Indie Film Director Kendall Brunson talks about her new film “Grab This!”, #MeToo, and Guerrilla Filmmaking
I recently had the privilege of attending a private screening of the indie short film “Grab This” (2018) by writer and director Kendall Brunson. Grab This tackles issues such as date rape, workplace harassment, imperfect allies and national feminist politics in a raw and real narrative that leaves the viewer examining the world as it is, not just how we’d like it to be. One fascinating fact about this film is that filming was well underway when the national #MeToo movement took hold of the public discourse. The prescient nature of the material meant that the film’s creator and cast had to act fast to incorporate the national movement into the film’s narrative and scenes as it played out in real time. I spoke with Brunson about indie art, the state of the feminism in America, and why art still matters in politics.
RM: As an independent filmmaker, how do you see the role of indie films in shaping the narrative of the #MeToo movement, especially in light of Hollywood’s instincts to shape the movement in their own image?
KB: What I love about independent film is that it brings a different perspective to the table, and I’m excited to see what emerges from the indie community as the #MeToo discussion continues.
RM: What was important to you as the filmmaker when you took on the challenge of depicting a date rape scene?
KB: That was an incredibly difficult scene to shoot, and it was also our first scene that we shot post-Women’s March. The most important aspect of shooting that scene was that Claire (played by the incredibly talented Karen Konzen) was as comfortable as possible during the shooting. We were lucky to cast Scott Broughton to play Devon because (a) he was perfect for the role, and (b) Karen and Scott had worked together many times, so she felt at ease with him. We felt much safer than we would have if we’d asked her to act such an intimate scene with a stranger.
We also didn’t want to shy away from the rape itself which isn’t black & white. I wanted to focus on the coercion that sometimes can lead up to the moment where one party tries to convince the other that they’re just having fun and to relax. Scott did an excellent job of portraying that fine line of subtle vs. not-so-subtle coercion that then goes too far when he blatantly ignores her protests of “no” and “stop.”
RM: What do you think the HR manager Mya’s motivation is to discourage Claire from filing a complaint? What were her own limitations and risks?
KB: It’s interesting to see the discussions surrounding the role of HR in light of the #MeToo movement because HR is there to protect the company, not the employees. Mya is there to look out for the best interest of the law firm and to prevent legal action against the firm. So even if she thinks she’s Claire’s friend, she has to look out for her job first, and that’s to protect the firm.
RM: Claire resigns at the end of the movie; what was in her letter? Do you think she gave the real reasons or was her character forced again into silence in order to protect her professional reputation?
KB: We did write her formal resignation letter which was initially meant to be seen on screen and we also thought about having her read it in voice over, but we decided against it because it didn’t feel right to spell it out to the audience. I think it’s more powerful for the audience to bring their own perspective to the letter.
RM: Claire does not get justice in the end, at least not from what we saw. Why was it important to show the reality of what most women experience rather than providing an uplifting conclusion that makes the audience feel good?
KB: Because it just felt wrong. There isn’t a happy ending when something like this happens. The ripples of sexual assault continue on, so even if Devon did get fired, and Claire was able to keep working, that doesn’t remove the trauma. It would have been satisfying but not honest.
RM: You started this project before the MeToo movement started sweeping the country. How did you manage to incorporate the national conversation into a project that was already underway?
KB: We wrapped filming on Grab This! four months before the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, and to see the topics of the film play out in media in real time was spectacular. It felt like the natural extension to tie it into the growing #MeToo movement, and it’s been so moving to see so many people share their stories.
I think there’s also a national conversation about how male allies play a role in silencing women’s voices, and that’s at the center of this story. Over the past year, we’ve seen a lot of men who say they support women publicly, but their actions in private do not. Devon and Mr. Miller are going to the Women’s March in the film because they’re so “outraged”, yet both are at the very heart of Claire’s trauma (by causing the trauma and then silencing the trauma).
I was really nervous about making this film. It felt terrifying every step of the way, but as so many women close to me started sharing their own #MeToo stories with me after they learned what I was working on, I knew I had to finish this project for them.
RM: Talk about the filming process and how the Women’s March got incorporated into your project.
KB: After the election, I knew I needed to respond the only way I could – which was with art. And when the Women’s March seemed like it was coming together, I knew I had to go and shoot there. I didn’t quite have the full story yet, but I knew the general idea so I called my DP, David Howard, and Karen and asked if they’d be willing to go up and film with me and they were.
It was truly guerrilla filmmaking. We had a general idea of what we wanted to shoot but we honestly came up with a lot of the shots as we walked around the capital and marched (since we couldn’t really know what to expect beforehand). It was such a historic moment, that I knew I had to incorporate it into my project.
The most iconic shot of Karen sitting in front of the empty capital steps we stumbled upon, and it’s one of my favorite shots in the entire film. But I love the energy in the Women’s March scenes. It was such a momentous occasion for women, for this country, and for me. I’ll never forget that.
RM: Is there a follow up in your plans? Or will you take on the subject matter in other ways?
KB: I have no current plans to address this specific subject, though I might in the future. I will always tackle feminist themes and issues in my creative work because they’re at the core of who I am as a writer and filmmaker.
RM: What would you like your audience to take from the experience of this film?
KB: I want them to examine their own encounters. I hope they question situations they’ve created or been put in. We can’t make changes until we recognize the problems.
To find out more about Grab This!, visit http://www.grabthisfilm.com.