Shatara Michelle Ford’s debut feature Test Pattern addresses sensitive material with clinically painstaking detail. The narrative begins in 2017 at an Austin bar as Renesha (Brittany S. Hall) meets Evan (Will Brill), a thirtysomething white guy whose liquid courage prompts him to ask for Renesha’s phone number. Somewhat surprisingly, the two hit it off and grow to become a loving couple.One evening, Renesha begrudgingly (she has work in the morning) meets up with a friend for drinks at a local bar, where they meet two flirtatious men who proceed to drug them. Nearing unconsciousness, Renesha is taken to an unfamiliar location and is subsequently raped.
The second half of the film deals with the immediate aftermath of Renesha’s assault, never shying away from the incredible onus and burden a victim may feel when attempting to seek justice. As Evan and Renesha go from location to location searching for a hospital that can administer a Sexual Assault Forensic Exam (more bluntly termed a “rape kit”), the power dynamics inherent in the interacial couple’s relationship begin to surface. While an act of sexual violation and assault may have occurred over the course of a few hours, the long-lasting effects, both physical and psychological, continue to linger.
As Test Pattern opens today via Kino Lorber’s virtual streaming platform, Kino Marquee, I spoke with Ford about their multifaceted career history in film, the intense financial difficulty involved in embarking on a first feature and how audiences’ reactions to the film have varied widely.
Filmmaker: I recently watched an online Q&A you had participated in where you noted that “any time a Black femme’s body is violated, things don’t work like they’re supposed to [for survivors].” Could you expand on that a bit? Was that belief the impetus for writing Test Pattern?
Ford: I think the ideas are connected, yes. Back in 2015, I was working in Belfast on The Lost City of Z as [director] James Gray’s assistant. The shoot was taking place at the same time that Sandra Bland was driving to her new job in Texas and, of course, never made it. It was also around the same time that Dylann Roof walked into a church in Charleston and shot and murdered a whole bunch of Black people. This was also right after the protests in Ferguson, Missouri that were brought about by Michael Brown being murdered by police. I’m from St. Louis, and that moment in time shifted how I was thinking and feeling as an artist and as a Black person in a white-dominated industry.
When Sandra Bland died, I kept thinking about how it didn’t make sense, how upsetting it was. I would talk to people about it and it didn’t seem to register with them. When these things happen to women femmes and to Black people with dark skin like mine (and with features far removed from Eurocentric standards), it’s almost expected that these terrible things will happen to them. People don’t seem as outraged by it. I think that’s something that people who look like me internalize. As a rule, in general, I do not feel like we are taken care of and supported and protected as we should be as a whole, but that’s structurally by design.
I had a script on The Black List in 2017 titled Queen Elizabeth. The reason it ended up on The Black List is because I spent a whole year beforehand (after working on The Lost City of Z) trying to get a feature funded. This was in 2016, when there was a lot of talk of, “oh, we need more female directors, we need more Black filmmakers, blah, blah, blah. Let’s get them out there, let’s look for first-time filmmakers!” I hit the grind hard. I tried to get somebody to give me a million dollars to make this script everyone seemed to really like. Anyway, it ended up on The Black List and I received even more meetings from being included on that, with everyone asking, “The script is great, but what do you want to do with it?” I’d respond, “Well, I want to direct it.” They’d ask “Wait, what? But have you done anything before?” I responded, “I’ve made a short.” They’re like, “Oh, did it go to Sundance? What happened to it?” The conversations always ended right then and there. Nothing would come from [those meetings].
I recognize that mumblecore is a genre, one that’s worked particularly well, especially for white men and folks of privilege who can grab a bunch of resources from their dad’s credit card and do what they need to do to get it made. They’re given much more leeway to make a movie in four days in a single room and all this lo-fi stuff. But I know that people scrutinize over women and non-white filmmakers a bit harder and I didn’t want to get trapped into doing something without all of the resources I needed, then be criticized for it or told I wasn’t ready or prepared. I think that’s a trap for first-time filmmakers across the board. There’s a trend in our industry right now where so many filmmakers have made movies with no money and no time. The industry thinks that if we can do that, then we should, that that’s okay. It’s not okay.
