Sundance 2017: Annabelle Dexter-Jones’ “Cecile on the Phone”

A post-break-up character study that everyone can connect with

For their considered use of brevity and frequent potency, short films continue to be an important medium—especially for emerging filmmakers. At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, actor and first-time writer/director Annabelle Dexter-Jones released “Cecile on the Phone” as part of the US Narrative Short Films program. For 11 minutes, main character Cecile (played by Dexter-Jones) fixates with such force that a post-break-up character study is born with comedic force. The short film also overcomes a tricky cinematic trope: making phone calls seem interesting on camera. With visual texture, frequent split-screens and an engaging, relatable performance, Dexter-Jones emboldens her debut. Dexter-Jones spent two months writing the piece and after taking time away for other projects she shot and completed the film over a few months. With opportunities for more people to see the short on the festival circuit, we spoke with the director on her interest in obsession and why she chose this as her first project.

Through the direction and cinematography, a lot of attention is paid to small, textural moments—a Vaseline container, a dog shaking off mid-walk. What does this add to the story?

I think that it’s those details that I find most interesting. When you try to tell something in a general way, I don’t feel it captures the reality. That’s where our attention goes when we’re walking down the street or sitting in a room, we hone into very specific things. It puts you into that moment. Sound is a big part of that, too. It’s there to draw you in.

Why were you drawn to the concept of fixation?

I have an obsessive mind. I can really attach it to anything. It could be about a relationship or work. It changes week to week. I will choose anything to obsess over and it has nothing to do with the object of my obsession. It’s this self-indulgent, ego-related fear.

How did you plan to keep the storytelling device of the phone engaging?

I think what was really important to me was not to think of Cecile as only the main character, but also a kind of Virgil taking you on this journey to meet other people. It’s also about the world around her. I wanted to create these different environments for each character. I never thought during the writing process that we would only see Cecile. A lot of the film is about the drastic difference between our internal experience and what we convey.

It’s your directorial debut. How did you know this was the right first project?

I knew I wanted to tell this story. I knew I wanted to talk about fixation and obsession and the kind of absurd way that we indulge these behaviors. A break-up seemed like perfect context for that. I knew I was ready when I had the idea for the telephone. I saw this world and the character and, from there, it was done one step at a time. I didn’t start the writing process thinking about festivals [like Sundance]. I just knew it was something I had to write. Writing is something I have always been focused on. It’s always been a fantasy of mine to do this and it wasn’t really a big conscious decision: now is the time I am going to make this and change my life; I really just focused on what was in front of me.

Were there visual elements from cinema’s past that you tried to invoke?

I love film. I love ’70s cinema. I am influenced by a lot of these things. Inevitably, they will come up in my work and my own aesthetic.

When making a short film, the end game isn’t always clear. What are your hopes for this?

Well Cecile was written specifically for short film. I didn’t make this in order to make a longer version of it. The next project I am working on is feature length. It’s not dissimilar from the tone and world of Cecile. We all behave in ways that we don’t want documented. It’s never going to end. It’s important to be able to watch that happen and not judge ourselves too much. It’s all about perspective. Cecile has no perspective in that moment. Over time we see things clearer and can make fun of ourselves.

Images courtesy of Annabelle Dexter-Jones