Cannes Film Festival
25th La Cinef Selection 2022
April 27th, 2022
The Pass is a subtly captivating coming-of-age short that leaves you wanting more. It's a perfect blend of music, cinematography and pace that leans respectfully on classic American indie films akin to Julie Dash's masterpiece Daughters of the Dust (1991), Catherine Hardwicke' Thirteen (2004) and any of Todd Solondz films. Past indie films offer a great example of how current filmmakers can create films that have depth and even though The Pass is original in itself, it is a short film that would not be out of place in the above filmmakers company. Director Pepi Ginsberg has crafted a film that has deeply rich, relatable and slightly distant characters that are so beautifully written and become incredibly realised by actors Angus O’Brien (Ben), Paul Bomba (Christopher) & JaQwan Kelly (Sam).
Hi Pepi, thank you for talking to The New Current, how have you been keeping during these strange times?
Thank you so much for speaking with me. It has been quite busy for me this past year as I am a mother to a 15 month old daughter and have been hard at work on future film projects. Right now I am developing a first feature based on The Pass, as well as a limited series, and hope to make another short later this year, or early next.
How have you kept yourself motivated?
I’m not totally sure! I think being a parent keeps me motivated. I have much less time so I try to work fast and intensely. I want to be a good role model for my daughter and so that plays into my motivation. I also love being on set and the only way for me to get there is to work hard at my desk, so that keeps me moving towards my goals of shooting and getting into production as well.
How much has your experience on the Film MFA course at NYU Tisch helped to guide your approach and filmmaking style and what would you say have been the most valuable lessons you have taken from your time at Tisch?
I learned most of what I know about filmmaking during my time at Tisch. I came to the school as a songwriter and performer so I had a lot to learn about the nuts and bolts of how to put a movie together. It was invaluable. But the most important part of my time at Tisch was my community. People usually say this but I found it to be true for me as well. Working and collaborating with my peers taught me how to be a filmmaker - and being around people who care as much about something as you do can feel incredibly inspiring. My personal approach to making films I believe is a hybrid of my life as a bandleader and songwriter, and my time learning the craft of filmmaking at school. But really the most valuable piece of school is finding people you love to work with and trying to learn from and with them as you continue to follow your interests and instincts. I guess the other big lesson from my time there was to trust myself - no film is for everyone but you have to fight for the movie you want to make - no one else can make that film - and that’s a beautiful thing no matter what.
Your previous short Bad Candy won a Craft Award at First Run Festival as well as the NYU Wasserman Award, what did it mean to you to get this type of recognition for your work?
That was very exciting for me. The Wasserman had felt like a very big deal since I arrived at Tisch as a first year. I think it was always in the back of my mind. Winning was really an honour and a thrill. I was very surprised. It all happened during the pandemic so it was hard to really take in, but it was helpful to feel recognised, it meant and still does mean a lot to me.
Do awards add any additional pressure on you or are you able to push it aside?
Oh no not at this point, I still have so much I need to do!
Congratulations on The Pass being selected for the 25th La Cinef, what does it mean to you to have your film part of this year's festival?
Thank you so much! Being selected for La Cinef is a huge honour. I have always held Cannes in the utmost esteem. To be included in this year’s program is more wonderful than I can express. Angus O'Brien's performance really moves me and I am so happy for an audience to see and experience all of my collaborators’ contributions.
Poster design Cade Featherstone.
Can you tell me how The Pass came about, what inspired your screenplay?
Melanie Akoka, (our DP) told me a story about getting hit on while swimming at the beach and feeling trapped in the water - so for sure this had a lot to do with the inception of The Pass! I also had someone in my life whose experiences I wanted to explore and tried to imagine him in this particular situation - what would he do and say? How would he feel? And then of course there is the personal aspect, both in the physical act of feeling trapped by a predator which I have experienced in various ways, and the deeper psychological element of having a wounded or toxic psychology enter into your orbit and feel as though you must call on your own better angels to protect yourself. I really see Christopher as the dragon that needs to be slayed, but of course I have empathy for him as he is trapped in a cycle of viscous self-loathing and toxic attitudes. I was also inspired by my own experiences finding love and experiencing love as a means towards self-acceptance and healing. So it was sort of a brew of all of these elements, and then the screenplay went through a zillion rounds of revisions before arriving at the shooting script!
How close do you like to keep to your screenplay once you start filming, do you allow yourself or your actors much flexibility?
It really depends on the actors but I try to get the kinks out in rehearsal - at least in the dialogue or any story beats that need work. Generally, we read the through script, see how things feel and play when the cameras aren't rolling so that by the time we get to set we know, more or less, what we’re doing. Same goes of course for scouting and shot listing. I love the idea of staying open to the moment, and I do try to stay flexible if something isn’t working. Blocking stays flexible for us and of course there are always elements that one can’t control: weather, locations, etc, that we need to adapt to. I really do hope to get better and better at responding to the moment but I like to go in with a plan.
Through Melanie Akoka’s really powerful cinematography, Martin Crane's evocative score and a touchingly aloof performance from Angus O’Brien you’ve created a short that is beautifully captivating. What were the biggest challenges you faced bringing The Pass to life and looking back is there anything you would have liked to have done differently?
