The tumultuous world of independent filmmaking and its constant stream of mishaps and fires to fight are extremely fertile ground for comedic exploration as astutely noted by filmmaker Bianca Poletti. Her fruitful collaboration with co-writer and actor Allison Goldfarb in new film Ultra Low builds on the partnership the pair established on their previous short Radical Honesty which we had the pleasure of featuring on DN a couple years ago. This time round Poletti and Goldfarb apply their talents to a meta comedy pointing a lighthearted mocking finger at the grand plans of a pair of indie filmmaking friends, battling against the innumerable issues that can crop up when making a low budget film. Featuring forgotten gear, vile hangovers, impromptu pit stops and frayed nerves, Ultra Low’s sharp, witty dialogue is amplified by its snappy editing which brings everything together in an enjoyable ‘doomed production’ package. We welcomed Poletti back to Directors Notes for a chat about her love for those alluring flawed characters who you can’t help but empathise with, her preference for grounded comedy and the challenges of shooting driving-based scenes in LA on a budget.

I love the chaos which comes with this seemingly straightforward shooting outing, how did Ultra Low come to be?

Radical Honesty was originally directed by another friend of Allison’s and completely different, it was a music video director friend of hers. She told me the story about the filming of that version and how everything fell apart. She didn’t have anything they needed, they ran around LA trying to pick up different pieces of gear to shoot this very simple story of two people on a bench in a park having the conversation in that film that you’ve seen. When she told me this story it just reminded me of all of the shoots I did when I first started directing and how we all get SO excited by the idea of making a film, that we forget about all of the moving parts and what’s necessary for making a film. I thought it was the perfect setup for a comedy that filmmakers could relate to and also a fun follow-up to Radical Honesty which was our first film together.

I loved how comedic these train wreck moments were and are, and we wanted to bring that to life in a purely comedic buddy-type film.

How has your relationship developed with Allison both behind and in front of the camera from Radical Honesty to Ultra Low?

Allison and I have similar tastes when it comes to stories and loving charmingly messy and flawed characters, so it’s been quite easy for us to be on the same page with things narratively. We met on a music video set that I was directing before Radical Honesty and since then, we’ve become close friends and have had the opportunity to collaborate on a few different projects together. For the most part, we work really well together. The idea for Ultra Low was further developed from the initial spark and mutual stories from when we both started making films. We spoke about how the idea of filmmaking when you’re just starting out, is that this mysteriously magical thing that just comes together seamlessly. However, then finding out the reality. Of course, filmmaking is magical and an amazing experience but it’s also a lot of hard work even with a simple script. There are a lot of moving parts needed to make something good and it can and usually does all fall apart at some point and those moments are actually pretty hilarious. I loved how comedic these train wreck moments were and are, and we wanted to bring that to life in a purely comedic buddy-type film.

What was the process of finessing and then shooting the script? Were you able to capture all the comedic beats you had mapped out?

I wanted to make sure to shoot everything that was written in the script, so I had options to play with it in the edit, but I knew that with the short being 24 pages and wanting this to be a fast-paced comedy, we were going to end up cutting a good chunk of things in post. There were a couple of small scenes, when we were running behind schedule, that I had to cut on the shoot day, knowing that they were beats that we could afford to lose and that wouldn’t affect the comedic flow of things heavily. There was a scene where Jason (the guy Faye wakes up next to at the beginning of the film) was still at her house taking his time to get out of there, calling her and asking her out on a second date, only to be interrupted by Faye’s roommate who we hear in the distance on Jason’s line. I love this beat, but we didn’t have time to shoot it and it felt like something that we could lose without affecting the overall story.

There was another scene that was a page and a half of Faye and Jason talking while making out, about her making her first movie, they’re both a bit fucked up and drunk, but he’s still pressing her about getting some rest before her shoot day, etc…I felt like it might be more interesting to go from Chloe + Faye’s opening excitement about making a movie to the morning after feeling of Faye the following day. That quick contrast I thought could be a quicker read and allow the audience to discover things a bit more for themselves instead of telling them too much immediately. Everything else that was written is in the edit for the most part along with a lot of improv beats throughout the day. Lots of improv from all of the actors, which is my fav.

In the most fabulous way Ultra Low operates on a meta level while taking the piss out of the very industry it is exploring. How did you strike that balance as it never feels excessively navel-gazey?

Thank you, that’s a really nice compliment. It helps that this film is based on a series of real-life events. We all know someone that knows someone who has had an experience similar to this, especially in the early makings of a film career. Generally speaking, I’m more drawn to comedy that’s about real people in funny situations, it helps things stay grounded without devolving into slapstick. No matter the situation, I always want to empathize with my characters, rather than mocking them outright. I love shows like Fleabag and White Lotus where we’re on this journey with those characters, we see ourselves in them, and the comedy comes from the psychology of being human. We’re all a work in progress and a bit of a mess, and I think that’s just beautiful.

Generally speaking, I’m more drawn to comedy that’s about real people in funny situations, it helps things stay grounded without devolving into slapstick.

