l Do Desire We be Better Strangers
â€œCreativity is maximized when youâ€™re living in the moment.â€ (unknown)
It was exactly one year ago thatÂ 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 comedianÂ Andrew Schulz. He asked Shulz if heâ€™d participate in his last-minute project, and Schulz agreed (The two had previously collaborated on pilot for the show â€œAmericanÂ Depravity).Â Heâ€™d also got a hold of actress and comedianÂ Brooke Bundy, and sound technicianÂ 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 â€œguided improvisation.â€ The four knew they were in for a long day in the cold; what they didnâ€™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 â€œStrangers in the Snow,â€ a story that takes up the idea of a serendipitous encounter between two strangers. The unnamed characters (listed as simply â€œThe Boyâ€ and â€œThe Girlâ€ in the ending credits) remain strangers to one another throughout the film, as they never exchange names or information. Whatâ€™s more, the characters remain strangers to the audience, as weâ€”as viewersâ€”never become intimately involved in their backstories. This being said, â€œthe Boyâ€ and â€œthe Girlâ€ represent archetypical character types in the history of romantic comediesâ€” namely, the damsel in distress and the knight in shining armor. Pring-Millâ€™s short investigates how these roles play out in contemporary contexts, suggesting that perhapsâ€”in modern day romancesâ€”the bestÂ love storiesÂ are found within brief and beautiful moments of compassion.
Although the film was an impulsive art project, it was recently awardedÂ 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, itsÂ creative process, and changeable vaginas:
Your video on Vimeo mentions that the entire short was â€œan impulsive artÂ project,â€ something that was ad-libbed. This being said, the video definitely showsÂ 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 wasÂ about to swirl its way into New York City. I immediately decided to shoot something inÂ the aftermath of the blizzard. Manhattan appears strange and beautiful when it is covered inÂ snow, and I couldnâ€™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 toÂ vicariously experience a humorous and emotional conversation between people who actuallyÂ act like people and arenâ€™t merely incidental devices of a high concept premise. I conjuredÂ up a simple story about two strangers who forge a connection amidst a snowy landscape.Â I typed out a two-page document sketching out the story. I visualized possible scenes andÂ jotted down a few fragments of a shot list. No one else saw that two-page document. I toldÂ everyone the basic story: a man throws a snowball at a crying woman. He isnâ€™t a sociopathâ€“ to the contrary, this is his attempt to cheer her up. They have an emotional conversationÂ that culminates in a snowball fight. Then they run out of the park and return to their urbanÂ world, and itâ€™s as if they have departed from the magical landscape that made their exchangeÂ possible. They say goodbye. I never specified to my cast why the woman is initially crying,Â or how the man manages to cheer her up, or any of the things that they say to one another,Â except for one or two lines here and there. I cast two stand-up comedians in the roles â€“Andrew Schulz and Brooke Bundy. I trusted that they possessed the creative instincts toÂ come up with funny and interesting dialogue, and they delivered.
Our environment also helped to construct the story. We came across a snowman in CentralÂ Park and I told Andrew to encourage Brookeâ€™s character to destroy the helpless little creationÂ for emotionally cathartic purposes. If some oblivious participant in my production had notÂ built that snowman earlier in the day, the movie wouldnâ€™t have included that scene. AfterÂ Brooke smashed the snowman into multiple pieces, we reconstructed it, not so that theÂ oblivious participantâ€™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 withÂ on previous projects. The sound guy, Harris Karlin, voluntarily did extensive post-productionÂ audio work on an ultra low budget feature film that I made. He cleaned up some of the roughÂ audio that is typical of a film preceded by the phrase â€œultra low budget.â€ Heâ€™s a pro, and Iâ€™mÂ grateful for his work ethic and commitment. In post-production, a young musician by theÂ name of David Moench composed an original score that beautifully highlighted the filmâ€™sÂ whimsy and sentiment.
In regards to the cast, I had worked with Andrew Schulz on a TV pilot entitled â€œAmericanÂ Depravityâ€ that I wrote and directed. I allowed him to adlib in one scene in that pilot, andÂ thatâ€™s how I knew that he would be able to effectively improvise in â€œStrangers in the Snow.â€Â It wasnâ€™t as easy to cast the female role. I had one actress in mind but she wasnâ€™t available onthe day following the blizzard. I called up colleagues and asked for actress recommendations.Â Someone recommended Brooke Bundy to me. I spoke to Brooke on the phone and told herÂ 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 aÂ risk by casting someone who I didnâ€™t know. If she had flaked out, my project would haveÂ been jeopardized. I didnâ€™t have an alternative actress lined up.
