Following a couple who are hosting an event to celebrate their first wedding anniversary, director Arne Gjelten’s short film The Best Day of Our Lives takes a turn when one member of the couple reveals that he has no memory of their big day. The brilliance of Gjelten’s tense relationship drama comes in its tone and carefully construed depiction of a contemporary relationship. The soft colour palette, the lack of a score, the carefully constructed dialogue and camerawork. It all feeds into an awkward whirlwind that grips the viewer whilst subtly unpacking societal expectations of relationships and marriage. DN is delighted to premiere Gjelten’s thought-provoking short alongside a deep dive with the filmmaker where he talks through the film’s inception as a satire, its tonal evolution through the writing phase and the process of nailing its uncomfortable ambience in the edit.
The Best Day of Our Lives, to me, is a story about a specific uncomfortable feeling but also about societal values surrounding marriage and memory. How did it all begin for you?
The Best Day of Our Lives began as a satire. A vignette to send up the pageantry of marriage starring a gay couple who have traditionally been prohibited from it. I first drafted the script in 2018 inspired by a poetic problem like the nameless terror that drives the WASPs to confront their staid existence in Edward Albee’s play A Delicate Balance. Esten’s amnesia is not a neurological issue but a political one; the world around him and his experience of that world are out of step.
This film is about the ways we perform our lives for each other.
As a writer, I’d made two short films before, Garbage and The Loneliest Boy Band, both ruminations on self-loathing and alienation dressed up as early aughts-style cringe comedies. What drives our addiction to nostalgia? Does the repetition of the puka shell necklaces and pop choreography mask a deeper nihilism about what’s ahead? The characters in those films are on a hamster wheel finding only momentary solace by the light of their delusions.
As a first-time director, I wanted The Best Day of Our Lives to embrace that severity head on. There is no music and there is no going past the garden gate. The film is styled after Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata and Scenes from a Marriage, both unrelenting and lyrical in their excavation of buried resentments and present unhappiness. With the trappings of these ‘70s domestic dramas, this film is about the ways we perform our lives for each other. As the guests farcically pop out from the seams of the house, they expose the cracks in the narrative. The kitchen becomes a green room, the living room a proscenium, and even the climactic gratitude circle is a fabricated script.
How did the script and, in turn, film evolve for you as you went down that more tonally severe path?
As I went further, the film became much more about the dissonance of our current moment. Esten’s friend surprises him early on with a challenge, the notion of marriage as capitalism. Why do we incentivize the institution with tax breaks and health insurance? When Esten’s Aunt Cathy arrives, she declares that she loves “all of him” and that there’s no need to be ashamed anymore. Her church group is discussing the gender binary with coffee and doughnuts after all! As their night unravels, Esten’s own husband is heartbroken as he describes the way marriage provided a milestone in his being accepted by his own family and with the revelation that Esten has no memory of it, he is now an outsider again.
So, what’s Esten’s problem? No one around him is wrong. Thankfully, our conversations about gender and sexuality are more nuanced than ever, even in the Lutheran social halls of the Midwest. And yet there are ghosts. How does acceptance disorient a queer identity formed on the margins? Was marriage the goal of the gay rights movement? What does true liberation look like? When change in some pockets of the country is so accelerated and in others so recalcitrant, how do we communicate? These social and political stakes became the backdrop for a crumbling relationship between the two men at center stage who don’t really know each other. Who, in all their efforts to do things as they were supposed to, had lost sight of themselves.
How does acceptance disorient a queer identity formed on the margins? Was marriage the goal of the gay rights movement? What does true liberation look like?
How was it getting the film off the ground as a first-time director?
I pitched Kyle Smolic and Daniel Smith Coleman, who I’d worked with on a music video for Sarah Walk’s cover of Nothing Compares 2 U, at the beginning of 2022. Luckily, they were both interested and Daniel brought on Producer Monk Henshaw. Kyle is a fantastic DP with a keen eye for emotion and creating a heightened visual world which I needed. With a single location, the lighting had to provide a lot of the landscape, from the lavender of the dusk, the stark, almost green of the kitchen, and the golden, theatrical warmth of the living room. Kyle hired longtime collaborator and gaffer Adam Hutsell for the job who nailed it.
We three teamed up again later that year for a forthcoming short I wrote about toxic masculinity in gay male culture directed by Bill Benz called A Time for Men. In addition to being a great director, Daniel Smith Coleman is an editor and producer, and assistant directed and cut the film.
How did you approach casting and finding an actor who could play across from you and convey a sense of depth within that relationship?
I wanted actors that already had some history together. Most of us in the movie work as dancers and met while training under choreographer Ryan Heffington. Ryan Walker Page is now a choreographer in his own right and hired me to assist him on movement direction for 80 for Brady, the paycheck of which I used to fund this movie. He hadn’t acted in such a traditional sense before and I’m grateful to him for being so vulnerable. Reshma Gajjar, Katie Malia, and Kilah Willingham are all great actors, dancers, and improvisers and Jimmy Wirch is a beloved, athletic drag queen who brings an agility to everything he does. The legendary Cathy Cooper is a visual artist and performer whose credits include designing the costumes for Gregg Araki’s The Doom Generation.
I wanted to ask about the shoot, how did you prep the house on a visual level? And, additionally, what prompted the decision to capture everything in 4:3?
We shot the film over two days at my friend Martha’s house who generously lent us the place while she was out of town. This gave Kyle and I the freedom to choreograph with camera, he shot on an Alexa Mini in 4:3 aspect ratio to embrace the claustrophobia, before we had cast on the day. The production designer Lauren Ellis Matthews, who also appears in the film, moved most all of the furniture and wall hangings from the living room into the bedroom to achieve the stark, Scandinavian look we were after. She laid tarps in beige tones, found candlesticks and glassware, and even used one of my late, Norwegian grandmother’s pottery vases for one of the mantle close ups in the opening sequence. The costumes were all provided by the cast and me.
And with post, was it mainly about tying everything together to bring out the tension of the circumstances?
After we wrapped, Daniel and I worked closely on the edit to keep the tension high. It’s an anxious, uncomfortable thing and we didn’t want the pace to let up. To achieve the grain of a film fifty years old, we were lucky enough to get the genius colorist Andrew Francis to give us the final texture we needed. The most honest thing about the movie is its ultimate untidiness. In the end, the film is more interested in asking “How do we move forward when the call is coming from inside the house?”
Daniel and I worked closely on the edit to keep the tension high. It’s an anxious, uncomfortable thing and we didn’t want the pace to let up.
When will you be returning to the director’s chair and what else are you working on at present?
As for upcoming projects, I’ve been writing a feature screenplay, based on the forthcoming short A Time for Men, that further interrogates the fraught relationship between gay men and masculinity; how it’s both alien and erotic, prohibitive and an undeniable aspect of our privilege. I’d also love to direct another short. Kyle Smolic and I have been scheming an erotic thriller that takes place after a chance encounter at the car wash. Something to steam the mirror!