“There Has Been a Deliberate Rebranding of the Alt-Right Women To Have the Veneer of Smart, Sophisticated Instagram Influencers”: Director Beth de Araújo and DP Greta Zozula on Soft & Quiet
One of the most chilling moments in Beth de Araújo’s masterful and outraged Soft & Quiet occurs early on, before the film’s sickeningly violent chain of events formally begins. After shooting side eye at her school’s immigrant female custodian, blonde thirtysomething elementary school teacher Emily (Stefanie Estes) coaches a young boy to go back inside the lunchroom and tell the woman off — to tell her that she must wait to do her job until the school is totally empty. Emily is not just using the child to disrespect the custodian, she’s instilling in the boy the sort of racial animus that she’ll soon deploy in even more hurtful ways.
After that brief preamble, we follow — literally, as DP Greta Zozula’s handheld perspective, captured in one continuous afternoon-to-dusk take, is the only point of view in the entire film — Emily carrying a small pie and traipsing through woods to a small church, where she’ll meet up with some like-minded female friends for the first meeting of their “Daughters for Aryan Unity” group. Sitting in a circle, they cheerfully share motivations, grievances and hate, but when the church’s unsuspecting rector picks up on the group’s mission, he asks them to leave — he doesn’t want any trouble. Decamping to Emily’s house, the women stop on the way to pick up some refreshments at a local mart, where, empowered by their newfound camaraderie, they pick a fight with two mixed-race Asian sisters — a confrontation that builds in intensity and depravity through the feature’s nearly two remaining acts.
Soft & Quiet is L.A.-based Beth d’Araújo’s debut feature. Featured in our 2017 25 New Faces on the basis of her superb Sundance Lab script Josephine (“Taxi Driver meets The Kid with a Bike“, was how she described it), the writer/director pivoted away from that long-gestating project after watching the Amy Cooper Central Park birding video. “Most videos capturing racism leave me depressed and debilitated,” de Araújo says, “but this video made me angry. She reminded me of my second grade teacher who put all of the POC into the lowest reading group and belittled my parents in front of me.”
First features are inherently difficult to make, which makes de Araújo’s choice to shoot this film all in one take particularly impressive. Other films, such as Sam Mendes’s 1917, have used this device recently, but they’ve had much larger budgets and the ability to do more with VFX. The success of de Araújo’s approach owes to her keen sense of blocking and movement, Zozula’s virtuosic lensing, her actors’s energy and commitment, as well as truly smart location work. We follow Emily and her crew as they move from multiple locations, by foot, car and even boat, with no obvious wipes and no visible stitching. It’s a tour de force technical achievement, and one that wouldn’t mean much if it wasn’t in service to the film’s larger themes. Many horror films — and yes, this is a horror film (and not just because Blumhouse’s name is on it) — instill fear by the knowledge that the filmmaker will cut to reveal something scary. Soft & Quiet works in opposite fashion: we know the film will never cut, and, identifying the poisonous ideologies of Emily and the Daughters early on, we also know there will be no on-screen relief from the depiction of their hate.
Soft & Quiet premiered at the recently concluded SXSW Film Festival. I interviewed both de Araújo and Zozula over email, and we discussed all that went into the one-take approach, the film’s four-day shoot schedule, real-world analogs to the Daughters for Aryan Unity, and the film’s unexpected portrayal of toxic masculinity.
Filmmaker: Beth, when we featured you in our 2017 25 New Faces you were working towards a first feature, Josephine, that you had developed at the Sundance Labs and Gotham No Borders program, among other places. So how did Soft & Quiet become your first feature instead, and is Josephine still in the works?
de Araújo: Long story short, Josephine has been very challenging to piece together, and was an impossibility during COVID restrictions. I decided I had to make something as soon as possible and in that desperation, Soft & Quiet poured out of me. Nobody had any idea how long we would have COVID regulations on set, so I designed something that was possible in those parameters.
