“…I Asked If She Was Up for Hauling a Mattress and Screaming Bloody Murder for a Short Film…”: Adinah Dancyger On Her Hannah Gross-Starring Short, Moving
The transportation of an object from point A to point B — it’s one of the most basic of human endeavors, and one that provides both story and a bit of mystery to Adinah Dancyger’s rich and elegant short, Moving. Starring Hannah Gross (Mindhunter, I Used To Be Darker) and winner of the Grand Jury Award for Narrative Short at the Slamdance 2020 festival, Moving, with much physical action and minimal dialogue, focuses on a young woman moving a mattress across town and up a flight of stairs to an empty apartment. Moving in New York City is a nightmare under any circumstance, but Dancyger intriguingly elides the impetus behind the move — as well as Gross’s character’s reasons for doing it without any help. A Brian Lehrer radio clip provides political context, while Gross’s necessarily strenuous performance, captured in increasingly tight shots by DP Mia Cioffi Henry, builds to a moment of real catharsis.
It’s the third of Dancyger’s shorts, following 2015’s Chopping Onions and 2017’s Cheer Up Baby. Below, I talk to the writer/director about the origins of the short, the challenges of its one-day shoot, and the short format in general for emerging filmmakers.
Watch Moving above.
Filmmaker: The short is suggestive of so many narrative possibilities — the reason for your lead character’s move, for example; her relationship with Sam; the voice we hear on the voicemail message; and, finally, the subtext behind all the emotion at the end. Tell us about how you conceived and developed the short — was there a story in your head that filled in all of these holes, or were you wanting to give the audience a scenario that would allow them to fill in the backstory?
Dancyger: The original idea came from the day I left college. Instead of going back to New York City (where I grew up), I moved into a friend’s apartment in Hudson. As if the grief of leaving school and never having driven a U-Haul wasn’t hard enough, moving my entire life on my own for the first time brought on a whole new level of turmoil. It was one of those days you know you’d look back on and remember as one of the worst days of your life. I moved alone about six times between then and writing the film. Time has offered some perspective on what was coming up for me in those moments, which had everything and nothing to do with moving. Finding the humor and absurdity of it all was a great way into exploring a wider range of these very human emotions. At first I wanted the film to be Sisyphean and ending on the staircase, but that didn’t feel right. Ending with catharsis held more meaning and mystery to me. As for the audience, I had my reasons and backstories. But in general, I really enjoy creating space for whoever is watching to wonder, interpret and relate in a way that is natural to them.
Filmmaker: Did the idea of transporting a bed summon invoke any allusions or inspirations? I thought of Emma Sulkowicz’s performance work at Columbia University a few years ago and wonder if that was a reference of any kind.
Dancyger: Emma Sulkowicz’s work is so powerful and important, but because the context of a bed was utilized in so differently in her work, I wouldn’t say it was a direct reference. Beds are powerful symbols, however. This makes me think about Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece as well, which was a reference in mind. Originally I thought I was going to make an incredibly stark single shot from the top of the stairs, but then realized that’s not at all the kind of movie I’d want to make or see. Emphasizing body language has always been important to me and with a character struggling through this kind of physical activity, it demanded a visual and sonic experience reflective of an internal dialogue.
Filmmaker: Tell us about working with Hannah on the short, and specifically the physical demands of the role. Carrying a mattress up a flight of stairs is hard! How much of the actual physical exertion of that effort did you require her to do? How many hours were spent shooting this sequence?
Dancyger: Hannah and I met acting in Nathan’s Silvers film Uncertain Terms and have been friends since. While writing the short, I had Hannah in mind as I thought she had the capacity to scream at the top of her lungs… even though I’d never actually seen her come close to doing it before. I’d wanted to work together for some time and sent her an email asking her if she was up for hauling a mattress and screaming bloody murder for a short film. Luckily she said yes! This was a one-day shoot, and we spent about four or five hours in the staircase. Where we did have a choice to make lugging easier we would, but ultimately I left these decisions up to Hannah to do what worked best for her. I didn’t want to do more than what was necessary for her process. It was much easier to simulate struggle on the staircase than it was between dragging the mattress in and that last push, which was stunning. I want to say Hannah did more than half of it. I probably said, “I’m so sorry, what have I done” at least a dozen times.
Filmmaker: Where did you get the mattress?
Dancyger: A brand new Ikea mattress. Our production designer Victoria [Cronin] and I did, however, initially contemplate free Craiglist mattresses then quickly decided against it for all the reasons I don’t have to list here!
Filmmaker: In terms of production, what was the biggest challenge you faced?
