Online dating is a common experience, but one that isn’t often explored in very complex ways in media or art. Many rom-coms still follow the typical formula of a character who is tested by obstacles before eventually ending up with a happily ever after ending. Writer, director, and filmmaker Allison Geller believes there are more provocative and ambiguous stories to tell about romance—and she recently set out to do just that with her first short film, “Home at Night.”
We sat down with Allison to find out more about the film, her thoughts on modern dating, and the lessons she’s learned as a first-time filmmaker. For more updates on the film, and to find out when it will be streamed online, follow @homeatnight.
“Home at Night” feels very much like a New York story, yet it’s also a broader story about dating in the modern world. Tell us a bit about how you came up with the concept and what inspired you to write it.
Like many women who have used dating apps in New York City or elsewhere, I often found online dating very frustrating. For many reasons—from getting ghosted to actually getting stood up once, which felt like a real “Sex and the City” moment—but also because men just did not seem to understand or even want to understand what the experience was like from the other side. On a first online date, the conversation at some point inevitably turns to, “How’s it been for you on the apps?” And then both parties start sharing horror stories. I was struck by how men just did not get it. Even those who were self-proclaimed feminists could not allow themselves to go so far as to actually put themselves in a woman’s shoes—going off to meet a stranger who is probably physically stronger than you. It wasn’t real empathy; it was talking points to seem like a good guy. It goes back to that quote attributed to Margaret Atwood that men are afraid women will laugh at them and women are afraid men will kill them. The date scene in the film very much reflects this.
I’ve also observed, over the years, that we are becoming less and less able to connect with people we don’t know outside a digital medium. People don’t just go up and talk to each other anymore; it’s easier just to stare at your phone. I think the months and years of isolation during COVID only accelerated that. So this film was my way of exploring those themes—gender, power, connection, isolation—in modern society, in a way that felt especially timely.
The film starts off with an experience so many of us have had and ends in an unexpected way. Do you think there’s a broader lesson to be learned about the way life can shift and change around us even when it seems predictable?
For me, the lesson that has to be learned by James, the film’s protagonist, is never to feel like you are in complete mastery of a situation—that nothing out of your control can ever happen to you. This is something we’re so aware of as women, simply walking home at night, as the title alludes to. We’re always on our guard. The date situation just exemplifies this. James has to experience for himself what it’s like to not be able to comfortably predict the outcome of a situation, something I think a lot of men can’t really conceive of. I also think it’s James’ unwillingness to meet Candace halfway—to try to see the world through her eyes—that is his true failing.
It was important to me that the James character remain ambiguous. You’re not quite sure if he’s really creepy, or an awkward but generally decent guy. I really wanted to maintain that tension up until the end, with room for interpretation based on a viewer’s perspective, who they are, their own life experiences.
You’ve been a writer and editor for a long time, and this is your first foray into film. What were some of the challenges you faced as a first-time filmmaker?
I didn’t go to film school and I never worked on a set so I really didn’t know the first thing about making a film. I wrote the first draft of the script in 2020 while taking an online class on writing and directing the short film with NYU’s School of Professional Studies. From there, I shared the script with my good friend Brandon Rothenberg, an experienced producer. To my great good fortune, he was very enthusiastic about helping me make it happen. I started asking around among women I knew who had some involvement in film and the arts, which led me to join an industry group called New York Women in Film and Television, which led me to meet my amazing Director of Photography Autumn Moran. Together the three of us started planning the look and putting the pieces together.
Thinking back to the intense two days of shooting, it was incredibly exhausting, oftentimes stressful, but also really fun. Things are never on time and you have to just roll with it. For example, we got off schedule the first night and one of the supporting actors couldn’t come back for a second day of shooting, so we had to cast someone else the morning of. Thankfully our awesome casting director swooped in to help, and another actor we had auditioned was willing to jump in at the last minute! You just have to accept that this is literally what shooting is—constantly in the mode of thinking of a plan B. Hopefully you’ll have a great producer and crew to help you. That’s another challenge: just being ok being that first-time director, asking for help, and believing in your vision even when you don’t have experience or confidence in every aspect of filmmaking.
All that being said, I’d still say that fundraising was the hardest part. You can always figure out the creative and organizational aspects with help, but as the director and creator, the onus to fund your project is really on you, especially for a short. I tried a lot of different approaches and ended up piecing it together through a small grant, a fundraising event, some personal donations, and some personal investment. Whatever it takes, I think you just have to find a way to go for it. You have to start somewhere.
“Home at Night” is a relatable story, and also a unique and timely one. Was that something you were aware of as you were writing the script, and how did you manage to create that balance within the narrative?
In fact, I had the idea for the end of the film first. I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting if… and then worked backwards from there to come up with the character that the ending “would” happen to.
My goal is for people to watch the film and say, ugh, I know that guy! Or, I have totally been there! While still being surprised by the ending, and, hopefully, having their thoughts and imagination provoked by it. I always love those moments of dramatic irony, both in fiction and life. It’s a way of exploring the universal while subverting the conventional or expected.
Looking back, what advice would you share with yourself when you were just getting started and what aspects of the film are you most proud of?
I’ve thought about this a lot, because when you do something for the first time, especially something so complex, you’re bound to make mistakes—and I made a lot of them! I would give myself, or any other first-time filmmaker, three pieces of advice.
One is to make the movie before you make the movie. That is, use your phone to at least get basic shots, blocking, and timing; there are also viewfinder apps like Artemis that let you reproduce the look of different camera lenses. You can do it with your DP or just by yourself or with some friends willing to act as stand-ins. That will make it so much easier and faster come shoot day.
The second is to simplify your set-ups. You have to think about what is really necessary, and try to get that in as few different shots or set-ups as possible. Because everything will take twice as long as you think (or more).
The third would be to remember that your job is to direct the actors, and not to let all of the distractions and stress and logistics take away from that job. While you will have a hand in everything, lighting and visuals are your DP’s domain, while your producer is there to make sure the trains run on time, so to speak. Directing actors is the one aspect of the film that is one hundred percent yours as the director. Your task is to help them relate to the character and the situation that character is in at that moment, and to push them even further or get them to try it another way. Because as actors, that’s what they want as well!
Which also ties into the second part of your question. In the end, I’m most proud of my casting and the performances by the two main actors, Anthony Jackson and Stephanie Bacastow. I had never gone through the casting process before, but I went with my gut and I’m so glad I did as I think they were perfect for the roles and had very complementary energies. Directing was really intimidating for me at first, but even after one informal rehearsal at my apartment it felt right. And it was so fun! It was a totally different way of tapping into the creative spirit. Unlike with writing, where it’s just you and a silent page, it’s like creating art together in real time. Every take is a bit different, because it’s happening there on the spot, on both a planned, conscious level but also an unconscious, intuitive level.
What’s next for “Home at Night,” and for you as a filmmaker?
I’m currently submitting “Home at Night” to film festivals, after which I’ll make it available to view publicly on YouTube or Vimeo. I hope to get as many eyes on it as possible. I’m also thinking about putting together a little ebook or something with practical advice and learnings for other first-time filmmakers. If I can help someone else’s first shoot run a little bit smoother, I’ll be happy!
I’ve also written a feature script that picks up on some of these themes, but in a different way. It’s not a thriller, but more like an evolved rom-com that has a protagonist I can relate to: an ambitious, single woman living in a city whose disappointing experiences with online dating reaffirms who she is as a person. I really wish there was more content like that out there, so I want to make it!