French-Canadian filmmaker, voice director, and acting coach Sergine Dumais is a stage veteran with directing credits including the French adaptation of Little Women-the musical, and Jason Robert Brown’s 13. Since living in Los Angeles, she has directed the French language dubs of over 20 features while lending her voice to many Hollywood stars, including Diane Keaton, Cate Blanchett, Allison Janney, Linda Hamilton, and Salma Hayek. This year, Dumais directed her first short film, Wichita written by American writer Bo Price (Slap Kiss Kill) which stars Canadian actress Maxim Roy (Shadowhunters) and Jeremy Sisto (Six Feet Under). Dumais’s and Price’s Wichita is a breakneck, engaging tale of one woman doing her best to keep her day (and life) together. The director and writer talk to us about their terrific first collaboration.
Jason Sheppard: Sergine, what were your immediate feelings when you read Bo’s script?
Sergine Dumais: Oh, my God, I’ve read several of his scripts and had a lot of good reactions to them. I just think he’s a genius writer. They’re always fun to read and so full of life and always have an unexpected turn. They’re exciting to read. For this particular one I thought, this is perfect for my first short film. I just thought it had everything a short film should have.
Jason: Did you feel his script would mesh perfectly with your directing style?
Sergine Dumais: I come from the theater and have experience directing theater. I also direct French dubbing voice-over. But it was my first time transitioning to film. So to answer your question, it was more like I was hoping that my directing skills would level with the quality of Bo’s script.
Jason: Wichita takes a serious subject and places a slightly humorous spin on it where it plays like a rom-com but it turns out to be something deeper and as a viewer this is what leaves a mark after it’s over. Were you concerned about handling the humor and then the emotional aspect?
Bo Price: Well, I started writing it as what I thought might be a funny scene. I’m from Wichita, Kansas and I thought maybe I was the only one in the world who would think this was funny. It’s as if these two people were talking about Wichita as if it was Paris or New York or something with these really famous landmarks and talking about them like they’re the Eiffel Tower or the Empire State Building — things that everyone in the world know. Instead, they use things that only people from Wichita would know, like Cow Town or Pizza Hut, or Kirstie Alley’s house. I thought that would be funny. I didn’t even know if other people from Wichita would think it would be. Honestly I just wrote for fun and it kept going and eventually it goes where it goes, I don’t want to say, but there is a little turn in it but I still didn’t think of it as much more than a skit really. When Sergine came along years later and said she wanted to do it, she really brought a different approach to it and elevated it to something deeper about infidelity and a marriage breaking down. So there are funny things in the beginning but it really plays as a relationship struggle in a drama. That was everything she brought to it, with her approach, with the casting and with the DP that she brought on, in the way it’s shot, everything elevated from what I thought was honestly, a skit into something that’s really like a film. And I’m lucky she did.
Jason: The turn you mentioned is quite striking in that the film’s quick-minded and quick-witted main character, Sarah, doesn’t know what to say in a pivotal moment. It really addresses the reality of these situations. Were there concerns about taking a likable character who we see right away does an unlikable thing?
Sergine Dumais: We talked a lot with Maxim Roy who plays Sarah, and of course, I think we like the fact that she’s fighting and I think that’s why we’re rooting for her. I don’t think we have time to decide at that point whether she’s likable. I guess that’s what we focused on. She was trying to fix this situation the best she could. So I guess maybe that’s why it makes her likable. I think we’re relating to someone in trouble, and they’re trying to fix it.
Bo Price: I think in any movie it’s natural that whoever you’re following, the beginning of something, you can’t help but root for them, even if they’re doing something bad, like The Sopranos. Even though objectively what they’re doing is wrong, If you’re following them, you root for whom you’re seeing. We don’t know the whole story, but we are rooting because when you see someone trying to get out of a pickle, you do want to see them get out of it. You can tell Sarah is trapped but then you see more and things do change. I think it’s always fun if you can do that. I’ve written scripts for 30 years and It’s very rare that I’ve written anything that had something that kind of works like a mousetrap.
Jason: I read in an interview how you weren’t sure Jeremy Sisto would be available on shooting day. Did you have a backup plan if that couldn’t be worked out?
Sergine Dumas: No. Bo wanted to have a plan and I didn’t want to have a plan.
