New York-based filmmaker Meredith Alloway joins us on Close-up Culture to talk about her second short film, Deep Tissue, ahead of its world premiere at SXSW.
Q: ‘Deep Tissue’ gives us a glimpse into the unique connection shared between Viv (yourself) and Sebastian (Peter Vack). What brought you to this story and what did you want to explore through these two characters?
A: For years, I’d been thinking a lot about co-dependent relationships and that fine line between pain and pleasure. Why do people submit themselves to certain “toxic” relationships? When is it coming from trauma, desire or both? And when is it ever definable as good or bad? I had developed out a feature outline in a totally different landscape centered on a sort of Bonnie & Clyde couple who had a fetish they were trying to control, and this was a manifestation of their co-dependency.
And then I got a free massage as part of a Sundance swag bag. The masseuse came over to my tiny East Village apartment and it was hilarious. The massage bed barely fit in the kitchen and it was so bizarre and great. Somehow my brain moments later wrote it as a short, combining it with this previously developed couple and fleshing it out a bit. It’s hard to avoid puns when discussing this short.
Q: The film cheekily moves between sweet moments and slightly unsettling body horror. How much fun did you have playing with tone and audience expectations, all the way down to your choice of music in the credits?
A: I always went back to how do the characters feel. I love movies that surprise you, scare you and challenge your notions of human behavior. I wanted to evoke those emotions in two ways: letting us into the characters’ point of views, and allow us to still have voyeuristic moments as an audience. It was definitely fun and challenging to vacillate between the two.
My producers Josh Wilmott and Rachel Walker really helped me with that in the script phase, and then my DP Justin Hamilton in the way we built the camera language. We thought carefully about when we revealed information, both how the character feels, and then what’s happening plot wise.
I always fought to let any humor come from the juxtaposition of how the characters felt vs. how we might feel about what they’re doing. I tried to always tell their story honestly, and not judge it either way. So maybe “yummy yummy” at the end feels tongue-and-cheek and from the filmmaking team, but I genuinely think the characters are feeling giddy by the end of this and on that wavelength.
Q: I know we both share a mutual love for ‘True Romance’. What on-screen romances have left a big imprint on you as a filmmaker?
A: I’m so glad you love it too! I actually re-watched it this past weekend after you reached out to me. I also like this question a lot because I feel like romances are a bit dead right now in cinema. We’re all a bit cynical, and appropriately so given the state of the world. I wanted to bring it back, even just for myself!
I’ve always connected with couples like Veronica & J.D. from Heathers, Mike and Scott from My Own Private Idaho (yes, they’re not officially a couple but come on) and then my favorite play in the Shakespeare canon is Romeo & Juliet. I’m a sucker.
I think what draws me into these “flawed” couples is how real they are about their feelings and they’re vulnerable. I think we need to see more couples in the modern landscape with the same level of vulnerability and honesty about their desires — for each other and also those they keep secret.
Q: How did you find the experience of being involved in almost every stage of this project (writer, producer, director and lead actor)? Was there a part of the process you particularly enjoyed?
A: I love my collaborative team so much. They’re the only way I pulled this off and the initial vision shown through. I worked as a writer/director/producer on my first short Interior Teresa but this time I cast myself. I like making life harder. No, but I just felt when it came time to cast, I was the right person for the job I guess — and same with Peter Vack — who I’ve been trying to work with for years and timing finally worked out!
My DP and producers knew the project very well, and so it was amazing on set to feel their support. Rachel knew the acting beats I wanted to hit, and if those weren’t coming through, she would pull me aside and be like: ‘remember that breathe you want here, it’s not reading’. Josh was also our editor so he was thinking about the edit on set and making sure we got what we needed. And then Justin my DP, we grew up together and have also been trying to work together for a while. He was so awesome and open to ideas, but also knew when to tell me something wasn’t working.
I didn’t want to slow down our schedule, shout out to our incredible 1st AD Kat, so I didn’t always watch playback. There were moments I did, but otherwise, I trusted our shot lists and our planned vision. It was fun to do the prep work, and then just play. Peter helped me do that for sure.
Q: Can you tell us more about working closely with Peter Vack and why he was the right choice to co-star?
A: I knew that Peter would be down to be in a horror film and try some crazy special effects, but also bring a vulnerability and acting prowess. I love all of his work, as an actor and creator, and I see how he always pushes the envelope and takes risks.
I come from a playwriting background, so script is ingrained in me to be king, and more and more I enjoy throwing it away once you get the take. He encouraged us to improv and by that last day on set, we were connected with each other and the characters. There are some honest and hilarious lines from him that Josh and I were remiss to cut when we excluded the whole scene.
Peter really did encourage me to trust the characters and situations and have fun with it.
Q: I would love to see a ‘Deep Tissue’ feature. Is that something you’ve thought about?
A: Yes! There is a feature, but after getting involved with the short, I took similar themes in a bit of a different direction and built out Viv and Sebastian’s story as a series. I’m really interested in the inception of their love and what they do from there.
I also think series that are being made right now in the 10-20 minute range are awesome because they’re accessible and here, would allow for a super intimate lens on their relationship. I saw The End of the F***ing World and was like, yes, THAT! There’s a lot more I want to explore with these two lovers.
Q: ‘Deep Tissue’ will premiere at SXSW. How excited are you for the screening and to hear reactions for the film?
A: I can’t wait to finally hear the 5:1 mix on massive speakers. My sound designer Zach Martin and composer Jason Slack have been crucial to the process and did such awesome work. Sound in horror is just a wild ride, and I can’t wait to sit with an audience and see how the bass thumps and … I hope… people scream.
Q: You’ve interviewed some of the biggest and most influential names in the industry at the moment – including Brie Larson, Ryan Coogler and Ava DuVernay. What did you take away from your time working as a film journalist?
A: I feel so grateful. I spent a long time as a journalist surveying the landscape, interviewing and meeting amazing creators like you listed above and figuring out my own voice before I made a film. I wasn’t in a hurry, and wanted to wait till I had a story to tell. I think the common denominator in all the artists I love is that they truly allow themselves to quiet, to be still, and to focus on the truth they want to communicate.
I remember interviewing Coogler after Fruitvale Station, and he was so raw and real and the interview made me so emotional! I felt that way recently interviewing Jeremiah Zagar for We the Animals. You see these filmmakers who just want so deeply to tell a good, meaningful story and change the world even on a micro level. And looking at Coogler now sitting at the Oscars — I kept thinking, step by step. And always keep it truthful and real.
Also Helena Bonham Carter and I talked about female body image once in an interview and I have to say as much as Deep Tissue is about that, I think of our chat often.
Q: What do you hope the future holds for you as a filmmaker?
A: I’m not going to lie, I wrote four different answers and then deleted them all. And then I questioned why this question is so hard to answer. If I’m in being honest, I hope someone helps me fund my next project. I have a short I want to shoot now. I hope someone is as interested in Viv and Sebastian’s story as our team is and we can explore it further. I hope I can stay up till 1:31am for our two SXSW Q&As. Real talk.
And thinking father ahead, I hope this terrible 4% statistic of women being hired in Hollywood for films (I think that’s the most recent Annenberg study), changes. I mean that’s just insane. We need to be more inclusive