The COVID-19 pandemic is no laughing matter. But for filmmakers Mallory Everton and Stephen Meek, the uncertain atmosphere was the perfect subject for their debut feature Recovery. In this outrageous road trip comedy, Everton and Whitney Call play a pair of paranoid sisters who go on a mission rescue their grandmother from her COVID-afflicted nursing home. As Recovery premieres at the 2021 South by Southwest Film Festival (our review by Editor Joey Magidson is up now on the site), I spoke with the filmmaking trio about their inspirations and motivations in making the film.
Shane Slater: How did you get the idea to make this outrageous comedy out of this horrible COVID-19 pandemic?
Whitney Call: It was mostly a way for us to stay sane. I think that was probably the biggest motivation for for us while we were tinkering around with ideas. I can imagine you remember March 2020 and how the world kind of stood still. And Mallory and I just went through this three months thinking we’re never going to make anything again. Life just seemed like it was never going to pick back up again.
So around June, I think we finally popped out of that mentality. And we’re like, hey, we’re not doing anything else right now. Our jobs are kind of on hold. And we’ve got to do something in order to stay sane. So let’s make something. Let’s make a movie. We’d never made one before and we’ve always wanted to. And we’ve been held back by whether it’s funding or just knowing the right people or whatnot. But 2020 kind of seemed like a do-over year anyway. So we just figured, why not let’s at least have a learning experience with this. So we combed through some old ideas.
Mallory Everton: Yeah, there is this weird energy around it. Like time was standing still. Normally, taking time to write whatever we wanted to make or to dream about making a movie would take jobs away or money away or things like that. But all that stuff had gone away and nothing was happening. And so we just started asking, is there anything we could make just with ourselves and our own money? Is there something that we could pull together that would be tiny enough that we could just learn how to make a feature and rip off the “first feature Band-Aid” and see what happens? So we started watching and studying “bottle movies” like Locke. It’s amazing. He’s the most captivating man in the universe. It’s gripping and it’s just him taking calls for an hour and a half.
It was really inspiring to us. And Whitney had this road trip concept that she’d been batting around. It was a series about two sisters who drive across the country to dispose of a body. And we wondered, is there something we can do in that vein? Can we kind of take some inspiration from Locke and the trip? And I’d also recently watched American Son, which is an adapted play that takes place in one room. And I was like, movies can happen and be really small. If we just take our expectations way down, as far as how simple a movie can be, what can we do?
So once we thought of the the rescue trip idea, it just kind of clicked. And we popped out an outline in about two days and started writing the script together just over Zoom. And it started rolling out so fast that we looked at the festival deadlines and they were only three months away. The big festivals that we’d want to apply to. And we thought, do we kill ourselves and just do this?
I was nervous about it. I remember saying early on that we should pull the plug if we feel like we’re going to crank out something bad because we’re going too fast. But we just kind of leaned into the speed and thought, if we’re going to make something about COVID, we should make it right now because we have no idea what to expect from this COVID landscape in the future. So we wrote it in two weeks. We pre-produced in two weeks, we shot it in two weeks, and we got our first cut out in two weeks. It was brutal.
Stephen Meek: But it was also like one of the weirdest, zen kind of feelings I feel like I’ve ever had on a production. Like, there were definitely very stressful moments and the first day of shooting was completely falling apart. And it ended up being relatively smooth sailing in a way that I don’t think any of us could have predicted. Even if we had tried to predict it, we probably would have just backed out because there would have been no way for us to actually pull it off.
SS: I find it interesting that you describe the film as small and contained. Unlike most other COVID-related films and TV that we’ve been seeing lately, this one gives you a sense of a big adventure rather than being in one place. How were you able to pull off the impression of a film with a big scale and scope?
ME: We are so delighted that it feels that way. We really wanted it to, because when we started looking at dailies from the car and we were starting to put together like these long sections in the car, we thought, oh man, people going to be so bored and claustrophobic. So what we really ended up doing was because we shot in Utah, we just tried to use all of the different diverse places we could find in Utah because it has so many different faces. Big mountains, Red Rock, desert, and then a fair amount of greenery as well. And we thought, OK, maybe we can make it feel like we’ve gone a lot more places than we really did, just because of how diverse the locations are in the state that we happen to be in.
