How This SXSW Short Film Director Learned to Get What She Wanted on Set
Laurel Parmet's SXSW short 'Spring' is an intimate look at one defining afternoon in a teenage girl's life.
When it comes to short filmmaking, the adage "less is more" is never more relevant. Even if your idea is grandiose, it's imperative to keep your scope small. It's films that heed this directive—just a few actors, one or two locations, scripts spanning a short window of time—that have the best chance at success on the festival circuit.
Laurel Parmet got the memo. The NYU grad student's short film, Spring, premiering at SXSW this week, takes place over the course of one afternoon, in one location, starring just two actresses. As a result, we spend just enough time with the main character to get a glimpse into an important turning point in her internal life—and we're left wanting more. While taking salacious pictures for her friend's modeling portfolio, teenage Amanda realizes she harbors some confusing feelings. Is it lust? Envy? A passing fancy?
No Film School sat down with Parmet ahead of the premiere to discuss how she prioritized performance on a tight schedule with limited resources, her advice for auditions, and her film's aesthetic: realism, but with an impressionistic feel.
No Film School: Did you make this in school or as an independent project?
Laurel Parmet: I'm in grad film at NYU and it was part of my curriculum—my Spring narrative.
NFS: Oh, that's amazing. It's great to get your film into SXSW before you even graduate.
Parmet: It's nice! It's the first film I've ever made that I've been happy with.
NFS: In what sense were you not happy with the others? Did it feel like your vision was not realized?
Parmet: Yeah, I'm still early on in my career, and all of the films that I've made up until this point...I'm never truly happy with my work. But this time, I felt like I was really getting the hang of working with actors. It took a lot of practice to learn how to communicate with them on set. I finally broke through with this film and was able to get the performances that I wanted. I had really struggled with that in the past.
NFS: How did you find your actors? They're all very young.
Parmet: They are. Arin [MacLaine], who plays the lead, I found through Actors Access. Everyone always says, "You never find anybody good in there," but she was 17 when I cast her, and that's still young enough that she hadn't gotten scooped up by big representation yet. Actually, she is Shirley MacLaine's granddaughter, which is funny.
"If you're not happy with something on set, don't move on. You really have to fight for it. It's not going to just magically appear in the editing room."
Ellie York, who plays Crystal, is actually in the Tisch undergraduate acting program. I had put out feelers. I knew that I wanted someone who looked really young, but she had to be of age because of the themes, so I figured that would be a good place to look. It's a great resource for young actors, so filmmakers, take note!
I always spend a lot of time on casting. Even though it was a short, I spent months casting for these roles. And I'm glad I did, because I auditioned so, so many teenage girls, and didn't see anyone right for the roles until I met Arin and Ellie. I didn't want to settle. Arin and Ellie are incredibly talented, but they're also dreams to work with. They were so brave and didn't want to stop until we got it right. I had never worked with teenage actors like that before.
NFS: What did you do differently this time around, in terms of working with actors? What did you learn that you built upon from previous projects?
Parmet: Always tape your auditions! When I first auditioned Arin, I didn't really think much of our meeting. But then when I went back and watched the audition video, I was like, "Oh my god, she's amazing! How did I not see this, I have to call her back!" I couldn't believe I almost dismissed her. Sometimes in auditions, you miss things. You could be focused on something else that day. So I don't think you can rely on initial feelings about performances in auditions. You need to be able to go back and review. Or at least I do.
I think the biggest thing that I've learned so far [in terms of working with actors] is that if you're not happy with something on set, don't move on. That was a tendency that I've had in the past: something wasn't working, or something wasn't right, and we were running out of time, losing light, and I was just like, "Ugh, you know what? I think we got it, let's move on. It'll be fine."
Then I got into the editing room and I'd be like, "I didn't get it! Why didn't I fight for it more?" It was so frustrating to me that I knew I didn't have it on set and didn't fight for it for some reason, probably because I didn't want to inconvenience crew members or the cast. I still want to be conscious of them, of course, but what I've learned is if you're not getting it, you really have to fight for it. It's not going to just magically appear in the editing room.
"Always tape your auditions! Sometimes you miss things. You need to be able to go back and review."
NFS: You may think about it as an inconvenience at the time, but at the end of the day, everybody's on set to help you make a really great product. They want their work to pay off. If you have the right cast and crew, ultimately everyone is willing to put their best foot forward to that goal.
Parmet: Absolutely. It was extra helpful that all of my crew mates were my classmates. My graduate film classmates are just amazing. Everyone is really supportive of each other. I was really lucky on my set. I never felt pressure from anyone, like, "Hurry it up because I want to get home." It was just like, "We're here for you—whatever you need. We want to make your film really good." I would do the same for them.
