Interview : Alec Tibaldi and Piper De Palma talk Spiral Farm

Disclaimer: the following interview contains some discussion of the film’s plot.

Alec Tibaldi’s debut feature Spiral Farm premiered in U.S. theatres just a few months ago – back in the pre-pandemic days when you could actually go to see a movie at a theatre. Thankfully, for those of us cooped up at home, it’s now available online.

It’s his third filmic collaboration with Piper De PalmaSpiral Farm’s talented lead and long-time friend. It’s not surprising the two ended up working together in the movie biz, given their respective family backgrounds steeped in the creative arts.

Spiral Farm is an impressive debut feature, approaching themes of isolation and the burdens of familial responsibility with a grounded and honest touch. Piper’s performance as Anahita – the 17-year-old protagonist whose sheltered life on a rural commune is disturbed by the arrival of two men – effortlessly carries the film as she struggles to find the balance between providing for her community and achieving independence. The cast is rounded out with the likes of Amanda PlummerJade FuscoTeo HalmLanden BeattieSara AnneCosimo FuscoKayleigh GilbertAkuyoe GrahamKen SchneiderEd Norwood and David C. Eichhorn.

Of all the interviews I’ve done over the years, this one has been my absolute favourite. Alec and Piper are wonderful to talk to as an interviewer; they offered so much insight into the process of creating Spiral Farm as well as life off-screen.

They’re also unbelievably generous and kind. I have to admit: this interview had to be done twice. Thanks to a technical mishap on my end, our first interview over Zoom failed to record; despite my best efforts, it was unable to be recovered. But it says so much about the good character of Alec and Piper that – without any fuss – they kindly offered to take the time do another interview for us.

When we last spoke, you guys were telling me a little about your friendship outside of this film; you’ve done a couple of projects together.

Piper: I’m pretty sure we met in my sophomore year of high school, which would not be 2015, that’d be around 2013/2014.

Alec: Probably!

Piper: I graduated in…2015! I was like, that’s not right. The timeline was wrong before, we’re gonna get it right this time!

Alec: It’s a good thing to get the timeline right.

Piper: Alec met me through a friend I went to school with, and they worked at a camp together. He was looking for an actress to to Ride or Die, the first short we did, and my first time being on-screen. We had a couple of casual meetings, I think we went to a Chipotle the first time. I remember meeting once at a nice hotel, I don’t remember why it was so upscale! [laughs] Do you remember that?

Alec: Oh, yeah! We went to the W Hotel, and you ordered salmon. Salmon and eggs! [laughs] That was when we got a little classier, after the Chipotle.

Piper: Yeah, a little classier. After those first couple of interactions, we developed a more solid friendship. And from there, we just continued working together. I think it’s great to work with a close friend, because the relationship’s already there, and you already know who you are as people. And so, it’s easier to get the work moving. There’s a level of trust already established.

Alec: Yeah, we did the short together and it was so much fun. We enjoy working together, and we became friends through working together. I always knew I wanted to make a feature through making the shorts, so in the back of my mind I thought, “it’d be great if Piper and I could continue this working relationship through the future”. So yeah, it was all sort of leading towards making this film together. And I think it’s hopefully the beginning of a working relationship beyond it.

I understand that when you were establishing the film’s setting, you went and scouted out a couple of places similar to the commune in Spiral Farm. You both did, right – to get a feel for it?

Piper: Alec more so than me, I just had a brief trip.  I only got a glimpse into one community, and I didn’t really get to talk to anyone. So I felt more like a fly on the wall, just observing. And I don’t even remember it being that weird of an experience. They weren’t really doing anything in particular! I just saw like, a hut that they do things in, but nothing was happening. They were just kind of sitting around smoking weed, probably. [laughs] Just chilling out. And I’m like, “this seems pretty chill”. But Alec had a different experience.

