“A Movie Where Nobody Wears Clothes and It’s PG-Rated”: Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli on So Pretty
Before Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli began the bulk of production on her second feature So Pretty, she wrote an essay for this site outlining some of the goals and background behind the production:
The film is an adaptation of a 1980s German gay novel [Ronald M. Schernikau’s So Schön] that I am transposing and translating to a cast of feminine people of many genders in 2018, New York City. […] Given the explicit gender-trouble and queer elements of So Pretty, as well as the fact that it takes seriously the novella’s paraphrased subtitle “a utopian film,” my film must create an image of a queer and transgender community, and an associated leftist politics, as well as creating an image of a kind of “trans film” that focuses not simply on the hardships of being transgender, but the new aesthetic, narrative and imaginative possibilities our lives can open up. The film must become an image of some kind of utopia, for both film and society, even as it is set among the here and now populated by fallible humans who make mistakes.
A scene early on establishes the atmosphere of shared calm: it’s morning in a New York apartment, and the kitchen area slowly fills up for morning coffee and chatter. Residents and guests enter, take their seats and chat, their voices creating one sustained hum—the focus is on a soothing atmosphere bathed in morning sunlight rather than the establishment of individual character arcs or dialogues. The opening scene, a fixed-camera sustained shot from a car pulling into an airport, is punctuated by an unbelievably dirty look shot the camera’s way by a man standing outside terminal, one way reality routinely punctuates the otherwise carefully controlled images.
Schernikau’s text is both the structural starting point and an element of the story, with readings from the text throughout. Incorporating protests, nights out in Bushwick and days of coffee and a lot of lying around in bed, So Pretty successfully creates and maintains (despite pushback from the real world seeping in) an atmosphere of concentrated pleasantness that’s a pleasure to sink into. The film premiered at the Berlinale Forum and shows Thursday as part of BAMcinemaFest 2019.
Filmmaker: I think you shot the footage at the protest before the crowdfunding started. It seems like there’s a mix of half or three quarters of a screenplay, and then there are these other elements that were found along the way.
Rovinelli: The film is like an autobiography using zero facts of my own life except for my body. I was not supposed to be in the film. That decision ended up being made four days before shooting, because we had an actor that was unable to participate. My French and American producers were like, “It’s you,” which made a lot of sense, because the film was already trying to work through this text that was not about me at all. That was certainly disorienting—I was deep in pre-pro building the set and everything
Filmmaker: What were you building?
Rovinelli: Just the apartment. There was very little architecting going on. The only thing we knew is we had to shoot some protest footage, so we waited for one that seemed like it was going to have enough people and did it.
Filmmaker: Which one was that?
Rovinelli: A protest at Trump Tower. But I always knew I didn’t want his name in this movie, and I didn’t want to make this film reducible to Trump, because then it’s a film made in opposition rather than a film about building something.
Filmmaker: Which is a utopian space.
Rovinelli: Yeah, exactly. I was happy to see the UN and Trump Tower in the film. I’ve always been interested in viewing an oppressive milieu through its architecture, because that stretches into the fabric of daily [life]—more than interacting with an actual person, you’re interacting with these images. When we came to the protest audio, I stripped his name out of everything. I replaced it with various sound bites I had been recording at protests, knowing we would turn those into a soundscape devoid of direct administration related-chants to instead focus on, like, drums. I’m interested in the propulsiveness and physical feelings of protests more than the specifics of a lot of these protests that were aesthetically, or—sorry—intellectually meager at best. I’m interested in the way people hold hands at protests, the way that when the cops come, you have to organize the crowd in order to keep people safe. I think that ultimately becomes more of a place for political organizing than whatever the protest is specifically about in a lot of ways.
We knew we had to get one [protest], so I got it. People’s hair changed since that shoot. That’s been something I’ve been integrating in all my films, so I went ahead and let their hair change. I kind of like that. Then we tried to book it all into the shortest, most efficient shoot we could possibly do [during] the last gasp of summer [so] we could cut it with that first stuff. The shoot was, I think, 11 or 12 days, plus a pickup. We organized it so shooting could be done very, very efficiently. The nice thing about the long take style I work in means you can film a scene pretty quick, because the choreography of the actors and the choreography of the camera are only occasionally linked. Usually I like to have those things discrete. The camera does its thing and the actors do their thing. It becomes about observing a community move rather than the camera being part of it—it can be warm and empathetic but doesn’t presume to tell you anything more than you know. You have to engage in understanding it on your own.
