A young woman (Allyson Womack) walks back home with a man (Connor Allen Smith) she serendipitously met at a bar. They sleep together that night, and when she awakens the following morning, it almost feels as if it were meant to be. He makes her breakfast with an ease that suggests that he had cooked in her kitchen for ages. And yet, as their conversation deepens, the dreams that cloud the woman’s eyes start to evaporate in the harsh light of reality. Countless people—including yours truly—could relate to this scenario, yet I have never seen it portrayed as honestly and insightfully as it is in Emma Thatcher’s wonderful short film, “Fletcher.” I had the pleasure of recently interviewing Thatcher about her own personal connection to the film’s story as well as her upcoming feature debut. Here is what Indie Outlook founder and RogerEbert.com Assistant Editor Matt Fagerholm wrote four months ago to explain why he chose “Fletcher” as the recipient of the Critic’s Choice Award at Cinema Femme’s April 2021 Short Film Showcase…
With next month marking the one-year anniversary of Lynn Shelton’s passing, I am pleased to give the Critic’s Choice Award to “Fletcher,” a film that captures the late, great director’s spirit in a way that few films have. In its delicately nuanced storytelling, sublime performances and keen understanding of human nature, this 19-minute marvel affirms that its writer/director Emma Thatcher is a force to be reckoned with. Like Shelton’s best work, “Fletcher” will inspire audiences to look deeply within themselves while re-examining their own approach to relationships and intimacy. Provocative post-film discussions are guaranteed. Congratulations to Allyson Womack, Connor Smith, Sadie the goose and the whole “Fletcher” family!
I wanted to start this interview by saying that I wholeheartedly agree with Matt’s words.
Thank you! [laughing] That is the nicest thing that anyone has ever said about my work, and that’s all I could ever want, as someone who is making humanist, lo-fi work.
What influenced you about Lynn Shelton’s work?
I was devastated when Lynn passed because I was really modeling my career after her. She was a late bloomer, and I felt kind of like that too. I grew up doing theatre and Shakespeare, and I didn’t get into film until a little bit later. But now that I’m here, I’ve found my tribe. She had also directed for television shows like “GLOW,” which is a really good comfort show for me. It has the right amount of drama, comedy and ridiculousness. She’s just been my hero, so when you read Matt’s words during the awards program, I was on set for my feature at the time, and I was so touched and honored by the comparison.
Lynn supported her indie career with these TV gigs, and I would love to do that. I think that’s so exciting, and also, it may be less stressful in a way because I wouldn’t have to put my entire being into my work. I would just get to arrive on set, work with actors, and bring my moment-to-moment intuition to the material, along with my emphasis on humanity and smaller domestic stories. I had a couple of friends who had worked with her, and they said she was amazing to work with, and not like an ego.
Everything I’ve heard from the people I’ve interviewed who had worked with her indicates that she was a great person to identify with. How did you come to “Fletcher”?
I had recently moved back to Chicago after living in LA for four years. I was making a lot of shorts with my ex-partner, and I hadn’t quite made something that really felt like my own yet. Even though I knew I had developed my own voice, I just didn’t quite have the confidence yet to have it be heard. I met Connor through a play I did, and we talked about what we liked. Our schedules were both kind of crazy, but I kind of thrive in that sort of schedule.
At the time, I was temping at this sad place. I came up with some back story for Connor and Allyson’s characters within about a week or so that would give the film some conflict. I knew how to work my Blackmagic camera, which enabled me to film by myself. It was sort of difficult to keep track of particular stories and shots while cutting them together. But they are such good actors and improvisers that I could just trust them when I needed to focus more on the shots or the story, so it just worked. I always want to come back to that sense of play in my work. Even when I have more fully realized projects, I found something through the improv that feels uncommonly real and authentic in a cringeworthy way. It almost makes you feel uncomfortable, and I love that.
Did you, Connor, and Allyson bring your own experiences to create this story?
I was the most single I had ever been in my entire life, and I think it fueled some juicy stories. I had this tendency—and I think we talk about it a little bit in “Fletcher”—that if I slept with someone and then woke up with them, there was an instant attachment, because the relationship suddenly felt domestic and so intimate. In films, you’d typically see the couple falling in love right away, and that’s not usually the case because you’re not as comfortable yet with each other. I’m probably now at the opposite point where I just need to be alone because of COVID and everything. [laughs] So the story was definitely drawn from my strange dating experiences.
The small nuances and intimate moments that you explore onscreen are what continue to linger in my mind, such as the characters’ feet touching while having breakfast.
