“YOU SHOULD HAVE BOUGHT A SQUIRREL” may have originated in Jerry Zucker’s 2001 comedy “Rat Race,” but it takes on a dark and hilarious new meaning in “Squirrel” — today’s Staff Pick Premiere from director Alex Kavutskiy.

With superb performances by Max Jenkins and Andrea Rosen, the short centers around a woman who learns the car accident that left her paralyzed was caused by an inside joke. “Squirrel” cleverly shifts in tone from funny to vulnerable and back again, as the woman questions whether to accept a meager apology or search for a deeper meaning. 

In celebration of today’s exclusive online premiere, we reached out to “Squirrel” director Alex Kavutskiy to learn more about how the film came together. Scroll on for excerpts from our conversation.

On inspiration for the film:

“I worked my way backwards into the premise, starting with deciding to write something for Max and Andrea that would be simple to shoot. I banged my head against the wall a bit trying to come up with a scenario that would put two strangers into a highly intimate situation. I also got into a car accident a few months earlier (fortunately, no one but my sweet Mazda was hurt), so I’m sure that seeped into my subconscious somehow.”

On Casting: 

“I’ve been really lucky to always have an incredibly talented pool of friends, so for me, casting has usually been writing parts for people I know or people who are peripherally in my world, the way I did with Max and Andrea for this film.”

On working with actors:

“I wish I could say I was like John Cassavetes — that I really pushed everyone and that we had a deeply moving experience that changed our lives forever. But the truth is, they were all pros who came in and nailed it. I gave a few notes here and there; we mostly just had a good time on set.”

On finding the right tone:

“It’s mostly instinct, trying to make each beat not too serious, not too silly and also authentic but not boring. Sometimes you read it back and it’s incredible; sometimes you read it back and it’s garbage. It helps so much when the actors read it (if you cast it well, of course) because their whole existence is to take an artificial line or moment and sell it back to you.”

On directing and editing:

“Half the premise is very not funny and the other half is very stupid, so when directing, I just tried to push everything as far from the stupid thing as possible. Most of my notes were ‘do it small and slow.’ In post-production, it was more about course-correction. I had a great editor named Clay Tatum whose gut I really trusted in terms of taking things in one direction or the other.”

On lessons learned: 

“While I was making this short, I was dealing with incredible hardship in my personal life. Among the many things I went through, a big one was seeing which friends were there for me. The night before our first shoot day, I managed to spill milk all over my laptop and lock myself out of my apartment in close succession. I went over to my friend Budd’s place, and he opened up MacBook to dry it off. I remember thinking how lucky I was to know someone who would do that for me so late at night, and how so many people I cared about gave up their time to help me make this dumbass ‘Rat Race’ short. It was a very moving and healing experience.”

On advice for aspiring filmmakers:

“I come from a filmmaking community in Los Angeles called Channel 101 that holds monthly screenings. Their whole philosophy is ‘make stuff, show it to an audience.’ I don’t think there’s any better filmmaking advice than that. They also have incredibly strict deadlines, which are great. I believe in getting a creative notion out of your system and moving on to the next thing.”

On what’s next: 

“After ‘Squirrel,’ I wanted to try to make a short that was the exact opposite in tone. I’m currently working on editing that short, and I’m really excited about it. Other than that, I’m working on all the usuals: TV pitches, feature scripts, blah blah blah.”

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