Filmmaker Tomson Tee is no stranger to a dark satirical exploration of some of the more imbalanced aspects of society these days as we saw with his take on entrenched racism in Kemba’s Nobody I Can Trust music video. His most recent film click, click, BOOM! shines a light on the ridiculous disparities in wealth in modern day America through a darkly comedic lens. click, click, BOOM! takes place in a dystopian world where, for no apparent reason, your head can suddenly be at risk of exploding. For one young woman at the height of her Wall Street career, this impeding demise leads to an understandable desire to tick off a destination on her luxurious bucket list but her boujee lifestyle hasn’t left much in the way of savings. Tee’s short pits two women in very different economic circumstances against each other with wit, nuance and a real insight into the complete and utter ignorance of those luxuriating in the upper echelon – even in the face of death. With its delightfully gory concept click, click, BOOM! is as intelligently written and shot as it is funny. Alongside today’s premiere, Tee returns to DN to talk to us about injecting a level of humanity into his anti-hero, how he weaved the omnipresent beep signalling her impending doom into the film’s sound design and leaning into the imbalance in power dynamics between his two protagonists.

Your music video Nobody I Can Trust forefronts the entrenched racial issues in America and click, click, BOOM! looks at disturbing views of wealth. What about these big issues entice you as a filmmaker?

Collectively, how do we speak about compassion? And how do we act on it? The contradiction between hoarding at others’ expense and treating others with dignity is something we all feel. This is most stark to me in the contrast between how we instruct our children, and the way we then engage with each other as adults. If we were more honest, kindergarteners would be preying on their classmates’ weaknesses to monopolize all the toys and then leveraging that position to dominate every other aspect of the classroom. But we aren’t honest. Deep down, I think we’re afraid to face the reality of the systems we are all complicit in. That fear is pernicious and corrosive and so this hypocrisy is how we reflexively cope, to stay sane. Racism and inequity are two such systems. Closely intertwined, and intersecting with a bigger web of oppression. Ultimately what strikes me most is our hypocritical engagement with them. The moral dissonance we all quietly feel between what is, and what could be.

Reading that was the hardest I laughed all year. Writing this script was just trying to capture that feeling.

Can you talk us through the writing and development of the script taking all of these big and pertinent issues into consideration yet still making the film accessible with its comic overtones?

I read this article about “why the 1% don’t feel rich”. They interviewed these millionaires who said: “You think we’re rich? You try sending your kids to private school, hiring a nanny that cooks four different ethnic cuisines, going on an appropriately exclusive vacation every year, and see how much you have left in your bank account.” Reading that was the hardest I laughed all year. Writing this script was just trying to capture that feeling.

Where did this imbalanced female relationship come from and why was this offset important to the story you wanted to tell?

To me, their relationship is a classic dynamic of material inequity. Trixi is stuck in an underpaid role, with low chances of upward mobility. Coco makes many times her salary, luxuriating in opulence. It is in Trixi’s every interest to suck up to Coco. The right phone call, the right meeting, the right opportunity… her entire life could dramatically change, even accidentally, just from being in Coco’s orbit… And maybe only from being in Coco’s orbit. This informs the central conceit of the script: just one of Coco’s luxury bags could revolutionize the lives of a whole grade of kids from Trixi’s community.

The entire film hinges on this balance, as it reflects the nature of the status quo.

Ash Mayers is perfectly detestable in her role but you can’t help but feel a pang of pity for her as she says goodbye to her handbags, what were you looking for when casting this character and how did you know you had found it with her?

The key to any character is their humanity. This is compounded when you are dealing with an anti-hero. I needed an actor who could bring a nuanced sincerity to the role. Who could portray a character that commits unabashedly selfish acts, while believing she is a morally upright person. The entire film hinges on this balance, as it reflects the nature of the status quo. We don’t wake up every morning consciously choosing to benefit at the expense of others. Almost nobody believes that they are an immoral person. Honing in on Coco’s pathos, amidst this wild balancing act, was no small feat and Ash knocked it clean out of the park.

The ominous pinging of her imminent death ebbs and flows in how we hear it throughout the film. How did you decide on those beats, making sure it is ever-present but not overpowering?

