Credit: Ingmar Chen
by Chris Cassingham Feature Articles Featured Film Interviews

Front Lines of the Creative Process: An Interview with Kit Zauhar

June 6, 2024

Kit Zauhar should probably be one of the shining bastions of American independent cinema today. Her two features to date represent two forms of the micro-budget feature we see time and again: the coming-of-age drama, and the single location drama. They utilize what allows the best of these tiny movies, including Zauhar’s Actual People and This Closeness, to endure: namely, a scrappy, can-do attitude; unfazed, youthful energy; a well of personal experience upon which to draw, and on which to comment; and a clear and ever-present point of view that makes what could be journeys down well-worn narrative paths feel like fresh adventures.

Zauhaur’s newest feature, This Closeness, follows a bickering couple, Ben and Tessa (played by Zane Pais and Zauhar, respectively) who return to the former’s hometown for a high school reunion. The weekend unearths painful insecurities, simmering paranoias, and untapped pettiness, all while the couple brush up against, in more ways than one, an awkward and seemingly maladjusted Airbnb host named Adam. While never explicitly commented on, the supposed ease and convenience of the communal living experience made possible by capitalistic innovation actually fosters new, and exacerbates extant, unpleasant circumstances. Like many carefully calibrated facets of this film, a sense of “individualism commingling with helpless suspicion,” as observed by Morris Yang in his review for InRO, hangs over the proceedings like a specter, reminding us that not every situation we find ourselves in, willfully or not, has an easy way out.

On the occasion of the film’s U.S. theatrical release on June 7, I sat down to talk with Kit.

Chris Cassingham: Could you talk about prepping for the film, specifically working with the actors in such a confined space?

Kit Zauhar: The conceit for This Closeness originally started off as a play, so there was always this intention I carried into the film — when I decided to make it a film — of having it feel theatrical. I wanted it to feel alive, and that the camera was a kind of voyeur instead of a tool for both audiences and performers. I really wanted to feel just like a specter. To achieve that you need long takes, so we did a lot of rehearsal. We were really lucky to have some rehearsal time to help establish rhythm, establish a fluency of not only the language of the script, but the emotional language and tonal language of the world. You do that by just cultivating it via time, space, and energy, essentially. So that’s why rehearsal was so important. I think that was the biggest part of it.

CC: How did the rehearsal contribute to solidifying your relationships with your fellow actors?

KZ: I want to be friends with the people I work with. I’m not really a fan of this nine-to-five dynamic with the people you’re working with on sets. It’s kind of the whole reason people go into the arts, so you can kind of bypass that and have real authentic friendships with the people that you also get to work with. I’d cast Ian [Edlund], who plays Adam, at least a year before we started shooting, so I already knew him really well. There was already an ease between us, just socially. Then it was about just getting into the characters more by being in the space, working on the text together. Also, I think a really big part of acting, particularly with these long takes, like theatrical acting, is knowing how to surprise one another again. Once you understand the character, once you know the language of the script, what can you do within that to subvert someone’s expectations, or make them have to think for a minute as the character of what to do, how to react, how to navigate a situation? So I think that was also a big part of it. Ian never told us whether he, as Adam, thought Lance really existed. He didn’t tell us how he was playing that. So there was this constant, intentional mystery because of that, which made Zane (Pais) and I really have to navigate the world as the characters, who were unaware of what was really happening.

CC: Having rewatched Actual People again in preparation for this, I was also really curious about the conditions or circumstances in your own life that made the transition from what you’ve described as autofiction in Actual People to something that’s maybe less explicitly about you with This Closeness?

KZ: Well this is interesting, because everyone assumes that Actual People is more like my life. But actually, This Closeness has more verbatim stuff from my life than Actual People. Something that I’ve been thinking about a lot is, what makes something a successful work of fiction, what makes something a successful work of auto-fiction? I’m not really quite sure, but it’s an interesting thing. I mean my little sister’s literally in Actual People, and part of it is shot in my house — there are these environmental and circumstantial factors of Actual People that make it seem more like my life. But I took verbatim sentences from men I’ve dated and things like that in This Closeness, so I’m not quite sure. I think it’s an interesting question I’ve been thinking about myself. I do think, in general, because my character in This Closeness is a little more composed, people don’t relate it as much to me [laughs]. I feel like I resonate with both characters, but also am very aware that neither these people I play are me. And I think people who know me well are aware of that. It’s more of this permeable veil between who I am as a person and who I am as the character via public knowledge and the Internet that makes things seem more nebulous, I guess. But I’m not either character.

CC: I guess what makes that assumption about Actual People so easy to make is the integration of the social media and self-recorded videos into the story, which, thinking about it now, of course those can be just as fabricated as anything else. But they do generate that sort of response in the viewer, which would make us assume that it’s closely hewn from your own experience.

KZ: For sure. And I think there’s just this idea that, because my character in This Closeness is more restrained in a lot of ways, that she operates in a similar way to the audience, she’s someone wrestling with moral questions as opposed to having to confront them a lot of the time. But I’m not quite sure. I think race is a factor, too. My ethnicity, racial background, whatever you want to call it, is more of a factor that’s acknowledged and fucked with in Actual People, whereas in This Closeness it kind of comes out later as this… not revelation, but as this minor confrontation within a larger one. So maybe that’s also part of it.