Bo Price: If he didn’t, we just would have had to cast someone else at the last minute. At the very beginning when Sergine said she wanted to do this project she wanted to get Jeremy Sisto for it and I thought that was a terrific idea, and an impossible one. I had very narrow thinking and I’m a little embarrassed in hindsight, at the smallness of my ideas of what was possible. Sergine swore that it was possible, and we should go for it, and we shouldn’t try and talk ourselves out of it. And she did go for it, and he said he could do it although with very strange parameters, that it would be several months in the future, it might not happen and had to be between a few hours of the day. We said, we’ll take it, and crossed our fingers.
Sergine Dumais: Because he was shooting (the NBC series) FBI in New York City, he would only get his schedule a week before or ten days before. So we could book tentative dates with him, but he would have to confirm whether he could actually come down to LA, on these dates. So we were standing by and the whole crew was ready, and we thought we probably were going to get Jeremy, but we didn’t know 100% so that was kind of stressful. But then the text came, and it was him saying it’s good, I’m going to be there and it had to be in between the hours when he dropped off his kids at school and then picked them up, so we said ‘no problem.’ We scheduled everything around that, and we ended up using less time because he’s so good. He just walked in, and we only ended up doing eight takes and that was it. It started raining right after and it was this magical moment where it all came together.
Jason: Jeremy has that unique voice where you just hear it and you go “that’s Jeremy Sisto!” He’s so good at using his voice as a character. Was that something you were looking for?
Sergine Dumais: So maybe a year prior, I had the great opportunity to work with Jeremy on a play. I directed him doing a ten-minute monologue—alone on stage for ten minutes doing the hardest monologue. I saw the guy work and I’m also a big fan of Six Feet Under, so I knew before I worked with him that oh, wow, this guy is amazing. When we worked together I’ve never seen anything like it. I had chills. It was a surreal experience for me. I was like, oh my god, I’m in the presence of a genius. Just to be in the presence of someone doing this kind of work and I have not seen it done even on Six Feet Under, I think what I’ve seen him do is 100 times better and surprising. So when I decided to do this short and I re-read The Wichita script, I said to myself, you know who would be just perfect for this? Jeremy! The first time I met him for a rehearsal I stopped myself from talking and said ‘he has a great voice.’ So I knew about his voice and I knew that it was going to work. When I thought about this scene, because everything has been on Sarah in the story until that point, it had to be a home run. I thought getting him was a long shot but I could ask him. So I texted him and said, ‘Jeremy, I want to make my very first film and I would love for you to be in it. Do you think it might be possible for just half a day?’ And he said ‘show me the script.’ So I texted him the script and three minutes later, he replied, ‘ha, that’s so cool. Yeah, I want to do it.’ So then it became how is that going to be even possible with the logistics of it, but after he read the script, he wanted to do it right away. So It started with, Oh my god, I want to do this script, I want to make my first short film and now Jeremy Sisto is attached to do it.
Jason: Was this movie filmed in one day?
Bo Price: It was two days, because we had to block a whole day for Jeremy. So most of it, everything except his part was shot on day one. And then basically, his stuff was for day two. But it happened so quickly It was only about an hour of shooting time because he was so fast. It’s possible to have done it in one day. If we shot this in the summer when there was more light, I think it would have been possible to do in one day, but we did this in December where it gets dark early.
Jason: How did the actors communicate to each other?
Sergine Dumais: We had Jeremy for a very short amount of time, but he was so generous and gracious. Right away in the morning, when he was driving on the way to the set he got on the phone with Max for the actual shooting. I remember when they got in the room together for the first time Jeremy was getting his makeup done and Max walked in and I went ‘oh, this is going to work. They have instant chemistry.’ I had worked with Max and I had worked with him, so I knew this was going to be a good match. We had about half an hour of rehearsal before we started shooting their scene, and it was, oh my God, It was intense. Even Max told me in between the rehearsals that she couldn’t even look at him because she I wanted to save it for the scene. So they were a very good match. They really liked working with each other even though they played together a very short amount of time.
Jason: So, I’m talking to you from Newfoundland, Canada and there’s just so much Canada in this film. The leading actress, the DP (Serge Desrosiers), the song choice. How did they all like working in LA?
