Movie Short Review: ‘Query’ And Interview With Writer/Director Sophie Kargman

Review by James Lindorf

Co-writer and director Sophie Kargman has a question for her audience, how is heterosexuality formed? Her “Query” was set to premiere at last months’ Tribeca Film Festival but will instead be shown online in the coming months to select audiences. The film has a runtime of just 9-minutes and stars Justice Smith (All the Bright Places), Graham Patrick Martin (Catch-22), and Armie Hammer (Call Me by Your Name).

Over a single day of hanging out together, Jay and Alex play video games, lounge by the pool, get high, and play board games, a pretty standard day for the best friends. The thing that makes the day unusual is the Alex led conversation that social norms drive heterosexual proclivities and not just instincts. The topic encroaches on every activity, and while from the outside, the pair may appear as bro-dogs, they readily engage in thoughtful conversation. As time passes and beers flow, their barriers start to crumble, and the day climaxes with a decision that has a profound impact on their evening and possibly their lives.

“Query” is a micro-budget film that has zero special effects, was shot in a single day, on one set that is probably someone on the production team’s home. Its merit lies in the presentation of the question itself and the performance of its two leads. The friendship between Alex and Jay feels real, like a pair of roommates who are entirely comfortable with each other and have had countless conversations about anything under the sun. Both Smith and Martin are up and coming young actors who are names or faces most viewers will recognize, and their talent helps bring the script to life and set it apart from many in its field.
Kargman’s background in English and psychology probably helped her, and her co-writer Ryan Farhoudi add depth to the script. The question the centered the film on is one that typically plagues those who are not quite ready to accept the people in their lives fully. Is it just a phase, experimentation, a choice, or any other thing that will lead to the “misguided” to eventually conform to something more palatable? In “Query,” the prospective is put on its head as Kargman asks why are you straight, maybe you’re born with, maybe it’s manufactured.

Director Sophie Kargman’s “Query” was selected to have its world premiere at this year’s Oscar-qualifying Tribeca Film Festival and is currently part of the Palm Springs International Shortfest which runs through June 22nd. In addition to the festival circuit the film has also been picked up for distribution by HBO Europe and Movistar. In “Query” two friends, Justice Smith (All the Bright Places) and Graham Patrick Martin (Catch-22), question how heterosexuality was formed over time. A couple months ago I was able to review “Query” and recently I was lucky enough to have the chance to talk with Sophie. We discussed her inspiration for “Query,” how she put together a great cast that includes Armie Hammer, and what’s next for the short.

Red Carpet Crash (RCC): Did your background in psychology help with choosing your topic for Query, if not, how did you decide on your subject?

Sophie Kargman (SK): I’ve never thought about it that way, but I imagine my background in psychology did launch my interest in this topic in some way, shape or form (although perhaps subconsciously—haha). I’ve always been interested in human behavior— what propels certain people to make the choices they make. Certainly, it’s always some combination of nature and nurture. That, mixed with the influence of social norms and societal pressures— especially when it comes to molding an impressionable mind. But when it comes to sexual preference, some people would say it’s black and white. But how do we really know? If homosexuality was the norm, would that have any impact on our sexual proclivities? It’s hard to say. But the idea is interesting— and certainly fuels conversation— especially when the perspective of the protagonist feels more in line with what any traditional views might be.

The medium of visual storytelling allows me as the viewer to step into the storyteller’s vision, expanding my own, reminding me that there is something beyond my own experience. It teaches me about the human condition. To that end, it also gives me a language to articulate my own thoughts and feelings, ideally expanding people’s mindsets, nudging them to become a little more accepting and compassionate.

(RCC): Was this a story you wanted to tell for some time or a relatively new project?

(SK): The theme of ‘turning something on its head’ or shining a light on unrepresented people is a theme I’m perpetually interested in. I think that may be the common thread or underlying theme in all of my work if you were to analyze it.

But the decision to tell this particular story came about quite quickly. It sprung from my desire to direct another short film. I had caught the directing bug coming off of my first short, “Susie Searches”, which is a proof of concept for the feature of the same name, and I was desperate to have another go around, but I didn’t have much money to finance it. So I thought: what story can I tell that will require a very small production? It would certainly have to be contained: one location and one day. Therefore, it would have to be under ten minutes. Two actors. Maybe just one conversation? Most importantly, the subject matter had to be topical.

With those stipulations in mind, I went to Ryan Farhoudi… one of my frequent (and favorite) collaborators. Ryan and I tossed a few ideas around and essentially cracked the story in one sitting. Two and a half weeks later, we were shooting the film. And two weeks after that, we locked picture. So in terms of time, “Query” was one of the quickest, easiest and most seamless projects I’ve ever done.

