Jac Cron is an independent filmmaker who has made series of shorts and has made her feature debut film Chestnut. It revolves around a recent college graduate who becomes entangled in a relationship with a man and a woman. Brian Taylor sat down with her at the Austin Film Festival to talk about her film.
Brian: All right, so I would love to know where you came up with the story, because it actually feels really personal.
Jac Cron: I think it’s like an amalgamation of a bunch of different experiences of mine. I think emotional experiences of mine where I’ve been in similar emotional states, not necessarily the exact dynamic of the movie. But you know, I felt very alone and lost after college, and so I think a little bit of it was just me thinking about how I was at that time of my life when things weren’t so clear for me. And then also just being in love for the first time or like, so it seemed, or being heartbroken and yearning after someone who you’re not sure of in the situation. I think these are all universal experiences that a lot of people go through, and I think I was just trying to think of what kind of specific lens, especially through a queer lens, like, how that could, I guess, transpire so, a little bit of personal emotional experience and then a little bit of, you know, movie dramaticism-that’s not a word.
Brian: So, your characters, they feel like people that you as a viewer might know and they’re all live so how did you achieve that?
Jac: Again, just an amalgamation of people that I’ve met in my life. Different people who I once knew, who I know now, friends and a lot of it is just the actors bringing people they’ve known and parts of themselves and parts of myself to life, you know? I think there’s a little bit of me in every single character in the movie, and I think as a writer, that’s what you’re doing for most characters you write, and that’s how you make them feel really alive. You have to, put a little bit of view in all of them and a little bit of people you know and love or cared about at one point.
Brian: That actually makes sense. So your cast is really good, how did Natalia Dyer become involved?
Jac: Well, I mentioned I did a short film with Rachel Keller back in 2019 and after we did the short, we had such a great time and she’s a dear friend of mine and she was talking to me about what i wanted to do next and I’m like, “I really wanna make a feature.” I had the script that I’ve been trying to make for a few years and she was like, “Let me read it”, and when she read it, she was like, “I wanna be involved in this if you would have me.” And I was like, “oh, absolutely. I would love that.” And pretty quickly we were like, “okay cool.” Like, “you know I want you to be Tyler,” she’s like, “I wanna be Tyler.” And we were talking about her manager, I didn’t have representation and her manager was really integral in helping me kind of get little seeds out there and just trying to plant things. And so we were all talking about who I wanted to be Annie, the protagonist. I think I wanted to find somebody who looked like friends of mine and people that I grew up with and stuff like that. So, I was watching Stranger Things and I had seen an interview with Natalia and I was like, “oh she seems so lovely and seems like a friend of mine.” Rachel, her manager, had said “oh they are represented by the same person” and “why don’t I reach out to their agent and we can set up a meeting?” Natalie and I met for coffee, had like a three hour coffee, hit it off. It was a much much shorter story than I made it. (Both Laugh)
Brian: No, I like the long version, it was actually really good, it’s more entertaining. So, this is your first feature but you’ve made several shorts already, so how did those experiences help you with this film?
Jac: I think most of my experiences with shorts helped with my feature as far as organization. I think, that, and making something happen from a vision in your head to a physical reality, just that tactileness of it is kind of hard to conceptualize when you’ve never done it before so I think when I made sure it’s always like oh this is how that’s kind of done or that comes out and that happens.I think shorts and features are completely different. I actually find it much harder to make shorts than I did my feature just because I had more control, because everything was up to me. I had made a lot of my shorts with friends and in my house or friends’ houses or in our neighborhoods and stuff like that, so I had a little bit more control where a feature you’re trusting a lot of different people and a lot of things are out of your control. So, I think it’s a little bit of a different beast but I think just knowing how things happen and how things are done is what prepared me for the future. But being on feature sets prepared me most for making features. My mentor, Drake Doremus, is an amazing filmmaker and I was really lucky to be able to shadow him on his last film, and seeing how features are done from conception to, going into film festivals. That prepared me for actually making a feature where I was like, “okay, I remember that, I remember how that was done” and then being able to talk to him and also other people who made features is what helped me the most.
Brian: So, there’s a very particular feel to this movie because of the way it was shot. Did you always plan to do it with mostly hand-held cameras? Because it seems that’s what you did most.
