In a world overrun by VFX-heavy blockbusters, quiet indies can make a loud statement. Such is the case with Pet Names, a dialogue-driven drama relying heavily on only two characters for the thrust of its narrative. The film stars newcomers Meredith Johnston (who also wrote the script) and Rene Cruz as Leigh and Cam, a 20-something former couple who go on a nostalgic camping trip together when Leigh returns to their hometown to care for her ill mother.

The understated but emotionally satisfying Pet Names recalls the ‘90s indies even in its format, a 4:3 ratio frame rather than today’s standard, rectangular 16:9. No Film School spoke with Milwaukee-based director Carol Brandt at SXSW 2018 before the film’s premiere about her stylistic choices, how she packed big emotions into a small frame, the power of test screenings, and more.

NFS: The whole film feels so intimate, so I was curious about how personal the screenwriting was.

Brandt: Well, this is actually one of the first films that I didn't write myself. The actress [Meredith Johnston] wrote it based on her own life. There was a lot of real-life moments that we were just re-creating basically. When she was in high school her mom was really sick and she had to stay home and take care of her, and then she also went on a camping trip with her ex around the same time.

NFS: So you adopted this intimate script but then you had to cast someone to play opposite her to make that intimacy believable.

Brandt: Right. She was actually also a huge part of the casting, she's the associate producer of the project, as well as being the writer and the lead actress. She also does some of the songs in the movie as well. She's amazing.

A lot of the cast are her friends from Chicago because she's in the improv comedy scene there and she made good calls. The guy that we cast was a friend of a friend of hers, and she thought that he had a great look. She sent him to script, he really connected with it and so that's kind of how he got involved. Their chemistry was so immediate, it really caught on really quickly. 

“This script just crushed your heart and then hugged it and then crushed it and then hugged it.”

NFS: What did you do to instill that confidence in her that she could trust you as a director with her story?

Brandt: It helped that I knew her previously. She'd been in a film that my producing partner Marty [Kaszubowski] had made, she's a supporting role in that and we kept in touch 'cause I thought she was brilliant, and I was like I wanna see what you do. And we traded scripts and she sent me the script for this one and I was just floored. It was so funny, it was so real. It just crushed your heart and then hugged it and then crushed it and then hugged it. 

It was really cool to be able to read that and know that she already wanted to act in it. I knew she was a brilliant actor so I was really excited about that and we had been meaning to make it for a couple years and this past summer we finally got to put everything together and get everybody on set and shoot it so it was a pretty quick turn around too, 'cause we shot it in June of last year.

Pet NamesRene Cruz and Meredith Johnston in Carol Brandt's 'Pet Names'

NFS: Stylistically, I felt like the film was spare in a certain way but also really lush; it didn't feel like you held back in terms of getting the look that you wanted, so can you talk about the actual production and the shooting?

Brandt: Definitely. We knew we were gonna have a tiny budget so I really wanted to make sure we made stylistic choices that made sense for the film that would stand out, one of them being the 4:3 aspect ratio and the colors in the film and how we framed things because 4:3 is a really interesting frame to work with, so a lot of the shots are close-ups which adds to that intimate feeling. Having the sides cropped kind of also adds to that, where it's a little claustrophobic because you don't really see a lot around [the characters].

When we did show landscapes and stuff around them we really wanted to see it 'cause we shot it in Northern Wisconsin, which is full of these beautiful hills. They're at a canyon and we had a lot of foot room so we could see the river beneath them, we had a lot of headroom so we could see all the tall trees. So all of that was really intentional. 

And then with the colorist, I gave him these two old faded Polaroids, just photos of the woods. So they kind of had this honey-colored, faded look to them and I think that we really wanted to push the nostalgia feel of it. Because it's 4:3, kind of home video-y and the old photo I described helped a lot.

"4:3 is a really interesting frame to work with...we wanted to push the nostalgia feel of it."

NFS: I was curious about the 4:3 aspect. Were there any other factors that went into that decision?

Brandt: Aside from the framing and claustrophobia things I mentioned, I feel like when I put constraints on myself it helps more creative things come about. I feel like if we had shot it widescreen it would've been trying to be more cinematic and we really wanted to concentrate on the interactions of these two.

And the little moments that happen when you're camping that nobody else really puts into films I feel. Like oh, this is when they're getting ready to go to bed or this is when they're just sitting and doing nothing because that's what you do sometimes when you're camping, you just sit in a chair and enjoy it, and so that was something we really wanted to put in there in this little box. 

Pet Names'Pet Names' screenwriter and lead actor Meredith Johnston

NFS: How much of that stuff—the quiet, hanging out moments—was written into the original script versus you as a director saying, “Let's just stay on this beat for awhile.”

Brandt: It was pretty 50/50 actually. There was one scene where they're just sitting there and it's a really awkward silence and they end up bringing up their past relationships, and that was in the script. 

But there are some scenes where I really stretch the silences just because it added so much to the drama of the moment. There's a scene where they're tripping on mushrooms and they're fucked up so they're staring at each other for a really long time. And he says something really intimate and she kind of like breaks out of it. And so before he says it, there's this really long pause where you can tell they're on something and they're just having this insane moment of eye contact, and then he says something and then it's gone. So things like that were more on me, 'cause I also edited it, so that was more on my side.

“The a7S II we mostly had for the night scenes 'cause that thing can see in the goddamn dark.”

NFS: To wrap up the shooting, did you actually shoot in 4:3 and then crop it?

