A Picnic Table, At Dusk is a contemplative and touching short film from promising filmmaker Sheridan O’Donnell. Led by Taylor Hickson’s outstanding performance, the film tells the story of a damaged teen girl who begins to communicate with a stranger via writing on a picnic table.
James Prestridge of Close-up Culture caught up director Sheridan O’Donnell to learn more about the film, Taylor Hickson, personal filmmaking, bullying and more.
Q: This is an 11 minute short about loss that with almost no dialogue gives plenty of space for quiet reflection. Why a story of loss and this particular approach?
A: THE inspiration for the film came from two things – a conversation I had in middle school at my desk with a stranger in another period – and more recently a lone picnic table I saw at a park while jogging around my neighbourhood.
I thought this idea of correspondence with a stranger fitted well into the environment of a suburban neighbourhood. From there I began to think about who would be at this table and why. A common reaction to grief is to bottle it up – to become uncommunicative – so I thought a grieving person would be the perfect character to experience this kind of conversation.
In terms of approach, lately I have been trying to write scripts with simpler, more specific stories. Instead of going broad and trying to comment on everything in a short film – which of course is impossible – just make a film about one very specific thing.
So I began to ask myself questions. ‘What if there was no dialogue?’ ‘What if there was only one character?’ ‘What if we never left the park?’ ‘What if the camera never moved?’ Once I had these limitations and challenges in mind, I got excited about writing the script and later making the film.
Q: Ivy (Taylor Hickson) is a teen girl who breaks the leafy suburban tranquillity with a scream and with her heavy metal music. Can you tell us about the character and why you chose a female perspective?
A: WHEN I was thinking about who would be the most appropriate character for a film about communication, I thought about my teenage self. That is definitely the time in my life when I was the most introverted and withdrawn. So the character became a teenager.
But I also wanted to write from a place of curiosity. Part of the satisfaction of my work comes from writing about people and cultures that are outside of my own experience. So I made the character the exact opposite of who I was at age 15 which happened to be a goth/punk teenage girl deep in the throes of a personal tragedy.
For a long time, I had also wanted to write a film with a female protagonist. As I began to write, I realized there was yet another interesting part of her being a woman. There is a lot of pressure on teenagers — specifically teen girls –to look and act a certain way.
The film is finding Ivy in probably the most confused time of her life. She is not only trying to find herself, but she is also dealing with unbearable loss. That combination of an internal-external struggle seemed like a good subject to hang a film on.
Q: Taylor Hickson carries the weight of the film. What was she like to work with and what qualities did she bring to the film?
A: TAYLOR was amazing. I cannot say enough good things about her. You would never be able to tell from her performance, but she is quite the opposite in real life: bubbly, extroverted and chic. This is a real testament to her acting ability.
When I was considering Taylor for the part, I realized she had not played characters like Ivy before, but I was struck by her eyes. She has these incredibly expressive blue eyes that just sparkle and are magnets for the audience’s empathy. That is a quality you want in an actor who is not going to speak or do much in a film.
So when I was watching her work during casting, I would turn the sound off and look at how she acted with her eyes. Or I would watch how she listened to other actors in a scene which has a lot to do with your eyes, obviously.
For me a huge part in evaluating an actor’s talent is just seeing how they listen. I always think of Philip Seymour Hoffman in Magnolia. Some 90 per cent of that performance is about listening. He has so little dialogue and yet it is one of the best performances in the film.
Taylor had a quarter of the tools actors have in most movies to communicate to the audience. There is no dialogue and not even another actor in the scene to react to. Her scene partner was a wooden table. So the fact that she is still engaging and affecting in her performance, I think that says a lot.
Q: Another of your short films, Wolff’s Law, is available to watch on Amazon Prime. Can you talk about what you wanted to say with this project and how it was inspired by your own experiences of bullying?
A: MOST of my work is personal. It is about things that have either directly happened to me or happened to someone close to me.
Wolff’s Law was my first foray into personal filmmaking. When I was in middle school I was bullied pretty relentlessly until I finally defended myself physically. What was most surprising was even after I had finally reacted violently – and getting them to stop — I still did not feel good. I felt horrible. I cried in front of the whole class. I did not feel like a hero – like the movies might make it out to be.
