Roger Ebert once told David Lynch that the director’s 2001 masterpiece “Mulholland Dr.” is a movie that “refuses to be over” in the best sense. The same could be said of Jacqueline Xerri’s short film, “Monkey Bars,” which instantly ranks among the finest coming-of-age dramas in recent memory. In her screen debut, Sofia Popol delivers a wonderful performance as Maggie, a 14-year-old who spends her free time goofing off in a supermarket with her friends Shea (Shea Bryant) and Courtney (“Hereditary” star Milly Shapiro).
Their innocent world is ruptured once they catch the eye of Pete (Christopher Inman), an older boy with a penchant for disemboweling stuffed animals. Maggie’s infatuation with this leering stranger recalls the dynamic between young Connie and the wolf-like Arnold Friend in Joyce Carol Oates’ classic 1966 short story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”, which was adapted into Joyce Chopra’s 1985 film, “Smooth Talk,” a recent inductee into the Criterion Collection. In its haunting and richly nuanced visual poetry, Xerri’s film is one of the closest cinematic equivalents I’ve seen to Oates’ landmark work.
On the heels of “Monkey Bars” winning the Critic’s Choice Award at Cinema Femme’s February Short Film Showcase, and prior to its March 12th premiere on NoBudge, I interviewed Xerri and Popol separately via Zoom about the meaningful nature of their collaboration.
PART I: JACQUELINE XERRI
“Monkey Bars” is a gift that keeps on giving not unlike the work of David Lynch.
In my film, you’re only seeing a part of the heroine’s story and her relationship with this boy, which is nowhere near over. To have an ending where you button it up and say, “This is it,” didn’t feel very honest, so that’s why I wanted to leave it open. It leaves you thinking about it for a while, and I love David Lynch’s stuff for that reason. I discovered his work recently, and though I’ve only seen three of his movies, I immediately realized that his work reflected what I’m trying to get at a little bit, which was really inspiring.
One thing I love about Lynch is how his abstractions always spawn from the truth of the characters he’s exploring.
The films that give me a physical response are the most powerful, even if they’re not necessarily enjoyable in a straightforward way. “Blue Velvet” was one of those films for me. I love playing with dreams and perspective in my work, and when I was first putting together “Monkey Bars” in Pitch Deck, it was all about lucid dreaming. In the end, it’s kind of far from that idea. As I went along, I discovered what it was more about, and that’s also what I like about David Lynch. He has these ideas that come to him, and then later down the line, the connections between them become visible and it starts to make sense.
The very first scene in “Monkey Bars” where we follow the young girl through the playground was originally supposed to feel like a lucid dream in which Maggie is brought back to a place where things were pure. But then over time, it started to be less about a dream state and more about her romanticized perspective on this whole situation. I wanted to convey how Maggie’s perspective isn’t reliable, which is something that Lynch does so well. You can’t really trust her, and when you see her passed out in the car, you realize that a lot of what we’ve been seeing isn’t necessarily what’s actually happening. How I see things now versus how I saw them at a young age really fascinates me. Once that shiny, beautiful filter lifts, you notice how experiences you idealized often weren’t the best situations.
In that opening low angle shot, we see the monkey bars as a straight line that suddenly pivots diagonally to the right, which to me, mirrors the journey of Maggie.
That’s so true. I never realized that. We actually shot the film at all the real locations that were close to home for me, such as my old elementary school and the parking lot where my friends and I used to hang out.
Lynch once said at a Q&A that the way to understand his films is to “follow the emotion, because if you follow the buttermilk, you’ll end up going to the dairy.” I believe the same is true of your film.
Definitely. When we were in the editing process, there was a big question of whether it would confuse viewers. We tried a bunch of different endings, and it was really hard to find the right one because a lot of the people who screened the cuts were taking it very literally. From filming through postproduction, my approach had been very instinctual and emotional, where I followed the images and feelings that felt right, and then tried to paint them. I had envisioned a colorful, oversaturated sky in the scene where Maggie is walking toward the car, which is not necessarily meant to be a literal portrayal of what’s happening.
