Touch Filmmakers Jennie Feyen and Lauren McDonough Talk About Getting Therapied with Androids in This Interview

Touch is a futuristic short film set ‘five minutes in the future’ which tells the story of Esme (Rebecca Leafe), a woman who is seeking therapy from an android named Theo (Meraj Ahamed). It’s written and directed by Jennie Feyen who made it with the support of producer Lauren McDonough. Touch is a thought-provoking story that asks the question about what the role of android figures will play in the future when it comes to therapy and mental health care.

For Esme, the notion of touching another person is a difficult one, leading her to seek out the support of Theo to find a path to easing the mental struggle that she lives with. Esme finds a solace in the conversation she has with the android, and it’s clear that the weight of loneliness has been partially eased in her mind during the time she has spent with them.

Touch is imbued with a soothing feeling that is realised by the minimalist production design that’s amplified by calming, warm lighting tones, alongside the gentle and supportive performance from Meraj Ahamed. Rebecca Leafe equally impresses as she works through an array of emotions that hint at the difficulties of living with a worried mind.

While we have an increasingly connected society, we’re also more disconnected than ever before. No more so than within the ageing population who is finding themselves wrought with loneliness to the point that some aged care facilities are using reprogrammed sex dolls to provide a level of companionship. As we saw in the fictional story Lars and the Real Girl, just because these are dolls does not make the connection that people have with them any less human.

At its close, Touch leaves the viewer with a wealth of discussion points relating to the role of digital and artificial services to provide mental health support to those in need. Our system is struggling to cope with an overwhelming array of people living with mental health conditions, leading many to turn to services like BetterHelp or even the AI therapist WoeBot for support. Is it not so difficult to see that in the future we could rely on sensitively programmed androids to provide a similar kind of support than what we would usually seek from a human?

While we’re in the midst of the debate about the ethics of using ChatGPT and AI text in workplaces and creative industries, we haven’t entirely started to grapple with the notion of using AI or androids are a mental health support mechanism. Within Touch, there is a hopeful perspective given to the support they may be able to provide, highlighting the judgement-free connection that Esme receives from Theo.

It’s that notion of connection that helped inform my discussion with Jennie and Lauren below ahead of the world premiere of Touch at the CinefestOz Film Festival on August 30.

This interview has been edited for clarity purposes.

Jennie Feyen: I’m now based in Sydney, but to have a WAmade film with a WA crew, funded by ScreenWest premiere at CinefestOz is very exciting. I’ve always wanted to get into CinefestOz.

Lauren McDonough: It’ll be really cool to see it in front of an audience of people that are not our nearest and dearest. Everyone that we’ve shown it to does really like it and it resonates with people, but it’s always kind of cool but also scary to show it in front of a bunch of people who have bought a ticket. I’m nervous-excited.

Jennie, can you talk about your entry point into filmmaking?

JF: I did a bachelor’s degree at Edith Cowan University, that’s where I studied filmmaking. I’m now in NSW doing a master’s in screenwriting and I’m looking at developing Touch into a long form work, whether it’s a film or a series, so it’s very exciting to expand that world. Anyway, I graduated 10 years ago. I was at ECU for six years, because I studied for a bit part time. I went to Japan as an exchange student for one year, which is where I got into video installations and more experimental films. So, it was a bit of a long journey for me.

I was finding what I was interested and finding what intrigued me. Universities should be used for exploration; you’ve got all that support and access to all this knowledge. I was in good hands, and I felt like there was space for me to explore maybe more esoteric films, films that had a bit of breathing space that were quite ambiguous. I started making films for galleries and exhibitions, so they would be on loop. What was great about that was that I would get immediate feedback. I remember at an arts festival here in Sydney I used NASA imagery and video footage and combined it with my friend’s contemporary dancing so it would seem like she was dancing in space. Seeing that engagement from people in real time was really great.

Touch was the first script I had written in quite a long time. I loved the premise so much: I loved the idea of a human being forming a connection with an android, but it took a lot of drafts for me to really discover who the protagonist Esme is. She was quite passive, originally, because I was trying so hard to capture the intricacies of the premise and this world, but plot is ultimately driven by a character’s choices. Having that experience of seeing my more experimental work shown not only on screens, but on walls, ceilings, and floors, and the immediate engagement that comes with it, allowed me to explore themes and characters that have room for ambiguity.

I also really like surrealism. Not that this is a surrealist film, but I love the idea of Luis Buñuel saying ‘the filmmaking medium is the perfect way to explore dreams and nightmares;’ not a dream sequence but more like using metaphors and symbols and delving into these different psychological landscapes. That really speaks to me.

As I make films, I’m trying to merge my artistic sensibilities with stories people can relate to and characters that feel authentic and flawed who are just trying to connect. I’m very aware that a lot of people are experiencing extreme loneliness, especially younger people. One inevitability is that the robots are coming, and that’s kind of terrifying and exciting, but it could be an interesting way to maybe help people find their way through that loneliness.