A lot of general wisdom nowadays about bullying says that you should defend yourself – and I am not saying you should not. It obviously worked to some degree for me, but that became why I wanted to make the film. I wanted to show how reacting violently – even if you are entirely justified in your actions – comes with consequences. I wanted to realistically portray bullying instead of falling into stereotypes – a fault of many films about bullying.
The cliché of nerds being picked on by jocks was not true at all to my experience. I was a regular kid being beaten up by regular kids. So maybe I wanted to say to the kids being bullied today: it is not your fault. It is nothing about you – not how you look or talk or act. And at the same time to say to the rest of the world: anyone can be a bully.
Look at yourself in the mirror closely before you exempt yourself. Because that was the other surprising aspect of when I defended myself – my bullies suddenly looked horrified. They had no idea what they were doing was actually bad or that they were hurting me. They did not think they were bullies.
Q: I also watched a cracking comedy short you did called Slow Wallet. What kind of stories do you enjoy telling the most?
A: ANY kind. As long as there is a compelling story to be told, I am in. It does not matter if it is funny, sad or horrifying. But I have found that I tend to be interested in human truths – particularly ones that are underseen or under talked about in today’s world.
So a lot of the time, that might mean it is about taboo subjects such as suicide, bullying and grief. But then there is Slow Wallet which is about a cheapskate friend who takes his wallet out slowly so you will pay first. It is a stretch I guess, but the humour in the film is totally rooted in this truth. You laugh because you know it is true – whether it is true of you or someone you know.
Q: Can you tell us a bit more about your background and what brought you to filmmaking?
A: MY path to filmmaking was a winding one. I had made little shorts with my family – I have two brothers and a sister – when I was younger, but was definitely not the kid who at five knew he wanted to do this.
It took me majoring in Chemical Engineering at college and having a nervous breakdown in coding class to realize I had to be satisfied in the work I was doing and a pay-check – no matter how big – was not going to cut it.
I came to find that all the things I considered to be weaknesses at the time – my democratic interest in all my school subjects, my emotional oversensitivity, my somewhat dysfunctional upbringing – were actually strengths when viewed through the lens of a filmmaker: writer or director.
Filmmaking gave me ownership over my life and my stories. I began to accept myself and my identity, warts and all. I suddenly had a kind of control over my pain and feelings about things. I could make a film about it instead of helplessly living with these fears, anxieties and scars.
It sounds like an exaggeration to say that filmmaking saved my life, but in my case I really think it did.
Q: I noticed you have a credit on the 2014 film Transcendence. Any memories of working on that project?
A: OH, man. That seems like ages ago. I suppose I will start with the positive. It was my first job on a real film set (ten weeks) and paid my rent at the time. I also learned a lot about the rigor and execution that goes into making a movie – that it is the confluence of passion, creativity and structure and logistics. But beyond that I have to say it mostly taught me what I did not want to do.
Coming off the film, I leaned harder into my own work because I knew I did not have the commitment or strength to work day in and day out on other people’s ideas. I have an incredible respect for film workers. It is a brutal lifestyle and if it were not for their backbreaking efforts a director would be nothing.
I like to equate directing to being a coach on a sports team. You may be calling the shots, but you do not know how to play. And you are not the one who gets hit. So you want to remember that and be very respectful and to show your gratitude. I think a lot of directors tend to forget that the more they find success, but I will not.
Q: What does the future hold for you?
A: SIMPLY put: my first feature. I have the script. For the most part, I have the team. Now begins the long, arduous process to get the financing and put the pieces together.
I waited a long time to write a feature – I did not want to rush the story. To force something artificial just to have something. Even on the short end of things, I might spend three or four years of my life on this film.
Making a feature is like getting married, so you want to make sure you are in love first. But I have got my story now. And I am in love.
Things will of course be hard. There will be dark nights. But you just have to commit and tell yourself: ‘This movie is happening’ and it will. Maybe not in the way you exactly wanted, or in the timeframe you wanted, but it will happen.
That is the secret to indie film and getting things made. I remember Derek Cianfrance talking about Blue Valentine which took him ten years to make. He said – and I am paraphrasing: “I knew the movie would eventually happen. That I would make the film before I died.” That tells you the commitment and sacrifice it takes to be an independent filmmaker. But I can say without a doubt there is nothing I would rather be.
Portrait of Sheridan by Ryle Yazzie