Chubby, a Film of Feeling – Interview with Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli

There are some pretty dark concepts out there for films, especially short films. It’s even more amazing how people can squish so much emotion and power into such a short period of time. Chubby is a very interesting short film that focuses on the dark subject of sexual abuse between family members. Luckily I have never experienced this nor ever attempted it myself, but my 82% of my environments have been neutral. That and nobody seems to mess with a tall scrawny guy who wears all black anyway. But I have watched a fair amount of films that focus on the issue, some of them more disturbing than others. Chubby however, has a different perspective in the way it was shot, and maybe that’s why it’s getting so many awards as well as being considered for an Oscar. I spoke to writers/directors Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli to learn about the film and a little more on them. They gave me a lot to find out.

HNMAG: So the film talks about a very personal matter, how did you combine your two stories together?

Madeleine: It’s obviously a work of fiction, but it’s also based on our own experiences with trauma. When Dusty and I became friends at the TIFF talent lab in 2015, we initially kind of bonded over sharing our own stories. Things that were difficult to talk about and we hadn’t really shared with a lot of people. I think in opening to each other about our past, we realized it was something we had to talk about. Actually, it took a couple years for us to make Chubby and put it into a film. I think it’s scary to make something so personal and put it out there. 

Dusty: Also one thing we noticed when sharing our stories with each other was commonalities between who the abuser was and who the victim is. You’re kind of used to seeing this in cinema, the stranger in the alleyway, this kind of nefarious person, this evil character.

Madeleine: Just this man driving up in a car with candy, and it’s not the vast reality that childhood to these victims are.

Dusty: Unfortunately, most childhood abuse is from someone you know. A family member, a friend, a loved one. It’s someone you trust and you care about and that’s what makes the abuse more challenging. We’re also interested in looking at the effect of the person being abused. How they feel like they are guilty and they feel like they played a role in their own abuse. 

Madeleine: It’s difficult to come forward with your own abuse especially if it’s someone so close to you, and I think a lot of people feel like they’re going to hurt so many more people by revealing the truth. That’s something we really wanted to explore.


HNMAG: What gave you the idea to shoot Chubby in a documentary style with a story about abuse?

Dusty: So this is our third short film that we made together. The script was 30 pages, and then we ended up cutting it down to 22 minutes in the editing room. I think for us the important part of the story was trying to focus on these two storylines. The moment of the abuse itself that we see the spiralling turn of events between this young girl and her brother and then the aftermath of that abuse.

Madeleine: How it’s still affecting Jude, and even more itself, its just grown and grown and infested in her own mind. 

Dusty: So the short we’re telling is these two storylines woven, and we really wanted to show the relationship between the past and the present and how trauma often has sensory triggers that can bring victims back to the moment of their abuse. 


HNMAG: What important factors did you keep in mind when shooting this? How do you know what lines not to cross?

Dusty: It was very important to us to be very open and transparent with both the cast and the crew. Especially with Mayarmin who played Juge. Her parents were on set the entire time, and during the rehearsal. They had their own monitor. It was about making sure everyone was safe, letting them understand what we were trying to do, why we were having open conversations and we were just really lucky Maya’s parents were incredibly supportive of our past work and the work we were trying to do. Though Maya is a young girl, she was quite intelligent, sophisticated, and an understanding young girl with what the film was and what we were aiming to accomplish with it. We wanted to create a piece that would make really powerful conversations with this topic.

Madeleine: I had a similar incident when I was a child and sharing that with Maya was really integral so that she knew this was coming from a very personal place. It wasn’t just kind of a sensational story, we really wanted to say something really close to us. That was integral.

Dusty: And we worked really closely with our integrated team, they were members of our teams who we had worked with in the past so we had formed a long relationship with these creative individuals. The size of our crew was very very small. We filmed this almost like it were a documentary. It’s all natural light, our camera team was really a few people and one sound person. It was really reduced so that the co-parameters didn’t get in the way of content or the performances. 


HNMAG: How did you two balance the work out together?

Madeleine: The way we work is just incredibly collaborative. Instead of divide and conquer, we work more as a hive-mind. We like to combine our skills together and work on every aspect. 

Dusty: What is really helpful in that process is writing a script together. We really align ourselves with the aesthetic of the film, and it just means we do a lot of prep work. One of the greatest things about collaborating is you get to challenge each other in  a pre-production status that forces you to think more deeply about ideas and why you’re choosing certain approaches. Then ultimately what ends up happening is we spend so much time prepping there’s a unity that forms between the two of us. By the time we get to set, no matter who comes to us and asks us a question, we have the same answer because we are a united front. That means we can capitalize on our individual skillsets, and really strengthen the work as a result. 


