Director Monique Sorgen’s short film, Sorry, Not Sorry, uses a William Carlos Williams poem as a springboard to tell a darkly amusing tale of escalating one-upmanship.
Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge caught up with Monique to talk about the film, working with Jessica Oyelowo, and the influence of having a bi-cultural background.
Q: I’m slightly embarrassed to admit I only got the reference to William Carlos Williams’ poem ‘This Is Just To Say?’ because of Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Paterson’. What is your connection to the poem? What led you to shape a short film around it?
A: Wow, I didn’t realise it was in Paterson.
I actually discovered the poem in my Freshman year English Literature course at UCLA. It was this tiny, unpretentious poem, in the middle of a giant 800 page anthology of important poems, plays, and novels that every American college student is supposed to know. The poem instantly became my favourite poem. I’ve always loved the way it says so much with so little.
At the time, I wrote it down in my journal— which was where I wrote down all my deep thoughts along with quotes I liked. Then over the holidays, recently, I was re-reading my college journal, to find out if I’d changed at all over the years, and I came across this page with the poem, and next to it I had written, “This would make a great short film.”
In that moment, the whole story came to me in a flash, and I wrote it down. Then I contacted the publisher to find out if I could use it, and they said yes!
Q: Have you ever found yourself in a game of one-upmanship – I hope not as brutal – like the one found in ‘Sorry Not Sorry’?
A: Very funny question. Let me just say for the record that this is NOT a true story.
I’m sure when I was younger and more immature (like for example when I was a hormonal pre-teen) I probably made sneaky plans to get back at the people who wronged me (most likely by leaving rotten fruit in their lockers, or notes from secret admirers that didn’t exist— not those things specifically, but that sort of thing)…
As a grown adult, though, I try to take the high road. Don’t get me wrong, I fantasise vividly about all the terrible things I’d like to do to a person who crosses me, but then I don’t pursue any of my fantasies. Instead I take steps to extricate the person from my life, so I can forget they exist and move on to bigger and better people.
Q: Wallace Langham, Jessica Oyelowo and M. Emmet Walsh form this impressive cast. What were they like to collaborate with? What did they bring to the project?
A: Thank you for noticing how impressive they are.
I am so grateful that each of those talented actors agreed to work with me, and they all brought so much more to their characters than what I’d imagined on the page. Each of them was a dream— and the level of professionalism was a joy! They showed up early, had great attitudes, communicated well, were in complete control of their vessels, and thought of extra pieces of funny business for their characters that enriched each moment and brought additional depth to the project.
Some of Wally’s funniest moments were things he’d suggested, like spitting up his coffee, and throwing away the “spec” right after he’d picked it up. When Emmet showed up on set, he gave out 2 cent pieces as he introduced himself to everyone on the crew, from the grips to the production assistants. He’s always joking around, and has a very dry sense of humor— so dry, in fact, that I often get caught taking him seriously when he’s just messing with me.
And Jess brought so much texture to each of her lines, as well as her reactions. You can literally see and hear the details of the inner thoughts going through her mind split second by split second. As a director, working with them was very invigorating.
Q: Where does your taste for dark comedy come from?
A: I’m half-French, so there’s a brutal realism to my perspective that’s a little more honest (or maybe cynical) than most “full bread” Americans are raised to have.
In American culture it’s valued to be very positive and optimistic in your outlook. In French culture, it’s valued to look at things realistically, so you don’t come off like a fool. I have both sides culturally battling with each other inside myself.
So in the case of this film, I think it’s my American side that drives me to believe there is a “reasonable” solution to the eating-of-the-plums problem presented in the poem— because Americans are raised to be heroes, vigilantes, who take action when they’re wronged. Then it’s my French side that takes it emotionally a little too far in the next beat.
But in the end (which I won’t spoil here), I think there’s kind of an underlying feeling that everyone is actually on the same page, and maybe this couple is really good for each other after all. That positivity (of wanting to believe in happy endings) comes from my American side, but even the happy ending still has a weird cynical twist that probably comes from my French side.