WC: And again, we went into it thinking that a road trip movie was going to make it more simple because we thought, well, we’ll be spending most of our time in the car, it’ll be low production, it’ll be not too much investment from us. And someone along the way, after we made the movie, had talked to us and they said, “If I heard that you were going to make a comedy about COVID, during COVID, in a road trip format, I would have told you all of those are a bad idea.” But they said, “well, you did it and you actually pulled it off.” We didn’t know going into it that we were making it harder on ourselves.
SS: I’ve heard filmmakers and other artists say that working with restrictions sometimes brings out the best in them and fuels their creativity. Was that something that you experienced? Were there any surprising benefits of working within these constraints?
ME: Oh, I think there were so many. One of them for me, was just that it felt like an exercise in not overthinking because we just didn’t have time. We also didn’t have that many resources. It was sort of like that even when we were in the writing process. It was like, OK, we want to be around as few people as possible. So what kind of story can we tell where a lot of the interactions take place over calls? So we were able to tailor it to what we had.
I think just realizing that stuff works out if you just kind of commit to it, that was new for me. I think I spent a lot of time overthinking and I just couldn’t on this project. We didn’t have time and we didn’t have the resources.
WC: As a group, we’ve worked together in sketch for about ten years together. And we’ve made a sketch for various platforms that have restrictions already in place. We’ve made family friendly material, we’ve made safe for work, we’ve made things for brands and things like that. So I think like having the restriction in place is something that we’re used to.
But I guess to an extent, budget has never been so much of a restriction. So I think it was really helpful, like Mallory said, to have that sort of restriction on us. It meant that whatever we felt good enough about was what we ended up going with. And you hear the phrase “good enough is better than perfect.” And I think that’s kind of where we were with this whole movie. I mean, it’s not our ideal movie, but we made it into something that we were proud of.
SS: There’s so much dialogue and some of it is so wild, but it all feels so natural and effortless. How did you approach writing the dialogue in the film?
ME: It was a little bit of a hybrid process. So there were a couple of scenes where we thought, OK, we want to play with this a little bit more. Especially like when we’re playing the games in the car, we wanted to actually surprise each other with the questions we were asking each other so that we could we could have fun with it and kind of get our natural responses in the moment.
What Whitney and I mostly did was that we would improvise, we would come up with our outline. And so we knew what the scenes needed to accomplish. Then we would improvise scenes in the writing process and then write down what we got from there. So there was a lot of the scenes that are not improvised on set, but we improvised them at one point during the process and then tried to recreate the naturalness that we had when we were writing.
SM: And there’s a number of autobiographical elements that were very funny. This movie kind of accidentally incorporated a bunch of elements from Whitney and Mallory’s childhood.
WC: I had pet mice. And I mean, the dad had an unfortunate accident where the cage lid fell on him. And I think he just snapped because he ate the whole family! [Laughs]. And I walked in and I grew up quick that day. [Laughs].
SS: The other sister Erin is such an interesting juxtaposition to your paranoid characters. She doesn’t really care about COVID protocols. What were your intentions with this character?
WC: I think for me, a lot of the anxieties that I had at the beginning of this pandemic, I manifested through this character. I saw how I dealt with this pandemic and I saw how some people who were on the clear opposite side of the spectrum thought. And I was always so nervous about what’s going to happen to this world if we just have everyone thinking like this sister character. What’s going to happen?
I think by the time we actually wrote the film, it had been enough time to realize we’re not going to die if we go to the grocery store. The initial fears that we had in March had been staved off enough to recognize what we were making this movie. That we can represent both sides of the coin and then have this kind of moment together at the end where we all share an experience together. So that’s how I resolved a lot of my anxiety, through Erin.
ME: I love when someone who isn’t a villain creates an obstacle for a character. It just feels so true to life to me. And there were just so many awkward moments throughout the year. I’m sure everyone can relate, where everybody’s comfort level with risk taking is different. And I loved that we got to talk about that and play with that and make peace with that, because it is something that just drove me crazy all year long. It’s already so isolating. The fact that we’re not all on the same page, the fact that everyone’s anxiety is at a different level and everybody has to cope in different ways was even more isolating. So it was fun to write a character who thought differently from the way that Whitney and I felt at the time. And it brought us peace.
WC: I also feel that we said early on we didn’t necessarily want anyone vilified. We didn’t want a fight between the two main characters. We didn’t want an antagonist in the film. So I think the fact that Julia Jolly (who plays Erin) is so likable, she was able to bring out what we intended. Having someone who thinks differently from you can still be relatable. And still be likable, so that we all can can still feel connected.