Ben Petrie made one of my favorite films this year. ‘Her Friend Adam’ feels honest and real. Accessible, yet complex. The characters, one of which is played by Ben and another by his real-life partner Grace Glowicki, are instantly the type of people you’d want to be friends with. And the setup of the film — a boyfriend stopping at his girlfriend’s apartment before a night out — is simple and relatable. It makes you at ease and draws you in close and right when you’re strapped in for the ride, the film quickly spirals down to a level of turmoil, propelled by insecurity, jealousy, and a fraction of truth.
The film is not meant for all audiences, but if you identify as an adult, we think you’ll love it.
After seeing the film at Sundance, where it won a Special Jury Award for Grace’s outstanding performance, I couldn’t wait to talk to Ben about it. Being the nice guy he is, Ben was happy to field my questions and did so with thoughtful honesty that adds a lot of inspiring context to what creating a film such as this means.
Your film touches upon the complexity of those nasty insecurities many (all?) of us feel in relationships. What made you want to explore this topic?
I’ve always wanted to answer this question with a boldface denial: what the hell are you trying to say? I’ve never experienced jealousy in my goddamn life. Sounds shitty, bra!
I had a bad trip with jealousy one night, hanging out with Grace and a mutual friend of ours. It was amazing how quickly my mind was hijacked by this psychological parasite; it needled right to the center of my brain and lit a fire.
A couple weeks later, on an impulse, I turned on my iPhone’s voice recorder and started improvising a scene about a boyfriend who’s jealous about his girlfriend’s relationship [with] her best friend. Obviously, I still had some jealousy in the old tank, because I ended up spiraling myself upwards and upwards in a spontaneous three-hour session, improvising aloud as both characters.
Essentially, I think I was verbalizing an argument between two different sides of my brain: the side that could still plug into that jealousy from a few weeks prior, and the side that knew I was being delusional about the whole thing. It was wonderfully cathartic, and it ended up forming the basis of the script.
If writing something really excites me, then I know that it’s meaningful to me; and if it’s meaningful to me, I assume that it’s going to be meaningful to others. We’re all coming from the same pool.’ï»¿
That’s incredible. I’ll have to give that a try some time. What were the difficulties in making it feel relatable while also wanting to say something new?
I don’t really think very much about making my writing relatable. If writing something really excites me, then I know that it’s meaningful to me; and if it’s meaningful to me, I assume that it’s going to be meaningful to others. We’re all coming from the same pool.
There’s a tragic dimension to jealousy that I was compelled by. On the one hand, jealousy makes its beholder completely insane; it severely deludes them from reality. On the other hand, despite that, it is usually rooted in some marble of truth — the twisted, sinking intuition is usually coming from somewhere. Oftentimes, that marble of truth is totally benign, but sometimes it’s more complicated. The tragedy is that by the time you’ve let yourself become really jealous of whatever that marble [might] be, you’re way too far gone to keep it in perspective, and end up blowing it endlessly beyond its rightful proportion — often to the detriment of your partner.ï»¿
I thought that that paradox was an interesting thing to explore: jealousy makes you believe in imagined monsters, and that’s terrible, but at the same time there are indeed tiny monsters at the core of your delusion. The trick is just to accept that the monsters are relatively small, and negotiate a truce with them instead of running at them with mace.
There’s a scene at the end of the film that, for me, made it worth making. It’s Grace’s character bursting back at my character for trying to control and define her social and sexual identity as a way of managing his own insecurity. It isn’t something I expected to come whipping out of my mouth when I was improvising, but ultimately it’s the core of the film.
I enjoyed how the film visually played with the concept of height, cueing the viewer in on who currently has the upper hand in the argument. Was choreography important to the film as a whole and how it synced with dialogue?
Choreography is such a pleasure. When you get a scene staged just where you want it — ah, I am prone to hysterics of glee. Grace and I rehearsed this scene over and over again for weeks before the shoot, and we spent a big slice of that pie discovering the right pieces of staging for each moment in the film. People move through a room because of how they feel, not arbitrarily, and expressing the sub-worlds of our characters through [movement] was essential.
The film has a very tight structure to it. When writing, is there a general formula that you adhere to or did this come naturally from the story?