HNMAG: So you two have worked together on a couple other projects. Does this differ from any other productions you made?

Madeleine: I think all of our projects are unique, but also have a cohesive vision. With each new project that we do, we improve, we advance, and we learn new things. We are constantly learning and trying to improve our aesthetic and our vision.

Dusty: One common theme throughout our past work has been a focus on abusive power, manipulation and power dynamics between men and women and trauma. Those are a common thread you would find in our shorts and our feature.


HNMAG: Now how long did the shoot take?

Madeleine: It was a 5 day shoot.

Dusty: It was ambitious for what it was, and what it ended up being. Because we shot natural lighting, we were very limited.


HNMAG: How did you go about balancing out multiple jobs? Directing, writing, producing, etc

Dusty: We’ve produced all of our past shorts and we produced our feature. Creative producing is about understanding the relationship between the script, the schedule, and the budget. It enables us to maximize the production value on the screen. Because we’re producing it and directing it, we can figure out strategically what makes most sense and how we spend those dollars so we can never feel like we’re compromising the creative integrity but we’re rather elevating and enhancing the visuals. That’s really a challenging kind of equation to kind of work through and I think just having done it with three shorts and a feature have been really kind of valuable. But the producing gets done during the pre-production process, and the writing is done in development so by the time we get to set, the vast majority of producing and writing has been done, so that allows us to really focus our attention on the directing.

Madeleine: A really unique thing with Chubby as well was because it’s a personal story, there’s also a balance that we had to do with our own emotions surrounding it and how we felt about the subject matter and the pressure on us to really do service to the narrative and the story. That was just something completely new for us and unique to Chubby and posed its own unique challenge.


HNMAG: So regarding camera work, how did Adam Crosby get involved with you?

Madeleine: We’ve known Adam for years, we all went to York University together. Adam and I were in the same year, Dusty was in the year above. 

Dusty: He shot our previous short films and he shot our feature, so he was instrumental in the beginnings of our creative collaboration as a co-directive team. That really helped us on the set of Chubby to have a short hand and Adam is almost like a character in the film. There’s a lot of choreography and a lot of energy with the camera that we’ve added to try and create a more kinetic and anxiety inducing feeling. We worked very closely with Adam in a similar way to how we would work with an actor. 

Madeleine: We like to use a lot of improv and Adam is fantastic at improvising with the camera.


HNMAG: Do you feel Chubby will shed more light on the problems many young girls face?

Madeleine: Yeah, I think both young girls AND young boys. Especially right now during this pandemic situation that we’re in sadly, sexual abuse within families is massively on the rise. I still think it’s something that people are really reticent to talk about, even with the #MeToo movement. Familial abuse is really tricky and we hope that young people will see this film and feel more emboldened to speak out on what’s happened to them.
Dusty: Also the film is designed to help audiences empathize with those who have suffered sexual abuse. So if you have not experienced that yourself, you will now understand what that does to someone with the trauma it causes and hopefully that just encourages more support for victims of sexual abuse.

Madeleine: Yeah, it’s not only difficult for them, but also for the family dealing with it and there needs to be a level of empathy around for everyone. 


HNMAG: How did you feel when you heard Chubby was eligible for an Oscar?

Dusty: We won an award at the Crackout Film Festival for best directing, which enabled us to be eligible for consideration. That’s really exciting, just to be in that running because there’s just a handful of films and it’s a really exciting deal. But for us it’s about getting the film out there. It’s such a challenging film and it’s difficult to get broadcasters to show it because of the content and I think the more recognition it receives…

Madeleine: The more palatable it is.

Dusty: The goal is to get as many people to see it as possible and encourage conversation about the topic.


HNMAG: How are you looking to get recognition?

Dusty: For short filmmakers, it’s really challenging. You need to start off at the festival circuit and we’ve been really lucky, the film premiered at Telluride, a terrific festival at the States.

Madeleine: It premiered at Slamdance and Maya has won several awards for her performance which really is the heart of the film. 

Dusty: Yeah, so really as a short filmmaker, you kind of look to festivals and awards as ways to entice distributors and broadcasters to feel more comfortable to show the work. The qualification of the Oscars will hopefully help to prepare to move the film forward.


So, with Chubby making its way on a successful run of festivals, and possibly getting an Oscar (we can only hope) outlook for the film is promising. Keep a look out for it because one of these days, it might be featured in an online festival within a few months. I would recommend everyone see it, and discover a new perspective or even a solution to a situation. Also, please don’t ask about the title, you’ll find out when you watch it, let’s just say…

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