As filmmaker Sergii Shevtsov found himself displaced from his homeland and life in Kyiv, a list of introspective and rhetorical questions which had been sitting on his phone took form to become the fanciful poetic short the list of stupid questions i ask myself when i am high. Shevtsov came together with Canadian DOP Luke McCutcheon, who was looking to explore filmmaking outside of his normal documentary remit, and the reflective short started to take shape. the list of stupid questions i ask myself when i am high takes root in your psyche not only for its delightful quirks but also for the simple mundanity of the very relatable reflections. After trawling Instagram for a suitable protagonist Shevtsov stumbled upon fashion model Mal whose awkward grace charmingly embodies the scenes of self-reflection, worry and the filmmaker’s own musings on the nature of creativity. A house in the Toronto suburbs serves as the ideal setting for a film which doesn’t adhere to narrative or temporal conventions, with McCutcheon stunningly capturing the stylised, surreal poses of the short’s contemplative protagonist. We invited Shevtsov to speak to us about the intricacies of translating the work across languages to keep the sentiment behind them pure, the influences he drew upon for his homemade metaphors and choreographing his actor to not only support the text but add an additional level of depth to the film.
Where did this poetic piece originate from?
My intention was to maintain a lighthearted tone rather than delve into seriousness. Self-irony played a pivotal role, as these questions deliberately lacked definitive answers, not only because they were rhetorical, but also because they tended to be mundane and unworthy of deep contemplation. They encompassed facets of self-reflection, concerns about my career, relationships, societal and global role, and the essence of creativity itself. This concept took root in my phone’s notes section and lingered there.
After a year and a half, I found myself in Canada due to the war in Ukraine. During this period, I met Luke McCutcheon, a cinematographer with a documentary background. He had an interest in exploring projects that demanded careful planning and differed from the spontaneous nature of documentaries. The idea resonated with him and we embarked on the journey to bring this project to life. At this stage, I decided to not only translate the text into English but also transform it into poetry. I revised this text multiple times, dealing with concerns about my ability to effectively convey my concept given that English is my third language, spoken with an accent. Happily, Sean McCutcheon, Luke’s father and an English editor, extended a helping hand.
During the editing phase, the concept of incorporating black screens materialized, creating a slideshow effect that presented distinct life scenes while dispelling any semblance of a traditional plotline and the fluidity of time. My genuine aspiration for this work is to resonate with people, allowing them to identify their anxieties, moments of introspection, and seemingly trivial questions within it.
The questions are seemingly trivial yet painfully relatable in equal measure. How did the writing progress from those notes in your phone to the rhetorical and playful poetic script?
Of course, initially, there were many more questions. While working on the text, I sifted through them, again and again, until only those that fit the work remained. They had to meet a certain criterion of absurdity but still contain insights. I would like to say that I tested their insightfulness on my friends, but in reality, it didn’t work at all. So, I acted purely intuitively, thinking about what would personally resonate with me.
They had to meet a certain criterion of absurdity but still contain insights.
To what extent were the reflections and ponderings tied into your experience of having to leave your country and the continuing war there?
The questions themselves were written a year and a half before the full-scale war. For me, they turned out to be a kind of time capsule that I kept away from the influence of the changing context. It sounds strange as if I was doing something irrelevant to me, but actually, it was an attempt to recreate that time and those experiences. If I were to write these questions now, they would be entirely different.
Was anything lost or did any of the sentiments or ideas change in the translation process to English?
I want to believe that the audience heard what I wanted to say from the very beginning. Of course, some questions went through an adaptation process, like “neighbourhood watch”, which had a different name in the original but carried the same emotion.
In general, the text was a source of a huge amount of pronunciation challenges for me since, as a non-native speaker, I was afraid of being inaccurate. But Sean McCutcheon, the text editor and the father of our cinematographer Luke, came to the rescue and polished this text while preserving the same naivety that was originally intended.
Can you tell us more about the inspirations for pairing the questions with the surreal visuals?
Visually, it was important for me to achieve a certain level of metaphorical depth, but at the same time, I wanted all the metaphors to be commonplace and easily relatable in real life as if they had emerged spontaneously in the mind of my heroine. The concept was based on the idea that our heroine is alone at home, contemplating these questions. So everything she has to visualize these questions is herself and the objects that surround her. It seems to me that when a connection is made between the question we hear and the image we see, it feels like we’ve solved a riddle or completed a puzzle, and this is probably due to dopamine. I enjoy playing with this material; this process fascinates me.
When a connection is made between the question we hear and the image we see, it feels like we’ve solved a riddle or completed a puzzle.
While crafting the visuals for this narrative, I drew inspiration from photography, cinema, and even internet memes. I don’t believe in completely original ideas, but rather in the combination and reinterpretation of borrowed ideas that create new meanings. Some of the metaphors came from observations in my personal life, while others were suggested by the house itself. But to a large extent, it was photography that influenced me the most; I filtered many visual ideas through it and I honestly wrote about it in the credits.
How did you work on the staging of the weird and contemplative positions we see Mal in throughout the property?
Instagram played a pivotal role in my production efforts. I created an ad to search for an actress, and numerous people expressed their willingness to lend a hand. Through one photographer’s Instagram page, I stumbled upon Mal, a fashion model who perfectly fitted my envisioned character. Similarly, Instagram led us to our shooting location, a spacious, dated house in the Toronto suburbs.
I started working on poses and compositions long before Mal and I met. Anastasiia Telpys, my partner, played a role in the first draft version where we were searching for poses, and then in the second draft version when we were looking for compositions on location. In the final work, Anastasiia also plays a supporting role in every sense of the word, she is the one who holds Mal. She also was the set designer and designed all the text elements in the work.
I love the way you play with light in the film. How long was the shoot and to what extent was each scene pre-mapped to a particular room?
This was a standard North American 11.5-hour shift. Luke and I created a schedule that we didn’t fully believe in because, on average, each shot allowed us only 15 minutes. The position of the sun on the side of the house was the main factor in creating the schedule, and, of course, we wanted to ensure that the same room and Mal’s image didn’t repeat in multiple consecutive scenes. There weren’t many of us, but everyone was motivated and worked tirelessly. Luke created this imagery with the absolute minimum of equipment and lighting, which is one of his many talents as a cinematographer, We used Sony Venice 2 and Zeiss Ultra Primes lenses, mostly 10 mm focal length. I would also like to mention the contribution of Olha Korzhynska, our colourist, who perfectly captured the vibe and conveyed it in color.
We wanted to ensure that the same room and Mal’s image didn’t repeat in multiple consecutive scenes.
The voiceover is lulling, funny and reflective. How did you find the right person for that as well as a score that would complement it and the visuals?
Finding a voice actress to voice Mal’s inner voice turned out to be quite a challenging task. At some point, I stopped looking for actresses and started searching for singers. On the Fiverr platform, I found Xena Rose, a soul singer from Jamaica. She was very nervous because it was her first experience with acting and a directed session. However, together we found the right balance between intonation and detachment.
In regards to the accompanying score, An Italian composer, Francesco Costanza, also reached out to me on Instagram. He wanted to compose music for motion pictures and this project became his first video work. Drawing inspiration from the works of Debussy, Satie, and Radiohead, Francesco crafted a musical narrative that introduced an additional layer of interpretation to the text and visuals.
What’s next for you?
I’m currently working on a short film script about a young writer who is sentenced to death for being a cliche. I think it will turn out to be something with elements of mumblecore and Kafkaesque absurdism.