Resident Video is a monthly series that provides exclusive access to films from emerging artists. This month, we bring you Sean Michael Duffy’s USE.
We’re excited to celebrate the one year anniversary of Facets’ Resident Video series. The series aims to keep Facets’ finger on the pulse of new and emerging filmmakers by providing exclusive access to short films alongside thought provoking conversations with their creators.
This month, we bring you Sean Michael Duffy’s USE. What do you say to a past lover when they run into you (literally) on the street? USE is a quiet meditation on the way individuals and relationships evolve over time, captured on 16 MM film. It offers a glimpse into the lives of two friends as they try to reconnect in their old home town after a lengthy separation. Their awkward encounter forces them to confront the way their time apart has changed them.
USE tells a coming of age story through sparse dialogue and rich mise-en-scène, exploring the tensions that lie at the intersection of sexual orientation and class in a sleepy suburban town. Even as it questions whether it’s possible to truly reinhabit the past, USE feels startlingly of-the-moment as it forces its protagonists and audiences alike to examine their expectations of success, happiness, and what it means to grow up.
We interviewed USE’s writer, director, and producer Sean Michael Duffy.
In USE, audiences can see the fallout of a relationship, but very little of this romance is shown on screen. As a filmmaker, what advantages do you see to telling a story like this retroactively?
There’s a notion in storytelling, especially in drama, that everything shown must be some sort of big moment, with high stakes that will affect characters for the rest of their lives. But in real life, those big moments tend to be few and far between.
When I was writing USE I was in a time of transition after the end of a major relationship. Even now, years after the fact, I still feel the holes left by its absence. Of course, you replay the same moments over and over in your head, get angry about old fights, and feel nostalgic for the days of idealized romantic bliss. Then you wonder, “what if we had a second chance”? “Would things have turned out any differently?”
USE finds two former lovers reunited by coincidence after a long period of distance, both in miles and in friendship. It’s a scenario I’m sure many of us have considered, as unlikely as it usually is. In the film, Nina and Claire try to recover the connection they once had, to the point of forcing it, but ultimately they’re not what they used to be. They’ve both grown, for better or for worse, and as comforting as it might be to even temporarily slide back into old roles, their journeys are no longer parallel.
Viewers fill in the details of the characters’ pasts as the story unfolds, drawing perhaps from their own experiences. My hope is that bridges the gap of a specific story that’s being told on screen and universal themes that lie underneath it, the kind that stick with us long after we’ve left the theater.
As a filmmaker, those are the kind of small arcs I’m interested in exploring. They may not seem weighty at first, but they often define us more than the seemingly important and tense climaxes of our lives.
There’s such a stark contrast in this film between the scenes of travel, when characters seem to move freely, and scenes where characters remain in stasis and indoors. How do you think space and movement impact your storytelling?
I try and value locations in my films like they’re characters. For Nina, her home is what dictates what she can do and where she can go in life. She’s trapped by her dedication to her family, but most of what’s left of her family is her house, and the town she lives in. Home is where her heart is though, and even as it’s decaying around her, she feels bound to suffocate within it.
When Nina rides her bike or drives with Claire though, she briefly has the freedom to move about as she wants to. These moments are brief, and punctuated with music and a loose camera. It’s unstable, yes, but Nina is, however temporarily, in control.
When your protagonists are at home, they often appear framed visually within doors, windows and mirrors. What role do you envision domestic spaces playing as structures Nina and Claire inhabit, and how does this setting impact your filmmaking?
When I started filmmaking in high school, the only settings I could really use where what was around me: my home, friends’ homes, my school, local parks, streets, and as I often loved to use, and still do, cars, and the act of driving. I learned how to use the most domestic of spaces as foundations for storytelling, rather than just trying ignore them, waiting for the day I’d have access to ‘cool’ sets. It led me to writing material that was more grounded and natural, and about life as I knew it, rather than what I imagined it could be like.
At film school, I had the opportunity to build sets from the ground up, which gives you an unprecedented amount of freedom and control. But ultimately, I’ll always prefer shooting on location. Working with a living, breathing space, you’re forced to consider it much more as a major factor in your story.
In USE, Nina and Claire’s homes visualize just how different their backgrounds are without me having to force any bloated exposition. Claire’s house, newer, bigger, and full of, at times, just plain gaudy decadence stands in stark contrast to Nina’s house, which is just one story and falling apart, severely worn by decades of family life.
The location of Nina’s house was actually a home that had been in my family for about half a century, but it had uninhabited for close to ten years. Exploring the old house helped me develop Nina and the story of the film, both in the writing process and during production. One of my crew would stumble upon something kind of strange or interesting, and I’d think about why it belonged in the house, and what it revealed about Nina and her family.
Much of the dialogue in this film seems to be about what goes unsaid- the moments where Nina and Claire stumble over words or hesitate, or the silence of Nina’s grandmother at dinner. How do you think filmmaking can express things that can’t be articulated through dialogue alone?
Formal cinema is most indebted to photography, theater, and prose, but as the craft has evolved filmmakers have moved further and further away from the structure of those mediums and have tapped into and embraced the kind of stories and imagery only possible on celluloid. Just as it’d be damn near impossible to adapt, say, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying into a film (although pop-teur James Franco certainly tried), I can’t imagine something like The Tree of Life or 2001 working as they do in any other kind of format.
My background is in theatre, so I’ve always leaned towards making more dialogue-heavy material, but as I’ve learned more about cinema and become more confident as a filmmaker, I’ve realized just how often you don’t need words to convey something. Usually you just need an image, a face, a cut— and your audience gets it. Not only that, but they really then feel it on another level, often unconsciously.
A lot of my work tends to focus on internal conflict. That can be a tall order to address cinematically, and I’ve probably failed more often at doing it than succeeded. You can have the characters shout how they feel of course, or employ some sort of direct, internal voiceover, but that’s not very natural, adding a considerable distance between the viewer and what’s happening on screen. When people watch my work, I want them to be as emotionally engaged as possible, and when you direct with subtext, body language, composition, editing, and all the other tools you have at your disposal, you can really take your audience right into the frontline of a character’s soul and experience.
For more about Sean Michael Duffy, visit his website. Don’t forget to check out the rest of the Resident Video series. While the films are no longer available, the interviews remain. Forever.