Writer, director and actress Caitlyn Sponheimer came onto my radar in late 2020 with the selection of her latest short film I Want to Be Like You at the Hollyshorts Film Festival. It’s a slick, five minute short film written and directed by Caitlyn that tackles today’s issues of self-image, idealized beauty standards and technology through the lens of the near-future. In a time where we’re perhaps spending more time than ever looking at ourselves in the mirror and in Zoom video conference windows, it’s a conversation that is no doubt ever-present in the minds of many around the world.
I Want to Be Like You has since been picked up by sci-fi brand DUST and won Best Performances at the 2021 Science Fiction + Fantasy Short Film Festival, so it’s clearly hitting all the right notes with audiences!
It’s been a hectic and busy last few months for both of us, but thankfully Caitlyn and I managed to get our international schedules lined up and sat down for a (virtual) round-table discussion of I Want to Be Like You and its themes with lead Lorna Kidjo and producer Robert Montcalm, who also makes an appearance in the short. They’re a wonderful bunch of creative people, and if you’re interested in seeing what the fuss is about after reading, check out the teaser for the short below!
Since I’ve got a couple of you here, I’d love to know how you came to know each other.
Rob: Sure! Well, I guess I met you (Caitlyn) through Paul back when we were doing an acting workshop a number of years ago. We did a scene workshop together, and we were both writing projects, so we thought we’d flip scripts to each other and see what the other person thought. We very quickly jumped on board each other’s projects, and we’ve been working together since then.
Caitlyn: That was a good summary!
That’s cool, I love that! You decide to share notes and now you’re making things happen.
Caitlyn: Yeah, we’re both actors who kind of create stuff, so it goes back and forth. And that way, you find someone who’s similar to you and you’re like “oh cool, we can share our stuff,” and it’s nice when it works out that’s way.
Rob: It’s also always very different when you have an actor read your script, versus somebody who’s not an actor. An actor will pick up a script and say, “oh, I see what the intention is that you’re putting forward”. I’ve been told to basically clarify what I’m saying with every single line of dialogue, because you can’t be subtle. So you end up putting parentheses in everywhere – you know, to say they’re being angry or they’re being sarcastic. But actors hate that stuff. So you kind of gear your script to who you’re writing for. I think this one was like a one-page breakdown of the script, very quick-paced.
Caitlyn: Yeah, it was like two pages. I mean, you saw it Kyle – so you know there’s basically no dialogue in it. When I brought the project to Rob to see if he wanted to work on it with me, I thought “thank goodness Rob can have a vision and can see how things go,” because what he’s saying is that I brought him a one and a half page outline, definitely not a full script at first.
Rob: It’s funny, though. I used to write scripts; I used to not be so good at writing dialogue, and then years later have become better at it. But back in the beginning when I used to write scripts, I used to just write detailed breakdowns of what was happening in scenes. It was very visual. So when I saw this script, I loved it immediately because I understood it. My wife is an animator, and with a lot of the shows or films that we watch, she’ll often point out that there didn’t need to be dialogue and it could’ve been done just as well with images instead, or an action. So it’s fun sometimes to read a script that’s distilled down to, okay, how do we tell the story just through the on-screen action that’s taking place?
I imagine when you’re making a short, you really are just trying to tell the story in that short amount of time and there’s no room for fluff and exposition.
Rob: For sure. I like a little mystery in there too, so that the audience can have a second viewing and go, “oh, okay, maybe I didn’t consider it that way”. Those are always fun short films for me to watch. We’ll often go to animation festivals or stop-motion festivals, and it’s amazing how much can be told in a minute or two minutes that probably took that person two years to animate. But it’s incredible how much can be communicated and how touching the storylines can be. It’s nice to play around. In Montreal we get a number of scripts where the dialogue is very rushed, so it’s nice to work on indie projects and actually have more of that artistic drive. So that’s why I wanted to produce this, because they’re just so fun.
So how long was I Want to Be Like You in production?