And then there’s that tension. What happens if you are only comfortable with technology, and you give up on humanity, but you are a human? Are you giving up part of yourself? There’s a lot to delve into and there are no easy answers. As a storyteller, that’s exactly what you should do. You don’t want to be answering questions, it’s better to ask them.

It is in the manner of asking questions that we find out who we actually are. I’ve been thinking about the mental health app BetterHealth, where you’re not verbally talking to somebody and you’re not having that physical, face-to-face connection and the ‘therapy’ is delivered via text. There is a whole conversation to be had about moving into the digital world and how we’re going to deal with mental health problems. Watching Touch, I saw that discussion take place in a brilliant manner.

JF: I’m intrigued by that as well. There are so many layers to it. What I was interested in is the idea of someone who maybe doesn’t feel safe around people or is afraid to be vulnerable because they’ve had some sort of trauma or they just don’t have those social skills developed, and they might feel safer with something purely technologybased, like an app or this artificial being. It’s very easy to judge that and maybe even ridicule it, but I think it’s a potential avenue for people to heal or to discover things in a safe way.

How did you to connect as a creative team?

JF: I had only recently moved back to Perth after living in Sydney for a few years, and I honestly didn’t know many people in the industry or the emerging film space. I was basically a lone ranger. When I decided to apply for the funding, and I started developing the idea, I didn’t know any producers. I asked around, and it was Suzie Worner from Revelation Film Festival and Emilia Jolakoska who recommended Lauren.

I reached out to Lauren, and I sent her the script so she knew the theme, the characters, and the scale of everything. Then we met up and had a really good chat. It’s funny, I had started watching videos of interviews with directors and producers about this very particular creative relationship, and they were responding to questions about complicated scenarios. I wrote down those questions because I wanted to appear very professional and on top of everything. So, I asked those questions to Lauren, and she gave great answers that got to the point. You’re always going to have problems, especially with a creative endeavour, it is inevitable, so it’s good to be able to know ‘Okay, together we can figure this out.’

LMcD: What I love about writers and directors is that it’s like a pie in the sky. They come to you with this amazing idea, and then they’re like, “This is the money I have. Is it achievable?” From the beginning, I always thought that this was achievable. This is probably the commercial producer side of me coming out, if you’re giving me the responsibility of helping you create something, and it’s not achievable with that money, then that’s not fair either. You want to have a great product at the end, and I think we really do have a great film that we’ve made together. Jennie always had a strong vision for what she wanted, and that’s kind of what drew me to the project as a whole.

As you say, you need to make sure that you can use the funding effectively because one of the key aspects of Touch that works so well is the lighting. It does so much with so little and it elevates the film to the point where it feels like more has been spent on it than you had. Can you talk about the discussions that were had around the use of lighting?

JF: We worked with an excellent crew. Lauren introduced me to Tim Fitzgerald, our Director of Photography. I’m not the most technically minded director, so I can come at it from a bit of a touchy-feely way sometimes, but I was able to describe the feeling I wanted to create, and I felt that connection with him. I said, “The clinic outside of the room with Theo (the android) feels quite cold and represents the world that she inhabits. She’s very isolated, so there are no other people around.” Then, when she gets into the room, I just kept saying the word ‘cave’, and I meant cave as in a little quiet dwelling, something that felt warm and safe. You could go to town with your own interpretations, maybe the room is like a womb in which you’re going back to this sanctuary of safety, but that’s really what I wanted. I wanted it to feel safe. I wanted it to feel immediately relaxing.

What was interesting with the lighting design was that when I was trying to find some references, a lot of the imagery I started looking at was of spas or wellness centres, places that generate well-being and make you feel relaxed. Then I realised the key element was colour and that I didn’t really need to think of an actual place, I just needed to use descriptive words, even if they’re simple like ‘warm, inviting, safe.’ I said, “I see it as amber, orange, yellow, sunset.” We worked with great people who were able to help me create that feeling. It was knowing to not put so much in the room; to take stuff out of the room and let light say more than decorative things could ever do.

There is an assuredness when it comes to executing your vision. Lauren, can you talk about the importance of working on a project with someone who has a complete vision and knows what they want to achieve?

LMcD: I think it’s really important because at the end of the day you’re there to help them tell the story that they want to tell. It’s really good when you’ve got stacks of money, and it’s really hard when you don’t. When you have a strong vision like Jennie had, it was about trying to find a creative way to achieve that, and part of it was bringing on people that I had worked with previously knowing that they had the technical skills required to maybe think outside the box a little bit.

The way Tim shoots and the relationship that he has with our gaffer was quite important for me because that shorthand is built in, so how Jennie explains what she wants and how they interpret it was really important. It is actually quite terrifying to put nothing in the frame and hope that it works. I remember when we were talking to production designer Charlotte Bailey, who I’d worked with before, about it and we had like all this stuff in the frame, and we kept taking stuff out. Part of it is trusting the crew and trusting that everyone is on board with Jennie’s vision. The end result pretty much speaks for itself.

