“Chestnut” by lesbian writer/director Jac Cron, is an intimate romantic drama about Annie (Natalia Dyer), a recent college grad who is preparing to leave Philadelphia for a job in Los Angeles. However, one summer night in a bar, she meets Tyler (Rachel Keller) and Danny (Danny Ramirez) and becomes infatuated with both of them. Spending nights together drinking, dancing and hanging out, Annie can’t resist the magnetic Tyler — Keller’s slinky performance is the film’s highlight — but perhaps she should. Moreover, when Annie and Danny cozy up and get affectionate one evening, things get emotionally sticky. “Chestnut” takes an easygoing approach to its queer love triangle and the attractive leads will carry viewers through this low-key, mumblecore-ish drama.
“Chestnut” will screen at the upcoming Philadelphia Film Festival (held October 19-29), and Cron, who will do talkbacks (dates to be confirmed), spoke with PGN about her engaging film.
What inspired you to make “Chestnut” and depict an adrift young woman’s experiences meeting new people who inspire her and possibly break her heart?
It was inspired by personal feelings. It is not specifically one exact experience, but an amalgamation of different experiences where I felt heartbreak, loss, change and moving around. When you are just ending something that is pretty momentous in your life, like graduating college, it can make you feel a little lost and out of your depths and make you question: Who am I? What do I want? And who do I want to surround myself with?
Can you talk about the style of your storytelling? This is a hangout film, and your camera follows the characters closely in and out of bars and apartments. Why this approach?
Nuance is really important for me in whatever way I am trying to tell a story — through words, or body language, or facial expressions, or the way the camera moves around the actors. I pick up on a lot of little things. I look very closely rather than zooming out. Mumblecore films really speak to me because they focus on the emotional things — what is revealed in small movements. My movie, in general, is about little moments instead of grandness. Big things are exciting and shiny, but the things that teach us are a lot smaller.
The characters talk and talk about music, movies, and poetry, but they also discuss finding a place to belong. What informed the dialogue?
It is written but improvised. I’m a perfectionist in my dialogue. I read it aloud and [ask] “Does it sound like something my friends and I would say?” The way people say things, and when we hear it in movies or TV, it makes us connect to those people more. I was particular about how I wrote things, but with the actors, if something feels more natural in the moment, I would tell them to say or do what they wanted. I trust that the actors know more about the characters because they are ruminating about who they are and get into their skin, while I’m looking more broadly.
You showcase Philadelphia well, setting scenes in various bars and featuring cityscapes to show the passing of time and to give viewers a breather for the dramatic moments. Can you discuss using the city as a backdrop?
I love Philadelphia. I went to Drexel and the city is small enough where you can sink your teeth into it. After college, it was a cool period for me to explore Center City and Fishtown. I remember experiencing all these bars and this endless nightlife. It was the most unique city — and I grew up in New York — but there’s an inaccessibility to New York. What I love most about Philly is that I would be out until 2, 3, 4 a.m. and there are no people out, and when you are drunk on the streets with friends, you feel like you own this city. It is like the romanticism that people depict in New York in the movies, where it was more smaller pockets. That’s how I feel about Philly.
What decisions did you make about the characters’ sexuality?
It was important for me to express people’s sexualities the way that I and my friends do in my real life. What bothers me when I watch more mass-marketed TV shows or movies is that people are always explaining their sexuality, without people even asking or having a conversation around it. People don’t come up and ask me: Are you gay or straight? It either comes up in conversation, or you deduce it based on who they talk about romantically. I wanted it to be really natural in the film. When I was talking to the actors, I didn’t say, “This is what I think about their sexual orientations…” It was more I guided them to see how attraction plays into how they treat someone. Tyler knows that Annie likes her in a more romantic, sexually attracted way, and that’s confusing for someone like Tyler who doesn’t live in a queer community or have a lot of queer friends. Tyler wonders, why am I feeling this way about a girl?
Tyler is wonderfully mercurial. She is seductive, but also sends Annie mixed messages. How did you construct her character?
She’s the antihero. Some people love her. Some people relate to her and her struggle of not knowing who she is, and what she is doing. And some people say she’s the worst. I tried to stay in line because the film is from Annie’s point of view. It shows how Annie would view these people. I wanted Tyler to be mysterious and not know exactly why she was doing things. I don’t want to know what her reasoning is.
I connected with your film because of the intense friendships Annie has with Tyler. Can you talk about that?
I think that’s a queer thing that comes from childhood. You have these close friends and don’t know exactly how to express your feelings. You don’t know if it is [friendship], or if it should be romantic?
What observations do you have about the film’s love triangle?
It’s often depicted in movies, TV and literature that love triangles where one person likes two different people at the same time, or two people like the same person, but it was interesting for me to explore a messier love triangle where no one likes the same person back. Everyone is trying to chase the other person in the triangle. That lends itself to more complex emotions and more chances for finding love if the other person just turned around and returned your affection. A lot of it was fueled by a God’s-eye view of jealousy.