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In ‘[subtext],’ a First Date Reveals the Perils of Ranking Trauma

In the short film “[subtext],” Olivia Haller plays a woman on a first date, wary of the well-dressed man she’s just met. There’s something wrong about him — is this guy a player? — and her guard is up.

As you may have gathered from the title, no one says what they mean, and that becomes a smart storytelling device that drives the film to places you would never predict. The dynamics between Haller’s character, Luna, and her date, Cameron, played by Hunter Stiebel, take a heart-in-your-throat turn – for the potential couple, and for everyone in the bar.

The film, currently enjoying a festival run that includes near simultaneous appearances at the Austin Film Festival and FilmQuest in Provo, Utah, where it arrives this weekend, is achingly topical. But its timeless message is about the need for empathy for everyone you meet.

Making ‘[subtext]’

Haller, who wrote the film, was encouraged by director Erin Brown Thomas to tell the story. They met in a Los Angeles writers group for Vanishing Angle, the prolific, boundlessly creative company behind recent films like Alden Ehrenreich’s directorial debut, “Shadow Brother Sunday.”

Haller, who is from the Washington, DC area and has a theater background, and Brown Thomas, who is from Ohio and is a longtime Angeleno and artistic director of L.A.’s Salute Your Shorts film festival, started going out for coffee, and eventually workshopping the script with actors.

“It went through like a lot of different drafts and became this really exciting, interesting exploration of trauma and how we don’t want to rank trauma, and how we’re all kind of moving through our own version of that,” Haller said. “At least for me, by being honest and vulnerable, we’re actually able to make better, more genuine connections than if we’re trying to move past stuff or push it down or hide it.”

We spoke with Haller and Thomas at the Indy Shorts Film festival, over the summer, as the short film started catching audiences by surprise.

“Something that I told her, and one of the reasons I responded to the script, is that I don’t like it when I’m watching movies and I get ahead of them,” explained Brown Thomas.

They took care to craft the scenes so that every line can be read on at least two levels.

“We had the option of making it super clear at the beginning what was going on,” Brown Thomas added. “But she chose lines, and I encouraged her to choose lines, that could potentially play as her being cheeky. … I wanted to make sure that the audience did not know the schtick until we wanted them to know the schtick.”

They also made every moment count.

“If we go too long, it becomes a gimmick. There’s all these like beats in the movie, and they’re about two minutes each — that’s about how long it’s going to take the human brain to figure out this beat. Now we’ve got to get out of it and get to the next beat.”

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Tone was also a question, because the film veers from the normal, comic anxieties of dating to the deeper caution of meeting near-strangers to sheer terror.

“There were some people in our writers group that were just like reading the script, and they were like, ‘This can’t be done. You should not make this movie. It’s like sad drama, and comedy.’”

She took that warning and used it to inform her guidance to her department heads: “Listen, everything in the design of this movie has to essentially say something bad is about to happen, because that’s what both characters are thinking and feeling. And that is also going to help the big reveal feel earned and not like we’re switching genres on it. The last thing we wanted was for it to feel like shock value.”

It turned out that Amber Khieralla, an actor who plays a small but crucial role in the film, had recently gone through a trauma like the one referenced in [subtext.]”

“She ended up becoming like a trauma consultant,” Haller said. “We did a lot of dramaturgy to make sure we’re doing this authentically — again, not for the shock value at all, not like, ‘Oh, we’re gonna incorporate edgy elements.’”

[subtext] screens today at FilmQuest.

Main image: (L-R) Hunter Stiebel, Erin Brown Thomas and Olivia Haller on the set of [subtext] In ‘[subtext],’ a First Date Reveals the Perils of Ranking Trauma

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