Whilst no one can argue against the prowess and appeal of Barbie and her shiny empowering world we need to remember that not all girls like pink. Inspired by her own experience at college in a sorority, filmmaker Chaconne Martin-Berkowicz has taken a page out of her own female power playbook and the end result is the raw, authentic and gritty short Scotty’s Vag. Handheld shots bring us into the thick of the pulsating energy as girls Jell-O wrestle, the documentary-like footage is dirty and emulates the grit and raw feel of the moment, whilst non-professional actors embody the realistic and alternative women we don’t often see on screen. Scotty’s Vag is not autobiographical but is reflective of Martin-Berkowicz’s own experiences as a woman as she considers the power play between older and younger women and nails her honest and captivating portrayal of that reality. Making its online premiere today, DN dives into the nitty-gritty of Scotty’s Vag with Martin-Berkowicz, talking about the fierce love between women she wanted to capture, the invaluable process of having an intimacy coordinator and stunt coordinator on set with her badass non-professional cast and how she shot the shifting power dynamics at play within the film.
Hazing is often portrayed as violent, scary and very rarely from a female point of view. Why do you think it is so important that we see these realistic portrayals of women on screen?
My life and my female friends’ lives don’t fit into a box like mainstream media often depicts. We can be assertive, independent, cocky, rough…and we are by no means outliers. Realistic portrayals of women on screen that veer from stereotypes are important because they push against a limiting gender binary. By showing women as complicated and capable of the full range of human behavior, I think we level the playing field. It was important to me that the film not cast judgement on the characters or actions; instead they’re depicted as teetering between fun and dangerous. For me personally it’s empowering to watch women existing and acting in such a moral gray area.
Realistic portrayals of women on screen that veer from stereotypes are important because they push against a limiting gender binary.
I think it’s also important to note that a sorority can be inherently exclusionary and a hotbed of peer pressure. To some, it’s also a symbol of ultimate femininity. Thus, I was curious to explore how extreme femininity may share similarities with extreme/toxic masculinity, sans moral judgment.
There are so many power dynamics at play between the older girls and the freshman vying for a coveted place in the sorority. How did you embed that push and pull within the writing in a way that felt so natural?
Before diving into writing, I took time to flesh out the characters. Understanding their desires allowed me to give each of them an emotional arc and hear their unique voice. The more time I spent with the characters, the more I found they guided me as to how they would act in any given situation. This created inevitable, natural conflict between them. Furthermore, I think women often look to other women to inform their own identity and place in the world. I wanted to tap into the countless, nuanced ways women relate to and influence one another, whether it’s a quick glance of admiration like Scotty has for Hunter or a taunting smile like Becca’s at Scotty. Highlighting these subtle yet powerful moments in the writing was important so that the viewer would understand how many dynamics are simultaneously at play.
I love the gritty portrayal of women, we can be nasty and rough and that doesn’t have to be a negative as society may depict it as. What were you looking for in the non-professional sorority girls you were casting and how did you enable their impressive performances?
It was important to me to capture the fun and the power these women feel when ‘misbehaving’. I think the positive in their ‘misbehavior’ exists largely because there is deep love and tenderness between them. Thus, it was important to me that the sorority girls come across as fierce, loving and cohesive. Uncategorizable as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Their love and ability to instil fear are enticing; they embody why Scotty is compelled to join. We cast non-professional sorority girls from a few universities because they have an innate understanding of what it means to be part of a group in this way. I also think anyone down to be in a film without prior experience has the badass energy we were looking for.
To prepare for the set, we held an informal rehearsal during which we spent a few hours playing games (name games, duck duck goose…) and learning the sorority chant. Some of the girls knew each other already, but this bonded them further and gave me and producer Cailin Lobb-Rabe a chance to build a connection with them. It was important that the film feel authentic and raw. Regular rehearsals (including with an intimacy and a stunt coordinator) and hang sessions before filming bonded the cast and crew. The understanding and trust we built allowed Allegra Leguizamo, Sara Silva, Isabelle Gillette and Ezekiel Goodman’s performances to be nuanced and natural, and allowed for discoveries to be made on set; there’s nothing like the unpredictable magic of a novel performance or shot.
Anyone down to be in a film without prior experience has the badass energy we were looking for.
I wanted the performances to feel as authentic as possible, so my role as director was to encourage and energize rather than be prescriptive. On our first set day, we played pop music and all danced around the basement location before filming. This loosened everyone up and set the tone that this was a fun, improvisational set. In the Jell-O dancing scene for example, it really was like filming a bumping party. We also asked the girls to wear some of their own clothes for costume (sports apparel for the pledges and black clothing for the sorority sisters). In hindsight, perhaps wearing some of their own clothes (with added costuming) made things feel more real both on set and on screen.
You have eschewed the synthetic, pink stereotypical female spaces we see all too often on screen. What references did you draw from for your more realistic tone and style?
Cinematographer Gemma Doll-Grossman and I spent hours together watching film references, discussing our own personal experiences, and how they would inform our visual language. We were definitely on the same creative wavelength, which was a special experience…watching the movie Thirteen, we found visual inspiration from the grittiness of Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar, the subjective camera of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, and the naturalism of photographer Justine Kurland and specifically her series Girl Pictures. I’m so grateful to have found a collaborator with whom I have a creative hive mind. Gemma’s cinematography is fearless. Paired with Marina Perez’s production design, it evoked character interiority as well as our delicious and suspenseful tone. As a filmmaker, I’m inspired by Catherine Breillat, especially for her ability to humanize taboo subjects so cinematically. I also admire Gaspar Noé and Michael Haneke’s films, which I find unapologetically unsettling. I’d love to see more female filmmakers in this realm.
