REBECCA MARTIN: How did you come to this project?

Jacqueline Xerri

JACQUELINE XERRI: Three years ago, I made my first short, called “Teen Night”, which is a coming-of-age story. This was my first try at tackling a subject like this. Because for me, it’s super personal, and I wasn’t sure yet how I wanted to share it with the world. I think it was a good first attempt, but it was definitely more of a surface-level approach, and not really internalizing too much. And then I decided to take a break from coming-of-age stories, and write my thesis film, which I did at Florida State University, “When She Speaks”, which is a period drama. 

I figured I needed a break from something so personal, and so intense in a way. So I went totally out of my comfort zone and made a 1920s period piece that I had a lot of fun doing. But then, once I graduated, I was like, ‘OK, I think I’m ready.’ I just had this need to try and make something, and I wasn’t necessarily sure exactly what it would be. I wanted to have this approach, where I took out all of the basic knowledge I knew, all of the fundamentals. I kind of went to a place that was more instinctual, and more emotional. I would say that is what drove the beginning of the project. I would just see images in my mind, and not necessarily know how they all connect. I started writing right when I got out of school. I was an assistant editor on a documentary at the time, and then I was writing in the morning and at night, on the subway, whenever I could really. It was kind of a relief for me, honestly with working and then being able to put my heart and mind into something I was passionate about really felt great.

Sofia Popol and Milly Shapiro in “Monkey Bars”

MARTIN: You have a terrific cast including the lead actress, Sofia Popol, and Milly Shapiro from “Hereditary.” Can you talk about the casting process?

XERRI: I love casting. I think it’s one of the most important parts of the process. We started casting them through Backstage. We didn’t have a casting director, it was just me and my team. We just scoured the site. We literally looked at anyone who could potentially look the part and we reached out with messages. Sometimes they would apply to the role themselves. We probably got around 70 self-taped auditions for all of the characters. I remember when we came across Sofia through Backstage. She applied for the part, and I sent her an audition request. From there, we Skyped and it was an amazing first connection. Right away when she started talking, I was like, ‘this is the girl.’ She naturally is the character in a way. That’s why I think the most important part of casting is finding people who naturally, without any prompt, can feel that they already are the character. Sofia actually lives in Maryland, so it was a little difficult logistically. But we FaceTimed with her parents, and then she came down for rehearsals. Honestly Sofia and I really have a special connection. We really had to get on a deeper level, because there are aspects of the character that are super-personal.

John Rider played the character named Scott, who was one of the friends. He’s actually a guy from my high school. We weren’t exactly close, but he reached out to me about acting. I realized, ‘Oh my god, this is about where I grew up, and it’s about Long Island.’ John has literally been in similar situations at that same school yard. He’s part of the real story. I think it was cool to cast somebody who actually didn’t have any acting experience, but I felt that he added authenticity to the story. 

For Milly, we just reached out to her agent and we sent her a pitch deck and then we just gave her the part. And that was that. 

Santiago Velez and Christopher Inman in “Monkey Bars”

MARTIN: I wanted to talk about the filmmaking style. It’s really interesting how you mix the media, like with the cell phone videos and the wide shots. Can you talk to me about those choices?

XERRI: I knew I wanted to differentiate between Maggie’s romanticized perspective on that night, and this boy, and the actual reality of the situation. I thought what better way to make this feel the most real. The most objectively real approach is if we utilize an iPhone that covers what truly happens that night, and that’s where it first started off. For the scenes when she is alone with Pete and when she’s in this trance, I would shoot it in 16 mm. It just has a different feel. It feels more organic, and a little more romantic, kind of like she is the star of her own movie.

And we used the little digital camera, the Canon point & shoot, for when they are at the supermarket, and when they are running around in the parking lot. It’s funny because I came up with that idea. I was looking through my old videos that I shot when I was young, and I was filming every single thing. I found this video of me and my two friends in the supermarket, and that scene in the film is based on a real moment that I had. I don’t have the camera anymore that we used to use, but we ordered the camera on eBay, which is the same model as the one I had when I was a little kid. We shot on that for that part to really make it feel like it was from that time [circa 2012].

“Monkey Bars”

MARTIN: Why did you name the film “Monkey Bars” and what is the significance of the young girl in the beginning of the film?

XERRI: Making this film was a very instinctual process, and I was imagining this sort of daydream that depicted a simpler time, like when the playground was used for the purposes of play. The girl is singing, “shish kabob, shish kabob,” and she has no worries. All she really wants to do is play and have fun. There’s something about having that level of innocence that I wanted to include in there. You see the place Maggie is at in the beginning of the movie before she meets Pete. She’s in this more innocent time in her life where she hasn’t dabbled too much into this other sort of world, but once she has this experience with this boy, it all changes. There are some things that happen to you in life that make you unable to see the world in the same way again. Like there’s something lifted up, there’s this curtain that you pull back that gives you a greater understanding of your situation. I wanted to start with the little girl, with the monkey bars, to show the place where Maggie was at, and at the end when we see her cross the monkey bars and run away, that part of her is now gone. And she really can’t get it back.

Sofia Popol in “Monkey Bars”

MARTIN: What do you hope people see in your film?

XERRI: When I was young, I really got ahead of myself a lot of the time. There’s a certain naivety that you have, at an age when everything is so exciting and new, and you want to be older and you want to see what you see in the movies, or in shows like “Degrassi” or even “Jersey Shore.” These are shows that we were watching when we were super-young. They portrayed the ideal world you want to be in, where boys love you, and you’re pretty, and you’re desired. And I think what happens is that Maggie takes all of these influences she’s had and morphs them into this boy that’s not giving her what she thinks she’s getting. Life isn’t like the romantic movies that are being sold to us every day, and it’s dangerous sometimes to take that idea of romance into your own personal life where the circumstances might be a lot different. It can be dangerous. And it can happen right before your eyes. 

Watch “Monkey Bars” until 2/28 on our festival platform. Watch LIVE Q&A with Jacqueline and selected filmmakers for free on our YouTube channel on 2/20, see below.

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