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“It’s Not ‘Punk Rock’ To Not Have an Intimacy Coordinator”: Writer/Director/Actor Kit Zauhar on Her Airbnb Relationship Drama, This Closeness

This Closeness

A recent addition to Airbnb is the “Host Passport,” an enhanced information panel for those who’d like to let those who rent rooms in their places know a little bit more about them. The host’s profile picture is placed more prominently, and, if you’re hosting, the site writes, “… new sections of your profile let you share things like where you live, your hobbies, pet’s name, fun facts, and what makes staying at your place special.” Finally, hosts taking advantage of the new profile category can let renters know “how much social interaction to expect.” “Guests often enjoy spending time with Hosts, who can help them get to know their destination like a local,” says the site. “You can note how much time you like to spend with guests during their stay.”

Whether the “Host Passport” feature would have saved the characters in Kit Zauhar’s expertly calibrated drama of social and relationship discomfort, This Closeness, an extremely awkward weekend is unclear due to the writer/director/actor’s focus less on garden variety deceptions and more on the ambiguous woundings that can occur within liminal relationship spaces. In the picture, which is based on a real Airbnb rental experienced by Zauhar, Adam (Ian Edland) is the recessive host of the truly drab Philadelphia two-bedroom where Tessa (Zauhar) and boyfriend Ben (Zane Pais) will stay while Ben attends his high-school reunion. Tessa is the good girlfriend along for the ride, and she’ll use the weekend to do some ASMR recording for her YouTube channel.

A sly twist on the venerable “reunion movie,” This Closeness is, true to its title, set entirely away from the festivities, taking place entirely within the apartment in the moments before, after and between the planned events. When Ben returns home one night with high school friend/quasi ex (she only once gave him a hand job) Lizzie (Jessie Pinnick), Tessa is unnerved by the sight of her boyfriend with another woman with whom he has an ambiguous and softer rapport. Meanwhile, Ben is weirdly threatened by the intimacy of Tessa’s demonstrations of ASMR techniques on Adam, who he sees as giving off Gen Z Norman Bates vibes. There’s a predictable pattern, often, to setups like this, but Zauhar, with clean compositions and considerable formal rigor (her DP is Kayla Hoff), steers away from rote expressions of catharsis and reconciliation, allowing what may seem like a schematic setup to reveal astute perceptions about the ways in which people in relationships perform for, connect with and, despite good intentions, dissemble in front of each other.

This Closeness is Zauhar’s second feature, and it follows her recommended autofiction-identified debut, the microbudget Actual People, which she also starred in. As I note in the interview with Zauhar below, despite the “smaller” footprint and cast of This Closeness, it’s a more precise, emotionally expansive film, with fine, nuanced performances all around, including Zauhar’s, who productively upends our expectations over how we should read the trajectory of a character who’s embodied by the film’s writer/director.

In addition to the story of how This Closeness became Zauhar’s second film, below we discuss working with intimacy coordinators, the scripting and acting of fight scenes and her continued appreciation for unlikeable characters. This Closeness opens today in New York at the IFC Center from Factory 24 and will stream next month on MUBI.

Filmmaker: Your character’s very first lines of dialogue in This Closeness occur when your character, Tessa, and her boyfriend, Ben, enter the Airbnb. You say, “It looks different than the pictures.” He says, “How so?” And you answer first by correcting your own grammar: “It looks different from the pictures.” I was fascinated by this as your first exchange, perhaps because I Googled this exact grammar question last week after writing something and thinking it looked weird on the page.

Zauhar: Yeah, it’s, technically, “different from.”

Filmmaker: As I confirmed! You are so specific with your dialogue, so what prompted that?

Zauhar: Well, I’m also a creative writer, so I think I’ve always had a big emphasis on the importance of language and of language done correctly in writing. But I thought it was an interesting that she would correct herself in front of her partner. I think that shows a certain amount of tension and judgment between the two, even within this intimate relationship.

