By Randi Altman
After watching the End of the Line, I found myself thinking about the short film’s content… a lot. Based on a short story by Aimee Bender, director Jessica Sanders’ version starts off with a man walking into a pet store, looking into what the audience assumes is a birdcage and walking out not with a bird but a little man in a cage.
We see how Big Man (Stranger Things’ Brett Gelman) tries to take care of Little Man (Big Bang Theory‘s Simon Helberg) and then we see his frustration when the clearly well-read and intelligent Little Man tells the story of how he was taken from his family and put in a cage. Big Man’s behavior becomes increasingly disturbing, leading him to torture Little Man.
We reached out to director Sanders — who has an Oscar nomination thanks to her short documentary, Sing! — to talk about making the film, which is part of Refinery29 and TNT’s Shatterbox Anthology, a short film series dedicated to supporting the voices of female filmmakers.
Let’s start with cameras. What did you shoot on, and how involved in that process are you?
We shot on the Alexa Mini with Panavision primo lenses. I like to go over lenses/looks with my DP, but defer to what the DP wants to shoot on. For this project, I worked with ultra-talented DP Brett Pawlak.
How long was the shoot, and how much pre-production did you do? I’m assuming a good amount considering the VFX shots?
The film, although short (14 minutes), was essentially a feature in terms of preparation and the production scope/crew size, shooting for six days. We had about two months of intense prep leading up to the shoot, from scouting and art department. For example, we built a 30-foot penis and 30-foot cage. The VFX approach was an intensive collaboration between VFX supervisor Eva Flodstrom, my DP Brett, production designer Justin Trask, producer Louise Shore and myself.
We had 67 VFX shots, so I storyboarded the film early on and then photoboarded each shot when we had our locations. We had a specific VFX/production approach to execute each shot from a mix of practicals (building the giant cage), to strictly greenscreen (i.e., when the little man is on a calculator). It was a highly involved and collaborative process.
Was your VFX supervisor on set?
Yes. Eva was highly involved from the beginning for all of prep, and on set she was instrumental. We worked closely with a DIT video assist so we could do a rough VFX comp of each shot while we were shooting. After production, it took about four months to finish post and visual effects.
I wanted to work with Eva, as she’s a pro, having worked on Star Wars and Star Trek (also, there are very few female VFX supervisors). Our approach/philosophy to VFX was similar — inspired by Michel Gondry’s and Spike Jonze’s work in which the VFX feels human, warm and practical, integral to the story and characters, never distracting.
Can you talk about the challenges of directing a project with VFX?
I had never done a VFX-heavy film before, and creatively, as a director, I wanted to challenge myself. I had a blast and want to do more films with VFX after this experience. Because I surrounded myself with top artists who had VFX experience, it was a totally enjoyable experience. We had a lot of fun making this film!
This was likely a hard story to tell. As the viewer you think it’s going to be a sweet story about a guy and his bird, but then…
I read Aimee Bender’s short story End of the Line in her book Willful Creatures in 2005 and have been passionate about it since then. The story takes the audience on an emotional rollercoaster. It’s funny, dark, explores themes of loneliness, desire and abuse of power, in a short amount of time. There are a lot of tonal shifts, and I worked closely with screenwriter Joanne Giger to achieve this balance.
How did you as a director set out to balance the humor, the sadness, the kinda disturbing stuff, etc.?
I played the film visually and tonally very grounded (i.e. the rules of this world is that there is a big person and tiny person world that live side by side) and from that I could push the humor and darkness. In the performances, I wanted there to be an emotional truth to what the characters are experiencing that feels human and real, despite the fantastical setting. So I played with a lot of the mix of feelings within this very grounded surreal world.
The color is sort of muted in an old-timey kind of way. Can you talk about what you wanted from the color and mood?
I’m very sensitive to color and attention to detail. We wanted the film to feel timeless, although it is contemporary. Costume designer Shirley Kurata is amazing with color blocking and visual storytelling with color. Because Big Man’s world is more depressed and lonely, his tones are gray, the house is dark wood. As Big Man gains power, he wears more color. My DP has a very naturalistic approach with his lighting, so I wanted everything to feel very natural.
When we colored the film later in post, the approach was to do very little to the film, as it was captured in-camera. Production designer Justin Trask is a genius — from how he designed and built the giant penis (to feel less naturalistic) to the details of Little Man’s cage (his furniture, the giant bread crumb on a coin). We had a lot of fun exploring all the miniature props and details in this film.
How did you work with your editors? What did they cut on?
Because of the VFX, we edited on Adobe Premiere. I worked with editor Stephen Berger, who helped shape the film and did an amazing job doing the rough VFX comps in the edit. He is great with music and brought musical inspirations, which led to composer Pedro Bromfman’s entire saxophone score. Pedro is a big composer from Brazil and did my last documentary March of the Living. Editor Claudia Castello is incredible with performance, building the emotional arc of each character. She edited Fruitvale Station, Creed and was an editor on Black Panther. It was a great collaborative experience.
You had a lot of women on the crew. It seems like you went out of your way to find female talent. Why is this so important to you and the industry in general?
As a woman and a woman of Asian descent (I’m half Chinese), it’s important to me to be surrounded by a diverse group of collaborators and to hire with as much gender equality as possible. I love working with talented women and supporting women. The world is a diverse place. It’s important to me to have different perspectives reflected in filmmaking and representation. There is a huge inequality of the hiring practices in Hollywood (4% of Hollywood feature films were directed by women last year), so it’s critical to hire talented, qualified women.
Do you think things are getting better for females in the industry, especially in the more technical jobs?
I’ve always hired female cinematographers, editors and worked with Eva Flodstrom for VFX. With my friend/colleague Rachel Morrison, who is the first female cinematographer nominated for an Oscar, I hope things are changing for women with more visibility and dialogue. Change can only happen by actually hiring talented women (like director Ryan Coogler (Black Panther) who works with female cinematographers and editors).
You’ve directed both narrative and documentary projects. Do you have a preference, or do you enjoy switching back and forth?
This film marks a new creative chapter and narrative direction in my work. I love my background in documentaries, but I am fully focused on narrative filmmaking at the moment.
How was Sundance for you and the film?
Sundance was an incredible experience and platform for the film. We were IndieWire’s Top 10 Must See Films. My creative team came out, including actors Simon Helberg and Vivian Bang. It was a blast!