It honestly feels like we’re riding shotgun on this little production from hell with them! How many locations did you have to get and how much time did you have to capture it?

That’s great, I love reading that and we had quite a lot! We had seven locations to fit into two shoot days in LA. Ricks’s apartment, Eric’s alleyway, Faye’s house, Outside of Chloe’s house, Park, Diner, driving roads for all of the car moments. I have an incredible producer, Shay Gianelli, who I work with on all of my films, and she and her team are truly magic. Somehow she always makes it work. Every time I come to her with an overly ambitious idea, she makes it happen. For this shoot specifically, the most stressful thing was that technically if I wanted to keep all of the shots I had planned on getting (which I did) we really could only do 1-2 takes per setup/scene. Luckily the actors in this are really strong and gave it their all on every take.

Tell us about the set-ups and actual shooting of those integral driving scenes.

OOF…long driving scenes in Los Angeles with an indie budget is complicated and a fun challenge. We originally planned on a two-day shoot. One day on a lot that served as multiple locations and gave us access to traffic-free roads and the second day at another house location for all of Faye’s solo coverage and the opening of the film when she and Chloe are on the bed talking about the idea for their film. We moved beyond quickly on the first day, but there was a lot of dialogue, a lot of setups, and a lot of comedic beats that needed to be hit, so we were chasing the sun to make it to the park location before sunset on day one and in the end, we weren’t able to shoot all of the driving moments that we needed, which was the main reason to use the backlot in the first place. It was a very pricey location so doing a pickup day there wasn’t possible budget-wise.

The second day rolled around, we were running around from the diner location, which didn’t make it into the final cut edit, to alleyways to a second house and again didn’t have time for the car moments. In the end, we had to do a third shoot day, and wing it for the driving car scenes. We booked a photo studio space in the Valley, which was our base camp, and we roamed around random neighborhoods in the valley trying to dodge any policeman or angry neighbors who might shut down our production. We were somewhat successful, with only a couple of neighbors chasing us down at one point, but in the end, we were able to get at least two takes of each setup. Note to self: In the future, only do driving-based films with an actual budget or not in LA.

Ultra Low has a vintage look with the softer tones we come to expect from film. How did you work on the film emulation?

Euphoria’s golden frames from season two and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza were huge visual inspirations for this film. Funnily enough, I’ve never actually shot on film, but I love the look of film, and with the help of my amazing colorist Mikey Rossiter we’ve been able to really get quite close to a film-like look with digital. Mikey is an absolute genius and I’m so thankful that he’s always down to work on my films with me. I sent him a few frames as inspiration a couple of weeks before the shoot, and he nailed the look immediately.

I really wanted to put us in the passenger seat with her and feel as much as we could with her in this scene.

He and my amazing DP Kayla Hoff chatted as well, and Mikey created some beautiful LUTs for us to use during the shoot and we stuck pretty closely to those tones and colors in post when coloring. I’ve always loved how California, although modern in a lot of ways, still holds on to the past in a beautiful way. There are a lot of houses untouched from the 50s sprinkled through LA in the hills and the valley and other neighborhoods. Everywhere you look there’s a beautiful vintage car parked on the street from the 50s, 70s and sometimes 40s and vintage shops on every corner. LA is a hub for artists and filmmakers and so I wanted it to be very apparent that this is a story that takes place in LA, and that’s why I wanted to lean into the retro dressing and visuals on this one.

How did you put together the amazing frantic sped-up scene where she is freaking the fuck out?

I wanted this moment to feel like her breaking point and feel a bit like her point of no return. I was very inspired by the feeling of claustrophobia and anxiety in the film Shiva Baby and a couple of episodes of The Bear. Nina Sacharow at CabinEdit is my go-to narrative editor and I talked about ways that we could flash through her memories of the night before and present day and also what kind of sound design we’d want to work in to heighten her anxiety at this moment. I really wanted to put us in the passenger seat with her and feel as much as we could with her in this scene.

The edit as a whole was a very long process, Nina is absolutely incredible and wanted the film to be as strong as it could be, so she and I worked on it for months, trying different takes, keeping in a lot of the original dialogue in the first round of cuts and then feeling like we were spending too much time with their thoughts and we wanted to play a bit more with some awkward silences throughout where they made sense and shorten it where needed. The script was originally 24 pages, which is quite long for a short film, so we really dug into every moment and tried to trim where trimming was possible without losing the pulse and meat of the story and the film as a whole.

You mentioned a Netflix pitch last time we spoke. Did anything come of that and what else are you working on?

Things are still in the works and I’m still in talks with Netflix. The strike slowed down things for a beat last year, but I’m currently working on developing my first feature with a friend Nikki Lorenzo, starring John Hawkes, while also in post for a short music film we all did together a month ago. I’m also developing another short that’s more of a coming-of-age story about a Japanese American girl. I’m really excited about exploring and creating both of these stories! Also, directing commercials throughout the year, I have a few coming up, one that shoots in Argentina and another one that shoots in Europe. Keeping busy.

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