Here’s why Chelsea Devantez’s short film is anything but ‘Basic’
While SXSW’s cancellation has hit many big studios and their premieres hard, the real ones who lose out are the independent creators who were looking to make a splash at the Austin festival. But these filmmakers are refusing to let their light be put out, and are working on getting their work, be it short film or feature, out to the world anyway.
Chelsea Devantez is here to speak to “the insecure lil ho in all of us” and it’s a message we need more than ever. Her short Basic is an ode to the basic white girl in all of us, showing that we’re the ones stopping ourselves from being ourselves. Premiering this week as part of Short of the Week’s SXSW series, Devantez’s project will finally get its time in the spotlight.
Devantez has had a strange collection of credits, from working on NBC’s Abby and Jon Stewart’s HBO project, to creating the hit web series Modern Women. But her journey into comedy started in Chicago, like most up and coming comedians. At the end of the day, Devantez just wants to make people laugh. In honor of her short’s release, we spoke with the comedian/director about her career and Basic.
Tell us about your history as a filmmaker. How did you start your journey?
My mom has a story of me being three years old and seeing a commercial and asking her how I could get on TV and she said get on TV you have to have an agent. And then every grown up I encountered I would ask them to be my agent. I had it in my head that I wanted to be a serious actress — but that’s because that’s all I saw women doing and that’s what I thought was available to us, you know, being Julia Roberts in Mystic Pizza!
It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized I only wanted to do comedy. I remember in high school people calling me “weird,” and now I look back and realize ah yes, “weird,” the word in the early aughts for “funny, but a girl.” I left college and moved to Chicago in hopes of working at The Second City in Chicago and after studying there I started performing on their cruise ships, then TourCos, and eventually the Mainstage.
At the Second City you write and perform all your own material, which is how I discovered I was actually a writer, probably more so than an actor even. Rewinding a little — during my first improv class my friends and I were seeing all these web series pop up, and I wanted to make one, but no one knew how to do anything and none of us had money or resources.
So I said I’d just learn to shoot it for us and then eventually be in the web series myself, which of course never happened. We shot five episodes that I’m actually still kind of proud of? We had a $300 canon camera that my mom’s friend Grace gave us. I held the manual as I shot. I learned final cut pro from some 11-year-old on YouTube. and used an illegal version of the program my friend ripped for me to edit the series.
After that I wrote, acted in, and produced or directed a film or TV project every year since. In the beginning, I would still give the directing position away, thinking someone else knew better and that way I could focus on acting and writing. Also, I’m a very bubbly person and into all that feminine stuff that people are taught to see as weak – makeup, dresses, etc… – so I think it was very easy to dismiss me as a director and someone capable of getting the job done.
But I’d always end up mad at some aspect of the project, and wish I had just directed it myself. Early on we even had a dude try to say he owned this other web series we made because he directed some episodes, even though we wrote it, funded it, produced it, acted in it, etc . . .
I got really tired of giving the power away to people who didn’t deserve it. I finally realized that I wanted to direct my work myself, without giving up the writing and acting of it, and that I would find a way to make it all happen. My wonderful high school theater teacher Tim, wrote me a recommendation letter that said “she’s a great actress, but she’s an even better director and one day she’s going to figure it out.” I had it in writing and it still took me a while to figure it out!
Who are your current influences?
Drag queens inspire me to the nth degree in all areas of my life: comedy, style, visual presentation, pushing the borders, standing for something, having a message, using femininity as a strength, and how to DIY yourself into the most memorable bish. Some of the queens I love are Katya, Kat Sass, Trannika Rex, Valentina, and Monét X Change.
I recently re-watched American Psycho and am still reeling from it. Marylin Minter and Connor Harrington are a couple of my favorite visual artists who come to mind. I find inspiration everywhere — in my shot lists, I’ve referenced everything from commercials, to shitty blockbuster movies, to someone’s wedding film, to overwrought Auteur cinema.
