l Do Desire We be Better Strangers

by ThinkCONTRA

“Creativity is maximized when you’re living in the moment.” (unknown)

It was exactly one year ago that David Pring-Mill got an impulsive idea for a short film. The Canadian-born writer and director was watching the weather report from his New York apartment when he learned that a snowstorm would be hitting Manhattan.

Almost instinctively, Pring-Mill wanted to make a film. He wanted the film to be set in the aftermath of the storm. He made a few phone calls, one of which was to friend and comedian Andrew Schulz. He asked Shulz if he’d participate in his last-minute project, and Schulz agreed (The two had previously collaborated on pilot for the show “American Depravity).  He’d also got a hold of actress and comedian Brooke Bundy, and sound technician Harris Karlin. The next day, the team was knee-high in a snow-covered Central Park. They filmed all day with no script, in a style known as “guided improvisation.” The four knew they were in for a long day in the cold; what they didn’t know was that they were collaborating on what would be an award-winning short film.

What emerged from their day-long efforts was the short film “Strangers in the Snow,” a story that takes up the idea of a serendipitous encounter between two strangers. The unnamed characters (listed as simply “The Boy” and “The Girl” in the ending credits) remain strangers to one another throughout the film, as they never exchange names or information. What’s more, the characters remain strangers to the audience, as we—as viewers—never become intimately involved in their backstories. This being said, “the Boy” and “the Girl” represent archetypical character types in the history of romantic comedies— namely, the damsel in distress and the knight in shining armor. Pring-Mill’s short investigates how these roles play out in contemporary contexts, suggesting that perhaps—in modern day romances—the best love stories are found within brief and beautiful moments of compassion.

Although the film was an impulsive art project, it was recently awarded  best romantic comedy at the 2011 Mountain Film Festival. The awards will be handed out later this month at a private award ceremony in Mammouth Lakes, California. We caught up with director David Pring-Mill to chat about the film, its  creative process, and changeable vaginas:

Your video on Vimeo mentions that the entire short was “an impulsive art project,” something that was ad-libbed. This being said, the video definitely shows evidence of a background story, albeit a sketched-out one at that. Where did the bones of this story come from?

In February of 2010, I looked at a weather forecast online and noticed that a blizzard was about to swirl its way into New York City. I immediately decided to shoot something in the aftermath of the blizzard. Manhattan appears strange and beautiful when it is covered in snow, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to capture that imagery as a backdrop.

I wanted to make an observational film about realistic characters, without the artifice of a contrived plot hurtling them towards implausible obstacles. I wanted the audience to be able to vicariously experience a humorous and emotional conversation between people who actually act like people and aren’t merely incidental devices of a high concept premise. I conjured up a simple story about two strangers who forge a connection amidst a snowy landscape. I typed out a two-page document sketching out the story. I visualized possible scenes and jotted down a few fragments of a shot list. No one else saw that two-page document. I told everyone the basic story: a man throws a snowball at a crying woman. He isn’t a sociopath– to the contrary, this is his attempt to cheer her up. They have an emotional conversation that culminates in a snowball fight. Then they run out of the park and return to their urban world, and it’s as if they have departed from the magical landscape that made their exchange possible. They say goodbye. I never specified to my cast why the woman is initially crying, or how the man manages to cheer her up, or any of the things that they say to one another, except for one or two lines here and there. I cast two stand-up comedians in the roles –Andrew Schulz and Brooke Bundy. I trusted that they possessed the creative instincts to come up with funny and interesting dialogue, and they delivered.

Our environment also helped to construct the story. We came across a snowman in Central Park and I told Andrew to encourage Brooke’s character to destroy the helpless little creation for emotionally cathartic purposes. If some oblivious participant in my production had not built that snowman earlier in the day, the movie wouldn’t have included that scene. After Brooke smashed the snowman into multiple pieces, we reconstructed it, not so that the oblivious participant’s art could be prolonged, but so that we could destroy it a second time in a close-up shot.

Where did you find your actors and film crew?

My crew was comprised of a cameraman and a sound guy, both of whom I had worked with on previous projects. The sound guy, Harris Karlin, voluntarily did extensive post-production audio work on an ultra low budget feature film that I made. He cleaned up some of the rough audio that is typical of a film preceded by the phrase “ultra low budget.” He’s a pro, and I’m grateful for his work ethic and commitment. In post-production, a young musician by the name of David Moench composed an original score that beautifully highlighted the film’s whimsy and sentiment.

