By Tom Ue.
Director Sherren Lee’s latest offering, the short film “The Things You Think I’m Thinking” follows a date between a burn survivor and amputee (Prince Amponsah) and a regularly-abled man (Jesse LaVercombe). It has earned the AWFJ EDA Award at the 2017 Whistler Film Festival, the Special Jury Award at the 2018 Canadian Film Festival, and was in competition at Slamdance 2018 and SXSW 2018. The film offers fresh insights into both characters’ insecurities even as it posits more positive interactions. In what follows, I discuss with Lee and writer LaVercombe the film’s development; its complex portrayal of both characters; the process of working with Amponsah, who had lost his arms in an apartment fire; the vulnerabilities inherent in the dating process; and what they seek to communicate with the film.
Lee was born in Taiwan and bred in Montreal, and is currently located in Toronto. She’s a 2014 alumna of CFC Directors’ Lab and was selected as one of Women In View’s ‘Five in Focus’ Directors in 2017. Lee has directed the award-winning short film “Benjamin” (2015) and the web series Someone Not There (2014). Lee also directs on Shaftesbury’s Murdoch Mysteries (CBC), on Sinking Ship Entertainment’s Odd Squad (PBS, TVO) and Dino Dana (Amazon, TVO & Yoopa). LaVercombe is an award-winning, Toronto-based actor and writer originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota. He has acted on stage, on television, and in film. His plays, Preacher Man and Love Me Forever Billy H. Tender, were produced across Canada and in NYC, where the former won the United Solo Festival’s Best Short Solo Award and the latter received praise from The New York Times, Stage Buddy, NY Theatre Guide, and more. Other writing and collaborations have been presented by PuSh, SummerWorks, Vancouver Art Gallery, Wrecking Ball, Howland Company, BLAST Festival in Berkeley, and PianoFight in San Francisco. He also writes for, and edits, Intermission Magazine and was recently commissioned to write a musical with Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski.
Congratulations on this very impressive short! I think Lee described it perfectly, in her interview with We are Moving Stories, when she says that it is a story about thriving rather than struggling. How did the idea of the film come about?
LaVercombe: Thanks! I met Prince through the Toronto theatre community and started working on the script in early 2016. I think what Sherren said is perfect – when you meet Prince, what stands out is his confidence, both physically and socially, so I wanted to write something that put that side forward first, and then his insecurities that bubble up could come from a more emotional and therefore universal place.
There’s something quite theatrical about this piece: was this intentional?
LaVercombe: I started acting and writing in the theatre, so I think my instincts always live a bit in that world. I love building and releasing tension for an audience that shares a physical space. I think that reflects in the writing, and it’s why I’m happy that the film is going to so many festivals.
Lee had also mentioned in her interview that the script developed over a year. In what ways did it change prior to and during production?
LaVercombe: I think I wrote about 15 drafts of the script with Sherren’s input. I didn’t really know what I wanted it to be when we started, so it was a very collaborative and long process to find the heart of the story. It started as a darker piece, and, with Sherren’s guidance, it turned into something more generous.
The film’s story seems straightforward, but there’s considerable detail in the lengthy establishing sequence both with the birthday party and with Sean’s preparations for going out. Take us through this sequence.
Lee: It was really important to me to not simply reduce Sean’s character to one we pity, nor chalk it up to – to have him be a source of inspiration. I think the truth is more complex than that – I wanted to showcase this character as ordinary, just like you and I – someone who lives a life with great friends, fun times and a great apartment! But also, not ignore the fact that he’s been through a tragic accident that has scarred him (literally) for life. I didn’t want to celebrate him and ignore his struggle. It was crucial to have both, without harping on either.
So the film begins with a really warm and intimate birthday party, where we see him surrounded by friends who love him, who he has fun with. Then, we cut to a brief moment with him – calm, alone, staring at himself and his own demons. But we snap out of that quickly, and watch him as he thrives physically in his own environment. He accomplishes all the same things we do to get ready for a date – put on cologne, feel nervous, question our outfit – and yet it’s clear that while we connect with the exact emotions he’s going through, we are humbled by his agility, his scars, and I hope, by this point, that the audience cares for him and are rooting for him as we follow him into his date.
Tell us about the casting: did you know that LaVercombe and Amponsah will be playing Caleb and Sean from the start?
LaVercombe: Yes, I wrote the film for him and me. I could have been replaced if we wanted, but not Prince.
Lee: But Jesse was great for the part, so it was never ever a consideration that he wouldn’t play Caleb!
Tell us about working with Amponsah.
LaVercombe: Ugh – that jerk!? Just kidding. He’s very sweet, honest and smart, and I’ll be lucky if I get to act with and write for him again.