Filmmaker: Can you talk about the opening at the airport? It has this degree of uncontrollability, obviously, but it’s also extremely controlled at the same time. I don’t know if you did it multiple times, because the movement of the cars is very pleasing and you have to look at it in real time.
Rovinelli: That was always intended. It also picks up where the last film left off, [which ended] with a 12-minute tracking shot in a car. I wanted to pick up that car and see where it landed. I like having a rigorous frame that observes the world, so you have this sense of being grounded within a world and geometry plays out. It’s spatial relationships, and then people do their things that either interact with the geometry and architecture or don’t. I like that and try to not control that very much. That take with the car was the first one, then we did a few more trying to get like a cleaner one, but I knew I was going to stick with the one where we have these interjections I had not planned—a woman coming up to us telling us to move, and then this guy appears in frame casting us filthy looks. It’s this static shot at a window that is quite composed, but then these people fuck with it, and I really like that.
Filmmaker: In the breakfast group introduction scene, the amount of overlapping dialogue unifies to create a group ambience rather than causing your ears to try to strain. You make it very clear in the mix that you’re not supposed to be trying to follow individual threads here, and it’s about establishing that utopian thing that’s very important for the tone and feeling.
Rovinelli: There’s no blocking. The camera is very strictly blocked, my motion was blocked, but the rest of the actors were free to do what they will. I would walk around and seed conversations. Luckily, I was starting off camera, so I would just wink at the cinematographer. He’d be quietly doing his camera movement nonstop, so the actors were not clear when we were rolling or not rolling. Eventually, it would roll and I would walk into the scene, so we had these threads of conversation that had begun before we started shooting and weren’t controlled by me. When you play out a scene for long enough, conversation naturally tends towards certain things. It lulls, and then we find that moment where we can exit.
The most difficult part of the sound mix was to make sure individual moments were clear, but that it was also clear you could not follow all of it. It’s a lot of bouncing from mic to mic to make sure you can hear enough of a conversation to understand vaguely what’s being said, but never enough to be able follow a particular line of conversation. That was a very complicated game, to be able to bounce that around to get the feeling of density without being completely overwhelming. You can sort of follow it, to keep you engaged, but not all the way. Eventually, maybe you give up. At that point, the actors give up as well and the scene ends. So, it was about creating this group space where you can start to listen to the rhythms of voices. You’re vaguely interested in what they’re saying, but after a while, I think you become more interested in watching the flow of conversation. That’s the only way I know how to establish group dynamics all at once very quickly—not in terms of relationship of one character to another, but of the group to itself. The individuals never become clear, they only make sense in terms of being a part of a group. This is something audiences sometimes struggle with or they really love—to watch this film, you have to be able to accept that the group itself is a character, and that individual character motivations will not make any sense. I mean, they might make some sense in a moment, but the film doesn’t prioritize individual character relations.
Filmmaker: Is it important to you to have those individually mapped out in your head, even if you don’t represent them on screen?
Rovinelli: No, not at all. I let those emerge organically on set. As a director working with actors, I find I get the best results the less I do. It’s more about creating a space where people can interact and not telling them how to interact, or with who to interact. Because then you’re shooting and start to notice [how] characters have been really grouping together. My character gravitated towards Rachika Smarth’s character. That to some degree was scripted—since she was a mentor for me in real life, I knew I would gravitate towards her. But that was something that changed the script at the last second because we now had me in the film. So it was always a tension between what I have in my scenarios and what the actors are bringing. So you’re always reworking and doing little minor re-blockings.
Filmmaker: So you weren’t doing a ton, if any, days of rehearsal.
Rovinelli: Yeah, I don’t do rehearsal. That’s important to me.
Filmmaker: Would you do it if you could?
Filmmaker: Okay. Why?