In regards to the cast, I had worked with Andrew Schulz on a TV pilot entitled “American Depravity” that I wrote and directed. I allowed him to adlib in one scene in that pilot, and that’s how I knew that he would be able to effectively improvise in “Strangers in the Snow.” It wasn’t as easy to cast the female role. I had one actress in mind but she wasn’t available onthe day following the blizzard. I called up colleagues and asked for actress recommendations. Someone recommended Brooke Bundy to me. I spoke to Brooke on the phone and told her my crazy idea to shoot something in freezing weather without a script, and she said that she was onboard. I met her the next morning on set and we started filming. I took a risk by casting someone who I didn’t know. If she had flaked out, my project would have been jeopardized. I didn’t have an alternative actress lined up.

In all likelihood, if she hadn’t shown up and I’d found myself there that morning with a crew and an actor, I probably would have tried to make a film, anyway. It would have been entitled “Stranger in the Snow,” and it would have been about a man who tries to make friends with the trees. It would have been a very different film.

[Pictured above: Comedians Andrew Schulz (left) and Brooke Bundy (right)]

Did you know when you were making the film that you’d end up submitting it to the Mountain Film Festival?

No. I intended to shoot something innovative and simple, and distribute it on the internet. And that’s what happened. When the year of 2010 was coming to a close, I decided on a whim to submit the short to festivals, as an afterthought. This was ten months after the film had been shot, edited and released online, so it was a ten month after afterthought. I only submitted to two festivals. The Mountain Film Festival was one of those two. I recently received an e-mail from the festival informing me that my film won the Best Romantic Comedy award. I felt honored by their decision. With a talented team of only five other people, I made an impulsive little art project for almost no money, in a frigid landscape, and without a conventional screenplay. Our boots sunk beneath the snow and bits of slush melted into our socks as we transferred HD footage off of P2 cards onto a laptop. I am grateful that the Mountain Film Festival appreciated the outcome of the project. I am also grateful that the cast and crew retained all of their toes and did not succumb to frostbite.

Did the dialogue just happen? There’s some great lines in there (“I’m sorry I don’t have a Miss Potato vagina”). Were these ad-libbed or cued?

All of the dialogue and characterization emerged from a process of guided improvisation.During that process, Andrew began waxing poetic about the potential relationship benefits of interchangeable vaginas. He was effectively saying that if women could interchange their parts then men would be more likely to remain committed to them. Brooke quipped back, “I’m sorry I don’t have a Miss Potato vagina” almost instantaneously. Andrew and Brooke are both very skilled at adlibbing. I think that their conversational exchange exposes the absurdity of women’s attempts to rectify their own superficial insecurities. Women are already familiar with the processes of enlarging their breasts with silicone gel implants, altering their features and physiques with cosmetic surgery, and injecting their faces with Botox to reduce wrinkles by paralyzing muscles. Would it really be that absurd for a woman to choose to replace her existing, perfectly functional vagina with a different vagina for the sake of being able to offer variety? This seems like the logical next step.

Some portions of Andrew’s adlibbing were raunchy, which should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his standup comedy, and I made an effort to rail in those comedic sensibilities on set and in the editing room. I wanted to maintain a realistic and somewhat sentimental tone. As I mentioned earlier, Andrew and I previously worked together on a sitcom pilot. I wrote the script for that pilot and we adhered to my script with only one or two adlibbed lines during that production. My sitcom script was very lewd in its comedic sensibilities. Andrew’s raunchy adlibbing in Central Park was in a sense a continuation of the comedic tone of our previous collaboration. The sitcom pilot contained a joke about female ejaculation. The line was: “I’ve made a woman squirt. Female ejaculation is the unofficial eighth wonder of the world. I tell ya, Kenny, she squirted more than Shamu did at the aquarium. The entire bedroom was in the splash zone.” And the line was delivered by an elderly man (standup comedian Barry Ribs). That pilot never got picked up by a network. And one of the reasons is because I focused on edgy comedy and eliciting laughter and I made no serious endeavor to include likeable characters. When we were filming “Strangers in the Snow,” I consciously emphasized characterization and sentimentality and tried to ensure that the jokes enhanced that and didn’t detract from it.

