LBB Film Club in association withLBB

LBB Film Club: Safe Space

Production Company
Baltimore, USA
WorkingStiff Films director Matt Pittroff and writer Jeff Collins discuss turning “a simple comedy about a scientist and her android lover” into a nuanced narrative about AI fears, relationship dynamics and more, writes LBB’s Ben Conway

When it comes to love, who is more advanced? AI or humanity?

This is one of the many questions raised by ‘Safe Space’, a three-person, relationship dramedy-meets-sci-fi directed by WorkingStiff Films’ Matt Pittroff and written by ECD and collaborator, Jeff Collins. The pair previously worked together on the film ‘Social Mediation’, to which they see ‘Safe Space’ as something of a spiritual successor. 

This new short film tackles the fears around AI advancement with its own sense of dark humour, performed expertly by Donald Chang (Adam), Molly Coyne (Jill) and Julia Kelly (The Voice). Shot with a claustrophobic, single-room set and an LED Volume, not all is as it seems on this intergalactic journey as Jill, a scientist, and her ‘pleasure model’ android (Adam) grapple with their increasingly complex relationship in the intimate confines of their ship. 

To go behind the scenes on the project, LBB’s Ben Conway caught up with the director and writer, Matt and Jeff, discussing the ‘2001’ and ‘Alien’ influences on their spaceship and using comedy to explore a potential “horrifying reality in the not too distant future”. Read their full conversation below.

LBB> Jeff, what was the inspiration for writing ‘Safe Space’? Was it a quick spark, or did you have these characters and ideas in your head for a while? 

Jeff> In this instance the inspiration was all Matt. He had phoned me with a challenge one day: ‘I have access to this cool spaceship-looking set, write a two-hander script and we might be able to shoot it’. This was maybe almost a year into the pandemic, so a change in my daily routine was very welcomed. The first script was much more of a pure comedy. Very much two characters suffering from lockdown fatigue - like we all were - just in space. Thankfully Matt inspired me again, to rethink it through a different lens, something with more social relevance. We went through a lot of iterations from there together as it evolved into the shooting script. At that time, AI wasn’t the hot topic it is now, but as we stumbled into the idea of Adam being a sentient being, we also fell into a familiar theme from our first film, ‘Social Mediation’, which is the future impact technology can have on our interpersonal relationships. So, although vastly different, ‘Safe Space’ is sort of a spiritual sequel.

LBB> When did you get involved, Matt? What was your first reaction to the script, and what made the project so compelling for you to work on?

Matt> Much to Jeff’s chagrin, I was involved early on. Jeff’s precision as a writer, and like-mindedness as a partner, compels me to work with him on whatever the project may be! I knew (hoped) there would be another film after ‘Social Mediation’ in our future, but as Jeff mentioned, the impetus for ‘Safe Space’ was actually a challenge. Draft one of the script was a far punchier comedy with one quip brilliantly stacked upon the next. As the words began to evolve, so did the challenges. I was itching to make a dark, poignant comedy that had social relevance. Something that would leave the audience laughing, but in an almost provocatively haunting way. Jeff and I kept pushing the thematic gravity of the film, and once again, he was able to weave funny into what very well may be a horrifying reality in the not too distant future.

Above: Matt Pittroff and Jeff Collins

LBB> How was the casting process? Why were the two actors the best picks?

Matt> Doesn’t every director stress how important the casting process is? But really, when you have two actors in one location, with eight pages of lingual gymnastics, casting is make or break. While we had some benchmarks and backstories for the characters going in, the real joy of casting is letting actors interpret the script without getting in the way with direction yet. I prefer to see what the words mean off the page, and learn from the auditions. After relearning the script sixteen ways to Sunday in the callback session, it comes down to instinct and a gut feeling. Molly and Donald connected immediately, in an almost off-putting way. They understood the script, were unbelievably prepared, and undoubtedly elevated the film. And not to be underestimated is the power and omnipresence of Julia Kelly as ‘The Voice’ who played scene partner throughout the entire casting process… and just kept getting better. Credit to our casting director, Stacy Gallo, and her team for understanding the vision and bringing some insanely high quality actors to the table. It’s incredibly humbling when talented people want to partner with you. 

Jeff> As the writer, I am obviously very attached to the characters by the point of the auditions. They are my creations. I have interpreted them in a certain way and then a bunch of people come in and give me their often totally different takes on them. It’s the takes that make me sit up in the room, or in this case lean into the screen, that really get me excited though. It means that they are going to take on a life of their own in the hands of that talent. And we had some amazing hands with this cast. 

LBB> Matt, how was the process of helping shape Adam’s android-like performance? What were the challenges there?

Matt> Donald Chang deserves the most of the credit here. And of course, having the right scene partner makes all the difference in the world. His ability to deliver rather complicated dialogue with just enough affectation, and to ride the line between artifice and genuine human emotion was brilliant. He was just plastic enough to fear, and endearing enough to trust. All I had to do was pick the right Adam, support his performance and keep him comfortable and stimulated by offering a few notes here and there. It was almost like directing black box theatre. I set the stage and the actors play/work.

LBB> The film is set on a space station/ship - who did you work with on the set design? Did you take any inspiration from the world of sci-fi?