Rovinelli: Because, especially when working with non-actors, you have people attempting to do what they’re supposed to be doing or what they did before, rather than giving you this unencumbered performance. For me, it’s about approaching bodies as they are. What was interesting about adapting a fictional novel was watching these actors inhabit the shell of a narrative framework while doing very much their own thing. It was important to me that the actors spend a lot of time together, because most of the casting was based on people that knew each other already or that I knew in some way. We already had the weight of history behind us, but then [we were] trying to prioritize more of that. When you’re on set, [we’re] trying to make sure the actors are not doing anything except hanging out. The crew is silent—they speak as little as possible, and the actors sit on the set where they’re going to be and just hang out, nap, chat.
Filmmaker: So there’s minimal setup/reset time?
Rovinelli: There’s a lot of work going on, they just have to do it [while being] really quiet.
Filmmaker: Is that hard, to get people to shut up?
Rovinelli: I mean, that was established from the beginning. That is a working method that is incredibly important to me. I’d done work with a very small crew for my first feature, so moving to a big crew, I knew that I had to prioritize. It needed to feel like there’s only three people on set.
Filmmaker: Define big.
Rovinelli: This was a 10-person crew, which is a lot bigger than three—sometimes up to 12, maybe 13. The producers, production managers and especially the cinematographer really made sure that if you were hired you knew this was a set where you don’t try to school people in film terms, you don’t worry about proper terminology. If you’ve got a problem, maybe try texting so it doesn’t make as much of a disruption. Everybody’s walking around really quietly, carrying their gear and doing their things, and I’m just sitting there. Eventually I have a few quiet notes to give and we move things around and then it’s ready. You’re trying to make sure the actors’ space is not disrupted. Sometimes you have to, because it’s a low budget film, and that would always create the biggest problems. Whenever I had to push somebody for reasons of time or whatever, that was when things really started to struggle.
Filmmaker: Would you give an example?
Rovinelli: Well, my actor got hit by a fucking car on a motorcycle halfway through shooting, so we had a day where she couldn’t move. We had to make sure that somebody could pick her up—that she didn’t have to do anything became very important. So I had to figure out a way to do a day of shooting where she doesn’t move at all. That was really difficult. Also, she was, as she should be, concerned about her physical health, and so were we.
Filmmaker: Would that be an example of a weird moment where you don’t want that leaking into their presence onscreen?
Rovinelli: Yeah, you don’t want that.
Filmmaker: The thing I’ve noticed often with non-performers who are put into performance positions on screen is that the most difficult part for them is not even talking, it’s about walking or moving their arms. People get very self conscious about what their posture is, what their walking looks like. They try to adjust, and then they look like robots. How do you control for that?
Rovinelli: That’s very simple—I just give everybody an action. It’s funny: I always think, “No wonder everybody smoked back when that was a thing you could do in films, because it gives you something to do with your hands.” It would be like, “OK, you’re making dinner in this scene.” That’s why they eat constantly in this film. It’s this incredibly social, very group-oriented ritual, so that’s good, too, but it’s also an action I can always have people do. You’re not going to be [thinking] about how you’re standing if you’re busy eating toast.
Filmmaker: But they can’t eat too much, because it’s a long day.
Rovinelli: Sometimes they ate a lot. A full cast is a happy cast, I think. They do have to come up with things besides eating. They wash themselves a lot. They drink—actually very rarely, they only drink once. We make a bed in one scene. We carry poles a lot. Finding things for people to do, especially if that thing is a goal, is something that moves them through space. That’s good for me, because now I know I’m going to get crossing lines of action that contrast or conform with my camera movement. Making food is great: you have to get your food from over here, get your knife from over here, cut it up over here. You have all these lines of action, you create so many opportunities for people to interact. How they pass each other can tell you something and give you the sense of shared group activity. I love when people cross the frame. That’s politics.
Filmmaker: That’s politics?
Rovinelli: Sure, why not?
Filmmaker: Yeah, sure, but how for you specifically?
Rovinelli: The camera moves existed before the film did. I knew the film was going to involve a camera that constantly dollied on a pre-determined track in every shot, with the exception of certain scenes that would be mapped out in advance before I even decided to make a film about this novel. That came first, because the last film [had] a static camera that was broken by a highly controlled camera for a very short number of shots. So on some level, I just wanted to change that. It was [also] about expanding the practices of the first film from one actor [and] a static camera to five main actors, a moving camera, to create more planes of movement. If one film is about a woman who is struggling to maintain and support an identity, this film is about a group struggling to maintain and support an identity.
