When reflecting on her own history Los Angeles-based filmmaker Kerry O’Neill was acutely aware of the distinct lack of representation of the types of situations she faced growing up, inciting her to embark on her alternative coming-of-age short Walk Out Nice And Smooth. Drawing upon universally experienced stories such as first crushes and embarrassing mothers allows the film’s audience to foster a sense of connection with its characters as they embark on a darkly comic all day mission to flip a stolen laptop. O’Neill harbours an honest and authentic sense of grounded realism in both her handheld, close camera work and the clear trust she built with her lead actors. The results of which allow us to breathe and enjoy the pair’s nefarious odyssey without a sense of judgement or apathy for our protagonists because at the heart of the story lies a mother’s love and drive to appease her classically frustrated teenager. A film we here at DN were keen to learn more about, we took the opportunity to chat to O’Neill about the depth of character she was able to bring out of her actors having worked with them previously, why she wanted the film to be light and bright in tone and how her experience as a director enabled her to adapt on the fly when technical issues arose on set.
It is refreshing to see a different look at parenthood and the delicate relationship between mother and adolescent child, where did your inspiration come from?
The film is inspired by my adolescent experiences with my unpredictable drug addict mother. I’d often be thrown into compromising situations that were threatening and harrowing but also exhilarating and, at times, hilarious. In fact, when I look back now, almost all of the teen milestones I recall fondly are inextricably linked to various situations with my mom that were extremely volatile one minute and utterly ridiculous the next. Walk Out Nice and Smooth captures these authentic, intense scenarios with sudden moments of joy and humor. I’ve inverted the moralizing typical of coming-of-age stories and pushed more towards the authentic and often troubling first lessons of a child in this environment. It’s an ironic happy ending that may feel good in the moment but is laced with moral complexities and criminality that Dani may only come to grips with later in life.
I had done an incredible job mining the drama from my unique situation with my mother, but hadn’t gotten a chance to highlight some of the hilarity and absurdness that I went through with her as a teenager.
My first film, Bea at Rehab, is a social realist drama based on my experience having been abandoned by my mother at a drug rehab facility at a young age and I wanted my next film to reflect my darkly comedic sensibilities and still didn’t feel done with semi-autobiographical work. It felt like I had done an incredible job mining the drama from my unique situation with my mother, but hadn’t gotten a chance to highlight some of the hilarity and absurdness that I went through with her as a teenager, especially because there was no mother character in Bea at Rehab.
How do you as a filmmaker separate yourself from the very personal and intimate stories you are creating to see it all from the vantage of a director?
What’s interesting to me about creating work based on personal experience is the collaboration between myself as a director and my actors. At a certain point long before pre-production, usually in the writing phase, you kind of have to give up some of the personal details in order to create a compelling story. I have no real interest in creating 1:1 depictions of things that have happened to me, I think that would be terribly boring, and probably create a problem for me as a director. Once I finish writing, I feel my only job as a director is to serve the script as best as I can. Which takes it out of the realm of personal and precious and opens it up to collaboration and improvisation. It also really becomes work at that point.
I have no real interest in creating 1:1 depictions of things that have happened to me, I think that would be terribly boring, and probably create a problem for me as a director.
I think the way I work with my actors, allowing them to fill in the blanks of the characters with their own experiences and personalities always takes the idea somewhere new and exciting, which is a gift when working with a personal story. It also helps universalize the personal. In fact, directing personal films has actually allowed me to see things from multiple perspectives, where before I maybe would’ve only seen them from one: my own. So turning it into work has been incredibly helpful and fulfilling on a therapeutic level.
I was so drawn into the mother child relationship, Anne was still parenting Dani but in the opposite way than you’d expect. How did you ensure we’d empathise with these character who are essentially doing shitty things?
While the story is extremely specific to a certain type of lifestyle most people don’t have experience living, incorporating the universal teenage moments of having a crush, wanting to impress an older guy and get in good with cooler older kids was really the lynchpin of empathy for these characters. That throughline really allowed Anne to shine as a mother. There is an ass backwards logic of Anne wanting to help get Dani money, but the moments in the car when she kisses Dani and asks about the crush, and at the skatepark when she sees her kid is growing up. I think those are really necessary moments that have nothing to do with the trajectory of events, but help show this love between the two characters that kind of washes away the crime of the day and makes it about this moment in a parent’s life when they finally accept a turning point where they kind of realize that their kid isn’t a kid anymore. My favorite line in the movie is when Anne says, “Give me another $20 or I’ll call out his name” and that was just me on the fly coming up with that line and feeding it to Kate. It so perfectly encapsulates the light and dark sides of their relationship and hopefully leaves the audience with that empathetic feeling topped off with a laugh.
