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Short Films in Focus: Go Ahead, Grab Time by the Throat

This is hard to admit, but sometimes when you program short films for a festival, your heart begins to sink a little with each entry. That happened to me one year. Was it me or was it the films? Maybe me. Maybe just a bad batch. For some reason, during that time, there was a distinct lack of joy, of playfulness, of personal risk in the work being sent in for consideration. Most films just left me cold. 

Then, out of the blue, I was sent “Go Ahead, Grab Time By the Throat” and my attitude changed. Here was a film that lifted me out of my seat and sucked me right in. Yes, it’s a tried and true story for a personal short film (moving on after a break up). It doesn’t have a hugely ambitious production. Yet what directors Abby Pierce and Clare Cooney have achieved here is a wonderfully unassuming, low-key approach to profound ideas about how we choose to capture the biggest moments in our lives, good and bad. It’s a sad story that has one eye already looking forward to a bright future. We get to see part of that future in the film’s final moments, a burst of creative joy I wouldn’t dream of giving away. 

Pierce is also the subject of the film, which is a hybrid of documentary and scripted narrative, all of which is acted by the people actually involved, including her ex-boyfriend. Cooney (the extremely talented actor/director of another great short film, “Runner”) shows up later. Pierce and her boyfriend have broken up. Or have they? They broke up and got engaged at the same time, which is confusing for everyone around her. Even she doesn’t quite know how to explain it. Not yet. She moves back in with her parents, who accept the situation even though they (like us) have lots of questions. 

One directorial masterstroke is the break-up itself. Pierce and Cooney utilize a slow, overlapping dissolve as we see both the marriage/break-up proposal and the subsequent moving out of the apartment, all in the same room with a static camera phone. Pierce uses the camera the way many of us do: to capture the precious moments in life, except she’s capturing the sadness as well, not out of any kind of narcissism or any perceived duty to a social media-based audience, but because it makes sense to remember these moments as well as the birthdays, vacations and graduations. 

There is a wisdom to this idea that might make you consider the value in recording life’s worst moments. And what becomes of that footage? Pierce has made the choice to share it and recreate it for us. Somehow, it never feels like self-indulgence or self-pity. When you think about it there are a lot of ways this could have gone wrong, but Pierce makes a wise choice in having an outside voice (Cooney) come in and help shape and mold this film into a wholly satisfying experience that makes a lot of sense and is actually quite funny.

“Go Ahead, Grab Time By The Throat” has become one of my favorite short films that I’ve seen in the past few years and I almost can't explain why. Maybe it’s that feeling of being in the room with two people who are at the end of something special, only to feel the rush of catharsis and joy by the end, all in a space of 13 minutes, with a structure that almost defies description, all without calling attention to itself. By the end, to quote the film itself, “it feels f**king great.” 

Q&A with Abby Pierce and Clare Cooney

How did you decide that this experience should be made into this kind of hybrid of narrative and documentary?

CLARE COONEY: It presented itself naturally—Abby takes a lot of videos and documents her life. The way she documented this pivotal, climactic moment in her relationship (and the way she essentially stepped outside of an intimate moment to direct and observe it from an outside perspective) was wildly fascinating to me. We wanted to weave that piece of footage into the film, and so we decided to lean into using real life videos throughout, along with narrative recreations and devised moments. I don't think this story could be told without using both narrative footage and documentary footage—that's essentially what it is about. Watching yourself growing and changing and experiencing heartbreak... in the exact moment that you're living it. But to some extent, we all put a narrative arc or story onto our experiences, because that's how we make sense of our lives, right? 

ABBY PIERCE: This project is unlike anything I’ve ever made, and probably will ever make again. The impetus was a real-life cell phone video of James and I getting engaged while simultaneously breaking up. An admittedly odd place to find inspiration, but it did kick off the project with a “documentary” element. When fleshing out the story, Clare and I rested on our more traditional narrative backgrounds. We did keep the fictional elements as close to the real-life occurrences as possible. Looking back on it two years later, I can see that I was trying to make sense out of inner chaos by re-telling my own story in narrative form—a classic move for heartbroken artists everywhere. The genre-bend was less of a decision and more of an inevitability, but once we realized the nature of the film we leaned into it.

How did this come to be a collaboration between you two? How did that collaboration help mold the film? 

AP: Clare is not a needy friend, and through the entirety of our friendship there was one particular night where this girl blew up my phone so hard that it felt insane not to invite her over. I remember saying to myself, “What the?—fine, come on in then!” It ended up being an incredible night talking about relationships, cross-country moves, and the next version of our new selves. Lots of permission passed back and forth. We also decided to make “Grab Time” that night. The spirit of saying “yes!” and the energy of our friendship was a throughline in the tone of the film. This film isn’t hiding much, so you can see pieces of conversation from that night played out in the last scene. Clare is wildly talented, knows how to execute, and I trust her. What more could I ask for in a collaborator? 

