In August of 2006, Sassy Mohen began pre-production on her first independent feature film, HAPPY HOLIDAYS when she was still a junior in film school at Chapman University. Denied support from the school because the project was “too ambitious," the film would go on to turn a profit, screen in indie theaters around the country and get worldwide distribution with IndieFlix. She credits this to their (then) unorthodox marketing campaign utilizing brand new social media platforms, youtube, twitter & facebook. Sassy jumped at the release of innovative new equipment such as the red camera, the digital SLR, 6k and was the first filmmaker to create a narrative short with audio on Google Glass. Her resourceful and confident style has emerged as a pioneer in the genre of female-driven comedy. She was quick to adopt the web series as a dynamic and affordable medium, winning accolades with her rom-com ABOUT ABBY.
For Sassy, it’s not about the razzle-dazzle of what’s next in technology, but showcasing quality entertainment with the most effective and accessible means for its audience. Beginning with Happy Holidays, she has utilized social media from day one, leading her to create digital media & branding company, ARDENTLIFE MEIDA.
In 2017, she was tapped by FX for the online web channel, THIS IS AOK, to write, direct, produce and edit their online comedy shorts. This propelled her into an auspicious commercial directing career, working with a variety of film production companies, brands, apps and colleges such as, BLUE DIAMOND, PEPPERIDGE FARM, HELLO KITTY, ADVANCED ROOM, PROPPER DALEY, MOTISPARK & SABIO. Since 2006, Sassy has written, directed, produced and edited two FEATURES, multiple award winning SHORT FILMS, TV PILOTS, COMMERCIALS, MUSIC VIDEOS, SPECS and WEBSERIES. Her most recent short, FEAR ACTUALLY was released in April 2020 to rave reviews including winning BEST FEMALE DIRECTOR at the NIAGARA INDIE FILM FESTIVAL among other festival wins and is currently available ONLINE. Currently, she has just wrapped production on her newest venture, digital series, "How to Hack Birth Control," due to be released this summer 2021.
It was our pleasure to speak to Sassy about her latest short film, Fear Actually. Unable to compete with the horror of cable news, Pennywise the child-eating demon clown struggles to find his purpose and discovers that the only person he has to scare is himself.
What was the inspiration behind the making of "Fear Actually"?
If you wanted to sum it up in one sentence I would say the 2016 election & political climate, but there’s a lot more to it then that. My Dad worked at CNN for 20 years starting with the Clinton administration through the end of Obama and growing up in the middle of that was eye-opening to say the least. In the beginning of the 90s the news was still, dare I say, factual? Not as much ratings & profit driven but actually concerned with getting you, the viewer, the news, no matter how bloody or sad or occasionally uplifting it was. And then it all took this very twisted right turn that anyone who was paying attention to news & politics as a whole could easily predict where it would end up, which is exactly where we are today. In 2017, I had approached Kyle Sullivan (the co-writer of Fear Actually) who had been instrumental with helping me develop the storyline of my TV Pilot Weedland (www.weedland.tv) just telling him I was restless and really wanted to make something. He presented me with this script about Pennywise the clown going through an existential crisis because of the trump administration which I thought was hysterical. The script was originally very different then the final product, but I saw what it was saying at its core which is that America had a brand new set of demons that we had to confront and stop ignoring. I asked him if I could kind of run with it and he said yes, so I did. Also, during that time the sort of mainstream ‘gaslighting’ had really just begun taking off and there were still people out there arguing that what trump & his administration were doing with separating babies from parents, ripping up the environment, rolling back women’s rights, was somehow moral, legal and justifiable. It got to a point where I would wake up and read the news thinking “Am I the crazy one here? Is anyone else reading this?” So many crazy and unimaginable things happening just one after the other after the other after the other, which I guess was the point. So in the script I just hyped that up. We took headlines that were really happening and then amplified them x100000, and the irony of looking back on it now is that in so many ways the bullsh*t we made up actually happened. One of my favorite jokes in the film is one of the newscasters says, “Manatees went extinct last night. According to their mass suicide note, they felt the ocean temperature rising and decided to quote, “get out now before sh*t gets real.” And kid you not, just a few days ago I opened up this news article about manatee’s on the verge of going extinct off the coasts of Florida because of sea level temperatures rising and them being forced to migrate.
