A Little Small Talk with Filmmaker Nicole Witte Solomon

Insightful, challenging, bold, and honest are the words I would use to describe the writer/director of the horror short, Small Talk. Nicole Witte Solomon has grown to really love directing.

She's written for various print and online publications including the popular AfterEllen and works on videos for social justice organizations. I had been reading about the progression of the development of Small Talk for quite some time before I even had a firm grasp on its premise. I stayed on top of it because it struck me as deeply personal, which made it even more incomparable to what I was used to seeing in horror. And it didn't hurt at all that her main character is a South Asian woman, coupled with an appearance from a popular rapper amongst my peers by the name of Jean Grae, whom I've grown an interest in myself. And needless to say, our discussion about the film just makes me that much more eager to see it!

I ask everyone this question in some manner. What was the first character, film, scene, etc. that made you a horror fan?

That’s a really hard question! If I’m going to go back to the earliest thing I can remember, it was probably the Rancor in Return of the Jedi. I saw that in the theater when it first came out. I must have been six. The beginning of that movie scared the hell out of me, from the time the door slams shut behind C-3PO and R2D2, you know Jabba’s palace is gonna be full of terrible things. The whole sequence with Luke being fed to the Rancor as sadistic entertainment for Jabba’s entourage as his friends have to watch was really disturbing. The Rancor snapping that giant bone Luke jams in his mouth—it was frightening! And I loved it.

I remember reading awhile ago that Small Talk is based on your experiences as a phone sex industry worker. Why did you choose horror to tell this particular story?

I had been doing autobiographical writing about my experiences, and I was getting kind of sick of it. I don’t love writing about my life, but I did want to write about a whole mess of things I’d learned from or thought about because of my job. I got the image in my head of a woman fielding a phone sex call while dismembering a corpse and it delighted me. I thought I captured something really true about the divide between how a caller is experiencing your performance and who you actually are and what is going on with you on the other end of the line. I liked that image a lot more than the true life stuff I was writing, and I started thinking horror would be a great way to express some of the themes I was interested in.

Small Talk teaser photo: https://www.facebook.com/SmallTalkMovie
In Small Talk, was the cycles of dehumanization that happen in the service industry in general and how that can play out in the phone sex industry. Some callers don’t see you as a real person at all and treat you abusively and you’re often just supposed to take it. Maybe in phone sex that can play out in particularly colorful ways, but you can find that same dynamic in food service. 

Women I know who’ve waitressed all have shitty stories. Before I started doing phone sex, I had this job cold calling people and trying to get them to do market research surveys. You had to stick to the script, you couldn’t hang up and you were closely monitored. One guy said he’d do the survey, but literally all he said to me after that was gross sexual stuff. I wasn’t allowed to hang up or even say anything back to him that wasn’t in the approved company script, which did not include anything remotely appropriate. I thought right then: why not do phone sex and get paid more to talk to people who actually want to talk to me? But I digress.

Unless you’re some incredibly highly evolved person, when people treat you like shit you may dehumanize them a bit in self defense. Wish them ill, want to cause them pain and lose the ability to empathize with them. I realized that I was a little disturbed in retrospect with how much pleasure I had taken in just messing with some of my callers, trying to hurt them. I don’t usually have the biggest sadistic streak. In this case, that minor sadism and urge to destroy came directly from feeling attacked. In Small Talk, Al has psychic powers that manifest as a kind of overreaction of her amygdala and fight-or-flight response—almost like a panic attack, but projected outward instead of internalized.

Point being, there are way more options and it is way more fun to use horror metaphors to explore these issues in made up stories that tell your own story about these issues.

How important was it for you to have an ethnically diverse cast in your film?

I don’t think I had a very ethnically diverse cast overall. Most of the speaking roles in that film are played by white men, though the protagonist is obviously a woman of color and there are other people of color on screen. The “bad guys” are all white men, which was intentional. They’re all based on combinations of real people and their whiteness in each case was part of the character.

When I wrote the script, I pictured Al a number of different ways. A specific race or ethnicity was not crucial to that character. I wanted to keep it open. This is not to say I didn’t think about it.  I really was concerned with casting the most convincing person I could find for my no-name project with limited resources. Why would I cut off people based on race or ethnicity when there’s no reason the character needed to be a particular race or ethnicity? Film is collaborative, I knew whoever I cast was going to shape the role to work for her, and as long as how she did that worked with, rather than against my vision for the film, that’s great. 

