Sophie Kargman talks Susie Searches

Kiersey Clemons in Susie Searches. Courtesy of TIFF.

Sophie Kargman sat down with Solzy at the Movies shortly after the world premiere of Susie Searches last year during TIFF.

The comic thriller is an expansion of the 2020 short film and a solid feature debut. There’s been a number of comedic whodunits in recent years including Knives Out, Glass Onion, The Afterparty, Only Murders in the Building, etc. At first glance, Susie Searches looks like a regular ol’ whodunit. But as we dive in and learn more, it becomes something completely different. You see, most films, let alone TV series, would not do their big reveal so early in the movie. Audiences tend to know more than the characters just by nature of how this genre usually works. However, filmmaker Sophie Kargman changes the game here by showing us early on just who did it and their planning. The thriller aspect comes in how to stop others, including the local sheriff’s department, from figuring it out. That’s where the fun comes in watching the film.

Kargman wrote the story for the film while William Day Frank wrote the screenplay. Kiersey Clemons leads a cast that includes Alex Wolff, Dolly Wells, Ken Marino, David Walton, Rachel Sennott, Isaac Powell, Alex Moffat, Geoffrey Owens, Jared Gilman, Colby Lewis, and Jim Gaffigan.

Susie Searches is now playing in theaters and available to buy or rent on VOD.

Sophie Kargman attends the Susie Searches premiere during the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.
Sophie Kargman attends the “Susie Searches” Premiere during the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival at TIFF Bell Lightbox on September 9, 2022 in Toronto, Ontario (Photo by Jeremy Chan/Getty Images).

It’s nice to meet in person. When did you start to get the idea to expand the short into feature film?

Sophie Kargman: Believe it or not, our goal was to create the proof-of-concept short and the feature film at the same time. While we did create them at the same time, our goal was to go out with them as a package deal. My co-creator and screenwriter of Suzie, Will Frank, and I crafted the story of Suzie Searches the short, then I went to direct it. When I was in post, he was finishing the rough screenplay of the feature and then he sent it to me, and I don’t have notes, went back and forth. Finally, when he felt it was in a good enough place, we sent finished products together as a duo.

One of the things I found so interesting, is that that reveal come so early. It’s like, oh, what’s going to happen from here on out?

Sophie Kargman: Yeah. One of the things that’s so much fun about the movie is that what you might think—typically, that reveal would be at the end of the movie. It happens so early so it sort of takes you on this totally different journey of like, Well, now that we know what’s going to happen to her. My hope is that we at this point, we’re rooting for her. We love her. We want her to sort of figure her shit out because we see ourselves in her.

What was it like to direct this comic cast?

Sophie Kargman: Incredible. I could go on and on about how lucky I was to get to work with these tremendous actors. How long do you have? No (Laughs). Um, yeah, I love that they’re obviously tremendous actors. I love these people as humans. I would say the Kiersey, because she’s in every single scene of the movie, certainly has the hardest job because there’s no scene that she’s not in. Her attitude on set, her preparedness, her work ethic, her ability to take direction—I really can’t say enough about how much I love Kiersey, how much I love working with her.

Alex’s emotional well is uncanny. I don’t know how much you know about Alex but he’s certainly a chameleon and a bit of a method actor. He took Jesse and he metabolized it in such a beautiful way. He went the extra mile—he created an actual Instagram persona Jesse Wilcox Loves Peace. He would post about it. He had this haircut. A lot of his Instagram posts, like his poem that we saw, that was Alex. Yeah, I love these two actors, their generosity. The fact that they trusted me was as a first-time feature filmmaker is also a gift.

When did you all go into principal photography?

Sophie Kargman: I think our start date was November 20—we actually moved the date so many times that I’m like what is the date because we were going to be in upstate New York then we moved to Westchester but maybe it was November 17. Our wrap date was December 17. It was a five-week shoot but we had Thanksgiving in between so we shot for two weeks, then we had Thanksgiving break, and then we shot for the last three weeks.

Was this 2020 or 2021?

Sophie Kargman: This was this past November, December.

So well after Rachel really hit it big with Shiva Baby.

Sophie Kargman: Yeah. I saw Shiva Baby. I was blown away by her. I was like G-d, wouldn’t she be an incredible Jillian. The role is small but it’s a great fun, small role and I was like, Can we try for her? She read it and she loved it. We met for three hours and she said yes. It was so wonderful. She loved the script but I think having other really wonderful comedic actors with these small but juicy roles maybe helped convince her. I have no idea. It doesn’t matter because she said yes. I love Rachel. I think she’s such a star and is going to be such a star.

Yeah, and then you’ve got comedians like David Walton, Jim Gaffigan.

