At the height of the pandemic, and frustrated by inactivity, filmmaker Kelley Kali decided to make a film, and engaged USC film school buddies Angelique Molina, and Roma Kong to write and produce it, and Angelique to co-direct it. The dangers of Covid and a non-existent budget meant they also had to use crew members for the cast, and find locations that were free and worked for their plot.
Of all the issues folks were and are facing, the threat of not being able to pay rent and become houseless hit home to the writing and production team, so I’m Fine (Thanks for Asking) was born. The story is of recent widow and hair stylist Danny (played by Kelley Kali), who is houseless and living in a tent with her 8-year-old daughter Wes. Not only has she has convinced Wes that, despite the oppressive Cali heat, they are on an extended camping trip, Danny is committed to shielding her daughter from the scarier, darker realities of their predicament. She is close to having raised enough money for an apartment, and promises Wes that they’ll be in new digs by the end of the day, but circumstances conspire to ruin her plans. She has to find a way to find the money by the evening, do it all on her own terms. The film takes place over that one day, with Danny skating her way around the San Fernando Valley and LA, because that’s her only form of transportation, working to make to keep her promise.
Kelley Kali and Angelique Molina took time to discuss their film with AWFJ.org:
Leslie Combemale: I appreciate that you don’t reveal how Danny’s husband died, so that we are focused on her and Wes, and that the story starts sort of deus ex machina style. What was the conversation around that?
Kelley Kali: When we discussed whether or not to reveal how Sam died, we decided that Sam would be representative of all the loss that everyone has encountered this year. I bet you can’t find one soul that doesn’t know someone or have someone who has transitioned this year, whether it be from Covid or some other way. It was a very intense year and people were just leaving. So we didn’t want to specify Covid because that might not be how you felt loss, and we wanted the people who went on this journey with us to incorporate what it is they’re feeling into Sam and have it be representative of their own journey and their own story. That’s why we never said how Sam was lost, because Sam was for all of us.
Angelique Molina: and Sam wasn’t just representative of a human loss, he was many things, he was also about losing so many other things this year. People also lost normalcy and jobs and stability.
LC: I love that you mentioned Sean Baker for inspiration as a filmmaker, because I see some connections to The Florida Project, in the film’s simplicity and honesty. for both you and Angelique, What other inspirations did you engage in the process of creating and filming I’M FINE, and can you point to specific influences we can look for?
AM: We both talked about Life is Beautiful for its theme of the parent protecting the child’s innocence and the keeping the child from the crazy, negative experiences going on around them, but trying to maintain that bubble of happiness when what’s happening around them was not happy.
KK: Sean Baker was a big influence. We did use The Florida Project for visual references. He really was a filmmaker to look to for how to do it, how to execute something with what you’ve got. Although he’s had more resources than us, his approach still resonated with us, so when I went to Angelique and Roma and the team, and talked about how we could make it happen, I said we could ‘Sean Baker’ as he did with Tangerine, where there’s a lot of improv and guerrilla filmmaking. This was also true of The Florida Project and the color palette. We knew we wanted to have bright colors, regardless of Sean Baker, because we’re Cali girls. He shot his movie outside, and so did we. We had to shoot it outside because of Covid. We had to keep the crew/cast safe.
AM: The heat became a character. The skates became a character. We just used what we had. The heat added to it. It was ok to be colorful, we didn’t have to have a gloomy, desaturated look. The heat served us to have bright colors. The skates, transportation-wise, that was something that was because Kelley has skated all her life, but also we couldn’t access getting permits in the short time we had to film, but also we didn’t want to put these people in confined spaces for extended periods of time. The skates became a character because it was how she got around.
KK: I would just say to other filmmakers we were able to do this because we used the resources of our hometown. We shot in my hometown in the San Fernando Valley and some of the film we shot in LA, which is Angelique’s hometown. So we used what we had which made it a little bit easier to get the permission. It’s like Picasso said, “learn the rules to break the rules.” Know city permits and how to get around them safely. Our set was very safe. That was one thing we didn’t compromise.
LC: This story, in part, is about choosing to find optimism while struggling to survive. Can you talk about some of the choices as directors you made in expressing the concept of survival and of optimism in the film?
AM: Optimism was always a goal for this film, because we knew that it was a slightly heavy subject but we still wanted to be light about it. The ending was decided from the beginning. We knew how she would end up. We didn’t want it to be this tragic story. Will she still be living paycheck to paycheck? Probably. But it was really important for the film to end with hope.
KK: IN regards to survival. You’re not really thinking that you’ve got to survive, you’re just doing what has to get done instinctively. We were really trying to show that with Danny’s character. There was no real plan. She was just doing what she needed to do as quickly as possible, which resulted in her survival.
AM: She wasn’t always perfect. She wasn’t always making great decisions, either. Didn’t have the best friends around her at all times. That’s life, right? It’s not always about people saying “let’s make this happen!” or “I’ve got you!” No. She was going through a journey. Sometimes you stop and breathe. She was hustling, but then she was also being realistic about what was going on that day.
LC: Regardless of her choices, she is always focused on the prize.
KK: and her pride, because a lot of it that we all have, even if we speak to the title “I’m Fine. Thanks for Asking.” That title speaks to us always answering that way when people ask, and the truth is we are not always fine. Whether it be just a customary response that we’re just programmed to do, or if it really is pride, you do not want people to really know what you’re going through, because you don’t want them to see you as less, or in a vulnerable position. That’s something we definitely put in there, was Danny’s pride. There are many times when she could have just said, “I’m not ok”” She wants to do it herself, like a lot of us do. She doesn’t have the best people around to help her. The few times that she did say she needed help, it didn’t work out well.
LC: I’m Fine is centered on a woman of color working to build a life with her daughter on her own terms. That issue, her desire to live her life as a woman and mother on her own terms, shows up over and over in the film. What were the conversations around that in terms of character and story?
AM: I think that goes back to her pride too. She wasn’t going to let know in the beginning. She started off really optimistic. She was hustling and delivering food and doing what she needed to do, and when you say on her own terms, she only had her terms. She only had herself.
LC: Yes, but in the narrative you show how many ways she could have made it easier on herself by compromising. At what point did you decide to include story elements about sexual harassment and that sort of thing?
KK: We were just trying to keep it real to our life experiences as women. Thank god I haven’t been in Danny’s situation exactly, but there have been times when I’ve needed help with something and there are those guys in your life, like her husband’s friend, that just blindside you. That’s something that we discussed. How real are we keeping this? One thing we really wanted to make sure of is we weren’t male bashing. We wanted to be truthful, though.
AM: Yes, guys are going to be hollering at her, but the option of choosing one of those guys, and what would be the payment in return, is not unreal for people to be in that situation. Having nothing and trying to put a roof over your head having those options are almost always there. Danny didn’t choose that, but there’s no judgment who make that choice. Some people truly don’t have a choice.
KK: It’s a discussion we wanted to have in the film. The character Brooklyn brings that up, saying “Girl, you don’t have to be doing hair on people’s porches. You need yourself a rich man.” Yes, she could. She could solve her problems right then and there or she can be independent and do it yourself. Don’t forget, though, that she’s also healing from losing her husband so that’s another element. How comfortable would she be to just jump into something when she just lost that love? There were a lot of dynamics at play for her choices around how she gets that money.
AM: And if she didn’t have a kid, who knows what other decisions she might have made?
LC: How did your collaboration take shape with both of you performing and directing, and how did you find specific ways to work as co-directors?
AM: My scene was the very first scene of shooting. We were all doing so much, that when I was acting, I felt like I was in another world, and definitely needed direction. We were performing together in my scene, so we were depending on our DP and our AD to let us know how it landed. When I was directing and producing, I was doing lots of things at once and it still felt very natural and felt like it flowed. When Kelley was performing there were time constraints such that we often couldn’t shoot multiple takes, so she had to depend on me.
KK: For me there was this ebb and flow and had to be a hybrid. I’d be in a scene and be fully in it, and then I’d see my partner didn’t hit their mark. My brain would shift into directing, and if I didn’t hear Angelique yell cut, because she’s watching frame, if she missed something, I’d stop myself. There’s a lot to remember, and we didn’t have many other people onset. Our production designer would drop things off and set things up, but then they’d leave. We didn’t have a scriptie for continuity, so we were doing everything. We were really supporting each other, because there was a lot to watch for.
AM: We didn’t have a prop master, or a script supervisor, we just had to do it. Our brains were all over the place covering lots of ground. Also everyone started pitching in. We were holding each other accountable and being a support system for each other. It was really in flow where we would trust but also call each other out.