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Writer-Director Sarah Young Talks Her New Short “Not Him”

Photo: PCB Media Inc.

In Sarah Young’s short film “Not Him,” a seemingly perfect young married couple’s domestic life is disrupted by a dark secret. Behind the closed doors of their comfortable apartment, the husband, John (Charlie McElveen) has become increasingly threatening. His wife, Michelle (Tori Ernst) is convinced something is terribly wrong: John no longer seems, in word or deed, the man she married. But doubt lingers, and even her best friend Kim (Katharine Chin) can scarcely believe a man like John could be capable of violence. What follows as Michelle must confront her husband and learn the truth once and for all segues from interpersonal drama to psychological horror in mere minutes: what is, after all, more frightening than a loved one turning against you?

Sadly, it’s an all-too-familiar scenario. On average, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, an average of 24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner in the United States, a figure that impacts more than 12 million people over the course of each year. “Not Him” explores the fight of domestic violence victims to be believed—even by their closes to friends—and the potential of female friendship to fight cycles of abuse.

Writer-director Sarah Young is an award-winning director who is drawn to difficult and topical subjects like those she explores in “Not Him.” Her films include “In Case We Get Found” (2021) and “Counting” (2022), both of which have won multiple festival awards. Young spoke recently with Film Obsessive Publisher J Paul Johnson about the origins, production, and distribution of “Not Him.” The transcript following the video below has been edited for length and clarity.

Film Obsessive. Welcome, Sarah. Glad you could join us. Could you tell us a little bit about “Not Him”?

Sarah Young: Absolutely. “Not Him” is a horror-suspense short film. It’s about a wife who believes that her husband is possessed by a demon, but she can’t get anyone to believe her. I like to think of it as a combo of Gaslight meets The Shining.

Wow. I watched it: it’s pretty intense! And I’m just wondering where the notion for this film comes from in that a seemingly innocuous, happy couple who would appear to be doing well has this secret festering.

Thank you so much. I appreciate that. Yes, I am primarily a director. My background is actually in theater, opera, and film directing. So this was my first time writing my own script, and I knew that I wanted to do something in genre filmmaking. I’m a big believer in using genre filmmaking to tackle difficult subjects in an accessible way. So one night, I had a nightmare, which was pretty much shot for shot the opening of the short film—not to spoil it for anyone—but it involves seeing a loved one in a very frightening light. And from there, the rest of the film flowed, and I realized that it was becoming a metaphor for domestic violence and domestic abuse. And so I really leaned into that. And so this film really is a exploration of exactly what you were saying. It’s a couple that on the outside looks like everything’s going really well for them, and you would never imagine that underneath the surface there is someone who desperately needs to be seen and believed.

Was the script then difficult for you to write or did it flow and emanate pretty naturally from that nightmare?

This one actually was pretty easy. I think once it clicked for me that that was the subject. And to be honest, I’ve had a lot of people have some very personal experience with loved ones and myself experiencing domestic violence. So as soon as I realized that that was the subject that I really felt like I needed to explore in this film, it actually flowed pretty darn fast.

And the film is about 15 minutes give or take. Did you imagine it right from the start hitting that length and doing its work kind of quickly?

Oh, yes. I wanted to hit that 15 minute mark because I wanted to get into film festivals.

And that’s where you’ve been, right? You are currently enjoying a good run. I know that you were busy last weekend, is that right? And then you have other festivals coming up?

That’s right. I’ve been so grateful that our run has been really strong, and it’s been really interesting, too, because although I conceived this as a horror film, it is a horror film that is rooted in something extremely real. So, you know, we’re using the demonic possession as a metaphor for this very real concern. So what’s been interesting is we’ve had a strong run both in genre fests, like, specifically in horror film festivals and regular festivals, where they program us in typical drama blocks or they program us in sort of tense thriller blocks. And I’ve been really excited about that. I love that this film is popping in more than one genre for people and it’s speaking to people in different ways.

That’s so cool. And you have such a good cast. I noticed that you’d worked with the woman who plays your protagonist, Michelle, with Tori Ernst before, right? And could you talk just a little bit about the folks that you are bringing along with you into the filmmaking?

Oh, absolutely. I’m so lucky I have the best team. Most of the people on this film I met when I was in grad school at the new school for drama. I was getting my masters in directing, mostly theater, although we did do some film work there as well. I was in the directing track. So three out of the four actors in this film were in the acting track at the new school in my class, including Tori Ernst, who plays Michelle the wife. And man, she’s incredible. I’m so grateful to have had her on this film. She was in my mind when I wrote it. I knew that I wanted to work with her. So she was actually very active as I was writing the script as well. I was bouncing ideas off of her, sending her drafts, getting her feedback on how it felt to her. And so she was just wonderful to work with on this process.

