Aspen Shortsfest: How Annabel Oakes transformed personal tragedy into poignant comedy in ‘All Exchanges Final’
If You Go …
What: ‘All Exchanges Final’ at Aspen Shortsfest, Program Six
Where: Wheeler Opera House
When: Friday, April 7, 5:30 p.m.
How much: $20/general admission; $15/Aspen Film members
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; www.aspenshowtix.com
More info: The program will include four short films. It will be followed by a filmmaker Q & A including ‘All Exchanges Final” writer-director Annabel Oakes.
Weird, wise and hilarious, “All Exchanges Final” works in a tight double helix of comedy and tragedy. In its 29 minutes, this auspicious directorial debut from screenwriter Annabel Oakes manages to touch on birth and death, parenthood and sibling rivalry, and the complexities of familial love. It has its world premiere tonight at Aspen Shortsfest.
The short opens with Dom (Aya Cash of “You’re the Worst”) going to visit her comatose sister in the hospital with her newborn baby in tow. Preparing to take her sister off life support, Dom discovers the strange bureaucracy of the Office of Soul Exchange and Restoration, which might be able to bring her sister back.
This odd and poignant short came from the most personal of places for Oakes. She began writing what would become “All Exchanges Final” when her sister died suddenly, just five months after Oakes had a child.
“Obviously I took it to a more magical place,” she explained, “because I was figuring out how to cope with these two things that happened in my life — both like atomic bombs. One was wonderful and confusing, in having a baby. And one was completely awful, sudden and horrific: losing my sister.”
A career television writer, the emotional weight of losing her young sister made its way into her work immediately. Oakes recalled turning in a comedic pilot for a network show early on: “They said, ‘Well this is the best writing we’ve had this year, but it’s really sad. So no, thank you.’”
At the same time, Oakes also was working on a musical comedy feature film for Disney — just about the lightest material imaginable — and knew she needed to write through her grief.
“I was the saddest I’d been in my entire life, so I started writing this on my off-time,” she said. “It was part of the grieving process — I needed an outlet to be sad and work through all these feelings I had.”
This led her into the fantastical short project, which recalls the best of Spike Jonze and “The Twilight Zone” and Donald Barthelme, using a fantastical, strange high-concept premise to explore — with sharp-witted humor — some universal human experiences and to deliver an emotional gut punch about family and grief and regret.
“I wanted to share something about how it’s OK to have ambiguous feelings in your life about the people you love,” Oakes said. “Your family relationships are supposed to be the easiest in your life — you literally share DNA with all of those people. And somehow, they’re always the hardest. And I think that’s OK.”
Her smart and incisive dialogue is brought to life by a phenomenally cast group of actors, including Cash in the lead and Lennon Parham as her sister, with the great Thomas Lennon doing his best deadpan as a paper-pusher in the Office of Soul Exchange and Jason Rogel in a scene-stealing role as an infuriating desk clerk.
Oakes said she knew she’d have to write a part for Cash when she saw Cash in FX’s “You’re the Worst.”
“I thought, ‘This girl is my muse,’” Oakes recalled. “She has the tone that I write in a lot of time and I could tell that she’s very smart and could be funny and dry without being glib.”
Once Cash signed on, Oakes shot for the moon in her casting — landing Parham and Lennon by writing them personal letters, and rounding out the cast with actors who had depth along with comedic chops.
“I wanted to cast people who had been known for comedy but who I knew could do more,” she said.
The 6-month-old infant character in the film, Pearl, is played by the Faris triplets, who also play the babies on “This is Us” and “Jane the Virgin.” (“We got them right before they got super-famous,” quipped Oakes. “They probably won’t even take our calls now.”)
Oakes shot the film over five days last spring in an old Los Angeles hospital, where a working morgue neighbors a film-set morgue.
“Literally a dead body would come through outside while we were filming — it was intense,” she said.
As “All Exchanges Final” is rolling out onto the festival circuit, Oakes is writing a feature film script. She has spent years writing for television — selling pilots and working on the writing staff of shows including “Sirens” and “Angel from Hell.” With an eye on directing, she’s often volunteered to serve as an on-set writer to see how it’s done: “I worked with a lot of great directors and also saw a lot of bad directors come through, which is equally helpful in giving you confidence and thinking, ‘Well, I can do this.’”
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