I am fortunate to have a job, or more like a passion project, where I get to talk to female filmmakers and share their stories. Sometimes I am lucky enough to meet a person who I will call a “soul sister.” To me, a “soul sister” is a womxn who comes into my life and gets me excited about all the goals I have for making a difference in the world. One of these womxn is Abby Pierce. She brings the same kind of energy to her interactions with me that she does to her films. After watching her work, you feel inspired.
We talked about the collaborators that she’s had on her films, particularly our previously featured filmmaker Clare Cooney (“Runner”), who served as a co-director of her short, “Go Ahead, Grab Time By The Throat”. Along with Abby’s relationship with Clare, we spoke in-depth about her films, and why they are so unique, intelligent and powerful. I feel we are going to see great things come our way from Abby Pierce, my soul sister. Watch the full short film “Go Ahead, Grab Time By The Throat” that launched online this week.
What brought you to “Go Ahead, Grab Time by the Throat”?
The experience of making it was one of total reaction. It was impulsive and it was fast. And I’ve never quite been able to make something like that, because it’s very difficult to execute a project with a lot of different people on board that quickly. I think you can write a poem that quickly, maybe you can write a song that quickly, but on a big collaborative scale, it’s hard to see something through. But that was what was awesome about having our producing team and collaborating with Clare because everybody was just ready to say yes, and jump in. The way that we pitched it to people, to get people interested, before it was even a script, was I showed people the video of James and I getting engaged and breaking up. I remember showing it to our DP, Olivia Aquilina, and she was sitting there crying. Then she was like, “wait, what do you want to do with this?”
I said, “oh we’re going to make a movie around it.” And really, it was a reaction to that video that was so strange and I was so confused at that point at my life, and things felt so chaotic. I was just watching this video of me and my now ex-fiancé, while we’re getting engaged and breaking up at the same time. I was trying to understand it for myself. It was just that annoying semi-narcissistic part of being an artist that you watch yourself in these situations, and think maybe this is something I can use. But I wasn’t clever enough to unmask it into a metaphor. I was just like, ‘yep it’s me, it’s my James playing James, and my friend Clare playing Clare, and there’s going to be something that comes from it.’ And that’s why it ended up becoming such a meta piece because it was strange to use yourself as a character.
What you showed in this film was so unique and universal at the same time. It was almost like the pinnacle of what happens during the whole scope of a relationship all at once, during a three-minute period. I’ve never seen anything like this before.
With social media, we use pictures to kind of curate an identity, but we also are trying to figure out ourselves, like our own narrative. Like, ‘what should I post on instagram? How do I want to be seen? How can someone understand me?’ I ended up using that video to explain to people. They’re like, “You’re wearing an engagement ring.” But I’m like, “yes, but we are broken up.”
So this film is like, ‘here, this will explain something to you,’ whether it made sense to them or not. I remember I showed my parents the video and they were like, “ok, I guess it makes more sense, but it doesn’t, but ok.” They saw there was chaos, but they knew things were going be okay, because it was all loving and sweet, and you can see our entire relationship in that. So I’m like, ‘I’m not posting this on Instagram, like oh my god. Maybe if we actually got engaged, but then what are we trying to communicate to each other about what’s going on with ourselves,’ so I got curious about that too.
Can you talk more about your collaboration with Clare?
Clare is such a genius and so awesome. I’m so lucky that she said yes. We came up with it together. Honestly the last scene of the short, when Clare and I are talking, and she’s talking about her potential break-up, that really happened. We didn’t have enough time to get creative honestly, which ended up its own kind of magical thing. I think it was kind of like we were giving each other permission, like a lot female friendships do. Like wherever you are at in your relationship, I’m on your team and I’m here to support you. You can change your mind tomorrow, and tell me you’re not breaking up, and you’re getting married, and I am here rooting for you. There’s also artistic permission where I was like, ‘is this a movie?’ It’s kind of nice to move that quickly because we said yes to that question and then we got to work because we [Clare and I] were moving across the country. There was not a lot of time to question the idea of making it because we were already in the momentum of making it. We put it together and got everything done in the course of three weeks.
I loved your interaction with your parents. You had mentioned those weren’t your actual parents, but some amazing actors. I appreciated that meta aspect to the film. It was clever with some vulnerable moments. Can you talk about those scenes?
This is a very loving film, made with joy. When you can open up and look around and see the people that love you, even when things are really bad personally, there is a juxtaposition in that chaos, you know? Like laughing is so close to crying, and so close to laughing, and trying to thread that through the film of that internal chaos, which I think is inherent to the weirdness of the break-up. Sometimes you have to make hard choices, but it can be done with love.
So I think that was what we were really interested in too, which was how do we juxtapose comedy with the drop down feeling of your heart being broken, backing up to being like “oh god, this is funny”? What we tried to play with was bringing the audience up and down and come to that place of emotional chaos.
So with “Eat Your Heart Out”, how did that project come about?
I acted in a play in Chicago at Strawdog Theatre, and the playwright Julia Lederer, who is a comedian, came in. I love her voice and her writing. We developed a friendship and her show was called “With Love and a Major Organ”. I love the way that she handles metaphor, and I love magical realism.
We went through a lot of ideas for metaphors we could explore, and magical realism elements that we thought would be interesting to us. Then I suggested we look at all the metaphors of the heart, but to make it like a nature documentary with a narrator. And let’s bring in some science and psychology as we layer over this ridiculous metaphor of ripping your heart out and giving it to somebody else, in a world where everyone does that and they are walking around with bloody chests. Then we’ll actually learn a couple facts, like most heart attacks occur on Mondays.
It was so fun to make this with Julia and work on this with her together. Charlie [Koontz] who plays Douglas in the film, is a very dear friend and a very talented actor. You can catch him on “Community” and other hit shows. So he flew in and we got to perform together. My favorite thing is collaboration, as you can probably tell.
I see there is a through line between these two films when it comes to relationships and heartbreak. Are you going to continue to use these themes in future work? And what is coming up for you?
I think that heartbreak can be such an inspiring place. Adele has her career to credit to a couple break-ups. In those heartbreaking moments is where you can define yourself, and get that creative engine going. I think that is what happened with both of those short films.
Now I’m developing a project around the women of Hull House, which is in Chicago. I’m developing a TV show for it because they are amazing women and improvisation was invented there. Jane Adams who started Hull House was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize 91 times before finally they were like, “we’ll give it to a woman.” The reality of it was this was a bunch of thirty-something women, sometimes queer women, getting together, because what they saw in the world they thought was messed up. They bought a mansion, and all the girls went there to discuss social justice, and to do it through art and philosophy. They thought, “we are going to change the world.” And they did. The NAACP and ACLU were both founded there.
This all sparked from me wondering who came up with the idea of teaching theatre in jails, after I started doing it. I looked at the people who taught me, and then the people that taught them. I learned that a woman started improvisation, and it came from Hull House. And she invented improvisation for social work.
I’m really passionate about this project, and I love the female friendship element to it. It’s so inspiring. And there is so much anarchistic TV right now. I just think it’s so exciting.