Alec: I went up to Ojai (California), spent a few nights there, and I did a shamanic ceremony. I really tried to immerse myself a little bit more. Once I knew that the film was going to take place on that type of commune, I wanted to hang out in one. And I wanted to film at a real commune, but it became very challenging to get permission, and to get the actors out of L.A. It’s always so complicated when you’re trying to schedule things and there’s all these moving parts. So it ended up just being easier, financially and logistically, to create our own commune here in Los Angeles, rather than spending the money to leave town and go to a real commune. But those trips were really important. My production designer and I went on a few more trips afterwards to really look. So yeah, it was a really important part of the process.

Piper, I really enjoyed your character Anahita’s arc. The film isn’t absolutely conclusive about where her journey ends up, but it’s quite a coming-of-age story. I’m interested to know your personal thoughts on her arc.

Piper: It’s definitely a coming-of-age story, but the setting is unique. It’s interesting, because even though the setting is unique, we’re on a commune – and most people I know have not grown up in one, I don’t think I actually know anyone who has – the motions of growing up are the same. In this community, everyone knows your business. People know that Di (Amanda Plummer’s character) isn’t taking responsibility, and that Anahita was thinking of pursuing this dance thing. Or at least just trying (it). So it gives you an added pressure, because everyone has an opinion of what you’re doing. Whereas usually it’s just the family’s business, and maybe just your friends know, but not everyone you’re seeing, every day, judging you. She just has this drive to try something new, because this is all she’s ever known. The two men coming into the community is a catalyst for that journey, and she’s pushed into this experience. There’s a scene where Theo’s like, “I saw your flyer, just do it!”. And Anahita’s probably not even thought of doing it before, it’s just a pipe dream, but she realises it actually can be real. And she goes off and tries and fails.

It’s heart-breaking, because the first time she really puts herself out there, she’s crushed. That is so human, and it happens to us all the time, but it’s so hard when it’s the first time and the stakes feel so high. Ultimately, even though her dream is to escape, her purpose right now is to be in the community and to take care of her sister’s son, because if they’re not together…they need each other. That bond is so strong in the movie, and on-set too.

I loved him so much, he was such a sweet kid! I genuinely cared about him, and when he left set I cried. And for Anahita to leave him, that would be devastating. And she just can’t do that to him, so she needs to stay there for his sake, so her family doesn’t get kicked out of this commune and it’s a hard decision. But she’s such a selfless person – it’s the right decision for her at the time. But it kind of ends at a point where you don’t know what’s going to happen after – whether she’s going to stay forever. She’s just going to keep doing what she loves and keep taking care of the people she cares about. It’s kind of a cyclical movie in that way. Of course there’s growth, but she’s not just running off to Los Angeles. She started off somewhere, and we ultimately stay in that same place. It’s very relatable, even though it’s in such a strange place, a commune.

That’s something I do appreciate, especially with films set in communes. There’s often this expectation with films with this setting that things will go in a direction that’s very out-there. But I feel that it’s a relatable narrative with real people, who have normal relatable problems and responsibilities put upon them. Particularly upon Anahita, who not only has to serve the role of daughter, but also a surrogate mother, as well as so many other roles in that family and within that commune. It’s such a small, enclosed space, not just the family home but the commune as well.

Piper: That’s absolutely correct. I think that makes it all the more difficult to leave, because it’s so intimate that you’re very aware of the people that you’re letting down. When people run away from home, it’s…I know nothing about that, actually. [laughs] This is gonna be total bullshit! But I feel like when people run away from home, and they escape, and they enter a world where they won’t see those people again…you might feel like you’re letting down your Mom and Dad and your siblings. But she’s letting down a whole community – it’s a much larger family unit, I think. A lot more people to feel guilty about leaving behind, and all the responsibilities she’d be shirking. It’s a lot more heightened in that sense. I’ve never run away from home, so I don’t know what it’s like!

Alec, the film spends much of its runtime in a 4:3 aspect ratio, but shifts to a wide aspect ratio at some key moments in the story. It really lends itself to being an effective narrative device, complementing the direction of Anahita’s experience. Was that a decision you made early on into production?

