Sundance-Winning Short Film 'Hair Wolf': Casting High-Quality Actors and Making Your Money Back
Is Netflix the next big buyer of short films? The Hair Wolf team certainly hopes so.
Imagine a world in which cultural appropriation was a virus: white people, appropriating black culture with a vampiric intent, infect black culture at large with their white-washed version of it. That's the premise of Hair Wolf, Mariama Diallo's Sundance-winning short film. Set in a reality somewhere between our own and an exaggerated, hyper-stylized sci-fi realm, Hair Wolf draws inevitable (and favorable) comparisons to Get Out— both with regards to its satirical indictment of the lenses with which white Americans view black culture, and the delicate balance it threads between horror and comedy.
No Film School sat down with Diallo and producer Valerie Steinberg to discuss the film's aesthetics, casting high-quality actors for short film work, turning the film around just in time for the late Sundance deadline, and the future of short film distribution, which may or may not include Netflix and HBO.
NFS: How did the idea for this film come about?
Mariama Diallo: Sometime in May, I was outside my apartment building in Crown Heights pretty early in the morning. I don't know if you've ever noticed a tuft of hair from an extension or a wig lying upon the ground? Well, I saw one, and my boyfriend was sitting next to me, so I turned to him, pointed to it, and said, "Braid." But he misheard me and he thought that I said "brain." Then, we were kind of laughing and talking about the concept of zombies and hair, and then zombies in a hair salon. I got home and started writing Hair Wolf basically immediately. I got a first draft out really, really fast.
It was very serendipitous because [the experience] married some things that I had been thinking about for a while, such as cultural appropriation—and even more specifically, cultural appropriation in the Instagram realm. There is an Instagram aesthetic [characterized by] heavily-tanned skin, contoured makeup, and plumped lips. It incorporates sort of some elements of black culture. But the weird thing is, they all are starting to look like each other. The black [Instagram models]—the ones that are darker-skinned—seem to quite frequently lean on pale foundation. And then the lighter ones are getting a bit darker. It felt like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or just like there was like this virus going around like through the internet. I was like, "This is fucking insane. Is anyone noticing this?" Once I had the idea of the hair salon, I knew I wanted to bring in this concept of a white girl, like a Kylie Jenner, going in and just infecting all of the other characters and dragging them into her worldview.
NFS: The humor was simultaneously terrifying and also really funny.
Diallo: Oh, I'm glad it was! After the screening, this guy came up and was like, "That was so fun to watch, but I was terrified of that white girl...." Madeline Weinstein, who portrayed her, is awesome. One of the things that I liked about the character is that she is pretty innocuous in terms of what she says. She does say a bunch of [offensive] things, but accidentally.
NFS: How did you think about the aesthetics of the world? It was so well stylized; there was this surreal, almost neon sci-fi feel to it.
Diallo: As we began talking about the aesthetics, we were like, "Where is this happening?" Obviously, it's happening in Brooklyn but it's almost like an alternate version of our reality. I was trying to be very, very intentional. I was very taken by classic horror films. I wanted to be very deliberate about the aesthetic choices I made. I wasn't going for something super-naturalistic and handheld aesthetic. I wanted to have a very formal picture. I wanted everything to feel heightened. When talking to the different team members, I would tell them, "Imagine the world in the film as a reality-plus—everything is a heightened version of what it would be in real life." We just really wanted to be a little bit over the top.
Also, it was really important for me for the black characters to look absolutely fabulous. Like, why wouldn't Rebecca wanna bite off these characters? These women are gorgeous. Of course, that's not reason enough.
NFS: How was your experience taking the film Sundance and ultimately winning the Grand Jury Prize for narrative short film?
Diallo: The whole experience of Sundance was very dizzying. It was confusing and really exciting. The night of the premiere, all the crew were very into it and were very exaggerated in terms of what they brought and their [energy]. All of the other teams are just sitting there reading the program, and our hair artist walks in wearing a neon blue mask made of braids, and our costume designer was wearing on talons. I'm looking around and I'm putting my hands to my head like, "We are so extra!" But I loved it. So it was so much fun.
