Exclusive Interview: director April Maxey & cinematographer Melinda James on their Sundance Grand Jury Prize nominated short film Work

Writer-director April Maxey’s Work was one of the queer highlights at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, where it received its world premiere and was nominated for the Short Film Grand Jury Prize. Inspired by her own personal experience, Maxey set out to reevaluate the misconceptions and stigma surrounding sex work. The film, developed at AFI’s Directing Workshop for Women, follows young queer Chicana Gabi (Marisela Zumbado) a freelance editor who is struggling to get over a recent breakup. One night, Gabi impulsively decides to return to the underground lap dance club where she used to work and unexpectedly runs into someone from her past, Max (Elaine Whae).

The film was lensed by Black and Thai cinematographer Melinda James who used a Bolex camera and reels of 20-year old Kodak film stock to create Gabi’s beautifully rendered memory sequences. The entire production team of Work was made up by queer people, people of color, and female filmmakers. Read our full ★★★★ review of the film.

Cinematographer Melinda James, sound mixer Christopher Cole, writer-directot April Maxey, and actor Marisela Zumbado on the set of Work.

During Sundance, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with April Maxey and Melinda James about their approach to shooting the film, the atmosphere they wanted to create for the lap dance club scenes, and the queer culture that’s made an impact on them.

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: how did each of you first get into filmmaking and what the draw for you of film as a creative outlet?

Melinda James: “I came into filmmaking a little later than some of my peers. Growing up in a small town, Yuba City in California, I didn’t know that filmmaking was something that you could do as a career. When I used to watch films as a kid, I knew people acted but I never thought about how films got made or who the director was or anything like that. When I was in my early twenties, my mom bought me a Sony Handycam. I’d take it around and film my friends and then edit on Windows Movie Maker. Then the person who I was dating at the time told me about a free 16 week intro to filmmaking course run by QWOCMAP: Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project in San Fransisco. They also have a great film festival too. I wasn’t doing much else at the time so I thought, why not?! I fell in love with filmmaking on that course. We all got to work in different positions, like directing, writing, editing, and cinematography. I learned how to properly edit and to put together a story. That’s when I realized it was something that I wanted to do forever.”

Director April Maxey on set with Marisela Zumbado as Gabriela.

April Maxey: “I was only aware of the acting aspect of film initially too, and I took acting classes for a while in San Antonio, Texas, where I grew up. I was always very into cinema and in high school as part of an independent study class I made a short film. I don’t know if it was that good, but I loved doing it and so I kept at it. Like Melinda said, I wasn’t sure how I could make a career of it, so I was going to major in graphic design at college because that was a creative job that I’d heard of. I changed my major during my junior year though because I was taking all film classes as my electives, so I thought, fuck it, I’m just gonna do it fully!”

April, what are the origins of this film? I know you initially wrote it as a TV pilot episode, did condensing the materiel into a short make you focus on certain elements that you really wanted to bring out?

April: “I wanted to apply to the AFI directing workshop for women, which I needed a short film script for, so I adapted it from the pilot. The idea for this film has been inside me for so long because it’s based on personal experience and I wanted to tell the story of that chapter of my life. Adapting it was an interesting process and I changed the story a lot, but always knowing that I wanted to have the character going to this underground lap dance party job. At first it was a love story, then during the pandemic I went through a break-up and I thought a better way to frame the story would be to have it be more about her journey back into herself and letting go of all these past versions of herself.”

Marisela Zumbado as Gabriela and her ex Ximena played by Jay Dathorne portrayed in memories shot on 16mm film.

Gabi has been through a breakup as you say, and we get two distinct visual styles in the film, with the present day scenes and then the images in her mind as she’s reflecting back on happy times with her ex-girlfriend. Melinda, how did you decide on those two styles and what you want to bring out in the narrative with that approach?

Melinda: “We were originally going to shoot the film in Spring 2020, but because of how bad the pandemic got everything got pushed back. Everyone was going through very different things during the pandemic, and I was doing a lot of experimenting with film because it was a nice way to slow down and ground myself with something tangible. You only have a few minutes to work with the medium and then when it’s developed you have that wonderful texture. April’s friends gave her two expired Kodak Vision2 500T film in 16mm and I borrowed an old wind up Bolex camera from Echo Park Film Center. April came up with the idea of differentiating the flashback sequences by shooting them on film.”

Marisela Zumbado as Gabriela and her ex Ximena played by Jay Dathorne portrayed in memories shot on 16mm film.

April: “You were sending me things you’d shot on super 8 and it looked so beautiful. The way Melinda films people feels so intimate, it’s like you’re seeing into their souls. So when she sent me these clips I knew we had to layer that into the film somehow.”

