Our intern John McCulloch recently had the opportunity to talk with the team behind Shudderbugs, a narrative feature directed by Johanna Putnam that will be screening at the Marquis Theatre. Joining her was producer and cinematographer Brennan Brooks as well as producer and editor Jamie Unruh. Filmed with a crew of 3, Shudderbugs was a project born out of the COVID pandemic and follows a young woman named Samantha Cole who returns to her childhood home in the wake of her mother’s mysterious death, spiraling down a rabbit hole of grief, suspicion, and isolation.
John: What is it that drew you to the idea of making this story about grief and, more specifically, a daughter dealing with the death of her mother?
Johanna: Brennan and I had escaped up to my parents’ house in the Spring of 2020 right when the pandemic hit. We thought it would be a couple of weeks and then a couple of months and we slowly realized we could be there for a very long haul. So we decided to try to make a film. We’ve all been in the industry for years, but we’d never collaborated together. So this seemed like a good chance for us to wear the hats that we hadn’t worn and try to learn everything that we hadn’t seen on our various sides of production. So I wrote a script while Brennan learned how to use the camera and Jamie came up and joined us and shot it. We were the entire cast, crew, and team. But the story came out of what we had in front of us. We were isolated in my childhood farmhouse. There were a lot of memories spinning around. There was a lot of fear for my parents’ health and wellbeing in that particular moment. So it felt like a pretty prescient and important story that we could contribute a voice in. And we also could tell that story, we had one character, isolated in a farmhouse with some weird things going on. It was an interesting and kind of cathartic process to write that script with my mom right there, alive and well, albeit terrified every time she goes up to the mailman and constantly worrying about her health, but it was a nice way for us to all face that moment in time and that kind of unbalanced period of the pandemic by writing a story about loss and grief. And this isn’t a pandemic story. This is just about her mom passing by other means. But it felt like a nice way to handle that scary moment.
John: And what are some of the challenges that you faced as a first time director/actor, especially given that your character is more or less on-screen for the entire film?
Johanna: I’ve acted in a variety of content, but I’d never stepped behind the directorial role and I’ve always wanted to take on both. I was really fortunate that we did plan for everything so well. A lot of times, like on a traditional set, we would be giving a huge variety of performance, getting a lot of ideas and a lot of things to work with. Jamie, Brennan and I knew the story so well that we all knew exactly where we needed to be at each point in the story, which meant that as we were shooting each scene, we could confirm with each other what was working. Brennan was in charge of the technical and Jamie was in charge of the creative. She was co-directing scenes that she was watching with the script in hand. Maybe if I had a full crew, I would have felt the fear and the pressure and the insecurity of some of those choices. But again, when you’re doing things with your best friends, everything was on the table. It was really gratifying because not only did I get to write a role that I would really want to play, I then got to have people supporting me in the decision that this is working. A lot of times you go and you just don’t know if you’re gonna like it or if she’s likable enough or if you need to ham it up here or make it more dramatic here and it was so nice to have all those things confirmed as we were shooting it because that would have been really scary in another context. And I’m so grateful to them for that.
Pictured above (left to right): Jamie Unruh, Johanna Putnam, Brennan Brooks, Eric Elterman
John: What does the film mean to all of you and especially for you, Johanna, to see a project like this as director, writer, and producer, all come together as this finished product?
Johanna: It is the best kind of gamble and the best leap that I’ve ever taken. I’m really, really grateful for that. I spent a long time trying to figure out how to have a voice and vision as an actor who couldn’t really find a lot of opportunity and couldn’t find my footing in that way. Work is so sporadic and I’m really glad to know that there’s some power in approaching it from all 3 of these angles at the same time with the right people here. I want each project after to get bigger and not in the scope of the production but in how collaborative we are with what we can do. This was a film and a story that was made out of limitations. And I’m so excited about what we found in there and now I can’t even imagine what the possibilities are, especially when some of those restrictions are lifted and when we have a little more resources and money and all hands on deck. It was really a revelatory moment for me to realize that we could do that. I had just always assumed I needed more than that to really start tackling a personal voice, vision and future in those regards and I’m ready now.
Brennan: I would pretty much echo the same sentiment. Hanna and I were nervous. We’d never worked together creatively. And I feel like sometimes that can be like moving in with your best friend and you’re really good friends, but find out you’re terrible roommates. And right away we found that it was working. And then when Jamie got there, same thing. Jamie and I have worked together creatively. We were in a band together. So we’ve done some things and we knew we would be good. And it’s just great to find a team that we can stick with and try again and just try to keep improving technically and creatively. Then the other way I would answer that question is that the film also has meaning. We’ve gotten lucky enough to go to several festivals by now. We get folks that come up that have maybe just lost a parent and they can relate. Even though it’s difficult for them to probably watch it at that time, I think there’s a little bit of resolution in it too or just, you’re getting to watch somebody go through something you’re going through or have gone through or will go through and I think the themes in the film are present for all of us unfortunately at some point. And so hopefully people can find some solace in it as well, which we’ve seen several times so far.
Jamie: It was like Johanna said, it was a relief in the pandemic when Brooklyn and New York in general wasn’t a really fun place to be. And we just got to bounce around outside and be weird and spend 43 days just making art. And then having that process continue for another year and through post. We really just took our time for many reasons and then getting to work with Johanna in the edit was really fun for me. She was really curious about editing. She was curious about every part of the process and wanted to absorb and learn as much as she possibly could about it. And that really empowered me to show her my best. And it also is the first time I’ve cut a narrative feature and in this world, sometimes, you get pigeonholed and you have to really fight and claw for your next opportunity to do something that you haven’t done before. And this was just a given, a natural fit for me to take this on. And now I’ve cut a narrative feature and I loved it and I would love to do it again. And that’s exciting too. It’s been inspiring. Also just like Brennan said, even seeing other filmmakers’ films at these festivals has been truly inspiring. We’ve all come home and been like, let’s just make more and more and more. Our next focus is our next feature film, but what if we can make a short in the meantime or what can we shoot just for fun because we’re seeing people just doing it, just making it happen. And it’s really been an amazing and inspiring process that I’ll never forget.
You can check out Shudderbugs on Friday, August 25 at 9am in the Marquis Theatre and stick around after for a Q&A with the production team!