Looking Back at Small Talk

Holy god, movie-making never ends. Small Talk was conceived, what, six years ago? I started writing it in fall of 2011, shot it in fall of 2012, started screening it fall of 2013, and here we are today with it finally coming out on VOD this coming FRIDAY THE 13th (preorder here! The deluxe edition has tonnnnns of behind-the-scenes gems if you’re into such things. Some that you can ONLY get if you preorder!)

And I still want to recut it. Sigh.

When I look back over this whole process, I’m overcome with gratitude. To the people who gave me useful input on the script, those who backed my Kickstarter and thus made production possible, everyone who brought their A-game to that weird, little production, every festival who said “god, yes” (or at least “…okay”) rather than “hell no!”, every person who sponsored a festival submission, every reviewer and blogger who wrote thoughtfully about the film, every person who took the time to watch…

It’s a weird film. I wrote and produced it as a thesis film for The City College of New York’s MFA program. I also did that MFA program in large part so that I could make this film.

Small Talk isn’t really a film school kinda film, though. Most of my teachers didn’t really…like it? I think is the technical term? I was given many suggestions for how to make it “better,” most involving cutting out the horror elements (especially the gory ones) and bulking up back story on how a nice young girl who is supposed to be our protagonist got mixed up in the odd and off-putting world of phone sex because wtf. Also to cut the Jay Starks scene and the smoking/shoe fetishist scene. Also make my protagonist more”likable” and “sympathetic.”

I got those pieces of feedback over and over again.

I wasn’t going to do any of those things. Well, I briefly cut the smoking/shoe scene because the film is just so long for a short and it wasn’t crucial for the plot and I was in that butcher editor mode of trimming every fucking thing I could squint and see as fat, but realized immediately that it was a mistake, in terms of pacing and messaging, strange as that might sound. I needed a benign phone sex scene. I had to trust my own instincts regarding what was and wasn’t important.

I told myself that if I stuck to my guns and made the movie I wanted to see, there would be other people who liked it, too. That I wasn’t the only one who wanted to see a movie about professional phone sex from the perspective of someone who’d done it, that delved into some of the interesting, at times upsetting psychic terrain that gets dug up in that industry. With cathartic gore. Let’s be real, the gore was a big part of the point.

Ruthellen Cheney and Manini Gupta star in a film that isn’t fun for the whole family!

This isn’t a movie for everyone. It’s a movie for a small audience. I wanted to serve that audience rather than aim for mass appeal. What is the goddamn point of crowdfunding and having complete creative control if you try to please everyone? I knew that if the film was successful on my own terms, it would be polarizing. Much as I want everyone to like me and crave validation, I had to just embrace that.

I cannot express how moved I am by the fact that the small, enthusiastic audience I imagined actually exists. That there are people who like, even love this movie. That this very weird, very personal project has been so well received by so many. It didn’t always feel like that would be the case.

It didn’t feel like it when my professors and classmates tore apart the script and said combining psychological horror, comedy, and gore could never work and why wasn’t Jay Starks the protagonist instead and actually just cut that scene because it’s too confusing that you’re making such a “good guy” seem creepy. Or when I was struggling to reach my Kickstarter goal and didn’t know if I’d even be able to make the film at all. Especially when my Kickstarter campaign was straight-up mocked online by dudes needing inane listicle content who thought the idea of making a phone sex-themed horror movie was absolutely preposterous just in and of itself (well, that half made me doubt myself and half made me think I must be on to something, tbh.) Or when I was getting deeper and deeper into credit card debt via WithoutABox fees to festivals that went on to reject me, one after the other…

Until one didn’t. And then more didn’t. I was babysitting when I got the email from Fright Night inviting Small Talk to screen there in the summer of 2015. That was my first festival and first trip to Louisville, KY. There I met filmmaker Johannes Grenzfurthner who was there with the excellent Die Gstettensaga: The Rise of Echsenfriedl. (Go seek out his excellent new doc about globalized nerd culture, Traceroute!!!) He invited me to come screen Small Talk at Arse Elektronika that coming fall, which allowed me to take my first-ever trip to San Francisco. Arse Elektronika is a festival about sex and tech, not films specifically, and it felt like home. People were open and interested and I WON AN AWARD. Small Talk was the first film ever to win a Golden Kleene award at Arse Elektronika and oh my lord, was that validating. In one evening Small Talk went from being a phone sex horror comedy to an AWARD WINNING phone sex horror comedy. And the award came from exactly the sort of community I’d hoped would embrace this film. I think I cried.