Filmmaker: You have have said you were motivated to write this story after seeing the Amy Cooper video and that you went out for financing the week of the Capitol insurrection — from May, 2020 to January, 2021, that’s a span of just over seven months. How did the Amy Cooper incident lead to a story about women engaging in more organized white supremacy, and what sort of research did you do into what would be the real-world version of the women’s group we see in the film? And did the script change in any way as a result of the insurrection itself?
de Araújo: Amy Cooper’s actions could have gotten someone killed that day if the wrong cop showed up in the wrong headspace. That’s essentially what she was threatening. The legacy of white women wielding their power over people of color made me want to focus on the deep-rooted legacy of white supremacy and the legacy of the confederacy in this country. I read anything I could find on alt-right women and Klu Klux Klan women’s groups. I discovered that there has been a deliberate rebranding of the alt-right women to have the veneer of smart, sophisticated, Instagram influencers so that they can reach the mainstream more effectively. The Klu Klux Klan women used to publish a magazine called Homefront, which was branded as a home-ec magazine, but actually pushed their white supremacist agenda. So that became the focus of the film.
Filmmaker: As a follow-up, you said you were financed immediately. Was this industry or private financing, and what do you think your financiers’s motivating factors to become involved with this film were?
de Araújo: This was private equity. My financier was given my script and lookbook the day after the capital insurrection, so my guess is that they saw the urgency of what I was trying to tell on their news screens and felt the need to act.
Filmmaker: At what point did you decide to shoot the film as one uninterrupted take? And at what point did the choice of location enter into that decision? What concerns did this decision provoke in your collaborators and financiers? Aside from the technical challenge, the one-take style limited your choices in editing, but what were the production benefits? I note, for example, that you had a four-day production schedule, which is shockingly low for a feature.
de Araújo: Before I began writing the film I decided to do it in one interrupted take. I drove up to the town it’s shot in and cleared the locations first before beginning to write, because if you don’t have the locations, this film can’t work continuously. It certainly made the financier nervous, but it never felt like the money would disappear if I didn’t change my mind. All of my artistic collaborators were excited by this challenge. The production benefit was that the shoot was short, therefore costing less, and I think the actors could just fall into their characters and deliver wonderful performances. An actor’s medium is a play for a reason. So by shooting a moving play, I felt like I was setting them up to do their best work.
I always write for specific locations in my films. It totally changes what you can do in a scene based on the space. I knew this small town had these locations all within .1 miles of each other. It wouldn’t have worked if the car rides were each 30 minutes. I spent a lot of time in this town in my childhood and drove there just to refamiliarize myself with the space and possibilities. Once I cleared the locations I started writing. It was important to have the locations first or writing the script would have been a total waste of time. And the script took shape with what I knew I had to work with, not the other way around.
Filmmaker: Beth and Greta, tell us about how you worked through the obvious challenges of this one-take approach. Was there any sort of post-production stitching allowing you to mix scenes from the four days?
Zozula: The challenge in every scene was balancing the choreography of the actors movements to still feel organic but creating very intentional compositions.
de Araújo: Then Greta had to memorize each beat and frame to land on. We broke the script up into “scenes” and “transition scenes,” i.e. the walk and car scenes. And so the challenge once those were set was how do we get into and out of the transition scenes and making sure every movement felt intentional to human behavior.
Zozula: Also the behind-the-scenes coordination of conducting timing between all departments to be on the same page because there was a long ripple effect to every little thing. If one piece of the puzzle was forgotten, it would totally break the necessary cause and effect it had on the next moment.
de Araújo: Greta and I talked about building into the shoot frames that would give us the possibility of cutting it up in post just to be safe. And the funny thing is that we use none of those moments, but Lindsay Armstrong, our editor, found other places that were possible to still seamlessly stitch real time. I would say about 85% of the movie is the take we did on day four. But day three had certain strong moments that I felt really added something. I thought about not stitching it together at all, but at the end of the day, I wanted to give the audience the strongest experience possible.
Filmmaker: Greta, did you operate the camera? What camera and rig did you use, and what conversations did you have with Beth about blocking and the choreography of the actors given the approach? And what was your approach to lighting?
Zozula: I did operate and the entire film is handheld. We discussed a few different approaches in the beginning because we wanted a natural progression from slow, controlled and calculated to something very frenetic while keeping intention and motivation throughout. Those options were locking the camera off or steadicam in the beginning and then finding a moment to go handheld, but in the end we realized that we could achieve all of those things while staying handheld. It just meant that my own body movements would create subtle changes vs something mechanical. This made sense because the camera is a living POV and we wanted the audience to feel connected. Handheld to me always has this intimate power and draws you in.