Kit Zahaur - This Closeness

Credit: Factory 25

CC: That leads me right into my next question. One of the most interesting things I was struck by while watching This Closeness was seeing a relationship between the physical space of the apartment and a question of otherness. They feel like two things you can’t really escape from. Can you speak to a relationship between these two ideas?

KZ: Societally, I can see my racial background as being “other.” But I do think, in some ways, what I like about this story is that Adam is actually most othered, even though he’s a white male who has all these societal trappings to be not only fully accepted into society, but kind of an alpha. I feel like my race functions as another specter throughout the film. I could see certain people wondering, “well, when is this going to get addressed?” even though it’s not like you walk down the street and you’re in a crowd with a bunch of other people and you’re waiting for everyone to talk about what they are so you can have some clarity. But I think it does operate as a specter, especially once Kristen’s character is introduced. There’s sort of no coming back. But my racial identity isn’t something I’m actively ever thinking about. Even in that conversation with me, Zane, and Jesse Pinnick at the table when my character is talking about getting bullied, I wasn’t writing that because my character is half Asian. I don’t think she’s getting bullied about that. So it just becomes a different texture of Tessa. I think, also, as a biracial person who doesn’t look that Asian, I don’t feel comfortable making any sort of definitive statements about the Asian-American identity. It’s not something I feel is very interesting, honestly. I think a lot of contemporary films that have been trying to deal with it have done it in odd ways that I don’t relate to. So it’s not an issue that I want to broach. I’d rather just make dramas where, like in America, like in the world, everyone is not white, for the most part, and see where that leads organically, as opposed to like making some huge statement about it.

CC: An explicit attempt at a grand, sweeping statement would probably land with a thud in this film.

KZ: Yeah [laughs].

CC: You mentioned in an interview with Tone Glow, and you alluded to it briefly earlier, that you like to foster a personal relationship between cast and crew, and that you act in your films as a way to bridge the gap between the two sides of the camera. It’s an angle on that kind of dual role I hadn’t really thought about. But what is it about the actual job of performing that makes you want to keep doing it as well?

KZ: I think that’s a good question. I wish I had a better answer for it. I grew up with a theater background, so I grew up acting a lot. And I was a really, really shy, socially awkward child, but I really just liked acting, and I liked having something eloquent and interesting to say that I didn’t have to think of myself. Something I’m constantly interested in, and I’ve always been interested in, is: what’s the fastest way to foster intimacy with another person? And I think acting is such an amazing way to do that. So it’s just something that feels good in the most basic sense, like an almost animalistic sense for me. It’s just something I enjoy. I do also think I’m someone who doesn’t feel super precious about herself. I think I also act in the films as a way to keep stretching the bounds of where I will allow myself to go in terms of vulnerability, access to my emotions, and ability to give access to my emotions to other people.

And I also think, when you’re a young woman making films, it’s very easy for people to denigrate your ambition, or your vision, or your intention. And I think a really clear way of saying, “No, this is something I deeply care about,” is to put yourself in sort of the front lines of that creative process and show that you’re willing in some ways — I don’t think “sacrifice” is the right word, I don’t like love that kind of like weird martyr-esque language when talking about young women in movies — but you’re willing to show via your body, via your spirit, that you’re in it and you care about this thing, and you believe in it. I think that makes other people more willing to believe in it as well. It’s sad to say, but that’s kind of how it has to get done sometimes. When I was at NYU, I would see these 18-, 19-year-olds writing sex scenes and making these grown actors be naked on set for some small film that would go nowhere, and it just felt weird and exploitative. I think if you want other people to get to that point, you need to be willing to get to that point, too. And I’m not saying every director has to get naked if they’re shooting a sex scene, but that’s something I just felt strongly about. I want to put myself in as vulnerable a situation as my other actors, because that’s how you show that it’s worth it, that you care enough about it for everyone else to put their belief in it as well.

CC: Have you seen examples of this theory in practice, of people letting you know or showing you that putting yourself in a vulnerable position affected them?

KZ: [Laughs] I mean, the crying scene in Actual People, people say they get really emotional watching that, which I guess is another way of being super vulnerable. Obviously, for me, the scene is kind of ridiculous and hard for me to watch because I look insane and am being kind of insane. But I think people really resonated with that, the amount I’m willing to be seen as not necessarily a likable person.

CC: I think the only logical next step is that you have to sing in front of people.

KZ: Yeah, oh God!

CC: I’m really curious about the theatrical rollouts of really small films such as this, if they get a theatrical life at all. Can you speak to the experience of bringing This Closeness into theaters and into the world post-festival run, and in comparison to the way Actual People also found its way into the world?

KZ: I think in some ways it was easier with Actual People. I just think it’s getting more and more difficult to get movies out in the world. This hasn’t been easy, if you can imagine, and I think in some ways this movie is a harder sell because it’s not a scrappy coming-of-age story, which sort of has an audience. This has pretty explicit sex scenes, is set in one apartment, there are no “stars.” I think those things all make it more difficult to get it in theaters. It will be streaming worldwide on MUBI on July 3, so I think that will represent the wider release — much the same with Actual People, that’s how most people saw it. So I’m very grateful to them, and to Matt Grady at Factory25. So it’s difficult, but I think it’s a good learning lesson, because the movies I want to continue making are probably more like This Closeness than Actual People. So it’s good to start that journey, to understand that every time I make a movie that it is just hard to do. But I don’t really want to stop making movies like this, so I guess that’s the sacrifice.