By Katie Conway, Contributor
This past April, The Women in Comedy Festival celebrated a week of showcasing women in the comedy industry – including some very talented females performing stand-up, improv, and musical acts all around Boston. But did you know WICF also hosted not one, but TWO film festivals?
With two different film festival contests to submit to, the Brattle Theater debuted a number of short films – each helmed by and focusing on women. Four films took top prizes at the festival, two from the WICF Film Festival and two from the Rachel Bloom Short Challenge. The difference between the two being that films submitted to the Rachel Bloom short challenge had to be made specifically for the festival and begin with the line “you can’t do that.” For each category, the judges determined a festival winner. The audience chose the second winner by voting for their favorite films in each category. We checked in with all the winners to find out more about their filmmaking process and what projects they will tackle next.
Here to talk about their hilarious short “Firm with Purpose”
– the Audience Favorite Winner
for the Rachel Bloom Challenge
– are Tia Ayers
and Shannon Swanson
How did you first hear about the WICF and/or Rachel Bloom’s Comedy Short Challenge?
Tia: My sister Shannon and I were having a “work” night — which consists of us working on our computers while we watch trashy TV — and I saw a post on Facebook about the challenge.
Shannon: We were planning to shoot something in early 2017 as a calling card for our production company, Borndreamer, and we thought the Women in Comedy Fest would be a perfect place to debut it.
How much experience in film did you have prior to creating this short?
Tia: A lot. We’ve been making independent shorts and videos for a long time. I was also a writer on a series airing in Canada called “Raising Expectations.” Prior to that, I spent years piecing together stories in reality television and co-wrote a Lifetime movie with our mom, which was (unintentionally) hilarious.
Shannon: Besides teaming with Tia for Borndreamer’s films I worked in scripted comedy television, as well as Independent features. I was a producer for Abominable Pictures and produced the new media series Filthy Preppy Teens (not a porno) for Fullscreen. I am also in IATSE as a Production Office Coordinator and coordinate about one Indie a year.
Tia: Yeah, Shannon just finished on a film last week. Yay Shannon!
What inspired you to create this film/what sparked the idea for it?
Tia: This was our mom Rebecca Ayers’ idea. She’s a writer and producer and our hero. Our brother was retiring from the U.S. Army after 20 years of service and getting ready to start a second career. As he prepared for job interviews, our mom mentioned that she wished she could go in his place. Our brother is humble and our mom felt she’d be able to brag about his achievements without coming off as arrogant. Of course in the real world, “You can’t do that”, so she wrote the first draft. We did several drafts, turning the son into a daughter (played by Alana Johnston) and giving the person conducting the interview (Mary Hollis Inboden) a more emotional journey.
How influential was the line “You Can’t Do That” in making this short?
Tia: Pretty influential. Although we told a story that could exist without the line “You can’t do that”, those words have a powerful impact and we wanted to subtly explore characters that have either put limits on themselves or have given other people the power to dictate what they can and can’t do. Pretty hilarious, right?
What was the most difficult obstacle you encountered in creating the film?
Shannon: Oh man. We had a lot of fun making this film and we really went out of our way to cross our T’s and dot our I’s. That made things a lot easier and less stressful in the long run. I’d say one of the most stressful things was actually crewing up. Once we locked in our Director of Photography things started falling into place but we didn’t hire our Sound Mixer until the day before we filmed and we were so lucky to have found him!
Tia: Finding the right person to play our lead was also difficult. We reached out to a lot of producers and directors for recommendations and luckily we were referred to Ellen Gerstein. She really brought the character of Kathy to life and audiences at our screenings love her.
Any funny stories from filming?
Tia: We had an issue with exterior noise while filming. It was like every time we rolled camera, there would be very loud street noise: rumbling cars, yelling, shouting, music, you name it.
Shannon: Yeah, it sounded like there was a parade going on outside. And a protest against the parade. Happy music and angry shouting. Which is typical L.A. We’re a mix of very happy and very angry people.
Tia: We were worried that we wouldn’t even be able to hide it all (we were, thanks to our amazing Sound mixer Jose Castro Jr.) During one take Mary Hollis and Ellen just went with the sounds, improvising that the job interview was being conducted while a riot was going on outside. I think we also pretended that there was a company strike and there were picketers outside. It was so funny in the moment and broke the tension we were feeling, but it didn’t really work in edit.
Is there anything you would change about your short if you could?
Shannon: I’m very proud of our film. I’m glad that our film is succinct but there were so many funny moments that I would love to have been able to include, but ultimately, I think the length is best for what it is!
Tia: Our actors were so great, I just wish we could slow it down and let their performances breathe a bit. We also have another half-page of dialogue we had to cut to make our 5 minute time limit. Overall, I’m happy, but I would make changes if I could. And then I’d change those changes. And so on until the end of time.
Give us a mini Oscar speech! Who would you like to thank for being a part of or inspiring this short?
Tia: Of course the cast– Ellen, Mary Hollis and Alana– and our crew; especially our cinematographer Addison Neville, who’s incredible; TJ Martin, an editor who has lent me so many hands that I’m surprised he still returns my calls.
