“Part Emulation and Part Making Shit Up”: Amanda Kramer on Give Me Pity!
A woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Sissy St. Claire (Sophie von Haselberg) appears on a soundstage for her Saturday night television special. Like the tireless performers who came before her, St. Claire will spend the duration of the broadcast showcasing elaborate outfits, dramatic monologues, groan-worthy jokes, peppy musical numbers and an assortment of special guests (some human and others canine). Tonight is either her big break or the conclusion of a descent into madness—either way, don’t dare change that channel!
Give Me Pity!, the latest film from director Amanda Kramer, is a warped take on variety show programming of the 1970s and early ’80s. Presented as a linear broadcast, the film morphs into an appreciation for, and critique of, the highly performative star vehicle TV special. Metaphorically coupling the analog deterioration of the television image with its leading lady’s mental state, Give Me Pity! finds acerbic joy in uncovering the dark undercurrent of show business’ “aw shucks” optimism.
While she’s spent much of the last year attending film festivals for both Give Me Pity! and her other recent directorial effort—the Andrea Riseborough-starring, West Side Story homage Please Baby Please—Kramer’s attention was directed squarely toward the former when I spoke with her in Montréal last summer at the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival (where both films were screening back to back). With Give Me Pity! in theaters on February 28th prior to its VOD release on March 7th, Filmmaker is sharing my conversation with Kramer below where we discuss the director’s love for variety shows, performance, and much more.
Filmmaker: I first wanted to ask for a timeline of events. Give Me Pity! was shot prior to or after Please Baby Please?
Kramer: Please Baby Please was shot first, in October of 2020, and Give Me Pity! was shot in July of 2021.
Filmmaker: At what point did Give Me Pity! come to fruition as a project you wished to pursue?
Kramer: I had been waiting for a really long time to make Please Baby Please, a behemoth of a project that was taking every stupid twist and turn. I got very sick of waiting, as one does, and started writing something else. I thought it would be very fast —something we could do with less money, less people, etc. I was feeling the fatigue of needing so many human beings to make a movie and all of them needing to connect. I was like, “I could do this bare bones, like 10 people, $100,000 or less over the course of five days.”
Of course, in the writing of Give Me Pity!, Please Baby Please came together [laughs]. So it was like, “OK, I guess I’ll put that PDF away in a file on my desktop,” then I headed to Montana to film Please Baby Please. But when I came back, I had an even more overwhelming sense to pare down and do something small, more controlled and less unfurling. We had been set to go right before I left for Please Baby Please but then the pandemic hit. Once 2021 came around and everything had somewhat settled down and we knew how to obtain a COVID officer and things like that, then we planned [the shoot].
Filmmaker: Give Me Pity! feels like a project that would’ve been written during the pandemic, adjusting to production limitations brought about by COVID, but it wasn’t written with a pandemic in mind?
Kramer: No, it wasn’t, but when we finally made it, it was ideal. It was an incredibly safe and short shoot, with everyone wearing masks and everything. We had a sense that, “For five days, if everyone can just stay home [after the day’s shoot] and not fuck with anything, we will get through this.”
Filmmaker: And the shoot was five consecutive days?
Kramer: Yes, Monday through Friday, just hitting the highway and going to work. It was an easy, easy shoot because of how prepared Sophie and my team were. We originally thought we were going to go the year before, so by the time we finally did, we had no jagged edges on set. It was like, “You get in, do the thing you’re supposed to do, leave on time, everybody hugs when they say goodbye.”
Filmmaker: I know television specials of the 1970s and early ’80s influenced your work (particularly ones hosted by Olivia Newton-John) but were they something you were always fascinated by? I have a different reference point for that era of variety shows on soundstages, the more kid-friendly Muppet Show.
Kramer: I’ve always been obsessed with variety shows, like The Lawrence Welk Show and other garbage—but great garbage, where really determined entertainers put on a show. I used to watch them, fascinated, as they’re made up of the things I care about—pure performance and being a testament to its time. The jokes are really topical and you can grow confused if you don’t come from that time period. The hosts will reference some local politician or a gas strike and the whole audience will be cracking up and you’re like, “What is that?”
Filmmaker: I went back and watched a few minutes of the Olivia Newton-John special from November of 1976, which I previously had no reference point for.