It conveys Maggie’s romantic trance, which is coupled with the fact that she’s sick to her stomach after drinking the Four Lokos that Pete has given her. I put those ideas together in one scene, and it was my first time taking that route as a filmmaker. I’ve tried to go back to the way I approached making movies when I was 12. I’d set up a green screen and make these music videos without really thinking about their overarching meaning, whereas the work assigned throughout film school was straightforward and about the fundamentals. “Monkey Bars” enabled me to return to that instinctual process.
I wasn’t even aware of the many different aspect ratios you utilize throughout the film until I watched it again. It’s an effective method for switching between Maggie’s idealized perspective and the harsh reality.
I’m glad you noticed that too. The aspect ratio was definitely a tool that helped to differentiate between those spaces. I was most excited about using the mediums of film and digital to further contrast Maggie’s various head spaces that she’s in.
The playful innocence of that initial digital camera footage where Maggie and her friends are goofing off in the grocery store is so effectively disrupted by the widescreen aspect ratio when Pete first hollers at them.
That was a crazy challenge to edit because we didn’t have the exact cut in mind for when the perspective shifts to what’s really going on. I feel like they’re the rulers of their own little world when they’re doing these videos. The world is their playground until these guys take them out of it, and suddenly they care about what they look like because there are other eyes on them. That footage of them in the supermarket was actually inspired by a video of mine that I found. I was always drawn to filming and documenting things when I was young, so I used to record everything. I have a bunch of videos from when I was 12, 13, 14, so the supermarket scene is almost exactly the same as the video I have of me and my friends. I even ordered on eBay the same camera I used to have for them to shoot the scene.
The foreboding quality of Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” is what I felt at the end of “Monkey Bars.” The gravitational pull Oates writes about the young woman feeling as she decides to go with this predator is what appears to be making Maggie get in the car, and much of that is due to Sofia’s performance.
That was Sofia’s first time acting onscreen, and she was just great. She’s so sweet and eager and talented and passionate. Working with the kids and teens was literally the most fulfilling thing for me because they were having so much fun. The three girls had all these inside jokes, and they made me a whole binder of different letters they had written me. The dynamic between the girls onscreen mirrors the friendship that grew between them in real life, and they are all still friends to this day. That camaraderie made them feel more comfortable, though directing them was still a challenge for me. Shea Bryant was only 12 when we shot the film, and she doesn’t seem that young at all. I remember that I was trying to explain something to her, and then realized that what I was saying was too much. I learned that the simpler directions are more helpful than any effort to interpret certain things for the actors. Sofia and I had weird connections that we didn’t even know about when we first began working together. We both have a background in musical theatre.
I liked seeing Milly Shapiro get the opportunity to play a normal kid, as opposed to an eerie character evocative of the one she played so indelibly in “Hereditary.”
I think it was refreshing for her to not be some sort of scary horror movie character, because she also appeared on a sitcom, “Splitting Up Together,” where she played a similarly creepy girl. We had been looking for the right actress to play Courtney for a while, and I couldn’t put my finger on who it should be. We auditioned so many people and no one was really fitting. I liked the idea of casting someone who had some experience and recognition, so we reached out to her. It was such a great experience working with someone who has been directed by real professionals like Ari Aster, which also made it a little intimidating at first, to be honest. I was like, ‘I hope she thinks I’m a good director,’ but in the end, I realized that she is just like any other actress who wants to be a part of something good.
I think it empowers actors to play characters who are authentic, just as Elsie Fisher was in “Eighth Grade.”
The character of Courtney is loosely based off two of my friends, so I actually had Milly meet up with them. We all had coffee together and talked about the past. I think it was really helpful for her to sit face-to-face with someone who has experienced a situation like that and can now look back on it with clarity. When it came to directing Sofia, it wasn’t about me telling her the literal meaning of a given scene. I wanted her to just be in the moment and immerse herself in Maggie’s infatuation. It was probably about 15 degrees outside when we shot the exterior scenes, so it was brutal, and it weirdly played into the chilly quality of the film. For the scene where Maggie’s moving toward the car, that was the fifth day onset and Sofia just owned it. It got to the point where I didn’t have to tell her much.
When you cut between the 16mm footage of her looking at the car with the widescreen footage of her friends calling to her, it’s almost like parallel realities are clashing against one another, before you cut to the most compressed aspect ratio—reminiscent of an iPhone—where we see Maggie passed out in the car.
