It’s easy to forget in this bountiful internet age that basic info about everyday life problems were once harder to come by. If you weren’t up for a trip to the library in those pre-online days, you would have to rely on whomever was around or even worse, inaccurate depictions perpetuated by gatekeepers of traditional media. This is the conundrum that concerns the protagonist in Bruna Arbex’s Crazy 8s film, This is a Period Piece.
Set in the early 90s, the film sees 13 year old Brazillian tomboy Riley (Matreya Scarrwener) struggle with her first menstrual cycle. With no older female figures in her life to guide her, Riley finds herself turning to her daily cycle of afternoon TV for guidance which takes her on a commercialized odyssey that forces her to confront her fears on growing up and becoming a woman.
Bruna Arbex has carved out a body of work that confronts and deconstructs female stereotypes. I recently sat down with her to discuss this latest film and the challenges of bringing it to the screen via Crazy 8s.
What was the genesis of this project?
It all started with a music video idea that my ex was working with me on. As we were developing, we figured that this actually had potential to be a short film. So I saved the idea and we developed it into a script.
It has always been based on my personal experience when I had my period for the first time. That’s how I projected all this realism that happens in the film. This stuff that was going on through my mind, my fears and all of that. That’s what I used to develop the basis for the story.
My impression was that it was semi-autobiographical.
Pretty much. The main character (Riley) is based on me. The dad thing, just having a dad around is because when that happened to me, I wasn’t at home so I didn’t have my Mom to guide me what to do, so that’s how I projected that.
Given that this is a very personal work, how did it affect your approach to casting?
At the very least, I knew exactly what I was expecting from that character, so that was good. Sometimes you’re looking for something, expecting an actor to give you a different angle. In that case, I knew what that person would have to prove in the story. Knowing the character really well helped me in that sense.
When I saw Matreya, I knew right away because I felt so connected to the character. She was very excited to be connected to the project. When we met before shooting started, the first thing we talked about were our first times when we got our periods. We saw what we had as similar experiences and tried to merge those two experiences together to have a good basic character. We bonded through that.
Riley seems to inform the Cinematography of the film.
Because the film is 80% surreal, I wanted to have elements that grounded the experience a bit more. Since everything is about her fears and projection of what’s going to happen to her, I thought it’d be really cool to have a camera based on what she’s paying attention to.
Everything was handheld and whatever she was intimidated by, the camera would respond. I think it’s a really interesting juxtaposition with what I would consider a more realistic style of cinematography with the surreal style of the film. So it was all to create that contrast.
The production stills featured a camera operator with roller blades on.
Yeah, that was for the running scenes where she’s running down the hallways. We wanted it to be very chaotic so we thought “let’s just use roller blades!”, so we just followed her on the camera with those.
How did the time-compressed nature of Crazy-8s affect your directing?
You have to visualize the final cut in your mind before you shoot. For me, that’s really helpful because I’m an editor so I can project in that sense. That’s honestly the only way to do it. You have to get your post going before your film in the sense of getting the tracks ready, working with the composer beforehand. I did all of that so it really helped when I got to that stage where it was final adjustments and really trusting my editor so we can move things faster.
It’s really hard to know what you like when you’re moving that fast because you don’t have time to process what you’re seeing, but I like the final cut so far. Most directors will end up changing something after the Gala (premiere), like small details noticed after delivery. But basically you do the best you can to have a good film for the screening.
Any crazy on-set stories?
One thing was that I wanted to have practical TVs working on set. We only got one for free so we knew we had to preserve this prop for all the scenes where we have a TV.
On the first day, we were shooting both the first and the last scene. Both of them have the TV, but in the last one, it’s outside on the street and it was raining. We built the set dec up outside, and we were really careful and covered the TV. On that scene, the character is supposed to push the TV to the floor and break it. Matreya got really committed to it and actually pushed the TV to the floor. There was a moment of panic as we saw the screen hit the floor and blew the cables and generator. But the TV turned out to be fine afterwards (laughs).
Another thing that was really cool was that at our hospital location (I can’t say where), we had an exterior scene where twenty extras were shouting and screaming for their lives. So people were passing in front of the location wondering “what the hell is going on??” because this was supposed to be a health facility!
So we got a few complaints and the next day they were very concerned about letting us use the exterior again because they didn’t want people think there was a panic going on in this place. They told us not to make so much chaos outside so it was a little stressful.
Any further madness in Post Production?
I think sound design more than anything. You don’t really have time to be with your composer or sound designer. You kinda have to go with whatever they give you because it’s all on the last day. So we ended up talking through Facebook, but you can’t really see a cut with everything. So you go to the final mixing session, and there’s a bunch of stuff that you might like ot not, but you have to go with it.
The challenge in post is accepting what you have to make it work rather than being too attached to your preferences. I think I’ll end up re-editing and re-mixing after the Gala.
You mentioned that diversity among the creative team was important to you.
I was trying to aim as much as possible to get a good balance on crew between females, males, etc. Not only because it’s a matter where you need to have some personal relationships that you identify with parts of the film, but also that it’d be cool to have the guys understand what we are projecting on that story. It’s like a great learning experience in that sense.
With Crazy 8s, you can only choose so much because everyone is a volunteer and you only have a certain amount of time to assemble crew. So you try to balance things as much as you can. It was a great environment, I can say that. Everyone was getting along and respecting the subject matter.
What do you hope audiences take away from this?
I think this is the type of film that people are either gonna like or hate, just because of the stylistic approach and the topic itself. But I hope they can relate to this story because there’s not a lot of content out there about this first (menstrual) experience. How it can be terrifying and we don’t talk about it.
It really harms young girls because they get so intimidated and embarrassed. It changes your way of behaving when that happens. For women in general, I hope I can help in that sense. For men, especially if you’re the dad of a young girl, just knowing how to handle it properly and how to talk about it. It can be really delicate for guys who approach a girl about that.
I hope it can be an incentive for people to talk about it and open the dialogue in that sense. Hopefully it will stop being a taboo to talk about periods, menstruation and all of that.
This is a Period Piece will screen as part of the Crazy8s Gala at The Centre for Performing Arts on Feb 22 @7pm