What do a 1970s game show, a Broadway-sized musical number, and a black & white documentary interview have in common? They're all fragments of filmmaker Ann Lupo’s docu-fantasy investigation on falling into the trap of unrequited love.
Ann Lupo spent a year being in love with someone who was not in love with her. Then one day, she was hit with a major dose of reality. "Something about that year marker woke me up and I was like, 'God, I really need to investigate this and figure out why this happened,'" Lupo told No Film School. What transpired after that realization was a heart-wrenching interview with herself meshed with colorful and gut-busting fantasy interludes that recreate Lupo’s persistent imagivision—the particular set of lenses that, despite your best efforts, prevent you from moving on from a dead-end relationship. The result is the feature film In Reality, which was recently awarded a Special Jury Mention for U.S. Fiction at the Los Angeles Film Festival.
Lupo sat down with No Film School on the eve of the LAFF premiere to talk about not squirming around autobiographical material, creating the looks of fantasy on film, and committing to an exploration on screen that helps you overcome your personal handicaps in real life.
No Film School: A big part of the film that we come back throughout is this black-and-white interview that feels like a documentary-type conversation with you. Can you tell us about this interview and how you decided to shoot it?
Ann Lupo: I told my co-directors Aaron Pryka and Esteban Pedraza, "This is what I want you to ask me about. Write the questions that you think I need to be asked, and I will just answer them. I know that I need to tell the story front to back, and then we can go on an investigative interview process." They really roasted me! They really asked me some hard questions that I hadn't considered at all before. That interview actually ended up being four hours, but those moments of them asking me questions that I really never asked myself before, were the moments I gravitated towards using in the film. You can really see me working it out on screen.
Those are the moments that make it special and relatable and frankly, the reason that it's black and white, not only to distinguish it between all the other parts of the movie that are so colorful and so saturated, but it's actually because I was so anxious during the interview that I had this red hive on my chest that I was like, "Oh, okay, that can't be in the movie. We're going to make it black and white!"
"They really roasted me! They really asked me some hard questions that I hadn't considered at all before."
NFS: Well, good choice! What was the process after you did the interview? Did you write the script after that point?
Lupo: I had written a couple of really bad scripts before the interview that were still blueprints of what was to come. Most of those scripts didn't end up in the movie. Basically, I took that four-hour interview and cut it down to what editors call a radio edit. They were the best moments that I felt told the story and were in the order that it needed to be told in.
From there, I would make these little gaps in the timeline where I was like, "Okay, there needs to be a scene here, and there needs to be a scene there, and this section of the interview is a jumping off point for us to go into this scene like the first date, or the Aunt Doreen scene," or whatever the scene was.
I call it the skeleton. That interview serves as the skeleton of the movie, and then all of the scenes were written to punctuate certain moments that I knew were powerful in the interview, but also to keep the story moving and make sure that we were telling it in the most efficient way.
I would write the first or first couple drafts of the script and then we would have a writer's room with myself, Esteban, and Aaron. We would punch it up and make it better, and they would give me feedback on what they thought my ‘character’ needed to learn. That was a fun but also sometimes excruciating process.
NFS: I want to ask about the element of fantasy in the film, and your philosophical approach to it. At the beginning of the film, for example, your ‘character’ is talking about the idea of being in love, at which point there are a few sequences that each mimic a specific genre of film (and the way love is represented on screen). Was the relationship between filmmaking and the fantasies of love that are represented on screen something you wanted to approach?
Lupo: Yes, certainly. Because I approached the whole movie as an investigation, it went into a couple of different investigative categories. Number one, it was of myself, number two was of this relationship, and number three was an investigation of love in general, and why we put these big grandiose expectations onto relationships. Being a film buff and being a filmmaker who's watched movies all my life, the main source of information I have about life is movies. Al of those great movies that I grew up with all portray love in different ways. Of course, in my movie, I talk about how some of them are very accurate, but most of the time they're pretty exaggerated. It gives you this idea that you can also find that in life.
The movie is called In Reality because I learned that I needed to get more in touch with reality and not live through fantasies as much. Of course, I'm a dreamer, an imaginative person, and I love and defend fantasy to the end. It's one of the survival mechanisms of human beings. It can also be a detriment if you are not facing reality, and you're continuing to believe in things that aren't actually real.
That was part of the investigation process, and that's what the switch is at the end where I find myself in front of a garbage pile of my fantasies and I'm realizing, "Okay, geez, I need to throw this all away and face reality the way normal people do." But then, of course, the musical number character comes back and gives me the pep talk because you don't have to throw it all away.
You should still dream, you should still be able to fantasize and believe in imaginary things because that's a really beautiful part of life. It doesn't always have to be about love and it doesn't always have to be about needing someone else to complete you.
NFS: What was your conversation with your Director of Photography like about accomplishing all of these looks?
Lupo: Nadine Martinez is my incredible DP. All of us on the crew are very close friends, which is why it worked, because they stuck with me through the three-and-a-half year process that this has been. We didn't start off as a feature. It started as a short and then it became a series, and so there were a lot of different phases.
I would tell Nadine, "Yeah, this is supposed to look like a 1970s game show," and she'd be like, "Okay, cool" and then she would go do that. I’d then say, "This is supposed to look like a vintage postcard" and we would do that.
She's a very versatile, creative person. She loves to play around and experiment with different styles and so it was a perfect match. Not that there was anyone else I would've had shoot this movie, but it really worked out well because we have the same experimental style. There's no limit to what we were going to. We put no parameters on the style of this movie, it like exploded.
NFS: For some of those parts where you're like, "Make it look like a 1970s game show," did you have to go out and get older cameras that could give you the looks of the different time shooting formats from the periods you were referencing?
Lupo: I'm going to get ripped apart by trolls, but we shot on the Sony FS7 and then we shot a few things on MiniDV for those later looks, but for the most part it was all Sony FS7. Our post-supervisor and I had a hell of a time making all of those effects in post, yeah.
NFS: Well, you did a really good job.
Lupo: I'm an editor and I edited the movie with Esteban and our other editor, Erin Sullivan. One of my favorite things to do is create these different looks and effects in Post. So that was another stage of the creative process, finding how best to texturize and make all of these scenes really feel like those different genres and different styles that we were referencing.
NFS: What would your advice be based on what you've learned at this point?
Lupo: The quick and easy answer is commit to the journey of loving yourself. It sounds really cliché, like an Instagram quote or something really lame, but it's the most important thing I've ever learned to do. In the movie, I say at the beginning that I want to change. I've been reflecting on that now that the movie is actually out and done, that I did change. I did achieve that, because I no longer berate myself and I no longer hate myself in the way that I was doing at that time.
I don't recommend making a movie about this—it's not for the faint of heart! It's not for everyone, but I do recommend, if there's something in your life that continues to trouble you and handicap you from being the best version of yourself that you know you can be, commit to that journey of understanding what that is. Because it’s possible to overcome those things, and to find yourself in a completely different mental space. I feel very relieved to be here.