That’s what I was going for, and though some people have found it confusing, others can just feel the meaning of it. Sofia’s friends watched the film and they really liked it, so I’m curious to see what other young people think of it. For a while in the editing room, the film ended on a bright light, and the one thing people were taking away from it was that the characters got in a car accident at the end. That wasn’t necessarily what I was going for, so in the final edit, the scene is more about a moment of connection between her and Pete. Of course, he also isn’t looking at the road, so there is still is an underlying tension.
The sound design further enhances the dreamlike quality of the picture.
My collaboration with composer Jon Violette took place entirely over the phone. My boyfriend and first AD, Stephen Musumeci, and I edited the movie in Tallahassee at my old film school, and we were staying at our friend’s house, so we just slept on his couch for three months. We told our friend that we were looking for someone to score the film, and he suggested his brother, who turned out to be Jon. I called him and we instantly had a really good rapport. He would understand my ideas even when I would say the silliest things to get them across. I’d give him weird mouth noises like, “Woo woo!”, and he would replicate them with synthesizers.
When I first sent him the long scene where Pete and Maggie are walking and they keep looking at each other, he sent me four different music tracks, and it was the fourth one that we ended up using. It became the theme of the movie. If you listen closely, the song that’s in the first scene of them walking together is the same as the one you hear in the car scene at the end, only it’s a little darker, dreamier and more menacing. The opening music that accompanies the young girl in the playground is also the same as what we used when Maggie wakes up at the playground, only it’s distorted. We basically had two versions of each song to make connections between those individual scenes.
When the girl adjusts the clock on the playground, it triggers an intriguing sound that, for me, reflects how time begins as a straight line in the film before becoming blurred and indistinct.
Jon was just incredible and I’m probably going to work with him on the next movies that I make. He added the little chimes when the girl is climbing, and when I heard the clock noise, I thought it was so magical and pure. It was the first time I really worked with a composer, and I would say half the movie is the score.
Ethan Lazar, the executive producer, previously worked on Robert Eggers’ great film, “The Witch.” How did you get connected with him as well as your producer Raymond Knudsen?
Ray was in my class at film school, and moved down here with me and Stephen, who is my right-hand man for everything. Ray worked with SAG and did so much for us. As for how I got connected with Ethan, it’s a weird story. I was about 14 when I entered my movies into the Locust Valley Film Festival, which was for high schoolers. The guy who judged it was a film critic from ABC, Sandy Kenyon, and he gave a speech at the end where he called out my movies. Before he left, I chased him into the parking lot and gave him my business card. Then he called me that night and asked me to interview the cast of “The Amazing Spider-Man.” From then on, it was a mentorship that went on for years. I would send him my movies, and he would invite me to go to some advance screenings with him so that I could provide the teen perspective on new releases. That was super-fun.
Is film criticism something that interests you as well?
Once I was given that opportunity, I realized that I enjoyed it a lot. It started to make me think about movies in a different way. Sandy and I would keep in touch and go out to lunch every year. After he saw my thesis film, “When She Speaks,” he liked it so much that he connected me with his godson, Ethan. I sent him the script for “Monkey Bars,” and he told me, “I really like this. Would you want me to executive produce it?” And I was like, ‘Oh, hell yeah.’ [laughs] He served as another mentor throughout the whole process. Whenever we had a question or needed guidance, he was always there on the phone. I think that’s how we were able to speak with Milly because Ethan brought us that validity. When I write a feature, he’s offered to produce it, which is really exciting.
“The Witch” is also about a young woman coming of age. You understand what attracts her to magic, just as you understand why Maggie is attracted to Pete.
Yeah, and that was definitely a challenge too. The first big movie I made in film school was called “Teen Night,” and its story is similar to “Monkey Bars.” One critique a lot of people had about the film was that they didn’t understand why the female lead was interested in this older boy. They thought she was dumb, so this time around, I wanted to explore the perspective of Maggie in order help the audience understand where she’s coming from and how she sees him.
Was there anything particular you connected with in the Oates piece?
