Influencers and the power they hold is now very much considered mainstream with endorsements and brand partnerships vied over but surely it can’t all be real? Shihan Fé Blanca Fahim’s Influential is a restoring look behind the scenes of a revered influencer whose life, in reality, is nothing like the shiny perfection that comes through the screen. Shihan teamed up with writer and actor Melanie Field (Heathers | A League of Their Own), who also worked as a producer on the film, as they both felt inspired to create a project that dove into the much debated and often contentious issue of how much of our lives online is just for show. Influential takes us on a journey ranging from the outright laugh out loud, to cringeworthy relatable behaviours and a shocking, unexpected end which is so fitting for the themes explored within. As her dark comedy makes its way across the festival circuit, we speak to Shihan about the importance of expressing Influential’s subversive message through sharp-witted comedy, utilising her producing and ADing background to keep the production tight and how bringing together a crew of all female-identifying HODs allowed for the film’s authenticity to shine through.
Influential is brilliantly led by Melanie Field’s performance who also wrote the script, how did the two of you come to put this project together?
The idea for the film came about after a few glasses of wine one night last year and a discussion on Instagram vs. reality. We both have had our individual struggles with comparison, especially as it relates to comparison within our industry while also recognizing that the image we curate online is just that, curation and not at all real or raw. Melanie put pen to script and we toyed around with the idea of shooting it. We have worked together in the past and the year prior made a no budget music video for a song she wrote on body image and had a blast working together! I come from a producing background and Melanie has started to produce alongside acting so we were confident we could pull this off with the right group of people, knowing the micro-budget would be a challenge.
At the beginning of this year, we both found ourselves in a rut career wise and with an itch to work on something for ourselves and release creative expression and decided to revisit the script with the intention of shooting. We crowdfunded and reached out to a few previous collaborators and within two months found ourselves with a shoot date and an incredible team of all female heads of departments and crew. Our DoP Seannie Bryan was fresh off of her first feature and was able to secure us an Alexa Mini from her go to rental house. We shot the entire thing in two days and two locations, aided by friends who came to support and be extras and even lent us a clothing store making for an efficient and joyfully collaborative shoot.
Having dissected the character and tone together in the writing process when it came time to shoot day she had her role down to a tee which made it so that we had a lot of room to play.
How was the process working with Melanie with you behind the camera and her both in front it and taking a very active role in the production side of things?
We make a great team, we initially met on a production in Savannah, I was a producer and she was one of the lead actors. I remember noticing even then that she was a natural born producer and we became fast friends. We had laid the groundwork for Influential and earlier this year after I shot a short film in Paris I got a bit of a high from that experience and decided to check back in on it and Melanie was so on board. It was sort of divine timing, she too was itching to creatively produce her own material so we looked at a calendar together, set an ideal date and went right to work targeting that date. We worked on the script while simultaneously starting pre-production and spent hours and hours on the phone talking through creative and production until we had a solid team in place and those ideal dates solidified.
I think we are both very determined people so once we made the decision to go for it, it was real. I also think the reason we work so well together is the mixture of friendship and genuine respect for one another’s work methods and creative opinions. We also share a sense of efficiency and drive to find solutions. When it comes to directing Melanie, it’s an absolute privilege! She is so talented and clever. And of course, having dissected the character and tone together in the writing process when it came time to shoot day she had her role down to a tee which made it so that we had a lot of room to play. It’s so often in directing Melanie that I’ll have a thought or note and she’ll have it at the same time, so we just finish each other’s sentences on set. It’s just a very symbiotic partnership.
You have built an exaggerated but also scarily accurate array of characters alongside our influencer. Can you tell us about their places in the script?
I think the goal was to make everyone feel relatable to some degree, we have all gone through some sort of transformation and influence from social media and just so much content consumption all day long. One of the main goals Mel and I talked extensively about was what we wanted to achieve with this project and how she would approach that in her writing. We both have a background in comedy and appreciate when a comedy can be both laugh out loud funny and have a meaningful message especially when it’s somewhat subversive.
We have all gone through some sort of transformation and influence from social media and just so much content consumption all day long.
We talked about the outlandishness of the characters and the circumstances as a means to create a critical distance between the viewer and the characters so that they could laugh, form opinions, maybe even judgments, but ultimately be forced to see themselves reflected in these flawed people. It’s kind of like everyone, including the influencer, is a slightly unhinged product of this online versus real life world we live in and serves to pull the curtain back on our views. Everyone is a bit of a victim and a bit of the problem and also just doing their best to navigate a digital society ya know?
I am incredibly impressed with the quick turnaround from deciding to make Influential and shooting within two months. How was the crowdfunding process and what do you think you can attribute your success to?