Sergine Dumais: Max was local to Los Angeles at that time. She just moved back to Toronto but at that time she was living there. Serge is a top Canadian DP, and he has a company where he sometimes works in Los Angeles. Once I had Max and Jeremy attached to the film I wanted the same level DP as our cast. I knew Serge and I asked to meet with him in Montreal, and he invited me to the set of this $20 million American production. I told him a little about the story and that Max is in it, and he knew her and then Jeremy Sisto, and he said ‘yeah, sure, I’ll help you’ and that’s how it worked. I thought then that it was the beginning of an actual movie we were about to make. I’m a dual citizen now—I’m Canadian, and American, and I was making my first film as an American production. It was very special to me to have all the fellow Canadians on set with me. I feel this has my Canadian identity even though it was done in LA.
Jason: This film has that Six Feet Under look and feel about it. It’s not the kind of LA you see in most LA based stories.
Sergine Dumais: It was wonderful collaborating with Serge. He’s a professional artsy photographer and I told him in the beginning I wanted the character, Sarah to feel like she’s on top of a cloud, and she’s with her lover and it’s like a dream and then the story gets gradually darker, so he tells that story with the image. He has a specific style and when you look at it, you know he shot it.
Jason: Bo, did the initial idea of a woman in a mad dash come to you before you had an idea of what the dialogue would be or was it a case of ‘I have these funny bits of dialogue in my mind I want a character to say but don’t know the story yet.’ Was it the broader idea or the dialogue that came to you first and did one inspire the other?
Bo Price: Well, I was trying to write something almost as an exercise for a class, that would be like a three-minute scene that could be done with two people, male and female. So I sat down to write something about that and somehow that phone call just came to my head with that premise. But it really began with just the initial premise and the idea that maybe it would be funny to talk about Wichita and that she’s in a pickle. That really was the only thing. I was writing it when I was in a hotel in Las Vegas, and I was sick. I was there with my dad in the hotel, and I was sick with strep throat and I wrote it all on Gold Nugget stationery In like, two hours, and scribbled it all out and that’s about 60% of what’s still in there. I just thought it would be funny but as I was writing, it kept progressing into more of a story. When I started writing it I didn’t know that there would actually be a beginning, a middle, and an end. I didn’t know how it was going to end when I started it so that came a little later and thank God it did, because we wouldn’t have a short without it. It would have been all middle. I’ve written a lot of things that have a beginning and a middle (laughs). I find that people like movies much more when there’s an end.
Jason: That middle was extremely good though. That was part of the reason I went back and watched it again and again. Are you guys looking to turn Wichita into a feature? Will it be with the same individuals if you can will it?
Sergine Dumais: I’m never working with Jeremy Sisto again (both laugh very hard). I thought he was terrible. Same thing with Max. I mean, come on, I’m being sarcastic. I think we all want to spend more time with these two characters and to maybe find out what happened. Bo is writing the feature of it.
Bo Price: We’ll see.
Jason: I for one would love to see more of these two characters for sure. What has the response been from people who have seen Wichita?
Bo Price: People seem to like it which is nice and most of the people that have seen it at least first, aren’t from Wichita, so they didn’t get any of the references and I was curious about that. It doesn’t seem to matter if people know Wichita or not—people like it or don’t like it based on just how it is apart from the in-jokes. My parents who are from Wichita showed it to their friends in Wichita earlier this year, right before COVID-19 broke out, they had a party and I’m glad they did because that might be the only time a whole group of people from Wichita watch it in the same room. And I think they did like it, so I am curious how people from Wichita will respond to it. We are going to be playing at the Wichita film festival called Tallgrass in November, and I’m very curious how people will respond. But in general, people have liked it. We’re playing the LA shorts Film Festival for our world premiere, and we’re playing the Austin Film Festival right after that. We’re grateful and it’s exciting. It’s nice when people respond to something.
Sergine Dumas: What I like is people are starting long conversations about marriage and fidelity and it’s generating hard conversations. I like to go watch a movie which then it makes me think about my life and how I feel about certain things. I’m pleased with that reaction.
Jason: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Sergine Dumais: We can’t wait for our Canadian premiere. I can’t wait to go to your part of the country. We’re excited that we’re we’re going to have our world premiere at LA Shorts, but I can’t wait to show it in front of an audience. I can’t wait to show it to people in Canada, as well.
Jason: It’s a wonderful short and I can’t wait to see what you guys do next.
Sergine Dumais: Thank you. We really appreciate it.
WICHITA. Starring Maxim Roy, Jeremy Sisto. Directed by Sergine Dumais. Written by Bo Price. Cinematography by Serge Desrosiers, CSC. Produced by Bo Price & Ricky Lloyd George. Zoner Productions, 2020. www.wichitafilm.com www.zonerproductions.com