Jac: Yes. I wanted the film to be as naturalistic as possible. I wanted it to feel like you were there in the spaces and the places, with the protagonist at all times. I wanted to feel a little bit fly on the wall-y, and I always wanted it to feel really intimate and it to feel very dynamic in the shots, like it was very lived in. So, yeah, that was always my intention is just to focus on the small little nuances just because I think it’s not so much of a plot driven movie. I think it’s more of like a vignette of life. So, I wanted that to be reflected in the cinematography.
Brian: I think you also feel the emotions more the way you shot it.
Jac: The movie is all emotion and that’s what I hope people get out of it.
Brian: That’s what I got out of it. (Both laugh) So, I read that you’re a photographer. Did you ever think about doing your own cinematography or was that not an option in your mind?
Jac: No, never an option in my mind. As I will always say, I love taking photos, film photography is a hobby of mine. I would never ever call myself a photographer. My favorite part of the filmmaking process is collaboration. So I love collaborating with people and having other people’s vision to inform the film and to make the film richer. So, it was really important to me to have a cinematographer’s eye because as much as I know how I would like my movie to look, that’s just not my skill level. Just the same as, I wouldn’t want someone else to write or direct something that I consider myself a writer and director. So, it was really important for me to have somebody who had a really great eye for that come in and have their own mark on it and I think my cinematographer, Matt Clegg, did an amazing job at elevating my vision and just making it something so similar to what I had hoped it would come out like. But it exceeded my expectations in so many different ways as to what was in my head but a romanticized version of it in a little bit of a way. I think collaboration is the best when, it’s what you hoped but also lovely little surprising twist.
Brian: I like that answer. So, what was the hardest scene on both the page and then for you to shoot?
Jac: That’s a really good question. I guess the hardest scene was probably the scene with Tyler and Annie at the end of them talking at the bar. That was the hardest thing to write because it’s difficult to summarize the emotional arc of a movie, and I think that’s where a lot of people wanted the emotional release and to understand, “why did this happen, what happened with this, why did these people do this to each other, why do they feel this way?”
But I don’t think life really happens like that. I think oftentimes we only get partial answers for things that we look for and we only get little bits of what we hope for and also people aren’t always so honest and truthful and vulnerable. So I was toeing a line between giving the audience and our protagonists some emotional release and relief, but also at the same time, staying true. Like, that’s my most important thing is to stay true to life and what life is actually like. And the hardest thing to shoot was that, as well, just because you’re also toeing a line of how emotional it is because sometimes in real life you’re oddly emotional but in movies that sometimes comes across as false when you’re too emotional and you feel like you’re kind of heightening the situation. But, sometimes in life it is heightened and you know it’s a weird thing when you’re making a movie where “this is almost too real, it’s too unbelievable.” So, I was trying to make it emotional enough but not too melodramatic. Also, just technically the hardest to shoot was the kiss scene between Danny [Danny Ramirez] and Annie. That was a one take shot for like four minutes or something like that. It was in low light, wide open, back and forth and you know just a hard scene to shoot to get those emotional beats when you’re so close. We did it on a 75 millimeter or something like that, it was a really tight shot. Just getting that rack focus was hard. But, we did it, somehow.
Brian: It did look great. Was there any ad-libbing or is it mostly on the page?
Jac: There was ad-libbing. Everything was written but there were a lot of liberties that I gave my actors. They know the characters, at the end of the day, better than I do because they’re really digging in the nuance of them, they’re the ones who are sitting with them. I have to have a more macro view of the whole thing and they’re really looking at their own character in a micro sense. So, a lot of their nuances, a lot of their idiosyncrasies, they’re thinking about more than I am because I have to think of the film as a whole. So, I let them kind of run with things, and there were so many moments where they were like, “I think this is actually what my character would do” and I was like, “okay, amazing.” And at the end of the day, I was just like, “if you feel in the moment that there’s some more natural way of saying it, that’s what I want you to say.” Because to be honest, again, I always wanted it to mimic real life. That’s my goal when I’m making anything because I never want anything to feel man made, you know human made I guess, is a better term. I don’t like when I’m watching a movie and I can see the craft behind, you know, a lot of people do like that I don’t. I like to be in a situation and say, “oh, I’m watching real life unfold.” So, anything to make it feel more real life.
Brian: What decisions did you make about your character’s sexuality? I would say it’s a tangled weave; as you could say, probably simple but, what were you thinking as you were writing that you wanted to do?