What five TV shows do you think everyone should watch this year?
Work in Progress, Pen15, Fleabag, Succession, Little America.
Cat or dog?
My boyfriend and I have been waiting to get a dog until we move into a place with a yard, but given the current situation with shelters closing, we are frantically trying to foster to help out. One of the dogs available is named Chelsea so… things could get weird.
What was the one movie you saw that made you want to go into film?
We didn’t have TV most of my childhood, but we did see movies and a few of those movies changed my life:
A League of Their Own, While You Were Sleeping, Love and Basketball, Drop Dead Gorgeous, First Wives Club.
Real cinephile auteurs wouldn’t say First Wives Club holds up, but for me it was the first time in my life that I saw that you could fight back after a divorce. It made me want to make TV and films that would reach a poor ass kid in a small town who goes to see it because it’s supposed to be a funny blockbuster, and it is, but hidden inside is a message that you can fight back and you can ask for better from life…And that you can sing “you don’t own me” in all white linen with your best lady gals.
How was working on Basic? What did you learn from the experience?
It’s the best experience I’ve had so far! I learned how much I prefer small crews to larger ones. There were only 4 people on the crew of this film, including me.
Tell us about your career before you found film.
Cleaning houses was my first job when I was 11, then I was some form of barista or waitress for ten years, then I was a nanny, a receptionist at a synagogue, and then I worked at a coupon start-up for 2 weeks and got fired, but that same week was hired by Second City to perform on a cruise ship.
I performed with the theater for the next five years until I had done three mainstage reviews, then I became a TV writer which is my current job, and I’ve been directing, writing and acting in my own films and TV projects on the side since I was 22.
Where did the concept come from for Basic?
I’d had this idea for an unreliable narrator for a while, but I didn’t have the story yet. Then there was a night when someone who shall not be named (until I’m three drinks in) went through my Twitter feed and deep liked a tweet that was a year old. The whole film came to me right then and there. I wrote it that night, set up production the next day, and filmed it three weeks later.
What music inspires you to create?
Music heavily inspires me but it really depends on the project. When I was getting ready to shoot Bad Vibes, a project about living in New Mexico and my mom’s healing communities, I went through old dance playlists of NIA workout classes I would take in Santa Fe, and ended up obsessed with Nazare Periera’s Caixa Del Sol and shot an entire sequence to go beat by beat with intro of the song.
But it changes per project and I do a lot of random searching into things I’ve never heard before until I hear the right song.
Talk us through your creative process.
The huge key moments come to me when I’m walking, working out, listening to music, or the moment before you I fall asleep. I’ll have very specific shots and specific tent poles and jokes. Then I’ll write it, and I always try and write something so that you can do it for as little money as possible — like how many scenes can take place in the apartment I live in, can we fake a cafe out of the backyard?
I send it out for notes and thoughts to the people I love and admire, then re-write. I like to come to set knowing exactly what I want — tone, vibe, visuals, and the big tent poles that launched the project, and then collaborate to the max and have everyone elevate and build and remain flexible. I trained as an improviser so I love to improvise on set with actors, but I also love production improvisation.
For example I had this push-in shot on the bridge I really wanted, and this look Georgia would turn and do, but then Kevin had the idea to unbalance the camera on the Gimbal at the last moment of the shot and it was phenomenal.
I like working with people who I can say to them here’s what I want, and they can say — I have a tweak or add on that, can we also try that? I’ll say no to what is a no, but I know I’ve appreciated being on sets where people are collaborative and that’s what I like to do on mine, because that’s the best part of making art together.
What tips do you have for new filmmakers?
This will be an unpopular tip, BUT, don’t crowd fund your first project. Figure out how to do it on your own, and I say this as someone who started out making projects with like $2 to my name. Early on I did a Kickstarter to raise 3k for a thing I wanted to shoot.
