Interview with director and actors of Sex Shop, a thesis pilot

Some PMA majors elect to do a thesis film. They receive monetary and logistical support from the department to tell the story they want to tell. I spoke to Sydney Relihan, writer and director of Sex Shop, as well as to Arin Sheehan, Sidney Malia Waite, and Adam Shulman about what it felt like to make a pilot about a sex store, that’s run by asexuals… oh and there’s mafia involved.

Hi. I'm Sydney Relihan, I am a senior, so class of '22. And I'm a Performing and Media arts major with minors in Creative Writing and Psychology. 

Why I like film and why it interests me is making things together with a group. And kind of finding that friendship and family along the way. And then I think I really love how accessible film and especially TV is. I love a good artsy movie, but I'm a big fan of accessibility. I think I've become a better, more empathetic and understanding person through watching TV and movies. And I think it has such power to do that for lots of people. 
I want to continue to tell stories that are kind of tangentially related to my own experiences that I am very passionate about, like more diverse LGBTQ rep. And like more diverse mental health rep. Which is what I kind of did with this project, like, as an asexual and aromantic filmmaker myself, wanting to bring those identities forward and tell stories that like, yes, it's about that. But also, that's not the only thing. You know, coming out is like a big thing in a lot of queer people's lives. But like, we've seen that before. I'm so much more interested in, like, what happens next and like, how do people like, for example, Amber's character, how does she figure out how to be in a world as like an aromantic person, a world that's set up to prioritize romance and relationships. 
My sophomore year, I did the Screenwriting in Los Angeles course with Professor Bunn. We went for like 10 days, did screenwriting, and then we'd do little network'y, toury things to learn about the industry, which was great. It was the first time I was able to really deep dive into something film and only focus on that. And it was definitely like a confirming experience of like, I would like to just do this and nothing else. 

When I was in the Screenwriting in LA class, I was walking around with one of my friends, and we were walking by all of the sex stores on Hollywood Boulevard. There's so many for whatever reason, and we're both kind of sitting there like "Why, what is the deal? Like?" One of us was kind of like, "Wouldn't it be funny if asexual people ran a sex store?" And then, and then she was kind of like, oh, like, those have gotta be a mob front. Like some of them have got to be a front. There are too many of them, who's going in them. I was like, oh, hey, that's like an idea. And so I kind of had that kicking around in my mind. And yeah, slowly, slowly kind of developed it over about a year and a half.

My name is Arin Sheehan. I am a senior in the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management concentrating in Marketing, with a minor in Theater. And in Sex Shop I plays Zora Alamosa. 
I've been typically involved in the production side of PMA. I've produced Festival 24 -- shout out -- every single semester here while I was at Cornell, and I've also produced and stage managed a handful of other productions and musicals in the department. I've never been involved in any capacity though on the film side. So it was certainly a new experience to kind of come over to this other side of PMA and see what cool stuff is happening over here and the different processes and different practices that go into that. 

Acting for stage is kind of like a marathon. You have to keep going, you have to have high energy consistently all the time. And there is never really a moment when you are not active. In film acting there were long periods where we were in holding patterns, or waiting for the camera to be changed, or waiting for something to be checked, and then there would be these intense sprints of very high energy.

Sidney Malia:
My name is Sidney Malia Waite, I am in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. I'm a senior so I'll be graduating soon. 
I found a lot of similarities between myself and Ember's character, like being high energy, like the little details of her personality. So I was excited to be able to kind of play that up. But there was a comfortability in recognizing some things in Ember's character that I recognize in myself.

When Sydney and I went in depth into Amber's family background in terms of like her relation to her parents and why that is rocky and like, some of the more specific details, it just helped me feel like I could navigate, like, when I'm talking, or when Ember's talking to Adam, like, what type of things are going on in the background? Like, if there's a pause, right, or a lengthy silence, if you will, like what is Ember thinking about, what memory is she remembering in that moment before she says whatever to Adam.

Hi, I'm Adam Shulman. I'm a fourth year student studying Fine Arts and Performing and Media Arts in the Concurrent Degree Program. 

So I was studying abroad in Rome. And I opened up my Instagram one day, and I saw that I had been followed by an account titled Sex Shop. And I thought "What in the world?" And I checked out the account and there was a casting call for a character named Adam. And I thought "What in the world?" And then I commented something along the lines of "What in the world" and then Sydney said, "Haha, you should audition" and I very excitedly said yes, because I really miss being part of PMA happenings. When I was studying [abroad], I was just studying Fine Arts.

Ember and Zora have a really interesting relationship in that they went to college together, they were very close friends in college, and then just kind of out of the blue, poof! you know, Ember disappears, leaves Zora hanging. So when we open in Sex Shop, it's one of the first interactions they've had in many years. And this reunion is happening at a funeral, as the best reunions always do. So it's kind of navigating their reuniting, getting back together, finding out where they stand with each other, which underscores this higher drama of the sex shop being left to Zora, but also this kind of mystery surrounding her family as well.