Jac: I tried not to make any very definitive statements about their sexuality especially because I personally think that sexuality is really fluid. I mean, it is a spectrum, you know, as a fact and I think people come into realizations about their sexuality at different times in their life and it is a lifelong journey of trying to understand our own sexualities. So I didn’t really wanna put any definitive limitations in terms of character on their sexuality. I urged my actors to think about attraction in specific ways and how one another behaves around attraction and whether that’s same sex or different sex attraction and what that means for someone’s sexuality. Because, I think it is difficult, I mean you look at all the characters ways that they interact with each other and you can kind of get a sense of what they feel even without being like, “I’m this, I’m that.” And I wanted it to, as I mentioned, I wanted it to feel like my real life and at different points with my life and my friends’ lives who are either in the LGBTQ+ community or not. We have never, hardly ever been, straight up asked by people like, “are you a lesbian? Are you a gay man? Are you a woman?” It doesn’t really work like that, so I wanted it to feel like situations I’ve been in where you have a look with somebody across the room and it doesn’t matter what sexuality you are, you are attracted to someone or you’re not. Then things get messy when you have to face those things, whether you’re ready or not to fully explore that within yourself. So again, I think a lot of the nuance and the point of my film is to not be so deliberate. And I think it’s been hard for people to wrap their heads around with the film, because we all wanna put everyone in a box, we all wanna say, “This film is a gay film,” and you’re just like, “well, I would urge you to think a little bit more abstractly” about what that means for everyone and how that is.
Brian: I actually appreciate that you didn’t. Because from the moment the film opens where Annie makes a comment about ,”I don’t kiss my friends” you’re like, okay well, she’s not into girls, she’s more into guys and it’s this whole different kind of look you kind of get to the movie where she kind of seems to tell that line throughout the movie where she as you might simply say, she’s trying to figure out life, and she’s trying to figure out who she’s attracted to and what she’s attracted to. And she’s doing that through the whole movie, and I think a lot of your characters, except for Danny, but even Tyler kind of seems to tell that line as well. I think that you did achieve that, there is no box.
Jac: It’s hard when you give somebody a limitation by saying, “this is a lesbian character,” or “this is a bisexual character” and then everybody in the audience is seeing that character, that person, in one specific way and they can’t break out of that thing. Whereas you picked up on something with that line and you’re like, “okay, I see that as she is figuring out who she’s into, who she’s not,” whereas I’ve had friends who are queer women and they’re like “because I’m a queer woman I make get a point to not kiss my friends, where I kiss only the women who I’m interested in,” which can be a thing in the LGBTQ community. But, by not putting a limitation or a box around it, you allow people to interpret things in different ways. Because I think it’s so important for art in and for movies, and, just in general, because that’s what life is, right? Somebody’s not wearing a sign on their forehead that you can say, “oh this is how I see that person.” Little by little you get to see how they interact with the world.
Brian: I agree, I agree. Last question here, so I thought Philadelphia is like a fifth character in this film, so can you talk about why you chose to film there?
Jac: Well, like in the movie, I went to college in Philadelphia and I honestly just love the city; I think it’s really beautiful, it’s really special. I grew up in New York, I live in L.A., I’ve been to a lot of cities in the U.S. and a lot of places around the world and I just feel like Philly was such a hub for emerging art and kind of more affordable than other major cities in the U.S. That a lot of things start there and there’s a lot of emerging opportunities for food and for art and just artists and people who are creative. So, there were a lot of cool things to do and a lot of fun little places to see. And I just love exploring the bar culture there and I feel like it’s a surprisingly artistic city for somewhere where you kind of only see, I think in movies I only saw Philly is like you know like the Rocky steps or like the Liberty Bell or historical city which is just not my experience there. To me I feel like this is common for a lot of other people, maybe in their own smaller cities, but it felt like I had a lot of ownership over the city at the time that I was there. It was kind of a fun place to explore that wasn’t inhabited by so many people like New York or L.A. where you’re just kind of “oh I’m one in a million.” In Philly, it felt a little bit more like I was having my own personal experience. Coming home from bars at like 02:00 or 3:00 a.m, there was no one on the streets and so it would be very much like, you and your friends are drunk, and you feel like, “I own the city.” (Both Laugh) It was very romantic in a lot of ways, and I just never saw a version like that. And I love showing my friends, I remember showing my producer, Lizzie [Shapiro], Philly for the first time when we were going to do a scout and she said, “I love this city, it’s so special.” And since then, she’s created her own relationship with the city and it’s been just a beautiful romantic place in my life.
Brian: Well, thank you very much for your time.