So I guess what I’m saying is that my dark comedy voice comes from being a French-American bi-cultural person, who respects both sides of my heritage equally.
Q: What is your favourite dark comedy film?
A: I love almost any movie that can approach a serious subject in a way that also makes me laugh out loud.
The problem with some dark comedies is they don’t always make me laugh. That’s why my favourite ones tend to be the ones where I belly-laugh the most, like, In Bruges, Hot Fuzz, Les Intouchables and Raising Arizona. I mean, that movie makes stealing a baby seem funny and relatable.
Q: I hear you’ve recently been working on projects out in Brazil, India and the Philippines. Are you always seeking out fresh and diverse challenges?
A: I do love to travel and I love to learn about different cultures. Again, I think that being raised between two competing cultures helped me realise at an early age that people think differently all over the world— and every culture thinks they have it right and everyone else is doing it wrong.
But underneath all the stuff we learn from our nurture and our environment, there’s a common humanity we all share. A desire to be seen, heard, and understood, and a desire to be free to be who we want to be. As a writer and filmmaker, I believe it’s my responsibility to understand that stuff and find the common ground between us all.
But in answer to your question, yes, I’m very open to more of those types of diverse challenges! It’s the spice of life.
Q: I was very intrigued by the teaser for ‘How Long You Should Wait To Have Sex’. Can you give us more insight into the project and what it explores?
A: This is a project that was birthed directly from the realisation that white men have told most of the stories I grew up with, and because of that, there are all these important and relatable stories about my gender that have never been told.
I realised that how long to wait before jumping into bed with a new partner is an issue that women in the dating pool deal with in a way that men don’t have to. For men, the question of when to have sex isn’t really a problem, and most men would prefer to do it as soon as possible.
But when a woman has sex with a man for the first time, a few things can happen. One is everything goes fine and they live happily ever after. But the other possibilities are that he dumps her because he got what he wanted; he dumps her because he judged her for having sex too soon; she becomes emotionally way more attached and needy because sex releases a bonding chemical in women that it doesn’t release in men; or he dumps her because sex also releases a different chemical in men, that can make them feel less attached to the woman than what they felt before they had sex.
At the time when I came up with this idea, my single girlfriends and I would always talk about this subject, so I knew it was an important topic that was unexplored in film and TV. We’d worry (in cases where we were interested in forming a real relationship with a guy) that if we had sex with him at the wrong time, it could cause the whole future of that relationship to go topsy-turvy.
So I came into the idea for a story where a girl suddenly acquires this magical ability to go back in time and get a do-over, (kind of like in a Groundhog Day) so she can wait longer and longer to have sex with the guy she likes with each do-over, and find out if it changes his feelings for her when she has sex with him on the first night, or the 3rd date, or after they’ve gotten to know each other better, or are engaged.
This is a story that I’ve already published as a novel, which is available on Amazon and in five different languages. But I also have a feature film script of it I want to make, as well as an idea about how to make it into a really unique romantic-comedy television series.
Q: What is next for you?
A: While making Sorry, Not Sorry, I got so excited about Jessica Oyelowo’s performance, that I asked her to look at a feature film script I have called, Bad BFF, which is a dark comedy about a woman who pretends she’s getting married in order to get her life-long best friend to pay attention to her.
This story is about how you tend to lose all your friends when they get married and have families, and also about how the bonds that women share in friendship are so deep and intense, that when those relationships “break up” it can be just as painful (or more so) than when a romantic relationship breaks up— after all, this wasn’t a relationship you ever thought could have an end. (Again, this is a very female driven situation, although the concept of losing your friends when they get married and have babies should be very relatable to men as well.)
Currently, we are developing the script with Jess’s company Yoruba Saxon, and my hope is to be through production by the end of the year.
Separately, I’m also developing a television series based on my childhood, growing up in a French-American hippie house in the center of the Castro district of San Francisco during the days of Harvey Milk.