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Short Films in Focus: A Film by Vera Vaughn

“A Film By Vera Vaughn” is one of those short films I’m hesitant to say too much about. On the other hand, it is a film to be viewed at least twice in order to get its full effect. This psychological horror short keeps the viewer guessing about the roles of the two main characters: who is who and how are they related to each other? I’m keeping things vague on purpose. 

I can say this: The film opens with a woman (Marin Ireland) coming home one night while leaving a voicemail for a friend. She might be talking about an ex-boyfriend in her message, but it isn’t quite clear. She opens her laptop and continues work on a movie poster for a film titled “A Film By Vera Vaughn.” She hears a sinister knock on her door, followed by a message on her computer saying “Click me.” She does and watches a video of …

Well, you’ll see.

And that’s just the first couple minutes of this twist-filled, ten-minute short that puts the viewer on edge very early on. One might be tempted to categorize it as a “screen thriller,” a trend that has occurred within the last few years with such movies as "Unfriended" and the more recent “Searching.” “A Film By Vera Vaughn” is better than that, though, because it does not conform to any kind of gimmick that locks it down to that particular form (if it did, I doubt I’d be writing about it, because I can’t stand the idea of “screen thrillers,” but that’s just me). It takes that gimmick and twists it around into something more personal and with a solid foundation for many discussions to be had later on about art, creation and the psychological toll the creative process can take.

Or it could just be a fun thriller in which every viewer will have their own interpretation and nobody’s answer will be wrong. Director Sorrel Brae and his co-writer Zeke Farrow have been up front about their influences for this film, from Carl Jung to David Lynch to “The Twilight Zone.” It all fits without calling too much attention to one or the other. Ireland’s performance has the perfect tone for the piece, being both fearful and tough, fooling the audience into believing what they see. Brae, Farrow and Ireland trick the audience two-fold and then three-fold. I enjoyed being tricked and tricked again. 

Q&A with director and co-writer Sorrel Brae (SPOILERS!)

How did this film come about?

My writing partner, Zeke Farrow, and I had been playing around with this Russian doll narrative structure on a few drafts of a feature script but it wasn’t quite working. So, partially to get a new perspective and partially to prove I could create suspense with one woman and a computer in a room, I distilled out our core ideas for this standalone short. I've spent a lot of time shooting commercials and, in that world, it can be difficult to branch out or try new things because no one is interested in taking risks, so I had a growing hunger to shoot something I wouldn’t otherwise be allowed to. And once the script was finished and Marin was onboard, the very talented production team I work with on commercials was eager to help, probably for similar reasons.

What kind of preparation did Marin Ireland have to go through to prior to shooting this film?

Marin is an incredible talent and extremely professional. I learned a lot watching her work. So much of the film hinges on watching her plausibly react to something that's impossibly surreal and, to the degree it works, it’s because of her ability to maintain that emotional realism and carefully portion out her disbelief and dread. It’s very hard for me to imagine anyone else pulling it off better. 

After she agreed to do the film, we spoke about the project a few times and about the technical ways we could differentiate her two characters—like through wardrobe and hair. And my AD and Producer, Arle Bordas and Stephanie Haberman, arranged the schedule so that Marin could stay in a single character each day to help her performance (as well as our art, hair, and wardrobe departments). But really she did much of her work internally and protected that emotional space throughout the shoot. I gave her a few notes at the beginning but, once she understood the tone, she took it and ran with it.

There are a few tricks that have to be pulled off here. Were you at any point worried you were showing too much or not enough?

As storytellers, we’re always trying to keep our audience’s interest and there’s this fine line between boring them with predictability and losing them with opaqueness. And when you know the story inside and out, it can be challenging to put yourself in the shoes of a first-time viewer. I think that balance comes down to an instinct or a feeling. Almost like a song, is it rhythmic or not? And you’re never going to nail it perfectly. The mystery that one person finds compelling and satisfying may bore someone else or completely confuse a third person.

There were a few technical tricks we endeavored to do that may not be immediately noticeable but I think helped build mood. For example, the “dark” world’s scenes are all horizontally flopped from the “bright” world’s scenes. Most people don’t notice but if you pay attention you’ll see that everything in the apartment is backwards. But to pull that off, we had to preload backward content on the computer screen so it could be flipped in the final cut. It was a little puzzle on set but worth the effort to create that unsettling feeling that something is not quite right for this character.

It’s a very tight, economical ten minutes. Were there any other ideas you had for it that ended up not making the cut?

There are definitely some more visual tricks and mind-puzzles that Zeke and I had for the feature script that didn’t make it into the short but, because the parallel construction of the narrative is so specific, I had to make all those choices at the script phase. I did cut a few lines from the opening but everything else in the film tracks pretty close to the page. And I tend to be pretty brutal when it comes to length. So many things I see are in desperate need of an edit and I have a lot of respect for short films that manage to be powerful and compelling and short.

What’s next for you?

Disneyland? I don’t know. There’s been some interest in adapting this short into a feature so that may happen. This business is difficult to predict so I try to focus on things I can control, like writing my own material and shooting smaller projects. I’ve just finished a new (and very different kind of) thriller feature script that I’m excited to send out so we’ll see where that goes.

Collin Souter

Collin Souter has been reviewing films in Chicago for 14 years, most notably on WGN Radio where he has been a part of the movie review segment every week on The Nick Digilio Show.

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