Sophie Kargman: Ken Marino, Geoffrey Owens, Dolly Wells. I don’t know how I got so lucky. They did respond to the script. Jim was Jim. Jim was polite, incredible, disarming, sweet. He was on tour. He had a crazy schedule, came and gave us his time, and was amazing to work with. David Walton—I love so much. David was so much fun. David’s also a really good friend of mine so I actually had always envisioned David as Deputy Graham. I was just so thrilled he said yes. Geoffrey Owens knocked my socks off—so funny. Dolly.

When we were about to go into production, I was like, How is this my cast? They were lovely people. So often, you might work with incredible actors but the experience on set might not be as wonderful as in this case. I mean, that’s actually part of the reason why I storyboarded because you want to make sure that your actors feel safe. As a first-time feature filmmaker, they don’t necessarily know what they’re getting themselves into. It was always incredibly important to me to be the most prepared person on set, the person who is at set the first and there the latest. I think that my passion for the love of the material, I hope, was infectious.

Pandemic aside, what was most challenging aspect of the production?

Sophie Kargman: A couple things but I would say not having stand-ins. Do not underestimate the importance of stand-ins. Filmmaking, especially filmmaking on a budget is all checks and balances and you’re giving up this to get that. We ultimately decided, because having stand-ins, you’re testing two new crew members every day, it was a much larger expense than what it would typically be and so we decided not to have them, ultimately. I won’t do that again because it’s tough to light. You’re trying to pull people in that are doing other jobs and I’m like, do you mind sitting there because I need to look at the frame. It was more difficult than I thought it would be.

I would also say for filmmakers, it’s so important that holding is close to set. If you have holding that’s super far away, it cuts down time because you’ve got your actors coming to and from holding to set. In our case, it was tough to get holding super close to set but time is money, money is time. I think that moving forward, articulating how important having holding that’s close as possible to set is something that I will vocalize more because you don’t know—you can’t get it all and so you have to make sacrifices. But when time is limited, everything matters.

What were the challenges of doing post-production during a pandemic?

Sophie Kargman: I would say production during the pandemic was a lot more difficult than having post. Post, we were in the pandemic but I was actually able to be in the room with my editor, which is a thrill. I couldn’t imagine editing the movie virtually with her or on a Zoom. It’s such an intimate process editing a movie, and especially for me, my editor, Christine Park, is so intrinsic to my creative process that to not be with her in person, I couldn’t imagine that. I would say that was really lucky. It was really just us and our assistant editor, that’s it. We were really, really small. My post-production supervisor, Jeff, was in New York but really on a day-to-day, it was just the three of us. It was a very small, tight group. The production, because of the sheer amount of people, was more daunting just because if someone gets Covid, it just becomes a huge thing—do we shut down, do we need to shut down, contact tracing, etc. Luckily, post was just very intimate so it was easier.

How honored are you to be playing the film in Toronto?

Sophie Kargman: I am so unbelievably honored. Isn’t this the dream? It feels very lucky. I feel very grateful because you make art and you send it out. We just finished filming the movie in December. There’re a lot of visual effects just because there’s a lot of screens in the film and a lot of graphics. It was very, very quick post process but I think also storyboarding helps with that a lot maybe because you know exactly what you want—the architecture and my editor was very involved with my storyboarding process from the get go. When you finish it, you hope that it will respond to a larger audience but artists’ objective and we found out really quick and response has been incredible. It’s been a thrill.

When did you know you wanted to become a filmmaker?

Sophie Kargman: I have been a student of film my whole life—since I was 10. I think initially watching film made me feel less alone. It was a way to rest my overactive hypercritical brain. As time went on, it exposed me to things that I’d never seen before and it made me more empathetic, more open, and more compassionate as a human.

I love this medium. It has the ability to change mindsets or preconceived notions in a way that a lot of other mediums don’t have. Initially, I thought the way in to film and TV—the storytelling vessel rather was the actor. I was like, Oh, the way in is being an actor. I wasn’t quite—this is when I was young—realizing that there is a director, a writer, and a crew behind that actor telling the story.

I’ve been acting since I was 10. I went to Harvard University for college and won the acting prize called the Jonathan Levy Award for the most promising undergraduate actor. I moved to LA and I was auditioning. I got an agent. I was booking movies and TV. Some of it was good and some of it wasn’t. I think the thing that was sort of the most enlightening about that experience is how little control I had. I realized if I really wanted to have agency, I had to be the creator so I started writing short films and acting in them and then acting in and producing them. I started writing and directing short films. The truth is, once I started directing, I had this come-to moment where I was like, Oh my G-d, what have I been doing for so long? It was that unique confluence of all my analytical and my creative, but it was all my different talents wrapped into one job. Once I started directing, I was like, I don’t think I can do anything else.

That was everything I had. Thank you so much.

Sophie Kargman: Thank you so much. It was such a thrill to meet you. Thank you again for your wonderful review. You got the film. It’s a tricky tone. It just made me so happy—your review, your insights, you got it. It made me so happy to read it.

Vertical released Susie Searches in theaters and VOD on July 28, 2023.

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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.