superb, her background in comedy just solidifies the authenticity. What was the rest of your casting process like to find the right people to tell this story?
Thank you! I agree – Emily killed it. We wrote Hysterical together and we always knew that Emily would play Bridget. When it came time to find the rest of our actors, we were lucky enough to partner with our good friend, casting director Katie Lantz, who was a huge asset in helping us build out the rest of the cast. Additionally, several of the actors are longtime friends of ours from Groundlings, Upright Citizens Brigade, and our acting program at the University of Michigan.
The act of trying to conceal this internal experience can induce intense, visceral panic, which is what I wanted to convey on screen.
The scene where Bridget is sitting around riffing with the other comedians is so enthralling. Can you talk more about how you found that balance of comedy while also focussing on Bridget’s tumultuous internal emotions?
Thank you. This is my favorite scene in the film and it was also the most intimidating to execute. On the one hand, you have a room full of comedians, many of whom have their own past experiences with sexual assault, laughing and pitching jokes. On the other hand, you have Bridget who, unbeknownst to her friends, is just days out from going through this trauma herself. This clash between Bridget’s internal experience and the experience of those around her is a thing that I think is very common, post-trauma. So often, survivors of trauma, and especially of sexual assault, keep their story to themselves, especially in the early days, while the world around them proceeds as normal. The act of trying to conceal this internal experience can induce intense, visceral panic, which is what I wanted to convey on screen. As this stress sets in, we begin to live almost entirely in Bridget’s POV, experiencing the onset of a panic attack – pulse quickening, ears ringing, tunnel vision, etc.
The film’s ending is uplifting but still tough to consider. How did you plan how to deliver the right note at the end of the film and not diminish the trauma Bridget is dealing with?
In the script phase, we firmly held the belief that Bridget should not appear to be ‘all better’ in the end. Recovery looks different for each person, but for some, it can be a lifelong process. We’re catching Bridget at the very beginning of this journey, just as she thinks, “OK, I think I can do this.” From a technical standpoint, translating that feeling to the screen required heavy lifting on the parts of Emily Hanley, who plays Bridget, and Tom McLaughlin, who composed our final song. I think Emily’s brilliant performance and Tom’s composition work hand-in-hand to convey that subtle feeling of hope that we wanted to leave people with.
Your cinematography is sharp and bright in the club despite telling a very dark story. What was the idea behind that visual approach?
Comedy shows almost always take place at night, indoors, and under artificial light. Standing on stage, under those bright lights can often feel disorienting, even in normal times, let alone when life has thrown a disorienting event your way. So it was important to me that we lived in Bridget’s experience – feeling the overwhelming effect of those stage lights in our eyes. Our Cinematographer, Andi Obarski, expertly delivered that vision, drawing on her experience shooting live comedy shows.
We had to get very creative, conveying the idea of a giant crowd primarily through sound design.
How long were you shooting for at The Comedy Store and how did you capture those daunting but powerful onstage shots with a crowd?
We spent three of our five shoot days at The Comedy Store. It was our dream location and one that we never thought we would actually obtain. Emily and I had both performed stand-up there over the years and, as we wrote the script, it was the only venue we imagined – from the stages, to the bar, to the green room. When COVID hit, The Comedy Store, like all venues, went dark. While they were void of shows, management graciously allowed us to shoot there. It was a real ‘pinch me’ moment. However, due to COVID safety requirements, we were not allowed to have a crowd full of background actors. When you see bodies in the space, those are the bodies of our crew, who were kind enough to sit in so that we could allude to people being there. Ultimately, we had to get very creative, conveying the idea of a giant crowd primarily through sound design.
Hysterical is an impressive female story made by a female-centric team, how did working with the AFI DWW+ help shape the project?
My AFI DWW+ mentors, along with the other seven directors in my cohort, comprised an incredible support system. They all helped shape this project, from script to screen, whether that meant reading drafts and giving notes, helping connect me with members of my production team, or just being there for emotional support. Having such a talented group of female and non-binary creatives in my corner was invaluable. I can’t imagine having made this film without their support in ordinary times, let alone in the thick of COVID.
What are you working on next?
I’m currently writing a pilot about grief. Hysterical is dedicated to my dad, Gene Moreau, who was diagnosed with cancer while I was in pre-production on the film and died five months later, while we were in post. He was the biggest champion of my work and I miss him terribly. Having tackled the difficult subject of sexual assault through comedy, I feel empowered to approach grief from a similar angle. I’ve found that the darkest moments in my life have often been charged with a special type of humor. I’m kind of obsessed with exploring that right now. Whether it’s Hysterical or future projects, my hope is that someone sees my work right when they need it and that it helps them feel a little less alone in their experience. And hopefully makes them laugh a bit too.