One of the great privileges of teaching is seeing and hearing about students advancing in their careers, going from the student filmmakers they originally were to accomplished professionals. Justin Geldzahler’s recent independent film, Glue Trap, is being shown as part of the Richmond International Film Fest. I was able to ask him some questions about the production and its origination, all a continuation of the conversation started so many years ago.
T-Rav: What were some of the issues that inspired the subject of the film?
Justin Geldzahler: I was mostly inspired by trying to make a movie in the wake of a global pandemic, so limited cast and locations really spoke to my heart. But seriously, because so many facets of the film were decided by the limitations of production, this script sprang from my subconscious more than my other writing, which can often be more issue-centric. And in the summer of 2020, my subconscious was terrified, so I wrote a horror film that was less about scares and more about what scares me. An inability to communicate. Feeling stuck in situations both intimate and impersonal. People who keep talking without saying anything.
Though the film isn’t about lockdown, social injustice, or Q-Anon, Glue Trap is absolutely the result of the fears and anxieties from 2020. I don’t know about you, but those really compounded my existing fears and anxieties.
TR: When did you write the script? What part of quarantine sparked it?
JG: I wrote the first draft of Glue Trap at the end of May 2020. My collaborators and I had originally planned on making a different film, a freewheeling urban mystery with a large cast written to take advantage of public spaces all over Richmond. We had our table read on March 2 and within a few months accepted that the world had changed and our filmmaking plans had to change accordingly.
My parents have a cabin in the woods about two hours west of the city, so I disappeared there to write a stripped-down, mostly single location script—in the location where we would end up filming.
TR: Is there anything in writing the script that appeared as instinct or intuition that became more understood in editing and now that the film is complete?
JG: I’m not sure how much I consciously recognized that I was writing about specific past relationships, romantic and otherwise. It was a few drafts before I realized the annoying interloper had been inspired by a former roommate who was the same deadly combination of high energy and boring, unable to not be the center of attention despite having nothing to offer. But by the final shooting draft, I could point to moments and conversations taken directly from my life—like the line an ex once threw at me: “You know, for a writer, you’re not very good at using your words.”
TR: What about the Virginia mountain location outside of the access to the location, shows up as an important subject of the finished film?
JG: As a Virginia film lover, I wanted to showcase the state in a contemporary context, since too often the Old Dominion is limited to playing antebellum productions, or worse, pretending to be D.C. Simply telling a story about modern Virginians in modern Virginia was important.
Filming among the Blue Ridge Mountains in winter provided a beautiful but isolated feeling that wouldn’t have been present had we filmed in the leafy green summer. Our characters were surrounded by miles of barren trees.
And it’s little things. For most of the country outside the Old Dominion, a casual reference to “Charlottesville” means something very different after 2017.
TR: What were some of the script’s influences and Glue Trap inspirations?
JG: I drew a lot from uncomfortable Northern European comedies like Force Majeure and Toni Erdmann, slow-burn American horror like Always Shine and The House of the Devil, and Black independent filmmakers like Charles Burnett (particularly To Sleep with Anger) and Kathleen Collins (Losing Ground).
Visually, director of photography Christopher Fox and I drew a lot from Lars Von Trier and Michael Haneke, as well as other harsh Northern Europeans. We were also influenced by the uncomfortable single-take shots of Hong Sang-soo. Christopher is a big fan of Dutch cinematographer Robby Müller, so we strived for available light as much as possible.
TR: Was post-production a smooth ride or did it come with unique-to-the-project hurdles?
JG: Post was relatively smooth. Since so many of the scenes played in uninterrupted cuts, there was a lot of just deciding, “Okay, which one?” A recurring challenge for Norris Guncheon, editor and former classmate at Maggie L. Walker, and myself was discovering that whatever cute transition I had planned wasn’t serving the film we made. So instead, we found ourselves tossing these moments out the window and building destabilizing cuts between scenes to mirror the bad vibes of the central relationship.
The biggest surprise during post-production was deciding to commission a film score. The intent had always been for the soundtrack to only feature diegetic pop songs the characters listened to, so the movie could lean into the silence of the mountains. But after watching the first cut, it became readily apparent that certain moments really needed to be enhanced. Thankfully, I’ve worked for over a decade with a great composer named Erik Larsen (we also met at Maggie Walker). Even though he was the first collaborator to suggest that Glue Trap not have a score— which in retrospect means he gave himself a severely truncated schedule—Erik crafted a melancholy and romantic soundtrack to sprinkle throughout the film.
TR: Your other screenplay(s) that are out there getting notes and being read, was there anything that made this film slide in to be produced before those?
JG: Yeah— it was far and away the cheapest to make.
TR: Was there anything specific learned from your industry work that came to bear on this production?