What were some of the challenges of making the film?
What’s funny about this film, and I don’t want this to be interpreted the wrong way, but there really weren’t that many. I’ve done so many films, webseries, music videos, what have you where there’s always a big screaming problem whether it’s money, actors, crew, equipment, locations, the whole nine yards, problems that will literally make you pull your hair out and teeter on a nervous breakdown, but there really wasn’t any of that here. I think because I’ve been through the trenches with so many people that you start to recognize right away who has talent that you want to work with and who is in this because they just want their name in lights without putting in effort. I mean you make your first movie (and also in your 2nd, 3rd, 4th movie haha) and you meet these people and you make the mistake of working with them or you yourself make just the worst judgement calls you could possibly ever make and everything blows up in your face. Then what you do after you’ve totally screwed yourself into a corner, is you look at what happened, find what you did wrong, stand up, admit your the mistake, do your damndest to fix it, then you learn from the experience and do your best to never EVER do that again.
I’ve wanted to be a director since I was 7 and was fortunate enough to have parents that let me pursue that when so many others would have told a little girl in the 90s (and probably still today) that there was no place for a woman director in film. They enrolled me in TV production classes when I was in 3rd grade then I started directing theater & film at my super artsy & incredibly supportive middle/high school HB-Woodlawn, so I had the opportunity to start learning when I was really young. Also, a lot of the people I worked with on Fear Actually I’d been working with for years. The DP Shawn Leister-Frazier and I have been working together since TV production classes in high school and we’ve definitely been through the trenches together. Plus it doesn’t hurt to have an amazingly talented & professional cast & crew overall. Oh, now that I think about it, the one challenge was, I had just started dating my now fiance, (who plays the gay pride Babadook) about two weeks before shooting. I had originally cast another actor who I’d worked with in the role, but he told me he couldn’t do it because he didn’t believe in gay people (surprisingly, not the first time that’s happened to me, but we dont have time to begin to unpack that.) So I asked Vince Yearly, who is a professional actor if he’d do the role and let me tell you, thank god I did because he NAILED that part and frankly, really impressed me. But I would say one of the challenging things there is figuring out how to interact/direct someone you’re dating while making sure to not let the other actors feel like they’re being left out. I don’t know if I have the answer to that totally yet, but I’d like to think I’m closer to it now since aside from the fact he’s acted in all my projects since, we’re also business partners, co-producers and life-time teammates.
When did you realize that you wanted to make films and what was the first film project that you created?
Whoops, guess I already answered part of that one. My first “real” film project which was a feature film called Happy Holidays that I did in college. And let me tell you, if you want a crash course in filmmaking while in film school, make a no-budget feature film on your own. It was the smartest stupidest decision I’ve ever made in my life. I went to Chapman and I realized sometime before junior year that I wasn’t going to be leaving college with anything different than everyone else and then I was somehow supposed to find a job in a completely male dominated industry. As a film student, if you were lucky you were one of the few selected to direct a senior thesis which also had its own clear guidelines and limitations, so I figured instead of relying on something uncertain, that I would create my own future. Then as it turned out, people got VERY upset that I wanted to do something different, which is weird because it was just a silly 80 minute romantic drama. Recently, Vince & I found one of the articles written about Happy Holidays from the Chapman paper and there was some quote by a film student like “I can’t believe she thinks she could do this when she hasn’t even directed a short! It’s not going to happen!” Luckily everyone at Chapman though wasn’t a jerk and I found a small group of really cool kids my age (and a few faculty advisors) who were also looking to be part of something bigger than your average curriculum. We started the motions of pre-production, rehearsals and submitted an independent study request and then Chapman promptly turned me down saying the project was “too ambitious.” And in all honesty, they were RIGHT. Making a feature film is INSANELY hard especially when you’ve never actually done it before. But, their hard no just invigorated me & the team more to prove them wrong. One of their big things was “how are you going to fund it?” So we thought about it and decided to try this thing another film ‘Four Eyed Monsters’ was doing, which was raising money to make their movie online through behind the scenes podcasts which had never been done before (this was 2006, we had just barely gotten cell phones.) So my co-producer Dillon and I thought, why not try that? We made these BTS podcasts