What made me feel sick to my stomach was how persuasive the guy is and the way he has control over the situation. Only as the story goes on do you realize how scary he is. When he first appears, you think this guy is kind of cool, and you see how strong that sort of appeal can be. I love how that story builds to the point where the girl loses control. In the beginning, she has a lot of control. She is the one who is calling the shots, and then by the end, she feels that she has no choice left apart from going with this guy. I would love to see that story adapted with a modern day setting. It’s just really cool to find writing that I can relate to so closely in terms of the subject matter.
Maggie is forging her own path on the monkey bars in the beginning, but by the end, she is literally moving at the will of this boy whose eyes are not on the road.
The tendency of people to romanticize darkness and depression is a major theme of this film. There are times in life where you find yourself drawn to people in sad situations that make you want to help them even more. You want to care for them and fix them at the cost of your own well-being.
As with the final shot of Sean Durkin’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” the ending of “Monkey Bars” belongs to each member of the audience in how they interpret it.
That’s very true. I saw “Lost Highway” after I made “Monkey Bars,” and that’s another example of a film with an unreliable narrator where you’re constantly trying to keep up. I love the whole idea of characters being in a fugue state. How you’re able to get into the heads of people like that through a cinematic means is so fascinating to me. We see images that resemble dreams, yet we’re not quite sure what they are. When I watch a film by Lynch, I really feel like I’m experiencing the inner working of a daydream, and that is what I want to achieve as a filmmaker. I’ve been writing a feature where I get to play with that whole idea. The main character imagines that she and the guy she’s interested in are in a Taylor Swift music video. When I was young, I always used to put myself in other people’s art and other people’s stories.
Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers” is a movie I’ve seen probably 20 times. I love the fact that it’s such a re-watchable movie. It’s almost like a music video in how it’s edited and structured. No matter how many times you watch it, you notice new things in it every time. “Mulholland Dr.” was the third Lynch film I saw, and I also really enjoyed that one. I saw it quite a while ago, and the images really stuck with me. You’re drawn to these images, and once you see them, they are planted in your head forever. I love the idea of planting these images in your head that become almost like a memory to you, like your own memory.
PART II: SOFIA POPOL
When I spoke with Jacqueline, she told me that you both have a background in musical theatre.
Yes we do, and in fact, I just realized that there’s a musical theatre reference in the movie that people don’t catch. It’s in the first shot where the girls are being goofy together outside and Shea says, “I want to get all up in your business, girl, and make you feel real fine.” Then I take the camera and go, “Real fine, not fake fine.” Those lines are a reference to the musical “13.” I’ve been doing musical theatre for a long time. I did my first show when I was four, and since then, I’ve done a lot of dance. Just like every other theatre kid in seventh grade, I started listening to “Hamilton” and I fell in love with musical theatre again. It wasn’t like when I was four and my mom would put me in a show. It was my choice at that point to take musical theatre very seriously for the next four or five years. Up until “Monkey Bars,” that was all the acting I had done.
My creative outlet was musical theatre, and I wasn’t particularly balanced about it. I did some shows at my high school, I did some community theatre and I did educational theatre, which was where I really found my place with other kids who took it as seriously as I did. That’s where I performed “Newsies” as well as a lesser known show called “Bare: A Pop Opera,” which is amazing. Although I did dance, I was never into the sports that went on at my school. I think I went to one football game, and that was because I was dancing at halftime. Acting was my outlet, and I miss it so much now that we don’t have it.
I found that the more comfortable I was onstage in high school, I could start to be more comfortable in my own skin offstage.
I absolutely love hearing from people about how high school theatre shaped them, even in the most minuscule ways, no matter where they happen to be in life.
Are you able to still stay in touch with that high school community virtually?
It’s so difficult, to be 110% honest with you. My situation is a bit unique because once I figured out that we were going to be virtual all year, I actually left my school and am now homeschooled. It has worked very well for me because I knew that being on Zoom classes for seven hours a day was not going to be my thing. I don’t feel like I have as much of a community with high school theatre as I used to because I’m not attached to a school or a group. That being said, I’m taking acting classes, and I’ve met some really cool people there. I did a virtual production of “A Chorus Line” over the summer, so I have friends that I have done an entire musical with over Zoom who I have never met. I don’t know how tall they are. [laughs] It’s really cool to watch my community in this time come together and figure out all the different ways that we can be creative.
Were there particular performances in film or television that have inspired you?
I started watching “Gilmore Girls” when I was in sixth grade, and Alexis Bledel’s performance as Rory Gilmore is so incredible. I think Annie Murphy is brilliant on “Schitt’s Creek.” I love watching this woman who is funky and has all these unique traits, but never once apologizes for who she is. That is very special for me to see as a 16-year-old. I also think it’s brilliant how Catherine O’Hara takes a one-syllable word and makes it three syllables. Another inspiration of mine is Saoirse Ronan, specifically her work in “Lady Bird.” There’s a scene after she’s kissed a boy where she’s running through the street in the middle of the night and she just screams. It’s one of my all-time favorite moments on film. When I saw Elsie Fisher in “Eighth Grade,” it was amazing to watch somebody my age be so authentic and honest and fearless.
In your Artistic Statement on your official site, you say that “the narratives that live closest to my heart are those that navigate themes regarding the underrepresented fortitude of women, mental health in today’s society, and bravery in the most holistic form of the word.” How does “Monkey Bars” fit within that?
When I was writing that, I wanted to represent myself in just a few sentences, and in the most authentic way. I was certainly thinking about “Monkey Bars” when I was writing that because I think about that film in just about everything I do in my life. In terms of “mental health in today’s society,” I think some of that is very obviously explored in this movie, but I think also if you read between the lines, there is so much more in there about mental health than it appears on the surface. “The underrepresented fortitude of women” is embodied by Jacqueline, Maggie, the other women I worked with on this project, the women in this industry and in my life. I have two older sisters, and so everywhere I go, sisterhood is my favorite thing.
There is a strength within Maggie that isn’t always obvious, and the strongest parts of myself are in her as well. When I think of “bravery in the most holistic form of the word,” I remember every acting teacher who has ever told me to make a crazier character choice. I teach acting to a nine-year-old neighbor of mine, and I find myself always telling her, “Go crazier. I’m not going to judge you, I’ll be crazy with you, but just make a choice, go further and let’s see how far we can go.” I love watching films and seeing actors make the craziest choice, even if it goes against our training or what we think we should be doing or our preconceived notions of who these people are.
What did you think of Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” and to what extent would you relate it to Maggie’s plight?
I read that at the beginning of my freshman year of high school, which is already such a surreal time, and I just remember it making me feel so scared and genuinely uncomfortable. Then a couple weeks ago, Jacqueline sent the story to me and told me to read it. I ended up finding a short film on Vimeo that was an adaptation of the story, and I certainly saw that it had some similarities with “Monkey Bars.” What really struck me was watching this young girl’s transformation throughout the story, as she turns into a product of fear because of this man. She starts out thinking clearly, and ends up sitting on her kitchen floor having a panic attack because a man is at her door.
Jacqueline told me that she wanted to portray how people tend to romanticize darkness and depression. How did those themes resonate with you?
That’s such an interesting question. At the beginning of every day onset, I asked myself, “How present can I be in this moment?”, because there were so many other things going on. In the scenes between Maggie and Pete, I just concentrated on how each moment felt to me, and most of the time, my answer to that question was really excited. Then when I watched the film in its entirety with my friends, people would say things like, “Oh my gosh, Pete is such a jerk!” I recognize that and I agree. In no way do I condone any of Pete’s actions, but when we were creating the film, I only let myself see certain things in the moment. The way I see Pete now couldn’t be more different than how I saw him during filming.
When I watched “Monkey Bars” for the first time, I sat on the floor of my Airbnb, and I was sort of shaking. It was the most magical experience, and I realized that the character of Pete is not all he’s cracked up to be. It certainly has affected me personally because now I know that this sort of behavior is not something that I’m going to put up with. It’s not okay, and because of my experience working on this film, it’s an area in my life that I don’t have to worry about anymore. I just won’t tolerate it. So thank you, Jacqueline!
Jacquline’s operating on a level that is beyond narrative. It must be important, as an actor, to not intellectualize but rather, be grounded in the emotional truth of each moment.