I was really trying to not think about any awards because it just seemed so improbable like. I wasn't sure what any kind of jury would be looking for, so I really didn't even engage with that. So when we won, I was like, "Did she just say Hair Wolf?" and then sort of quickly scrambled through my brain, wondering if there was something else that had a similar name. Could I be misunderstanding this?
NFS: Do you feel like you have a launchpad now to make a feature?
Diallo: I feel like very lucky that things lined up for this the way that they did, timing-wise. If you had asked me five years ago--when I hadn't even made a short film--I would have said I wanted to go to Sundance tomorrow, and I deserve to get in. But I'm so glad that I had a little bit of time to continue working, because what ended up happening is that I wrote a bunch of features for fun, and with each new script, I honed my voice and discovered what I wanted to talk about and how I wanted to talk about it. And so by the time this shocking turn of events happened with Hair Wolf, I was ready for [the success]. Thankfully, I had a feature script I was ready to start talking to people about.
There was a time when we weren't even going to submit to Sundance. We shot the film in late August, and the turnaround for the deadline was so soon and I just said to my crew, "Listen, what's the point of rushing the edit for such a long shot?" It was my producer, Valerie, who was like, "No, let's just try. Let's do it."
NFS: Valerie, how did you get involved in Hair Wolf?
Valerie Steinberg: Mariama and I went to college together at Yale. We were in an all-female sketch comedy group, The Sphincter Troupe. We got together to make her first post-college short film called Sketch the summer prior to Hair Wolf, in 2016. It did pretty well. It played at Lincoln Center's African Film Festival and it played at Blackstar Film Festival, where Mariama won the Fox Inclusion Emerging Artist's Award. And we took it to the Chicago International Film Festival together. But when Mariama sent me the script for Hair Wolf I was like, "This is another level. We gotta make this."
We probably had five weeks to throw it all together before we went into production. It was this really tight collaboration.
NFS: How did you cast the film?
Steinberg: Casting is one of my strengths as a producer. I used to work in theater, so I know lots of actors from those days and have a good background as an actor myself. I immediately began reaching out to many people for recommendations and made a character breakdown. I talked to many people for recs.
Out of the five main roles, we cast three of them without auditions. Madeline Weinstein, I had seen in Beach Rats, which won the directing award at Sundance the year before. I suggested it as an idea, Mariama liked the idea, and then I was sitting at a Crown Heights coffee shop on Franklin Avenue. The film was going to be shot in Crown Heights—it's a very gentrified millennial neighborhood. Mariama lives in Crown Heights and I've lived in Crown Heights many times. Anyway, I was sitting there one day on my laptop and I look up and saw Madeline just sitting there talking to some friend. I was like, "Were you in Beach Rats?" And she was like, "Yes," and I'm like, "I have to send you a script." She said, "Cool." It turns out that she was roommates with someone we knew. It was just a small world story. I sent her the script, she liked it, and she came on board.
Then, Trae Harris, who plays Janice, the shopkeeper, I first caught wind of in the 2013 film Newlyweeds. That played at Sundance as well, and Shaka King directed it. And Kristan Sprague, our editor, also edited Newlyweeds. I actually met Kristan at Sundance in 2013. I met Shaka a bit later. Trae just stuck in my mind.
Taliah Webster, who played Eve, the character in the movie who has the head wrap and the final showdown, is one of the five nominees this year for the Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Good Time, the Safdie brothers' film. Hair Wolf's the second and only other film she's been in. During the casting process, when I was reaching out to everyone for recommendations, I run into Oscar Boyson, the producer of Good Time, at this thing called Rat Court, which is a poetry reading. I go up to Oscar afterward and say, "I'm looking for an actor of this description," He goes, "Taliah Webster. Here's her manager's number." I was like, obviously. Why didn't I think of that? She's only 16 years old. She blew us away at auditions.
Then there's Jermaine Crawford, who was actually on The Wire for an entire season when he was in high school.
Originally, we were auditioning a lot of comedians in addition to actors, thinking, "Oh, it's a comedy. Let's reach out to comedians." Though they were amazing people, we ended up thinking they're just not the actors we were looking for, so we didn't cast any.
NFS: What were the particular challenges you faced as a producer and how did you overcome them?