We shot on the Alexa Mini LF. 4K and full frame was important to us. The resolution gave us some flexibility in post if we ever needed to reframe or VFX anything. The full frame mixed with the lens choice, which was a Canon K35 35mm prime lens, felt like the perfect format for a direct POV. The camera literally became my eyes. The K35 lens was also chosen for its close focus, which allowed us to get very close to the actors while also allowing us to get wide and feel the environment. The F/stop on the lens was also very critical. Being a 1.5 it gave us the range we needed for when it got very dark but it also narrowed the depth of field as another visual progression that made the world get smaller and smaller and more claustrophobic as the film got deeper and deeper.
After doing research on all other cameras from build to power to card management we decided LF was the way to go. Even though the camera is a power hog we figured if we could find a workaround and find a way to regulate power and keep the camera functional for two hours straight then we were good to go. We kept the camera slimmed down with just a lens and monitor and built a special rig that I could wear as a harness with all of the other accessories attached. These have been built many times in different configurations but mine was custom-made to my body size and made with flexible joints so I could bend and twist in order to get in and out of the cars and get through doorways easily. The workaround we discovered for power came from a custom chip built for power distribution between three batteries. This was successful in keeping the camera powered through the whole film without having to swap out any batteries. The rig was designed by Jon Cooper, who was the 1st AC on the film, and he built it with the help of Justin Shafer and Ed Richardson.
We tested the camera a week before heading out to location to make sure the camera could run for more than two hours without a problem. We checked if it would overheat, glitch, slow down, etc. We also tested to make sure there was no corruption of the media. We found no research on whether or not you can record a unbroken two-hour clip on a 1T card without corruption so we did multiple tests to make sure without a doubt the card could handle the information and transfer to a drive. I also had to make sure my body could hold up for that long, so I trained for a couple months to build up my stamina and strengthen my core, arms and legs. I did dry runs with a similar camera build around my house. Once all things were checked off we knew that we had something that was really going to work.
Lighting was a mix of going completely natural and adding where needed. We did not have a ton of time to rehearse or prep so we were always adjusting levels during the day based on what we learned the night before. The most stressed I have ever been about lighting I think — it was sort of set it and forget it and hope it doesn’t turn off! We also shot from sunset to twilight as a story point, but it was also a unique way to change light quality and color that was very intentional but felt completely natural and motivated. It was a unique challenge that forced us to have to shoot only once a day without any room for error. I think it’s important to know how precise we had to be on that timing because it really did change how each scene would have progressed so the timing was critical.
We rehearsed with the cast in the locations, I counted the designed beats and it was over 160 precise shot compositions. It’s so ingrained in me that I can walk through the whole film in my mind still today and count them out. Beth had really thought through how she wanted to approach the visuals, and during rehearsal we broke the scenes up and figured out how each progression was going to work through composition and camera movement. I did my best to remember them all. That being said, we allowed moments where I didn’t know exactly where I was going to put the camera. This was more for the second half of the film. I had broader beats that I had to hit but in between them I was working off the performances. The fun and challenging part of the whole thing was something was always going to go wrong big or small and you not only had to be prepared to completely go off script but immediately forget about the mistake and move on. This actually happened very rarely and in split second moments but it was so impressive how we would recover and move on. The most unique experience I have ever had and the most collaborative between everyone involved.
Filmmaker: Without revealing the specifics of the ending, could you discuss why it was important the film end the way it does? Cutting to black a second before would produce a very different effect in the audience.
de Araújo: In an attempt to be as grounded, realistic, and honest as possible, I wanted to show how both history has played out and how I believe it may continue to. People will always hate people of color or marginalized groups for looking or being different than them. We can fuel mass hatred in societal rhetoric, or we can defuse it as much as possible, but it will always be there unfortunately, and horrific things will continue to happen to people of color, although we can help to minimize them. But what I take great comfort in on the dark days is the knowledge and certainty that it is an impossibility to kill all of us.
Filmmaker: Many stories dealing with racialized violence depict it alongside expressions of toxic masculinity. If ideas around toxic masculinity appear in Soft & Quiet, they are more ideas weaponized by Emily in her discussions with her husband. What were the motivations for the ways in which their relationship is depicted?
de Araújo: I very much believe that toxic masculinity can live in women who decide or are taught to see the world only making sense to them when toxic gender roles are being fulfilled. I think it’s likely frustrating for Emily that she is so powerful and such an effective leader and isn’t meant to be one in the world she believes is right. I think she has become more demanding and radicalized over the course of their marriage about her and her husband’s roles within it. And Craig, her husband, has been shutting down more and more because he is unable to fulfill those expectations.