When you have people crossing the camera, you can see moments of cohesion, of group unity [and] dissolution, and then hopefully they come back together again. This for me is a way of looking at how to make a politics of care—a politics that isn’t just about oppositional models, because as the world gets increasingly far right, the left turns to denouncing and oppositional politics is the only road. While those things are incredibly important and have to happen, it’s also important to build ways of interacting, of literally moving through the world, that feel more comfortable to us— that feel safer, something other than spending money to buy food every day. That became the core of this film’s politics. This film, just like the novel that it’s based on, has no subjectivity whatsoever. The camera is always outside of people: We don’t hear their thoughts, their motivations. We just see how they move, how they stand. I think you can learn a lot by the way in which somebody stands in a doorway and asks a question. To get rid of this idea that we have to prove something internal within ourselves in order to be legitimate, the ways in which we move through the world can suggest a legitimate selfhood on their own. Or not selfhood, a legitimate being-hood—being as action rather than identity as stasis. And when you’re making a film where many of the characters are trans and they’re engaging in these marginal ways, it becomes a way of asserting the modes of being, rather than having to make the millionth film about a woman discovering herself and her existence is based on being subjected to transphobic violence or something, as you see in film after film after film directed by straight white men who want to come to us for this sense of our internal being that they must discover. This film, there is no internal being. There is their movements and their existence in a world, because I didn’t want to have to make a film that has to prove their existence.
Filmmaker: In his review, Michael Sicinski was talking about how you don’t use the word queer, you don’t use the word trans, which is related.
Rovinelli: I also just realized we don’t use the word penis or vagina or anything else related. That was an accident.
Filmmaker: Chaste is not the word, but there’s something about the movie that’s very desexualized.
Rovinelli: I wanted a movie where nobody wears clothes and it’s PG rated. That was my goal with this one.
Filmmaker: The movie imagines itself in a future where it doesn’t need any context, where there’s nothing that needs to be explained about it.
Rovinelli: Well, it suggests that’s not the future. This is the radical movement the novel makes: it calls itself utopian but situates itself in a cis gay communist community in Berlin in the 1980s. It’s very localized. This film tries to do that as well. In neither my film nor in the book do I think there’s actually a utopia, and engaging with utopian thinking is really hard for me personally. This film challenged me to do that, but it’s this gesture of saying, “What if we tried to reimagine our ways of being as utopian, without changing very much?”
Filmmaker: I lived in Bushwick for five and a half years, so watching the movie was kind of a trip.
Rovinelli: It’s set in Queens, which is really funny—it’s seen as being this quintessentially Brooklyn film, but they live in Ridgewood. As people have to move farther and farther out, they end up in Ridgewood, which doesn’t even look very much like the movie idea of New York. It looks like suburbia, in a way, or maybe it just looks like suburbia to me because I’ve lived here for too long.
Filmmaker: I’m pretty terrible at geography, even about places I know. So I got confused because they go to Bossa Nova Social Club and walk under the elevated tracks along the way.
Rovinelli: This film was embarrassing in a certain way. It’s a film that speaks about a heavily fictionalized version of a community I am a part of—this community doesn’t exist, but it kind of exists. It’s pretty close to a living one. And it’s really embarrassing to do that. Filmmakers, especially art filmmakers, are supposed to go out and find a de-privileged group to exploit for their poverty to turn into a film. To not do that was very embarrassing, to make a film about myself that is sweet and naïve and sentimental, to engage with the cliché of living in Bushwick and going to Bossa Nova because it’s a Wednesday night, and fuck it, let’s go. Why is going to Bossa Nova on a Wednesday night less legitimate than these films we prioritize that are exterior to ourselves? I think partially it’s embarrassing to stand up for yourself. But I thought if we can have 10,000 films about a filmmaker agonizing about his next film and how he wants to fuck his lead actress, then fuck it, I can make a film about going to Bossa Nova on a Wednesday night.
