Liza Uncovered: Interview with Director Aubrey Smyth
Director Aubrey Smyth’s latest short film, Liza Anonymous, had its world premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival and she couldn’t be more thrilled. We sit down to talk to her about her inspirations, what got her into comedy, and the miracle of making movies.
The worst question to ever be asked, as any cineaste, film buff or even casual movie-goer will know, is what their favourite film is. Be it your absolute number-one favourite of all, or even just your favourite of any particular genre - niche or broad - it’s an impossible question to answer.
Still, I ask Aubrey her favourite comedies. As our Zoom call enters a pensive silence I let her know that is, indeed, the worst question anyone can ask. I almost want to apologise.
“I think it’s going to have to be something with Ben Stiller,” she finally replies. “I really like smart comedy and relatable situations, like with Meet the Parents, but then you’ve got something like Zoolander which is just so far out, silly, and still super quotable.”
She’s certain that she’s missing some. No doubt she is; it’s the sort of question you can only really answer a couple of hours after you’ve first been asked. “Tina Fey, Larry David. They’re both great. I love A League of Their Own with Tom Hanks, too, which is more of a drama but with comedic aspects to it.
“I think the best comedy is smart comedy, with relatable situations and where you can really picture yourself in their shoes. But I’m always adding to the list.”
In her first year of university, as a junior at the prestigious Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, she had one of her comedies accepted into a student film festival after months of tooling around writing scripts and exploring the infinite frameworks of ways to make people laugh. Hearing her jokes land was perhaps the defining moment of her university career.
Now, working as a director for the advertisement production house Cutter Productions in NYC where she’s been for six or so years, she’s looking forward to revealing her latest short film, Liza Anonymous, at its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. She couldn’t be more excited.
Liza Anonymous is the fourth short film she’s helmed as director. It’s a slick and observational satire, written by Leah McKendrick (who’s currently penning Brett Haley’s Grease prequel, Summer Lovin’) and starring Danielle Beckmann as the titular and (perhaps not completely) chameleonic Liza.
She’s a millennial facing an impossible task: fitting in. For the first few minutes of Liza Anonymous, we’re not even sure what kind of person she is, as we watch her cycle through a host of almost cartoonish personas, from a frightfully innocent church-goer dressed in a fluffy pink coat to a rough-talking Mexican girl as Liza, in Aubrey’s words, veers into stereotype and “ill-informed emulation”.
"Working on a short film gives you a perfect opportunity to really get creative"
It’s slick and vibrant, rapidly jumping around Liza’s roster of questionably inspired but certainly varied personas.
“I loved that she was going to be playing different characters, essentially. I love wardrobe, I love props, and I saw such a great opportunity for not only a whole variety of looks but for Danielle to perform as so many different and unique characters.”
Danielle put Aubrey onto the project via a mutual connection at Cutter Productions, but what ultimately drew Aubrey to the project and cemented her interest was the same thing that always inspires her to make a film: she could immediately see the first scene and how it would look as soon as she read the first few lines.
“As soon as I read the script, I knew how I wanted it to come together. I’m always thinking about what visual language I can use to tell the story, what I can do to really draw the viewer in.”
To achieve the opening scene, a quick-cut montage of Liza’s numerous attempts at finding who she is or might be, Aubrey used a circular dolly track, spinning the camera around Liza as if to literally wrap her up in her lies.
Across two days, they ran through five different looks for Liza, from hair to make-up to wardrobe, and five unique sets. It sounds a lot to juggle, and indeed it was, but it was music to the crew’s ears.
"Everyone sees things slightly differently, so it’s pretty spectacular when you can see your collective vision come to life"
“Each head of department was buzzed to try different variations of the same characters and flex their talents. I told the cinematographer, Chloe Smolkin, we were going to go for four circular dolly tracks and her immediate response was to tell me, ‘Let’s try five!’ To me, working on a short film gives you just a perfect opportunity to really get creative and have fun,” Aubrey tells me.
“Directing commercials really makes you focus on why you are doing something. I’ve learned a lot about how light can affect tone. It’s different when you’re trying to advertise something, but I love trying to tell stories through that visual medium. It’s important when you’re trying to make everything fast-paced.”
As she outlines the frantic production of Liza Anonymous, there’s a real satisfaction in her voice. The crew was 80 people. Aubrey’s worked on bigger productions and managed bigger crews, but it’s no less special to see the finished product come together in the end.
“I’m always really impressed when productions are either really big or really small. I’ve done small before; where I’ve been the cameraperson or the actor, or both,” she tells me with a laugh.
“Everyone sees things slightly differently, so it’s pretty spectacular when you can see your collective vision come to life. You’re all working on the same thing. Whatever the size of the crew, that any of this can be done still amazes me. I am still completely in awe of the way movies are made and fit together. It hasn’t even begun to wear off.”
Luckily, production began in the September of 2019, months before the start of the Covid pandemic that has all but brought the industry to its knees.
Liza Anonymous was always expected to release in 2021, and its Tribeca premiere will coincide with the festival’s 20th anniversary. As the industry starts to reopen, there’s a poignancy to being able to celebrate in person - to Liza Anonymous finding a home.