In all likelihood, if she hadnâ€™t shown up and Iâ€™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 â€œStranger in the Snow,â€ 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) andÂ Brooke Bundy (right)]
Did you know when you were making the film that youâ€™d end up submitting it toÂ the Mountain Film Festival?
No. I intended to shoot something innovative and simple, and distribute it on the internet.Â And thatâ€™s what happened. When the year of 2010 was coming to a close, I decided on aÂ whim to submit the short to festivals, as an afterthought. This was ten months after the filmÂ had been shot, edited and released online, so it was a ten month after afterthought. I onlyÂ submitted to two festivals. The Mountain Film Festival was one of those two. I recentlyÂ received an e-mail from the festival informing me that my film won the Best RomanticÂ Comedy award. I felt honored by their decision. With a talented team of only five otherÂ people, I made an impulsive little art project for almost no money, in a frigid landscape, andÂ without a conventional screenplay. Our boots sunk beneath the snow and bits of slush meltedÂ into our socks as we transferred HD footage off of P2 cards onto a laptop. I am grateful thatÂ the Mountain Film Festival appreciated the outcome of the project. I am also grateful that theÂ cast and crew retained all of their toes and did not succumb to frostbite.
Did the dialogue just happen? Thereâ€™s some great lines in there (â€œIâ€™m sorry IÂ donâ€™t have a Miss Potato vaginaâ€). 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 benefitsÂ of interchangeable vaginas. He was effectively saying that if women could interchangeÂ their parts then men would be more likely to remain committed to them. Brooke quippedÂ back, â€œIâ€™m sorry I donâ€™t have a Miss Potato vaginaâ€ almost instantaneously. Andrew andÂ Brooke are both very skilled at adlibbing. I think that their conversational exchange exposesÂ the absurdity of womenâ€™s attempts to rectify their own superficial insecurities. Women areÂ already familiar with the processes of enlarging their breasts with silicone gel implants,Â altering their features and physiques with cosmetic surgery, and injecting their faces withÂ Botox to reduce wrinkles by paralyzing muscles. Would it really be that absurd for a womanÂ to choose to replace her existing, perfectly functional vagina with a different vagina for theÂ sake of being able to offer variety? This seems like the logical next step.
Some portions of Andrewâ€™s adlibbing were raunchy, which should come as no surpriseÂ to anyone familiar with his standup comedy, and I made an effort to rail in those comedicÂ sensibilities on set and in the editing room. I wanted to maintain a realistic and somewhatÂ sentimental tone. As I mentioned earlier, Andrew and I previously worked together on aÂ sitcom pilot. I wrote the script for that pilot and we adhered to my script with only one orÂ two adlibbed lines during that production. My sitcom script was very lewd in its comedicÂ sensibilities. Andrewâ€™s raunchy adlibbing in Central Park was in a sense a continuation ofÂ the comedic tone of our previous collaboration. The sitcom pilot contained a joke aboutÂ female ejaculation. The line was: â€œIâ€™ve made a woman squirt. Female ejaculation is theÂ unofficial eighth wonder of the world. I tell ya, Kenny, she squirted more than Shamu didÂ at the aquarium. The entire bedroom was in the splash zone.â€ And the line was delivered byÂ an elderly man (standup comedian Barry Ribs). That pilot never got picked up by a network.Â And one of the reasons is because I focused on edgy comedy and eliciting laughter and IÂ made no serious endeavor to include likeable characters. When we were filming â€œStrangersÂ in the Snow,â€ I consciously emphasized characterization and sentimentality and tried toÂ ensure that the jokes enhanced that and didnâ€™t detract from it.
Nonetheless, I am proud that I made two projects back to back containing memorable vaginaÂ jokes. All comedians utilize taboos for the purposes of comedy. Sex is a cultural taboo inÂ America, as reflected, and arguably enforced, by MPAA ratings. The MPAA often permitsÂ depictions of extreme violence and carnage in movies, and is far more inclined to issue aÂ restrictive rating to a film due to the inclusion of sexual content. To step back for a momentÂ and take a broader view at humans as a species, itâ€™s really fascinating that a country wouldÂ turn sex into a taboo because sex is the origin of every person in that country. RegardlessÂ of whether youâ€™re a priest or a porn star, you exist because somewhere, at some pointÂ approximately nine months prior to your birthday, a man and a woman got it on. MaybeÂ it happened in the backseat of a car, maybe it happened in an airplane lavatory, maybe itÂ happened in a test tube â€“ but it happened, I assure you.
