Director interview: Drew Denny – ‘I hope to make bigger fiction films through the lens of a queer feminist perspective.’

Indie filmmaker Drew Denny’s latest feature is short crime thriller Momster, which stars Amanda Plummer (Pulp Fiction) and Brianna Hildebrand (Deadpool) as a mother and daughter on the wrong side of the law. I’ve been lucky enough to ask Denny about this project on the week of its premiere at Tribeca Film Festival…

You’ve packed a lot of story into just ten minutes of film! Was it tricky to edit down without sacrificing the depth it has?
Oh yes, definitely. I wanted an entire action movie, complete with a bit of romance, comedy, and drama, in 10 minutes. It was a storytelling challenge I gave myself that necessitated a lot of thought and preparation in order to build as much meaning into each image. We made t-shirts and uniforms and costume pieces for characters so you know what they’re about without much time for dialogue, for example. I wanted the actors to be able to perform whole scenes like theatre, both for performance and so we could dive in with the camera to create an immersive real-time feeling for some of the more intense sequences.
In the edit, we encountered such challenges as – How to maintain the “straight” beats required for a joke to land without dragging the pace in such a short film… How to build up enough tension for us to truly fear for a character… How to succinctly but sincerely represent our hero’s hope and journey to rise to the challenges presented before her while giving space for her disappointment and disillusionment… Also more practical challenges like how to navigate choreography, stunts, and ensemble scenes with dozens of extras in a space that was literally covered with mirrors! I worked with two fantastic editors and we dove into each beat, scene, and sequence to cull anything that distracted from the mission of the film -which meant losing a few of my very favourite bits!- but in the end, I think we found the right rhythm for the story and hope viewers still get a sense of the depth behind it.
Are there plans to develop the short into something bigger in the future?
Absolutely! One intention behind the short is to plant a seed for the Momster universe which I hope to explore in greater depth in a feature or series.
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I really liked the ‘neon sleaze’ aesthetic that the film has. It reminded me of Nicolas Winding Refn’s work. Was he an influence or did you take inspiration from other places?
Thank you!! That’s a huge compliment and I would like to ask your permission to use “neon sleaze” to describe my aesthetic from now on. Refn is definitely an influence- I love the romance of a movie like Drive where I get to fall head over heels in love with characters who also terrify me in moments (like the elevator scene…)… movies that depict violence and romance sensually and viscerally. The production design, costumes, cars… Not to mention the soundtrack!! 
I also drew from some of my first favourite films- I grew up in the late 90s/00s watching True Romance and Raising Arizona… early Tarantino and Coen brothers movies that introduced me to worlds and characters I adored as a child (even though I wasn’t supposed to be watching those movies as a kid!) 
I can see there are a lot of documentaries in your back catalogue, and I can imagine the overall process of filmmaking is pretty different to fiction stories. Which do you prefer, and why?
I love documentary with all my heart, but I always wanted to make big fiction movies. The truth is – Women directors are much more often hired for docs, and I am often sent out as a one-woman crew. The upside is that the making of a doc often feels like the story of an action movie— I embedded with NASA for three weeks in Arctic Greenland, for example, flying in experimental aircraft over ice caps and hiking over glaciers to follow a female scientist who analyses the melting of Earth’s polar ice caps. I’ve worked undercover in fundamentalist regimes reporting on political corruption while searching for an abducted journalist, and I’ve filmed women’s healthcare activists using drones to deliver abortion pills to a country where it’s illegal… I joke that I decided to move from doc to fiction once I fell down an ice crevasse shooting alone on a doc… But I also want to communicate to a wider audience. So while I will always have a special place in my heart for docs, I hope to make bigger fiction films that speak to broader audiences and just happen to be told through the lens of a queer feminist perspective.
The mother-daughter relationship between Angel and Momster is quite complex given that it’s developed in such a short space of time! What are your favourite on-screen mother-daughter relationships?
Oh, there are so many! Troop Beverly Hills! Ladybird, Steel Magnolias… I could go on. I wanted to do a mother-daughter action movie, though. The feature begins with them pulling off a super complicated heist on a bank, and just when they’re about to escape with all the cash Momster forgets what they’re doing and Angel has to wrangle her again.
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From my research, I know that Momster is inspired by early on-set Alzheimer’s, which Amanda Plummer portrays brilliantly. What was she like to work with, and how did you go about maintaining this level of authenticity?
Thank you so much – I’m so glad you felt the performance and film authentically represents that experience as that is really important to me. Amanda Plummer is so brilliant and generous. The first time we met to discuss the script, I thought she’d give me about twenty minutes but we ended up drinking coffee in a cafe for four hours, at the end of which she was stalking through the cafe in character as Momster. We discussed idiosyncratic vocabulary the character would use, specific ways she would move when she felt disoriented and overwhelmed, and shared our own real experiences with folks who have Alzheimer’s and dementia to make sure we were grounding the character and performance in something true despite how heightened and stylised the movie is. I created the character after caring for my grandmother – who has advanced Alzheimer’s – and my mom, who struggles with mental illness. So there is a real human at the heart of this otherworldly character, and Amanda brought out Momster’s soul by contributing her own inimitable spirit to every movement and line.
Thank you for your time. Good luck at Tribeca!
Check out the trailer for Momster now!
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