In this interview with Close-up Culture, director Mauro Mueller talks about his short film Dear Chickens.
Starring Kerris Dorsey and Philip Baker Hall, the film tells the story of two mismatched patients who are forced to share a hospital room. Confronted with dire hospital food and their own battles with cancer, the two begin to form an unlikely and heart-warming connection.
Q: ‘Dear Chickens’ is a touching tale about bridging generational gaps and forming an unexpected friendship. What gave you the idea for this unlikely duo and interaction?
A: I love unlikely friendships in films. When talking about cancer, it is important to stress that it can effect anyone. While cancer risk may increase as we get older, the disease can develop at any age. So the generation gap was important to me in that regard, as well as addressing the broader topic of treating life-threatening illnesses not always having a “one size fits all” solution. There is a huge difference whether someone is in their teens or at the end of their life.
In terms of the unlikely pair, an inspiration was of course Harold and Maud.
Q: There is such a beautiful blend of poignancy and humour in this story. What type of emotions and thoughts did you want to stir with this film?
A: First and foremost, I wanted to tell a story about compassion. Shortly before embarking on writing the script, I spent a lot of time with my father-in-law who was hospitalised in a public hospital in Mexico. It was a very sad experience, getting to know other patients and hearing their misfortune or ill stroke of fate. But also, there were beautiful moments of these patients caring for each other and they often joked about the bad hospital food. In a way, they became their own best medicine.
Thus, it was important to me to do justice to the real tragedy of cancer and the difficult decisions of cancer treatment and most of all not to sugar-coat reality. At the same time, I wanted to send the viewer on an emotional journey of highs and lows throughout and I felt contrasting tragedy with humour works well for this story. Humour has such a compelling power and I believe it plays a role in strengthening our ability to cope with struggle, it lightens our burdens, and inspires hope.
Q: I think it says a lot about you and this story that you got two fabulous actors on board. Can you tell us about your experience working with Kerris Dorsey and the legendary Philip Baker Hall – two actors at opposite ends of their careers?
A: Of course, I feel very honoured that I had the chance to work with both Philip and Kerris. I would say their work ethic and preparation is very similar as they both are absolute professionals and poured their heart and soul into it.
In preparation for the shoot, we did a read-through and discussed the characters and their intentions. On set, it was all very smooth and they immediately felt comfortable in their roles.
Q: Their characters form a heart-warming bond on-screen. Did you see a bond form between Kerris and Philip during the filming?
A: Both Kerris and Philip got along so well which I think can also be seen on screen. This kind of chemistry is difficult to fake or construct. Before filming, Philip told me that he had seen Kerris work and was excited to be working with her. For Kerris, of course, it was equally exciting to share dramatic scenes with Philip.
Q: The film largely takes place in one hospital room with the curtain and other tricks acting to divide or bring the two characters together. Can you talk about the shoot and working within this single-room space?
A: The main goal and challenge was the contained space. Our entire filming strategy was indeed to have the two characters separated and then slowly bring them together. We did this with shot selections, framing, mise-en-scène and camera movements. At the beginning, the two never share the same frame. The first time they are in the same shot, there is still a curtain separating them.
When Emil reaches out to Nora and offers her some chocolate, we used a dolly move and what we call a “hand-over” to connect them for the first time visually. We start on Emil’s shot who grabs the chocolate and throws it to Nora and then end on Nora’s shot opening the chocolate. Still, they aren’t yet sharing the same frame at the same time. It’s only at the end, when the two have bonded, that they also share the physical space in the same frame.
Q: You are a graduate of Columbia University and already have incredible experience in the industry. What drives you and your passion for film?
A: I believe stories matter. At Columbia University, I was lucky to learn the tools to tell stories effectively. I’ve always been interested in literature, narrative elements and different structures but cinema has its own language and such a powerful impact on us.
My passion comes from watching other people’s work and having an inner urge to tell stories that are important to me. I feel incredibly privileged that I can do that as my profession.
Q: What are you most proud of from your work on ‘Dear Chickens’?
A: Having had a shoestring budget, I’m proud that we could use the contained space to our advantage and come up with a directing strategy that is effective. Of course, getting to work with Philip and Kerris was simply amazing and they came on board because they liked the script.
Now that the film is finished, it’s amazing that people respond to the film so positively and many have shared their own cancer stories. Also, I’m very proud of the many female key department heads, as well as the mostly Latino crew we had on this film. So there are many reasons to be proud.
Q: What can we expect from you in the future? Do you have any upcoming projects you can share with us?
A: I’m currently working on two features. One is a Mexican film called A Few Days In The Sun which looks at a cultural clash between a European and a Mexican couple. The other is a Swiss-French film, The Good Reputation, that explores a calcified marriage within the context of an upper class family in the Swiss watch making valley.
I’m also developing a slate of other projects with my own company Fidelio Films – some of them as a director and others as a producer. This includes a horror film that, funnily enough, is set in a hospital and a thriller that is mostly set in a car. I like contained spaces.