2023 Sundance Film Festival Interview: Liz Sargent, Minos Papas and Jeena Yi Talk Take Me Home (Exclusive)

One of the most emotionally challenging processes in life for families is learning how to communicate in order to move forward, especially after they endure a tragic experience together. That’s certainly the case for the two sisters in the new short film, ‘Take Me Home.’ The drama is inspired by its writer-director, Liz Sargent, and her real-life sister, Anna Sargent.

‘Take Me Home’ stars Anna, who was born with a cyst on her brain, which left her with little short-term memory and various degrees of cognitive and physical disabilities. The movie, which marks Anna’s first time acting, explores themes of disability and family, and incorporates her and Liz’s backgrounds and identities as adults.

‘Take Me Home’ follows Anna, an adult with a Cognitive Disability who’s living with her mother (the sisters’ real-life mother, Joan Sargent) in Midland Florida. When her mother becomes unresponsive, Anna calls her sister, Emily (Jeena Yi), for help, but without the language to be believed, Anna is brushed aside. 

When Emily does return home, she’s immediately engulfed in a futile struggle for medical information, while Anna’s world is deconstructed. In this sadness, Anna sees the bigger picture, and with a straightforward strength, she holds her own. The uncertainty for the sisters’ future independence remains, but they’re now a team against all odds.

The short was produced by Liz and Minos Papas, who also served as the cinematographer on the film. ‘Take Me Home’ was supported by grants from the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment (CAPE)’s Julia S. Gouw Film Challenge with Janet Yang Productions, and the Reel Sisters Film Festival Fellowship.

‘Take Me Home’ had its World Premiere during the Shorts Program 6 – Competition section of last month’s Sundance Film Festival. Liz, Papas and Yi generously took the time during the festival to talk about scribing, helming, producing, starring in and serving as the cinematographer of the drama during an exclusive interview over Zoom.

Film Factual (FF): Liz, you wrote the script for the new short film, ‘Take Me Home.’ What inspired you to pen the screenplay, and how did you approach scribing the story?

Liz Sargent (LS): The film’s very personal, as it stems from my fears for my sister Anna’s future care keeping. She was born at two pounds and developed a cyst on her brain, which caused her to have little short-term memory, along with other unique disabilities.

Anna’s the youngest of 11 kids; my parents had four kids and adopted seven kids. I’m always thinking about what will happen when my parents age out of caring for her, and what my responsibilities are to her.

FF: Liz, besides writing the script, you also directed the drama. How did penning the screenplay influence your helming style throughout the production? How did you approach directing the movie throughout the production?

LS: The film is based on Anna’s story and also stars her. It felt right to cast her because it was written for her. I feel like the story is in the way that she speaks and the way that she holds her body, and the overall way that she is.

The movie was filmed in my parents’ house, and my mother is also in the film. So the only main professional actor is Jeena Yi, and she was the glue that held it all together. So Jeena can maybe talk more about the acting process, but we all planned it so that we could give Anna enough freedom to give authentic performances.

FF: Jeena, you star in ‘Take Me Home’ as Emily, like Liz just mentioned. What was it about the story, as well as the overall script, that convinced you to take on the role?

Jeena Yi (JY): Liz reached out to me and sent me the script. When I read it, I was so moved by it. Like any kind of art form that you take in, something opens up in your mind that you never thought about before.

The responsibility of siblings, and the care that is inherited, is something that I hadn’t thought about deeply. I thought that this short film opens up your eyes to that, and I think that’s what was really compelling to me.

Also, Liz is really talented. You want to work with people who are really talented and incredible and have something to say.

The filmmaking process was incredible because it was almost half narrative, half documentary. So my job was to stay present and keep up with Anna, to be honest! (Yi laughs.) She’s an incredible improviser, and working with her in that sense was amazing.

Liz gave us the circumstances of everything, but it was really about being there in the moment with Anna, and taking her lead and going with her. That was pretty great.

FF: Minos, you served as the cinematographer on the short. What was it about the screenplay that convinced you to sign on to shoot the film? What was your collaboration process like with Liz in determining how you would visually present Anna’s story in the drama?

Minos Papas (MP): Liz and I discussed a certain look for the film; we didn’t want it to have the sunny, idyllic Florida aspect to it. A lot of the story takes place in the interior of the mother’s home. So we discussed having the contrast of the brightness from outside with the home’s dark interior, where a lot of private, intimate scenes take place.

We also wanted there to be a lot of clutter, as well. They’re going through an upheaval, so we wanted to make things feel cluttered and claustrophobic.

We also wanted the interior scenes to be cold, so we shot them in blue tones. They’re set against the bright sunlight that’s coming in through the windows, but we also wanted to preserve the shadows.

Apart from the look, it was also about creating an environment that doesn’t have the obstacles of a usual film set. That way, Anna and Jeena could have the freedom to move within a certain space. We would largely follow what they were doing.