We’ve gotten critiques of this film, especially from people that are big fans of the novel, which [we’re not going to get] here because the novel isn’t translated. The novel is very different from classic Marxist works in lots of ways, but it does have this real interest in traditional work fields, and most of the people in this film are employed in various spheres of the cultural capital production regime. The reason I chose to do that was because hundreds of films post ’68, and theory and political organizing, [are based] around this fetishized idea of the worker. The worker should wear a uniform and work with his hands, and he should be a he. So, it became important to think, “Well, these lives are still precarious and still exist in the margins, but they exist in this cultural proletariat, if you will,” and trying to get away from this fetishism of the classic work model to engage with other ways in which people attempt to subsist, as virtually everybody working in independent film in New York is doing, unless they’re lucky enough to come from greater familial wealth than I do.
I try to situate them in the world. You do see the outside, but it’s also about a bubble. There’s really bad things about bubbles and there’s really good things about bubbles. Bushwick is the cliché. That scene of walking down Broadway is really just for engaging in the cliché. It was very important this not be a lily-white film, because that’s not this city and also not a viable political future for anybody. But also, it’s not my place to come up with a racial politic. So instead, it became about letting other people come onto screen and voice their oppositions to things I might unconsciously bring up. So you have this scene where Rachika and Edem are laughing at the white characters for what they describe as ANTIFA bullshit. I allowed those tensions to exist there instead. And yet, these tensions don’t destroy the group. That became important because that would be a narrative that a) perhaps is not my place to tell b) is very reductive of the reality.
If you come to the film viewing it as exclusively within its own milieu, then not much is going on. But when you read it against the milieu in which it exists, then that tension exists, which is why we have these very different camera styles for these more public moments, and why there’s the digital and film, somewhat but not perfectly replicating a public/private divide throughout.
Filmmaker: The obvious question that was going to come up was about shooting on film, and whether you got grants or free film from Kodak. Also, you mentioned you had European producers, and there’s a grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts. For me film and finance are often, although not necessarily, the same question.
Rovinelli: This was a difficult film to get funded. The French gave us money right away because this arts institution in France had awarded my first feature a prize, so they had encouraged me to apply for their development grant. To do that, you have to have a French producer, so I got a French producer on board. They helped me with that whole process and we got that money very quickly. After that, nothing else came. It was very difficult. We had about a year of no progress—I’m working on the film, but nothing’s really happening, we’re missing grants in the US. Then NYFA just appeared: I had applied for it but hadn’t even remembered I applied. Then it arrived and gave us a kick to keep going.
I got an individual artist grant, which is meant to support you for a year, just living expenses, but I dumped that all immediately into production. We Kickstarted, and the rest is self-financed between me and my co-producer Bill Kirstein. That was a huge leap of faith he took. Milk Studios gave us an absurd amount of gear for, functionally, free. I have a very close friend who worked there for five years, the head of their equipment room. She never pulled in any favors, so she was like, “I’m pulling in one massive favor now that I’ve quit.”
Kodak was very helpful. They didn’t give us free film, but they gave us heavily discounted and send it for processing and scanning [to] Metro Post. Kodak is great to work with—I encourage all aspiring filmmakers who want to shoot on film to contact Kodak, be straightforward with them and see what happens. Also, our cinematographer has been shooting even commercial work on film for many years now. He has prioritized film in his own practice, so people are happy to help him out because he is able to bring them full grade commercial work as well.
Every film, I discover a new [reason] why I’m still playing with this digital/film divide. This one, we shot on iPhone, because I wanted it to have that extremely crisp look. Then, as a colorist, it became interesting to run iPhone footage through a high quality film converter—you get a fairly realistic looking grain, but then this impossible, ridiculous sharpness from the iPhone camera. It merges color wise, then feels distinctly different, because it’s this tiny camera with functionally infinite depth of field. It gives you a very different feeling without hopefully calling too much attention to itself. Somebody who watches for these sorts of things will notice the film/digital swaps, and maybe move in and out of noticing them and not noticing them. I really like that as a way of watching films—noticing, not noticing. You’re able to make note of the aesthetics and then forget them. When I watch a film like that, I feel very awake, conscious, receptive. But you can fall asleep during our movie, that’s fine. I think that would be nice. They certainly sleep plenty in the film.
Filmmaker: Can you talk about shooting the actual readings in the park?
Rovinelli: Do you want the actual process of shooting it, or the why, or both?