that started getting hits, which lead to us building a crew and getting free prop/costume donations, locations...the week we had our auditions, the facebook news feed was launched and we thought, let’s use that to promote it, and then we had this record turnout for the auditions. Then facebook launched the “groups” and “photo albums” so we made a Happy Holidays facebook group that got thousands of members. Cut to two years later and not only did we finish the film, but we turned a profit, the website had amassed over 100K hits worldwide, we toured the film around the country and it was one of the first films ever distributed on online streaming. Not to mention pretty much everyone on the post-team who were just college students then is doing really well for themselves in the film world today, I mean the composer Ludwig just won an Oscar for scoring Black Panther. That’s what I mean about learning to surround yourself with the right people and also learning just how to invent solutions. I always think it’s funny when people tell me they can’t make a film because of ‘this’ or ‘that.’ Sure, you can’t make Jurassic Park on a $5,000 budget. So don’t write Jurassic Park if you know you can only raise $5,000. Write a film that maybe takes place between two scientists in a one-location lab discovering how they can create a dinosaur from mosquito DNA. Can’t get the camera you want? Re-imagine your script to fit the camera you can get. Play to your weaknesses, then they become strengths.
Which directors have been influential in your work and why?
Tom Twyker changed my life with Run Lola Run, that was the first film I ever saw that made me know someone else saw the world in a similar way and that there could possibly be an audience for films I wanted to make. More recently Celine Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire,) was one of the last films I saw in theaters before the pandemic and that truly blew me away. Taika Waititi (JoJo Rabbit,) Ava Duvernay (13th) , Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman) and Kevin Smith (Clerks) who re-defined low budget filmmaking. Also, wild card, I love historical documentaries so Ken Burns is always in my top 5.
What genre of filmmaking do you like to work on?
I really love films that make you think without making you want to curl up in a ball and die. I always loved the Marx Brothers growing up and I realize now that I love them because they truly do find humor in the absurdity of everything, because when you think about it, everything is pretty hysterical. Like, 70 million Americans thought trump did such a fantastic job in round 1 that he deserved a round 2. How can you not laugh at that? It’s terrifying and scary but also pretty damn funny. If I had my pick of the litter right now, with where I am in my career, I would want to direct an episode of The Good Fight. That show has everything I revere, powerful women, diversity, true to life stories that make you think, expose inequality, racism, sexism, it’s smart, it’s well written and to top it all off it’s pretty damn funny. That’s not to say I don’t want to get back to the business of big screen filmmaking, of course I do! But since Fear Actually, I’ve been fortunate to direct a lot of commercials & pieces for social media and there’s a new style of storytelling that is emerging online from places like Tik Tok that I think a lot of people are missing or discarding as trite. I really enjoy taking the newest 2021 tropes of social media storytelling and merging them with the foundations of old school filmmaking and turning it into a piece that makes you think, which leads to my next project, but I’ll talk about that later.
What is the most challenging aspect of making an independent film?
Ha! Everything. I would say when you’re starting out, just getting people to pay attention to you is hard. You could be jumping up and down in a room screaming “I KNOW WHAT I’M DOING!!!” and no one is going to turn unless you’ve A) done something worth talking about B) are rich or C) are some celebrity's cousin or son or whatever, and usually even if you’ve done A, they still won’t listen unless you have B or C. Kinda a tough break for women and minorities if you ask me, but it is getting better.
What is your plan for further distribution of your film?
Not to diminish Fear Actually, but it’s plan is what’s already happened. Getting it online and getting it out there to whoever will check it out! Between you and me (and now everyone) the film was finished in 2018 but we postponed releasing it. When the pandemic hit, I thought, why not just release this online? There is literally nothing to lose, and I am so happy I did and that people are enjoying it as much as they are! It's funny looking back on it now, 3 ½ years after we shot it and knowing how much I’ve grown as a filmmaker since then. Honestly, the reaction Fear Actually is getting makes me that much more excited to sell my next digital series because I feel like while I did my best at the time, my abilities since Fear Actually have grown in leaps and bounds, largely because of the doors that project opened for me, like getting to direct for FX online, editing L’Oreal commercials, producing streaming tv shows. When we wrapped Fear Actually, which was the first film I ever made that had somewhat of a budget to work with, I remember thinking, if I can do this with that, I cannot wait to see what I can do with more.