Liz likes to work in a very composed way, and likes to have very composed shots. There’s a style that she has that you can see in the film that’s very documentary-esque, like, like Jeena said.

We did very long takes, as well, to allow for the action to unfold. Instead of stopping the action and cutting in places, we allowed it to unfold, which led to better performances.

LS: Yes, we really just wanted to be living in the world, so we would do these scenes almost on a loop. We had the structure, and Jeena knew the beats that we wanted to hit.

We would work within the script, but also let Anna act and react naturally. I would coach her with some of the lines, and as she repeated them, she would learn them. What was really beautiful was at the end of these repetitions, sometimes she would summarize it in a way that was better than I would ever write it. She would also create an emotional moment that was more interesting than any of us could have thought in advance. So it was an incredible experience.

FF: Speaking of the house, what were your experiences like filming ‘Take Me Home’ on location there throughout the production?

LS: The house is my parents’ house in Florida. We really pulled it apart, and they were very generous. They wanted us to make the film, and they were so supportive of us. We really took it apart and put the pieces back together.

MP: There was a certain degree of blocking in the house, but we also allowed for creative freedom in the shot. That was something that we figured out for each scene, in terms of whether we blocked first or set the camera first.

LS: Yes, sometimes I felt like we had to create obstructions so that Anna couldn’t go places. Or Jeena would sort of know where she wanted to be, so we would try to get Anna there organically. But we did it in a way that Anna was focusing on remembering these restrictions, as we just wanted her to focus on the emotions throughout the story.

FF: With Anna playing a version of herself in the movie, Jeena, how did you approach working with her throughout the production?

JY: It was wonderful. I think the biggest gift that Anna gave me as an actor was that she really showed me what it meant to be fully present. I think that was the best part of the whole experience – I knew that I could rely on Anna. Whenever I was worrying about whether I was saying the right thing or if I was standing in the right spot, which is what most actors think about, I knew that I just had to stay with her. I knew that if I reacted off of her, that would be my North Star, and that was so comforting. It really felt special and incredible.

It was so wonderful to be with her and improvise with her. After we finished the combative scenes that we had as sisters and Liz called “Cut,” Anna would tell me, “That wasn’t real; I didn’t mean that.”

I remember there were some points when Liz and Anna’s siblings were on set, and they were so supportive. There was one point when I thought their brother was going to jump in and intervene, but Anna would say, “That wasn’t real.” So it was a really special and incredibly grounding experience.

FF: Minos and Liz, in addition to scribing, helming and shooting ‘Take Me Home,’ you also served as two of its producers. How did you balance your directing, cinematography and producing duties throughout the production?

MP: In producing the film, we always wanted to allow for time. So we scheduled an extra day to make sure that we had the time to prep and have shooting time. It was a four-day shoot with a prep day and a wrap day, so in all we had six days. I’ve shot in Florida before, but it was the first time we set up a shoot there.

The community was very supportive, and the neighbors even came out to watch us shoot the last scene, which was fantastic. We also got support from the Florida Film Office. We also had fantastic equipment production support from a company called Slice of Light and Evan Penso, who’s from Tampa.

We also had a hybrid crew; most of our crew was local from Florida, whom we met through an interview process and recommendations. We also brought down a few other key people from New York. It was actually a very small, bare bones crew; we only had about 10-12 people

LS: In every step of the process, from finding the crew and setting up the days for the post-production and finding the music, it was about what the environment and point-of-view was. It was always from Anna’s perspective and about empowering her, and not looking from the outside. Even in the way that we structured the dialogue allowed for an openness.

We also didn’t want the music to be highly produced; we wanted it to have the same tactile quality as the rest of the film. We wanted it to lean into what people perceive to be the wrong notes because we wanted them to fall into the same rhythms of how Anna thinks and functions in the world.

MP: Generally, from a producing standpoint, we also like to insist on having a very good atmosphere on set.

LS: Yes, we needed to have an openness and organization to how we structured the day. Anna went all day, as she was the lead…she didn’t shorten the days or hold us back in any way; she was a trooper. It was awesome.

MP: That allowed us to shoot in a very civilized time frame, so we weren’t doing more than 10-hour days.

JY: Yes, the whole production was so full of joy. That was a testament to the positive atmosphere!

FF: ‘Take Me Home’ (had) its World Premiere in the Shorts Program 6 Competition of this year’s Sundance Film Festival. What does it mean to you that the short (played) at the festival?

MP: It (was) our first time at Sundance, which (was) amazing. It (was) a real honor to be there. We (were) super excited that we all (went); a lot of the crew (went), and we (were) able to celebrate the film. It (was) exciting to be able to do that after a couple of years of remote, online festivals.

LS: This short is a proof of concept for a feature film, so it (was) very important for us to get it out there and open up our community to support us doing it. So we (were) very happy to be able to premiere the short at Sundance.

Fun Film Fact: ‘Take Me Home’ raised over $30,000 from Kickstarter and individual contributors. 

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