Filmmaker: Probably both. Your form/content gap is very, very tiny.
Rovinelli: Well, it’s tiny and also huge. Working with the actors for me is a very different process than working with the camera. I try to keep those as separated as possible, which was difficult when you’re acting in your own film, but actually, in a way, made it easier, because then the camera department wasn’t me. I gave them their set of very strict guidelines and they followed them, then I would check back in at the end to make sure we followed the strict guidelines properly. Camera becomes, when I’m on set, a very technical process, and working with actors is where the theory comes in. It’s not a strict one to one as you would have in classical Hollywood filmmaking, where form supports content/theory or vice versa.
With regards to the park stuff, that was one of the more involved chunks. You have to have a permit, you have to have a park ranger. We had somewhere around 100 feet of dolly track. The camera movements got much more complicated. There was a very minor install, in terms of our design in a park. That was the most difficult day of shooting. We were really hoping the soccer team wouldn’t come, because we were misinformed about the arrival of the team. It was supposed to rain, but then it didn’t, so the weather really helped us out by scaring off the soccer team. I knew I wanted the camera moves to be different. They’re not left and right, they’re grander, in/out, except for the last one, which is this complicated twirling camera movement. It was about giving a sense of scale to the film that’s still very intimate. It’s at the most open space that anything happens in, in Inwood Park, way at the top of Manhattan. There’s less people there. It has this wonderful bridge and the train goes by. You really get to feel at once you’re encompassed within this green space in New York City, but you can really see quite a bit of movement and graphical lines of architecture outside of that. It’s kind of my dream space.
[So there’s] these more austere camera movements revealing space, and then close-ups of people talking. Very rarely elsewhere in the film do we have close-ups of people talking, so it gave a way for the film at once to focus very closely on the text of the novel from which it’s pulled, and then also to pull back, expand and give a sense of space, so it becomes like a Greek chorus or rejoinder to the film. Its temporal relationship to the rest of the narrative is extremely unclear, and I like that. Also, the readings are sometimes intentionally bad readings. They’re mistranslations. Unfortunately, that’s a game I’m playing with myself, but it was a way to bring the spirit of the project into it—you know, it’s my translation, I can do what I want. I found this book. I wanted to read it. I wanted my friends to read it. They can’t, so I made a movie instead. But for me to try to represent it faithfully would always be a failure, so instead, it became deliberately and lovingly unfaithful. I’ve chosen a book you literally can’t read.
Filmmaker; Which may not be true in the future, and is also not true in Germany. So your film’s relationship to this text here will change over time.
Rovinelli: The film is about translation in many ways—translating between languages, between countries, between time periods, between histories, between genders, even just translating politics between two people, about where a relationship is at between two people. And then, of course, these bodies are shifting chunks of atoms that are becoming things they were not. It becomes this film that plays in this space of translation.
Filmmaker: For an American film it’s an unusual proposition that your most receptive starting audience might actually be German.
Rovinelli: Well, it depends, because some people were not happy with what I’d done to it. There’s actually a fight going on in Germany now about whether or not trans people have a right to Schernikau. Some people say it’s disrespectful to gay male history, which, sorry, I say is bullshit. I’ll take a firm stance on that. He’s not super well-known in Germany, either, so it did actually open the book up to a lot of German audiences. They were selling it at the bookstore at the festival and it sold out, and that’s nice.
I really like that people are very unclear on where I’m from. I thought it was painfully obvious I’m from New York, but apparently it’s not. You had Germans that are like, “Wait, you’re fluent in German?” “How would I have been able to make this film if I didn’t?” Scrambling codes is fun, right? I don’t like the idea of the nation-states. I am interested in the existing cultural histories of the world, and it’s fun to take those things lightly, as a source of play, rather than a thing that becomes immutable. I am very excited for it to play in New York. I think it’s going to get a very, very different reading here. I hope it does, because it will feel so much more personal. Again, like we were talking about earlier, this film does require you to at least intuit the circumstances in which it is made. If you can’t do that, I think it might not make any sense. But also, maybe it can. The things they do are not really so complicated. They don’t do much. Their emotions are pretty basic. They just want to fuck and feel loved. I don’t think that’s so weird.