Kramer: They’re fascinating to watch because there’s so much work put into them. Some of them look incredibly cheap—very “whatever set we had hanging around in the back, we rolled out. Maybe we can even blow up a few balloons”—and then some feature 45 dancers on roller skates and there’s an accompanying light show. I loved them all and wasn’t necessarily looking for any kind of budget tier.
I was pouring through them in 2019, watching them over and over again, which is funny to think back on, as this was pre-pandemic and I now wonder why I wasn’t spending more time outside. I thought if I wrote one, it would be difficult to find someone who wanted to produce it, because it’s such an oddity. “Where does it live in the filmmaking landscape?” is a good question to ask oneself, because I didn’t know if I’d be able to find a performer who’d want to do it. It’s a lot of memorizing and a lot of work. It’s like a one-woman show on Broadway, which is something people obviously rehearse for months beforehand.
Filmmaker: How did the order in which you were writing these individual sequences, or “characters” for Sophie to perform, influence the structure of the script? What kind of genres or characters or performance styles were you pulling from?
Kramer: The order in which they’re presented in the film was important, because there are references to ones that precede it and each one is a kind of building block. [For influences], there was a Donna Summer special in 1980 that had a whole number performed to “Bad Girls” where Summer is a “street walker” and wearing hot pants and has her whole “glamor look” on. I would watch that and think, “Wow, she’s glamorizing prostitution here,” which is a hilarious ’70s trope, and I thought, “This is just bizarre and uncomfortable and strange. I’ve got to do something like this.” All of the extras are streetwalkers and pimps and johns and each of them are dancing. To me, it’s dystopian. Almost every [variety show from that period] also had this strange obsession with the United States. They’d have a musical number about America or something else that felt very patriotic, and it felt creepy while simultaneously reminding you of the network sensibility to create something for middle America too—you’ve got to have your patriotic moment.
The other sketches in the film are more of a riff on when I would catch one of these divas trying to be, physically, in something of a “comedy moment.” Some could do it very well and others were just unfunny to their core. Nonetheless, it’s part of the variety, right? You always have to include the comedy, even when it’s falling flat. The sketches in the film are part emulation and part making shit up, all while referencing other sketches and little jokes that begin as a little funny before turning demented and plaguing Sissy with things she can’t get out of her mind.
Filmmaker: There’s this idea that something sinister is happening off-camera, even while we’re seeing things from either the POV of the television audience or Sissy’s subjective POV. We occasionally get the sense that there’s a danger or harmful threat lurking within the studio, then the film’s narrative begins to crumble and deteriorate into something darker too.
Kramer: There’s that, then there’s epic iconography like The Phantom of the Opera: a thing that haunts the theater and the performances, something that lives in the bowels of the scenery. I think this is very funny and goofy. To me, of course, the thing that haunts the stage is the actors’ vanity and their need and desperation, as well as the actors that have come before them. For example, there are superstitious people who say, “Oh, you can’t say the title, Macbeth, in a theater if you’re putting on Macbeth.” I have friends who will instead say, “Oh, we’re putting on ‘The Scottish Play.’” They will still say that instead, even if we’re just walking down the street! I’m like, “No one’s going to get hurt if we say Macbeth here.” Harry Melling, who is in Please Baby Please, had just been in Joel Coen’s film version of The Tragedy of Macbeth [as Duncan’s son, Malcolm], and I would go talk to him about it and catch myself before saying “Macbeth,” and he’d say, “You can say it,” and I’d say, “No, I can’t do that to you. I’m going to call it something else.” [laughs] So yes, it’s a funny, preposterous element of theater, a bit like baseball where you’ve got all of these routines and rituals that you have to [adhere to].
Filmmaker: Did you have a professional relationship with Sophie prior to working together on this film? How did you two initially connect?