Caitlyn: I brought the idea to Brittany Drysdale, who was going to be here today but she unfortunately couldn’t join us. She plays one of the leads in the short, and she’s one of my best friends. So I brought it to her, and she was on board. Next we went to Rob, and from that first meeting I had with Britt to when it was finally finished, it was probably six to eight months – which is quite quick to go from idea to finished project. All the pieces just kind of fell together.
A lot of people I worked with on my first short worked on this second short, so it was really nice in that way. It’s nice to keep collaborating with the same people. You get such a nice vibe. So it wasn’t in production all that losing, and a big part of that was Rob coming on so early and being so helpful, even in post with the story. Editing for me always takes such a long time; I really kind of re-imagine how the story could be. I think a lot of directors do that maybe unconsciously.
Rob: You’re in a funny position too, as the writer, director and editor. My old acting teacher always used to say a story is interpreted three times: once as the writer puts it down, the second time when the director re-interprets it and the third time when the editor takes it. So it’s fun for you to be all three of those.
[Lorna joins our interview]
We were just discussing how Rob and Caitlyn got to know each other in regards to this short – how about you?
Lorna: She reached out to me by email, and I think it was Paul who knew me and recommended me, right? So I got the script and read it, and it spoke to me as I’m sure it speaks to many women. So I decided to say yes, and I was happy to do it. It was a great experience. I got lucky!
Caitlyn: Yeah, a random girl emails her out of the blue like, “hey, can you come and make a movie?”.
Lorna: I mean, it’s true. Now in hindsight, I was like: I do not know you. But it’s still the same industry, it’s a small world. You seem to be a like-minded individual. It’s gonna be good.
That seems to be how it often goes; everything just kind of falls exactly into place. It can go the complete opposite way too, of course, but obviously things went pretty well for you all.
I’d love to know a little more about your process in coming up with the general concept of the short.
Caitlyn: In terms of the concept and what I’m saying with it, I’m not saying everyone is the same. I’m trying to allude to the beauty industry and the pressures it puts on women, and how cyclical it is. If we keep going in the direction that we’re going where we’re never good enough, and we keep believing all the media, then we never will actually be okay with ourselves. It will keep continuing and it will keep happening. We’ll keep trying to be someone else and trying to be what will make us happy.
In the end, that image is going to be curated by outside voices, not our own. And typically, those outside voices have the same standards of beauty for whatever time period we’re in. They’ve obviously shifted over time, but there’s this general idea of what beauty is and it’s often not focused on internal factors but external ones.
There’s certainly this sense of ‘the idealised self’, and that’s frequently not something coming from each person, it’s an outside idea being curated by external forces. I guess the desire to become that idealised self isn’t even a conscious thing, typically – it’s quite an insidious process of feeling that you need to become that entirely separate entity to derive any happiness from yourself.
Caitlyn: Yeah, and you’re absolutely right. It is very subtle, and that’s the way the media influences us. We don’t have all that time to show it in the short, so we just see them looking at the magazine or the Instagram post. But that’s been building in them to the point where they make this huge decision. I mean, the thing about them wanting to be each other that interested me is that so many of my friends compliment each other, and in the same breath they put themselves down. We all so easily see each other’s beauty while not recognising our own. We’re so hard on ourselves. And then Instagram is this whole other world that we act as if it’s reality.
Even with the women in my life, I hear these conversations constantly. “I wish I had your nose!”, “I wish I had hair like yours!”. Everybody really does seem to want what everyone else has, often for very different reasons. That’s taken to an extreme in this film, but it’s a logical extension of reality.
Lorna: Maybe this is a bit pessimistic, but I feel like that even though it’s an exacerbated version of our reality, at the same time…not really. Because it’s just going straight to the point. People want to look like this idealised idea of beauty, and then we all end up looking the same. And yes, it’s not exactly like that, but it happens. We do unconsciously try to fit in, we all do that. I feel like it’s a bit more in-your-face when you see that being told in a five minute short, but to me it’s what’s really happening.
Yeah, in that way I guess it’s not so much a vision of a dystopian far-future as it is five minutes into our future. A little off the current path into the dark.
I noticed that in the credits, there’s a Thanks credit to a surgeon. Is this somebody who you consulted for the short?
