Madeline, an aspiring journalist, is deeply involved with political life on her college campus during the Vietnam War. As the elections approach and the political climate becomes more tense, she convinces her childhood best friends Leo and Fred to attend a meeting of the socialist organization Students for a Democratic Society. Here, the three friends are confronted with a question: how far are you willing to go to fight for what you believe in? Seven years later, as the three meet again, they are asked to account for their actions.
Filmmaker Alice Airoldi's period short film The Same Story is a tour-de-force. From story, aesthetic, pacing, and actors performance, you'd suspect this was a film from a seasoned filmmaker. I had the absolute pleasure of speaking with Alice about the inspiration and historical significance behind her short film, her filmmaking journey, and the auteurs that inspire her work and working as an editor. Plus, she shares invaluable advice for filmmakers starting out on their first project.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: What was the seed for this story and basing it in this very specific time period?
Alice Airoldi: I'm obsessed with that time period. My dream was to make this film in Italy, because Italy also has a very strong history of a terrorist group called the Red Brigades, which was kind of like the Weathermen, but went even further than the Weathermen. What sparked my interest was a movie I saw as a kid called Good Morning, Night by Marco Bellocchio, which is really one of my favorite films. It tells the story of four members of this group, four guys who put all this weight and this responsibility on their shoulders and then have to face the consequences for their actions. And they have to be OK with it. And it’s the story of their individual journeys. So I think what really fascinated me about that time period is this idea of how much are you willing to do for a cause that you believe in. And I just have a fascination with people that are reaching for a past that is not there anymore. I think one of the things that embodies this best is seeing relationships or friendships decay over time. Especially that friendship for the three friends in my short, they’re friends from high school, they have that kind of bond where they're basically brothers, but then all of a sudden, they speak a completely different language with each other. And that's very sad. It happens all the time. So, I wanted to do a movie about those two things, and having them influence each other.
Sadie: It's a very character-heavy piece. In terms of your three filmmaking hats, writing, directing, and editing, which one was at the forefront – did the visuals come first, style and look, or did the story come first?
Alice: It was definitely the story. It took a really long time to write the script. It's an idea that I had for a long time and I didn't know exactly what was going to happen. But I wanted it to be about three friends; two guys and a girl because that's the classic trio from French cinema. So it was just working out the details. I knew I wanted to do it here in the US and learn about the history of the US. It was a lot of research.
I approached it as a director in the sense I did a lot of work with the actors. Initially, I considered getting two sets of actors for when the kids are older and when they're younger. I didn't, although it's hard, because it kind of looks like six months have gone by instead of nine years [laughs], so that's why I added the “nine years prior” text. But I think ultimately it was the right choice. The actors became friends on set, which made it feel very authentic.
I slowly developed a kind of look for it and a palette over time. A lot of it was informed by the restrictions we had, mostly in terms of budget, but a lot of it was also inspired by a couple of movies that I wanted to make again, like Zabriskie Point by Michelangelo Antonioni. That film at times is shot in a documentary style, using close-ups and handheld camera. So, I knew I wanted all handheld and I had a great director of photography, Jesse Pamintuan. And then I knew I wanted colors that were different for the two time periods, but that came when we got to post.
And then lastly, for editing, I had edited everything I did up to that point. So, it kind of felt natural that I was going to do that too. I love the challenge of mixing the timelines because the script originally was very linear. That was a great challenge.
The film was a labor of love from everyone who worked on it. The budget was very limited, so the production designer Jacob Kornfeld and costume designers Kyle Mangione-Smith and Alberto Orive had to be really selective on what they decided to spend our resources on. In the end, I was ecstatic with what they were able to accomplish and how realistic it all looked.
The music is a big part of this film. I worked closely with the composer, Santiago Arias-Rozo, and it was an incredibly rewarding collaboration. Being Colombian, he intimately understood the political subtext of the story I wanted to tell so we were on the same page from the very beginning. We wanted to create something that sounded like it could come from the early Seventies electronic music scene. Brian Eno was definitely a big inspiration for us.
Sadie: You’re covering two different timelines in under 15 minutes with a very succinct story and then being able to get ample camera coverage, in terms of that pacing as an editor, knowing that you are the director and writer and you're not really getting enough time to distance yourself from the project, were there challenges working handheld and dolly camera movements, and keeping track of those specific color palettes?
