“We Sat Down and Considered Pushing Production to Spring of 2020”: Erin Vassilopoulos on Superior
Duplicity in all its forms lurks just below the surface in Erin Vassilopoulos’s debut feature, Superior, which had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival last weekend. Expanded from a short she made in film school, Vassilopoulos’s feature concerns two fraternal twin sisters (Alessandra and Ani Mesa) unexpectedly reuniting after six years apart.
The film opens in October of 1987, with Marian (Alessandra), a touring musician on the run from a secretive past, returning to her hometown to spend a few days with her sister, Vivian (Ani). The two sisters haven’t spoken in six years, spending the interim leading complicated, diverging lives: Vivian, a housewife caught in a thankless marriage in her bland hometown, and Marian, unwillingly pursued by a dangerous man hot on her trail. Back together and with danger afoot, the sisters begin to mirror one another in outward appearance and inner personality, their sibling bond fusing into an unexpectedly cohesive whole. Equally engaging and disorienting, Superior finds unsettling logic in its visual language.
A few days before Superior’s world premiere in the U.S. Dramatic Competition section of the Sundance Film Festival, I spoke with Vassilopoulos about the journey from the short to the feature, shooting on 16mm film and spending much of lockdown editing the film in post-production.
Filmmaker: Superior first existed as a short film you wrote and directed in 2014 (that would go on to premiere at Sundance the following January). How did the short originate?
Vassilopoulos: I was attending film school at NYU when I made Superior (the short) and it was a big project for me. When you’re in the Master’s program, you have to make a pretty big short film in your second year, and that was looming over me quite a bit. I kept thinking of potential ideas for what I could write, then thought back to memories of growing up. Two of my best friends were fraternal twin sisters, sisters whose relationship I found myself fascinated by, and maybe even a little envious of. Imagine having this person you’re really close to, like a best friend, on-hand, at all times! With that being said, I was also aware of some of the friction involved in their relationship. Those sisters stayed somewhere in the back of my mind throughout the years. Then, one day at NYU, I was in an elevator and two identical twin sisters stepped in with me to ride down to the first floor. That visual, of these identical twins on the elevator, synced up with the memories of my two friends. It also, of course, synced up with my memory of the twins in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, which is one of my favorite movies.
Filmmaker: When you encounter twins near an elevator, The Shining has to spring to mind.
Vassilopoulos: Yeah, it was so uncanny. In that moment, it really clicked for me, like, “Oh yes, what a great, interesting relationship to explore.” So, I wrote the script and developed it in various screenwriting courses at NYU. After that, I began to think about casting.
Filmmaker: Did you always intend to cast twins or had you considered casting one person to play both roles?
Vassilopoulos: I actually never considered trying to make it with just one actress. I was determined to find twins and knew I wanted to work with twin sisters specifically. I put out casting calls, literally handing out flyers to several acting schools in New York City. It just so happened that Alessandra and Ani were both studying acting at NYU and had been placed in these studios around the city. One of their professors saw my post and encouraged them to reach out. We met for coffee soon after and I was able to do some directing exercises with them leading up to the shoot. I cast them very quickly and we started prepping from there.
Filmmaker: The feature takes place in 1987, six years after the short (so the short takes place in 1981, if I’m doing my math correctly). I don’t believe the year is explicitly noted in the short, but even so, it still feels somewhat anachronistic in its setting, and that subsequently affects the tone. Do you feel that the setting influenced the tone?
Vassilopoulos: It’s interesting to think back, because when I made the short, I wasn’t specifically tying the story to a particular year or time period. But like you said, it has a dated, timeless feel to it, which I always knew I wanted. I think part of that feeling comes from the location itself. I’m originally from Minnesota and initially wanted to shoot the short in Superior, Wisconsin, which is at the western end of Lake Superior. However, the idea of flying a bunch of people out to make this student film just felt crazy, logistically, to me, so I began exploring upstate New York, where I found a number of towns that had a similar feel. They felt not stuck in time but dated and somewhat older, possessing the same quality I had been looking for in the city of Superior. The location definitely laid the groundwork for the short, along with us shooting the film on 16mm.
Filmmaker: Did you learn how to work with film, shooting and editing it, at NYU?
Vassilopoulos: Yeah, and I hope that experience doesn’t go away for future students. Our first project was to go out and shoot something on film, a silent film. It was color reversal and we turned what we shot into black and white, and that’s what initially got me hooked on working with film. There’s almost a delayed gratification to it in terms of the process itself. I like the restrictiveness of film, that you can’t just shoot endless amounts of coverage. It makes you a little more cognizant of when the camera is rolling and makes everything a bit more heightened for everyone on set. The quality of film itself is also important, of course. I love the look and the texture of film, not to mention the colors, which are a huge part of both the short and the feature. They really pop thanks to being shot on film.
Filmmaker: Six years separate the timeline of the short and the feature, and six years separate the short’s Sundance premiere (2015) from the feature’s (2021). I know you made several short films in the interim, but I wanted to ask if you always knew that you would return to Superior for your first feature. Or did you write several screenplays that could have potentially gone into production?
Vassilopoulos: The feature version of Superior wasn’t on my mind for quite a while. I actually hadn’t considered turning the short into a feature and like you said, I had worked on a couple of other shorts, graduated from film school and was working on a feature-length screenplay that wasn’t Superior.
I had grown really close with Alessandra and Ani after making the short, as well as with our DP, Mia Cioffi Henry, who was one of my classmates at NYU. Mia shot both the short and the feature versions of Superior, and we remained close as we tried getting various projects off the ground. Alessandra had been writing some plays and a few shorts at this time, so we met up one day to talk about the idea of writing something longform together inspired by Superior. A short and a feature are such different forms and I didn’t want to try and expand the short into a feature. With Ani and Alessandra being adults now, we talked about the idea of creating a jump in time, six years, that would expand on the world [of the short]. We were excited about the potential there, and in that first night together, we started outlining the feature.
Filmmaker: Having the feature be a narrative continuation of the short is really unique. You don’t have to have seen the short beforehand, but if you did, there are instant references, such as the seashell, that jump out at you. During those initial brainstorming sessions, were you discussing how you envisioned the sisters’ lives might have turned out? That one would be in a marriage, living a very domesticated life, for example?
Vassilopoulos: Yeah, because we wanted to fill out their backstory with what happened in between [those six years]. One of the first things we decided was that the sister who had found the shell in the short was now questioning her identity even further. We imagined that she had left home shortly after that discovery and had joined a band at some point. We also liked the idea of picking up the feature by showing that one sister had remained in their hometown and that the sisters hadn’t seen each other in six years (from the time Marian ran away after the short). That was our jumping-off point, both the short and this idea of a sister coming home to a strained relationship after a number of years away.
Filmmaker: The film feels as much about the sisters being together as it is their being apart. Some of that comes from the screenplay, but as one of the editors on the film, your parallel editing between the two sisters, even at the beginning of the film, creates its own form of tension. They are physically apart when the movie begins, but the film toggles between them very quickly, and because they’re twins, there’s an added layer of disorientation. Does that come more from the writing or the editing process, of showing two individuals who share a symbiotic relationship?
Vassilopoulos: Some of that was in the script, as the middle portion of the film features some bouncing back-and-forth between each sister, but yes, some of that also comes from the cross-cutting. The movie resembles several different genres and we wanted to show how these two sisters come from very different worlds. We had originally written the opening scene as single pieces, first of Marian’s story [and then Vivian’s]. When we hosted a feedback screening, some people loved the opening as it was and some people were thrown off by the transition from the opening [with Marian] to the domestic, “small town” world of Vivian. My co-editor, Jennifer Ruff, heard that feedback, thought, “OK, let me try something crazy,” and began pulling some of those pieces into the opening sequence. I think when I saw the cut to the closeup of the egg-cracking, I was like, “Oh yes, this is so good!” I loved the juxtaposition she found, as the movie was always meant to be about this intuitive connection between the sisters. I wanted the audience to feel that right away, that there’s something bouncing back-and-forth between them.
Filmmaker: You mentioned the film consisting of different genre elements. How did you work to convey those visually? Were there certain influences you revisited to prepare for the shoot?
Vassilopoulos: Influences on this film itself were vast and many. When I’m early in development on a project and begin writing, I start culling different images and sharing them [with my team]. I was sharing many of those with Alessandra when we began writing the feature, then later I shared images with Mia, our DP, and the rest of the cast in the lead-up to the shoot. I’ve always loved thrillers of different kinds and I like that there’s also a flare of giallo horror (which I’m also a big fan) of in the opening sequence. I guess a lot of that influenced the costumes and the colors of the film as well, although I didn’t have specific movies in mind. I knew I wanted the whole movie to be very heightened and stylized.
Filmmaker: Are the actresses wearing wigs in the film?
Vassilopoulos: They are.
Filmmaker: It really adds something to their characters. How did you come to the decision to use wigs?
Vassilopoulos: When we were writing the script, I foolishly had the idea that we could just shoot in chronological order and dye and cut Marian’s hair as needed. Obviously, that turned out to not be doable. We acquired a few wigs made for the shoot and I think it worked out, as having the wigs gave us some flexibility with how we could schedule the shoot.
Filmmaker: The film has several moments of extreme tension, often from Marian’s POV as she experiences these terrifyingly traumatic hallucinations, and you expertly balance those within the “real world” of the film. Was that a difficult juggling act between yourself and your DP?
Vassilopoulos: Some of those conversations came up in the writing of the script, but in regard to the visual style, that was definitely the result of numerous conversations I had with Mia. We had even explored that [the hallucinations] a bit in the short. Those moments were heightened and almost dream-like, to feel like you’re seeing a character’s emotional reality or, in the case of the feature, those nightmares had to serve as Marian’s trauma manifesting in the present moment. I knew those sequences had to have a really different feel to them, so we often switched to a looser, more handheld camera, making the lighting harder and moodier, emphasizing shadows when we could. Our sound design also played a big part in creating that, having certain sounds feel present in an unnatural way where it’s supposed to emulate a character’s subconscious or emotional state, seeping into the present moment and to what we’re seeing on screen.
Filmmaker: That’s a good transition to discuss the music of the film, and not just the original score, but the particular songs you feature. They feel of the 1980s, but I could be wrong about that.
Vassilopoulos: Finding the right music was very challenging and, as I’m sure you know, licensing music is extremely expensive. I had picked a lot of music while we were editing the film together, not knowing how much each of the songs would cost. In the end, while we were able to obtain a few of the tracks, we were forced to replace a lot as well. However, I’m really happy with where we landed. I had some help in obtaining the music and ended up receiving access to an owner of a record label [Captured Tracks] that I knew had been slowly purchasing the rights to old songs. He has been slowly buying up rights to old songs from the late ’70 thru early ’80s in order to reissue them through his label. He had never licensed much of his music before, but he was willing and able to share his trove of ‘80s music with me and it was super helpful. We really lucked out on that stage of finishing the movie. I found a lot of stuff in there that I felt was actually more specific to my film than the music I had originally used while editing. But that process took some time.
Filmmaker: I’d like to ask what it was like to reunite with your DP to shoot the feature. I imagine you both have grown over the past six years, with various experiences on other people’s films, both creatively and professionally. What was it like to come together and “re-collaborate” with the added benefit of time and experience?
Vassilopoulos: This was a huge step up for both of us. This was my first feature and it was the second feature for Mia (and the first she shot on film). I can’t compare the two features Mia has now worked on, but working with film (not to mention the length and scope of this project) was definitely a huge challenge for both her and I. Coming to the feature with a history of working together was really key, I think, and we trust each other and have developed a shorthand we’re able to lean into. The short was a guiding point for all of us, for our cast and for everyone on the crew. They were able to view the short to get a sense of the world we were trying to enter back into with the feature. That, too, was very helpful.
In a number of ways, this project was a continuation of collaborations, which for me was the most rewarding part of making the feature. That includes not just working with Mia and Ani and Alessandra again, but the feature’s production designer, Maite Perez-Nievas, was someone I had worked with on a previous short of mine [Valeria], and the film’s co-editor, Jen Ruff, was originally one of my editing professors at NYU. This feature definitely continues numerous collaborations.
Filmmaker: I recently watched your “Meet the Artist” video for Sundance, where you discussed some of the difficulties of shooting in winter and amongst snow. It works as an element of the film (although it takes place in October), but what were some of the ways you had to work around those weather limitations?
Vassilopoulos: First I should say that the film came together very quickly, and for that I was lucky. However, by the time we really got things moving, it was pretty late into fall of 2019 and there was a moment where we sat down and considered pushing production to spring of 2020 (adapting the script accordingly). But at that point, we already had a lot of pieces in place and a lot of forward-moving momentum, so I felt like we needed to just go for it, shoot right away and embrace the snow and weirdness of all that. Luckily, our producers were supportive of the decision and I’m so glad they were, because if we had pushed back our shoot, we would not have a movie.
Filmmaker: You would have been going into production right when the world was going into lockdown.
Vassilopoulos: Yeah, it would have been well into the pandemic. Shooting in the fall/winter of 2019 definitely made things challenging for other reasons though. I remember at first being like, “The sisters are going to be eating ice cream in the snow?!” But I’m from Minnesota and we’ve had blizzards on Halloween growing up, so I embraced our wintry conditions and came to appreciate that layer of our movie. It was challenging though. It’s just harder shooting outside (often the actors were freezing), but luckily a lot of the movie takes place indoors too.
Filmmaker: But while you were lucky to shoot the film before the pandemic hit, I imagine your post-production experience was filled with uncertainty regarding the future of the film (and, of course, the future of the world). As you were editing and putting the finishing touches on the film, what were your concerns about the future of the film given the unchartered territory of the past twelve months?
Vassilopoulos: We’re still in unchartered territory in many ways, right? I’m just grateful that we have a film and honestly, having this film to work on and finish over the past year has really grounded me. It also didn’t force us to rush through the editing process. Once we finished filming, there was a stretch before the pandemic where everybody was like, “We’ve got to hurry up and edit the film quickly and get it out there as fast as we can.” Then everything shut down. I remember handing off the hard drive to Jen right as things were shutting down and I thought, “Well, at least she has a hard drive. We’ll be able to work on something.” In the end, I think it helped us by forcing us to slow down. It slowed down the process and we realized that we were no longer in a rush. We don’t really know what’s happening in the world and we should just take our time and make the best possible movie we can. We edited for months, trying a lot of different things that I think ultimately helped the movie. Jen and I worked remotely at first and then, later on, quarantined and started working together in person, as it was getting too hard to pass cuts back and forth online.
Filmmaker: I’m glad things worked out for the film then. You wouldn’t have known it at the time, but shooting in the cold in 2019 turned out to be the right call.
Vassilopoulos: Yeah, we were very lucky.