Crowdfunding can be tough, who wants to ask for funds? But we made sure to really lay out the ethos of the project, our collaborators and our goals, and our people came through! I think the more you talk about an indie project within your network and ask for advice or recommendations the right people will come forward to help. So many of our contributors or people who came on board as collaborators were connected to myself or to Melanie through a previous job or mutual friends.
We’ve observed various crowdfunding initiatives from friends and colleagues, which typically follow one of two patterns: either receiving large investments from a select few or, as in our case, garnering numerous smaller donations. Most of our contributions ranged between $15 and $30 and came from individuals familiar with our work who genuinely believe in us. Although we didn’t meet our entire fundraising target, the overwhelming support made us feel cherished. We also had great producers who pulled together resources to make it happen, including lending us a clothing store to shoot off business hours to shoot in. And of course, our crew knew the limitations of our budget and really found creative ways to work around it.
It is so vital to talk about female led productions, why was this important to you and what do you think it brought to the whole process?
Oh man I can write an essay on this but to keep it simple, as a female director working with women in production makes for a comfortable and trusting environment. There is still a pretty insane disparity in this industry and any chance I have to amend that, I will take gladly. And in particular for Influential our hero characters are played by two women so when bringing on our costumer, art department, and any other key creatives we wanted to bring as much authentic perspective to the story as possible which made it so that the conversations during prep were fluid and easy to navigate because on a fundamental level we all get where each other are coming from.
How did you plan your shoot in order to get everything done in two days?
I have a pretty strong background in producing and AD-ing half hour comedy series on tight timelines so I knew we could pull it off with the right prep. We had a script that mostly lent itself to a two day shoot but when narrowing down our schedule we cut down on a few ancillary characters so that we could allocate our time properly to things like grabbing the speciality content shots or using a oner to cover a scene with mostly dialogue.
There is still a pretty insane disparity in this industry and any chance I have to amend that, I will take gladly.
Of course scouting was key, my DP and I shot-listed at the cafe we ended up shooting in so we could really just get a lay of the land ahead of time and block things appropriately. We also had a pretty wild scene at a crosswalk in between traffic lights so we timed it ahead of the shoot day to make sure we knew what we were in for. And in deciding locations we made sure to find a house that we could dress in such a way to serve as two different locations (so two different bedrooms and bathrooms) which let us split things quite evenly into two days and actually had us dressing one area while shooting in another and vice versa.
I love the sharp juxtaposition of reality and what is seen online, how was this planned to hit those different tones just right?
I really wanted the content world to present as it would to the viewer watching it which is carefully polished and intentional. I watched an embarrassing amount of lifestyle TikToks and in sitting down with my amazing DP Seannie the idea of light cues to kind of mimic what a filter might do and provide a stark contrast to the ‘real world’ came about. It was important for that first moment we cut out of content to be a surprise to the viewer so lighting was key. We also used dolly zooms and speciality shots for those moments to feel the difference in coverage and sent each other references back and forth.
It was important for that first moment we cut out of content to be a surprise to the viewer so lighting was key.
It’s really interesting to see how different directors approach social media in their work. For me it’s my favorite part of the script visually so I let myself get a little stylized and exaggerated with it, making the real world a little darker than we would have otherwise. It was quite the puzzle piece on the day, shooting it in both ways to give us room in the edit, but we had fun! We also made sure to use music cues and slight sound effects in post to highlight the difference in tones and kind of get that rug being pulled out from under you effect.
What was your post-production and editing process like after such an efficient two day shoot?
Just as smooth! This is the second short film with my editor Shannon C. Griffin so we have a good thing going. We edit from her apartment where she has the world’s most comfortable couch and we’ll try different things out for hours, it’s really fun. We made sure to lay in temporary music and sound effects to help streamline that process and actually locked the picture in four cuts! We knew we wanted to finish in time to submit to certain festivals so between the two of us and Melanie we locked in a great sound mixer named Alex Gluch and composer (musician Henry Hall) while still editing and gave ourselves a deadline of just a little under two months. Our DP Seannie did us the massive favor of also coloring the short film which was a huge help for time and budget.
Have you continued to direct after this and what are you working on now?
I am developing a few personal projects and am in the process of securing funds for my next short film titled Don’t Ever Leave Me, written by my talented friend Genevieve Aniello (Hacks – HBO). It’s a surreal comedy with an insane twist which is probably my thing. That will hopefully shoot this year. I am also interested in delving into television directing. It’s not an easy path but directing is my favorite way to use my brain and I feel really fulfilled by the process. I hope I can make it a forever thing.