Filmmaker: This is your second film, and it some ways it’s a smaller film. Just one location and fewer characters. But at the same time, it feels bigger. It’s a more composed film, and it’s very assured. I’m always interested in the question of what a young filmmaker does as their second film after making a kind of microbudget debut that received praise and attention. How did This Closeness wind up being the next project?

Zauhar: I shot Actual People in 2019, and it didn’t come out until 2021 at Locarno. There was a really long time between when we shot it and when it was completed because of just having no finishing funds. So by virtue [of having no money], I was already onto other projects after it was in the can. I made Actual People just to make a feature, essentially, in a way that was doable, but I was already on to projects that I wanted to feel more composed, more refined, and to reflect more of like themes I was acutely interested in at that point.

When COVID happened, I started writing This Closeness as a play. Then I was like, “Well, the world is ending, theater is the last thing on anyone’s mind, but I can make this as a movie in sort of the same fashion as Actual People — really low budget.” But then Actual People got into Locarno, and there was more interest for me to make a “bigger movie.” But This Closeness was the thing that I’ve been working on really intensely, so it was just, I think, naturally what I wanted to do as my next movie.

Filmmaker: How different was the production model?

Zauhar: It was like going from the least legit to, like, legit. I mean, it was still low budget, but there was someone holding a boom who didn’t also have to operate the camera. The crew was way bigger. On my first shoot, my friend Jackson, who’s one of the actors, was also driving us and tutoring students in China in between scenes for money. There was just more of a legitimacy of professionalism, I guess.

Filmmaker: I’m not surprised that This Closeness is based on a play, but at the same time, it doesn’t feel like a play. The scenes are often short, and while it’s not super cutty, you’re moving continuously through the different rooms of the apartment.

Zauhar: I should clarify that it began as a play and then, maybe 30 minutes in, I switched it. But the logistics of how it would be done theatrically were never a question for me. I had an idea for a set where [the apartment] would be railroad-style and you’d be able to see everything that way. I came from a theater background, so I am interested in the energy of theater. I know that’s cliché, but when I was at film school, this, I don’t know, “euphoria of performance” felt dampened. I wanted to return to theater, but then there are directors who really interest me, like Hong Sang-soo, who just places a camera in front of people acting, and they move very naturally. He makes moviemaking seem really accessible. He’s exciting, not just because [his films] feel possible, but because [they] mean that filmmaking is just about sheer intelligence, prowess and an assurance. Those are things I really value in art. I like things that feel self-assured, and it doesn’t matter about the medium. And I don’t care how “beautiful” it looks, or if there’s star in it. I just [want ] to feel like the person knows what they are doing and that they have a deep desire to do it.

Filmmaker: Were there other films or filmmakers that influenced This Closeness?

Zauhar: Yes. I love Tom Noonan’s What Happened Was… That was a big one. And the Roman Polanski movie Carnage was kind of a formative experience for me. I watched it when I was pretty young. It’s based off a play by Yasmina Riza called God of Carnage. It all takes place in one living room, and it’s just these two couples arguing over the premise that one couple’s kid hit the other’s very badly. I don’t come from a film background family — my parents are very interested in the arts, but they’re also academics interested in medicine and science. I remember we watched [Carnage], and I was kind of shocked by the possibility of making a movie in one room. And one last influence I was thinking about in reference to This Closeness is this short story published in n+1 a few years ago called The Feminist, by Tony Tulathimutte. It’s kind of like this biography of a very normal guy’s life. He’s doing everything right, and he just can’t get laid. And over the years it just starts to wear and wear on him. And then you realize towards the end that it’s like an origin story of an incel. But it’s done in a really sly, funny way. So it’s kind of what I was thinking about —This Closeness as an origin story of an incel.

Filmmaker: Or possibly not?

Zauhar: I don’t know. I’m not someone who envisions an afterlife for my characters after the film is done. I’m not that interested. And if people [ask], “What’s the backstory,” I’m like, “I don’t fucking know.”

Filmmaker: The term “autofiction” got applied by many to your first feature. Do you see a continuity of your character from Actual People to this one? Were you interested in creating that continuity?