Alice: The color palettes came later. I think we did that as the picture was locked. I knew I wanted them to look different, but I didn't worry about it until later. I think the biggest challenge was that we did not have a lot of courtroom coverage. There was a lot more courtroom material in the original script. But when I was workshopping this film, a lot of people were confused, thinking it was going to be about the trial. So the fact that we didn't have a lot of good coverage of the courtroom served me well; I realized we could get rid of some things and make the film more concise. Finding those transition moments in between the two timelines was fun. I think the fact that it was handheld, and we had a lot of movement of people coming in and out of the frame, really helped me find a lot of moments where I could match movements.
Sadie: Tell me about your filmmaking journey. What was the movie or television show that inspired you to pursue this career?
Alice: It's interesting because I think, for a long time, I was a big fan of movies, but I never thought of it as something I could pursue because it's really not presented as an option in Italy. Your options are very limited; like law, literature, economics, engineering. And so for a long time, I was a fan. It was honestly a British YouTuber called KickThePj, and he would make these films where he would tell stories, and he would use smoke and lights, and they looked so good - amazing production design. That kind of blew my mind because it was like, I didn't know you could do that. I think that was the first time I saw something like that. But I would say in terms of movies, Magnolia and The Truman Show were the two movies that blew my mind in the sense that they are so much larger than life. Those are the films that made me fall in love with filmmaking because there is this world that you can escape to, and it can be so big and so crazy.
Sadie: What kind of stories are you drawn to tell or that you're excited to write about, direct, or even come on board as an editor?
Alice: I like character-driven stories, character studies. I really enjoy contradictions. I'm writing a short about a young woman who gets stuck in conspiracy theories, and they feed into her paranoia. I like to look at perspectives that are not looked at as often. Over the summer I edited a comedy feature film, Pretty Problems, directed by Kestrin Pantera. That was cool, because I've always loved comedies, but I consider them something I liked in my free time. So, working on a comedy was so fun, because I could see how and why a joke works and why it doesn't.
I’m also producing a documentary about being an immigrant in the United States. We're taking the perspective and the storyline of what being an immigrant is, which is usually around the legality of it and all the issues around that. There are very few things that explore what it means for someone to just leave their home behind and then have a second home, and how do you define a new home? And what's the balance between those two identities? So, I think that's another example of a story that I was really drawn to, because, obviously, it's also my story. People don’t see it as often because if you've never left your home, you don't know what it's like. And if you have, you do. It's this almost like an untold narrative.
Sadie: As a director, you learn so much more doing the editing yourself. You can learn more about the pacing and structure and finding the story in the edit. And doing something that's a heavy drama, like your short film to doing comedy, there are certain beats you have to hit to make it work.
Alice: Yeah, working on the feature was great because I had very big time constraints. They wanted to have a rough assembly done basically in a month, so I put together a rough assembly in a month. And the last two weeks, I got to work with the director, Kestrin, and she would point out what was working and what wasn't. I think a lot of it has to be trusting your gut and then revising it and revisiting it later. The best thing is to do it quickly. In one of my classes at UCLA Extension, we had a guest speaker who was the creator of Ben 10 and other kids’ shows, he wrote all these very big children's stories, and he said, ‘The best way to write stories is to make a lot of decisions very quickly. Because your brain knows what's best. And then you go back and you edit.’ That really stuck with me.
Sadie: Are you an outliner or do you just dive in and start writing?
Alice: I write in a very weird way. I feel like if I outline too much, I will make myself bored, so I need to write a couple of scenes. I have a very general outline. The characters’ lives and backstories are always what I work on most. And then I start writing scenes because I need to get myself motivated. I need to have a couple of scenes that I can build on. So, I guess yes and no to outlining.
Sadie: General advice for filmmakers - what’s something that you have learned during the process of making your short film, either during or even in post, that you wish you would have known before going into making this movie?
Alice: I think getting feedback is very important at every stage and learning how to take feedback. I’m good at not taking feedback too personally. But that's because I always assume my stuff is terrible. But that's not the official advice. It's important to show your films to people who are not film people, especially when editing. Because at the end of the day, the people that consume media or at least the vast majority don't work in that field. So, they're not going to see the film the same way you see it. Shoot interesting stuff, challenge yourself to shoot something that looks interesting. The shot that ended up as the poster for my film, The Same Story, was a last-minute location. I realized that there were so many interiors, and I thought, ‘We need something outside.’ And then it became the best-looking scene. If you don't shoot anything interesting, it's just going to look boring.