Director Anna Remus explores the concept for Keeper and the journey to make the short film.
What was the inspiration for the story of Keeper?
My late sister and I had a really complicated relationship, which usually involved me being the “protector” or “fixer.” Once that cycle gets started, it gets messy quickly. I remember one time in particular, when I was picking her up from somewhere shady, and thinking, “You should be glad I’m here to save your ass; you’ve pushed everyone else away.” That night I started imagining how this story would go if things were worse; if she was a woman living in a category that society didn’t feel the need to protect. So Keeper was born from a real codependent relationship, and my fear that someday, I wouldn’t be there when it counted.
I wanted to explore the duality of unhealthy relationships. Jess needs Missy to protect her, but Missy’s behavior shows us that she needs someone to protect. This is a role she was given as a child, and now she’s going to dangerous lengths to fulfill it.
And that’s, I hope, the lasting impact of the film: the final shot in which Missy realizes she and her sister are stuck in an infinite loop. There will always be another Bill. Jess will always dig herself into another hole, and Missy will always be there to rescue her. It’s like (I’m sorry, philosophy major) the Myth of Sisyphus. She pushed one rock up the hill, but it just rolled back down.
You’ve made several short films; how does this one fit into your body of work?
Keeper leans heavily into its genre, which is the space I generally like to occupy. But it does so in a much more personal way than I have in the past. I tend to take one experience or present feeling and form a story around it; this was the first time I went very deep into a painful event in my life. Making it felt like it healed something.
This film will always live as my first time directing action. I love that it reflects my love of entertaining genre stories, while also staying emotionally grounded. I hope that in the future, we look back on this as the project that set the tone for my feature films.
As filmmakers, we hope that every project is a professional “level up,” in terms of quality, storytelling, etc. This feels like a big improvement from my last short, and that makes me very happy.
Can you share some of the biggest challenges from the production?
Initially, one of the big challenges was marrying the budget and the action. Using a gun as a weapon felt not only boring and unrealistic in the context of the story (Missy isn’t someone with gun money), but also posed cost issues. We’d need realistic prop guns, SFX, a weapons handler, and many more VFX shots in post. I’ve seen a lot of low-budget action shorts that try to do too much weaponry, and it all seems ineffective. At some point a friend and I were talking about the story, and he (blessed be) suggested I look at an old video game that killed bad guys creatively. From there, Anthony Hoang (stunt coordinator) and I worked through the idea of using a nail gun.
I think normally working with kids would be cited as a challenge, but our two young actresses were some of the most professional and cool talent I’ve ever worked with. They talked to everyone and asked questions about each part of the process. They’d laugh at a booger joke the sound guy made, then as soon as I said “action,” they’d be in character, crying. I remember one scene, where Molly (Young Missy) is supposed to cry when her dad comes home, and I was like, “Well, Molly, we can do a take of this, then cut, then give you some time to get tears going…” And she was just like, “No, I think I’d cry when he said that. I’m just going to do it.”
Above all, everyone involved is a working professional who had to take time off of their larger, commercial projects for a low-budget narrative. I’ve been on sets where that caused scheduling issues, or gripes about the longer hours. This was really a dream team of folks who just love the process. I’m grateful that they all gave so much to this film.
Oh yeah, and on the last day one of our producers got threatened by a (retired?) Hell’s Angel member outside of a strip club in Groton, but I’ll let him tell you about that.
This project includes a lot of action; how did you prepare for and execute fight scenes?
As I mentioned, this was my first time directing action at this level. In the beginning, getting from Point A to Point B felt overwhelming. Every move needed to be parsed out and optimized for camera. Next time you see a fight scene that you really like, I recommend watching and pausing to count how many individual shots make it up. It’s wild.
I took tons of notes and rewatched my favorite action sequences in slow motion. Atomic Blonde is one of the references that we cited often for the style of both the fighting and the camera coverage. I wanted it to feel painfully real. I wanted you to doubt that Missy would make it out alive. And I wanted those intimate moments, like Bill grinding his boot on her hand, when you can feel how personal this is for both of them.
Quinton (DP) and I met Anthony and some performers at a gym one afternoon, and went through my initial choreography and blocking plan. One thing that Anthony flagged: nail guns don’t actually fire like normal guns; they need surface contact. We reworked everything to ensure nail gun touched its victims, and Anthony brought great suggestions to beef the scene up and make it look more realistic. We experimented with a few different ways of filming it, and settled on a shot list. There were some kids in another part of the gym that kept pausing to watch us and make “Ooo” sounds whenever someone got hit. We kept reminding them it was all fake and all a (safe) game.
I felt like I needed to learn the choreography just as well as the actors did, in order to shoot it well and give them notes on the day. When Shawn (Bill) didn’t throw Anna (Missy) far enough, she wouldn’t be far enough from the couch and he couldn’t land in a safe way. When Anna didn’t lift her hip up before rotating her torso, the backhand looked weak. I tried to memorize the little details that we needed to get right.
We had a day of stunt choreography with the actors, in a padded gym. We just ran it over and over until we all knew what we were doing, then the actors added the emotional layers to each beat. We took videos of everything to compare takes.
We shot all of the action on our first day, when everyone was fresh. When we finally rolled, it felt very precise. This was like a dance we had been rehearsing for weeks. We did 4-5 takes, and I don’t think any of them were unusable. Because of the precautions we took, and with Anthony on set, everyone felt safe. And I think we all had fun too.
The only injury was during the final confrontation of Missy and Bill; we had Anna beat a sandbag as a stand-in for Bill’s face, and it got punctured. RIP.
What are you hoping the audience will take away from the film (besides how lethal nail guns are)?
Above all, I hope it’s a fun, entertaining adventure. We could all use a little escapism these days.
If you have a sibling, especially a sister, I hope this strikes a particular chord. “You can’t pick your family,” but they were given to you for a reason. I’m always trying to make sure that reason is fully realized.
And finally, I hope it asks you to consider the “roles” you play in your relationships. Which drain you? Which enrich you?