Zauhar: A little bit. I have an idea for what I call the third act of my autofiction trilogy, which is set at a film festival. So, I guess the journey goes from “unsure young college graduate” to “less unsure but still pretty fucked-up young adult woman” to “still pretty fucked up but now it’s a little bit like a professional career and an ambition.” But you know, the objective surroundings of Actual People are true, but not really anything that happens in it really happened. Way more dialogue, traits and relationships I’ve had exist in This Closeness, almost verbatim. And I think that’s interesting. Does that mean that Actual People is in some ways a better work of fiction? I don’t know.

Filmmaker: Did you ever have a similar Airbnb encounter?

Zauhar: The idea for This Closeness came from my boyfriend out of college, who I’m not with anymore. He was between apartments, staying at this Airbnb, and he kind of got catfished by the host in this weird way. [The host’s] profile picture was way younger, and he was just kind of a sad person whose loneliness you could feel coming off of him. It was just an uncomfortable feeling. He’d have women over many nights of the week, and whenever I stayed over he always had the same routine: he had a lot of wine books, and he’d open up a bottle of wine for a woman and just through the tone of her voice – it also was a very thin-walled apartment — you could hear her being so disinterested. It was really sad but obviously fascinating. Like, who is this guy? He wants so much that it’s kind of repellent. And that’s where the basic idea came from. Cohabitating with someone like that, where can it lead to?

Filmmaker: I feel like the Airbnb movie is almost a horror sub-genre now — films like The Rental and Barbarian. Were you conscious of, at the beginning, maybe playing into a horror film setup?

Zauhar: I think people just associate a tall white guy who’s being kind of weird as scary. But I wasn’t thinking [about it]. People are so obsessed with genre now, and I had a lot of people pushing me to make it more like a horror movie. I just think that’s kind of stupid.

Filmmaker: I like that you’re making dramas.

Zauhar: Thank you. Try telling that to anyone with money. But, yeah, I wasn’t really playing with tropes, but I think intimacies with people you don’t want to be intimate with are inherently scary. That’s why it gives you an uneasy feeling.

Filmmaker: Speaking of intimacy, I see that you worked with an intimacy coordinator on this film. Did you do that as well on Actual People?

Zauhar: I would have loved to, I just couldn’t afford it.

Filmmaker: What was your experience working with one, especially as you are both the director and the lead performer?

Zauhar: It was great. I don’t think I’m ever going to not [work with one]. And, honestly, when I read about certain directors being like, “fuck intimacy coordinators,” that rings a little creepy to me, like you want to see some shit happen on set. It’s not “punk rock” to not have an intimacy coordinator. Sex is a weird thing, and it’s hard to actually film it in a way that looks proper or “realistic” or what you envision in your head. It’s really like dance choreography. There are all these gestures and movements that you’re sort of unconsciously aware of when you’re actually in the act but are not something you’re thinking about. So [working with] Adrienne [Couper Smith], my intimacy coordinator, was, first of all, us trying to figure out how to do these long sustained takes. Where’s the tape going to be? How do I get onto the bed in a way that feels natural? It’s like a choreography between desire and anticipation and the mechanics of the body in space. It’s a really complex dance, and it really takes a lot out of you, so to have someone who knows what she’s doing guiding you through that process is a remarkable thing to have.

I would go to her and say, “I want these [scenes] to be one take,” because a lot of sex scenes, they’re cutting every five seconds. As you have seen from my movies, I am wary about cutting too much in general. I think it’s grosser and cooler just to have sustained sex scenes that are not fun to watch, you know? Luckily, I was with actors who were comfortable showing anything, doing anything. We would just work through together what could naturally happen. Like for my sex scene with Zane, we have a fight, but then it gets kind of sexy. So where are the points where it feels natural to move together? Where are the points where it’s a movement that feels organic? It’s a collaboration and also like trying to find your body’s impulses, which is just acting, right? You’re trying to listen to your body’s impulses and natural reactions.

