Following The Chicago LGBTQ+ Reeling International Film Festival in October 2021, I had the pleasure of speaking with three female filmmakers behind three selections in the Revolutions of the Heart shorts program. These shorts explore lesbian love across all stages of relationships. With an emphasis on the work that it takes to keep the love alive (even after death), the characters in these stories must navigate social pressures as well as their own baggage to find love and keep it going.
Today we feature our first interview of the three with filmmaker Hellin Kay talking about her short “Abby and Emily Go To Palm Springs”. The film takes the broken and fragmented pieces of a relationship and brings them together through one weekend in Palm Springs. The short stars Vico Ortiz (“Vida”) and Jessie Cohen (“Silicon Valley”). In my interview with Hellin, we discuss what brought her to the project, the editing process, her cinematic influences, and what is coming up for her.
What brought you to “Abby and Emily Go to Palm Springs”?
I had started dating someone and we were having a really hard time communicating. We took a trip to Palm Springs and it was full of small petty fights. I just couldn’t understand why they kept happening. When we got home from that trip, I transcribed one of those arguments into my journal. About a year later, when I wanted to make a new short, I came back to that conversation and it was the starting point of the film. All of my films begin with a question I’m asking myself about life and my own journey and whatever answers I can muster, so this film was no different. I was feeling very alone in trying to understand if this is what all relationships are like, if this is normal communication, whatever the word “normal” means. Once people started to read the script, they related to it and shared their own relationship stories with me. That’s when I started to feel like this film was the answer, at least for me.
Tell me about the casting process for the two stars of the short.
I had a very specific list of actors I wanted for the roles of both Emily and Abby, which I brought to our casting directors, who were fantastic! Our wonderfully talented Vico [Ortiz], who I had seen on the Starz show “Vida,” was on that list, so I was thrilled when we were able to cast them. Also, it was very important for me that the role of Emily be played by someone from the LGBTQ+ community. Jessie [Cohen] came to us from the casting directors, and I fell in love with her instantly! She had a quiet and strong presence which I wanted for Abby. And we were beyond thrilled to have Jessalyn Wanlim and Bob Clendenin involved! They are both stars and so talented, so to have them in the film was incredible.
Can you talk about the editing process of the short?
I had actually written the editing style into the script. I was always planning on laying the sweet voice overs to juxtapose the fights and vice versa. I come from an experimental film background; I studied filmmaking at Bard College with Peter Hutton, Adolfas Mekas, and Peggy Ahwesh and I interned with Jonas Mekas, Yvonne Rainer and Carolee Schneeman during those years, so I took a lot of their influence with me over the years. The first two films I saw as a freshman were Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep,” and Julie Dash’s “Daughters of The Dust,” and both films left a permanent impression on my style and how I approach filmmaking as well. Also, long before I taught myself Premiere Pro, I started editing with real film when I was 19 on a flatbed, and have always edited my films, right down to cutting the negative- hot splicing! Playing with editing and shaping the story in that way has always been one of my favorite things about the filmmaking process.
Jean Luc Godard, Andrei Tarkovsky, Charles Burnett, Wong Kar Wai, Claire Denis, John Cassavettes, Jane Campion… a lot of experimental filmmakers like Sydney Peterson (“Lead Shoes”!!!!), Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, Barbara Hammer. Also… music! Music has always been a huge influence. When I was in high school and just starting to watch indie films (thank you Charles Theater in Baltimore!) and got interested in filmmaking, I would listen to punk and new wave music in my car and create stories to match the music, which in a way I still do. Sometimes I’ll hear a track and instantly know that it’s going to inspire a scene or end up in a film. I think I had the soundtrack for “Abby and Emily Go To Palm Springs” in my head before I even finished the script!
What do you hope people see in your work?
I hope people see something of themselves and feel a little less alone in their life experiences. The human condition is hard and it helps to know we are more similar than different and that everyone struggles with the same issues sometimes. Regardless of your pronouns or gender or sexuality, whoever we are, we all need answers and guidance and to feel less alone in the world.
A feature inspired by Janis Joplin’s senior year of high school, which takes place in 1959-1960 in Texas. It’s basically a coming of age story about a budding queer artist and musician who just happens to grow up to be Janis Joplin. I’m very excited about this project. It’s going to be my feature debut, and we’ve got two incredible producers on board, Orian Williams and Shaun O’Banion, as well as a phenomenal casting director, Michelle Lewitt. We’ve just begun the financing process and are about to start going out to talent. I’m so excited about the cast, there are not enough words, and yes, I have a very specific list! We’ll be shooting in late spring 2022 in Louisiana.