Writer and star Brittani Nichols on making a comedy about suicide, LGBTQ characters, and not hiring straight white dudes.
Suicide Kale is a new lesbian comedy centering on the deeply uncomfortable premise of a new couple discovering an anonymous suicide note in their married friends' house. Jasmine (Brittani Nichols) and Penny (Lindsay Hicks) had been dating for about a month when they went to their friends place for a couple's lunch. After sneaking off to make out in their hosts' bedroom, the couple discover the note tucked into the bed, abruptly cutting their fun short.
The absurdity of that horrific scenario is incredibly funny, while also providing space for thoughtful commentary about the challenges of dating and the terrifying, helpless feelings familiar to anyone who has feared for a loved one's safety. The honesty of the story is refreshing, as is the ease with which it passes the Bechdel Test: No male characters appear in the film, nor are any ever the topic of conversation. And it's resonating deeply with audiences: Suicide Kale has screened at film festivals across the country this year, winning awards such as the audience award for US narrative first feature at LA's prestigious Outfest.
At the helm of Suicide Kale is its star, screenwriter, and producer Brittani Nichols. Nichols may be best known for her work on the web series Words with Girls, as well as her guest appearance in season two of Transparent. Suicide Kale is her first feature film. In advance of the film's upcoming New York screening at NewFest, VICE spoke with Nichols about what it was like to make Suicide Kale, the state of indie filmmaking today, and not hiring straight white dudes for everything.
VICE: What struck me the most as I was watching Suicide Kale was the way the film depicts arguments and conflict as something that's natural in a healthy relationship, which is really rare to see in traditional romantic comedies. Was that a particularly important facet of the story for you?
Brittani Nichols: Yeah. I really like writing realistic dialogue. And people have arguments. That's a part of every relationship. Especially with a film that's all about avoiding one topic and one topic being taboo, I think it made it an especially fruitful way to have arguments, because these characters will literally talk about anything but this one thing. They will have full-on arguments in front of each other, which is really super awkward, and still won't talk about it. Like, how many boundaries can you cross in front of your friends before you are willing to have this hard conversation?
Making a comedy about suicide seems incredibly challenging. How did you manage to balance the humor with the seriousness of that topic?
I tried to keep it honest and think about how these people would actually react to this situation. You know, they're not people who are trained to have these conversations. It's not something that's happened to them before. We tried to make sure that we treated it with the respect it deserved while also showing that those situations can be awkward in such a way that produces laughs. Part of something being taboo is that you have to learn to talk about it fully, and fully talking about something includes finding the humor in it.
It seemed really radical to me that you made a film about queer people and suicide and no one dies in it.
[Laughs] I mean, I never want to kill a queer person, if I can help it. I feel like there are so many people doing that for me. I think that in a lot of these films, being queer is still being treated as the taboo topic. I think there is plenty of space for those films, but there aren't a lot of spaces for LGBT people to talk about other serious topics. Our identity has to be the serious topic, so we don't get to talk about anything else. I wanted to see what it would be like to take on a topic that's even scarier than being gay.
Part of something being taboo is that you have to learn to talk about it fully, and fully talking about something includes finding the humor in it.
What challenges and barriers did you face throughout the production and exhibition of the film?
The actual process of shooting it was pretty easy, because we approached it thinking, We don't have any money. We only have the equipment that we actually own ourselves. We know how good we're going to be able to make this look in the period of time that we have to shoot, which is five days.
I think that the movie would be something completely different if we had more money. I'm very happy with how it turned out, and part of being happy with the process is not having had the money or resources that most people have.
How has the festival run been for you? Have you been satisfied with the reactions from audiences?
Yeah! We haven't had a bad screening that I've been to, and I've been to most of them. People are always really impressed with it. People laugh a lot. It's always interesting to see when people collectively decide something is funny. There's just a special energy when you go to see a movie, and it's one of the reasons why I like to go see movies—it's a communal experience where, somehow, everyone just gets on the same wavelength.
It's been great. We've won some awards, and we're still getting programmed. And it's also just cool because there aren't a lot of no-budget features anymore. I think LGBT film festivals used to be a place where no-budget and low-budget features really shined, but as indie film has gotten more expensive overall, it's also impacted the LGBT space. So it's been nice to hear audiences say, "Well, you all made this movie that was better than a lot of the movies that had millions of dollars." It speaks to the point that film is about storytelling. If you can tell a good story, people will forgive a lot of things.
You have to just straight-up say, "I'm not gonna hire straight white dudes." I think that's the only way the needle is ever actually gonna move.
Do you have any thoughts about why there are fewer low-budget and no-budget films than there used to be, even at LGBTQ film festivals?
I think it's just the overall changing landscape of indie film. Festivals care if you have a big name actor in your movie, and they care whether it got some funding from Sundance. Those are things that are starting to matter more. Now you can do a Kickstarter and raise the funds that you need. So the people who would have been making films for no money are now saying, "Well, I can at least raise $100,000." I mean, Tangerine got all that press for being made on an iPhone, and they still spent $100,000 on it, and they had the support of some of the biggest names in independent film. And it was made by white dudes. Like, it's a movie about black trans women, sure, but it was made by white dudes.
How do you think the industry needs to change in order to support female filmmakers, queer filmmakers, and filmmakers of color?
The way that things actually have to shift is that you have to make a concerted effort to hire women and people of color and queer people, and that's it. You have to just straight up say, "I'm not gonna hire straight white dudes." I think that's the only way the needle is ever actually gonna move. You can't just expect every queer woman of color to have the mindset that I have. It can't be our responsibility to change things. We can't be the only ones saying, "We're only going to hire women," or "We're gonna make sure that half of our crew is women." It has to be everyone doing it. Well, not everyone, but more than just us.
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