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“A Short Feels Like a Song, a Feature Would Be the Album”: Pepi Ginsberg on Her Cannes Short, The Pass

The Pass

In The Pass, a young man bicycles into a small town looking for a place to go for a swim. Learning of a nearby clearing, he heads over there and takes that swim. That, minus one element, is the plot of Pepi Ginsberg’s Cannes-premiering short film, selected for the La Cinef program, but it’s that missing element — an ambiguously menacing encounter occurring while our protagonist is in the water — that gives the tremendously assured The Pass its cool, unsettling tone.

Since 2016, the recent NYU Tisch grad has made a number of shorts, both narrative and documentary, as well as artworks and photographs. She’s also a professional musician. The Pass is perhaps the simplest, most economical of her works, and through that economy she allows a moment that in another film, or in life, might be quickly forgotten to ripple with meaning and implication. Below, we talk about how Ginsberg found that storytelling concision, working with lead Angus O’Brien, and connecting with La Cinef (formerly Cinefondation), Cannes’s short film program.

Filmmaker: The challenge of a short film is often to not tell too much of a story — to capture a series of moments that add up to narrative without trying to be mini-features. You’ve done this brilliantly, and I’d like to hear about how you landed on such a minimal, economical and allusive story. Was this whittled down from something larger, or did you land on its economy from the outset?

Ginsberg: Thank you so much. The Pass was always meant to be contained. It was a pandemic movie – we worked within an economy of means. My daughter was six months old at the time and I wanted to be home with her at night. Our budget was low, and I really wanted to try something on a smaller scale where I could focus on story and performance. I wanted to see how much we could do with as few elements as possible, where every lever that we had could be pulled with force and intention. The weather, the water, color, outdoor locations, camera, the actors’ faces, their performances, sound and score – I wanted them to all have the audience’s attention without distraction so that you could feel them, and in this way feel the story. I was going for a certain kind of simplicity. We had been shut down two days before production in 2020. The only thing that changed when we shot in 2021 was the ending of the film, where if you’ve seen it, ends after Ben leaves the beach. I kept thinking of this Wim Wender quote where he said he didn’t want to watch anything that didn’t leave you with hope. After the pandemic, and especially after becoming a parent, that really resonated with me. So the ending of our film changed, but it made the story complete. That was the only way we scaled up, everything else was very intentionally and necessarily contained.

Filmmaker: And was there a specific inspiration for the tale in terms of experiences you witnessed?

Ginsberg: Our DP Melanie Akoka told me a story about how she was hit on while swimming and it left her anxious to get out of the water. This image of being trapped in water really stuck with me. It felt haunting and psychological. Stuck in a body of water, you’re in the primordial soup of your own mind and emotions. I wanted to explore that space. There’s fear but there is also a potential for bravery and rebirth. I knew a beach where we could shoot, and I could see this kind of story happening there. I had someone in my life that I wanted to imagine in this kind of situation, alone and longing for connection, encountering this sort of hideous mirror of the darkest elements of himself. I am really interested in allegorical realism, and that’s what this story is for me. I’ve been harassed as a woman, I’ve been bullied emotionally by people who hate themselves, I’ve let it hurt me and I’ve also broken free of it. I have witnessed this transformation in myself and in people I know and love. This is where the heart of the story comes from. It’s a hero’s journey of sorts.

Filmmaker: Tell me about the setting of The Pass, and particularly the inspiration for its subtle portrayal of class and racial division?

Ginsberg: The film takes place in a small town at the end of the North Fork of Long Island where I have spent a good deal of time. The town has become more popular, especially in the post-Covid age of city-escapism and so I was interested in what happens to a small town when new blood enters. All the characters in the story were cast for their ability to portray the tender and human qualities that they so beautifully possess. JaQwan Kelly had auditioned for Ben but had all of the characteristics I had imagined for Sam. His friends are played by my friends, the wonderful Blanche Akonchong and actually our producer Joseph Longo! I think the differences in class are subtle but none, in this particular story, are divided by race or ethnicity. I was inspired by Ben’s search for acceptance of himself alone and with others, and chose to put my focus on that element of the story.

Filmmaker: And can you speak to your influences or sources of inspiration in general — what’s inspiring or sustaining you these days?

Ginsberg: My life is so different now with a young child. The life in front of me is really interesting. I didn’t realize before witnessing a human coming into being how elemental the steps are that we all take to make sense of – and to – this world. Saying a word, putting two words together, communicating, laughing only when you really mean it – this is something I’m seeing every day. It’s pretty astonishing – and sustaining. My partner, Martin Crane, who is a songwriter and composer (also of this score) is a poetic person and is endlessly curious — he’s hardcore inspring too. But of course I’m watching a lot of films. Recent hits have been Mike Leigh’s Topsy Turvey (Laughter, tears, curtain!), Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep (super curious about the remake!), Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum (deeply affecting!), and I’m also a huge Ruben Ostlund fan, so when his catalog hit Criterion I watched them all. I’m a bit obsessed with Involuntary. I recently rewatched Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl which has been haunting me (don’t watch it before bed!), and I just started season two of Ziwe, who I really love.  The Chet Hanks episode is nuts, right up there for me with the Bolt energy episode of  . That’s some inspiring TV!

Filmmaker: Tell me about casting your lead, Angus O’Brien. What qualities were it important that he had? I’d also like to hear about his outfit — there was something so awkward about his orange t-shirt, black shorts, black socks and backpack…

Ginsberg: Our casting director, Kate Antognini , showed us Angus’s tape. She was a fan and we became fans as soon as we saw him. I was looking for an actor who was everything Angus showed us: tender, strong, physical, and enigmatic. Angus has an ability to do so much with so little. His emotions play right beneath the surface, but you can feel him deeply, he allows us to connect without asking — it’s performance as invitation. The film is so allegorical and psychological — I needed an actor who could hold that space. For Ben’s costume, I worked with our production and costume designer Charlotte Abbott.  When Char and I work I choose a painting and that is our color palette for the film. We don’t stray — I like a limited palette, it creates painterly images and gives a guide for the world of the film. The Pass’s painting was an Arthur Dove. Everywhere we shot was lush summer green so I knew we needed a color that could differentiate Ben from his surroundings. He’s an outsider, he’s at odds with his environment. And in that way I agree it’s awkward — discordant. Orange was this color. His shorts were a dark navy to stay in that Arthur Dove palette, but with those and his black shoes, socks and backpack we were looking to portray Ben as athletic — physical and less concerned with aesthetics. The look was built off of something you’d wear to the gym. His necklace was a pendant of St Michael, slaying a dragon. For me the film is about slaying your demons and so this necklace, both a symbol of Ben’s future and a piece of his past, felt like the right fit for the epic battle he goes on and the hopeful place where he arrives.

Filmmaker: On a broader level, you’ve made so many different types of work — commercials, music videos, narratives. In terms of your ambitions as a filmmaker, what were you specifically looking to achieve with The Pass?

Ginsberg: When I set out to make the film, I had no expectations. I made the movie on five hours of sleep a night, I was still waking up with my baby. But I had a lot of help from my crew, who are some of my closest friends, and my husband.  I wanted to have a set that was relatively chill and where everyone ate well. I didn’t want the pressure of making something fancy. I just wanted to make a film where the performances felt lived-in and that looked, visually, like a movie I’d like to see. Also, my mentality with shorts is keep it as cheap as you can and try to do something you’ve never done before. Sometimes when I make work, I try to give myself two main goals. If I reach them I say I’ll be happy. I’m not sure if this is true but it helps me focus on certain aspects of the process and takes the weight off trying to do everything at once. With The Pass, I wanted natural, affecting performances and a story that takes you on a ride.

Filmmaker: How did you connect with La Cinef?

Ginsberg: I applied to La Cinef and was lucky enough to get in. They are fantastic. In the preparation to go to the festival, their team has been incredibly supportive and helpful. What a wonderful program, I can’t wait to see the other films in the selection and meet everybody!

Filmmaker: And what are your plans or expectations for the Cannes Film Festival?

Ginsberg: I’d like to see as many films as possible, meet as many new people as possible, have as much fun as possible. I expect to be exhausted to be honest! I think it’s going to be a bit nuts but hopefully really wonderful. I am looking to make a feature next so I’d really like to meet people who may be interested in collaborating on that effort, or who could point me in the right direction. I’m also hoping to wear all the clothes that have been sitting in my closet for the last two years waiting for an occasion to be worn!

Filmmaker: Finally, after making The Pass, what advice would you give to other young filmmakers making a short?

Ginsberg: Everyone has such a different process. I am someone that learns by doing. For me the priority is always to get into production. It helps my writing, my directing, and it’s also the place I want to be the most. Shorts feel like a creative space where you can try new things. I used to be a songwriter, and in a way a short feels like a song, a feature would be the album. In a song and in a short you can try out new ideas. You can stretch, you can get wild and you don’t need to feel too precious. Having the constraints of a small budget and pandemic restrictions for The Pass was, in hindsight, an absolute blessing. I love ensemble casts, production design, lights! But here we had a directive to make the most out of the limited elements we had to play with — daylight, a small cast and tiny crew. Our low budget allowed us to ask: what do we really need from production to give this story its power? How can we use and reuse the pieces we are working with so that they change over time and help the audience feel that something has happened? It’s amazing to have constraints, because you can invest in everything you do. I never would have imagined how instructive these limits could have been. Also shout out to the most killer cast and crew.

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