The day I met Jacqueline in person and we had my first rehearsal, it was literally the two of us sitting in her childhood bedroom. She told me stories, we listened to music that matched the time in the film, and we got to know each other. It was a very unique and special day. During our conversation, I asked her about the ending of the film, and she started explaining it before admitting, “To be honest, I don’t completely understand it myself.” How brave is that? When I say “bravery in the most holistic form of the word,” that’s what I mean. The fact that she had this idea and she ran with it—and of course, it’s her movie and she understands it—enabled her to create something so much bigger than all of us. The fact that Maggie isn’t a victim is a huge testament to Jacqueline’s storytelling, writing and intentions.
What was the camaraderie like between you and your co-stars, Milly Shapiro and Shea Bryant?
My relationship with Milly and Shea offscreen is pretty similar to what it is onscreen. Those are my girls. [laughs] I don’t know how they cast three young women who would work together in the way that we did, but we clicked. We were meant to be together, we were meant to work together and to this day, we are friends. Although Maggie, Courtney and Shea’s relationship is very complex and has so much background, at the end of the day, it’s such a fun depiction of sisterhood. I love the way that they hype each other up and are there for one other. It was very cold outside when we shot the film, and our noses would run sometimes, so we would do this thing before takes where we’d look at each other and go, “Noses!”, and we all made sure that no one had a runny nose on film. In the film, there’s a moment where the three girls are sitting waiting for the boys to come, and we go, “Noses!”, without realizing that the camera was rolling. It’s such an accurate representation of how we looked out for each other.
We shot the film throughout the whole month of February last year, and the cold temperatures actually helped us. Stephen and Ray would bring us blankets and hot chocolate in between takes, which was so sweet, but I do remember there were many takes where I was so cold that I was shaking. Whatever I was going through in a particular scene I felt it in my entire body because of that cold. You know when you’re around somebody who makes you nervous for one reason or another? Your face feels a little bit hot and your body is shaking. I was physically feeling that because of the cold, and even though at times it was a little bit uncomfortable, I think it added to the film tremendously, particularly during Maggie’s scenes with Pete.
How did Jacqueline create a safe space for you and Christopher to go to those vulnerable places onscreen?
I think that your vibe on a set—or in any environment—really comes down to leadership. From the very beginning, Jacqueline and Stephen and Ray established an environment of warmth and love that made us feel okay to make mistakes and be a little crazy in front of one another. They were very intentional about this space being safe and comfortable for everybody, so it was a lot of fun. And Chris Inman, for the record, is an incredible actor. I learned more from working with him for a month than I have in a long time.
When Maggie first sees Pete, I was immediately reminded of Saoirse Ronan’s initial interaction with Timothée Chalamet in “Lady Bird.”
Right? [laughs] I have a friend who made me a photo collage that includes a side-by-side comparison of the first time Lady Bird sees Kyle and that same look shared between Maggie and Pete.
What is the value of leaving the film open to interpretation?
I think that any film is a grand gift in the sense that it allows you to dig so much deeper than you ever thought that you could. I love closure—beginning, middle, end—but that’s just a different form of storytelling. “Monkey Bars” leaves viewers not with closure but a feeling that makes them want to see more. It’s surreal, but I think it also gives every single audience member what they need. Jacqueline does an amazing job of capturing a very specific phase of a person’s life. It’s gooey and exciting but also dangerous and scary and oftentimes not talked about.
That moment when Maggie looks at Pete, and then we transition into the bedroom where the girls are getting ready, captures what it feels like to be 14. Jacqueline portrays that stage of life with such beauty and complexity and humanity. Anybody my age who’s watching this film will feel at home, but there is also something here for everybody. This is a film that will teach parents about their children, that will teach siblings about their family members, that will teach anybody about their peers. It’s a film that teaches you a lot about the people around you, and that’s really special.
It has been such a pleasure talking with you, Sofia.
Thank you honestly from the bottom of my heart and on behalf of every cast and crew member who was with us in the middle of the night when it was freezing cold. Jacqueline gave me a thousand cultural references from 2011, which is when the film takes place. I’ll never forget being on the bus to Jacqueline’s place, which was usually at night after school, while listening to my “Monkey Bars” playlist. There were a lot of Taylor Swift songs on there—“Fifteen,” “Hey Stephen” and “Enchanted,” to name a few. “Enchanted” captures how I felt the day I arrived in New York City and met Jacquline, Ray and Stephen. To see “Monkey Bars” on a platform a year later, I am wonder struck, as Taylor Swift would say.