JF: Lauren did a great job of assembling a crew that really fit the tone of the film. I hadn’t directed for a while, and I was quite intimidated and a bit self-conscious, but everyone was so lovely. It just seemed to overlap well with the tone of the piece: gentle and supportive and malleable. It was very professional and encouraging. Why can’t it always be like that? It doesn’t have to be a warzone.

Touch deals with the need for connection and finding solace in ourselves via therapy. I hate asking pandemic questions, but it seems like it’s more apt for this kind of film. Did the pandemic influence how you wrote or directed the film?

JF: I actually wrote the very first draft during the pandemic in 2020. I was living with my husband and spending a lot of time in our apartment. Things had become very small, suddenly life was a bubble. I think it was more of a subconscious thing because I had always envisioned this film to be like five minutes in the future, or sometime in the future that’s not too far away. I never envisioned it taking place within a pandemic where people cannot touch, where you need to have that distance. But it must have impacted it, I think subconsciously. A few years need to pass and then I’ll look back and think, ‘Oh yeah, I totally see that influence.’

I was getting a lot of feedback that said: ‘This makes sense, especially in a pandemic,’ because that was a real issue. I remember seeing some articles about how people were struggling because they were deprived of touch, especially people living by themselves. It wasn’t safe to see loved ones, not even just a hug and a kiss, something so simple and gentle, and that really affected their mental health. This film is a microcosm of something bigger, because it’s essentially contained in this one room, and we don’t see the outside world, so you can imagine it within all these different worlds. It could absolutely take place during a pandemic. So, any influence of the pandemic is probably subconscious, but it’s definitely there. I don’t think there’s any other way.

Let’s talk about the casting as well. How did you go about casting Rebecca Leafe and Meraj Ahamed? Especially noting that one is a human presenting human emotions, and the other is an android presenting in a cold, unemotional manner.

LMcD: We did a bit of a call out reel. I did speak to Megan Carpenter from Toesox for some advice about the best way to go casting something where there’s only two people, and it really hinges on their interactions and charisma, or lack thereof for one of the characters, but we did try and streamline it as much as possible. Again, with Jennie knowing what she wanted, as we got the self-tapes in, it was very evident if people were right or wrong. Then we did a more directed self-tape, and then we brought a bunch of them in a room together and we paired them up.

JF: We went through the tapes and said, ‘We think this actress could play Esme and this actor could play Theo and they’d be a good pair for a chemistry read.’ We wanted to keep it as open as possible. We said we welcome all demographics because I didn’t need Esme or Theo to come from a specific cultural background. I thought, let’s leave it open. We live in Perth. We live in Australia. This is very multicultural country. That was very important to me to at least keep it open, and then see what we get.

It was interesting because there were certain things I hadn’t really thought about such as whether an actor or actress had a tattoo. You’ll notice that Rebecca Leafe who plays Esme, and she does such a wonderful job, she has tattoos, and our film is comprised of lots of close ups of hands. It’s called Touch. It was interesting because I’ve had people ask me story-related questions about the tattoos.

LMcD: People asked, “What do her tattoos mean?” and I was like, “You’d have to ask her why she got them. She’s a real person who has tattoos.”

JF: Exactly. But that was an interesting detail. It can be so hard to cast because so many people are so talented, and they bring their own interpretation of the role, but with Rebecca, she brought a very understated element to her performance. I felt that as Esme that worked because she’s a very repressed person. Her expectation of therapy is that ‘wham bam, thank you ma’am’ kind of thing. She would just go in, touch, ‘Okay, done,’ and leave.

LMcD: ‘I’ve been therapied, I’m done.’

JF: The irony is that the android is the one who’s who wants to engage on a human level, and it completely goes against what she wanted. A person like that would be so controlled, as well as controlling. It’s the fear of giving up that control that is a big part of as Esme as a character. I’m really pleased with what Bec has brought to the role.

Then Meraj, who plays Theo, he wasn’t available on the day that we did the chemistry auditions, so I didn’t get to meet him in person. I think Lauren, you said, ‘Maybe it’s worth meeting him. I see something in his audition.’ Keep in mind, this was my first time directing a film of this scale, and there’s ScreenWest asking questions, and I think I was starting to hit overdrive a bit, but it was good to have Lauren as the voice of reason to say, ‘take a look.’ So, when Meraj and I met for coffee, out of all the lovely actors I’d spoken with, he brought a page of notes that he’d written. It’s hard to have a backstory for an android, obviously, but he interpreted it so beautifully. He said, “Whenever Theo closes his eyes or whenever he’s shut down and not in action, I imagine him dreaming.” It was beautiful, and I knew that I could have nuanced conversations with him. We can go deep on this while keeping it relevant to the core of the story, but there was room to explore in there. I really liked that. So, we just trusted our gut and we thought, “Okay, we’ll cast them. We’ll bring them together.” And it really works.

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian cinema, Australian politics, Australian culture, and Australia in general. Found regularly talking online about Sweet Country, and reminding people to watch Young Adult.

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