Filmmaker: Speaking of the fight between your character and Zane’s, in general you write really good fight scenes. They start from little micro-aggressive moments, or passive aggressive ones, and then they spiral. What’s the secret to writing a good fight scene, and how do your’s progress from the page to the set? You don’t seem like a director who does a lot of improv.

Zauhar: Yeah, I’m not so crazy about it. I’m not word-perfect, but I would say from script to screen both movies are like 98% word perfect. But [the answer] I was going to say is, “Pick a lot of fights!” [laughs]. I mean, writing fight scenes is fun because fighting is kind of fun, even if it’s just happening in your head. I’m from Philly, where everyone loves to fight, so I have a natural-like predilection to aggression, perhaps. I grew up listening to a lot of fights, not even between people I knew, just fights on the street, people fighting in my halls in high school. But I think it’s one of the only ways that people kind of have sex without having sex, if that makes sense. It can be very brutal, but it can also be very intimate. It’s like a way of knowing someone, or getting to know someone, you think you understand. [Fights] are always fascinating to me, but I don’t know if there’s a secret to [dramatizing them]. I really don’t get into many fights in my normal life — I think I just listen to people a lot. The one thing that I do that my boyfriend is always like, “Stop doing this,” is when people are fighting on the street, I need to stay and watch for a little bit.

Also, NYU’s a pretty anti-fight culture. People there are so anti-aggression, and I guess aggression is technically bad but also passive aggression is even worse. That was a lot of what I encountered at NYU, everyone kind of skirting around shit with each other in ways I found like sort of intolerable.We should just like have it out. I don’t really get into fights, but now maybe this is my goal. This should be my “fight girl summer.” [laughs]

Filmmaker: There’s a lot of self-awareness in your fights. A lot of times fights come from misunderstanding the other person and being emotionally confused. You know, the kind of “Why are we fighting?” fight? You have some of that in your films, but often at least your character is very articulate about the reasons behind the fight.

Zauhar: I don’t think it’s interesting to watch a fight where people are not self-aware. People bump into each other on the street, and one is like, “I’m going to kill you!” And the other is like, “No, I’m going to kill you!’ That’s not interesting. But working through the machinations of a fight between two people who know who they are and know who the other person is, it’s about levels of protecting the self while hurting. It’s like tactical warfare. I was realizing that, weirdly, all these words that are associated with This Closeness are so violent. It’s about dignity, but it’s also about territory and power, which are words you associate with war.

Filmmaker: Do you start with words like that — themes you want to explore?

Zauhar: I just start because I have an idea for a story or an idea for the characters.

Filmmaker: In Actual People, we’re with your character pretty much through the whole movie. There’s no POV-break. In This Closeness you’re in a much smaller environment, but you also have these POV breaks. I think the first time we’re with Adam alone, aside from the brief into in the beginning, is when he’s masturbating in the shower. How did you think about where you wanted the point of view to be and it’s different?

Zauhar: I think the beauty of a stage performance is that you’re constantly aware of everyone, all the players. Even if they are offstage, they have this ambient presence, which I like a lot. So that was something I was interested in. I also like the delineation of just because I’m the one who wrote and directed it doesn’t mean that, as a character, it is “my movie.” It is very much a chamber piece, an ensemble, and I was interested in having these intimate moments. I think a lot of this movie also is about subverting this idea of who’s the good person or the bad person. I don’t strive to write “good” characters — that’s not my intention — but I think you want to have a degree of empathy for everyone in it, it was going to be really hard if all the audience sees of Adam is filtered through Ben and Tessa’s conversations.

Filmmaker: I guess the impetus for that question is, actually, that you’re making movies where you’re the writer, director and star, and the movies are referencing elements of your life, so the shifts in POV were more noticeable to me.

