SXSW 2021: Jess Brunetto talks Sisters

Mary Holland and Sarah Burns in SISTERS. Cinematography by Wes Cardino.

First-time director Jess Brunetto spoke with Solzy at the Movies about her short film, Sisters, ahead of the SXSW premiere.

The gist of the film is that hidden secrets cause tension when two estranged sisters, Andy (Mary Holland) and Emily (Sarah Burns), are forced to confront each other while preparing for their ailing mother’s (Florence C.M. Klein) death. The rest of the cast includes Jorma Taccone, Angelina Spicer, and Rob Huebel.

Jess Brunetto
Jess Brunetto. Photo by Wes Cardino.

How thrilled are you for Sisters to premiere at SXSW?

Jess Brunetto: It is hard to articulate my excitement for the premiere of Sisters. First and foremost, it feels surreal that the film is getting out into the world. I am so proud of everyone involved in this project and I don’t know how I can ever repay my cast and crew for believing in this short and in myself. It was a long journey to get to SXSW, and now that we’re here, it feels like the best possible festival for Sisters to have its World Premiere.

What was the genesis behind the script?

Jess Brunetto: Sisters was conceived after my oldest sister and brother-in-law provided home care for his ailing mother until her passing. The concrete details of my sister’s life mixed with the memories of our childhood helped me conjure examples of real life humor, which gave the film an authenticity that I hope will have an emotional impact for the audience.

How did the cast come together?

Jess Brunetto: I made a big list of female comedians that I adored and, because I’ve been editing comedy for so long, I was fortunate enough to have connections to some of them. I’ve been a huge fan of Sarah Burns for years- Enlightened is one my favorites series of all time- and Mary Holland is just hilarious, so they were both at the top of the list. When I sent them the script and they both said “yes” I was like, “holy crap, that was easy!” The best part was they had always wanted to work together, but never had the chance until Sisters, so I lucked out in many ways.

Jess, you’re a longtime editor so how did you come to the decision to make Sisters your directorial debut?

Jess Brunetto: I started my career as an editor on documentaries by Michael Moore and working on projects with social commentary has always been at the core of what I do. I am somewhat obsessed with finding the humor in life’s most serious situations and I knew Sisters could have a playfulness that was the right tone to anchor my style as a writer and director.

Who are some of your filmmaking influences?

Jess Brunetto: Agnes Varda has been my biggest influence as a filmmaker since college. I’ve always looked to her as a beacon of hope because she was able to find her voice and audience in a male dominated industry. Cleo From 5 to 7 is such a beautiful, insightful film about a woman who is waiting to receive the results of a cancer screening, but it manages to find humor while dealing with such a serious subject matter. It’s one of my favorite movies and is a major influence for me.

What was the most challenging part of the production?

Jess Brunetto: The biggest challenge during the production was adapting the script to fit our location. I had originally written it to have the mother set up in a bedroom, but the bedroom in our location was too small to fit the bed, the cast, the crew, and all the necessary film equipment. If we’d stuck with that setup, we would have been severely limited in terms of what kinds of coverage we could get in there, so I decided to move the mother into the living room. This ended up changing the dynamic of the entire film. Suddenly, the mother (Florence C.M. Klein) became this central force around which the drama between the sisters could play out. You can see her looming in the background of all these scenes which wasn’t something I’d thought possible when writing the script. It ended up lending this haunting presence to the whole movie and, sometimes, humor, too. And you know what? In real life, when families are providing home care for a loved one, they often don’t have the room to fit a bed, monitors and various other medical equipment neatly into their house, so they end up putting them in communal areas. My husband’s grandparents had to transform their dining room into a home care facility when his grandmother couldn’t walk upstairs anymore, so staging the mom in the living room also made Sisters feel a lot more authentic.

If I didn’t know any better, I would have thought this was filmed during the pandemic! At what point did you give up on an in-person premiere and start submitting to film festivals knowing that the film would probably have a virtual premiere?

Jess Brunetto: For me, the World Premiere is more about finding the right home for Sisters, regardless of whether that’s a virtual or in-person event. SXSW has been a big supporter of comedy and female filmmakers in general, so to me they were the perfect fit for this short. I am truly honored that they accepted our film and they have clearly put a lot of time and thought into their virtual festival platform. That said, maybe one day they will host an in-person retrospective event, something like “SXSW: the pandemic years.” I’d go to that!

Is this an idea that you would like to adapt into a feature film?

Jess Brunetto: I would love to adapt Sisters into a feature film or even a series, but it would depend on a lot of different factors. My creative/life partner (producer Christian Baker) and I are always working on new ideas, but it would be fun to expand the world of Sisters and see what kinds of trouble Emily and Andy get up to down the road.

Is there anything you want people to take away from watching the film?

Jess Brunetto: Somehow, Sisters feels more prevalent now, in the context of a global pandemic, than when we were shooting it. There are a lot of people taking care of aging or ailing family members in the United States, perhaps now more than ever before. I’d want for them to see a movie that they can relate to, a movie that has heart but also makes them smile. That’s my hope.

Sisters holds its world premiere during the 2021 SXSW Film Festival in the Narrative Shorts Competition.

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.