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“The Millennial Decline That’s Taking Place in the Present Moment”: Theda Hammel on Stress Positions

A white man with wet hair leans out of a window on a bright day.John Early in Stress Positions

Premiering in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, Stress Positions—the feature debut from writer, director and star Theda Hammel—takes place during the not-so-distant summer of 2020. While this setting immediately evokes recollections of quarantine, protest movements and rapidly-changing health and safety standards, Hammel isn’t striving to present a time capsule. Instead, the filmmaker opts for a satirical take on how the pandemic shaped generational notions of social justice, artistry and personal identity, particularly among New York’s well-to-do queer fringe.

Hammel plays Karla, a trans woman whose relationship with Vanessa (Amy Zimmer), her cis lesbian girlfriend, has strained ever since the latter published a novel largely inspired by Karla’s transition. When Terry Goon (John Early, Hammel’s frequent collaborator), Karla’s best friend since college, begins hosting his 19-year-old Moroccan model nephew Bahlul, everyone in his life is itching to break free from their social pods in order to catch a glimpse of him. Despite being staunchly entrenched in millennial and zoomer generational camps, Karla and Bahlul both guide the film with voice-over narration, highlighting generational dissonances and individual truths that transcend categorization.

Hammel spoke to Filmmaker via Zoom the week before Stress Positions’s January 18 Sundance Film Festival premiere. The film will be released by NEON, which also produced the film, in the coming months. 

Filmmaker: Can you share some background on how this film came to fruition? I know your 2021 short My Trip to Spain served as a launching pad of sorts for Stress Positions, but I’d love more insight on how the past three years shaped this film into the final product we’re seeing at Sundance this year. 

Hammel: This idea actually predated that short film, which was a test run to just see if we even had the ability to make a movie at all. The original idea was a 15 to 20-page little thing that I wrote for John. I gave it to him for his birthday, and it was mostly long monologues which would then branch off into some dialogue. Because there was a little bit of interest, I expanded that into a script. That’s what we ended up basically shooting, although it’s been pretty significantly revised in the process.

Filmmaker: What was the timeline for writing the script? How many drafts were there? 

Hammel: There were a lot of drafts. Expanding it from the 15-page thing to a full script took about a month. Then that script was revised and revised and revised. About half of the movie is voiceover, and that was being revised right up until the very last minute, because it was completely fungible and you could change it after the fact. So it’s very useful, but it can be a little bit terrifying in that regard, because it could always be changed, which means it could always be wrong. But I think that at the very last minute, it really all did snap into place. I think the final film is much better than the original script, even though I have a fondness for it.

Filmmaker: This film reunites you with frequent collaborator John Early, who stars and produces, but I also noticed that Faheem Ali is given a “story by” co-credit, which he naturally shares with you. Can you speak to this added collaborative dynamic and what Faheem brought to the project? 

Hammel: Well, he’s in the movie [as Ronald, a recurring food delivery courrier] and we also live together, which was enormously helpful during the writing process, for me to just probe his mind and get his advice on things. He made quite significant contributions, I think, to the overall story, particularly the Bahlul character. He has been with me at every stage of the process, for which I’m extremely grateful. He’s a wonderful collaborator.

Filmmaker: On a similar note, you and Bahlul both have voice-over monologues throughout the film. As the screenwriter, how did you work to intertwine these two perspectives into the narrative without muddling their individual musings? 

Hammel: I think the thing with having two voice-overs—which was a bit controversial—was that it was one thing on paper, because everything on paper has attribution and you can see exactly who’s speaking. Then when we were in the rough cutting stage, getting producer approval and just trying to get locked, there was a lot of talk about clarifying the identity of the speaker. But for me, one thing that’s very interesting about having two voice-overs, which are pretty unattributed, is that it’s not like somebody starts talking like, “Hi, there, this is my name.” They just start talking. 

If you only have one voice-over, it confers a kind of authority to that voice. They become omniscient and omnipotent. If there are two [voice-overs] that don’t even seem to be related to each other, it means that there is no governing authority. There is no voice of God, so to speak, in the movie. It creates a weird layer of irony, because there are discrepancies between the voiceover and the onscreen material. It’s unclear who exactly is the author of that material: whether it’s coming from their notebooks or if it’s almost like a magic voice coming from some distant place and time.

