Celebrating its world premiere at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, Stress Positions is a chaotic film starring John Early and directed by Theda Hammel. Taking place in New York in early 2020, I was immediately taken by the look of the film and how well it captured that specific moment in time. Below, you’ll find a transcribed conversation with Director of Photography Arlene Muller in which we break down her approach to the film. We also discuss music videos, Early as a comedic legend, and the interesting challenge of not only shooting in a New York brownstone, but adding hurdles via shooting through environmental obstacles. Check out the conversation, and be sure to check out Stress Positions!
Stress Positions premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Dramatic Competition section, and it will be released by Neon later this year.
Alex Papaioannou: So, again, thank you for taking the time to speak with me. I saw Stress Positions this morning and really liked it. Are you from New York?
Arlene Muller: I am originally from New York! I grew up in Brooklyn.
AP: So I’m curious, what is it about filming in New York that excites you the most?
AM: So I’m a huge fan of the Safdie brothers and Sean Price Williams, and I think that chaotic, New York energy is what excited me the most about this film. I think you can definitely see it in the visuals, the storytelling, and the editing. Actually, the gaffer on the film was a key grip from Good Time. And so, it was interesting to have that energy in an ensemble comedy. Because this isn’t an action film, but in a way, it has action film energy. The stakes seem so high all the time. Even if it’s just someone coming over, you know, like Theda’s character, Carla coming and seeing the male model. The stakes are just so high and it’s so intense. And John Early’s performance is so high stakes. And that’s New York. It’s a high stakes place. So that kind of energy makes sense for this film.
AP: Definitely. And it being set in early 2020, it captures a very specific… insane, moment in time.
AM: [Laughs] An unhinged moment in time!
AP: [Also laughs]. It hits very hard.
AM: One of my friends saw the film this morning, and when they came back were like, “I loved it. It’s so unhinged.” And I think that’s something that our generation in particular, like the people who are involved in making the film, could really relate to specifically with regards to COVID, but also with regard to millennial culture.
AP: One more thing about New York. I’m always interested in films shot on location there due to such a variety of architecture across the city. And the brownstone in the film is a perfect example of that. It looks like 3 or 4 floors. I’m just curious what the prep was like leading up to shooting?
AM: Yeah, we were able to prep in the brownstone, and Theda was doing rehearsals in there, too. So we were able to do camera rehearsals there, which was great, because that would allow her, as a first time feature director, to see how the shots could be. And then obviously, we also improvised on the day, as well. But it was definitely great to have a sense of what we were getting into. We were there at least a week or two before we started shooting.
AP: Was it already abandoned?
AM: [Exclaims] Yes! It was crazy there. There were plumbing issues and everything. Like, our producers jumped through many physical hoops to get everything together. Even to a point where we could use the restroom during production. Stuff like that. They had the production office upstairs, so my crew was constantly running up and down the stairs, going to charge batteries. There’s obviously no elevator, you know? So everybody got a workout.
AP: I want to go back to having the film take place in 2020. You’re shooting a lot through plastic covers, or people with masks. Even gas masks! So, what was the approach to that as far as the look of it all, and, you know, capturing an image through a cheap plastic cover?
AM: Physical barriers and obstacles are a huge part of the visual language of the film. And that was something that Theda really wanted to come through. The idea was that things were difficult for people. And visually, those obstacles make the sort of tension of the film more apparent. That was definitely part of her plan. That’s a great observation.
AP: [Laughs] Thank you. Keeping with the visuals, there’s a lot of instances where light is just going off the rails. I think of the disco ball rolling down the stairs in the beginning, or when the camera is facing the projector and we just see bright, colorful light. How did you plan that? Did it come about on that day? Is that something you’ve had in your mind working over the years?