NFS: As soon as I finished your film and realized the scope of it—one afternoon in a girl's life—it felt like one of those defining memories that you have from childhood. It could have been completely forgotten, swept in this memory puddle with the other afternoons. But for some reason, it didn't, and it becomes a part of your identity.
Parmet: That's so funny that you say that. A lot of the inspiration that I drew from for the film was just from hanging out with my girlfriends after school. To me, those were really formative times, in terms of female relationships. When I was in high school, we had Friendster and MySpace; Facebook hadn't really shown up yet, but it was the beginning of a social media presence. Everyone would hang out after school and take pictures of each other.
NFS: Where did the main character idea come from?
Parmet: I worked on the script for a while. When I was first developing it, I was looking at this series of photographs called "Camera Club," with all of these older guys taking pictures of these young, aspiring models. They're creepy and have this predatory feeling to them. I thought it would be interesting to explore that model/photographer relationship between two women as opposed to a man and a woman. I thought it was interesting to put a young woman in that predatory role.
Female relationships really interest me. There's not a lot of black and white. I think [the main character] definitely envies her friend and her beauty and her confidence, but she's discovering something about herself in the process. These things that are inside of her are slowly beginning to reveal themselves. She's forced to confront them.
NFS: From a production perspective, what were some challenges you faced?
Parmet: We shot over three days in my classmate's mother's home in New Jersey, which was wonderfully convenient and amazing of them. I would say the biggest challenge was the lack of budget. I paid for it myself, out of my student loans.
"My father is a cinematographer, and he always taught me that story and performances come first, no matter what."
Before going to film school, I worked as a production manager and a producer. Production is something I'm very, very aware of all the time. I think that's a detriment to me as a director, because it's hard for me to let go of the production aspects of things and just focus on being a director. Because it was such a small budget, I was so conscious of making sure that we fed the crew good food and were able to transport them and gear to the location. I could only afford one vehicle. That was probably the hardest part.
On the day, things went very smoothly. I'm very grateful and lucky for that. It's one of the smoothest production experiences I've had, and it was a very small crew, which I think made things feel less stressful.
NFS: How many people were on your skeleton crew?
Parmet: It was me, a cinematographer, gaffer, key grip, my AD, two sound people, and my on-set producer. It was very small. I like working small like that.
NFS: It makes everything much more intimate, like a family.
Parmet: It does. That's the wonderful thing about being in film school—it does feel like family filmmaking.
NFS: What did you shoot on?
Parmet: I shot on the Alexa Mini with Zeiss Super Speeds. It's a great camera. I think it allowed for a lot of flexibility with lighting, which was great. It's small and easy to work with.
NFS: The visuals are very naturalistic and almost documentary-style. But at the same time, there's a very keen sense of intentional camera placement, especially during important moments. How did you navigate that balance?
Parmet: I knew that I wanted to work in a style that would enable me to really focus on actors' performances. With the time constraint and the budgetary constraint, I knew that I wasn't going to be able to do a lot of crazy, flashy, inventive camera work. I wanted to go for a more naturalistic style so that I could have the camera rolling, and I could talk to the actors while we were rolling, and not worry about getting specific choreography.
"Rushing on a film set is the killer of all creativity."
Given that I was working with young, less experienced actors with sensitive material, I wanted to afford myself time to get the nuanced performances I wanted. Rushing on a film set is the killer of all creativity. I knew I needed time. Of course, I won't always have this luxury, but I designed my shots for peak performance results. My father is a cinematographer, and he always taught me that story and performances come first, no matter what. I didn't want to have to worry about nailing camera choreography.
We used very simple lighting setups: an HMI outside through the window and a couple LiteMats inside. I don't always like to work this way, but for the nature of this film and this story, it felt right. I didn't want [the film] to feel light and happy. It was important to me to have a feeling of darkness underneath everything that was going on onscreen. That's why we lit in a shadowy way. There's a lot of silhouettes and back-lighting. Some of the stuff is a little bit underexposed, just to add to that feeling of discomfort, that there's something lurking underneath—similar to my main character.
All that said, the majority of the film takes place in one very purple room, so I knew I needed variety in my shots to keep things engaging. I tried to keep the actors moving and blocked the scenes so that the actions took place in several parts of the room. And I put the camera in a different place for each sequence of action, so that the viewer wouldn't get bored of sticking in this one place.
I was greatly influenced by Lauren Greenfield's photographs of teenage girls. The moments she captures feel so familiar to me—casual slices of girls' lives. I wanted my film to feel just as familiar, so my approach was rooted in realism.
For more, see our complete coverage of the 2017 SXSW Film Festival.
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