The idea for this short came about while I was talking to my friend Brooke about grief. She said something about how, since losing her mother, she was wrestling a lot with a desire to die, too. These thoughts weren't coming from a typically depressed, suicidal place (a mindset her and I are both intimately familiar with); rather, it was more that she wanted to join her mother in whatever afterlife might exist, largely in order to experience whatever it was that her mother experienced while dying and also as an alternative to being stuck in a dimension of reality that no longer had her mother in it. Brooke’s comments stuck with me, especially as someone who understands the subtle difference between the anguish of clinical depression and the torment of loss.
Concurrent to this conversation, three other things happened:
1) I had just come off a short run of a condensed, “lovingly mangled” (as Fresno art critic Donald Munro described it) production of Twelfth Night. The experience was fun and rewarding, but it reminded me how much I miss performing in traditional Shakespeare productions and how sad I am to be aging out of so many of the Shakespearean roles I always hoped I might someday get a chance to work on. I thought of Hamlet, a play I’ve been involved in at least four full-length productions of, and that I’ve referenced and utilized in other creative, professional, and academic work countless times more. A play whose words I’ve literally etched into my body, in the form of tattoos, on two separate occasions. A play I thought I understood and identified with before my mother died but now see bursting with new layers and allegory since her passing (one of the more bittersweet elements of loss, people who have suffered it may recognize, is seeing more depth and vibrancy in all things).
I’ve long been fascinated by Hamlet’s “To Be or Not To Be” soliloquy, as well as the many debates, theories, and interpretations surrounding it. I’ve always been in the camp that the speech is very blatantly about suicide contemplation. Maybe because I get suicide contemplation. What I never noticed prior to my mother’s passing was how much of the speech could also be Hamlet simultaneously wondering about his father’s post-life fate. In addition to this, and something I probably always knew on a subconscious level but never really knew, like, in my bones sort of knew, is that the words from this monologue aren’t just coming from a depressed person contemplating ‘whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles”, they’re coming from a person in the deep throes of all-consuming, debilitating, exhausting grief. And grief is the kind of emotion that makes people who might not normally think about suicide, think about it often. Grief is the kind of emotion that makes people who do think about suicide, think about it more.
I know the odds of ever playing the role of Hamlet myself grow increasing less likely with each passing year. So I wondered how I might, at the very least, take a stab at the world’s most famous soliloquy in a way that could represent how I'd approach the role if ever given the opportunity. My friends Joe and Barry had produced a version of “The Speech” in a short film format a few years earlier. Their version is well-produced and well-performed, both of them talented artists in their respective crafts. Hamlet, in their interpretation, is a hungover cowboy wandering aimlessly throughout the raw, unflinching heat of the desert. The soliloquy is less contemplation and more Chance in their vision, with the titular character playing an intense, increasingly high-stakes game of Russian roulette throughout the entirety of the film. (Trigger Warning: If I'm not being clear here, this is a VERY visceral, in-your-face interpretation).
“The Speech” makes Hamlet’s words immediate and accessible, two things I wanted to ensure I did with my interpretation as well. And while Joe and Barry’s version is told from an undeniably masculine perspective, I wanted to make sure whatever I created was inherently sensitive and obviously informed through a feminine gaze. Once in undergrad, an acting professor remarked that my strength as a performer existed in having a “vulnerability that comes through the strength”. Over the years, I’ve honed this compliment into my core purpose as an artist, aiming purposefully to create art that, even if the subject matter is difficult, remains more delicate than loud and more sensitive than flashy.
2) I watched the first season of 13 Reasons Why upon recommendation from several friends, hoping to be a fan of the series. I am a big advocate of representation, not only in terms of casting and story authenticity, but also in relationship to attempting to help make difficult realities easier for individuals, and society at large, to bear. Suicide has long been a subject swept under the rug; often when it is tackled in art or media it is glorified and/or its ramifications are vastly underrepresented. I was eager to watch 13 Reasons Why for this reason, naively believing it would be beneficial simply for existing. Instead, I found the series to be largely irresponsible in its messaging, particularly in the climatic scene that shows Hannah Baker killing herself in a bathtub.(I could write an entire blog on this subject alone but in the interest of time, let's move forward.)
3) I had entered my first semester of grad school, and as such, was starting to observe everything though the lens of inquiry. I asked myself, if 13 Reasons Why handled the subject of suicide improperly, but Hamlet did not, what was the difference? How could I accurately portray the feelings of grief-related suicide contemplation without falling into the same traps of exploiting the subject matter and, perhaps worse, potentially traumatizing people involved in the production of such a piece and/or people who might stumble across the finished project as audience?
The culmination of these inquiries (and many others) are represented in the following short. I very purposefully included a trigger warning and resource for help as bookends for the film. Also, with great intention, I avoided direct shots of the razor outside of establishing purposes and even then, tried as much as possible to frame it only in wide shots. I worked with my make-up designer, Amber Medina, to honor the ‘whips and scorns of time’ on our Hamlet’s body- everything from scars to stretch marks to tattoos to acne- and made sure our costume designer, Miguel Gastelum, placed her in worn, comfortable clothing, in direct protest against 13 Reasons Why’s suicide scene that showcased it's lead character approaching her meticulously planned out suicide with clean clothes, a restrictive bra, impeccable hair, and a fresh face of makeup (with recently shaped eyebrows, to boot). Hannah Baker's suicide is shown to be more revenge-driven than anguish-driven throughout the series, but in light of the other things that happen to her, the scene rang as false for me. (In a decision that I don't think read as clearly on camera as we would have liked, we left Hannah Baker’s signature blue nail polish on our lead actress, Lia Dewey, but had her wear it for several days ahead of the shoot in an attempt to make it appear chipped and lived in on camera). I decided to conceptualize the scene, as 13 Reasons Why did, in a bathroom, with a razor as the 'bare bodkin' referenced. This served not only for compare and contrasting purposes, but also as a means of baring as much skin of a atypical film body as possible. In addition to showing Lia in an unfiltered way, we made sure to highlight the tattoos and piercings and skin of our Ophelia (Jessica Meredith), too. While the piece as a whole remains sensitive and subtle, this subversion was intentionally bold.
I could go on for several hundred more words about the detail that went into the planning of this project- the justification for choosing daylight, our reasons for playing in wide-and-macro shots for the majority of the film, the many Hamlet-and-Shakespeare-related Easter eggs hidden throughout (as well as a blatant homage to Basquiat, the American visual artist whose work often dealt with "suggestive dichotomies"). I could cover the many personal and artistic realizations I came to both on set and afterward, especially in accordance with working with trauma-centric material. I could describe the many takes it took to get me to perform a Shakespearean voiceover at an appropriate volume and expression for film. But I’ve rambled long enough for now, so I will leave you with the short and a final warning that if you think you are not in the right frame of mind to view a piece that deals with suicide contemplation, please feel free to skip this one.