Nonetheless, I am proud that I made two projects back to back containing memorable vagina jokes. All comedians utilize taboos for the purposes of comedy. Sex is a cultural taboo in America, as reflected, and arguably enforced, by MPAA ratings. The MPAA often permits depictions of extreme violence and carnage in movies, and is far more inclined to issue a restrictive rating to a film due to the inclusion of sexual content. To step back for a moment and take a broader view at humans as a species, it’s really fascinating that a country would turn sex into a taboo because sex is the origin of every person in that country. Regardless of whether you’re a priest or a porn star, you exist because somewhere, at some point approximately nine months prior to your birthday, a man and a woman got it on. Maybe it happened in the backseat of a car, maybe it happened in an airplane lavatory, maybe it happened in a test tube – but it happened, I assure you.

We have turned the cause of our own existence into a taboo. I think that comedians should be shameless about telling jokes regarding the taboos that generate the most irrational of shames. I would also like to state for the record that humans all around the planet have done a remarkable job of figuring out how to kill each other and how to have sex regardless of whether they have seen R-rated movies.

The story in “Strangers in the Snow” tells of a happen-chance encounter between two strangers. The encounter is brief, yet beautiful in its simplicity. Is this indicative of most encounters in New York? The world?

When two people first meet, it’s usually the result of an introduction made possible by mutual associations or by a place with an implied predetermined purpose. If a man and a woman meet at a bar or in a nightclub, that is still a social atmosphere replete with liquor to help men lower their inhibitions and dim lighting to help women get laid even if they haven’t undergone any of the aforementioned perceptible cosmetic enhancements. If people meet at a college or within an organization, there is automatically a common interest over which they can bond. It’s rare for two strangers to spontaneously try to get to know one another. What’s rarer still about the dynamic in “Strangers in the Snow” is that Andrew Schulz’s character isn’t trying to seduce the woman who he meets. At the end of the movie, he doesn’t ask for her phone number when they say goodbye, even though she clearly wants him to do so.

Some people who have seen the film have asked me if there is going to be a sequel in which they meet again and get a second chance at love. To me, that wasn’t the point of the film. Andrew’s character initiated the encounter out of compassion. He was genuinely trying to cheer a stranger up by pelting her with snowballs, making her kill a snowman, and advising her to switch up her vagina. There is something pure about his intentions in that regard, and I think that it’s therefore fitting that the snowy landscape appears to be correspondingly pure and immaculate.

It’s interesting when you think about why it is that we are reluctant to talk to strangers. There are multiple possible reasons, but I am particularly intrigued by one scientific explanation. British anthropologist Robin Dunbar was able to figure out the social group sizes of monkey species by examining the brains of members of each species. Based on a monkey brain’s neocortex size, he could predict the size of that monkey’s grooming clique. Observations of the monkey species in the wild confirmed Dunbar’s predictions: there is literally a limited amount of space in a primate’s brain to remember other primates and manage those relationships. Dunbar then applied his theory to humans, and deduced that humans tend to only be comfortable in a group size of 150 and that they have an intimate social circle of only 12 people. This theory is referred to as Dunbar’s Number, and it indicates that we are only cognitively capable of maintaining stable relationships with a certain number of people because a part of our brains actually isn’t able to handle too much ongoing social interaction.

That could be one of the reasons why we don’t try to get to know strangers – we have a limited amount of space upstairs, and we’re saving it for people who are most likely to be relevant to us. That’s why we all use Facebook. When we meet someone and we’re not yet willing to allow that individual to occupy neocortex space, we often say, “I’ll add you on Facebook.” There are some people who have over two thousand Facebook friends. When those people add others as friends on Facebook, they’re effectively saying, “I don’t have any positions open, so I’m not cognitively capable of interacting with you in real life. But I’ll store your existence digitally and if a slot opens up in my brain, I’ll be sure to let you know. We’ll be in touch.”

There’s also an element of loneliness running through the film. Talk about that.

I think that there’s pervasive apathy in society. Many people feel lonely, particularly when they are in emotional turmoil and in need of compassion. There is not enough compassion in this world. We have a shortage of buddhas. This reality is reflected in the film. The woman in “Strangers in the Snow” is trudging along by herself through Central Park, shortly after finding out that her boyfriend cheated on her. A stranger throws a snowball at her, strikes up a conversation and temporarily alleviates her loneliness. We never learn his motivation, but it is possible that he relates to her loneliness because he is or has been lonely. Or perhaps he is actually a Buddha, but I consider that highly unlikely because I have no desire to rub Andrew Schulz’s belly and I do not think that doing so would be lucky. However, Andrew should consider approaching attractive women and making claims to the contrary, and if he does that, I suspect that he will substitute the word “belly” for a more optimal part.