How can cinema change the world and have an impact on society?
I mean, have you seen Battleship Potemkin? Didn’t that film like mainstream socialism or something? In all seriousness, I think the question is more how can’t cinema change the world? Cinema is extremely powerful. For whatever length of time you get to show an audience a new outlook and perspective for better or worse. You can make a show like Sex and the City and suddenly make it okay for women to have sex, or Philadelphia that shows the pain and humanity behind the AIDS crises in gay communities, or I Am Not Your Negro that slaps you in the face about race in America. I sometimes feel like if you want to change the world, make a law, if you want to change society, make a movie about how and why that law was made.
What is your next film project?
My next film is called “How to Hack Birth Control (and have lots of sex without a catch)” It’s a three part digital series that we miraculously shot this past November 2020. Actually, it wasn’t miraculous, we just spent months preparing with covid safety and actually listened to scientists/doctors/medical experts when planning. Turns out if you socially distance, test, sanitize, thoroughly plan and educate, you can have a 10 day, 50+ person film shoot and no one will get covid. Go figure.
The film is a comedy educating women on how to navigate birth control in America today but all told through hysterical dialogue and awesome visuals so you don’t realize you’re actually getting fed information. We have a seriously phenomenal cast & crew that are all up-and-comers and some who I would even say have definitely already arrived. The series deals with the facts of different types of birth control but also, how and where to hide your birth control, how to deal with a pharmacist that won’t sell you the morning after pill, and how to deal with crazed right-wing protesters on your way into a women’s clinic. It’s what the title says: How to hack birth control. Being a woman today has tremendous freedoms and choices that weren’t around even 10 years ago, but all of that comes with a ton of hidden and not so hidden negative stigmas & deterrents from society. As a kid (if you’re lucky) you’re taught how to use a condom, but no one teaches you how to deal with a guy you really like trying to coerce you into not using a condom.
My purpose with filmmaking has been and always will be to try and make the world better for women. Even Happy Holidays was about a girl torn between two dumb boys and she gives up her career to be with one because it’s what she’s supposed to do, and in the end she realizes she doesn’t need either but instead wants to pursue her dream and figure out who she is first. I would have killed to see more stuff like that when I was a kid/pre-teen/young adult. That’s probably why films like Run Lola Run spoke to me so much when I was growing up and what I hope that women/kids/pre-teens, etc can take from How to Hack Birth Control. The issue for women isn’t and shouldn’t be whether or not to have sex, the issue is, how to do that safely with your income/living situation in a way that doesn’t put your health or livelihood at risk. Unlike my other films where you make them and sort of cross your fingers hoping the right person comes across it, this one actually has a few viable pathways in terms of being purchased and distributed that I don’t want to jinx. Right now we’re in the middle of post-production and scheduled to be finished by mid-April 2021.
Why do you make films and what draws you to the language of cinema and directing?
Because I want to help girls and women find the strength to make their dreams a reality. It is so easy for women to be steamrolled over, it’s literally all around us. Look at our last VP debate, “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking.” Story of probably every woman's life. There is an inherent guilt shoved on you that comes with being a woman and wanting to pursue something more than making a baby. I’m not knocking making babies, I’m talking about when I tell people about my dreams and they respond with “But what about your family.” Men don’t get that. Just because you’re born with a vagina does not make you any less competent or worthy as those who aren’t. My hope is with all my films, that women or anyone that isn’t fitting in with a cookie cutter traditional society standard, watches one of them and feels a little bit more empowered to truly be themselves.
I’d also like to add just a thank you to LA Indies for spotlighting me and for all the work you’re doing for indie filmmakers in general!
Film Website: www.fearactually.com
Sassy Mohen Website: www.sassymohen.com
Trailer of Fear Actually by Sassy Mohen: