An interview with writer/director Anna Baumgarten on her debut feature.
- Narrative Feature
- Director: Anna Baumgarten
- Screenwriters: Anna Baumgarten
- Producers: Danny Mooney, Elaine Hastings Edell, Anna Baumgarten
- Cast: Libe Barer, Dylan Arnold, Ariela Barer, Travis Tope, Chelsea Alden
Premise: After failing her final college class, Jane returns home to her family’s lake house, coming to terms with the trauma that derailed her senior year.
I recently got the opportunity to speak to Anna Baumgarten, the writer/director of Disfluency, on the challenges of expanding a short film to feature length, and the personal connections she has to the story.
Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
OV: Disfluency originated as a short film in 2018. Can you tell me a little about the transition from the short to the feature? How much from the short is in the feature, and vice versa?
AB: The feature and the short are definitely two separate films. There’s a lot taken from the short that’s in the feature but it’s very much a separate story, with Jane (Libe Barer) being involved, but the plot is different. I originally wrote the short film without much intention to make it, initially. I was just working through and processing my own experience in college. And then we got some opportunities and I decided I wanted to make it. I ended up writing and producing the short and brought on my dear friend Laura Holliday to direct. The short went really well and we were accepted to the Short to Feature Lab (founded by Jim Cummings and Ben Wiessner who are also our Eps), and, from there, I really started to think about it as a feature and thought “hey, I think I really can make this into a feature”.
I was really torn on whether I wanted to direct or not, and Laura was one of the people who encouraged me to direct it. My producer Danny Mooney also really gave me the courage to jump into directing. We shot it in Michigan with a lot of University of Michigan alumni, in my parent’s backyard, my aunt’s house, and my grandparent’s house, so it was really a family affair. I view the short and the feature pretty separately, but they both deal with the same issues, essentially.
OV: From what I’ve seen, the short deals more with the language issues that the feature addresses mostly in the opening.
AB: The focus on speech disfluencies is more prominent in the short, but I didn’t want to hit it over the head in the feature. They both have those focuses on language and communication.
OV: One of the best elements of the film is the theme of communication, and how much we reveal to others. You obviously have Jane and what she’s willing to tell her family and friends about what happened at college, and you also have Amber (Chelsea Alden) and her son as she tries to communicate with him, and how much she’s willing to admit those struggles. You do a great job of manifesting those themes naturally.
AB: I’m so glad. We wanted to make that broader and more expansive in the feature, and one of the ways we did that was to bring in the sign language element.
OV: Was there any particular scene that was more difficult to film, either from a practical or emotional standpoint?
AB: When it comes to practicality, I didn’t fully experience the feeling of “we’re losing light” until I made this, but there were a few scenes when we were really fighting the daylight. We ended up having to cut a few shots because we only had an hour or two when we thought we had four or five.
When it comes to emotionally challenging, there’s a scene in the water, under the dock, and it was very cold that night when we were filming. It would be very muggy and hot during the day, and then the temperature would drop at night. So all the actors are in wetsuits under the water and I just had to keep reminding everyone “it’s summer, it’s summer! We’re having summer fun!” [laughs], and the scene that Dylan Arnold and Libe had to pull off is a very emotional scene and they managed to do it beautifully, but they were fighting an uncomfortable situation, so it was a very interesting night.
OV: One of my favorite scenes, from a filmmaking perspective, is the scene at the police station after Jane talks to a detective. You filmed that all in one take, which really helps to underscore the objective of that scene.
AB: It’s very intentionally that way; I wanted a chance for Jane to speak, and for everyone to have to listen to her. We use flashbacks and dream elements throughout the film, and I thought this needs to be stark and all about her and listening to her process of what happened to her. That question of “what happened” keeps coming up from different characters, so we hear it all come out. We did a few takes of that scene, and the one we used has the most variety of emotional highs and lows. I’ll also say that the writing of that scene came from a very real place for me. Jane’s story is very much her own story, but when I wrote that monologue, it’s a combination of my experiences and my friend’s experiences, plus all the feelings of impostor syndrome and PTSD. I wrote that scene in one sitting and I don’t think I changed a single word afterwards, but that scene comes from a very real place, and Libe really crushed it.
OV: That scene is really emblematic of the whole film, in that it could be construed as schmaltzy or message-heavy like what you see in some big studio films. I appreciate the emotional honesty in that scene and the rest of the film.
AB: Making sure that everything was nuanced was very important to me, from the writing to the performances to the score and the cinematography. I just wanted to keep it from an honest place without forcing the audience feel something that wasn’t there.
OV: Would you consider Disfluency to be a coming of age film?
AB: Yea, absolutely. It’s a coming of age film where trauma impacts that type of story. We miss stuff in life and things don’t always go according to plan. We view ourselves through a particular light and view successes and failures in a very specific way, so all of those notions are challenged throughout the film for Jane.
OV: Even though it’s a very personal film, were there any films in particular that you looked at to pull influences from, from an artistic or emotional standpoint?
AB: Some of my big influences were The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Me and Earl and The Dying Girl, and Obvious Child. Just a range of comedies and dramas that centered on a coming-of-age story.
OV: Do you have anything else planned in terms of writing or directing or producing?
AB: My main goal right now is getting Disfluency out there and getting eyeballs on it, and going through the distribution phase. I’m working on writing – I consider myself a writer first and foremost, and that’s what brought me here – so I’m working on a feature script and my writing samples and hoping to get representation and pursue writing full time. If I have the opportunity to make more films, I’ll absolutely take them.
OV: You mentioned your personal connection to Jane’s story, and the writing of the screenplay as a way of processing your experiences. Was making the film itself cathartic at all for you as a healing mechanism?
AB: Yes, it was definitely cathartic, but not in the way I expected. Seeing all these people believe in Jane’s story and wanting to be involved was so validating. I struggled deeply with imposter syndrome when it came to my trauma, sothe act of everyone stepping up and working on the project was emotional and cathartic in its own right. I think what surprised me the most was how cathartic it was for my whole family, especially my parents. It was this tangible way for them to support me in sharing my story. Before Disfluency, my experience was difficult and awkward to talk about and, I think, challenging for my family and friends to know how to support. My parents went above and beyond. Their home was our primary shooting location and basecamp. They helped on set and with prep and wrap (along with all my siblings and relatives). Overall, it was really an incredible bonding experience for all of us.
OV: What do you hope that people with similar experiences to Jane get out of seeing the film?
AB: I hope people gain a little catharsis from watching Jane come to terms with her own story and find her voice. I hope they feel seen and heard. No matter what your experience, I want everyone to know that your trauma doesn’t define who you are. It’s your story and you should be able to tell it when and how you want – or not.
Disfluency can be screened from the Heartland Film Festival virtually throughout the festival, or in-person at the Living Room Theater on Friday, October 8 at 7:30PM. Tickets can be purchased here.
About the Writer: Ben Sears is a life-long Indianapolis resident, husband, and father of two boys, as well as a contributing writer on ObsessiveViewer.com and recurring co-host on The Obsessive Viewer Podcast. Aside from watching movies and television, Ben enjoys photography (bensearsphotography.com) and running marathons, but never at the same time. That would be difficult.