Kramer: A mutual friend [filmmaker Nicole Delaney] cast Sophie as the lead in a short film of theirs, YOYO, a few years earlier, which was sent to me and which I loved Sophie in. When you make something strange and you’re looking to cast it, you have an extra hard job. You have the job of saying, “I hope I can find the person who is best for this role and who is incredibly talented” while also observing the “No Assholes” policy. I can’t have anyone who’s going to be an incredible diva on a set that’s very small and barebones. We also needed someone who was going to fuel the full force of the moment, since we were making the film with such a handmade, homemade energy. We were looking for a lot of things in a person, and while I know many performers who can ding a couple of those bells, meeting Sophie and learning what she’s capable of and how game she is as a performer at every level (whether it’s in a Ryan Murphy show, a really small indie or on stage) made me believe that she would be right. When I asked her, I just laid it all out, listing that the role would require “insane hair, insane makeup, tons of dancing, lots of choreography, you’ve got to sing live but also sing in a booth and then lip sync, and you have to do jokes and you have to know all your lines because I don’t have cue cards.” And Sophie didn’t hesitate, staying that way from the start and all the way through. There was only one moment where she came to me on set and said, “Amanda, if they give me one more hairstyle, my hair will fall out. You’ve got to ask if I can just have a ponytail for the next [sketch],” and I responded, “Completely fair!” That was as bad as it got, because Sophie would be in the hair and makeup chair for an hour-and-a-half, and I would be like, “No, bigger, crazier!” Sophie was losing hair by then, so I finally said, “OK, let’s pull back.”
Filmmaker: I wanted to ask about the visual identity of the film and how you captured that soft focus, cathode-ray tube look of programs of the period. How much of that was something decided upon in pre-production with your DP, Patrick Meade Jones, versus in post? And how did you find the unique editing rhythms with your editor, Benjamin Shearn, and the very specific moments of static where, for lack of a better description, things begin to get transmitted strangely?
Kramer: The cameras we used were solid but weren’t the most hi-def, so we started at a kind of mid-range where we were catching the image and captured enough definition for us to work with. From there, we were able to degrade the image in post. We were lucky in that we had so many reference points we could look up on YouTube to see what degrading VHS and TV looked like. We then modulated almost a synthesizer kind of look and went all the way to the left or a little bit to the right, etc. There might be some visual parts of the film that the viewer can’t quite understand, as the degradation is so frenetic and psychedelic and almost impenetrable to the eye, but nonetheless, I was like, “Keep pushing it!”
This will date me, as I’m quite old [laughs], but I have such fond memories of a Debbie Gibson cassette tape I accidentally left in my mother’s car years ago. It was was my favorite cassette tape at the time, but I my mother was not going to buy me another one! The first song on both sides of the [warped and] melted tape then sounded like they were throwing up on themselves, but I wound up listening to it that way more than I listened to it the regular way. That became the actual cassette to me. The sonic quality of the [melted] cassette tape is what I eventually got used to, and this kind of thing is now a part of my own personal aesthetic. I was used to having VHS copies of things I would record off the television or copy off a friend’s TV and would watch episodes of Murphy Brown that looked like it was flipping itself [laughs]. I think definition, as a thing, is something that filmmakers get obsessed with, but it’s goofy and, at a certain point, I find it to be quite ugly.
Filmmaker: I recently reread your Talkhouse piece from 2019, “Why Does Everything Look So Fucking Ugly?” You write about the bland aesthetics of modern filmmaking and I thought about that while watching your film, as if Give Me Pity! was something of a response to the influx of generic sameness flooding the independent film landscape.
Kramer: I have friends who make work, and I swear, it’s like all they’re talking about are pixels. I just barely understand it anymore: “Oh, the sweat bead on the actor’s face, it’s almost as if you can touch it.” I’m like, “I’m not interested in that!” I like the gauze and the magic and the almost ancient quality inherent in previous modes of filmmaking. People think that’s Luddite-ish of me or that [my preference] is based purely in nostalgia, but I don’t find it kitschy or anything like that. I actually like the way it looks. This film was a great opportunity to explore [that look], as I would not have been able to fuck with the quality on a movie like Please Baby Please, where the quality had to be spot-on. On Give Me Pity!, I had great producers, Sarah [Winshall] included, who were very understanding of the fact that I was going to need to modulate and play with the quality. As long as the viewer was engaging with the film as it becomes a kind of surreal psycho trip/laser show, then we really don’t need to see the contours of someone’s face. The opposite would be like what a Beyoncé video must look like, which is as if she’s sitting right in front of you, which is apparently what everyone wants now. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I’m like, “Just dunk the thing in Vaseline. I want to feel like Beyoncé is like 20 years ago.”
Filmmaker: I also wanted to ask about the commercial bumpers you include in the film, which feel very much of the period in which variety shows prospered (Saturday Night Live’s being one modern exception, although that too has origins in the 1970s). At times they feel like glamorous photo shoots, where Sissy is all made up and occasionally in character.
