Michael Stahl-David co-starred in last year’s SXSW Audience Award winner, The Light of the Moon, and returns to the film festival with the short film, We Win. Stahl-David took some time this week to speak to Solzy at the Movies about the film and how it came together.
Thanks for joining Solzy at the Movies today. How are things treating you?
Michael Stahl-David: Hi Solzy! Thanks for your interest! Things are good – can’t wait to come back to Austin!
Your new short film, We Win, is set to premiere on March 10th. How much of a thrill is it to come back to SXSW with a film you directed after co-starring in The Light of the Moon last year?
Michael Stahl-David: This’ll be my 4th time with a film in the festival but my first as director, which feels very different and is super exciting. I was in Colombia filming Narcos during last year’s fest so I wasn’t able to be there for The Light of the Moon. I was actually hiking in the mountains above an old colonial village on the day last March when I got the call from our director that Light of the Moon won the SXSW Audience award. I was thrilled as I knew it would give us a boost to get an important film to people who wanna see it. But being at the fest as more of a creator is a good feeling – I’m looking forward to seeing the other shorts and meeting other young filmmakers.
I spoke to Stephanie Beatriz in December about The Light of the Moon. Looking back on the last year, is it crazy to think that the film would be so timely when it came out?
Michael Stahl-David: Uhhhhhh yeah. Frankly, marketing a small indie film about sexual assault is never easy. Especially during a time of such tumult in the world – many people don’t want to deal with challenging subjects – it’s understandable. But there’s also a huge amount of new focus on how to prevent violence against women, and we are excited to bring our film to a mass audience via Amazon where it’s now streaming and on our college tour where we are meeting with young people create a space to discuss the film and the issues it raises.
With your new film, you’ve re-teamed with The Light of the Moon cinematographer Autumn Eakin. Is this a testament to just how great of a job that she did with The Light of the Moon?
Michael Stahl-David: Yes it is! And also that she’s a cool person and might be down to work on a short even though she’s quite established in her career and focused more on features. We shot the film in 2 days with about 10 speaking roles so we knew it was going to be a challenge and I needed someone who could pull together a good crew and run a tight ship.
What were you all going for with regards to framing and light?
Michael Stahl-David: Well it’s a comedy and a party so we needed lighting for night, that hints at a festive mood but still bright to register everyone’s expression clearly since a lot of the comedy plays there. In terms of framing I liked the idea of Rachel in front of this gorgeous bookshelf full of art books and interesting objects – since her character is on a creative streak in the film, whereas Ben is in front of the kitchen, hinting at the emasculation he feels in being passed up career-wise by his wife.
The most notable shot framing-wise was where we track towards and zoom in on Rachel after she’s been eliminated from the game. I wanted to create a sense of claustrophobia for her, a sense of disorientation – she’s not so petty as to think her feeling betrayed is justified so she’s confused at what she’s really upset about. I wanted Ana to play it very subtly and the camera to do some of the work for her. I also wanted to eschew conventional coverage for that scene both for time and variety.
Ana Nogueira co-wrote the screenplay and also co-stars in the film as Rachel. How did you all come up with the idea of setting the film around a Mafia game?
Michael Stahl-David: Ana and I were in a play together called Engagements at Second Stage uptown in the summer of 2016. We became train buddies since we live close to each other in Brooklyn and on one of our long rides I told her about a mafia night I went to with a bunch of actors and playwrights where I witnessed this amazingly stressful/funny tense exchange between a couple. I told her I always wanted to make a short about it. Let’s do it! She said. So while I was in Colombia we wrote the script by sending pages back and forth and talking over Skype. It took us a while to find a concise way to execute the story- our first draft was 30 pages and took place over a year whereas the final film happens over the course of an evening.
Mafia is a game that can reveal scary things about the way you’re perceived – when you’re telling the truth and are called a liar, or when you think personal allegiances will be honored and they aren’t. We thought it would be fun to explore a relationship where the problems between them are buried – for various reasons neither feel comfortable explaining what they’re really feeling, and so they lash out in subtle and misguided ways.
William Jackson Harper co-stars in the film as Rachel’s husband, Ben. How were you able to land him for the film?
Michael Stahl-David: I saw Will in a play called You Got Older a few years ago and have been a fan ever since. We have mutual friends so I was able to get his number and just send him the script. He’s a game dude and luckily responded positively to the script.
Given that you’re a SXSW veteran, what advice would you give to a first-timer?
Michael Stahl-David: Try to enjoy where you are and who you’re talking too and not get caught up in Fomo – there’s so much going on that it’s an easy trap! Also I’ve heard the taco events of Friday are great!
Thanks again for your time and congrats on the film.