(RCC): Most people would think that an 8-minute short about 2 people having a conversation in 1 location would have a mostly, if not completely, unknown talent. You on the other hand, managed to get two leads that are names or faces people will recognize, oh and Armie Hammer drops by to besmirch backgammon. How did you find your cast and what was it like on set?

(SK): We had a small handful of friends in mind when we wrote this because we were moving so quickly and didn’t know what their schedules were/who would be available the soonest. Justice Smith and Graham Patrick Martin (the two leads of “Query”) were at the top of the list… and it was just extremely fortuitous they were both available and loved the script.

Nick Delli Santi and Ashton Ramsey, two of our producers, let us shoot “Query” at their house. On the day of the shoot… Nick and Ashton wanted to stay out of the way while we were setting up, so they went to see Armie (who is a dear friend of all of ours) who had just gotten back from London… when we broke for lunch, Nick called me… he knew that I was planning on this specific shot where we would track the boys as they walk down the middle of the street. [Small side note, for any cinephiles out there, it’s reminiscent of a shot early on in Terrence Malick’s “Badlands” where Kit and Holly walk down the middle of the street, and in the background someone in the neighborhood walks behind them with a bag of groceries. It’s a tiny moment but I loved the texture that the person in the background gave to the moment… like there was a whole life going on outside of the ones we’re following.] Anyway, Nick knew that we were planning to shoot that scene after lunch, so he goes, “Wouldn’t it be fun if that person in the background is Armie?” I started laughing. I thought the idea was hilarious and perfect…. So Nick and Ashton and Armie show up forty-five minutes later— Armie’s already sporting a fabulous track suit— and the rest is history. Suffice it to say, we all had blast.

(RCC): Do you think this is a conversation more people need to have, or are you more like Alex, pushing back against societal expectations?

(SK): I certainly hope “Query” becomes a catalyst for open and honest conversation. I want it to challenge preconceived notions, push boundaries and expand mindsets. But more than anything, I hope it lifts people’s spirits and makes them laugh in the midst of this very challenging and uncertain time.

(RCC): Query was selected to world premiere at the now postponed Tribeca Film Festival. What is next for Query, is there a plan to try and recover the attention the film would have received there?

(SK): Great question. Normally we would have done the festival route, starting with its World Premiere at Tribeca… but since the future of film festivals is currently a little up in air— and because there’s already been so much interest in this film already (because of its topical nature and the actors in it), we’re aiming for a worldwide premiere on a platform such as “The New Yorker” (Conde Nast) or TOPIC in addition to an Amazon Prime and Vimeo VOD launch on June 1st. June because it’s LGBTQ+ Pride Month! We’re figuring out the details now. But definitely keep an eye out because the film will be online in the summer!

(RCC): Once a plan is set for Query and quarantines begin to lift what is next for you?

(SK): My first feature, “Susie Searches”, was just green-lit. 141 Entertainment (“Ingrid Goes West”) is producing it. We’re still gearing up to shoot this summer in Upstate New York. That is, if this pandemic is over by then. I (like everyone else) am hopeful it will be.
(RCC): If you are currently working on something, how do you keep from overly tinkering with the script with all this down time? When time isn’t a constraint how do you know enough is enough in a creative process like writing.

(SK): That’s a good question. I find it really beneficial to have a group of people whose taste I trust to go to for notes. My longtime editor, Christine Park, who is the editor on everything I’ve done— and will do— is one of those people. She’s honest to a fault, which I love, and pushes me to think about the edit— even in the writing process. I find that to be very helpful. What’s more, I know she always has my best interest at heart (after all, she’s going to be editing the material in only a matter of time). Like most writers, sometimes I get too close to the material and need an outside perspective. If a few of those people I’ve sent the script to are all bumping against/having questions about the same thing, I know that area needs work. If the feedback I’m getting is overwhelmingly positive and the notes are tiny and generally inconsequential, I know I’m heading in the right direction. But ultimately, I think it comes down to gut instinct. I know when I’m ready.

Having said that, when it comes to dialogue tweaks specifically, there’s never really an end point. I was lucky with “Query” in that I was able to get one day of rehearsal (in the actual space!) with Justice and Graham (and Irvin Liu, my cinematographer) about a week before we shot the film. There, I was able to hear the words come out of their mouths, get to know the cadence of their speech etc., which helped me to go back through the script with Ryan [Farhoudi] and tailor some of the dialogue a bit more to the specific actors saying the words. Oftentimes, though, I might not have the luxury of a rehearsal so I’ll make dialogue tweaks on set if need be.

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