Is there a relationship between the form and content of “Strangers in the Snow”? In other words, what’s the relationship (if any) between the simple encounter shown in the film and the simple filming techniques?

Impulsive.

I made “Strangers in the Snow” with an absolutely bare bones production crew, which is not to say that I employed resurrected skeletons, but rather that there was a minimal number of people on set. However, we could have told a more complex story with those same simple means. If there is a correlation between the encounter depicted in the film and the filming techniques, I would say that it pertains more to the impulsiveness of the characters’ interaction and my impulsiveness in making the film. The man decides to initiate the encounter impulsively. I decided to make a short film impulsively. We were out there in snowy Central Park making a movie only one day after I felt the inspiration to do so.

[Above: Writer and Director David Pring-Mill with Schulz (left) and Bunday (right)]

There’s something beautiful about “slice of life” pieces such as yours, as I think slice-of-life shorts (like short stories) end up capturing more about the world than a heavily scripted feature or a full-length novel. It’s almost like you have to zero in on one microscopic encounter or relationship in order to show something profoundly macroscopic. Would you agree? Why/why not?

I would agree, and I do think that the story in my short film, albeit simple, offers profound macroscopic implications. The film is illustrative of a societal observation that is recurrent in my thoughts. I often observe that humans have an innate predilection towards forming and maintaining rigid categorizations of not only other people but also of information,ideas, opinions, and superstitions. When the man in my short film throws that snowball at the woman, he is breeching a psychological barrier and engaging in behavior that is not appropriate for his designation as a “stranger.” He is disregarding his categorization in her mind, and in doing so, he startles and confounds her.

Our loyalty to our designations and categories is somewhat absurd to me in its sheer extent,particularly in instances where it is blatantly counterproductive. I see this as happening across a broad spectrum. In the realm of politics, the majority of Americans consider themselves to be independents regardless of their voter registration, yet the political landscape is dominated by an entrenched two-party system. Furthermore, both parties veer wildly in action from their professed ideologies – yet constituents continue to serve parties that don’t serve them. In the realm of religion, many people ritualize superstitions and perpetuate dogma, even though they only believe in a fraction of it, in exchange for a sense of belonging. In regards to citizenship, people claim to be patriotic and free, and express these sentiments by being blindly allegiant to their government. I personally am loyal to principles, not to phony borders and flags concocted by historical people with too much time and multicolored spools of thread on their hands. I am patriotic to America only so long as it is an organizing principle for the laws and values that I consider moral and just, and upon which it was founded. When the country fails to serve that function, the flag becomes flapping cloth to me and the borders start to look arbitrary. And in such times, it is the duty of the citizenry to ensure that the principles continue to be institutionalized and to restore the metaphorical meaning of that flag and to see the nation not merely as a seizure of land, which it was, but as a community united by principles. The problem is that people like to live in bubbles, defend their categories, and take comfort in their hollowed-out institutions. They participate in political parties even though they don’t think of themselves as partisan; They’re religious even though they don’t believe in all or most of their religion’s teachings; They’re patriotically obedient and proud of being free even when their country’s democracy becomes less and less democratic.

People don’t like it when their proclivities towards institutions and exclusive associations are seemingly challenged. They are willing to broaden their associations if there is a mutual external threat, real or perceived, but that broadened association will eventually rescind once the threat is gone. In general, people are more comfortable remaining strangers to one another. If they stay within their social, political, religious, and national circles, they think that they won’t be threatened. Why talk to a stranger? What’s the point? It’s considered to be a risk. And in our society, risks are made scarier by a news media that exacerbates people’s fears by disproportionately reporting on scary events. The news media teaches people that they’re surrounded by immoral hordes that want to rape and rob them and trick them into getting cancer via the consumption of artificial sweeteners and red meat. On a microcosmic level, my film is telling people that it’s okay to have a conversation with a stranger every once in awhile and play around in the snow. On a macrocosmic level, it’s saying that everything outside the confines of our favored categories is not necessarily an assailant and we need to open ourselves up, because if we do, we may find ourselves rewarded with communication and compassion.

To learn more about David Pring-Mill, visit his Vimeo page.

Images via David Pring-Mill.

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