Thank you so much, I really appreciate that. Melanie is a powerhouse, Martin is my favourite musician and Angus is a brilliant new talent. I had a dream team and was really lucky for their major contributions. Our producers Joseph Longo and Maria Akay were phenomenal as well. So was my designer Charlotte Abbott. Our AD, filmmaker Sofia Camargo, is brilliant, the list goes on. Everyone was top notch. The biggest challenge we faced bringing The Pass to life was the pandemic. We had set out to shoot in 2020 and were shut down by the expenses of testing under union protocol in such a remote location - we simply didn’t have it in our budget and had to halt production. I was pregnant at the time and quite sick so that had its own challenges. Very fortunately, we reconvened the following year and it was much smoother sailing. To be honest, this was a lovely shoot. I would say that the weather and light were challenges since we were in all exteriors, but even that aspect really worked out for us in the end, the stormy weather hitting us just as we were filming our most intense scene. I think the wind and cloudiness really added to Ben and Chris’s confrontation - on a psychological level. I wouldn’t have done anything differently. Maybe we could have had an extra day for some pickups. But I always want more time. We were a tiny crew, my daughter was six month, she came to the set every day - we all stayed together, our friends cooked. I have had some tough sets but I was really grateful that this one was just a lovely, special experience.
There seems to be so much more to ‘Ben’ and ‘Sam’ story, I loved the way ‘Ben’ seems to really light up when he’s talking to ‘Sam’, would you ever consider adapting your short into a feature?
I love Angus’s performance and that scene is particularly tender, I find him so moving. JaQwan Kelly who plays Sam is just so lovely here as well. I am currently developing a feature, Haazer, that is similar in theme and tone to The Pass, and includes a protagonist very similar to Ben who will have his own love story, albeit in a very different setting.
When working on a film like The Pass how important is the collaborative nature of filmmaking?
In my experience, the most exciting and fulfilling aspect of filmmaking is collaboration. A project passes through so many hands from inception to completion and each person who works on the film most often adds something invaluable to the whole. For this film, collaboration in story was particularly important as I was stepping outside of my known experience. I worked with my colleague and very dear friend Jorge Sistos Moreno as a script consultant and with Angus O’Brien (our lead), both of whom are queer men, to bring honestly to Ben’s story. Angus was a major collaborator and helped guide us towards the truth of Ben’s experience in a generous and profound way. Melanie and I have worked together many times and our process of working always feels fluid and alive. Melanie is so good not only with image but with story, and she constantly amazes me for her ability to bring a fresh perspective to everything she makes. Martin is my partner and we also have worked together many times so that collaboration is very fulfilling and natural as well. With all of these things it's a dialogue - and as a talker I find this all very fun. I am lucky in that on this short so many of the crew are my fellow filmmakers who I admire and respect. From the titles to the colour, sound design to art direction to the entire production team - I really feel it was all a very big team effort.
"The Pass was a good back to basics effort and will inform how I think about my next project. I do think you can be ambitious without having a million characters and enormous sets."
You come to filmmaking from a musical background and directing music videos and documentaries, what inspired you to get into filmmaking?
I have always been a cinephile. I loved writing songs but my favourite part of songwriting and building a band was having a story and creating a world around that narrative. I loved leading a band, creating the visuals and creating a character for myself as a songwriter and a performer. At a certain point I no longer enjoyed performing and felt limited by having only three minutes to tell a tale. Filmmaking really felt like a very natural extension of my songwriting and touring practice. I do think screenwriting and editing a film are a lot like music - it’s all about flow and rhythm and finding that sweet spot where you land in forward motion. I love directing music videos because it’s a place to experiment visually and it brings me back to music. My belief is that we kind of have an energy we put out as artists and the medium and craft gives that energy shape and allows us to communicate. So music and film are different but I feel the same in both spaces. I just wanted more space. I feel lucky that I still have so much to learn about the craft of filmmaking, it’s really exciting to me.
Is there any advice or tips you would offer a fellow writer/director?
I could only offer a conversation about what I am trying to work on myself. At this very moment something I am looking at is: what is the intersection of ambitious and achievable? The Pass taught me that you can do a lot with a little and allowed me to focus on the strength of all of the composite parts of this film since the production, cast and crew size were so pared down. I have a tendency to want to go big and so this film was a real lesson in leaning into story, performance and every visual aspect of the film to create a cohesive whole. I have always tried to do this but The Pass pushed it further - small cast, limited colour palette - outdoor locations - how can I take these pieces and elevate all of them to make something that feels cinematic. The Pass was a good back to basics effort and will inform how I think about my next project. I do think you can be ambitious without having a million characters and enormous sets. That said, I will be excited to add more elements to my next films. I hope to land at a place where we are just at the precipice of what is doable. It’s that tension of ‘Are we going to make it?’ that keeps filmmaking so exciting. The advice I wish I had given myself a few years ago is - don’t worry if you don't have a big budget - make the most of everything you do have, trust your crew, your actors and your story - that’s all the movie is anyway.
And finally, what do you hope your audiences will take away from The Pass?
Thank you for asking. Earlier in my own life I struggled a lot with fighting for a strong sense of worth and self. I had it in some aspects of my life but I struggled in others. For me, in many ways, Ben’s journey is one of finding love - love of self, love of others, a state of acceptance. There is real bravery in that kind of acceptance - saying, you know, ok, so I am who I am and I deserve to go after what I want. That’s very hard to do. He meets Christopher and he can see what life looks like when you reject yourself. And so he is then able to reject Christopher and fight for something better. For me The Pass is a story of transformation and self love. I hope the audience experiences Ben’s journey as harrowing but ultimately hopeful.