April’s life spirals out of control as she begins to suspect her husband is cheating on her — the only thing that gives her comfort is clothes: the touch, the smell, the build-up of clothes around her. Her search for security brings her in and out of the lives of two other men, a guitar-slinging bohemian named Hank, and the morally questionable Randall who likes to dress her up as a plaything. Playing out in a series of flashbacks, flash-forwards and flash-sideways Simon Rumley’s FASHIONISTA never gives the audience firm footing to stand on. The film opens with actress Alex Essoe feeling her way down the aisle of a vintage clothing store – later we will see she has just gotten out of a mental hospital, but it is near the end of the film before we figure out how she is connected to the rest of the film. What happens at Randall’s house involving a woman in bondage on a plastic tarp may or may not have actually happened. April’s husband may be cheating on her with the new girl, or may just be going into business with the new girl’s father.

FASHIONISTA’s intentionally shaky structure is built around a remarkable performance from Amanda Fuller as April, with the rest of the cast (Ethan Embry, Eric Balfour, Alex Essoe, Devin Bonnee, Alexandria DeBerry, and Jemma Evans) filling out a strong ensemble around her. Although a bit long in its running time, Rumley’s film fills the screen with provocative images and conversation-starting issues. It’s not going to be a film for everyone, but it is admirable in its attempt to try to do more than just tell a simple story, and eschews the gore and shock for shock’s sake that often fills Fantastic Fest.

I had a chance to sit down with Rumley and much of the cast shortly before the world première.

BEARS: I know you can be addicted to anything in the world. But is this really a thing? This clothing addiction?

Simon Rumley: Yeah. I think it is. I think everyone’s addicted in their own way. They just don’t know it. When we’re doing location scouting, we talk to a lot of people as they went into shops. A lot of women working in the clothes shops were asking, ‘so what’s it about?’ We said, ‘it’s about a woman who uses clothes as an emotional crutch’ and they go, ‘oh, that’s about me!’ That’s surprising and pretty much every woman I pitched it like that has had that reaction. Personally, I love clothes. I used to buy more than I do now. I keep going back for more. Like anything, if you like something, you’ll want more of it.

BEARS: Was clothing always at the center of the film?

Rumley: I started off wanting to do a film about consumerism and the whole conceit of the 21st century. You want to buy more so you’ve got to buy, buy, buy. But you end up buying just junk and crap. It fills up your space in your living room. So I did write a script. The few who read it said, ‘yeah, it’s okay.’ I can’t move forward on a film where everybody is going ‘it’s just okay.’ It evolved from that, really. I’ve always had this idea about clothes as it passes on, all second-hand shop thing. I knew I wanted to do a film in Austin. I knew there was a wonderful vintage culture up here. So all these things became one really. And then it became an addiction movie. I love addiction movies more as a genre kind of thing. But an addiction movie which wasn’t about drugs— because we’ve seen enough of those, really— and there wasn’t anything new to add to them. I thought about doing an addiction movie where there was a mental capacity for a descent within something that is necessary to our lives.

BEARS: So Amanda, tell me about how you approached this character with that kind of addiction in our lives, especially how it influenced you handling your props and your costuming.

Amanda Fuller: It was an interesting journey. I could definitely relate to the need for the clothes to fill a void of other things. The emotional aspect of the addiction was very raw and real to me, and I could connect to that really easy. But I’ve never physically been addicted to clothing in that way, so I had to learn that and he [Rumley] pushed me. I did do a lot of research and I was really surprised— but also not surprised at all— to find countless blogs of women confiding in each other about their body dysmorphia and how clothing is the only thing that can help them face the world. Finding clothes and thinking it will fix that for them, and still not being good enough.

BEARS: Do you find that you’re now more aware when you’re getting dressed—

Fuller: It was interesting because actually, I remember telling Simon— because he sent me the script and I loved it immediately, but I was like, ‘I don’t know this addiction.’ I think I was in New York and I had a couple of days to kill where I wasn’t working. I went around and I was like, ‘Oh, I’ll go shopping or whatever.’ I found myself organically, not consciously, grabbing clothes— doing it— and it was three days after I had seen the script and I was like, ‘Oh my God, this really is a problem!’