You mentioned the use of an intimacy coordinator and a stunt coordinator, how did they work to harbour a safe environment for the actors?
Due to the sensitive nature of the film, I needed to ensure everyone felt free to express themselves, while also providing direction to achieve the film’s vision. Having an intimacy coordinator and stunt coordinator on board was enormously helpful in making sure everyone was comfortable with the material and there was no ambiguity before or on set. Our intimacy coordinator Adrienne Couper Smith was someone cast and crew could go to if they ever had a question or concern, and beyond that she facilitated an open and safe environment by helping figure out exactly how we were going to approach intimate scenes. Adrienne helped establish everyone’s boundaries, listened to the creative vision, and got into the nitty-gritty of blocking scenes with these in mind. She also spoke to how emotionality would inform the blocking. For example, what does it literally look like to have sex for the first time? Questions like these sparked ideas for the cast and myself. Thus, Adrienne’s influence was twofold: creating a safe space, and aiding layered storytelling. To me this is an example of how teamwork created naturally gripping moments on screen.
She also spoke to how emotionality would inform the blocking. For example, what does it literally look like to have sex for the first time?
In a similar vein, stunt coordinators Krystle Martin and Brandin Elmore, Allegra Leguizamo (Scotty), Isabelle Gillette (Becca), cinematographer Gemma Doll-Grossman, and I held a Jell-O fight rehearsal. The stunt coordinators devised a wrestling routine that hit the script’s beats and taught the actors how to execute it safely. Having the blocking down allowed the actors to feel facile in what they were doing, and greatly minimized the chance of anyone getting injured (we also had huge mats under the Jell-O tub!). Rehearsing also gave DP Gemma and I an opportunity to storyboard exactly how we wanted to shoot the scene. This was crucial to our intention of focusing on a character triangulation, and the delicate power dynamic shifts therein, even in an action-packed scene.
The framing and composition of your shots are powerful, from the handheld Jell-O fight to the intimate piercing scene. Can you tell me about devising how you’d focus on these women in these situations?
It was important to me that we be rooted primarily in Scotty’s POV. In storyboarding and in our edit, we chose to focus on shots that illustrate her shifting position in relation to Becca and Hunter. In the hazing scene, for example, we wanted Hunter to appear larger than life. She was shot at a distance and blocked standing on a chair in platform shoes. Sara Silva, who plays Hunter, effortlessly moved between biting and doting in her performance, we felt this was the right way to compliment her alluring performance. As the hazing scene progresses, she nears Scotty both in framing and in blocking. This reflects Scotty’s early admiration of Hunter and their unspoken, growing connection. They gaze at each other. As the film progresses, we feel when Scotty and Hunter are on seemingly even ground, in Hunter’s room, they dance together in the same frame, both standing. Even when Tommy enters the picture, the main line of connection remains between them (hence how he is revealed during Scotty and Hunter’s dance, and the shot of Hunter eating Jell-O through the mirror…) At the end of the film the power dynamic has shifted; Hunter squats below Scotty, and is shot from more obscure angles, capturing her unease. Hunter’s power has slipped, Scotty’s has grown.
This character-driven approach allowed us to go to dangerously erotic places without sensationalizing. The audience is taken on an intoxicating rollercoaster ride alongside Scotty. A focus on the tenderness and violence of intertwined limbs, of singing in unison, of drinking by force, and wrestling in cherry red Jell-O allows them to feel the same intimacy and rawness that she feels. In sexually intimate scenes, the shots continue to highlight her emotional journey. For example, Allegra has an incredible performance in the shot when Scotty exhales, looking up at the ceiling. It’s my hope that the camera mirrors the complex feelings she has about what’s happening. The light falls on her softly, the camera tilts with her and captures her slightly obscured in this moment of change.
How much footage did you have moving into the edit and how did you keep that tension right up to the empowering final close up?
We shot for five days, so while I don’t know exactly how much footage we had going into the edit, it was definitely many, many hours worth. I’d say my biggest lesson in the edit was to let the film breathe and not cut too often. The performances are so strong, that forcing the audience to sit with the characters – especially in uncomfortable moments – built a lot of tension. We refused to let them off the hook. I think cutting less also transports the viewer into the film’s world, and makes it all feel more real. Because of the many actions and the vivid, frenetic set design, the longer takes allow the audience to soak it all in and be present. We also built tension by playing with how much to show versus letting the audience infer, ultimately opting to show less. For example, our opening shot of bathroom stalls doesn’t immediately reveal to you what’s happening. The audience has to wait to find out, we keep their curiosity. I can also sense audiences holding their breath during particular scenes, and I think this is in part because they’re having a visceral reaction to what they imagine in their mind’s eye – which I bet goes much further than what they see on screen.
We also built tension by playing with how much to show versus let the audience infer, ultimately opting to show less.
I want to see more stories like this about women, what can we look forward to seeing from you next?
I’m writing a feature that I would like to be my feature directorial debut. It’s a thriller about a woman who yearns to be married, but when she discovers that the man she falls for is already engaged, her obsession with him transfers to his wife. Through this relationship, she discovers her own power. In this, I want to explore how female desire – regardless of sexual preference – can be informed by other women rather than by men.