I wanted to make sure that whatever first film I made, I gave myself the right amount of days to actually do the thing right. I want everyone to be fed well and paid well, to be able to get sleep at night and do things safely. Anyway, that meant that the first feature I was trying to make would be for a million dollars, and everyone laughed at me and said that there was no way they’d give a first-time, untested filmmaker that kind of money. I then received advice from folks telling me to direct more shorts—which also costs money, of course, so I spent years asking people for money for that. I was also told to do some proof-of-concepts for other ideas I had that might be distilled in those shorts.
I was working on a short at the time that was about a person who turns into a mermaid (or perhaps a fish, or perhaps that’s always what they were from the start…) that would feature a very complicated sequence that takes place under water. It was going to cost a lot of money and we were going to shoot [a proof of concept]. I had a friend (who would go on to be an executive producer on Test Pattern) who had quite a number of financial resources (and had funded a few of my other short projects) who was willing to fund this proof of concept. Before we were to shoot that, I found myself writing a few other things, one of which turned out to be a 35-page script called Test Pattern. I gave it to my producer, Pin-Chun Liu, who was working on the proof of concept with me. I was like, “This is a full-length feature, I know it is. I also know it’s only thirty-five pages, but can you look at it and tell me if it actually makes sense? Am I wrong?” And she was like, “No, you’re not. Let’s go make this instead. I think with the money that we have, we can probably cobble together a little bit more and get what we need to make this.” That’s what happened, I asked my friend if I could use that money for a feature film instead of the proof of concept we had planned, and she said, “Absolutely, go do what you need to do.” That gave us the starting funds to go into pre-production on Test Pattern.
I had really great personal credit at this time. I had a ton of student debt, but I was paying off my loans. For Test Pattern, however, I had to use nine credit cards. My partner and I were saving up to buy a house, but we wound up draining our savings on this movie. I guess I did a hybrid of the Coen Brothers/Spike Lee/Jeff Nichols path: Jeff Nichols was saving money and his wife was working while he wasn’t, and the Coens went to their synagogue to ask folks to invest in their film (I didn’t do that, but I did ask people for investments). I had a business plan and had people sign things and they gave me one thousand dollar investments. I had friends working in television (who were making more money than I was) give checks for five hundred dollars here and there. That’s how I got the film made.
Filmmaker: It’s interesting that you mentioned mumblecore earlier, as that’s something I associate with Austin. Granted, I wouldn’t label your film a mumblecore film, but what was the thought process behind filming Test Pattern in Austin for the majority of the shoot?
Ford: I had spent quite a bit of time in Austin over the years, and I think what makes the city most interesting is that they rest on their laurels for being a forward-thinking, progressive city while also being a city that has a massive gentrification problem. The city is displacing its original residents like no other and its culture is now aggressively and impressively white. They’re nice white people, but they’re displacing cultures that were there before them or that are being disenfranchised by them. Nobody likes to talk about that. I thought it was weird. I grew up in St. Louis, which is a deeply segregated city and a predominantly white, relatively liberal town that’s had its fair share of similar problems, so I related to what was happening in Austin.
Austin is a very “filmmaker friendly” city, and if I was going to make a movie on my own without any real institutional support, I needed to make sure I did it in a place that was cool with indie filmmakers going out there and doing what they needed to do. There are a lot of resources on hand in Austin that I was able to use, with the Texas Film Commission being very open and supportive of the production as we figured out how to mount this film.
At the same time, I had to be very secretive about the production because, again, I think it’s true that images of and conversations about Texas, especially amongst white folks, are extremely protected. There’s a lot of Texas pride involved and people aren’t too happy when others start poking holes into [their history], especially if you’re not from there. We had to be stealthy and very vague about the type of movie we were making. In the few instances where we told people what the film was about, they weren’t too helpful or interested in being helpful.
Filmmaker: The first half of the film, where Renesha meets and begins a relationship with Evan, is somewhat lighthearted, but it still had me a bit on edge. The film opens in media res with Renesha about to be sexually assaulted, but we quickly jump backwards to witness how she began her relationship with Evan. “Is he the guy who will go on to sexually assault her?” I wondered, but wasn’t sure. Still, I was on edge. Does the opening thirty minutes of the film intentionally not prepare us for what’s to come? Do you see it that way?