CC: The audience sort of gets to watch how the collaboration began in the film, because we recreated that scene! We got together on a rainy evening, very spur of the moment, to have some wine and catch up. After a glass or two, we were surprised to discover 1) that we were both going through major breakups, 2) that we were both leaving Chicago in a few short months—Abby was moving to New York and I was moving to Los Angeles. It was an oddly serendipitous evening. Abby showed me the video of her breakup/proposal and my jaw dropped. I asked her dozens of questions—What does this mean for your relationship? And WHY did you film this?! We chatted for hours about our breakups, about our upcoming moves, about Abby's urge to capture her experiences in real time, and about how we wanted to make one final movie before we left Chicago and our lives changed forever. The evening felt epic in just about every way. So, we decided to make a movie about it! Abby wrote a big outline and I wrote back a bunch of ideas. We met up again to chat and brainstorm. 

I think that level of closeness, trust, and collaboration was necessary for us to work on such an intimate, personal project like this. On the day of filming, Abby really had to focus on being an actor (and staying sane!) while I worked with our DP Olivia, the crew, and the other actors—so she really had to trust me and trust our shared vision. I feel very honored that she put that trust in me, and that she wanted my input and collaboration for what is a very autobiographical story. Then in post-production the film continued to evolve and change (as it always does) as I edited together our devised Alexa footage and our iPhone documentary footage. It was a really creative and collaborative process throughout. 

Has your ex-boyfriend seen the film? If so, what was his reaction to it?

AP: James has been incredibly generous in giving us permission and helping us make it. He has seen the film and called it “beautiful.” It took a long time for him to watch it, and we really haven't had too much conversation around it because ... awkward, much? Can you ask him what he really thinks about it for me? I am curious. 

This is obviously an incredibly personal piece of work. Was there ever a fear of revealing too much?

CC: In the early days of writing, I remember Abby texting me "I'm getting fully naked! In all the ways! hahahah" and I thought "oh boy." 

AP: Yes. I was afraid then, I am afraid now, and everybody else was/is afraid for me. But, we’ll all be dead someday. May as well pull on the string of inspiration while I have the energy for it. It’s not a graceful philosophy, but it’s enough permission for me to keep making vulnerable work. “Oh boy” indeed.

I will say, I received very smart and thoughtful notes on the film from trusted, talented male filmmakers recommending me to “pull back” which may have propelled me further in the opposite direction. 

The ending (which I’m not giving away) is such a bold choice and says so much about how we document our lives through acting and reenacting. How did you arrive at the decision to end it this way?

AP: We were already experimenting with the meta nature of using ourselves as subjects, so we figured why not drive the themes home with one last gesture of transparency between the creators and the viewers? 

CC: The *very* last moment, right before we hit the credits, was something we discovered while editing the film—I just loved it and thought it was the perfect ending. But the choice to include that iPhone "reveal" was actually in the very first outline Abby made. We knew the film was inherently about the need to record ourselves, watch ourselves ... the attempt to hold onto fleeting moments. So much was changing in both of our lives. We wanted to grab time by the throat. 

What’s next for you?

CC: 2021’s been a surprisingly good year, creatively. This year I’ve directed two short films, one called “Pick Up” which I also wrote (you can watch this one on Omeleto!) and the other is called “After” which will be hitting festivals in 2022. I got to act in and help produce Michael Smith’s latest feature film “Relative, which will be in festivals in 2022 as well, and right now I have a recurring role on the new series “4400,” which is airing right now on The CW. I’m in the early stages of developing a couple features and have been slowly writing a series ... I’m really hungry to direct long-form content, so that’s a major goal for 2022. As is collaborating with Abby again, duh (potentially “Grab Time by the Throat,” the feature…?!)

AP: I am in New York City teaching improv to incarcerated communities which I have been doing for the last seven years. Right now, I am writing a TV show about the mother of improv, Viola Spolin, and some other historical female geniuses that changed the world but were somehow left out of my school’s curriculum. Clare’s an incredible filmmaker and I will do anything she tells me to. That may include plopping a story structure on top of my personal life and developing “Grab Time” into a feature. Makes me wonder what part of the film I’m in now? Hm. I hope the juicy part of a rom-com and not the impending doom of a drama. Thinking about continuing this experiment has me curious and makes me want to barf ... which is a great way to enter into an artistic endeavor. Shall we, Clare?!

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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