Vail Film Festival: ‘Step 9’ takes a comic road trip to redemption
April 4, 2016
If you go …
What: “Step 9” screens at Vail Film Festival, part of Shorts Showcase 2; additional films in the collection include “The Aquarium,” “En las Nubes” (“In the Clouds”), “Knife of the Party” and “Nada S.A.” (“Nothing Co.”).
When: 4:30-6 p.m. Friday, April 8.
Where: Vail Cascade 3, 1300 Westhaven Drive, Vail.
Cost: Festival passes begin at $59.
More information: View the complete lineup for the Vail Film Festival and purchase tickets at http://www.vailfilmfestival.com.
VAIL — The road trip in Leonora Pitts' "Step 9" will be familiar to anyone who's spent a few nights driving with a close friend — the potty-mouthed banter, the junk food and the bad singing, along with the things that go unsaid about loving, supporting and understanding one another.
At the outset of the 13-minute film, which plays Friday afternoon at the Vail Film Festival, we're not sure where Marian and Sabine are going and we don't quite know why — it plays a bit like a mystery. But, with the help of subtle narrative clues, we figure out that Marian (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) is trying to right some wrongs and clean up some of the wreckage she left in her past as a "garbage person." Her BFF Sabine (Artemis Pebdani) is along for the ride as moral support, smoking some pot and doing some comically intense tai chi on the roadside along the way.
The seed of the story, Pitts said, came in a pair of experiences. When she was dating her husband, years ago, he came home to find a brand-new pair of shoes on his porch. They were a make-good from a stranger who stole a pair, along with all of his Christmas presents, from his home two years earlier. Later, she received an unexpected and long apology letter in the mail from a man who, in junior high school, had picked on her.
Both cases appeared to be people making the amends required in the 12-step recovery process (in the ninth step, which gives the film its title).
"It was a story that was knocking around in my head for years," Pitts said recently from Los Angeles. "I had always seen it as two guys. But eventually, I said, 'Why don't I write it for my best friends.'"
So, Pitts penned a script for two female leads and cast friends and fellow actresses Ellis ("It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," "The Grinder") and Pebdani ("Scandal") in the lead roles. They shot "Step 9" in and around Los Angeles in the fall of 2014.
The trio have worked together frequently, including the play "Mother May I Dance with Mary Jane's Fist," which ran for years at the Upright Citizen's Brigade in Los Angeles. As their careers have gotten busier, they see one another less and less, so working together on a short film enabled them to get in some quality time.
"It was extremely collaborative," Pitts said. "They were wonderful about sharing their thoughts with me, and it was fun to spend five days straight together."
The third short Pitts has directed, "Step 9" doesn't bog itself down explaining the recovery process or Marian's backstory. It plays, often hilariously, as two girlfriends on a road trip in a cramped VW mini-bus, allowing the viewer to fill in the blanks. Pitts said her work as an actress in the Atlantic Theater Company, with William H. Macy and David Mamet, taught her to trust her audiences.
"They would say, 'Collectively the audience is smarter than you are. You don't have to overplay your hand. You don't have to give them anything but the truth,'" she recalled. "And I knew that the chemistry of watching (Ellis and Pebdani) together — because they're soul mates in real life — could shoulder it."
Without giving anything away here, the film does have a few emotional gut-punch moments, which land all the harder in this comic story. Pitts said she knew her actors could straddle that line of comedy and drama.
"Mary Elizabeth and Artemis are comic geniuses, and they haven't really been given the chance to go deep," she said. "They're both extremely soulful actresses."
And this may not be the last we see of Marian and Sabine on the road. Pitts said she is about 40 pages into a feature-length script expanding upon the short.
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