I think that is an aspect of voice-over that is underexploited, the fact that it’s actually totally mysterious that we’re able to just hear a voice, watch a movie and somehow combine them in a meaningful way. The meaning is not straightforward.

Filmmaker: I want to ask what the title, Stress Positions, means in relation to the characters you’re depicting. The term typically refers to a method of torture that forces a captive to hold a painful static position for an unbearable period of time. They’re also sometimes referred to as “submissive positions,” which unintentionally possess a sexual undertone. Nevertheless, there’s a good deal of physical injury sustained by characters in the film—broken bones, back pain, sex-related bodily harm—but there’s also emotional stagnation that fosters internal wounds. I’d like to hear your take on what this title is speaking to, both in terms of the narrative you’ve created and the real world these characters inhabit and reflect. 

Hammel: So, “stress positions” was a form of what they euphemistically call “enhanced interrogation,” which was recommended by the Deputy Attorney General under the Bush administration early on in the war on terror. It is a form of torture that’s not like medieval torture, but what you basically end up doing is holding a position that if you were to just move through it, or were in that position voluntarily, might almost be like a stretch. It might be nothing. But if you’re held in that position against your will for too long—and this happens very quickly—it becomes absolutely unendurable. To me, it’s the kind of physicalization of the situation of being in a double-bind, where you’re unable to move left, right, up or down. You’re just sort of stuck in place. 

I think that the thing that I like about that metaphor is that I think it’s appropriate to a social situation that I think is still carrying on to this day, but was also very present during COVID, especially with sheltering in place and all that kind of stuff. But in its valence, it refers back to this period that coincided with the development of my generation, which was the horrors of this war on terror, post-9/11 period, which I do feel shapes the unconscious lives of the characters and determines their actions in one way or another. 

Filmmaker: Because the film refers so much to the war on terror and these characters’ misconceptions about the Middle East, it felt very present. But obviously, I have to ask about the way you portray life during COVID. It’s insane that we’re approaching four years since the initial lockdown, and so much of our pandemic-era experiences are already considered relics of the past. I think of the cacophony of pots being banged out of windows, fervent gratitude towards essential workers which has all but fizzled out, social “pods” meant to reduce the risk of exposure. What felt important to highlight and preserve, particularly from a New York-centric lens? Were you trying to challenge anything about what endures versus what’s forgotten from the “pandemic era”?

Hammel: Well, the interesting thing about it is that now that we’re four years out, it really feels like a period. It feels very, very distant. But what I also remember from that summer is that month to month, the behaviors of the previous month seemed totally anachronistic. The standards were changing so rapidly and there was so much turnover. All of these behaviors seemed very urgent, but then became immediately obsolete and ridiculous. I think there’s a very fertile ground there for humor, obviously, but also for the analogy of yourself being anachronistic as part of an aging youth culture. The millennial decline that’s taking place in the present moment is very pervasive in the movie. The magical attribution of all of these props and gestures is interesting to me when turning your eye toward a sort of a secular culture—a godless consumer culture that actually does have all of these consumer rituals that obtain a magical dimension in a time of crisis.

Filmmaker: There’s also a certain political sensibility indicative of this time period, and the focus here is on mostly white, left-ish-leaning young people who maybe have their heart in the right place, but handle the topics of Black Lives Matter, trans identity and queerness with varying degrees of grace and intelligence. Where did you find inspiration for these dialogues in Stress Positions, and how did you keep them somewhat “unserious,” so to speak? I’m thinking of the characters’ repeated ignorance that Morocco is in the Middle East, or not knowing what country Kabul is the capital of. 

Hammel: It’s very obvious that this kind of mindset could be represented in a purely sinister way, but that would collapse the phenomenon and take the life out of it. I do think that in order to penetrate the social atmosphere of that moment a little bit, to record it somehow more accurately, I felt a need to be a little bit oblique and gentle to get at the emotional flailing of people who need very badly to be on the right side of things, but lack the knowledge and actually, in some basic sense, lack the conviction. All they have is a tendency, but they don’t have a conviction born of actual principle. They just have the things that they’re getting from the culture online. I see that as being a very weak position.

