Sam Guest and Julia Baylis on finding inspiration in teen tragedy and the cracks in the white fence façade of small-town America
“This town is all shit, I’ve been here forever. All people do is work, watch TV, go to church. It doesn’t matter though. Kids still die every day.” These are the words which open Chimera, a new short film by Sam Guest and Julia Baylis. Set in the liminal spaces that make up the lives of teenagers – bedrooms still full of childish things, empty car parks, stretches of suburban road – the narrative follows a group who are stuck between the safety of youth and having to grow up fast.
Filmed over two years, Guest and Baylis set out to capture the desolation and destructive energy that brews out of adolescent boredom. Past collaborators, these ideas mark a common thread that runs throughout the duo’s work – like in GO$$IP, the unconventional fashion film they debuted earlier this year. Guest, who is a photographer, searches for the darker imperfections that lie beneath the sheen of American culture, while Baylis (one-half of Me and You, the Instagram-powered it-brand she launched with Mayan Toledano) uses fashion to explore ideas of femininity and kitsch.
Chimera is Guest and Baylis’s biggest production to date; they took care of the casting, location scouting, wardrobe and had to overcome the hurdle of having a main actor go to jail. Here the two discuss the concept behind the film, their creative dynamic, and what inspires them about the urbanity of suburban life.
You guys have worked together before, how did you meet?
Sam Guest: Julia and I met at university in New York. I’ve never met someone who sees the world in as such a special way as she does. When you find someone you can truly collaborate with and trust their vision and judgment as much as – or even more than – your own, it creates so many possibilities that you didn’t know were possible. You start feeling less alone in the world and the creative process.
Can you explain the concept behind the film visually?
Sam Guest: For me, it was really important that the film felt like a generic landscape. I deliberately didn’t want to specify a time and place, instead just an everyday suburban town with contemporary kids. I’ve always looked at 50s America as this microcosm of ‘the perfect life’; the period encapsulated the ideals of this country like a perfect coat of white paint. When you start looking closely you can notice cracks and imperfections and for me, that’s always where the real beauty lies. This idea travelled with me through every process and decision of the film. With locations I was looking for an emptiness in the landscape. The places that always caught my eye were the ones that I felt were the most forgotten – an empty parking lot, the backside of a shopping mall, a cemetery.
Julia Baylis: I find beauty in things that most people consider ugly. ‘Beautiful’ and ‘ugly’ are bad words to use, even, because they mean something different to everyone. But, I guess if we are to use them in the traditional sense, I love ‘bad’ design, ‘tacky’ culture, camp, cheesy stuff, things that are abandoned and left to rot, forgotten places, societal outliers – all of this is what I bought into the styling for Chimera.
Can you discuss the film’s title?
Sam Guest: Chimera by definition means a couple of things. Most people may recognise it as a mythical Greek creature that is part lion, goat and snake. But another meaning states, ‘something that is hoped for but impossible to obtain.’ I found a lot of poetry in that statement which really became a catalyst for the whole film. I started thinking about isolation and the idea of being trapped somewhere and fantasising about escape, even if you knew that idea was impossible. How would you create your own universe, or mould your surroundings into the world that you wanted to live in? That’s what I wanted the film to feel like, an everyday dream, endlessly hoping – yearning – for something greater.
What inspired the narrative, the death of the boys?
Julia Baylis: Sam wrote a script a couple years ago right after we graduated from university. We both wanted to make something very different from what we were doing in school, to work on a project that felt more authentic and organic. We asked our friends, Sam’s family and a bunch of local kids in Long Island to be in the film and would shoot on the weekends. The film, however, started to change as soon as we began to work on it. One of the twin boys was sent to jail the first weekend of shooting, so we had to film all this other stuff and wait for him to get out – his ankle bracelet is 100 per cent real. What really inspired the narrative was the process of making the film itself, and spending time with these kids. After the first round of filming we scrapped almost everything and shot more again, then spent a year adding material in between, all in all, it took us two years to finish.
“I’ve always looked at 50s America as this microcosm of ‘the perfect life’. When you start looking closely you can notice cracks and imperfections and for me, that’s always where the real beauty lies” – Sam Guest
Sam Guest: In the small town where I grew up, we experienced an abnormal amount of teenage deaths that have been all boys. Most were friends of friends and none have been within my direct circle of people, but it is still harrowing to witness someone you knew, said hi too, mingled with, leave this world forever. You notice the lives of the friends they have touched and the void that is left in their wake. I was dealing with these things but always slightly removed, which forced me to meditate on the impersonal effects of death, like how it feels to look at something with foggy glasses. You only make out the shapes of what is there, an essence without details. None of the actors in this were professional, which is why I loved – and wanted – to work with them. They all had something so unique in their personality that they brought this experience. I’m eternally grateful for all their hard work and dedication to the film.
Suburban life in North America is common theme throughout your work together, why is that?
Sam Guest: I grew up in a small town and like most people I was obsessed with leaving and getting out. But, after I left and was able to look at my small town suburban experience as an outsider, I became fascinated by the world I grew up in. Whenever I go back and stand on the streets it’s like I can see the ghosts of my life running around me. That is something I never want to let go of.