Suzi Yoonessi directs Charlene deGuzman in a personal story that proves an honest screenplay need not remove humor to address struggle.
There's a good chance that you've seen the work of Charlene deGuzman. With 51 million views for her deadpan viral video I Forgot My Phone on the actress' personal YouTube channel, deGuzman's videos—often created and starring her—have helped the California-born creative acquire a passionate fanbase, one that in 2016 contributed over $64,000 to get her debut feature, Unlovable, off the ground.
Co-written and co-starring herself, Unlovable tells a story based on deGuzman's own battle with love and sex addiction, and while the subject is not to be taken lightly, the film never forgets that there's more to a person than their illness. Just this week, the film received a Special Jury Recognition for the 2018 Narrative SXSW LUNA Gamechanger Award.
When, at one point in the film, Joy (played by deGuzman) gets upset and goes to masturbate, she stops herself; the action that formerly removed feelings of sadness for her are now, at least in some part, the cause of them. She seeks a life in which feelings of satisfaction do not result in guilt.
Joy is a young actress who has a tendency to get wasted, sleep around with scummy men, and jeopardize the things she holds dearest. When her boyfriend finds out about her promiscuity, Joy's personal and professional relationships sour and she attends a recovery meeting that will get her on the road to a more fulfilling life.
On the suggestion of Maddie, the woman running group meetings (played by Academy Award-winner Melissa Leo), Joy temporarily moves into a small apartment behind Maddie's nana's home in an attempt to avoid all distractions and triggers. It's there that she meets Maddie's brother, Jim (played by John Hawkes), a recluse who spends his time caring for his nana and working on his music in the garage. If you're unsure of where the film is going, that's part of the point. The relationships in the film are organically formed, and there's a sense of real pain (but also optimism) behind each characters' eyes.
Two days after the film had its world premiere at SXSW, Charlene and the film's director Suzi Yoonessi spoke with No Film School about how to direct someone starring in their own personal story, how vulnerability and honesty led to a successful, $65,000-raised Kickstarter campaign, and how communicating dialogue through music was an idea deGuzman had for a number of years.
No Film School: Mark Duplass is credited as a producer on the film and Charlene, during the Q&A after its world premiere, you mentioned that you didn't actually know Mark beforehand. He slid into your DMs and got in touch about wanting to make this project. Am I getting that story correct?
DeGuzman: Yeah, because initially when Mark started following me on Twitter in 2013, I had flooded his DMs and told him, "Oh my God, thank you for following me. You're a hero of mine!" And he had said, "If you ever have anything that you've written that you'd want to show me, send it over." I had nothing at the time. And then one year later, because I had gotten into recovery and was tapping into my creativity and wrote a pilot about my experiences, I DM'd him a year later with, "Hey, I have this pilot." I sent it over, and he said let's make it a movie.
NFS: Charlene, the film is based on a real-life struggle you faced, and you're a writer on the film and are obviously its star. What was your thought process behind taking a step back to allow another person to direct and process this material? What was it like to give that control over to someone else?
DeGuzman: Yeah, I thought it was a smart thing for me to do because it's so personal to me, and I'm so in it. It was nice having someone on the outside to help translate this to the wide audience. I was really glad for that.
"So many poignant moments were allowed to play out because there was creative freedom."
NFS: And as a director, Suzi, was that a unique experience for you, directing someone so close to the material?
Yoonessi: I feel like every feature experience is so different regardless of what the setup is, but for both Charlene and John Hawkes, it was very personal. Like you said, for Charlene, it was based on her life story, and for John, there was so much of his original music in the film that had pieces of his life in it. I think for both of them, it's about being respectful and providing space, and not hampering their creative process. We wanted to become one as a team.
NFS: Did you feel like you could take the same directorial risks you would have wanted to if it weren't a story so close to Charlene's?
Yoonessi: Oh yeah, absolutely. Charlene was so supportive and we both had the same vision for the film. It was a really great collaboration. And for me as a director, with Jen Roskind as producer and the Duplass brothers as execs, there was so much freedom. There was no producer or studio being like, "No, cut this moment." So many poignant moments were allowed to play out because there was creative freedom.
NFS: And Suzi, as you mentioned, John Hawkes, who's great in the film, wrote original songs for the movie. In addition to being an accomplished actor, was he cast with that being an additional benefit?
Yoonessi: I had known him as an actor and as a musician first, and so in casting, I knew he could pull this off. He's such a great storyteller. But definitely, part of bringing him on, and in the first conversation we had, was about writing the songs and taking on that aspect of the storytelling. On this sort of budget level, we had to be surrounded by incredible talents and creatives who wore many hats.
NFS: Did he write the lyrics as well?
Yoonessi: The lyrics were by Sarah Adina Smith, who is the co-writer and also a very talented director.
DeGuzman: Some of the lyrics were written by John, too.
Yoonessi: Some of them were Adina's and some of them were John's. I think the song Here's to the Trigger was all him, but a lot of the other songs featured Sarah's lyrics. It was a combination of them both.