I'm definitely, I think, someone who thinks a lot about like character, and like character psychology, and how people's lives, personalities and experiences kind of all influence who they are as a person. So whenever I'm writing characters, I'm like, doing a ton of backstory work, kind of thinking through everything they've been through, even if it's not, like, you know, explicitly in the dialogue or on screen.

I had kind of full, full life stories for all of the characters, even the ones... that was at the request of Michael, but even Nate, this little guy that walks by, he has a full life story that I sent Michael, it's like two pages long. So I had all that information. And it's like 40 pages or something wild like that, for like all of the characters, plus a couple of recurring ones that aren't in the pilot that none of the actors know about, but I know who they are. So I had all that. So I would share kind of like the backstory and pilot arc stuff with the actors. And I would only tell them what they know about themselves, or what other characters would have told them. Like, Adam knows exactly what happens to Amber, when like, she disappears. But like, Arin has no idea what happened to Amber. I just thought that was fun. What information they know can again, kind of help inform how they're relating to the character. So Arin can really be confused of like, why did she disappear? But Adam can kind of use that, knowing what happened to be like, how does he interact and relate to, because that's kind of a big, a big component of the their two characters' backstories.

Adam is extremely extroverted. He has gone through every sort of rehab clinic possible and is very, very much in disdain of that practice, to the point that he doesn't quite know who he is in relation to these clinics that are supposed to make him into something, that are supposed to bring a sense of reality back to him. He's lost sense of reality, while still being cynically and humorously adjacent to it.

So I wanted to do like lots of locations and shoot on locations. I wanted to work with adult actors. I wanted a big ensemble cast, the crew, like having DPs and ADs. Shooting in COVID I really had never worked with a crew before. I was mostly like me and a sound person. So it was really nice to have that experience kind of coordinating so many people. 
So I'd emailed probably at least 100 real estate openings, to try to get like somebody to let me use the store and they all either didn't respond or said no, which was very fun. I learned a lot about rejection because a lot of people were like, not even willing to consider it even when I offered money. But that was a very long process. I took two road trips up to Syracuse and Utica to check out like diners and sex stores. I've been to every sex store in the area, which was interesting, an experience for sure. 

I think I've met by email every single actor within like a three-hour radius. I was just cold-calling any person that had any sort of Theatre Arts description on a college website, as well as any person I could find on any, like, theatre company anywhere here. And for whatever reason everyone was in a show or too busy or on vacation when I was trying to shoot. I also went through Backstage and I ended up I think interviewing, like Zoom interviewing, probably like 25 adults total. That process was very tricky and taxing to kind of figure out but I'm, like, thrilled with the people I ended up with, they all did an amazing job.

I think the most fun that I had the clearest way that I knew what character Sidney wanted me to play was by what clothing that she picked out for me. To put on some of the most ludicrous clashing-patterns outfits of my life and just feel like somebody else I didn't recognize when I looked in the mirror -- that was all I needed.

So like all of the clothes I bought in the past year have all ended up in the show, which is fun. Now I can wear them. I've been walking around dressed like all the characters.

Something for which I was very grateful was wearing this incredibly fluffy orange coat, which kept me very warm during a very cold day of production. When we were shooting outside of the sex shop, it was unfortunately down around 20 degrees. But the whole cast and crew stuck with it through the challenging shoot and emerged with an utterly wild scene.

Adam's, like, big orange coat was something that I was like, "I really want to find that," so I did so much research on, like, fun orange coats. And now I have that and I wear it around. And everyone compliments me all the time. And I'm always like, "Thank you, but it's, I bought it technically not for me." But now it's mine. 

So I had a very established, like, visual color scheme that I wanted, which was like blues and oranges and yellows and like kind of pastel-y stuff like that. And then I just wanted, like, a lot of color. So a lot of locations, I was looking up like fun-colored buildings in Ithaca. And then I was like, "Oh, a neon yellow building. Cool. Let's ask if we can shoot there," or like looking for, like, fun stained-glass windows and places. Like a lot of the stuff in the First Act all ended up with stained glass windows somehow, even though a lot of those were just chance locations we got. And then the store itself being neon pink was a very fun bonus.

I'd written like a neon orange car into the script, which I was told was going to be a challenge that I couldn't do, but... it's not orange, but we did get like a cherry red car from someone's friend, which I was very excited about. 

And we made it through all of the camera footage. And we've got like 310 clips, something like that. I'm a little scared because it's just so long. But like, I think it'll turn out really cool. I also, yeah, I do like composing. So I'm going to do the score as well. You know, anything I make, I really want to watch. And I'm a fan of, so I'm very excited to watch it. 

Sydney (2 weeks later):
So in the past two weeks, I have done two rough cuts. I wasn't planning on having that much done by now, I'm ahead of schedule, but I, change of plans, went home for spring break. And I really wanted to watch it. So I pushed through a whole edit like the Thursday before break and was in the editing room until like 2:30am. And then I sat and watched it and it's just wild to like, have it in front of me. Because I always make stuff like yeah, for other people. But I'm also always making stuff for myself because I am excited to watch it. And so to be able to like sit there and have like an actual thing in front of me. And like it looks like how I wanted and like honestly even better than I wanted because, you know, I can only do so much, like the actors and like the crew added so much to it too. It's like, it's so cool. 