The character obviously changes somewhat depending on race/ethnicity. It  adds another very true-to-life land obvious layer of day-to-day fuckedupness to have the protagonist reciting this sexist, white supremacist ideal of a physical description when she’s South Asian, for example.

In general, I am happier and want to be doing work in spaces that aren’t homogenous, definitely including ethnically, and definitely including actors and crew on my film projects. The crew ended up being pretty diverse, and most of the leadership roles were held by women. I didn’t do that intentionally, I just asked the people I wanted to work with to do stuff they’d be good at, but I’d like to think I would notice if suddenly I was surrounded by mostly only other white Ashkenazi Jews and see that as a sign something might be off. I absolutely want to continue to work with diverse crews on projects that show diverse people on screen, in terms of ethnicity, race, gender, age, ability etc. Not in a tokenistic way, but in a way that’s just natural and organic to the project.

The lack of ethnic diversity in much of film and television is shameful and stupid. Casting practices are ridiculous. If a script doesn’t specify a character’s race, standard practice is to just cast white people which is just…what the fuck. Obviously some characters are going to need to be white sometimes. But do almost all the leading or smaller but well-written roles need to go to white people all the time? Fucking why? Because in a lot of ways the movie industry, like pretty much any other industry, is racist as fuck, whether or not they intend to be. This is obviously a problem that goes beyond casting to producing, directing, writing, etc.

You’ve maybe seen the dismal stats that were going around last winter about how overwhelmingly white and male virtually all areas of the industry are in general, as well as how Oscar winners are even whiter and maler than that. It’s no huge surprise that if you have a  waaaaay disproportionate number of white men behind the scenes, that’s going to be reflected on the screen, both in fewer roles for people of color and white women and in the quality of those roles. Plenty of screenwriters can and do write wonderful characters that are different from themselves in any number of ways, but plenty of screenwriters also don’t seem so good at that, and we keep seeing a lot of the same stories and characters and issues and stereotypes and clich├ęs over and over and over. It’s embarrassing. There are a lot of other characters and stories and issues out there.

How did you meet your lead, Al (Manini Gupta) and what was it about her that led you to feel she was best for the role?

I met Manini when she came in to audition for the role of Al in the teaser thing we shot the spring before Small Talk. I hoped that whomever I cast for that would end up as the lead in Small Talk as well, assuming the teaser shoot went well. It was hard to cast that role.  Of all the women who came in to read, very few were able to convincingly play a phone sex provider. I mean, maybe they could have been great if we had a lot of time to work or I was a better director, and I’m sure I saw a lot of very good actors, but they weren’t a good fit for this role. They weren’t convincingly playing the duality of Al playing “Darla”, the phone sex character while still being herself, having her own reactions on the other end of the line. Manini did that beautifully and believably right of the bat. 

She was great on camera. I loved her as Al immediately. The only other person who was in the running was Ruthellen Cheney, who plays Al’s best friend, Tania. She was also very good. There were a bunch of reasons I cast Manini in the end, including that I had started to really see Ruthellen as Tania and that Manini had been in a production of 4:48 Psychosis by Sarah Kane, which just felt like a sign to me. That’s one of my favorite plays and Sarah Kane is my favorite playwright, one of my absolute favorite writers, period. And, more importantly, it’s a very intense, mostly-monologue play about a suicidal woman having a psychotic break. That is not an easy play, and I knew if Manini could handle that, she’d have no problem with whatever fucked up emotional and psychological mess I was gonna throw at her with Small Talk. Small Talk is Caillou compared to 4:48 Psychosis.

What was your process of writing the script for Small Talk? After seeing the final cut, how personal does the film feel for you?

It was a lot harder to write than I’d anticipated. It seemed so freeing – writing fiction, a screenplay no less, about themes I’d been used to (and sick of) discussing autobiographically, with all the discomfort and limitations that come with that. But it got really hard really fast. I had a bad, bad period of writers block when I was trying to finish the first draft—which was way different from the final version, I mean, there was a monster in it and stuff. One Sunday morning I watched Antichrist on Netflix.  I thought it might drag me into the headspace I needed to write this goddamn movie, and it totally did. So I will always be a little grateful to Antichrist.