Ford: It does and it doesn’t. I’ve gone back and forth about that opening scene. I made the movie almost three years ago and there were moments over the past three years where I’ve absolutely hated that scene. I hated that I did it and I hated that I placed it first, then I’ll go back and be like, “Actually, no, I knew what I was doing.” What I will say now is that there’s something really special about the fact that people are confused about who Evan is, as we get into the flow of he and Renesha meeting each other for the first time, and the confusion that later comes when Renesha encounters Mike [her assailant]. It’s unintentional but is absolutely useful. Mike and Evan both violate Renesha’s autonomy, and they both, at some point, cross a boundary. They both have used their power that they hold over her. In some ways, this film is also exploring toxic masculinity and patriarchy, so the fact that we’re confusing the two men at the outset is in some ways by design. They are both occupying a very similar space (in separate quadrants) of our lived experience.
Filmmaker: Yeah, both men initially approach her in much the same way, in a bar/restaurant setting where alcohol is involved (their intentions are different yet similar). When Renesha later gives Evan a tour of her apartment, Evan makes a pass at her once they arrive at her bedroom, and that leads to their having sex together for the first time. But it’s a playful and warm scene. With intimacy coordinators being more frequently used on film sets these days, I wanted to ask about your role on set directing a sex scene like that. How do you direct your actors to be comfortable and free in a moment that could lead to some moments of awkward tension?
Ford: Each of the scenes that required closed sets and cast intimacy were really stressful experiences for me. We knew we were making something very delicate and potentially triggering, so we were always thinking about how to make our production safe for everyone involved. One of the downsides of indie filmmaking is that some resources you just don’t have. I remember prepping the Renesha/Evan love scene in particular, calling a lot of my friends who were directors to ask,” I’ve never done this before, what do you do? What should I be thinking about?” Everyone had a different answer. But the one thing that never came up was the concept of an intimacy coordinator, because truthfully that wasn’t really something that was institutionalized until late-2018.
Filmmaker: Yeah, in the last two years or so I feel like I’ve been hearing about it more frequently.
Ford: Do I wish I had one? It would have alleviated a lot of anxiety and stress for me, and I think that Will, Brittany, and I, in particular, did a lot of work to make sure that we were taking care of each other and that people were being heard when we thought very carefully about what the environment should be like for them. Even so, I’m sure I made mistakes.
Filmmaker: When filming an intimate scene like that, is there an impulse to ease potential tension that may arise? You want to take it seriously, of course, but in making your actors comfortable, are you trying to keep the mood light? I imagine a filmmaker might have internal arguments with oneself about how to do that.
Ford: Yeah, and I think even more so for the scenes that we did with Brittany and Drew Fuller [who plays Mike], because I’ve watched enough rape movies and movies where women are sexually assaulted to know what I didn’t want to do, what I didn’t want to see, and I knew what was actually important to show. That was still hard for me to shoot because I didn’t want to experience it myself and I didn’t want to look at it. Again, I wonder what that would have been like if I had a competent, professional intimacy coordinator on set who could work through some of that stuff with us. But in general, everybody on set was very aware of what we were doing. We were each processing our own experiences of boundary-violation and assault and trauma related to this scenario, so each day we were filming those scenes was extra hard.
Filmmaker: After Renesha is drugged, we get a lot of soft focus and more intensely dramatic lighting, the purples and reds washing over her as she begins to piece together moments from the evening of her assault. The viewer knows when we’re within her POV, within her memories, due to those lighting choices that serve as nonverbal signifiers. It’s a cue for the viewer.
Ford: Yeah, absolutely, and I’m not a big fan of dialogue “for dialogue’s sake.” I think I’m heavily influenced by German expressionism, and I really love Hitchcock and the ways in which he played with that movement. I wanted to use all of the tools in my toolkit (other than dialogue) to express this internal feeling within Renesha. Again, Black folks and women femmes aren’t always listened to even when we are speaking up, so there are many other ways in which we are communicating what is happening if only someone would pay close enough attention. Some of the ideas that I wanted to express with the character of Renesha come from the many moments in the film where she’s pushed to the background, or to the side, or is out of focus. That’s for a reason, to make you think about how we choose not to see or hear people. Then in the moments where I let you sit with her, what do you notice in what she’s not saying? All of that was intentional.