My films are largely written by my subconscious. I’m positive that there are rules and formulas in there, but by now they’re way back in a cupboard under the stairs. For my process, a piece of writing comes about on impulse, following my nose, following my nose, following my nose. Following my sense of joy, basically. That’s my formula — take the story wherever brings me a sense of joy, even though that place is oftentimes pretty screwed up and dark.
Especially for shorts, I like to just ride my idea as hard as I can as far as I can until I’ve gotten all the joy out of it that I can, and it dumps me at the side of a ditch.
It’s ridiculous, — when a camera is on you it just rapidly feels like you’re inadequate, but we tried really hard to remember not to put anything on.’
From the dialogue, to the location, and the relationship itself, everything felt very real. How did you pull that off?
I think the dialogue feels the way it does because it was conceived through verbalization; I was improvising the thing out loud, so for this project we didn’t have that problem where you’re sitting in the audition room hearing actors say your words for the first time and thinking, ‘Oh … damn. These aren’t sentences. They’re witticisms.’ From the beginning, all the words in the script had to pass the litmus test of making their way through my lips before they went onto the page.
To really make the shooting location feel like home for Grace’s character, we decided that she would live and sleep in the apartment for a few days before the shoot, and she actually painted all of the paintings (except for Minnie, which was done by my buddy Gordy Bond) in that apartment. By the time I arrived on set the morning of the shoot, I felt like I was going over to my girlfriend’s.
And the relationship — Grace and I were adamant about trying to make sure we didn’t act too much, to try and just be as true to ourselves in these imaginary circumstances as we could be. Before every single take, we’d run over to each other and just silently say, ‘It’s just Ben and Grace, it’s just Ben and Grace, we’re enough, we’re enough, we’re enough.’ It’s ridiculous, — when a camera is on you it just rapidly feels like you’re inadequate, but we tried really hard to remember not to put anything on. It also helped that we rehearsed obsessively.
I always love hearing about the work that goes into prep. What was it like working with Grace, your partner in real life?
Working with Grace was the most rewarding creative experience I have ever had. She’s such a powerful force to watch, such an intelligent and powerful performer. I don’t like the word muse, because it always reminds me of old master painters cheating on their wives with a muse, but I certainly understand the basic concept of somebody who just takes your creative imagination for a ride. We both feel that it was the most creatively exciting collaboration we’ve had, and we’re excited to do it again, hopefully many more times.
What did it take to make a collaborative film like this?
It took a lot of support from very talented and generous people in the Toronto independent film community. Everybody who made this film is a friend of mine, and they signed on and worked on the film vigorously without knowing it would have any success at all, and having their trust and support was 100% the bedrock of this film’s making. I’m forever grateful for the support they gave to it, and some of their Vimeo pages are linked on our film’s page. They’re wildly talented people.
For me personally, it took a lot, lot, lot of hard work, straight up. It can be really testing going through the process of making a film, through all the trials and tribulations and processes, and there’s always an existential bent to the challenge of it — but it is, for those same reasons, the most rewarding thing ever.
Any words of encouragement to aspiring filmmakers in the Vimeo community?
I had this piece of paper taped to my wall in front of my laptop when I was editing the film, [one] I wrote during one of many all-night sessions of editing the film (and traversing an existential gauntlet accordingly) that just said, ‘You can’t skip to the end.’ It’s true. Making this film took being as patient, thorough, and laborious as I’ve ever been in my life — and then, it’s just a little three-character film in one room. I tried to constantly remind myself to do everything from the start, to do it thoroughly, to never get caught up blaming exterior circumstances for production issues, to just keep my eye on the ball until the very very very end.
And lastly, it definitely took — and takes — some trust in yourself; letting go of preconceptions about what is a trendy idea for a film and following your own instincts, making something that truly excites you, and not thinking about an end goal, other than the end goal of having a film you love to watch.
As a filmmaker who has had a successful year in the film festival circuit, what comes next for you? Any projects that this has lead to?
Well, yes. After Sundance some emails came in, and there are some cool opportunities. But for the most part I have chosen not to go down those avenues too quickly. I’m most excited about the red hot slap on the ass that something like getting into Sundance gives you — to keep trusting your instincts and write from that place even more fervently next time around. So for this summer, I moved to Montreal and have been working on my first feature screenplay. It’s been the most pleasurable few months of my life.
We can’t wait to see what comes from it, Ben. Keep us posted!