Caitlyn: I emailed just about every plastic surgeon in Montreal, and finally found someone that would let me use their clinic to shoot.
Rob: The facility itself was quite a nice setup.
Caitlyn: It was also slightly bizarre, because one of his surgical rooms had a full-on mirror wall, which isn’t normal for that kind of thing, so we were discussing that [laughs]. But yeah, he gave us the location.
I had a thought on what you said, Lorna, about how we’ll end up looking the same. I had a couple of people write to me after they saw it, and they said “this is great to see, thanks for making this, I feel like everyone’s starting to look the same”. And I thought that was interesting, because people are often having the same procedures done. It’s this subtle thing where everyone starts to look a little fake in the same ways. Obviously it’s heightened for the purposes of the short, but in terms of what you’re saying, maybe it’s not as far out as we’d like to think.
Lorna: I don’t think it is. I mean, for me, because I’m mixed race, there’s also this thing where so many other people who I know who are Black or mixed race want to also fit into that idealised idea of beauty. But it’s ina. Way that everyone wants to look White – everyone wants straight hair, fair skin, all that. So from that perspective, it really does feel like everyone wants to look the same. And if you’re Black or mixed, then you want to look White. So to me, it’s reality. That’s just what it is.
Caitlyn: It’s crazy when I hear that out loud. I’m like, “that’s not what people should be having to face because of our world”. But it’s true.
Lorna: It’s insidious, because that’s what you see around you everywhere. You’ll see a commercial for hair products, and it’s not necessarily only White people – you have Latinos and such – but it’s women with straight hair. And in every type of representation of femininity, it’s usually white femininity and nothing else.
Within the broader idea of the ideal appearance, there are so many intersections in that way; of gender and race and much more. It’s so complicated.
Lorna: Yeah, even White women can’t really attain it. It’s completely out of reach for everyone, you know?
Caitlyn: It’s an impossible standard for everyone. So you have to keep buying products. I mean, the weight loss and beauty industries are billion dollar industries. It’s insane. That’s all built on peoples’ self-worth.
There’s a lot of money to be made from the ever-shifting goalposts that they set up, because even though there are recurring things like fair skin and straight hair, it’s never exactly the same. It almost makes idealised beauty some kind of horrible game you can’t win.
Lorna: We’re talking about women, but I guess it’s also true for me. There’s also standards for them that are pretty much unattainable too.
Rob: I’ve known some strange cases. I worked with one guy who was even injecting an illegal substance in his body that creates fake tan in your skin. So if you’re outside, you can’t take in the sun because otherwise it activates very quickly and you go quite dark. This was a person from the stunt community, and the stunt community has some very strange standards. Some of them make sense, and some are still odd. Like, there are people who will enhance their butt in case the actor has a bigger butt than they do, or people who put lifts in their shoes so they can look up. If you’re doubling somebody in a role and you have to look like them, it’s kind of on you to supply what you need.
But even when I was doing stunt doubling, I got called out that I needed to lose weight by a woman I was working with. And sure, it’s in our line of work, you have to match somebody else. But it’s just a strange line of work. You’re altering yourself to try to fit somebody else’s ideal standard. There was a great documentary years ago that came out around 2001 that John Cleese was a part of; Elizabeth Hurley and David Attenborough too. It was called The Human Face, and they made a face mask to layer over people’s faces to see if they conform to a universal standard of beauty. Suffice it to say, Elizabeth Hurley fit into it better than John Cleese did. But it was based on the Fibonacci sequence, the golden ratio sequence of measurements – they were trying to make the perfect face.
This goes back to what you were saying about everybody starting to look the same. It’s like what those mathematically conforming beauty standards are, especially with surgical alterations. That’s why you get the people who look like the modern-day Barbie and Ken.
I think we all have those days where you’re standing in front of the mirror and picking yourself apart. Everybody does it to a greater or lesser extent, and certain people are obviously more affected by it than others. I’ve never considered bleaching my skin, but there’s companies where their product line is skin bleaching – especially in India, Asia and Africa. So it’s a reality, and it’s not going to just go away. At least discussing it is moving the peg forward a little bit. It’s a start, it’s a conversation point.