Kramer: They were photos that we took on set to be used as place cards throughout [the broadcast]. I love the quality of those bumpers. You can chart them through television in the 20th century because they would change over time. Sometimes they would just be a card of two actors standing back to back and a voice would say, “Tonight on Major Dad…” Sometimes the cards would feel like the actors were walking in and looking at the camera. Also, do you remember the network broadcasts where you would be watching a TV show and then the bottom third of the screen would feature a bumper about what’s coming up [next]? You’d be like, “What?!” It always felt like such an inconsiderate, rude thing to the program you were currently watching, almost as if ABC was like, “Nothing is precious here, it’s all just content on content.”
I grew up with TV, I care about TV, and I think it has a very rich and cool tradition, but it’s an aspect of TV that’s totally gone now. Those [older] broadcasts feel like a time capsule. Almost a decade ago, Lady Gaga was part of an ABC holiday variety show [A Very Gaga Thanksgiving] and Tony Bennett makes an appearance and the show was one of the most deranged things I’d seen on television in a long time. She’s playing the piano while singing a song that she’s written about her hair and there are all of these wigs laying on the piano that she’s putting on one by one, wigs on top of wigs. It left me speechless. I was wondering to myself, “Is anybody going to reign this in?,” and nobody does. It’s “performative” and it’s “her personality.” The other thing is that these performances are being sold to the viewer as the [host’s] true self, like the person’s going to come out and not put on a performance “of themselves.” Of course, it’s all fake, but they’re still going to come out and do a monologue and be like, “Hello, it’s me, Bea Arthur, your favorite.”
Filmmaker: Since you shot the film inside Mack Sennett Studios, I was curious if overseeing a production in the contained interior space a studio offers was at all freeing. I imagine it’s a very different experience than directing a film on location in a non-controlled environment.
Kramer: I would love to never be on location. I would love to be like Peter Greenaway making The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover or Paul Schrader making Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. I would love to make sets for the rest of my life. I love control. I don’t understand Terrence Malick. I don’t know what the fuck he’s doing out there, waiting for the clouds to roll by. Well, good luck to him [laughs]. I don’t want to know if it’s raining and I don’t want to know if it’s sunny. I don’t want to think about anything that God has anything to do with. I want to be God in that moment and say, “The lights go on and the lights go off.”
Filmmaker: And in your film, we see the ceiling of the studio and the lights suspended from it. We know that we’re in an interior space.
Kramer: I always want to blur that line, I don’t know why. It’s my own desire to feel as though, as a viewer, I can reach through a screen and touch the people in it. I think it comes from years of being an obsessive fan; you can’t get away from it. It’s why people love when actors go on Saturday Night Live and make fun of themselves. You ache for some kind of notion of reality inside of the surreality, yet even that is still just a game they’re all playing. Still, I think it’s fascinating to play with. Fakeness is a big theme.
Filmmaker: I do like that aspect of Thorton Wilder’s play, Our Town, and Lars von Trier’s Dogville.
Kramer: Yes, Dogville! I mean, what a brilliant concept. I’m sure as von Trier was making it, people were like, “I do not trust that this is going to work” and people watching it were like, “What the hell am I watching?” But if you love it, it’s refreshing. The work that everybody in this industry goes through to provide the viewer with a reality ultimately rolls over into looking so fake and chintzy. And everything is so expensive! It’s like what Dolly Parton said: “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap.”
Filmmaker: You’ve been on the festival circuit with both Please Baby Please and Give Me Pity! for a few months now, with some festivals (including Fantasia) screening both. What has the experience been like of having two very different films in circulation at the same time, sometimes literally screening back to back?
Kramer: It’s been strange, but it feels a bit like [how my] heroes, Rainer Werner Fassbinder or Steven Soderbergh, did it, filmmakers who can jump between budget-tiers and from high art to low art. I love the idea that people might be able to see me as someone who can carry off a production of millions of dollars while also [understanding] that I still want to vacation in a crankier, crazier world. That’s where I’m most comfortable. I hope I can be seen as someone who dips in and out of those art forms and it’s been nice to have these two films dovetail at the same time. I can show people that I can do whatever I want [laughs]. While it feels like everyone’s star has to always continue rising, my star can just be dipping in and dipping out, going anywhere, all over the sky [laughs]. I wish more people were like that. If the next movie costs $25,000, I will do it with utter glee, and if it costs $4 million, I will do that with utter glee. This is how I work.