JG: My years as a script coordinator—basically the partner between the writers’ room and the rest of production—taught me to think of a script as a production document more than a piece of writing. And my time with shows as varied as Succession and Royal Pains ingrained the idea of filming full takes of scenes to give the actors a chance to really get into the moment. It’s certainly more fun to watch.
I like to joke that my time in show business turned me into a professional email writer. On these big-budget shows, I’d edit and email scripts to every department. I’d politely argue with studios about what we could and could not get away with. And I’d cold-contact strangers, asking them to tell me about their lives for research rabbit holes, whether I was bothering local election commissions in Wisconsin for Succession or talking to [redacted] about [redacted] for Euphoria. But this experience actually prepared me well for producing an independent film, where you have to get used to making asks of friends and strangers, often over email.
TR: Any shout-outs to crews and departments that you’d like to speak to?
JG: I wish I had space to shout out everyone. Like our wrap gift said, this is “A Film By Everyone Who Worked On It.” I was tempted to open the film with this credit, but it felt like it set the wrong tone for an “end of a relationship” dark comedy. The film also certainly doesn’t say “A Film By Justin Geldzahler,” because that’s silly. So I’ll just shout out a few folks in positions that don’t get enough spotlight:
Executive producer Sara McFarlane handled business affairs for the film. While the patina of legitimacy she’s given to our scrappy production was always expected, we were lucky to find a friend and true creative partner on the film.
Location sound mixer/recordist Genna Edwards captured everything we needed as a one-woman sound team. She was always exploring and taping because she never knew what her ears might come across. We were lucky she brought her dark talents to post by recording homespun sound effects for [spoiler alert] a crushed mouse and other devious designs.
Key Grip Jason Mitchel was a voice of reason and pragmatism, solving many problems and headaches that made their way to set. He created a safe set and provided a steady example for all to follow.
Script Supervisor Michelle Karst was my rock at video village and also constantly helped DP Christopher Fox and me maintain a consistent geography with the camera. We would have been lost without her.
Colorist Samuel Gursky truly made our film look like a million bucks. Christopher and gaffer Rahul Sharma shot a wonderfully lit film, and Sam was able to bring cohesion to our final edit. There was one particularly gray day on Skyline Drive where Sam transformed brownish Blue Ridge Mountains into the blue beauties they are.
And even though we always talk about the actors, I do have to praise our three leads. Brittany Bradford brought a quiet intelligence that my writing could only feint at, and from her audition onward, she challenged me like any thoughtful collaborator. The film rests on her reactions, and Brittany’s subtle work never disappoints. Isaac W. Jay’s dry sensibilities found humor that wasn’t always on the page, and with this and Head Count, he’s proving himself to be a millennial scream queen. His Jimmy Stewart gangliness proved the perfect counterbalance to Brittany’s steady resolve. Then Gloria Bangiola blows in like a hurricane to put their relationship to the test, and the fine line she walks between annoying innocence and agent of chaos is key to the film’s success.
TR: Any specific production tales worth highlighting or sharing? A solution on set or an amazing moment of performance, something that took your breath away on location?
JG: Honestly, there were countless amazing moments on set. Because we recorded full takes of most setups, it was delightful sitting back and watching our leads perform these tense, talky scenes.
We also had several moments with point-of-view shots, which meant the cast had to deliver their lines directly to the camera. Everyone came from a theater background and vastly preferred acting with, you know, actors. And yet every time they knocked it out of the park. Brittany and Isaac gave these generous and heartbreaking performances despite only having a camera to work with. That’s talent.
When did Glue Trap premiere, and how was it received?
Glue Trap premiered this summer at the Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles as part of the independent festival Dances With Films, and the reception in that giant theater couldn’t have been more rapturous. Sure, we had a premiere party right before, but we only got maybe a third of that audience drunk, so that can’t be the only reason.
It’s interesting— the film has been something of a Rorschach test. Some viewers say it’s a slow-burn horror film, others call it a dark comedy, and some label it a relationship drama. At our first full audience screening (a friends and family event), you could feel the tension in the room; let’s just say everyone’s backsides were tightening up. At the L.A. premiere, the comedy came through the strongest. In fact, Glue Trap received more laughs than films at the festival that were billed as out-and-out comedies.
TR: What’s special about bringing the film to Richmond at the RIFF?
JG: Two words: The Byrd. It’s my favorite theater in the world. I’ve spent countless hours there, discovering so many films over the years—from Southland Tales to Speed Racer to Soylent Green, and even movies that don’t start with the letter ‘S.’ I also screened early short films at the Byrd as part of the 48 Hour Film Project, which makes it especially nice to bring my first feature home. (Writers are suckers for that full-circle sentimentality.) We’re incredibly grateful to Heather Waters and the RIFF team for programming Glue Trap at this storied institution.
TR: When and where is the film playing?
JG: Glue Trap will have its East Coast premiere at the Byrd Theatre at 9:20 p.m. on Saturday, September 30. Tickets are available HERE.