My cinematographer, Ludovica Isidori, and I thought about colors and what they could mean within the context of our film, as did Eloise Ayala, our production designer. We talked a lot about colors as motifs and how different ones could be assigned to different characters. Renesha has a specific color assigned to her, Mike has a specific color and Evan has a specific color. Renesha doesn’t have a color when she’s with Evan, however, when they’re together and things are relatively good.
The other thing you might’ve been noticing is that in the spaces where Renesha is experiencing trauma or she is in some form of danger, the colors are incredibly saturated and really forged. We did that to express this heightened state, where each of your senses are being activated when placed into a “fight or flight” situation and how certain things tend to stick out versus others. In the moments where Evan and Renesha are going from hospital to hospital, things are really washed out and much colder, color wise. Again, that’s representing Renesha’s distance from what’s happening to her, as she’s literally being dragged around and isn’t fully present enough to process it for herself.
Filmmaker: I wanted to ask about the original score and the sampling of preexisting music you feature in the film, and specifically where you choose to feature them. The mood of the first third of the film is very much directed by that music, where even if I dreaded what was to come, the music was almost letting me off the hook…until it wasn’t. It’s another nonverbal way of directing the viewer’s emotional state, right?
Ford: Even that goes back to what we consider “classical cinema” in general, the old school idea of using elements of film other than dialogue to express an idea. I had been thinking about how melodrama was once seen as a “women’s medium.” As much as that classification can be (and is) criticized, I think there’s something really interesting in that belief. What does it look like to express the internal? What does it look like to express the things that people don’t want to pay attention to? The score was therefore going to be incredibly important.
Our composer, Rob Rusli, is one of my favorite people to work with. What I love about working with him is that he truly cares about the thematic points of a narrative and each of the extra elements I was attempting to accomplish on this film. After we dug into that for many, many hours, he went back to the drawing board to think about how to construct a piece that would evoke feelings of anxiety or alienation or fear alongside the concepts of, again, assigning certain sounds and certain instruments to certain characters. I liked the idea that when a character shows up, they almost have their own set of tunes and colors.
Filmmaker: Although the film was primarily shot in Austin, you also filmed for a few days in Los Angeles. But in the interim of shifting to California for the production’s restart, you ran into budgetary issues, is that correct?
Ford: Yeah, and I tried my absolute best to not let my crew know I was bankrolling this entire thing myself. It’s obviously very important to build confidence on set, to make sure that people know the thing they’re working on and have committed time to has a forward-moving momentum. The truth is, the amount of [shooting] days we planned for was really important to me, and Pin-Chun and I originally scheduled a nineteen-and-a-half day shoot. Once we were nearing the end, I realized that there were a couple of things that were harder than I thought they would be. I wasn’t happy with what we had, and we had the choice to either go with it and keep it—or not.
There were a few locations in Austin we couldn’t secure, and we were able to find cheap equivalents in Los Angeles. We thought, “Well, we had planned for two extra shooting days in Los Angeles anyway, so instead of just going with some of the stuff we’re not happy with, let’s add that to the Los Angeles shoot.” But I only had one week in-between our Austin and Los Angeles shoot, so we shut down for a week, broke down each of the sets and drove to L.A.
Meanwhile, I had to go out to ask for additional funds. The truth is that, as much as I had what I needed to pay people for their time, I was dipping further into the personal savings of my partner and I. It was getting to the point where I was taking on more debt, even as people were giving me additional credit cards. There was going to be a point where that was going to catch up with me and…we were getting to that point.
Before we’d gone out to shoot the film, I spoke to a few production companies that liked my other script. I told them how I wanted to make that film, and they were like, “Oh, this sounds exciting, but come back to us later, you never know! Go out and do your thing, but come back to us someday.” So, now was my time to go back to them. This is just the truth regarding the current state of independent film, which I do think is changing due to how the pandemic has made everything very different (for better and, in some ways, for worse). But at that point in time, quite a few folks we spoke to were very frank when they told us, “Look, there’s no guarantee you’re going to get into a top-tier festival, which means that there’s no guarantee that you’ll get distribution, and therefore there’s no guarantee that I’ll ever get my money back, so, no. If you can find a guarantee somewhere, then I will give you the money.” I essentially struck out and had to keep digging and digging. So much of that time was spent hoping I could gather something that I couldn’t, and I just kept going deeper and deeper into debt. It got to the point where I could no longer afford to live in my apartment in Los Angeles.
