Video Breakdown: 'She Told Me She Was Dead'

In the short film She Told Me She Was Dead, writer and director Sebastian Sommer offers his take on the disturbing price of celebrity. Performance artist Hari Nef stars as Amber, an underground socialite confronted by a paparazzi pack. Jake Moore‘s hand-held cinematography follows the exchange from a paparazzo’s perspective, and just as with Sebastian’s inspiration for the film, Britney Spears, the horrifying crash of a life lived in front of an unwanted lens is on full display and it’s impossible to turn away. Milk Made spoke with Sebastian and Hari about the many ideas behind the video and the future of paparazzi culture.

Why did you decide to do a film about paparazzi and that whole culture?

Sebastian Sommer: I was fascinated by this Britney Spears video where she gets mobbed outside a gas station. I thought it was better than any horror movie I’ve ever seen in the past five years and also the Kanye paparazzi started becoming a thing and Chris Martin beating up a paparazzo outside of a hospital. I started becoming obsessed with them and how brutal capturing these icons and personas could be.

Hari Nef: It was originally Sebastian’s idea, but I thought it was interesting if I could make his vision of paparazzi and marry it to this character I created with my friend Brandon, whose name is Amber and is the main character in the film. She’s not actually that famous, she’s semi-famous, she’s underground, but she’s friends with a lot of famous people. Paparazzi only involve themselves with her maybe like a couple of times a year when she’s connected to some bigger celebrity thing. I thought it was interesting to look at the way paparazzi are attracted to symbolic situations and when that gets projected to an individual they’re attracted to the individual. The whole paparazzi thing doesn’t work unless the person that they’re pursuing represents something a lot bigger than the person themselves. It has a lot to do with the juicy status that the public wants to know.

You guys have stated that the film was inspired by an event seven years ago. If you were to base your film on the celebrity-and-paparazzi relationship today, would the film be the same?

SS: I think that it seems like people are becoming more aware and on top of how paparazzi can be super invasive. But I feel like they’re pretty much the same, when there’s a crazy moment they seem to mob the celebrities.

HN: I think what’s fascinating about any commentary on paparazzi in the 2014 relationship between celebrities and paparazzi is that in a way paparazzi are kind of obsolete now because you have social media and there are more ways that celebrities themselves can crack their own candid news about themselves for the consuming audience and they eat it up. I think with Amber in ‘She Told Me She Was Dead,’ you’re seeing someone who most of the time is in complete control of her own image, more or less, the parties she goes to, the photographers she poses for and her social media presence, her book deals, her articles. She’s this girl-about-town, but when you have this different scenario where it’s more disruptive, you have this third party coming in and I think that’s the same as it was seven or eight years ago. But it’s different now because paparazzi is not the only medium for celebrities to be in the news anymore, the medium now is the celebrities themselves. It’s almost more invasive in a way because you have the source trying to give it their version of news as well as a third-party’s news. I guess it’s not really that different but I feel it’s more invasive because people will have more power now to create their own images and news stories but still this whole paparazzi culture exist.

So it’s like a self invasion?

SS: I remember hearing a story of paparazzi attacking Miley Cyrus and in the mix of it she pulled out her phone and tweeted the photo of herself making all the paparazzi photos useless. I find that interesting. I feel like that’s a way to come back at paparazzi. I don’t really understand why celebrities don’t do that every time a paparazzi’s near.

HN: Yeah, in the film most of my dialog was improvised and you can see that intensity gaining a hold of the situation when the paparazzi are surrounding her and Amber says, “My friend Isabel made this dress, you can publish that.” She’s trying to use her invasive moment as a way to promote her friends and the people she cares about. There are more ways to manipulate image now, I think that the whole paparazzi thing deserves reexamination in 2014.

Do you think that the paparazzi culture will die out in the next 10 years?

SS: I dont think that it will. I think there will always be a demand for it. The second that someone else takes a photo of a celebrity and tweets it or posts it online in a funny way or captures an embarrassing moment there’s going to be a ton of people that flock to it or people who want to make money off of that. As long as there is a demand I don’t think it’s going away anytime soon.

HN: I actually do think it will go away because I think eventually celebrities are going to figure it out and it’s going to be more and more of the Miley Cyrus thing, like, well, if I’m sending everything out there for everyone then the paparazzi aren’t going to have anything to sell. That’s why I have my issues with Miley obviously, but the fact that she’s like, "Here’s a picture of me smoking weed." I feel like celebrities are going to get to the point and people in general are going to get to a point where their online public brands are going to be more and more transparent. Celebrities and people in general are going to be comfortable releasing information, personal information, embarrassing information of themselves versus having it found out because at the end of that day they have more power that way. I think people become more and more comfortable with doing that, eventually paparazzi are not going to have their punch lines, they’re not going to have the embarrassing candid moment suggests privacy itself and the breach of privacy is on its way out.

SS: A figure like Tom Cruise who has a level of power where the average citizens has absolutely no idea what’s going on in their life.

HN: I thinks it’s going to be the age of Big Brother too where we don’t need a security camera to tell us what Britney was doing last night, we have this video footage from a government camera and the government will sell that information to media sources. They will probably be able to sell that stuff to celebrities.

How did you pull this film together with the cast and crew?

SS: I first knew of Hari because there was this contest with DIS magazine last summer I think. I remember looking through other profiles to see who was applying and I think that’s how I heard of Hari. Also I’m a big fan of Jake Moore’s camera work and the stuff he does for VFILES. Also Isabel S-K, I’m a fan of her clothes. I remember one of my friends coming to my room with a pair of the LIL B shorts, I have never seen anything like them before, it was a combination of all these elements that I’m obsessed with and wanted to bring together.

When shooting this film did any of the actors become a little too convincing as paparazzi? Did it get a little too real at some point?

HN: I don’t think so. The way I work is often verging on too real, when I’m playing around or improvising or workshopping a scene and I have to fall and get hurt or push somebody, sometimes I just go into trance mode and actually push somebody or actually throw myself too hard on the ground. When we were shooting one scene from the film I was like, "Guys, you’re making it way too easy for me to run away, I want you to actually mob me, get rougher with me. As really as those actors wanted to be in the end they did get pretty real, I was asking for it because it’s better to go all in.

Can you tell me about your next film?

SS: What I’ll say about the film is that it’s about an art curator who gets involved with the deep web after losing her job. The whole film takes place in downtown New York City at night and it’s going to be really fucking awesome.

Do you have a name for the film yet?

SS: Ego Death

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