My favorite performance is one, it's one with Adam and Sidney. It's my favorite moment, Adam's little like... they're talking in the car, and

Sidney Malia as Ember:
I'm not abandoning her again. I know how that feels. It sucks. 

Adam as Adam:
You know that's not what happened.

Sydney (2 weeks later) : 
And Adam's little, like, moment of hurt is just so good. That of course was the only shot I've come across where the sound was unusable. So I had to like piece, like, other things over it to make sure I could use it. But I love it so much. I don't know why his little reaction is so good. 

Some of my favorite moments are all the different longer shots, because I just love playing with, like, framing and blocking and stuff. So when they come out of the store at the end, it's like a two-minute-long take, like playing with the blocking outside the store. And I really liked that one. And the ladder one we did like outside of the store, where we're looking down on them. And they're all like, the four, like the four main ones are interacting for the first time, is really cool.

Another scene that I really enjoyed took place at the funeral reception where it was me and Sidney, who plays Ember, walking down a table picking up donuts and putting them on a plate. We did get to eat the donuts afterward, which was very exciting. There are all these little moments in Sex Shop that you'll see where something slightly quirky happens or something slightly funny happens. And you can just know that in the moment we all found it hilarious as well. I think that that donut scene is one in particular where we were just laughing off-screen because we thought it was just absolutely ridiculous that they're eating these donuts at a reception. Little moments like that, I think, overall, were definitely my favorite part of the process, finding these little gems where you can sneak in your personality or sneak in extra bonus jokes or inside jokes amongst the crew and cast that I think bring the production to life.

Sidney Malia:
Being on set I think I had always kind of like, envisioned and maybe even romanticized before I ever acted in a film. Like in the way that, you know, we did with Sex Shop was really, really cool. For me, because it was like, this is how I imagined it, and beyond just like, the fact that like, oh, you know, we're filming and like, this is real. And there's, like, we're saying "Action" and "Cut!" and stuff. I just felt like it was a really good environment. And even like, you know, we had some early mornings, I only had one actually. But like, even with that, it was still fun. Because I think people on set, both the actors and the crew were just like, such a vibe that like I was just, I was just always having fun.

I would say all in all, it was an incredibly positive experience, mostly because of the people, because of Sydney, because of her fantastic vision and fantastic direction. She had a very clear path that she wanted us to take. From the get go, she knew where we were going. And she was able to drive that car really fast and really efficiently. And I think we got there. That was a weird metaphor. drive that car efficiently. You know?

I like it.

My three priorities are always kind of like respect, enjoyment, and like, motivation. And like, yes, you know, talent is cool. But I'm a big proponent of like, attitude, and like, you know, how you're approaching things being more important than talent. And like, kind of thinking about, like, just making sure everyone feels, like, welcome in the space. We'd do like morale checks where I was like, you know, "Where are we at?" and it was usually here [thumbs up], unless it was cold that it was down here [thumbs down]. And I think I'm going to carry with me, kind of People First. Whether that be like the cast, the crew, and all of that, but also in writing of like characters, I'm always thinking of the characters first, and who they are before, like, story or, you know, where they're going in the world.

If they need someone to walk around in the background, kind of do funny stuff, you know, do a backflip, or anything along those lines, they'll just call me up and I'll do it, you know. I can't actually do a backflip. I should learn just to do it, backflipping through the background of student productions.

Sidney Malia:
I'm regretful of the fact that I didn't take more PMA classes, or start earlier. I wanted to act for like, as long as I can remember, right. And then in high school, like, I talked myself out of it. And then the pandemic happened. And I think like a lot of people say this, like the pandemic was just like a time for them to really kind of recenter themselves and re-find themselves. And I'm saying it like ["come on"], but like, that was me, I was like finding myself and re-centering myself. People were saying, find your inner child, I feel like that was something I always heard during the pandemic. Or maybe I just hear it a lot. But I was finding my inner child, so me too. And inner-child Sidney wants to act. And I was like, you know what, then I'm gonna give it to her. 

I would say to myself, who had not yet like explored PMA, because of like, you know, anxieties that I wouldn't be able to like, meet the level of all these other students who like came in doing knowing they wanted PMA and doing PMA, I would say to forget about that. And just recognize that I'm coming to school to learn, I'm coming to school to grow and to like, yeah, to learn and to grow. So taking classes that scare you, or taking classes that you feel like you're not prepared enough for is ridiculous. Because perhaps you aren't prepared enough for it, but that's the point of the class, to help you prepare for stuff, you know what I mean? Or in the sense that help you learn, right? So take the class, period.

Even if a project seems ridiculously unachievable, propose it, narrow it down, and it'll become realistic. I think that an episode of this breadth and intensity is a very ambitious project from the filmmaking standpoint. But Sydney stuck with it and has figured out how to create a product that I've the feeling she'll be very satisfied with. I certainly hope so.

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Sydney Relihan