Alec: It’s funny, because the 4:3 ratio is still something that is still a problem for some people. There’s actually a version of the film that exists that’s in 16:9. I was really excited by 4:3. It was a risk, because now that we’re trying to get the movie onto SVoD platforms and international TV, it’s just not how people are used to seeing things. We shot the film 4:3, but also with 16:9, and we coloured everything just in case a buyer wanted the film but didn’t like the 4:3 ratio. But the 4:3 was something that I really intended for the theatrical experience, because when you’re sitting in the audience, suddenly such a large percentage of the screen is opening up to you, and it does have such a large emotional effect.

I think in the way that we approached all the visuals in the film, we really wanted to stay grounded within Anahita’s feelings. It’s not necessarily all from her PoV, but we try to make the camera part of her perspective in how she sees the world. And that’s with all those heightened close-ups, like when they’re shovelling the horse shit and she suddenly notices that Theo has a fly on his neck, and we go right in there. We’re sort of entering her mind. I thought that the shift from 4:3 to 16:9 would just perfectly highlight how she’s feeling – that suddenly, her entire world has just broadened.

I’d seen it done in another film, Mommy by Xavier Dolan. I remember sitting in the audience when that happened, and I was like, “oh my…”. It was the coolest thing. And it’s not the most technically difficult thing to do. It’s not like a $100,000,000 action movie with this crazy effect, it’s just as simple as two black bars moving. But I noticed that I really felt that when it was done properly, it could have a huge emotional effect. I really loved that in the film. I do realise that for a computer screen or a TV screen, it’s not going to have the same impact, which is why there’s a more standard version of the film that exists. I’ve never actually seen it; I don’t know if I want to. But maybe one day it’ll be on TV and I’ll flip by and see it.

The aspect of Anahita’s life that people seem not to take seriously is her aspiration for dance. Piper, you’ve said that this wasn’t something that was entirely easy for you to get into – you were pretty reluctant at first.

Piper: Absolutely. I put up a big fight about it, for sure. I do like dancing, on own terms, whether it’s alone, with friends in a more nightclub setting. But choreographed dance scares the living shit out of me, and I absolutely despise it. I’m a lot slower at picking up movements than other people, and I’m very aware of that. When I’ve had to do musicals in the past, I’m always like, ten steps behind everyone else. It’s always bothered me! I think it’s a brain thing. My mother’s a dancer, and quite a good one, so it’s always like, “why am I not good like her?”. It was always Alec’s intention for Anahita to be a dancer. So when I was receiving these drafts, and it wasn’t changing, I was like “oh my god, I’m going to have to do this”.

I even came up with suggestions – maybe she’s a singer, anything but that, please! But Alec insisted, so I took on the challenge. He did make accommodations; I did receive dance lessons specifically for the choreography that we’d be doing for the film, so that on the day we shot it I’d already know the movements, so I’m not in there in real-time being like, “what the fuck am I doing”? [laughs] I was quite confident on that day, but there was still that level of nervousness that I always have when I have to do a choreographed dance, even if I know I’m like, “I could fuck this up”. So that scene was actually easy for me – I was terrified. Me, Piper – I was so scared to do it.

Alec: Yeah, and we had talked about maybe Piper taking some dance classes. I’m kind of happy you didn’t, I know I was maybe pushing you to do it in the beginning, but I think it ended up being more authentic that Anahita would have never been to a dance class, just like Piper didn’t go to dance classes to prep for it. I think it made the fear in your eyes during that scene a lot more real, than if you’d been doing five days a week of dance classes for six weeks, or whatever. It would’ve looked different, I think.

Piper: Totally, because Anahita’s not a trained dancer, she just likes to do it. That level of awkwardness that was present on the day we shot it, and the fear, that’s what it should’ve been. It’s not like, “Anahita’s ready to do it!”. No. She’s not that kind of person. This is just something that she just likes to do for fun, and there’s a possibility that she could make a career out of it. But she’s not at that level, and she finds that out. And she’s like, “well, fuck, alright. I’ll just do it by myself”. I’m very happy that we didn’t change it. I knew that you (Alec) wouldn’t even change that part of the character, but I’m glad you didn’t give in to me. I overcame a lot of fear, and I think it’s important to take on those challenges. Because if you keep doing things that you’re comfortable with, then why are you acting at all? [laughs] That just sounds so boring. It ended up working out fine, and it was shot in a way that I was happy with. I didn’t look super awkward, which was good. I was really, really, worried. “Oh my god, I’m not going to look good when I’m doing this thing”. But it turned out okay!