Can you talk about your working relationship with your actors?
Working with the same lead actors from my previous film allowed me to foster a collaborative environment wherein the actors’ lived experiences became enmeshed with mine to create nuanced, morally complicated characters with lots of love between them. I initially had worked with both lead actors, Kate Adams and Riley St. John on my first film and I am extremely happy with how the film turned out. We had an incredible experience working during rehearsals to improvise within the boundaries of the scenes and I was blown away by the talent and ability of my youngest actor, Riley, who was only 10 years old at the time. I primarily work in the comedy television space, so Bea at Rehab was a departure from that in a lot of ways, except in how much I use improvisation to shape my work both comedy and drama.
In rehearsals for Walk Out Nice And Smooth we just talked through the script and improvised within each scene to kind of bring the characters to life. It was very different working with Riley as a teenager (13 now) as opposed to a 10 year old. They were exploring their gender fluidity and what pronouns they preferred in real time during pre-production and production. I left the door open for them to discuss any feelings that they might want to bring into the fold, and it made for an added layer of authenticity between my mother and child characters. What was funny was that the character had always been named Dani. But that line at the end was something that came to me in the moment, where Dani tells her mom, “Don’t call me Danielle, I told you not to call me that” was a result of how close I was able to be with my actors and the trust we’d built on our previous production that I think really allowed us to make these connections that felt like they were already there on the page.
Having written and acted on the show Jury Duty, I knew I wanted to cast Susan Berger and David Brown in something, and I’ve always been a fan of DeMorge Brown and a new friend of Kendra Uncut and Kat Toledo’s. These were all of the people I was picturing when I wrote the script, so I was really quite pleased that they all said yes. I street cast the skaters by scouting the skate park before shooting and using friends of friends to find the featured teenagers, something I’ve done with all three of my films has been street casting since I love working with a blend of actors and non-actors.
I kind of love the chaotic nature of filmmaking and am so open to the process of just letting go and figuring things out in the moment as they come.
What about the crew and production set up?
We shot the film last summer over two days, which was quite a feat given how many locations we had to get through! We shot on an Alexa mini with vintage Cooke Primes and an Angenieux zoom. Unfortunately, our original 1st assistant camera was unable to pull focus for our first shot of the day due to a technical error that we weren’t unaware of at the time, but my incredible producer found us a replacement with his own follow focus who arrived just hours later, and we were able to make the day. I kind of love the chaotic nature of filmmaking and am so open to the process of just letting go and figuring things out in the moment as they come.
Inspired by how Sean Baker shot Red Rocket with a skeleton crew, it was my goal to work with the smallest crew possible. We had an eight person crew: DP, 1st AC, Gaffer, Sound, 1st AD, Producer, PA and me. I did the casting, costuming, and all of the production design. In fact, most of the actors are wearing clothes from my personal wardrobe Kate, Riley, DeMorge, Charles, and Kendra, Tweaker boyfriend, are all dressed in clothes I wear regularly. We shot at my next door neighbor Carol’s house for Barbara’s place and used the front yard of the house I live behind as the tweaker’s yard. We stole the rest of the locations. My producer and I bought all of the crafty and fixin’s for the crawfish boil and I woke up at 4 am the morning of day one of the shoot to start making the crawfish. My stove was burned and my house smelled awful for like two weeks, but it worked out. We only had one shot with that pratfall, so thank god we nailed it.
Not only did I collaborate with my two leads on my previous film, but with my DP Arlene Muller and my editor Joey Izzo, who is also my partner. The post process for every project is different but I’m overall very lucky to live with my editor. This was a really tricky film to edit because we suffered technical difficulties and had to replace a crew member, so we weren’t able to push that footage as far as it could’ve gone due to the lost time on day one. I sometimes didn’t have exactly what I needed or only got one take of something that I had to use. Joey is an unreal master of editing, so it all came out perfectly even though, as a director, I wished I’d had more options for him to work with for certain scenes.
I felt that by employing the handheld camera work in the beginning, it would help subvert the expectations of the viewer.
