At Twelve Cabins we’ve had our eyes on Charles Pieper ever since we caught his crazy monster short Malacostraca online two years ago. Now he arrives with When We Dance, the follow-up to Malacostraca which shows a more dramatic side to the director’s abilities. When We Dance is a classical romance in a sense as it sees a man seeking solace in grief, thinking back to memories he has of first meeting his now deceased wife. He particularly finds catharsis through a memorable song they shared, and through listening to it again, he seeks to reach out to her once more. Twelve Cabins joined Pieper in conversation to discuss When We Dance and the journey his filmmaking has taken since making Malacostraca.
We really loved your previous short Malacostraca. What made you head into more dramatic territory with When We Dance?
Malacostraca took over five years to create due to financial issues and ongoing health problems I had at the time. So when it was all said and done I was very eager to do something different to show I wasn’t just a one trick pony monster puppet director! I wasn’t sure what would come next but then this project came to me in a fortuitous way…
When we Dance was written by Screenwriter Kenny Wright. We met at Filmquest in 2018 (which was the world premiere of Malacostraca). He dug our film and we hung out at the fest and became friends. Afterwards he sent me several short scripts of his that he was interested in me possibly directing. The majority of them were more straight up horror but, perhaps to his surprise, the one that most appealed to me was When We Dance because it was so different and more emotionally dramatic. I thought directing it would be a fun creative challenge for me. For the first time I’d direct a script written by someone else, and then beyond that, direct something just overall very different than what I had done previously.
What new challenges did this film bring that you hadn’t faced on Malacostraca?
When We Dance had a bigger cast and bigger scope, in terms of time periods, than Malacostraca did, so those were new challenges. We also had less time and less budget overall to make it. It was shot entirely over the course of one weekend (save for one pickup shot of the fireplace). So yes, having less time, and more people, was challenging. But we all rose to the occasion and the end result looks solid.
The performances feel central to the story you’re telling of the connection between music and memory, how did you work with your actors to establish their characters?
I knew this short would need a solid lead actor to not just sell the story in the moment, but also visually sell the story that had come before the short started… We needed someone who could say a lot with not just the dialogue but could be expressive even in silence. Luckily I had met Larry Cedar through a mutual comedian/actor friend of mine months before this project came to me and we hit it off well. He really dug Malacostraca so he said he’d be up for acting in future work of mine. Well, luckily enough the next script I got starred a character that fit Larry perfectly! So he came on board and his involvement brought on the wonderful Molly Hagan to play his wife. They are friends in real life so their natural chemistry helped their character work immensely.
Larry and I talked a lot and I allowed what he brought personally to affect and alter the character in the film. Instead of fully reshaping him to fit the written character I allowed his real life persona to blend with, and help, the character on the page. For his younger self in the flashback we were lucky to find Caleb Thomas. He is a talented and energetic young actor and also one who genuinely resembled Larry as well! For him I opened up about my own awkward youthful interactions and dating experiences and those helped inform his scene heavily. The same went for Ashley Elliot who played the younger Emilia. I let her clue in to the stories of my own young awkwardness and I think my directorial energy helped inform her work in kind towards Caleb.
How much of a challenge was it to recreate the late 60s?
It was a big challenge for we had little money and little time! But we had a great production designer in Job Jaime. It was miraculous what he pulled off! That whole flashback set was built inside the garage of the house we shot at. The cars were taken outside and the inside got decorated and filled with the lights and the smoke and everything. It was super warm and awkward in there but it looks great on camera.
Music is a key component to When We Dance’s story, what made you land on the songs you used?
Knowing how key music would be to this short I reached out to Ross Garren, the main composer from Malacostraca. Well lo and behold, he already had a finished track that perfectly fit what we needed for this short! So the central song that Emilia plays, the song on the record itself, that is Ross’ song which had finished before the short. It was a very lucky, delightful coincidence that he had such a song in his back pocket. Beyond that the main score of the short was done by Mckenzie Stubbert, another incredible composer I am lucky to know and work with.
Initially though I wanted the song that was playing when Emilia enters the party to be Oscillations by the Silver Apples for I love that song and I also enjoyed the idea of a very atonal, un-romantic piece of music being associated with a romantic moment. However Kenny never felt the same way about this, and, in retrospect, rightfully so. Plus getting the rights to use that song would have been horribly expensive!
What can we expect next from you?
I’m currently producing a large scale stop motion animated short called Everybody Goes to the Hospital. It’s written and directed by Tiffany Stubbert and we plan to have it ready for the 2021 film festival circuit. Beyond that I’m in the early pre-production stages of directing a new music video for the band Broken Baby (whose lead singer is Amber Bollinger who played Sophie in Malacostraca) and I’ve written several new feature scripts that are percolating slowly in the background.