Steinberg: Oh well, I crashed my car before day three, so that was a challenge. I'm a big New York driver. I have a car. It was brand new, too, at the time. There was this big giant truck and he did not see me coming into his lane and as I was changing lanes, he went forward and crashed into my car. It made me a little bit late to filming that day, but everything was ahead anyway, and eventually, I got the car repaired, so it was all fine.
We had three overnights which is already a challenge. The film takes place at night and there are all these windows. Originally I was like, "We have to do it day for night, you guys," and then Charlotte Hornsby, our DP, came on board, and she was like, "No, we can't." So we ended up having to scrap our plan and do overnights.
Then, of course, a challenge was meeting the Sundance deadline. We shot August 19th through 21st, so it was pretty late. The Sundance official late deadline is September 15th. I knew that was impossible. I had already reached out to Mike Plant, the Senior Shorts Programmer, to ask for a deadline waiver—not a fee waiver because they don't give you those. And he was like, "Yes, you can have until the first week of October." I was thought, "Crucial! An extra three weeks."
We asked our editor Kristan Sprague, if it was possible to at get least a cut, even if other post elements weren't done, by the first week of October. He said yes, but because things are going to be super tight, he would want the drive delivered to him every morning after our shoot so he could start transcoding and prepping the footage.
NFS: What did you shoot on?
Steinberg: An ARRI Alexa. As far as the lenses, we had an Angenieux Optimo 24-290mm T2.8 zoom lens. It's a massive zoom lens. In order to even get this lens, we had to get a bigger tripod to fit, because it's almost three feet long. In addition, we had a Cooke Mini S4i Panchro 25mm prime lens and a Mini S4i 40mm.
NFS: What are you planning for in terms of a release?
Steinberg: It's too early to say. We're getting a few inquiries and are excited. We're going to play our festival run. We have a few more exciting festivals coming up already.
With my last short that did very well, Fry Day by Laura Moss, we were torn between exposure versus revenue. Vimeo was willing to put us as a Vimeo Staff Pick, so that would be a little bit of press, and more people could see it. But it would prevent us from doing things like signing with an international sales company that would make licensing deals with say, French television, which as I understand pays the highest of any country's television. Then, there is Spain and Switzerland and some Asian and South American countries that actually do pay money for short films either to be on television or theatrical release before a feature.
Steinberg: Then, there are airlines. But I don't feel like Hair Wolf is an airplane movie, you know?
The question is, is it going to be a good fit for potential revenue from European distribution? We could also say, "Screw it, the money's been spent, and we don't care about making the money back. Let's just put it out there online." We're trying to figure that out.
NFS: Is there a future in which there will be a middle ground between exposure and revenue?
Steinberg: Yes. The trick is that now, the most lucrative options for shorts are these exclusive television deals. They're geographically exclusive, so if we were on France Télévisions, which is one of the three French television stations—the other ones are Arte and Canal +—they pay often as much as 500 euros a minute for short films. That would be lucrative. It wouldn't necessarily make back the budget, but it would be a nice little boost. That would be okay if we sold it to one of those stations or licensed it for two or three years. If we were a French filmmaker, being on French television would be a huge exposure. But as an American filmmaker, no one would even know if we were on France Télévisions.
Vimeo specifically can't geo-block, so for a short filmmaker, you do have to either put yourself on Vimeo or go with one of these exclusive deals. There are other companies that can geo block. Jason Sondhi from Short of the Week does.
[Online releases and television licensing deals] aren't necessarily mutually exclusive outside of America, but for an American filmmaker where there are no American channels buying shorts, it's hard. HBO is just beginning to buy some shorts. They bought this 30-minute short called Tokyo Project that played in our block at Tribeca. But it executive produced by Jenny Connor and Lena Dunham, and the writer/director was one of the Girls directors, so they had a connection to HBO. And it was 30 minutes, which is probably easier for HBO to program.
Netflix may be getting in the world of buying shorts. I keep hearing murmurings, but I haven't actually been personally told about any opportunities about yet. If for some reason, winning Sundance, for example, made us an exciting [buy] for Netflix, that would be amazing. I'm just kind of waiting to see what happens next.
For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by RODE Microphones and Blackmagic Design.