Learning how to contend with embarrassment and shame while accepting their true identity, as well as support from the people who love them the most, can be a harrowing and daunting task for anyone, even adults. That’s certainly the case for the protagonist of Ren in the new comedy-drama, ‘Something You Said Last Night.’ The character is a trans women who’s showcased in ways that are rarely presented in movies: accepted, loved and valued as an intrinsic member of her family.
‘Something You Said Last Night’ marks the feature film writing, directorial and producing debuts of Luis De Filippis. She based the feature on her 2017 short film, ‘For Nonna Anna.’ After working on the feature for five years, it had its World Premiere in the Discovery program at this month’s Toronto International Film Festival.
‘Something You Said Last Night’ follows Ren (Carmen Madonia), a 20-something aspiring writer, and her younger sister Siena (Paige Evans), as they reluctantly accompany their parents on a family vacation. The sisters aren’t exactly excited about the trip, and it doesn’t help that their extremely nostalgic mother, Mona (Ramona Milano), cranks up Italian pop tunes, old family favorites, and demands everyone sing along while traveling to their vacation destination.
Once there, Siena drinks and spends time with people she just met at the resort all night long. As a result, the more reserved Ren is left on her own. Just fired and short of cash, she’s forced to spend time with her deliriously happy parents, and utilize the free activities the conservative resort and beach town offer, which are all targeted towards children or seniors. She must also contend with the her mother’s penchant for bluntness and offhand remarks, which carry extraordinary weight on the emotional Ren.
De Filippis generously took the time during TIFF to talk about penning, helming and producing ‘Something You Said Last Night’ during an exclusive interview over Zoom. Among other things, the scribe discussed the importance of exploring a trans woman’s relationships and daily interactions with her family while they’re on vacation, instead of the mechanics of her transition, in a relatable way on screen. The director also mentioned that while casting the film, Madonia had all of the qualities that she was was looking for in Ren, including the understanding of the power of silence between relatives.
ShockYa (SY): You wrote the script for the new comedy-drama, ‘Something You Said Last Night.’ What inspired you to pen the screenplay for the film?
Luis De Filippis (LDF): I think the feature really takes its cue, tone and style from my short, ‘For Nonna Anna.’ Like the short, it follows a trans woman’s relationships with her family. So it’s not a story about transition or coming out.
It was really important to me to tell a story about a trans woman’s relationships with her family, as her coming out about her transition has already happened and been discussed. So what we’re instead seeing is a person who’s on vacation with her family.
That was the genesis of the idea, as we don’t see enough of those stories about trans people in films. People are instead still so fascinated by the mechanics of transitioning that we don’t get enough of the stories about trans people’s lives.
SY: Besides penning the script, you also made your feature film directorial debut on the project. How did scribing the screenplay influence your helming approach throughout production? What was your overall directorial style on the set?
LDF: It was very challenging. Even though I knew it was going to be hard, I don’t think I understood going into it how hard it was going to be.
When you make a short, you’re on set for three or four days. You have your hard days, but it’s over after three or four days.
But with this feature, we were going for 19 days, and every day was a new experience. When we woke up every day, we wondered, what is the world going to throw at us today? One day really isn’t indicative of how the next day’s going to go.
So I found the first couple of days to be really challenging. So I almost had to trick my mind into seeing making this feature as a game and contest. It was a contest between me and the crew and bad luck. So we had us making the film and bad luck on the other side. Every day, it was a contest to see who was going to win. I was like, bad luck isn’t going to win on this.
I do feel very lucky on this because the crew was so lovely to work with. As frustrated and stressed out as we all were, they never took out their frustrations or stresses out on me or the film. It was like, this is what it is, and we’re going to get through it together.
In the end, when I look back on it, I do feel very lucky and think about the good times and memories. I think that’s the psychosis of film; you kind of forget about all of the bad things that happen, and only think about the good things, and you’re ready to do it all again.
SY: ‘Something You Said Last Night’ stars Carmen Madonia, Joey Parro, Paige Evans and Ramona Milano. What was the casting process like for the movie?
LDF: For the role of Ren, who’s played by Carmen Madonia, we went into it knowing that most likely it was going to be played by someone who might not necessarily have acting experience. So we set up acting workshops, and invited girls from the trans community to come in and take acting classes with us. I saw a lot of great talent there, but there wasn’t anyone that I really saw as Ren specifically.
Then my friend came home from work one day, and she said, “I found her. She came into my work, and this is the girl you need to cast.” I said, “Okay, let me meet with her.”
So a week later, Carmen and I met up. I had her read a scene, but I didn’t give her any context about the story, and what happens before or after the scene. She really went into it blind, and she knocked it out of the park.
She had all of the qualities that I was looking for in Ren. She’s someone who understands the power of silence. She understands that even though sometimes Ren isn’t speaking, it doesn’t mean that she’s not saying anything. I think all of that translated into her performance.
We also worked together with an acting coach for about another year-and-a-half. We workshopped a bunch of the scenes and found who Ren was together.