AM: I think a lot of that stuff came naturally. We were looking for ways to make the image a little bit jarring. In the beginning of the prep, Theda said that she wanted images that were really truthful to the feelings that the characters were having. She didn’t want to be precious, and that was something that carried through the film. We weren’t looking to create something that was like the perfect, harmonious world, because this isn’t a perfect, harmonious world. So all of that stuff, from the lens flare to the strong and jarring light, plays into that idea of “This is what the characters are feeling.” This is their point of view.
AP: So, I love talking with people who work in film, who have also worked in music videos. I find the world of music videos to be its own little sub-section of film, and it’s always so interesting seeing the jump to shorts and features. I’m curious if you feel what you’ve pulled most from your music video experiences?
AM: Well, I don’t have that much. I’ve mostly stayed in narrative. But I’m actually actively trying to do more music videos, because it’s such a wonderful way to be creative visually. So I would say that experimenting with angles, using wide angle lenses, really tight shots. That’s some of the stuff I can say I’ve pulled from. And not just from my own music videos, but also just my experience loving music videos.
AP: Do you have any favorites?
AM: You know, I really love Chris Ripley’s work, like I love “Thot Shit” by MeganThee Stallion. I just love music videos that are shot on 16 millimeter. I love stuff that’s really inventive and that pushes the envelope. I love Tyler The Creator’s music videos. I’m really a big fan of hip-hop. A$AP Rocky music videos. [Animatedly] Okay! Favorite would have… What’s the one with the hook that has the flute in it? [Starts whistling].
AP: “Praise the Lord”?
AM: Such a brilliant music video. Yeah. I mean, all his music videos are amazing.
AP: Agreed. Him and Tyler have a very distinct vision.
AM: And, you know, there’s a frenetic energy in music videos that’s really exciting. And I think we have some of that energy. A lot of whip pans and zoom ins and zoom outs.
AP: Definitely! I love it. And speaking with regards to frenetic energy, the film was shot in 24 days, right?
AM: 24 or 25, yeah. We may have had a couple of extra where Theda went out with her own camera.
AP: So, obviously that’s a very tight shoot. And I’m curious, did it feel like that on set? Or was it just freewheeling, and kind of going with the flow?
AM: I have to say, I’ve worked so much in the low budget, indie world. So that’s a pace that I’m very used to. But absolutely, it was very tight. Everybody was giving it their most. There’s 110% of energy on every day that we were shooting. You could feel it.
AP: Did John Early have to do many falls from the hose spraying into the window? [Laughs]
AM: You know what? Honest to God, he’s such a pro that the answer is no! He is a comic goddamn genius. That man is insane. He did not do a lot of takes for it, and he barely rehearsed it either. Maybe like three times. That was actually one thing we were all talking about: he didn’t have to rehearse his falls. He’s so good!
AP: A great pratfall goes a long way. And speaking of John Early, he’s a comedic legend at this point. Was there a lot of improv on set or was it more of sticking to the script? Just curious what it was like working with him.
AM: No, it was very carefully rehearsed. He rehearsed a lot with Theda and with Qaher [Harhash], especially the birthday party scene and scenes like that. It was pretty immaculately rehearsed. I would say that he’d improvise within the confines of the lines, but there wasn’t a lot of wild improvisation of lines and stuff like that.
AM: Although I have seen him improvise on other stuff that I’ve worked with him on, and he’s a genius.
AP: I can imagine any B-roll with him is a lovely time.
AM: Yeah, he’s a genius.
AP: So, looking forward. You said you wanted to get into music videos, but do you have anything upcoming that you’re excited about?
AM: I have a 16 millimeter short that I’m shooting in Australia, which I’m super excited about. She’s done a short film and this is her second short. It’s sort of a dreamy exploration of a woman who’s experiencing hearing loss. So it’s a very visual, emotive film.
AP: Do you work often with 16 millimeter?
AM: Yeah! I own my own 16 millimeter package, and I just love it so much. I love 35 [millimeter] too, but it’s harder to convince people to shoot on 35 because of the cost. It’s a little easier to go for 16.