Melinda: “I think it worked well, because those are all Gabi’s memories and film inherently has a nostalgic quality, so we didn’t have to do any overt stylizing in post. I think it being expired for over 20 years made a difference as well, and 500T is a very grainy film stock anyway, so all of that leant to the look of those scenes without having to do anything heavy-handed with it.”

Cinematographer Melinda James shoots Marisela Zumbado as Gabriela and her ex Ximena played by Jay Dathorne on a Bolex 16mm film.

What did you shoot on for the present day scenes in the film?

Melinda: “We used the ARRI AMIRA with Cooke pink rose lenses, which have a very warm look to them. I love what they do with skin tones, they’re my favorite set of vintage spherical lenses. When I read these very intimate situations in the script and knew that we would spend a lot of up close and personal time with Gabi by herself, I knew the way that those Cooke lenses render skin and the environment would make those moments work.”

Marisela Zumbado appears in Work by April Maxey, an official selection of the Shorts Program at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Melinda James.

We initially see Gabi sitting behind a desk, then later that evening she goes to a different kind of job in the lap dance club, but it’s still work of course. I liked the details of her being told off for arriving a couple of minutes late and that she has to pay for her spot at the club. Usually in movie scenes set in lap dance clubs we don’t get to see the inner workings, but especially having had experience of it yourself what did you want to capture about it?

April: “I really wanted to present the lap dance job side-by-side with the more typical office job, because it is just another job. While it feels like a party environment in the way it’s shot and in how she’s experiencing it, I wanted to show those very specific details of what makes it a job, like the dressing room and her having to pay to work there, which is something that not a lot of people know about those places. Also, we see her getting rejected by a guy at the bar. I remember showing a friend an early cut of the film and she was like, ‘I don’t believe that guy would turn her down’, but I was like, ‘Well, that’s just part of it, that’s the reality of this underground world’. Dancing is like a sales job, so I thought it was important to show moments like that. It’s not necessarily you going in and it being beautiful and easy and then you’re rich. Then we have another guy talking to her about his divorce, which was actually a very polarizing scene when I showed people the film. Some people wanted to cut it, but others were really connected to him. I like that there’s this moment to build out the world and to show what the entails, which is half dancing and half acting like a therapist. There’s this very human aspect to it.”

Marisela Zumbado and Zulema Payan appear in Work by April Maxey, an official selection of the Shorts Program at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Andrea DoSouto.

It also places the clientele in a more sympathetic light than we’re used to seeing.

April: “It would’ve been easy to have leaned into a terrible experience with an asshole guy, but I think that’s a reductive way to look at the job that ignores the nuances of it. That’s part of the reason that some women are anti-sex work, the perception that every one who is a stripper is a victim, but it’s a job that someone women can choose to do and there are consensual encounters. Sure, there’s an asshole guy every now and then, but that’s a very small percentage of my lived experience and I wanted to show the overall experience of what a night is like there. Then the last third of the film is her alone and working on herself. It wasn’t until I was doing the closed captions recently that I realized that there’s no dialogue from her after she says goodnight to Max, the other dancer. It’s just her alone dealing with herself and her shit. I wanted to show what part of the process of learning to come into a new paradigm of your life looks like.”

Marisela Zumbado appears in Work by April Maxey, an official selection of the Shorts Program at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Melinda James.

I was particularly interested in how you shot the lap dance scenes, including the sequence with Gabi and Max dancing together for one male client, after having watched Nina Mekes’ Brainwashed at Sundance about the objectification of women throughout the history of film. What were your guiding principles for the visual language of those scenes, shooting with a queer female lens?

April: “Melinda and I had a lot of conversations about how to film in ways that were different to how we always see those scenes shot. I didn’t want to show nudity, because I feel like people can’t handle it! People get very distracted and so it would have taken away from the story and what I’m trying to say. We wanted it to be in the psyche of her character and what she’s experiencing in every moment.”

Marisela Zumbado, Elaine Whae and Peter Kim appear in Work by April Maxey, an official selection of the Shorts Program at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Melinda James.

Melinda: “I got my foundation in film through a documentary lens and my work always comes back to what I learned at UC Santa Cruz on their social documentation program, so that’s my approach. Some of my principles are that every time I come into any space, any community, I come in as an outsider and my job is to respect the location and to respect the folks that are there, to be mindful and thoughtful. Then also recognizing that the camera inherently has a gaze to it. It’s a case of questioning, what are the power dynamics of the camera as someone who is behind it and as someone who has the ability to include or exclude by how I frame and my composition. With my lower angles, am I putting folks in power and then with higher angles are we looking down on someone? I knew that I definitely wanted the angles to be lower because I wanted the dancers to be in positions of power and us to be looking up at them, so they’re elevated. I wanted to explore how to show what’s happening in this space without over sexualizing, or objectifying, or hovering over certain body parts for too long, while also not wanting to jump around too much; to be able to hold for a moment and then to be able to look around the space.”