As for the other three main actors, Joey and Paige were standouts from their audition videos. They each had a quality that I was looking for. Joey has this quality that he looks like this really scary, tattooed guy. But once he starts talking, you’re like, he’s like a teddy bear.
As for Paige, she’s able to balance the brattiness of Sienna with her likeable, charismatic side. She was never scared to get ugly or be silly, which I think is a big deal for an actor in their early-mid 20s who’s just starting. She was like, “Yes, make me uglier and sillier.”
Then for Ramona, who plays Mona, she was the only option when I saw all the tapes. I saw 30 seconds of her tape and thought, we found her.
But we almost didn’t get that tape because the day before she got the sides for the audition, she told her agent, “I need a break. I don’t want anything more. I don’t care how wonderful and good you think a part is, I need a break for six months, so don’t send me anything.”
The agent said, “Okay, I won’t send you anything.” But then the next day, our sides came in, and we asked her to do an audition. The agent had to go back and say, “Ramona, I beg you; this is your role. I know you don’t want to do anything and I’m crossing a boundary, bu please do this for me.” I’m so glad she said yes because I can’t imagine the film without her.
SY: Like you mentioned, there are certain scenes where there’s little or no dialogue, and the story is told visually. What was your experience like of working with ‘Something You Said Last Night’s cinematographer, Norm Li, to create the visual style of the comedy-drama?
LDF: I’m kind of an introvert, so I do a lot of people watching. Similar to Ren, I’m comfortable with silence. I also think there’s a quality with the people you love the most and who know you the most. So there’s a natural comfort with just being silent with them. So that’s what I wanted to explore in the film.
There’s also a lot said with the people you love with what’s not being said. I think that’s elevated through the cinematography. I think Norm Li has a very sensitive touch to his work.
I think he was really in Ren’s mind throughout a lot of the film. When you ask him about it, he says “I felt like I was Ren,’ and I think you can see that in the camera work.
We established a couple of rules together, including that the camera doesn’t really enter the room before Ren; we always follow her into the room. The camera doesn’t really move unless Ren’s moving.
I think there are qualities that translate into the other departments, as well, like the production design. I think there’s a lot of the story through the cabin they’re staying in and how they interact with it. For instance, Mona is always cleaning, while Ren’s stuff is all over the place. Sienna is a little bit more contained as she’s unpacking he suitcase. These were all little bits that were elevated by our lovely production designer, Matthew Bianchi.
I also think that our costume designer, Mara Zigler, created a look for each character. There are also different points in the film where characters are wearing different characters’ clothing, and that was a map that we drew out. I think that created an emotional arc that explains why certain people are sharing clothes.
The sound design by Gina Keller was also very exquisitely done. It heightens the feeling of being the fifth family member to be on vacation with them.
So all of these elements show that when Ren’s alone in the cottage, things are toned down, and then when she leaves the cottage, the sounds crescendo. We’re then in a space where we can feel the anxiety a little bit. Even though nothing really happens. as a trans or marginalized person, you’re always aware of your surroundings and what’s going on.
SY: SY: ‘Something You Said Last Night’ is mainly set in the resort town that the family takes their vacation in. What was the process like of deciding where to shoot the film?
LDF: At first, I approached it with a producer’s mindset. I also approached it very pragmatically. So I knew I wasn’t going to get a lot of money for this film, being as it’s my first feature, and this story hasn’t been told in this way before. So I wanted to make it as realistic and specific as possible.
So much like my short, I decided to have everything take place in one location as much as possible. That meant that we could really focus on putting all of our energy, time and resources into making that one location as vibrant as possible.
I think when you do that, it allows that character to be a character. You have the four main actors on screen. But Joe, who plays Guido, came up to me after our first screening and said: “I never realized this before, but he cottage is the fifth character in the film.” I said, “Yes, it is.”
I think the places we are in, and the way we interact with them, reveal a lot about who we are because we all interact with places differently every day.
SY: In addition to writing and helming ‘Something You Said Last Night,’ you also served as a producer. Why did you decide to also produce the movie? How did you balance your directorial and producing duties throughout the production?
LDF: Again, it was challenging. But I’m really happy that I also took on a producing role. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without all of the producers who work alongside me. Jessica Adams, the lead producer on the film, as well as Harry Cherniak, Rhea Plangg, Michael Graf and Michela Pini from Switzerland, were really helpful.
I think what producing allowed us to do was understand what the limitations were. I also understood the sacrifices I had to make in a more informed way, so that I can make very informed choices and be proactive in making those choices.
The other producers would say, “You have this much money, and you have to do this or this.” Then I could see the budget myself and say, “I understand why that makes sense, so I’m not going to push it if it needs to be done this way.” I think a lot of creativity can be found in those limitations.
It also gave me the chance to ask for things I wouldn’t have been able to ask for in other ways, like doing the mentorship program. That was an ask that I had, and it wasn’t just from a director’s standpoint; it was also from a producer’s standpoint. I’d say, “This is important to me,” and the other producers were on board from day one.