This is my Golden Kleene award. Really. Freakin’ Rainbow Dash. BOOM.

I’m not used to winning things, like, just in general, and one doesn’t make a film like Small Talk because one is angling for awards, but that doesn’t mean the recognition isn’t appreciated. It’s all the more moving. I’m getting choked up just thinking about it!

From there on, we started to find our audience. We were accepted at more festivals. We won more awards. We got amazing reviews. We played the SF Bay Area Sex Workers Film and Art Festival, the festival at which I’d most wanted to screen back when I was still in school, which prompted one of my classmates to scoff “there’s a whole festival for that?

Yes, motherfucker. There sure as hell is.

We got a lot of horrified, disgusted, and confused reactions as well. We were accepted to screenings only to be told we actually couldn’t screen after all, because the hosting theater refused to play such filth. We were rejected from more festivals than accepted us, sometimes for hilarious, if disappointing reasons like “our audience will be vert disturbed.” Ok, then!

We screened at the very first Ax Wound film festival, put on by the wonderful Hannah Neurotica, to whom I’d reached out when I was Kickstarting and who has been lovely and supportive from the jump. Ax Wound remains one of my absolute favorite festival experiences, ever. I won’t lie, I usually don’t love every film I see at a festival, but I liked at least something about every single entry in the Ax Wound program. Seeing a whole day of truly creative horror shorts by women gave my whole system the creative jolt I needed, and lead directly to more than one script I hope to shoot in the foreseeable future. I met so many wonderful people, including the marvelous Ashlee Blackwell of Graveyard Shift Sisters–another early and enthusiastic supporter when I really needed such. Read her blog, it is excellent.

Me and Ashlee
Me and Ashlee
with Kristina Leath-Malin, Ashlee Blackwell, Stacy Pippi Hammon, Izzy Lee, Hannah Forman, Jay Kay, Lynne Hansen, Rina-fay Pivin and Leticia De Bortoli Alves. Please look into all of these lovely people and their awesome work!
with Kristina Leath-Malin, Ashlee Blackwell, Stacy Pippi Hammon, Izzy Lee, Hannah Forman, Jay Kay, Lynne Hansen, Rina-fay Pivin and Leticia De Bortoli Alves. Please look into all of these lovely people and their awesome work!

I’ll write more about the actual production in coming weeks, but right now I want to thank people who mostly weren’t directly involved in making the film, but who encouraged me to make it my way or were there to receive it once it was done. Everyone I already mentioned, as well as Chantal Akerman, for being literally the only professor of mine who immediately got and liked my script and gave me feedback that was useful towards better executing my vision (as opposed to changing it), as well as for everything else. Please watch her films, they will change you for the better. Jean Grae and Martin Bisi for immediately agreeing to be in my weirdo gore movie and directly inspiring me with their own uncompromising creative works. My dad for being so chill and supportive when I told him I was making this film and that it was based on personal experience. Amy R. Handler at Film Threat for giving Small Talk its first proper review and engaging so thoughtfully (even if she haaaaaaaated the ending). Michael Epstein for skipping his own screening at Fright Night (of the surprising and fantastic feature Ten, please check that out) to watch Small Talk instead. To Salena Filichia and Steve Vessel for hooking up Small Talk’s second public screening, at Louisville Gore Club, where they got me nice and drunk on delicious bourbon and allowed Small Talk to share a bill with one of my favorite horror films, Martyrs. So so so many more.

Thank you for your support.

And thank you for reading!

Leave a Reply