I always have a brainstorm list going of things that are sometimes from my actual life, and other times just ideas that I come up with. But in either case, they are always very small, domestic conflicts. So I draw from my life in that way. On set, I’m not sure if I have those moments planned. Sometimes I’ll see an actor already doing it, and I’ll be like, ‘I need to do a whole set up for this, because that was amazing.’ A lot of the time, that’s probably the case. Yes, they are acting, but they are really putting themselves into those circumstances, so their behavior and their physicality is going to show that through their discomfort or self consciousness in this newfound intimacy.
I also love B-Roll and inserts that show us the things people keep. I was just rewatching Lynn’s last film, “Sword of Trust,” and it starts with these amazing inserts of the pawn shop. It made me become closer to the characters to see the small things they had that other people would likely find boring. It is details like those that made me feel like I know these people.
The scene when Allyson’s character stands in front of the mirror is so raw. It gives her the chance to be vulnerable with herself and the audience.
I really just needed to see her in a private moment. That was not planned. I would have those giddy moments either when I got in my car, or I got home by myself, and I would just squeal or cry because spending the night with someone can be an intense thing. So I just wanted to see her interiority. I love when she goes in and she is excited at first, and then later, when she realizes that this is going to end, you get to see the full arc of her attachment process. She was already starting to attach herself to him, but she sees that it’s not going to pan out.
Matt and I loved how we first see them having a hilarious discussion about one of our favorite programs, “The Great British Baking Show.”
We needed something for them to get excited about, and that was something they could go on and on discussing. [laughs]
I’d like to talk about your choice in making these early shots distanced in the beginning, during the night before, and then up close and intimate during the following morning.
I think the shot choices and editing style mirrors my own personal experiences with hooking up. When you are kind of drunk while just coming home from the bar, you’re less inhibited. I find that you can be goofier. The element of alcohol kind of changes you a bit too. During that first sequence of their walk and talk, I wanted to see their full bodies interact in such a playful and a romantic way. That way, it makes so much sense later on why they are both kind of torn that he’s going to be leaving. There is quite a distance in the beginning—it’s almost like a voyeur angle. But the morning after is when it just slams you in the face with the intimate reality. Jump-cutting through those moments with Allyson was so much fun. She was so embarrassed and I loved it.
Can you talk about how you utilize the female gaze in this film?
I think my femininity is inherently a lens for my work. I don’t know if it’s a feminine cliché for me to focus more on domestic issues or relationships, but that’s how I am. Sometimes I want to be a contrarian, and work against that instinct. But I don’t really like action movies. I like comedic dramas about relationships, and I think that totally is there in my work. The culture on my sets is very much women-led. There’s a lot of collaboration when we’re listening to each other. I don’t dictate to them. I make sure everyone has a lot of input on set, and I’d like to think that’s also because I’m a woman. I also care about my crew so much and I just want to make sure they’re fed. [laughs]
What are your thoughts on the pandemic-era indie film industry?
I was very much influenced by Joe Swanberg’s keynote speech at SXSW in 2016. He talked about owning your films as a way you can make your money back, but that was during the time when you could just sell your work to IFC, and they had their channel. NoBudge has a thing where they give their proceeds to the filmmakers, which is awesome. But I just want to be able to own my work, and eventually make some money from it. I could make like 500 movies with the budget for some of these blockbusters. I think it could be spread out so much more.
It can be kind of pretentious if I just look down on anything that might be enjoyable to the masses. I love niche hits like “GLOW”—which was also cancelled—and the algorithm brought so many people to that show, including my friend, who is a nurse. Geographically, COVID has connected us to the coasts—and the whole world—and I think there should be more movies made regionally. That’s why I’m pretty intense about staying in Chicago right now, because dammit, we need more true indies. But we also need money. We’re not going to fancy lunches in LA—which is good—but we don’t have those representatives there for us.
I’m so curious to hear about your next project…
I just wrapped my first feature, which I wrote, directed, and starred in and I am now editing. It was a huge project, and it was physically exhausting because it’s a road trip movie. It’s about an ex-Mormon in Chicago who finds out that her estranged father is on his death bed in Utah. So she road trips to Utah and takes along her friends with benefits. So there are cringeworthy dating moments within this grounded family drama.
I learned so much from this experience. Due to our scheduling, we had a few weeks in between where I was able to edit a lot of it. There are so many funny Chicago comedians in it, and my cinematographer is very, very talented. It is such a weird and funny movie, and I’m so excited about it. I’d love to have a big screening of it in Chicago. It would be a great full-circle moment.
What do you hope people see in your work?
I’ve made a lot of films about wanting to connect, but not being able to. I hope people see my work and feel a little less alone in that way, because it’s hard to connect. There’s sometimes so much shit in front of you that makes it difficult. Being able to identify with a character that’s going through the same thing you are is very meaningful to me.