Alec: I think the way that we edited this scene, too, was (helpful). The editing gives you so much control over which takes you use. I remember we did a day where it was like, let’s make that dance look good! [laughs] Not to imply you were bad, Piper! It’s a tremendous amount of trust when you do a film performance, because you are trying all these different takes, all these different things, and you’re trusting that the filmmaker and the editor are going to pick the right ones. And you as an actor have no control over it, you’re never allowed in the editing room, you just have to say, “well, I’m going to pick a bunch of different things and hope that you can craft a performance”.

Because it’s not like a play, where you control the rhythms. The editor is controlling the rhythms, and the scenes. You really have to trust the person that you’re working with, because they can make you look terrible. Even great actors, you can cut a scene in a way that will make them look terrible. So I always find that it’s a real privilege when an actor lets you do that, and it really means that they’ve trusted you that you won’t make them look terrible. Sorry, that was a weird sidebar, I just always think about that. You spend months doing a performance, and then you just give it away.

Piper: And you just pray that it looks good! I mean, you can definitely cut a performance in a way that looks bad, but also…on set, I was so terrified that I was doing a bad job all that time. I know that there were some days that I wasn’t on it, but every day, I was like, “god, please”.

Alec: Were you really? You were terrified every day?

Piper: Yeah, of course, a little bit! When you’re 90% of a movie, if I’m no good, how is the movie going to be okay? [laughs] I mean, if I sucked, if I really actually sucked, the movie would not be great. But I didn’t suck. But I do remember we did a yelling scene that didn’t end up being in there, and probably because it wasn’t great! Probably because I sounded crazy.

Alec: [laughs] It wasn’t just you. That scene…it’s so frustrating when you’re directing a scene, and you can just tell that it’s not working. You can tell it’s not working, the actors can tell it’s not working, the person holding the boom can tell it’s not working. And you just can’t fix it. You try different things, the actors are trying different things, and then maybe it’s within the writing or maybe everyone’s having an off day, but it’s so frustrating when you’re on your way home and you’re like, “oh, I should’ve said this!”. And of course, it’s finished. So yes, that yelling scene did not make it into the movie.

Piper: No, Anahita did not get to yell. For good reason, I’m sure. It didn’t make the cut, and that’s fine. I just don’t know how Alec took the chance that he did – with me. Because shorts are a very compressed time frame – three or four days. You have like, ten pages. It’s not easy, but it’s vastly different than a full script, so Alec took a big risk using me. I’m not as seasoned as some other people, so of course I was terrified every day that I would fail. It’s a lot of pressure. But the movie all came together, because it’s not a polished film. The camera’s shaking, we’re all doing our best, maybe we’re not all the best in our field but we’re all working so fucking hard because we want to make something special.

You guys have been lucky that you’ve been able to make your friendship feed into a professional relationship in film, and that it’s able to manifest itself in you being able to work in a way that you’re able to push Piper out of her comfort zone, and Piper, you can collaborate more than you might normally be able to on other projects. You guys certainly seem to intend to keep working together.

Alec: Yeah, I’m writing a psychological thriller. It’s in the development stages, but hopefully once this mess of a world is more sorted out, we’ll get the chance to make it. There were tentative plans to shoot it this summer, but I don’t think it’s on the cards anymore, unfortunately. But yeah, I think of course Piper and I both want to work with other people as well as one another. But I think if there’s a project that Piper would be right for, she’d always be the first person I bring the project to, even if it’s something I don’t think she could act in, I’d still want her to read it and give me notes. I like receiving them and I’m used to receiving them.

I think we both took this journey together, and it was the very beginning of our prospective careers. I’m just excited to see where Piper goes, and where we go together. Hopefully we will continue working together. Not right now, of course – since all productions are suspended. Although, I did hear that in Australia, they’ve resumed filming Neighbours.


Alec: Yeah, you’re in New Zealand, right?