That’s kind of what I like about this film: the glimpse of looking into the near future. We’re not at the stage of necessarily removing somebody’s complete skin and putting it on somebody else, or duplicating someone’s entire skin, but soon – I would not be surprised. I guess that’s a spoiler. Face/Off too.
Lorna: Listen, we just want to meet Nick Cage, okay? [laughs]
Rob: It’s interesting with the advent of 3D printing technology that’s using cells, where they’re doing that for things like steak or other fake meats. There’s always the medically sound reason for why you’d want to use that, and then you get into the enhancement reasons. So 3D printing a human heart – great idea. If you can’t get a heart donor and you could 3D print one using your own cells, that’s fantastic. 3D printing someone else’s face and having it replace your own? That’s a little bit frightening. I wouldn’t want to go down that road. Then there’s the whole conversation over the ownership of your DNA, where you’re trying to get your Ancestry.com thing done, and then it’s like, who owns the rights to your DNA from there? Those are the scary thoughts of the future for me.
Caitlyn: That’s definitely a Black Mirror episode. I mean, I’ve heard vague things about the 3D printing stuff for medical uses, but it seems that’s just how the tech of the world is going.
I guess with any technology like this, it starts out sounding good, but I guess with capitalism it inevitably ends up going towards whatever’s going to make the most profit rather than the best practical application for humanity.
Rob: Yes, absolutely. Even plastic surgery had a very noble start. A lot of prosthetics and plastic surgery in the beginning was to help victims of war. From the First World War, I believe, a lot of prosthetics were because people were so horribly disfigured from lethal weapons and weapons in general. So you have all these young men coming back with huge deformities, and it’s like okay, how do we rebuild the jaw? How do we make a full set of new teeth? How do we add a cheekbone and nose to somebody who’s lost them? It just evolves from there, and then it’s co-opted for more nefarious reasons. 3D printing, we can print a house – fantastic. We can also print the gun, you can print the virus, you know? There’s always debate over the idea that humans maybe aren’t ready for the technology they often get.
Caitlyn: It often just comes down to people being good or bad. I know it’s not actually that black and white, but on the scale that we’re talking about right now, it’s just crazy.
Rob: It’s so often “will I profit from this?”, rather than “will people profit from this?”. How do I personally get ahead?
Lorna: Well, we also live in a world of Capitalism, right? Where I grew up, it’s a bit more of a socialist country, but at the end of the day, everything that happens in North America eventually bleeds into Europe anyway.
Caitlyn: Exactly, yeah. There’s no common interest. A lot of the time it’s just corporations getting the long end of the stick. This is getting long, guys! [laughs]
Heavy stuff! But no, it’s super interesting. Let’s wrap it up with what you guys are all working on right now.
Lorna: When it comes to acting, I audition and then whatever I book, I book. But other than that, I’m developing a TV series project, and I might be working on another short film. The plus side of COVID, I guess, is that we have a lot of time to write and develop projects.
Caitlyn: And you had a short release, too!
Lorna: That is true…
Caitlyn: She directed and wrote it as well. I’ll let you say it, sorry!
Lorna: It’s called Fester, it came out in Canada a couple of days ago.
Caitlyn: Similar to Lorna, I’ve been spending a lot of time writing and creating projects. And with Rob and Lorna, we’ll hopefully be shooting a short at the end of the month. All with Brittany too, actually.
Getting the gang back together, awesome.
Rob: Bigger project, bigger cast.
Caitlyn: Similar topics, done in a very different way.
Rob: I have a few other things that I’m producing. My wife and I are doing a short animated hand-drawn film, and then I’m trying to produce one that would be a 3D-animated film. And likewise, I’m trying to get things picked up, but I’m fortunate that I work a lot in video games doing motion capture and stunt work. Montreal is one of the biggest hubs for that, so the work is still continuing since people have been playing games more than ever during the pandemic. So it’s one kind of up-shot. There were projects that came here from the US and from the UK that couldn’t use their performers, so we were lucky and jumped onto other stuff.