Ethan Embry: It’s crazy when you think about food addiction. We all eat every day. We have to eat. We as a society may not attach that addictive quality to food but if you think back, how many times have you gone to food for comfort? And then it becomes an actual disease, it starts affecting your life, and your health, and your personal relationships. You normally wouldn’t say food is an addictive property, but we all dress every day – we have to buy new clothes, it’s part of our daily lives. So we tell you, “step back” and you look at your behavior behind it and you find the unhealthy qualities.

Rumley: And then you make eating bad and suddenly everything we gain pleasure from is bad. Suddenly there’s this binge culture, even if it’s just watching stuff on Netflix. Binge is like this word because you do it all at once, but you shouldn’t do, so there’s this association of guilt. No matter what it is, this society that we now live in, everything that we enjoy, it’s now attached to this guilt. And clothes is much of the same thing. The crazy thing with clothes is you’ve got H&M and can pay $5 or $10 for some trousers or shirts. And you can go to Gucci or Prada and pay two or three thousand, and where’s that line?

Embry: It’s just the purity of the drug, the difference between the two. It’s like you go to H&M and you buy flash-fashion stuff and you still get it, but it’s in its very diluted form. And you go in and buy this fucking bespoke, tailor-made, Italian— and it’s straight China white— just BOOM.

BEARS: Now, Ethan, your character Eric has a different addiction, but one that still manifests in clothing, not wanting to part with these giant piles of clothes filling their house.

Embry: Eric notices it, but I don’t think April knew it either, but my addiction to this drive to succeed and the ego— his personal ego— fed April’s clothing addiction. The things that I wanted really enabled the things that she wanted, and we may not have been aware of it, but they fed off of each other very dysfunctionally. I think Eric’s ‘disease,’ you know in air quotes, is his sense of ego. He wants sexual gratification. He doesn’t care. He just wants to know that you want to fuck him. He just wants to succeed. He just wants more property. He wants more money and anything he’s accumulated— women, business, these clothes— he grabs onto them because they become what represents him. I think he’s kind of a sex addict. Yeah.

BEARS: So Devin your character represents the anti to everybody else in the film. Although maybe you are addicted to not being tied down by possessions.

Devin Bonnee: Yeah. I probably didn’t think about playing it exactly like that when I did, but that’s interesting because that’s something I’m also addicted to. I don’t want anything to do with society in a normal way. Yeah, in a way, I’m also caught up on something, I guess.

BEARS: What do you think attracted him to her, in this situation?

Bonnee: It was probably just carelessness, and his gentleness— he’s really kind. He’s kind of a gentleman. Most guys, if some girl was like, “will you fuck me?” They’ll just say yes.

Rumley: I wanted an antidote to the rest of the world. In from the objective point of view, you’ve got all these characters who own a vintage store, and the other guy who owns a massive house and drives a Maserati. Generally, these people have a level of objective success. And then there’s the Hank character, who objectively has no success. Another thing he does, he doesn’t take advantage of character. He helps her move some clothes, doesn’t want anything for it. He’s such a selfless character. I really thought it was a great antidote to these people who are obsessed.

BEARS: Well, in a sense, it’s his character which becomes something that she can aspire to.

Alex Essoe: I think Hank rubs off on her. He’s also the only man in her life who treats her with any degree of respect. In a way, he is her salvation. He literally cares for her, like a little winged bird.

BEARS: So, Simon, talk a little bit about the structure of the film. You’ve really given us more of a montage feel, a look at her life. The audience has a hard time grabbing onto what is happening when, and I’m wondering at what point did that enter into the process, and why?

Rumley: I’m inspired by the film of Nicholas Roeg and he exec-produced my last film, CROWHURST. He’s pretty much my favorite film maker of all time. Whenever I would watch his films, I was like, ‘oh my God, how does he do that?’ I always thought I wanted to try and do a film like that, and write a film like how he edits the film. It really evolves just organically. I initially wrote the first draft of the thing in a blur of three weeks.