Lee: From the get go, I told Prince that he needed to be my bullshit detector: if there was anything that didn’t feel truthful to him, he needed to let me know. It was wonderful meeting him and getting to know him. He was always generous, sharing his personal story and has a real sense of humour with his own physical limitations. If you pay attention to the production design, there are actually quite a lot of items that require hands to operate. On his nightstand, there’s a porcelain sculpture of a hand – something Prince thought was quite funny! It was great to be able to talk about all kinds of things with Prince, never with any judgement. Which, I think, is such a testament to Prince and how brave and vulnerable he is, and how lucky we are to have him as a performer.
It’s striking how quickly the film’s tone shifts following the kiss. How did you communicate this in the script?
LaVercombe: Intimacy is fuckin scary. I think I just tried to write someone really wrestling with resistances and insecurity demons, which at first are successfully repressed but then come up fast and hard after the kiss. It’s also a moment where someone tries to protect themselves from one kind of vulnerability but instead just reveals a whackload of others.
So much is expressed through silences. How do you balance between speech and silence?
LaVercombe: Well, Prince and I are really good at acting, so… you know, I’ll just let Sherren take this one.
Lee: Haha. Well, as a director, I’m always thinking of ways to communicate things visually. If it’s possible to show it instead of telling it, that’s always more interesting. And Jesse and Prince ARE great actors and so much can be communicated with a look as opposed to language. Further, I think that when you’re on a date, or getting to know each other, the silence speaks to how nervous we are, and in this specific situation, how scared they each are to say what they want to say, or find out what the other person is really thinking.
Caleb accuses Sean of misreading him, but what is he thinking?
Lee: This is similar to the question of whether Sean is thriving or struggling. It’s clear that when Sean says “I think you’re here because you feel bad for me,” Caleb is at a loss for words. Is it true? Maybe. But it isn’t the whole truth. Is there a part of Caleb that feels bad for Sean? Of course. But that doesn’t mean that he isn’t also there because he likes Sean.
The point is, we don’t know what Caleb is thinking. And everything Sean (or we, the audience) is accusing him of, are simply assumptions, or likely, reflections of our own fears. There’s no way to know what Caleb is thinking, until we get to know him further, and likely, we’ll be surprised to find out. And isn’t that the point of intimacy?
Why is age so important for the two characters?
Lee: Their ages, in both cases, are devices to tell us their backstory. Caleb is 25 and he hasn’t smoked since high school. That tells us that it’s been a LONG time. At least 7 or 8 years. And Sean hasn’t been on a date since his accident when he was 20. He’s 30 now. So that’s 10 years since he’s been in a romantic situation. That’s a punch right there. This tells the audience so much about these characters by not spoonfeeding them each of their backstory.
What do you hope audiences will take away from this film?
LaVercombe: It probably sounds corny, but for me if they take away an endorsement of patience and compassion and the idea that revealing yourself to someone else, although scary, is worth it… then I’d be happy.
Lee: Yeah, Jesse! I’m all about being corny. To me, if this film can help people have more empathy and be less uncomfortable interacting with people with disability, or simply, people who are different than them, then that would be enough. But if we can look inward, examine the assumptions we make about other people, and reflect on how much of that is merely a projection of our own demons, I think we could probably change the world that way.
What is next for the film?
LaVercombe: More festivals, and I’m working to write a feature-length script starring Prince and myself. We’ll see whether or not it tells a similar story, but hopefully the short will help attract collaborators and producers to the project.
What is next for you?
LaVercombe: Right now I’m also writing a play for Driftwood Theatre that has a reading coming up in May about 12-step programs, Catholicism, and the idea of Worship, and I got commissioned to write a new musical with composer Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski about a girl with a severe stutter and the importance of speaking the truth, even when it’s hard and especially when it’s important. I’m also about to start my second year of playing Ultimate Frisbee in a summer league, and, given how last year went, there’s only room for improvement, so that’s pretty exciting.
Lee: I’m currently working towards my first feature film, a story about a grieving mother at the height of her career who checks into an illegal assisted-suicide facility with a reflection period of fifteen days. There, she meets a group of people, each with their own struggles, who challenge her right to choose own fate. And of course, anticipating the feature version of this screenplay that Jesse is cooking up!
Tom Ue was educated at Linacre College, University of Oxford, and at University College London, where he has worked from 2011 to 2016. His PhD examined Shakespeare’s influence on the writing of George Gissing. Ue has held visiting fellowships at Indiana University, Yale University, and the University of Toronto Scarborough, and he was the 2011 Cameron Hollyer Memorial Lecturer. He has published widely on Gissing, Conan Doyle, E. W. Hornung, and their contemporaries. Ue is the Frederick Banting Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English at the University of Toronto Scarborough and an Honorary Research Associate at University College London.