Some awesome awesome awesome crew members and rapper Jean Grae on set: https://www.facebook.com/SmallTalkMovie

I made this film as my thesis, I did a 2 year writing and directing narrative film MFA program at the City College of New York. I could not have made this film, at least not at this time, without that program and the awesome awesome awesome people I met there. So I was writing on the program’s schedule, which was weird and rushed. I wish I’d had more time to put it aside for awhile, let it settle, and come back to it with fresh eyes. Also my screenwriting professor basically just hated it and wanted me to make a different movie, so the feedback I was getting from him wasn’t really useful and I felt kind of embattled. 

And on that note, I can’t even express how much it meant to me to have Jean Grae in the film, because I was basically listening to Cookies or Comas all the time, especially on my 90 min commute to school before I had to go to screenwriting class. “You Don’t Like It" was the anthem, in particular. I’m grateful for my not-school-related writing group and some of my classmates who were feeling what I was trying to do and gave me useful notes.

The script was also much more emotionally draining than I’d thought it would be. I had to revisit unpleasant things and people from my phone sex days which I hadn’t had to think about in a little while. I had to go into the heads of the more fucked up callers, because if there was one thing I was going to do with this film, I was at least going to portray those dudes and their dynamics with Al accurately. It took me to some not so fun emotional places. Some of the dialogue was fun to write – the not-abusive calls,  Mike the landlord, Jean’s news report—but a lot of the movie is awful, misogynistic men being terrible. I used to spend a lot of time in those dudes’ heads as a PSO (Phone Sex Operator), and this really helped me realize how much I don’t miss that.

I feel weird about the final film. It’s honestly very hard for me to watch. I just see flaws. When I try to not fixate, the fixation gets worse. There are parts of it that feel very personal and it are still intense, in a good way, to see on screen.

What's been some of the takeaway lessons from fundraising and producing Small Talk?

So many lessons. In terms of fundraising, almost our whole budget was raised on Kickstarter. The rest was credit cards. I don’t know how I could have made this movie without crowd funding.  I learned that running a campaign like that is a part time job, unless you have lots of rich friends or a large, pre-existing fan base dying to support your projects. I did not enjoy asking every fucking person I knew if they could give me money and/or spread the word, but that’s what I had to do to raise $15,000. It felt ridiculous to me to be raising that much money to make a short film, when people could be giving to crowd funding campaigns people do so that they can pay for necessary medical procedures or other basic needs that no one should have to crowd fund for. And yet.

Anyway, I tried to be very straight-forward – if this is a film you’d like to see, contribute what you can. I’ve gotten positive feedback on how I handled the whole thing, I hope it’s representative of how most or all backers feel. I tried to offer good “rewards”—most backers were basically pre-buying a DVD of the finished film, which is not a bad deal if you want to see the film. I was in communication with everyone, and I sent what I’d promised to everyone. I tried to be transparent and accountable. I was so moved that 150 people, friends, family and strangers, thought enough of my project to give me money towards making it that I definitely felt a real responsibility to them. 

I empathize with filmmakers and other artists who crowd fund for a project they aren’t able to finish, or who promised a bunch of rewards they didn’t think through well enough and can’t deliver, but I feel that if you’re going to ask your community/s for money, you owe them trying your damndest to uphold your end of the agreement. I definitely learned how crucial it is to think through your campaign plan and make sure you know how you are going to supply all your rewards and roughly how much they’re going to cost. Mailing out the rewards took a loooooong time and cost a lot of money, but I’d planned ahead so it was manageable. I will definitely do the same in the future, and think long and hard about how much a pain in the ass each reward will be.

I would love to never do another crowd funding campaign again, but I probably will have to. We don’t have much arts funding and I’m not going to be rich any time soon.

In terms of other producing lessons--plan way ahead, always have contingency plans, and work with people who you like and who are excited about your project as much as you possibly can.

What current television series or film should horror fans check out?

I think Kimberly Pierce’s Carrie was really slept on last fall. I went with five other people and we all loved it. I love Brian De Palma’s Carrie, but this is a different take on the same source material. She didn’t remake De Palma’s film. It was nice to see that story made into a movie that empathized with teenage girls rather than mostly leering at them. In many ways, it felt like a corrective to some flaws in the first film, especially with the characters. They were a little too much like teen cardboard cut outs in the first film, everyone makes more sense and is more fully formed here.

Check out the teaser for Small Talk below!

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