Zauhar: For sure. But I don’t act in my own work to be designated as whatever kind of “multi-hyphenate.” It’s more like it’s fun for me. I like doing it. And a big thing, which I talk about a lot, is that casting is still super limited for people of color and biracial people. The things I audition for are like for a 16-year-old, you know — the half-Asian girl who is Lucy Liu’s daughter. And the roles for people who look like me, and I don’t mean half Asian but are really racially ambiguous, are super rare because you have to, I guess, think about all these other things? I don’t think it’s that big of a deal, but obviously it seems to be an issue for people. But that’s my lived experience, and it is fun to play with being a biracial character whose racial ambiguity is sort of exploited sometimes and talked where it is both a point of contention and then is also allowed to ambiently exist in this world.

Filmmaker: You curated a BAM series about unlikeable characters.

Zauhar: I did.

Filmmaker: As a producer, I see that topic come up whenever a script goes out. Is the protagonist likeable enough? But I think people want to see people who have complexities or flaws because you recognize your own flaws in them, you know?

Zauhar: I’m sorry, but when people say that, I’m like, “Are you not intelligent? Have you read a single book that has changed the course of convention, or genre, or how people write and read?” It’s trite, but, Catcher in the Rye, right? It holds so much sway and value for a ton of aspiring writers, and it’s about a little shit walking around New York being emo. The Great Gatsby is about self-interested people. So it’s interesting that there is this glory and moral sheen has to be painted on characters in cinema, at least in the US.

Also, I think most sane, normal people spend their lives walking around and being like, “I want to be good.” Right? “I want to consider other people in a way that feels gentle and ethical and do things that will help the world in whatever small way possible.” So, it’s interesting when people are like, “I want to escape into a movie.” I feel like a movie is actually an escape when you’re able to sort of revel in the filth of other people in a way you aren’t supposed to or shouldn’t in your day-to-day life.

Filmmaker: I know the pandemic created a break, but, from the outside it looks like you made two features very quickly, which is not something a lot of filmmakers are able to do these days, I think.

Zauhar: I write really fast. That’s the thing.

Filmmaker: How fast do you write?

Zauhar: I wrote the first half of This Closeness in two weeks.

Filmmaker: What’s your writing practice like?

Zauhar: I just sit my butt down and keep writing until I fade from hunger or something. I’ll write ten pages a day.

Filmmaker: How much are you re-writing?

Zauhar: This Closeness is probably 85% first draft. They’re like little things [changed]. The ending changed a little bit.

Filmmaker: Do you rigidly structure before writing? Outlines and note cards?

Zauhar: No, I just do in my head. I feel a compulsion inside me. I’ve heard other writers talk about this, mostly for fiction [writing], but I just think about it for a really long time. I sort of daydream about it and think about it really hard. I’m like, “Okay, I think after this scene that I was thinking about yesterday, this should happen.” And by the time I write it, it’s this thing already that’s sort of moving out of me that I want to get down.

Filmmaker: Do you know the ending when you start on page one?

Zauhar: Yeah, for the most part.

Filmmaker: When you start, do you have a scene in your head that’s kind of lynchpin? One that the whole film revolves around in some way, or one that you just want to write?

Zauhar: Well, I wanted to do the scene, the act of humiliation, of whatever you want to call it, of Adam taking home that girl and having loud sex. I knew I wanted that to happen, so it was a little bit about thinking of a way to have that culmination feel real and actually earned. Narratively, you don’t want to feel like he’s batshit crazy or the villain even still for doing it. You want to feel psychologically logical to some sense and also like empathetic still. But I knew I wanted that to happen, so it was a little bit of that culmination.

Filmmaker: What’s next after this film?

Zauhar: I’m writing a novel right now, so I’m like pretty close to being finished with that. It is sort of also autofiction to an extent. It’s about a recent film grad who’s stuck in her life, I guess it’s in some ways a slight continuation of my character in Actual People. She’s sort of in this millennial malaise and stasis and she meets a slightly older film producer. It’s a little referential to certain coteries in the film world here in New York that I’m sure once read are easily identified. She falls madly and desperately in love with him, and it’s about their relationship and her sort of clawing her way out of her desire to find some dignity in her life.

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