Dancyger: Because the shoot was one day, it’s hard to find a groove between all the moving parts and to have the time to make creative decisions before logistical ones. I can’t blame time for that entirely as there’s never enough of it, but overall, one-day shoots on cold winter days are tough. Wrangling a motorcycle crew that never showed up was the second biggest challenge.
Filmmaker: You use an excerpt of a Brian Lehrer radio show discussing the rise and fall of rent control in New York at the top of the short. What experiences of your own or thoughts about housing affordability and availability in New York informed the short?
Dancyger: I grew up in New York City, which I’m incredibly grateful for, but it’s something I also struggle with greatly. I’m a sentimental person, so it’s a hard place to cling onto as it’s constantly changing. The love-hate dynamic really drives the film for me. Like many, I’ve had nomadic years: short-term leases, crazy landlords, leaving the city whenever possible, Los Angeles in January, etc. It was all in resistance and skepticism to commit to a city I felt estranged from and could never find a place that felt worth staying in for long time. Finding an apartment is hard, and finding one you really like is nearly impossible. People seem to be moving constantly, which unfortunately tends to be out of necessity. My parents have owned grocery stores in the city for over 30 years, so they’ve really faced the rental wars. It’s quite clear when we walk down the street that long-term leases are nearly impossible to get now. It’s no surprise there are so many places that open and close within a year and why so many places are for rent. The Brian Lehrer Show is the one of my favorite parts of New York City and my mornings. If anyone could and should speak on behalf of an NYC film, it’s Brian. He’s a genius facilitator and mediator in his ability to offer a platform to work through these complicated issues with his listeners. In a way, this is what films aim to do — to offer discussion — so I could only hope that by sharing a Brian Lehrer segment, this could be a window into that conversation.
Filmmaker: The credit you give to composer Kaya Wilkins is “subliminal score,” which is a distinction I don’t ever recall seeing in an end credit. How did this credit wind up being that, and what were you wanting the score to do and not do?
Dancyger: Kaya and I have worked together a lot and have come up with funky terms that may or may not make sense. We played a lot with sounds in our previous collaborations, and might’ve even called them “subliminal sounds” at the time, which led to subliminal score. Kaya’s work here seemed more like converging sounds how that creates strange frequency to effect viscerally. I just wanted it to go unrecognized but felt.
Filmmaker: You’ve been working consistently in the short form, with this short, your earlier Chopping Onions and Cheer Up, Baby; your music video work with Okay Kaya; and your commercial work. More broadly, what goals or aspirations do you have for the short form at this stage of your career? How are these works informing your future direction? And what are your thoughts about the potential of shorts, given their various distribution possibilities and challenges, for emerging filmmakers today?
Dancyger: Shorts have really suited my obsession with small moments, details, and experiences. Each project has tapped into a different interest of mine, whether that’s subject matter, character, tone, mood, or skillset. Playing around these varieties has given me insight into what speaks to me and what doesn’t. I’ve never approached making shorts as a kind of teaser for a feature, though my desire to enter feature world was always on the horizon. I’m writing my first feature now, and it’s been incredible learning how different these two forms really are. On a practical level, shorts are the quickest way to realize if and how you might want to make films. But there’s so much more value in making and watching them. Shorts are conceptually economical and that leanness is a great way to practice concision and appreciate the power of details. There’s really no right or wrong when it comes to them, the stakes are relatively low, they’re so fun, and practically-speaking, help establish the legitimacy of a filmmaker for when they want to make larger projects. The internet is both a gift and curse for shorts, which makes film festivals so special for the short film experience. But any online platform that distributes and curates shorts sees the value in them, which is amazing. I just hope it continues to evolve and expand in a way that more people come to appreciate them.
Filmmaker: Finally, how has the pandemic affected you creatively and as a filmmaker? When we reach whatever next normal exists on the other side of this phase, what plans do you have, and how will those plans be informed by this past year?
Dancyger: It changes every day. Sometimes it’s extremely productive and other days there’s an impending feeling of doom, but that seems normal when writing a feature slash being a human being writ large. The feature I’m working on is quite minimal by virtue of the story itself, but when I do think of the possibility of it coming to life my producer hat can light up, so I try my best to focus on writing creatively rather than thinking about what will be feasible. The world is and always will be uncertain, which is definitely a reality to consider when trying to make a film. I would say the projects I’ve done in the pandemic have been affected in that there’s more of a focus on archival work, more emphasis on the edit, and minimalism. Adjusting to change is always hard, especially in the beginning. Overall I try to approach it by working with what I have to work with rather than worrying about what I don’t have and seeing obstacles as a sign that I really have to get creative.