Director Sheridan O’Donnell Talks ‘flush’ And Being Inspired By Mike Leigh

Writer and director Sheridan O’Donnell (A Picnic Table, At Dusk) returns to Close-up Culture to chat about his upcoming short film, flush.

Q: Where did your idea for this single-setting interaction between two women come from?

A: It started with the characters. Around the time of writing it, my sister had just become a mother and I saw what a maddening and simultaneously gratifying experience that was for her. I felt like I hadn’t seen that specific experience on screen—the complexity of it. And then around that same time, I had a close family member confess to me this painful secret. We’re very close, so I began to wonder why she would keep things to herself. 

But the idea really took off for me when I imagined these two very different women in a room together. I was excited about the layers of it—how there’s Sam’s (the mother) view of what’s going on but also this unspoken story with Nic’s internal struggle. 

I also love real time in films—long winded scenes like the final diner scene in Moonlight. Directorially they’re very challenging, but so satisfying as a viewer if it’s done right.

Q: I recently spoke to director Karen Moore about the dynamics of two friends having a drink and a catch up. In ‘flush’, Sam is physically loose and dominating the conversation while Nic seems quiet, tense and closed. Can you tell us more about these two characters and their place in this interaction?  

A: Well, at the outset of the film, they haven’t seen each other since Sam’s child was born, which was six months ago. So there’s a lot to catch up on. Sam starts as the focus of the first half, but slowly it begins to change hands. Our perceptions of these women are constantly evolving. You’re not sure whose side to take and I hope in the end you find yourself empathizing with them both. 

I’m obsessed with Mike Leigh (go London!)—how his characters can be ugly and mean and frustrating but also so human and empathetic. So he was on my shoulder when I was writing too.


Q: These are captivating performances from Sofia Embid (who plays Nic) and Lauren Chavez-Myers (Sam). How did you work with them to capture this dynamic? Did you rehearse together or keep them apart?

A: Again, I was inspired by Mike Leigh and his process of making a film. I decided to cast local actors (I’m from New Mexico) as opposed to NYC or LA because I knew I would have way more time with them. So we spent a lot of time developing the script and characters together. Especially since this is a very female story, I wanted to take a step back and do a lot of listening as opposed to dictating. 

Beyond Skype rehearsals, we also rented out the house for days in advance strictly for pre-dressing and rehearsals. I wanted us to rehearse in the dressed space and that was a huge help. Sofia and Lauren’s performances are what I’m most proud of when I think about this film. They were so committed. I’m really grateful to both of them.

Q: As with ‘A Picnic Table, At Dusk’, there is a delicacy to the visual style of the film. What was your collaboration with cinematographer Todd M. Duym CSC? How did you get the most out of this single-setting?

A: Working with Todd was wonderful. He worked his off ass and was so kind, but he also challenged me. My first impulse for the look of this film was something loose and actor-centric, like the cinematography in Cassavetes’ films. But it was Todd who smartly pulled me to something much more focused and intentional. Not that Cassavetes’ films aren’t intentional, but there’s a sense that the actors are leading everything. 

Whereas with flush, I think the camera and the actors are in concert telling the story. Especially with this undercurrent of Nic’s story, camera placement and framing were vital in suggesting these unspoken things. The cinematography became yet another layer we could add to the film. 

We also both knew we wanted to light from above with ceiling rigging. This not only gave more freedom to the actors, but also allowed us to frame things wider on our anamorphic lenses and pull in the room which I think says a lot thematically as well. Shout to my wife and our production designer, Claudia.  Her work on this was so much better than I ever could’ve imagined.

Sheridan O’Donnell and Sofia Embid on the set of ‘flush’

Q: ‘flush’ will be premiering at the 2019 Vancouver International Film Festival. What does it mean to bring your short film to this festival?

A: So much. Especially with a film that’s a bit cryptic, the ultimate test will be seeing how audiences respond. I was at VIFF last year with my last short, and I’m thrilled to be back at such a well-renowned festival. At a festival you really feel like a filmmaker—you get to see people in a theater respond to what you’re doing and it gives you this big boost of encouragement. 

And then there’s the super talented filmmakers you meet there–and I’m talking about the ones at your level. Some of my closest filmmaker friends I met at festivals like VIFF. It’s just a celebration of good vibes and good movies. October can’t come soon enough.

Q: What are your hopes for ‘flush’ at Vancouver and beyond?

A: Hopefully many more festivals!  This is just the very start for us. We’ve learned a lot with our last two films about the festival circuit, and my amazing producers Jenn Garcia and Keagan Karnes and I are doing everything we can to give our little film a fighting chance. If you’re a festival reading this, reach out to us! Also things like this interview. Thanks for having us!

Q: Last time we spoke, we mentioned that you were working towards a feature. Is that any closer? What is next for you?

A: It’s definitely closer. I’m a big fan of keeping mum on things until they’re happening but it’s called Little Brother and tells the story of a younger brother who’s enlisted by his parents to pick up his suicidal older brother and drive him home from New Mexico to Washington state. I wrote the film last March, and we’re currently looking into casting and financing. I’m lucky to have two very committed producing partners in Keagan Karnes and Chris Dodds. 

Beyond that, there’s a good chance I’ll be moving to LA with my wife soon.  So much for keeping mum on things. Thanks again for the lovely chat, James.

You can see more of Sheridan’s work at www.SheridanODonnell.com and on Instagram

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