"I really liked the idea of this woman who's working to find her inner beat, and so when she's triggered at the beginning of the film, the drums are slightly off."
NFS: And after those songs were written, did you go back to the screenplay to figure out where it was appropriate to insert them?
Yoonessi: We had placeholders, and if anything, those placeholders were shifted or, in the case of the Here's to the Trigger song, there was a note that just said, "Insert Hit Song." And then at some point, we all had a conversation and I was talking and thinking about the story and it felt like the song should have something to do with triggers. And then, he came up with Here's to the Trigger.
NFS: To illustrate Charlene's addiction, there are several scenes where she's downing whiskey shot after whiskey shot as men stare her down and attempt to prey on her. How did you map out those bar scenes to be both moments of release for Charlene and also moments of intense, unknowable danger?
Yoonessi: Yeah, I think once she was triggered, the camera became hand-held and was moving more as she was triggered. And regarding the sound design and the score, there's a different sound that you hear when she's triggered. I don't know if the audience will notice. Every time she's triggered, it's something different versus other moments that represent her mental state.
Regarding the score, I really liked the idea of this woman who's working to find her inner beat, and so when she's triggered at the beginning of the film, the drums are slightly off. Our composer was talking a little bit about his process and one of the first beats where we have this amazing drummer playing, he would grab his hands to make him less perfect with his timing. The score and the sound design had to reflect how she was slipping up.
"There were so many different ways we could [show text messaging on screen], and we decided to do something super minimal."
NFS: The film is about sex and love addiction, with one side effect of that being a deflating need to reach out—via text message or social media—to someone who's wronged you in the past. Did you both discuss how to get across that on screen?
Yoonessi: Yeah, I'm really excited about the way that turned out, actually. In this day and age as a filmmaker, graphics and pop-ups become such a big part of storytelling and the way we see the world. There were so many different ways we could do it, and I worked with a titles artist and graphic designer, Michael Morris, and we decided to do something super minimal.
I think at some point we had 10 text bubbles [open], but we just wanted it to feel like more like her mental state and, for the text overlays, not to impose on the story or the visual image. I was excited about the minimalist approach we took. And our sound designer didn't do the traditional pop-up bubble sound. It was more of like a sizzling sound, and so it felt like a zap each time these texts came up. And just like that, we're in her head once again.
NFS: The film also features dialogue-free moments, in one instance via musical instruments where the beats' meaning are literally subtitled on the screen. In this film, and Charlene in your previous short Drum-Off, what was the inspiration behind using music to literally convey two character's corresponding with one another?
DeGuzman: I was inspired to make Drum-Off at around the same time my filmmaker partner at the time, Miles Crawford, and I were in the Off-Broadway show STOMP. That show doesn't have any dialogue, of course, and the conversations comes from whatever music we're playing at the time. Thanks to that show, I kind of learned that music is a great way to express yourself. And in that scene between Joy and Jim in Unlovable, the sequence represents the first time Joy is really telling Jim, "Hey, you're special." She's showing her appreciation for him, and they're so vulnerable within the moment because they have this connection through music. We believe (and it makes sense) that this would happen through music.
NFS: Did a "dialogue sequence" encompassing music rather of dialogue affect how you shot it?
Yoonessi: Well, the only difference in that sequence was that we were doing a lot of inserts with the drums and with the sound, like on the finger when it's tapping. It was covered like a traditional scene, but we did do a lot of inserts for the conversation. And we would tilt the camera down, of course, to follow what instrument they were playing in that moment.
NFS: His character, visited primarily in a garage where he works tirelessly on his music, is a quiet soul who's also suffering from something. I kept being drawn to the fact that he hardly ever provides eye contact with Joy; he's looking down or he's looking past her. Suzi, how did you work to draw out the subtleties of Hawkes' performance?
Yoonessi: One of the first conversations I had with John, when we had a broad strokes conversation about the character of Jim, was that the character is one of those people who never makes eye contact with you. I feel like there are people who, when you talk to them, are never really making eye contact with you. They have a discomfort with that sort of human connection.
Jim is one of those people, and I gave that note to John who then proceeded to go next-level with it, you know? He's a next-level actor and definitely makes the most dramatic choice and the truest choice for a character. He really committed to that. If anything, I would be like, "Okay, John, you can throw at least one look, throw a look!" Some people skirt around that, but it was really incredible what John did.
Even when you think about how communication works amongst us, women are much more focused and engaged in this way. I think about the number of conversations I've had with my husband and this shifting eye-line that happens amongst men while women are much more in your face like, "Look at me and see my pain." Jim, if anything, internalizes his pain.
DeGuzman: Going in, we wanted Joy to be the one always pushing boundaries and Jim to be the one with the rigid boundaries.
Yoonessi: Yeah, because Joy has no boundaries and that's why there are so many funny moments. Even when he tries to comfort her, he can't. Joy, on the other hand, immediately dives straight into, "What's the most personal question I can ask you that's inappropriate at this moment?" And that's why you love her because there are no boundaries.