It was a lot of trial and error. My sound designer, Keller McDivitt, and I were very concerned it could get overbearing. Overall, we would bring in the beeps at the start of each scene as a reminder, and then gradually fade them down to make room for the soundscape of each moment. We would then hone in on the cresting and breaking of Coco’s emotional arc and subtly forefront the beeps accordingly. Particularly in her moments of solitary despair such as at the park, and at the party with her bags.

We would then hone in on the cresting and breaking of Coco’s emotional arc and subtly forefront the beeps accordingly.

I love the soft, dreamlike hues honing in on her final hours. How did you plan the tones and work on the final look of the film?

For color, we wanted to present scenes of redemption in warm tones and scenes of opportunism in cold tones, which organically led to dividing between cold-toned day scenes and warm-toned night scenes. In the day, Coco barrels ahead at full speed. Dominating her surroundings. At night, she becomes introspective: has her life’s work yielded substantive meaning? In her darkest night, she has a profound change of heart. She decides to give away her dearest companions, her luxury bags, invalidating everything she believed and worked for. Until…another morning presents itself. Then she picks up right where she left off. I love roomier compositions that ground characters in their specific environments. To me, harnessing that external relationality is key to constructing a vivid interior world. Living in wider frames also empowers the actor to fill the space with their energy, or to shrivel under its weight. Breathability is crucial to something feeling alive.

What equipment did you use and can you talk a bit more about how you planned and shot those roomier compositions?

We shot on the ARRI Alexa Classic. Our two main references were The Lobster and Atlanta. My DP, Cory Fraiman-Lott, and I studied how they composed scenes primarily in medium-wides to depict characters in worlds that are informed by, and responsive to, their internal states. For example, the frantic anxiety of Coco learning that her head is going to explode in three days manifests in the visual chaos of a rush-hour coffeeshop: Trixi being swarmed with orders as she struggles to calm Coco down. We discussed proportions a lot, the relative size of characters and their environments. To express grandeur: the windows of Coco’s apartment towering over her. To emphasize opulence: cutting between the excessive negative space of that same shot and Trixi’s ever-cramped coffeeshop. To express the balance of power between characters: Trixi standing above Coco, initially incredulous that Coco is broke — but, after being berated by Coco, quickly shrivelling into her seat, occupying a tiny sliver of the frame.

The frantic anxiety of Coco learning that her head is going to explode in three days manifests in the visual chaos of a rush-hour coffeeshop: Trixi being swarmed with orders as she struggles to calm Coco down.

Can you detail the planning which went into the exploding head and how you managed to get it just right?

We collaborated with the incredible Argon Props team to engineer the exploding head rig. It consisted of an air-pressurized PVC pipe, with the fake head attached to one end, loaded to the brim with a mix of fake blood, minced beef and SpaghettiOs to really give it that brainy texture. We only had the budget for two takes, and that was all we needed!

Having worked on so many music videos and now returning to narrative shorts how do you feel your style and approach have developed?

Music videos have taught me a ton. The challenge of telling stories without sound pushed me to thoroughly investigate a fundamental cinematic question: what makes a world feel truly alive? Is it a bold color palette? Is it stylized lighting? Is it choreographed motion? Stories are comprised of characters going through a series of emotional beats. Early in my career, I noticed that the characters in my work felt disconnected from their environments. They would go through these beats in spite of their environment, rather than in tandem with it.

The epiphany, for me, was that a world feels alive when it reacts to our emotions and intentions. A mug can be a neutral object on a dining table. Or it can sneer smugly at you as you grapple with the news that you’ve lost your job. I had fun exploring this in the Nobody I Can Trust music video. In the beginning, Kemba watches his white co-workers playing a game of hacky sack. The nonchalance with which the hacky sack stares back at him constructs an atmosphere of trust and comfort. Later — when Kemba becomes the last Black man in town — that same nonchalant gaze from the hacky sack begins to feel suddenly sinister.

What big societal issue are you looking to tackle next in your work?

I’m working on a feature-length version of this exploding head idea, where the protagonist is a wealth manager for billionaires. With a bigger focus on how scarcity is created and weaponized by the few upon the many.

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