Marisela Zumbado and Seidi Hakkanen appear in Work by April Maxey, an official selection of the Shorts Program at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Melinda James.

Melinda: “I played around with composition and discovered that there are all these ways to be sensual and intimate without having to focus on certain body parts. That can come across in someone’s neck, someone’s shoulders, someone’s back, in a light touch, or in the way someone looks, or part of someone’s mouth. For those scenes, it was a case of figuring out other ways of conveying this physically intimate situation in a way that respects everyone who’s in front of the camera, but it’s also a very sexy space, so I wanted to make sure that also came across but in a respectful way.”

Marisela Zumbado and Elaine Whae Work by April Maxey, an official selection of the Shorts Program at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Melinda James.

April: “It was the first time I had worked with an intimacy coordinator, Allison Bibicoff, and it was a big job for her, because she was not only coordinating the double dancing, but she was also coordinating all of the background artists and all of the men. There was a lot of prep that went into getting everyone on the same page about what was going to happen on set. I think that was important because the energy and the environment that you build on set comes across in how it’s filmed and people need to feel safe and know exactly what’s being shot. We played music like it was an actual club and a lot of our background dancers have experience as dancers in real life. I wanted to surround my actors who didn’t have that lived experience in this environment with women who were comfortable doing what they were doing without a lot of direction. That visual balance was important to me, because this is a character who has agency over her sexuality and in the scene with the other dancer, Max, there are sexual undertones and they’re attracted to each other. There are all these different levels in that scene. They clearly have history together and they’re communicating without words in all these different ways.”

Elaine Whae as Max gazes into the camera lens, portraying intimate eye contact with Gabi as they dance together.

Melinda: “In the scene where Max and Gabi are dancing together, we keep the man in the background. Actually with all the men in the film, we never assume their POV and we never focus on their faces or their hands too closely or for too long. It was definitely the women who were the priority and that lends to the visual language of the the dancers always being in a position a power, control, and agency.”

April: “Other elements, like slow motion and a very shallow depth of field, allow us to feel like we’re in the emotional psyche of these characters’ heads in that moment. There is sexual lesbian tension happening and the guy basically disappears from our visual story.”

April, tell us a bit about casting your leads, Marisela Zumbado as Gabi and Elaine Whae as Max.

April: “I actually met Marisela through Nava Mau, who is an associate producer on the project.”

Anushka Van Lent, Zulema Payan, Nava Mau, Star Amerasu, And Alex Vazin as dancers in the dressing room scene.

Nava is also in the film isn’t she? It was great to see her! I loved her in Genera+ion and enjoyed interviewing her about her role on that series.

April: “Yes, it was that type of project—especially with it being during Covid—where I asked if anyone on the crew wanted to double up and be dancers in the film. So my editors are also in the background and Nava kindly agreed to make a cameo as well, which was amazing. She introduced me to Marisela who was in Genera+ion with her. We met for coffee and talked and I didn’t need to audition anyone else for the role after that. We talked about breakups, as we’d both gone through something similar, and I just had a feeling that I wanted to work with her. With Elaine, she even slated in character when she auditioned, and then winked at me, then did this really fun audition. But she’s not like that in real life at all, she’s very different. She’s such a talented actress and also has some experience as a dancer, not a stripper, but I think she has done some burlesque.”

Fenessa Pineda as Mosquita and Venecia Troncoso as Mari in writer-director Aurora Guerrero’s Mosquita y Mari (2012). Courtesy of Wolfe Releasing.

Finally, what’s your favorite piece of LGBTQ+ culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years?

April: “Mosquita y Mari. It’s a film about two Chicanas who are best friends in high school and it’s a love story too. I think the ending is perfect, they’re on either side of the street looking at each other. It’s such a beautiful journey and so subtle. That was the first time I saw a queer Chicana portrayed on a screen. I first saw it at NewFest in 2012 and it had a huge impact on me.”

B. Ruby Rich. Photo credit: Russell Yip/The San Francisco Chronicle.

Melinda: “B. Ruby Rich, who coined the term New Queer Cinema. She’s a film critic and an educator, and she’s helped create an important dialogue around marginalized experiences in film and conversations about gaze, representation, and power structures in film. She was one of my professors at UC Santa Cruz and she’s still a mentor to me even though graduated a while ago. Her book, New Queer Cinema, is incredible and it should be required reading for all filmmakers. She’s been so helpful and supportive through my film career so far and so I’m incredibly grateful for all that she’s done both for me personally and for cinema as a whole.”

By James Kleinmann

Work received its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

Poster image of Work by April Maxey, an official selection of the Shorts Program at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

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