BEARS: Was it instinctual what to show when and what clues to leave?

Rumley: Yeah, yeah, and obviously things change. From the script to the edit, things will change. Ultimately, I can say the film you’ve seen is probably 90%.

Embry: Probably more, if not the timing of it. The linear progression of it, I think you’re right on, what was on the page. Which was crazy because the first time I read it, I had a hard time know what was future, what was past, and where the line was. But he knew the whole time, exactly what he wanted to show.

Behind the Scenes, with (from left) Eric Balfour, Smon Rumley, Amanda Fuller

Behind the Scenes, with (from left) Eric Balfour, Smon Rumley, Amanda Fuller

BEARS: And of course, normally, movies are shot out of sequence anyway. This is now shooting something out of sequence that is already out of sequence.

Embry: But you actually shot it more linearly than the film was in the cut.

Fuller: Because of locations.

Embry: And relationships.

Rumley: And in terms of schedule, at one point, I did think about completely restructuring the script, so we could shoot it as a linear thing, and then do it in the script. And there’s something like over hundred change of clothes.

BEARS: In one scene, there’s a hundred.

Rumley: And our costume lady, Olivia Moore, she did an amazing job of getting everything exactly right and working out where the clothes were in the timeline. And there’s not one continuity error. That was amazing. But I think there was an Iñárritu film with Sean Penn in it, gonna say Del Toro.

Fuller: 21 GRAMS.

Rumley: Yeah, and I watched that quite recently. Like halfway through the film — it’s an arresting film, but halfway through they show the ending and you’re like, ‘well, okay, I kind of understand what’s happening now.’ For the rest of the film I felt I wasn’t really involved. With this, you’re never really quite sure what’s happening. Every time you move on, there’s one thing and then another thing.’ There are some reveals— the reveal where Amanda’s character meets Eric Balfour’s character in the bar, where he’s grooming her,  and also the last ten minutes of the film. I  wanted to maintain it as a thriller, and hopefully you’re on the edge of your seat, not really sure what’s going on.

BEARS: Do you think there’s something intrinsic in addiction movies in which the audience is meant to be confused, in terms of what’s actually happening? I feel like REQUIEM FOR A DREAM does it so well. It’s almost like simulating how you get wrapped up in the addiction.

Rumley: I think if you want to, it certainly allows that thing to happen. In the early designs of the script during the grading of the sound design, we put a lot of music over images where there’s no synced sound or anything. It was more of an internalized journey. And then the stuff at the end was difficult to record. The madness scenes were quite tricky. Personally, I like that kind of stuff in films and that’s not what everyone loves, but I think the subject matter certainly allows you to play with your visual palette, then maybe your average romantic comedy.

Fuller: It’s more of a visceral experience.

Rumley: Immediately you play with structure and you’re saying from the beginning that this isn’t your average film.

BEARS:  Alex, you have the thankless task of setting up the film then frustrating the audience for the entire rest of the film, going, ‘what does she have to do with anything.’ I don’t want to reveal anything, but how did you approach a character that you knew was  going to be a mystery for the audience through the whole thing? And yet as a person she’s a lot less mysterious, more down to earth, than most of the rest of the ensemble.

Essoe: I tried to do as little as possible. I think my character is meant to act as another possibility. She represents an unburdening. So I wanted it to feel like that. As light and as simple as possible.

Embry: Which is funny, since it gave [the audience]burden of trying to figure it out . . . your unburdening is quite the weight on [their]shoulders.

FASHIONISTA made its world premiere at Fantastic Fest this week. Rumley also had a film world premiere at the last SXSW. CROWHURST is in post-production. You can follow Simon’s further adventures in dissociative narrative at www.simonrumley.com.

Bears Fonte covers indie film for AMFM Magazine and programs and consults for film festivals nationwide.  He is the Founder and Executive Director of Other Worlds Austin SciFi Film Festival as well as the former Director of Programming for Austin Film Festival.  His short The Secret Keeper played at 40 festivals, his feature iCrime was released in 2011 by Vicious Circle.

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