After nearly three months of limited contact with other people, we’re all a little thirsty these days. Ever the comedic artiste, Maya Rudolph voices these desires with a silly flair and grounded humanity as a blood-lusting mosquito in “Thirsty,” a delightful short film from rising filmmaker Nicole Delaney. “Thirsty” also stars Jay Ellis as The Young Man, who captures the mosquito’s eyes and nose with his chiseled jawline and post-basketball game glow. “Thirsty” recently premiered on FXX as part of the channel’s new Cake series, a showcase of inventive bite-sized content.
The film is shot partly from the mosquito’s point of view, the camera circling Ellis and underscored by an excitable buzzing. (Cinematographer John Wakayama Carey deserves a shout-out for the effective technique never feeling distracting or overdone.) Besides being directed by Delaney, who co-wrote the short with Sonya Goddy, these distinctive shots from the mosquito’s point of view make “Thirsty” a perfect example of the female gaze on film — quite literally.
“My objective wasn’t necessarily the female gaze, but it’s such a fortuitous outcome of how it’s shot. I think it gives a very unique perspective that we don’t get to see it a lot of time,” Delaney said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “The reaction I got from a few black men was, ‘How cool is it that a black man could be looked at through this lens? As a desired, complex, three-dimensional character.’ [One guy] was like, ‘I thought it was pretty cool that a man could be both strong and sensitive, sexualized and black all at the same time, a man that’s also pursuing sexual health care, a man that’s also really brazen with his feelings.’ It was an empowering point of view.”
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Though fans of “Insecure” will have no trouble imagining Ellis as both sexy and sensitive, just as his character Lawrence is in the popular series, there are still far too few examples of black men being emotionally vulnerable onscreen. With the dearth of women filmmakers, those examples from a female gaze are also all too rare. According to Ellis, Delaney’s direction helped him feel comfortable to experiment.
“[Nicole is] super collaborative. She was always asking my perspective on things. Constantly posing questions to get to me to think and try new things,” Ellis wrote via email. “Nicole was also one of the most prepared directors I’ve ever worked with. There wasn’t a question that would stump her or a thing that would knock her off her game. That is such a great quality to have. It made me feel protected and free to play and experiment.”
Delaney described herself as “the luckiest person one earth” for nabbing Ellis and Rudolph, the two dream actors she had envisioned for her project during the writing process. She got the script to Rudolph through her good friends Haim, the three-woman pop act who count Paul Thomas Anderson among their biggest fans. Anderson, in addition to being married to Rudolph, has directed multiple music videos for the band.
Delaney knew of Rudolph’s sensational voice acting work from “Big Mouth,” the lewdly funny Netflix animated series on which she served as story editor for season 2. Among others, Rudolph voices the “Hormone Monstress,” whom Delaney describes as one of the show’s most iconic characters, evidenced by the way she has forever left her mark on the phrase “bubble bath.”
Before Rudolph’s recording day, Delaney stayed up all night writing three different versions of the mosquito. “Do we play her earnestly, do we play her the crazy ex-girlfriend, or do we play her over the top, kind of horny, crazy Hormone Monstress-esque vibe?”, said the filmmaker. “I knew whatever landed on Maya could nail any of those.”
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Rudolph suggested they record all three, giving Delaney an embarrassment of riches in the edit. “I could have a character who was extremely nuanced from scene to scene,” the director said. “How her love is evolving, how her lust is evolving, it goes in an out of being really blood-sucky and then into obsession and then into true love, which really worked and made the character more dynamic.”
The film’s ending offers a feminist twist on a classic tale, with a wryly comic but darkly realist outlook on romance. Goddy’s original script had the mosquito turning into a woman, a la “The Little Mermaid,” but Delaney pushed back against the classic fairy tale trope.
“Why do these stories always have the female character going to the level of the man as opposed to the man being brought to her level?” said Delaney.
Fairy tales are a recurrent theme for Delaney. The filmmaker/writer is currently hard at work on “Nobody’s Princess,” a musical comedy for Amazon that re-imagines classic fairy tales in a contemporary setting where the women take front and center. The project is co-produced by James Corden’s production company, Fulwell 73.
If “Thirsty” is any indication, “Nobody’s Princess” will be irreverent, funny, and definitely women-centric. “Thinking back on how female characters are portrayed in fairy tales, this idea that she’s sacrificing herself for this man, sacrificing being with her family, is all valid for love,” Delaney said. “But for ‘Thirsty’ I wanted a different approach.”
“Thirsty” premiered in competition at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. It aired Thursday, May 28 at on FXX, and is now available on FXNOW and FX on Hulu.