We have turned the cause of ourÂ own existence into a taboo. I think that comedians should be shameless about telling jokesÂ regarding the taboos that generate the most irrational of shames. I would also like to state forÂ the record that humans all around the planet have done a remarkable job of figuring out howÂ to kill each other and how to have sex regardless of whether they have seen R-rated movies.
The story in â€œStrangers in the Snowâ€ tells of a happen-chance encounter betweenÂ 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, itâ€™s usually the result of an introduction made possible byÂ mutual associations or by a place with an implied predetermined purpose. If a man and aÂ woman meet at a bar or in a nightclub, that is still a social atmosphere replete with liquor toÂ help men lower their inhibitions and dim lighting to help women get laid even if they havenâ€™tÂ undergone any of the aforementioned perceptible cosmetic enhancements. If people meet at aÂ college or within an organization, there is automatically a common interest over which theyÂ can bond. Itâ€™s rare for two strangers to spontaneously try to get to know one another. Whatâ€™sÂ rarer still about the dynamic in â€œStrangers in the Snowâ€ is that Andrew Schulzâ€™s characterÂ isnâ€™t trying to seduce the woman who he meets. At the end of the movie, he doesnâ€™t askÂ 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 whichÂ they meet again and get a second chance at love. To me, that wasnâ€™t the point of the film.Â Andrewâ€™s character initiated the encounter out of compassion. He was genuinely trying toÂ cheer a stranger up by pelting her with snowballs, making her kill a snowman, and advisingÂ her to switch up her vagina. There is something pure about his intentions in that regard, andÂ I think that itâ€™s therefore fitting that the snowy landscape appears to be correspondingly pureÂ and immaculate.
Itâ€™s interesting when you think about why it is that we are reluctant to talk to strangers. ThereÂ are multiple possible reasons, but I am particularly intrigued by one scientific explanation.Â British anthropologist Robin Dunbar was able to figure out the social group sizes of monkeyÂ species by examining the brains of members of each species. Based on a monkey brainâ€™sÂ neocortex size, he could predict the size of that monkeyâ€™s grooming clique. ObservationsÂ of the monkey species in the wild confirmed Dunbarâ€™s predictions: there is literally aÂ limited amount of space in a primateâ€™s brain to remember other primates and manage thoseÂ relationships. Dunbar then applied his theory to humans, and deduced that humans tend toÂ only be comfortable in a group size of 150 and that they have an intimate social circle ofÂ only 12 people. This theory is referred to as Dunbarâ€™s Number, and it indicates that we areÂ only cognitively capable of maintaining stable relationships with a certain number of peopleÂ because a part of our brains actually isnâ€™t able to handle too much ongoing social interaction.
That could be one of the reasons why we donâ€™t try to get to know strangers â€“ we have aÂ limited amount of space upstairs, and weâ€™re saving it for people who are most likely to beÂ relevant to us. Thatâ€™s why we all use Facebook. When we meet someone and weâ€™re not yetÂ willing to allow that individual to occupy neocortex space, we often say, â€œIâ€™ll add you onÂ Facebook.â€ There are some people who have over two thousand Facebook friends. WhenÂ those people add others as friends on Facebook, theyâ€™re effectively saying, â€œI donâ€™t have anyÂ positions open, so Iâ€™m not cognitively capable of interacting with you in real life. But Iâ€™llÂ store your existence digitally and if a slot opens up in my brain, Iâ€™ll be sure to let you know.Â Weâ€™ll be in touch.â€
Thereâ€™s also an element of loneliness running through the film. Talk about that.
I think that thereâ€™s pervasive apathy in society. Many people feel lonely, particularly whenÂ they are in emotional turmoil and in need of compassion. There is not enough compassion inÂ this world. We have a shortage of buddhas. This reality is reflected in the film. The womanÂ in â€œStrangers in the Snowâ€ is trudging along by herself through Central Park, shortly afterÂ finding out that her boyfriend cheated on her. A stranger throws a snowball at her, strikes upÂ a conversation and temporarily alleviates her loneliness. We never learn his motivation, but itÂ is possible that he relates to her loneliness because he is or has been lonely. Or perhaps he isÂ actually a Buddha, but I consider that highly unlikely because I have no desire to rub AndrewÂ Schulzâ€™s belly and I do not think that doing so would be lucky. However, Andrew shouldÂ consider approaching attractive women and making claims to the contrary, and if he doesÂ that, I suspect that he will substitute the word â€œbellyâ€ for a more optimal part.