I am, yeah. It’s on TV here, and it’s very much something that Kiwis do watch. I didn’t know about that, actually, that’s surprising.

Piper: I think I saw that too – they are resuming filming in some places, which is weird. But I guess if you can do it safely. There’s definitely no social distancing, though.

Alec: No, but I think there actually is! I read this article; the actors are going to stay six feet apart, there’s going to be no crowd scenes, it sounds insane. I dunno.

Piper: That sounds insane. That must have a huge impact.

Alec: My friend directed a commercial over Zoom. They just put him in a corner. Very strange. Hopefully we will be able to film projects in a normal way once it’s safe.

Piper: Yeah, I can’t imagine Alec on Zoom, telling me to do things. [laughs] I’ll just shut the computer off.

It is a strange time. But it’s also interesting to see not only what people are doing right now to try and work around these circumstances, even if it’s just writing. People are still trying to make shorts. I just covered a horror short that was shot under quarantine. It’ll be interesting to see what the long-term repercussions of all this are. It’s easy to think like, “oh, maybe in a year’s time, things will be back to how they were”. But who knows? It’ll be interesting to see how the film industry will react long-term.

Alec: Yeah, I’m very worried about movie theatres. That’s my biggest concern, that they’ll become like the VHS tape; something that was a thing of the past. I’m very concerned that people aren’t going to feel safe going to theatres anymore, and they already weren’t doing very well. So my hope is that once we’re safe and once we’re out of this, we as a community of filmmakers come out and really safely support these theatres. Because they’re just so essential to what we do and how we consume film. Now, the only distinction between a mini-series and a movie is that the movie plays in a theatre. So if you remove the theatre, is everything just content? What are the distinctions? I just think it’s so important that once it’s safe, there’s a real effort to go back out and support these theatres – because if we don’t do that, they will go away.

Especially with streaming becoming the new normal. As someone who likes to collect physical media, I love the experience of going to the cinema, but it has become less of a thing for me in recent years because of things like what’s available to go see, and the cost. This really has been the straw that broke the camel’s back for a lot of people, and maybe it will be for the industry too. Hopefully, people do come together and support independent theatres and attend screenings.

Piper: I was very disturbed by the fact that someone said – I can’t remember if it was maybe The Irishman – when they were making it, they were thinking about making a movie for this sort of format, on your computer. I was just so disturbed by that; that’s not what movies are. They’re supposed to be these larger-than-life experiences. It just seems sad. I don’t know – is it evolving, or is it sad? Is it evolving because that’s just what people are doing now, or is it just sad that theatres might just disappear because they’re changing the format of film. It’s not coming through a projector onto this big blank canvas anymore.

I don’t know, it’s weird. I’m definitely noticing a slowdown; I’m definitely getting less self-tape requests. But also, my sister who’s a working actress in L.A. who hates self-tapes, is now only doing self-tapes. So it’s like, is self-taping going to be the new format for everyone in Hollywood? Are people going to stop doing in-person auditions? It’s definitely going to slow down, for sure, because pandemic, also the world is changing in ways that are good and bad. It’s a weird time.

It’s equal parts terrifying and fascinating. Not just the pandemic, but how major world events can have ground-breaking effects on every level of an industry or an art form. You know, whole genres coming out of wartime. Hopefully we all stay safe, and things can start to go back to – not normal, because I guess you can’t completely go back to normal because things will change – but a new normal, at least.

Piper: It’s a historical event, it’s going to change everything. I don’t know what life’s going to look like after. God, I’m getting sad! [laughs]

It’s difficult not to go down that direction! But we’re going to be alright. I just want to thank you guys so much for talking to me, not just once but twice. I’m just so grateful.

Piper: Of course. I’m not doing anything!

Alec: Yeah, you could not have found us at a more available time. And of course, I would’ve made the time anyway; it’s important to me that the movie be seen, and people want to ask us about it. I enjoy talking about the movie, and I’m so grateful that anyone who’s part of the press wants to cover us. This just also happens to be the most available time you could’ve possibly caught us.

Spiral Farm is now available for digital rental and purchase on a variety of platforms.

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