But it really stressed me out to take money from people and I didn’t grow up with money so I had a real complex about it all. After that, I promised myself I would always find a way to fund it myself and what I didn’t expect is that it made me a better writer and director. People often bloat productions and overwrite the story, but when you’re the one paying for it all, you realllllly learn what you actually need to tell a story.
It helped me always write with my directing and producing brain on, and it made me more innovative as a director. And now I’m a TV writer so thankfully I had the paycheck to fund Basic, and most importantly, pay everyone, but the actual production was less than $500 because I had learned how to do it. Which is great because then you can make more things!
What part of filmmaking do you geek out about the most?
I geek out about the magical moments! The moments a line is improvised that you can’t live without. Or when you show up to your location and a concert is going on so you stage your shot on the fly in a parking lot instead, which is something that happened to us.
You’re very hands-on with your projects. How hard is it wearing all the hats?
It’s so goddamn hard!! When I go back and watch my early stuff I can see myself on camera thinking and directing. It took a long time to hone in a process where I could relax on set to be the best actor, while still wearing all the hats.
The biggest part of that process is finding people you love to work with and being able to trust them and trust that when you’re on camera, everything we’ve talked about is being executed. Working with people like Kevin, Kelly, Kenzie and Tara was the key to making this film good and why it was such an enjoyable experience.
If you could only watch one movie for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Hmmm. Maybe . . . To Wong Fu?
What’s your next project?
I have a feature version of Basic that I’d like to make and I’m currently shopping a couple feature scripts around. But the biggest thing I’m working on, and honestly I shouldn’t be talking about this, but I have a fire tweet I’m gonna pop off later. I don’t know what it is yet, but it’s a pretty big deal, lotta buzz going around about it, and you can see it at @chelseadevantez unless I forget or fall asleep.
Have you worked with mentors in the past? How would you recommend people go about finding them?
I’ve had teachers who gave me so much in life — Anne Libera, Mary Scruggs, Andy Miara, Tim Crofton. As far as mentors that you approach on your own, my female friends mentor the hell out of my damn life.
I have some text threads with women and shit gets DONE in there that you wouldn’t believe, there’s nothing like texting a question and getting ten texts back that level your life up — shout out to the Chads and P&P.
But mentors can be tricky — I remember looking up to people and wanting their approval so bad, and getting more experience and realizing they were a fraud the whole time! Or I’ve had people I worshipped and adored and was too afraid to ask for help and mentorship and I regret it.
Seek a mentor by offering your help and service to someone whose work you admire. Don’t ask for coffee to pick their brain or a job, just say you admire their work and would do anything to help out if they need it.
When you show up, work your ass off and when the moment is right you can show them your work, or a really great mentor who you actually want to learn from, will probably notice your effort and who you are, and they will approach you.
What has been your biggest failure?
I’ve never learned how to forgive, but hey, maybe it’ll come to me one day.
What’s your filmmaking mission? Name the most important thing you want viewers to experience when watching your movies.
First and foremost I want you to laugh hard. And when you’re too busy laughing I hope it sneaks into your subconscious to be more inclusive, more feminist, more empowered, and more fired up to do better and ask for better.
What has been your biggest success?
There was a long time in my life where I lived in really intense pain and sadness. When I found comedy and started creating my own art, I battled most of that away, and I just feel so lucky to have come to this happy place in life.
Can we expect to see any episodic television from you anytime soon?
I’m currently a writer for the show Bless This Mess on ABC, and one of my best friends, Ashley Nicole Black, and I have a show we created and I directed a sizzle for that we are currently pitching, and it’s a story I’m fucking dying to tell, and a story women need. There should be twenty versions of it made, but I hope Ashley and I get to make our version soon.
What’s your five-year plan?
Oh man, I definitely have one, but it would bore the shit out of you and in this business work and effort doesn’t always equal results and you can’t control what happens. So my five year plan is to be at peace with myself, foster a damn dog with my boyfriend, keep making him laugh every morning, and uh, make the dog laugh too, that feels like a good goal.