Why is it important for you to have a blend of actors and non-actors in your films?
I’m just really in love with different perspectives. Actors are incredible and never cease to amaze me, but we are all doing ‘work’ at a certain point, and relying on tools from our toolbox that first time actors don’t necessarily have, they’re working off pure truth and reality. Even though I’m the writer/director, I still want to be surprised on set and find new things. I find that blending newcomers in allows for an element of fun and discovery for all involved. Beyond that, I do think that because I am entirely self-taught, no formal education in screenwriting or filmmaking or anything else for that matter, I am just really dialled into finding and nurturing talent from non-traditional backgrounds.
The opening scene of them in the car employs frantic handheld camerawork, what were you looking to create with that shooting style?
Although these characters continue on to do something way worse and more personal than robbing a major chain electronic store (in my opinion at least, haha), I really wanted the film to highlight the joy of the day most of all. I felt that by employing the handheld camera work in the beginning, it would help subvert the expectations of the viewer. Like, the opening scene is what someone unfamiliar with this type of life would assume their existence is 24/7, you know? And that’s just not the case. It’s also pretty much the only time Dani has agency due to their age and the circumstances of being dragged around by their mother, until the end of the film. So I really wanted to highlight the sort of frantic action of that moment before Dani was forced to sit in a car and go along with her mother’s cockamamie plans all day.
That juxtaposition of awful shit happening on a gorgeous day is funny to me.
The whole film is bright and sunny, juxtaposing their nefarious mini crime spree. Why did you want to err away from a gritty aesthetic as would be more typical for this subject matter?
I wanted to highlight what a beautiful day Dani was missing out on hanging with their friends during. I also really just wanted to shy completely away from any sort of trauma-porn which, to me, would have been like gloomy rain beating down on the window as a child waits for their mom in the car. We really lucked out with the weather in that way. Also, maybe this is kind of corny, but I really dig the movie Goodfellas and love how you can almost feel the heat of the beating sun on the day Henry Hill is about to finally get caught. That juxtaposition of awful shit happening on a gorgeous day is funny to me. I incorporated the sound of helicopters when Anne and Dani are hustling up to Monica’s house as a sort of homage to that sequence as well.
I really love filmmaking because it’s a big puzzle of doing the best that you can and knowing exactly what you need, bare minimum, to tell the story.
Can you explain what you feel you missed with the lack of options in the edit and how you think that might have changed the film?
Honestly, I wanted more time with DeMorge Brown specifically. We basically had one shot to grab the entire watching TV on the couch scene. We grabbed the two-shot and swung into singles right there on the spot, no break, no lighting change. I only got DeMorge getting up to leave once. It was pretty tight there. He and I had worked closely together on the character’s backstory and he’s such an incredible comedic talent, I really wanted to just point the camera at him and let him go off. The plan was initially to shoot him talking from multiple different angles and really highlight his conspiratorial opinions about Cash Cab and the world. But he’s such a pro, it still turned out great even with the insane time constraints. We had about 15 minutes to shoot that entire scene plus Dani stealing the money from the plant before we got kicked out of the location.
I also probably would have picked up the Cash Cab playing on the actual TV in the living room that day had I not been so pressed for time. But I kind of like the nastiness of going full screen on it. I really love filmmaking because it’s a big puzzle of doing the best that you can and knowing exactly what you need, bare minimum, to tell the story. This is an example where the pre-pro work I put into breaking down the script allowed me to make sure I got what was essential, which makes me just as proud of the scene as if I’d had all the time in the world to shoot it – maybe even more.
Are you continuing to explore stories close to you? What’s next?
I am definitely still exploring personal stories, though these days they’re starting to feel further and further from my own experiences. I definitely have a sort of thematic I’m usually working from. Using tragicomic outcast characters to explore the moral complexities of the world we live in and highlight the absurdity of it all. By treating my characters with empathy and humanity, the work becomes an invitation for an audience to examine their preconceived notions and discover another side of life but my goals first and foremost are to entertain and make people laugh. As for what’s next, I am currently finishing up post on my latest short film, Interloper, which I directed as a part of the AFI DWW+. It’s a dark comedy thriller starring Ryan Simpkins, Chloe East and Rich Sommer. I also have a couple of features in various stages of development, one that is an amalgamation of my first two films, (Bea at Rehab + Walk Out Nice and Smooth.