Welcome to World Builders, our ongoing series of conversations with the most productive and thoughtful behind-the-scenes craftspeople. In this entry, we chat with filmmakers Whitney Call and Mallory Everton about their covid comedy Stop and Go.
Two weeks to write. Two weeks for pre-production. Two weeks to shoot. With lockdown in full swing, Whitney Call and Mallory Everton put their foot on the gas and made a movie. The Sundance call for submissions concluded in October. It was July. Somewhere within them, they knew they could make that deadline. What the hell else were they going to do?
The childhood friends grew up making spoofs of CSI and the far superior CSI: Miami. Committing to the impossible was never a problem. As Covid-19 spread a blanket of confusion and fear over their lives and ours, they sought relief behind and in front of a movie camera. The pandemic would be their inspiration and their distraction.
Stop and Go is a comedic road movie about two sisters racing to rescue their grandmother from a retirement home hotspot (watch the trailer here). Whatever trepidation they initially felt about spoofing a terrifying subject while still in the thick of it dissipated as their creative drive electrified. What they had on the page was working, and they chose to chase that rush and merely hoped that others would connect somewhere down the road.
The Absent Adulation of Virtual Festivals
Call and Everton made their Sundance deadline, but the festival declined their cinematic offering. It was a disappointment but not a travesty. Stop and Go premiered earlier this year at SXSW, under the original title Recovery, and proceeded to make the rounds across several virtual festivals. They were ecstatic, but pandemic viewing muted their experience.
“I think a lot of us know that feeling of putting a video online,” says Everton, “and you’re like, ‘Oh, wow. A thousand people watched it, but I feel nothing.’ It’s not a human connection. It’s just not the same. Even when the film got into SXSW, we were like, ‘Great! But it’s a digital festival; I’ll watch it from my bed, just like I’ve been watching everything from my bed all year.”
The writing and acting partners craved a face-to-face response. They needed to see an audience watch their film, soak in it, and validate it. Denied a theatrical encounter, Call and Everton felt confined to some weird limbo, their Stop and Go filmmaking adventure revealing itself only as a temporary salve.
“There was this book I was reading,” says Call, “that talked about how sports stars get this instant gratification. When a baseball player makes a home run, he hears the crowd cheer immediately. It’s like this positive reinforcement for what you do. But this author was saying that actors, specifically film actors, end up having episodes of needing adulation because of this delayed response. You film something, you edit something, and you see something, and then you wait for the reviews. That’s when you get the gratification, maybe.”
This September, Stop and Go had its first in-person screening as part of the Lost Weekend XIV film festival at the Alamo Drafthouse in Winchester, Virginia. Call and Everton attended in person, and the reception they received reduced them to puddles. The filmmakers were not ready for the incredible outpouring of love the crowd threw their way.
“We both burst into tears immediately,” says Everton. “Seeing people with their kind, smiling faces turning directly to us and clapping and standing. It was just an incredible experience. And I think that’s always true when you take all this time to make a movie, but I think it was like that experience on acid for us because it’s our first movie ever, and we made it in a closet alone.”
Covid Comedy Could Only Occur in March 2020
Stop and Go did not begin as a Covid comedy. It was always a road trip, but the initial concept was akin to Thelma & Louise with a dead body in the trunk. When 2020 happened, after three months of depression, the two friends tinkered their idea to fit contemporary anxiety.
“We felt like we couldn’t question the creative movement of it at a certain point,” says Everton. “It was like, this is just coming out of us.t feels like we just got to do that. It was flowing. It just wrote itself.”
The way the screenplay for Stop and Go rushed out of them created confidence. With that confidence also arrived a sense that others would connect with what they were attempting. They were worried that some would reject their tone regarding such a catastrophic global event. But comedy challenges horror. It always has.
“That’s why we ended up setting the film back in March 2020,” says Call. “It was such a distinctive time. Everyone remembers the first week. Everyone remembers the day the NBA shut down, and you were like, ‘Whoa, this just got real.’ That moment was so easy to pinpoint that we thought we could mimic that experience, and everyone will at least feel a nostalgia for that moment, maybe. We might be tired of the pandemic, but we will remember what it was like to think, ‘Can we even touch grocery bags?'”
Writing Without Context
Writing to the moment bore a lot of sleepless nights. When their lids were shut, doubt crept in. Call and Everton were constantly relying on the other to boost their conviction.
“If I’m honest, it was terrifying,” continues Everton. “The more of our time and our own money we invested – it felt like a huge, horrible gamble. So it got scarier by the day as more and more memes came out, and we were like, ‘Oh, we kind of made that joke in our movie. Is it bad that we made that? People are going to be so tired of that joke by the time they see our movie.’ I recently read an article that said Peter Morgan, who created The Crown, won’t write anything without 20 years of context. And we did not have any of that. We had absolutely zero context. We had four months.”
But Call is quick to point out, in pandemic time, four months feels like 20 years. And she sees Everton’s Peter Morgan reference and raises her a Conan O’Brien.
“None of us know the answer,” says Call. “Conan O’Brien said that. The audience tells you the answer to what’s funny. The rest of us are just guessing. So, for us, making Stop and Go was an extended period of guessing. We tried to put it in front of so many kinds of audiences, from our friends to the virtual festivals to Lost Weekend.”
Call and Everton are happy to release ownership of Stop and Go to us. Now, we shall decide whether four months or 20 years are sufficient enough to make peace with a Covid comedy. Their journey is over. The film was there for them when they needed it most, and they hope it can offer comfort to a few folks in its many crowds, virtual or otherwise.
Stop and Go will release in select theaters and on VOD on October 1st.