Brandt: We shot in 16 by 9. And then we cropped it. We had the little pieces of tape on the monitor to help us.

NFS: And what did you shoot it on?

Brandt: We shot it on the Sony Alpha a7S II. And then some scenes were on the FS5. But the Mark 2 we mostly have for the night scenes 'cause that thing can see in the goddamn dark, it's so nice.

NFS: It looked like there was no lighting in those night scenes.

Brandt: There was a campfire. We had maybe one or two lights to highlight but the majority of it …We would have our craft services guy running in the woods getting logs to put on the fire when I called cut and to keep it going, so that was interesting. I don't know if I would do it again but it was nice for it to keep them in the moment 'cause they didn't have a light shining in their eyes. 

Pet NamesRene Cruz and Meredith Johnston in Carol Brandt's 'Pet Names'

NFS: So much of this movie happens in what's unsaid...

Brandt: Yeah, I find myself cutting out dialogue a lot with the films that I edit, just 'cause you find out what you really don't need. When they say “show, don't tell” it's so, so true.

NFS: How do you make those decisions without having an audience sitting there?

Brandt: Most of it is just instinct for me. I edit to pay rent, I edit commercials and stuff so I kind of have developed an eye and ear of what will make an audience feel something and a lot of it is so subtle. Because you forget it's going to be playing on a big screen for people and the things that you think are subtle are gonna be huge on the screen. 

Like the scene I just told you about, them staring at each other for a long time. I thought these little glances in the scene were so subtle and in the movie theater people were like, "Whoa. That was crazy." 

So it's, yeah, feeling that out initially but another thing that really helped is we had a lot of test screenings while we were editing, so after the first rough cut which was three hours long, we had I think up to 40 test screenings 'cause it was every weekend.

NFS: Wow.

Brandt: I was working a 9-5, so I would apply the notes nights and weekends and screen it again the next weekend for a new group of people and apply those notes, and so it really helped us get it done that much quicker. I didn't sleep very much, but it got it done quickly.

NFS: How did you manage those test screenings? How did you run them?

Brandt: We had no more than five people at a time. And our main goal was to get people of all demographics to watch it, just so it was more rounded. 'Cause it's a very specific film and it's still a very millennial film, but we really wanted people younger, older, different races, different orientations and all that stuff just to watch it.

“The slightest change in a scene will make someone hate or love a character.”

NFS: Did you set them up in any way or did you just say hey, watch and let us know what you think? 

Brandt: We tried to have them come into it blind. A couple of them had read a previous version of the script or had heard me talk about it, but a lot of them came in not knowing anything about it and so that was really valuable to us because me and my co-editor Chris Thompson had been editing and editing and so things we just didn't pick up anymore they saw, and they would point out and we'd change it, so that was really valuable.

We would also have specific questions: how did this feel in this scene? Did you feel this way because of this? And one thing I really noticed is that when you have that many test screenings, the slightest change in a scene will make someone hate or love a character. Just because of how long you linger on them or what kind of glance they might do. 

NFS: As a trained editor what else do you think you brought from editing into directing on set?

Brandt: I know what shots I need, and I know how I want it to play out. I storyboard all my films from beginning to end just so I know what it looks like and so I know what the fuck I want on set, which is helpful for actors and the camera people, when you know what you're talking about, 'cause I've been on sets with directors who just don't have shot lists and are like, "Oh, how should we shoot this scene?" And we had a couple of those moments because something wasn't working out and we had to kind of re-think it. 

But me and my DP, Dana Shihadah, she was so brilliant and so creative and had all these great ideas on how to shoot scenes. I tried to do no more than three shots for coverage because we really wanted the scenes to play out in a nice, long way and the actors were so good so we could afford to not have to edit around them that much.

Pet NamesRene Cruz in Carol Brandt's 'Pet Names'

NFS: Do you have any wise words for other filmmakers who want to direct and edit their own work?

Brandt: Just have a really clear vision, because if you stick with it and know that it's good and try and maintain it throughout, it'll really make that much more of a difference. Like when you have intention behind the choices you make on set, it really makes such a difference. If you just have this crazy camera move and people be like, what the fuck was that for? That was something I've learned in the last couple years is have meaning behind everything you do in a film, because it makes it that much more richer.

“I have a very strict no asshole policy on my set because they can just bring everybody down.”

NFS: Finally, in terms of advice to other filmmakers, do you have any kind of tips or tricks that you did to get, things you knew you wanted to see in the film but might not have had the budget for?

Brandt: Luckily, since it was such a simple story, we just needed the campground and we needed the driving scenes. Those were the most important and everything else we just kind of drew favors. 'Cause we paid for the campground but it was so cheap and the actors all got points in the back end so none of them accepted any pay [up front].

And then just scheduling really tightly. We only had ten shooting days at the campground and then the rest was around Milwaukee so it was 20 total. And it was all weekends but we would carpool, our craft services had a pretty low budget but he was a genius with how to make really good food on a low budget. When we were camping, all he had was a hose and a grill, and he made amazing food. 

What really helped is having the morale on set, not only just for the entire production but the final product itself. And my biggest rule is don't hire assholes. There's a lot of really talented assholes out there, and I have a very strict no asshole policy on my set because they can just bring everybody down.

On this set, we got really tight. We all got matching tattoos, when we wrapped. I just really am concentrated on set, on making the film itself but I am also always making sure that everybody's having a good time, because if you're not, what's the point?