Shot exclusively on iPhones, the SXSW discovery “King Kelly” delivers a “ferocious indictment of Generation Me by boiling it down to a single ditzy teen,” according to Indiewire’s Eric Kohn who gave Andrew Neel’s satire a glowing A- at this year’s festival. The film centers on Kelly (Louisa Krause), who runs an online sex show in the bedroom of her suburban home, unbeknownst to her clueless parents. Below, Neel shares a scene from his film — one he describes as “an homage to Jerry Springer Americana.” “King Kelly” opens in select theaters Friday, November 30th and hits VOD December 4th.
This scene is technically several short scenes. I chose to present them as one because I think it gives an opportunity to understand the variation in camera work and blocking we were always considering while making the movie. Before discussing any scene in this film it’s important to know that much of the film was actually operated by the talent themselves. Ethan Palmer (DP) and I had to take the talent through the camera work and the performance in rehearsals and then just let them go into battle alone.
I thought of this scene as an homage to Jerry Springer Americana. Kelly’s family is having a small backyard birthday party for Kelly’s father. Kelly, and her sister Angela, get into a bitter argument that culminates in Angela revealing Kelly’s dark secret to the entire family. Kelly storms off. She is then picked up by her best friend Jordan who tries to console her and before they leave, Kelly makes a melodramatic ‘diary entry’ to her iPhone.
Kelly is the cheap, vitriolic center of a scene that seems to spin, spinning both in terms of stage direction and camera work. While directing the scene I wanted to accentuate the centrifugal nature of the action. Angela steals the camera from Kelly and then uses the circular table that the family is sitting at as an obstacle to stop Kelly from physically reclaiming her camera. The two go round and round the table as Angela reveals to the family that Kelly is “selling sex on the internet.” There is a kinetic escalation; an absurdity to the scene that the circular motion of the characters (and for that reason the camera) followed.
Everyone needed to clear the set because the camera looked 360 degrees (this happened a lot in this film). I was in an upstairs window watching the takes (the phones afforded no live feed to video village). The actors’ energy had to increase like water just as it’s reaching its boiling point. Everyone had to be talking at once. I did a lot of takes and sometimes I didn’t cut, I just yelled down from the window “GO from there! Go from the top! Keep up the energy! Run right into another take!” This got them all spinning around and ‘boiling up’ in just the right way. I was really happy with the scene and it was a blast to direct.
When Angela takes the camera from Kelly the entire power dynamic is inverted. Kelly is suddenly the subject of her sister’s gaze. She no longer controls the way in which she sees herself. Kelly becomes desperate like a deprived drug addict. I remember talking to Louisa about changing her body language to reflect this. It is only when she charges her sister and reclaims the phone by force that she is able to take back her voice and her agency. So when Kelly escapes from the fight and finds herself on the street we changed the camera work to match. We steadied it out. Kelly squarely points the camera at her face in steady wide-angle close-up. We just had a moment that really knocked the audience around with user-gen style camera work during the fight, so we wanted to calm down the frame a bit and visually give the audience a moment to find their bearings.
After she storms out, Kelly rages directly into her phone spouting all manner of satirical blather. Her rant slowly transforms into a self-reflective monologue. The iPhone is both a diary and a mirror at once; a pool of Narcissus that will listen to her story too. Kelly uses the iPhone as a way of relating to herself. She needs to tell herself (and somehow everyone that theoretically will watch it on Facebook) that she is ‘not a slut’ as Angela claimed. This ‘fake user-gen’ style offers interesting new opportunities for cinematic story telling that we were trying to take advantage of in the film. Previously the Shakespearian monologue was harder to sort out on camera. Bergman had a lot of brilliant monologues in movies like “The Seventh Seal,” and Trier pulled off some great ones in “Breaking the Waves.” These are just two that come to mind. But monologues were never something that came naturally to fictional cinema. Now people narrate their lives on their camera phone and broadcast their private thoughts to their web-cams for all to see. The user-generated medium has widened the road for cinematic monologues. Experimenting with these monologues was exciting because it felt as though we were playing with a new cinematic language that is still evolving.
Shooting these scenes in the quiet Long Island suburb was an experience. A bevy of us trotted across the street from Louisa trying to keep up with her as she tore into her lines all the while holding our funny looking ‘user-facing’ rig; actress and camera-op all at once. Intermittently I would run across to make adjustments, all King-Kelly-energy. We wouldn’t cut, I’d just say, ok “Go go go,” and before I even got back across the street she’d be going again. We chose just the block we wanted for the background. Worried neighbors poked their heads out doors and stopped wide-eyed in their driveways. King Kelly walked by all piss-and-vinegar: a string of profanity, self love, and a strange camera contraption to boot.