Filmmaker: Luckily, this film did wind up having a robust festival life, although I’ve heard you mention that some of the post-screening Q&As got somewhat contentious. Did the public reaction to the film change depending on which festival you were screening the film at?
Ford: Yeah, and I think there’s two things regarding that I should note. I had a good idea about how people were going to react to the film, because of course, that was pretty deliberate. One of those deliberate things Pin-Chun and I did was hold a ton of test screenings. I wasn’t looking to fix stuff within the film itself (we held other test screenings for that sort of feedback), but I was interested in what people would pick up on and respond to while viewing the film. I wanted to know what upset them about the film, on an ideological or intellectual level. I wasn’t interested in the “this dialogue was bad” variety of feedback, but more like, “I’m upset this character said this or that that character said that.” I would make note of the moments where I could hear someone laughing, or crying, or quietly arguing with somebody about a moment in the film (which has happened).
At the end of each test screening, people would debate what they thought takes place in the film. There were folks who didn’t think Renesha was raped at all and so they couldn’t understand what the big deal was. There were also people who absolutely understood that Renesha was raped, then there were folks who sat in the middle and didn’t know if it was okay to even go through all of this feedback stuff.
For example, we received widely differing responses toward the character of Evan depending on who our audience was that night. Certain demographics absolutely hated the idea of Evan as a person, and the fact that he could even get a girl like Renesha was incredibly distracting and frustrating to them. Due to that, the whole movie didn’t make sense to them. They couldn’t get past the fact that Renesha might be interested in him, which I found to be a very fascinating reading of the film. There were also people who would hear that feedback and get incredibly defensive on the other end of the spectrum, saying, “Evan is perfect, how dare you? Also, why are we demonizing him? He did everything correctly!” What I very much hoped would happen wound up happening. The film holds a mirror up to folks and their own ideologies and how they personally relate to these concepts of whiteness, patriarchy, toxic masculinity, sexual assault and rape. The film is a “check in” place with where you are personally with those concepts. If this rubs you the wrong way, or if this feels liberating or exhilarating to you, where is that coming from and why? What are the areas where you might need to go back and reflect on a bit?
Filmmaker: The film began its festival run in the summer of 2019 (where it was warmly received). However, given everything that has taken place within this country related to the social justice movement of 2020, I’m sure you’ve observed responses to the film altering a bit. Your film hasn’t changed, of course, but maybe our culture has, to some degree. Have you noticed the audience response changing since the events of 2020?
Ford: I have and honestly, it’s something I feel a little salty about. That’s not due to “Oh, no one paid attention to what they should have in the film.” No, it’s actually worse than that. Two Black men had to die (one in a particularly very violent and public way) for people to think about this stuff again and give it some more attention. That honestly doesn’t make me feel very good. However, what it did do is embolden me to keep trying to find a distributor for this film. At that point in time, I did not have a distributor, and I was so deep in debt in June of 2020, that I didn’t think that it would ever be possible for me to make another film. But what actually wound up happening was that the film resonated enough in places where I got opportunities I would not have otherwise received. For instance, I was recently granted a Pew Fellowship for the arts, which came via a Philadelphia-based institution (I currently live in Philly). They gave me $75,000 of unrestricted grant money, which I subsequently used to pay off a few credit cards. That grant money has changed my career trajectory, to the point where now I’m in a more settled place than I would’ve ever been. I can actually think about making something else in the future now. I’m receiving emails and phone calls being like, “Hi, I went to that test screening of yours a few years back and God, I just can’t stop thinking about your movie now!” I’ve realized that maybe this was all a timing thing.
One of the few things the pandemic has done that isn’t terrible is that it’s prompted us to start looking critically at each of our institutions. We’ve realized that we’re flawed in many places and we’re not doing the best by most people. How we’ve always done things may not be how things should always be done, right? Therefore, people have been much more open to hearing from us and our film, even though we didn’t have a sales agent or a referrable “thumbs up” or seal of approval that tends to filter out everything else. And yet, I literally would not be able to talk about this movie and see it finally have a home (after three-and-a-half years) without the social events of the past year.