Matt> Our set inspo were all the classics, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ to ‘Alien’ to a beautiful little film ‘Moon’. I leaned into retro futurism and clean lines as a design aesthetic and started with a simple cardboard model that allowed me to map out the blocking and scale. It needed to be small enough to play into the claustrophobia of the relationship, but big enough for the actors to create subtle physical/emotional barriers at key moments throughout the script. Some 3D modelling confirmed my suspicions, and then I started sourcing material and textures; from insulation tiles to irrigation tubing to industrial shelving. A long-time colleague whipped up the rear window unit, but it really wasn’t until we got all the materials to the stage and in front of the LED volume wall that I knew what it was going to look and feel like. I was proud of the design and build effort, but our cinematographer, Mike O’Leary really brought it to life with light, including but not limited to some highly choreographed practical light cues.

 Above: Matt's cardboard model of the set

LBB> Equally, Jeff, what was it like writing for two distinct voices - a female human and a male android? How did you navigate the emotional beats with a - supposedly - unemotional character?

Jeff> Maybe it’s years of working in advertising, but I like to think writing in different voices is somewhat instinctive for me now. Jill was someone who clearly didn’t want to allow herself to get hurt again, like so many of us, so that felt like an easy place to build a voice from. Unlike most of us, however, she had actively chosen a partner who would be incapable of developing the kind of relationship hurt comes from - what kind of person signs up for that? What does that tell us about her? 

In terms of Adam, I found the process of shaping him to be quite fun. As you said, he is supposedly unemotional but in fact, he is learning and experiencing the emotions we do at a very rapid pace. He’s going through the computations of navigating a long-term relationship - and under the duress of an emergency evacuation order. It was like I had to have him Kubler-Ross love at light speed. It was great! The voice I actually struggled with the most was ‘The Voice’ played masterfully off-camera by Julia Kelly. Although the turn (no spoilers) had existed since the first draft, the relationships between all three characters changed a lot from draft to draft and getting them, and the language in her cues, just right was integral to the story to us.

LBB> As well as highlighting a conversation around AI, the relationship drama and its sinister twist also provokes thoughts about the social dynamics between men and women. What do you think audiences should take away from the film?

Jeff> Relationships have many universal dynamics, so hopefully there was a little something for everyone in that regard. AI is as polarising as it is topical, especially in our industry, as is the social/professional dynamic between people inside and outside the workplace. This simple comedy about a scientist and her android lover ends up being a pretty complexly nuanced narrative. For me, the ultimate goal is enjoyment followed by provocation. Far be it from me to proselytise when it comes to social dynamics/injustices or the dangers of technology, but I can hope that the art I participate in creating might get other people thinking and talking. I’m pretty sure that's how humans develop empathy, challenge social norms, and ultimately ignite change.

LBB> The film is obviously dialogue-heavy, and takes place entirely in one room - how did you work with the DoP and others to keep the film visually interesting throughout its runtime? 

Matt> It was a challenge for sure… and this type of slow-burn, single-location, dialogue-heavy film might not be for everyone. But, the next time you wormhole your way into watching 15 minutes of people tripping up steps, remember that you could have spent half that time watching our film. Again, I credit the writing, the actors, our brilliant editor Leo Zaharatos and our gifted composer, Andy Stack, for keeping the film moving. I am really lucky to have so many talented people around me and [DoP] Michael O'Connor is at the top of the list. We mapped the coverage pretty intensely by blocking the film in a boring white hallway that happened to be the same dimensions as our set. It may not be totally apparent upon first viewing, but there are many subtle variations in the camera angles as the tension heightens throughout the film. Aside from fueling the emotion of the film, it keeps the vantage point fresh in what I was hoping would be an almost imperceptible way. 

LBB> What aspect of the film are you most proud of? Do you have a favourite line, or on-set moment that you can share?

Matt> Getting a passion project like this done is something to be proud of in itself; kudos to any and all short filmmakers out there that cross the finish line. What I’m most proud of is the support I get from my local filmmaking community and long-time production/post production partners, especially my producers Steve Blair and Brenna Mathers. The fact that folks are willing to dedicate their free time and expertise to help bring this film to life is as validating as it is humbling. Having people trust your vision and believe in you is the greatest feeling in the world. There are too many great lines to pick a fave, but the Sandals Resorts bit always makes me smile. My favourite moment on set was watching Donald, Molly and Julia watch the playback of the master shot and seeing their faces light up. It was an eight-minute take. At that point, we knew the film was going to be a success. 

Jeff> I would echo a lot of Matt’s sentiment here. This is the second time I have come down to Baltimore to shoot a short film with Matt and his team, and both times there has been a moment when I look around the set and am in awe of all the people who come out to help us make these projects into realities. And I feel the same when I get home to Toronto with the footage and our post-production partners step in. It’s a consistent cast of characters who I have been working with for well over a decade who all raise their hands to help, and each one of them makes the film better in their own way. I hope it says something about Matt and I and the work. And if not, then enjoying a bowl of dehydrated turkey tetrazzini on set with Matt, would be my second choice. In terms of the film itself, whenever I watch someone watch it and they are genuinely surprised at the right moment, it makes my day. 

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