Is there a relationship between the form and content of â€œStrangers in the Snowâ€?Â In other words, whatâ€™s the relationship (if any) between the simple encounter shown in the film and the simple filming techniques?
I made â€œStrangers in the Snowâ€ with an absolutely bare bones production crew, whichÂ is not to say that I employed resurrected skeletons, but rather that there was a minimalÂ number of people on set. However, we could have told a more complex story with thoseÂ same simple means. If there is a correlation between the encounter depicted in the filmÂ and the filming techniques, I would say that it pertains more to the impulsiveness of theÂ charactersâ€™ interaction and my impulsiveness in making the film. The man decides to initiateÂ the encounter impulsively. I decided to make a short film impulsively. We were out there inÂ 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)]
Thereâ€™s something beautiful about â€œslice of lifeâ€ pieces such as yours, as I think slice-of-life shorts (like short stories) end up capturing more about the worldÂ than a heavily scripted feature or a full-lengthÂ novel. It’s almost like you have to zero in onÂ one microscopic encounter or relationship in order to show something profoundlyÂ macroscopic. Would you agree? Why/why not?
I would agree, and I do think that the story in my short film, albeit simple, offers profoundÂ macroscopic implications. The film is illustrative of a societal observation that is recurrentÂ in my thoughts. I often observe that humans have an innate predilection towards formingÂ 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 atÂ the woman, he is breeching a psychological barrier and engaging in behavior that is notÂ appropriate for his designation as a â€œstranger.â€ He is disregarding his categorization in herÂ 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 happeningÂ across a broad spectrum. In the realm of politics, the majority of Americans considerÂ themselves to be independents regardless of their voter registration, yet the politicalÂ landscape is dominated by an entrenched two-party system. Furthermore, both parties veerÂ wildly in action from their professed ideologies â€“ yet constituents continue to serve partiesÂ that donâ€™t serve them. In the realm of religion, many people ritualize superstitions andÂ perpetuate dogma, even though they only believe in a fraction of it, in exchange for a senseÂ of belonging. In regards to citizenship, people claim to be patriotic and free, and expressÂ these sentiments by being blindly allegiant to their government. I personally am loyal toÂ principles, not to phony borders and flags concocted by historical people with too much timeÂ and multicolored spools of thread on their hands. I am patriotic to America only so longÂ as it is an organizing principle for the laws and values that I consider moral and just, andÂ upon which it was founded. When the country fails to serve that function, the flag becomesÂ flapping cloth to me and the borders start to look arbitrary. And in such times, it is the dutyÂ of the citizenry to ensure that the principles continue to be institutionalized and to restoreÂ the metaphorical meaning of that flag and to see the nation not merely as a seizure of land,Â which it was, but as a community united by principles. The problem is that people like to liveÂ in bubbles, defend their categories, and take comfort in their hollowed-out institutions. TheyÂ participate in political parties even though they donâ€™t think of themselves as partisan; Theyâ€™reÂ religious even though they donâ€™t believe in all or most of their religionâ€™s teachings; Theyâ€™reÂ patriotically obedient and proud of being free even when their countryâ€™s democracy becomesÂ less and less democratic.
People donâ€™t like it when their proclivities towards institutions and exclusive associationsÂ are seemingly challenged. They are willing to broaden their associations if there is a mutualÂ external threat, real or perceived, but that broadened association will eventually rescindÂ 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 thinkÂ that they wonâ€™t be threatened. Why talk to a stranger? Whatâ€™s the point? Itâ€™s considered to beÂ a risk. And in our society, risks are made scarier by a news media that exacerbates peopleâ€™sÂ fears by disproportionately reporting on scary events. The news media teaches people thatÂ theyâ€™re surrounded by immoral hordes that want to rape and rob them and trick them intoÂ getting cancer via the consumption of artificial sweeteners and red meat. On a microcosmicÂ level, my film is telling people that itâ€™s okay to have a conversation with a stranger everyÂ once in awhile and play around in the snow. On a macrocosmic level, itâ€™s saying thatÂ everything outside the confines of our favored categories is not necessarily an assailantÂ and we need to open ourselves up, because if we do, we may find ourselves rewarded withÂ communication and compassion.
To learn more about David Pring-Mill, visit his Vimeo page.
Images via David Pring-Mill.