The trio of millennials at the center of this are all weak in a particularly millennial way. One of them feels basically that they’ve done their due diligence by being a gay guy. Like, “What more do you want from me?” Another, who is a cis lesbian writer, would like to have total moral rectitude and be on the right side of everything. Then the third, the character that I play, is embodying a tendency towards edginess that I also see in people my age: “Well, what about this? What about that?” The three of them are a little trinity representing some tendencies in the socially progressive milieu of New York, in particular.

Filmmaker: And how did you work to contrast these perspectives with the Gen Z character?

Hammel: Well, we have our main Gen Z character, and we have our secondary Gen Z character and our third. We have these three young men, and they are all set against that main trinity of people in the sense that they’re young, there’s something exotic or ethnic about them, and they either excite or terrify the older people that they’re talking to.

The thing that I didn’t want to do was to characterize too deeply. There are a lot of cliches about Generation Z, and you can see them in TV programs or films that are basically made by millennials. It’s all about everybody being on their phones and checking Instagram comments or whatever. There is a bit of a contrivance in [Stress Positions], which is that the main character doesn’t have a phone. So, he’s not there necessarily to embody Generation Z, except in the aspect of being young, curious and having a little bit of judgmental distance on the people who are older. But those three characters are more curious, a little bit naive and all have to go through a bit of a process of disenchantment with the people who are slightly older than them and wield a little bit more influence. So, that’s my approach to depicting the young in this movie: a little less sociological and a little bit more allegorical.

Filmmaker: You’re also a working musician who performs under the moniker HAMM., so naturally you also provided the film’s original music. What was that process like? Did you find yourself shifting away from your musical approach when writing an album, or did it feel relatively similar? 

Hammel: The wonderful thing about making music for a film is that you don’t have to write lyrics for it and you don’t have to sing. Lyrics take a long time and, for me, singing is terrible. That’s why I’ve finished very little music relative to the amount of it that I’ve written. 

The problem with writing music for a movie is that the timing is always changing. There are other departments that are making their own progress, and in this case, I was also in some of those departments, so I was very hesitant to really commit to any score until we were fully, totally locked, which basically wasn’t until the week of the sound mix. I was scoring the night before for the scenes that we’d be mixing the next day. Fortunately, I had some cues that I had worked out in advance, but what I will say about that [process] is that it was just full of happy surprises. I was so delighted at the musical ideas that were coming through. 

It’s hard to synthesize these two aspects of what I’ve done in my life, because they seem like different skill sets. But the sensibility in the music is the same as the sensibility in the movie, in the sense that there’s melody. There are some ridiculous and absurd sounds, but under it all there is, hopefully, an emotional sincerity and a real melancholy. That helped me to synthesize exactly what the tone of the movie actually was. I was like, “Oh, this is like the songs that I’ve written in the past.” There’s something funny, melodic and melancholic about them. 

Filmmaker: As someone who once said you had “no right to really be” in the film industry, I’m curious if that sentiment has shifted at all after completing your first feature? Do you think you’ll continue making films, or is there another artistic venture you’re looking to tackle in the near future? 

Hammel: The honest truth is I don’t know if anybody has a right to be in the film industry. I certainly don’t. I don’t feel experienced. During this whole process, I felt a lot like Bahlul, in that I was so dependent on everybody else who knew more than me and was capable of making things happen. 

Up next for me is that I actually need to learn some basics. I think I’m going to do some smaller things, because everything about this process was a surprise to me. It was also shot differently than the short. I was learning coverage, how to work with color, to edit, how to work in a sound mix. All of those things were brand new. In order to get on the front foot with them, rather than the hind foot, I want to actually do some more experimental stuff and find my footing before trying to do this again, which who knows if that will ever happen. 

Filmmaker: You think you’ll remain entrenched in the film landscape, then?

Hammel: Oh, yeah. There’s nothing better than it, in the sense that it is a vessel for everything: music, beauty, pictures, jokes, people. It goes on the permanent record. Even if nobody watches it now, they might watch it later, which is very reassuring.

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