Shannon: And that he still has hands at all! Also thanks to Maleri Sevier, Hannah Donnelly, Ed Galvez, and Brianna Brennan who were all willing to show up even when we didn’t know if we’d be able to pay them; Danielle & Tiffany Puterbaugh and Bea Menendez who let us take over their house, Virginia Melin our co-producer who let us take over her office. I feel really lucky that we had the crew that we had, everyone was really amazing and we were so grateful that they all worked with us!
Both (in unison): But most importantly, our family. They’re supportive, silly, creative and kind. We’d do anything for them and we know they’d do anything for us.
Shannon: Is there someone else we’re supposed to thank?
Tia: I think that’s everyone. I mean, should we thank Rachel Bloom?
Shannon: Yes, thank you to Rachel Bloom. And thank you to the Women in Comedy Festival. I had so much fun I want to come back every year!
Tia: Yeah, and I guess we should thank the audience–
Shannon: Tia! The music is playing us off!!!
Who inspires you as a filmmaker? And/or was there a particular movie that inspired you to go into film?
Shannon: Lake Bell is inspiring to me. She is so versatile as an artist, and can wear so many hats while leading a team. She’s also hilarious. I think every film I’ve seen has led me to my career in some way or another.
Tia: Really? So when we went to see Simply Irresistible starring Sarah Michelle Gellar and a box crab that wanders aimlessly throughout the movie, it inspired you?
Shannon: Absolutely. You have no idea how many times I think about that movie. Anyway, a film that actually inspired me was Baz Lurhman’s Strictly Ballroom. I was so amazed at how the story was told, how it was so simple and so layered. Even today with his series The Get Down, I’m in awe of how all of his stories carry the same electric energy, incorporating music and humor even when they can be really tragic.
Tia: Strictly Ballroom is great. I also love Dumbo. As for me, other than our parents, I can’t remember who or what inspired me to go into film. But when it comes to artistic heroes, I think of Tori Amos and Bruce Dern. If I start telling you why, this interview will be 87 pages long. Read Tori Amos Piece by Piece and Bruce Dern’s Things I Said But Probably Shouldn’t Have and then e-mail me.
What advice would you give to female comedians and filmmakers?
Shannon: Oh man! I’ve thought about this a lot and I actually have a small list. I’m a list maker and I didn’t want to leave anything out! So here it is: be kind; work hard; be a friend, this industry is really competitive but be a friend instead of a competitor, you’ll be happier that way. Always be learning, study new things, ask questions and keep working on your craft. Have big dreams but remember to ACT ON THEM. Dreaming is really only half of it and you have to do your dreams justice by acting on them! Don’t be afraid to take risks. And my last piece… if you get invited to a party… GO! Who knows what new friends you’ll meet or how you might become inspired. Say yes to opportunity even if you it scares you! You can do it!!!
Tia: I’d also say –and I mean this in a positive way– nothing matters. So you have nothing to lose. Also try not to get too bogged down on being a female artist. In the beginning of my career, I refused to believe that any rejection I faced was because I was a woman. It made me work harder, and get better, which I think is healthier than blaming it on external factors that I can’t help. Yes, sexism exists. It’s an indisputable fact backed up by studies and statistics, but it might not be the only factor. If it is, then sue. I’m kidding. Don’t sue. Consult an attorney before suing.
What was it like debuting “Firm with Purpose” in front of such a huge audience?
Shannon: It was surreal. I was so terrified, and I honestly wanted to walk out and wait outside until it was done. But I didn’t, I stayed in my seat, to watch and listen to everyone’s reactions and I am so grateful that I stayed put and that I didn’t pace outside the theater like I wanted to!
Tia: I was also extremely nervous. Mostly because I was worried about the possibility of technical difficulties. And bees. I’m so scared of bees. I’m also scared of the possibility of the extinction of bees.
Could you tell from their reactions that you were among the top favorite films?
Shannon: It was well received. I felt that it was one of the top films, however art is so subjective, I really had no idea that we would actually win the Audience Favorite. There were a lot of really great films and I enjoyed so many of them!
Tia: I had no idea if anyone liked it or that we would win Audience Favorite. We didn’t even know anyone in the audience. Are you sure we won?
Shannon: Wait, you didn’t know people liked it?
Shannon: There was a lot of laughs.
Tia: I only noticed when they didn’t laugh.
Shannon: Oh Tia!
Tia: I’m sorry!
Do you have any projects in the works or ideas for future endeavors?
Shannon: Yes, together we actually have about 15 projects in various stages of development. Mostly scripted episodic comedies but also a couple of films and podcasts. We are committed to growing Borndreamer and we are excited to get our stories made sooner than later!
Where can fans of your film follow you online?
They can follow us on instagram at @teamborndreamer or on our website at www.borndreamer.com
Tia: We can’t share the film online publicly because of other film fest regulations, but if you want to watch it again, e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll send you a private link. You can also e-mail us just to say hi. We’ll write you back!