The fourth actor in it, the actor who plays the husband, Charlie McElveen, was the only one that I wasn’t familiar with before I went into the project. He was actually cast off of backstage in an audition process, and we were extremely lucky to find him because not only is he a spectacular actor, but he’s also a really nice, wonderful, professional person. Which is exactly what you need. As you said, the film is tense, and it has some very intimate moments between him and Tori. And it was really important to me to cast somebody that I knew was going to be able to handle it dramatically and be a joy to work with him.

And he’s very charming. In a very devilish sort of way, if I might, but very, very convincing! So you’re working on a small budget, limited resources, like one set with a little bit of exterior work there as well. I’m just wondering if you could talk a little bit about some of the limitations, frustrations or maybe epiphanies of doing that.

Yes, it was definitely a micro-budget short. And we were focusing our budget on making sure that everybody on the team was paid appropriately. So we were focused on paying our actors and paying our crew, which means that we were finding places to save everywhere else we could. So the effects are practical. There are, again, spoiler alert: there are demon eyes in this film that are contacts. They are practical effects. We did have the one location, and that was Tori’s apartment. So thank you, Tori.

And, you know, the exterior was not putting sticks on the ground, very handheld guerilla style out on the streets of Brooklyn. So we did what we needed to do in order to get the locations that we needed for as little as possible in order to prioritize getting the right actors and the right crew.

Cast and crew on the shoot of "Not Him"
Cast and crew on the shoot of “Not Him.” Photo: courtesy Sarah Young.

And I’m thinking horror, of course, especially psychological horror, is a genre that can work on a low budget, right? It’s mostly about the dark, less about the light, and a lot of the truly horrific events normally happen off screen or they’re implied in one way or another.

I think you’re absolutely right. And I will say, I do think having a limited budget forces one to be more creative in terms of setting it up so that the audience uses their imagination and communicating in a different way. So the style of shooting is mostly it’s very handheld. It’s very mobile. It’s the idea was to be very much in the protagonist head space of feeling watched and feeling trapped. So that style, I think, really lent itself to the story telling, but it also allowed us to move fast, right? Like not having to put down sticks every single time, really, It was form helping function. You know, I was the right storytelling move, but it was also the right move for the budget and the time that we had.

And this was the first time you directed your own script, right? Before, when you directed shorts, you’re doing other people’s scripts. Do you argue with yourself in your different roles as a director and screenwriter? I say that jokingly, but I feel like at times directors can struggle when directing from their own script. But then again, sometimes it’s easier for them to execute the vision that they’ve known all along. What’s your take?

Actually, that’s a very smart question, honestly, because it was the first time I’d experienced directing my own script, and there were definitely moments where I was very frustrated with the writer—myself—when I was directing it. And especially in the editing room. I would find myself, paring back. You know, I think it’s common for a first time writer to overwrite is how I think of it. I would notice that there were moments where I didn’t need the level of exposition or the level of explanation that I had put in the script, and I had shot dutifully shooting my own script.

But in the editing room, I went, we don’t need that, pare it back, which I think is good. And I certainly think I was harder on myself than I would have been on, you know, another professional I’m collaborating with. That conversation would have been very different. But I wanted this particular film to be really me on a plate, really Sarah Young and the art that I am interested in putting out into the world. So it felt important to me to write this one, and direct this one and really sort of live or die on my own decisions on this particular film.

Headshot of Sarah Young
Sarah Young.

I’m wondering, do you see yourself primarily as a director who works in recognizable genres, or are you seeing yourself somebody more who’s working with topics and themes? You have a film with a protagonist who is a mass shooting survivor, another one with a person diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder. Your work so far collectively seem very thematic to me.

It’s true. I find myself drawn to subjects that are very real and subjects that are going to explore our shared humanity in complicated ways. So I definitely seek out opportunities like that. And I do think that I’ve been very fortunate that people seek me out for those kind of stories because I think that my training in theater and my background in working with new playwrights allows me to really listen to the writers and really listen to the story and give them the best possible chance to tell their story in a way that’s going to be meaningful to them and to other people. So I definitely seek out stories that I call it radical empathy when I’m describing myself in cover letters. That’s the sort of story that appeals most to me.

But that being said, I’m a director for hire. So though I will certainly choose things that speak to me on a certain level. I’m a storyteller. If there’s anything at all in the story that appeals to me and in the project, I’m going to bring my best to it.

“Not Him” strikes me as a film that is both timeless and timely. Because you mentioned, you know, you’re connected with an experience, almost everyone we know is connected with an experience of domestic violence. And we can’t get the guys on social media to understand why the women would pick the bear.  We live in this moment where we still can’t quite really get the message across with that. Maybe your film will help, though.

Thank you so much for saying that. I appreciate it.

You’re also imagining that “Not Him” has a feature-length possibility as well, is that true?

That’s the plan. The goal is to move forward with a feature version. Yeah. The team feels very good about moving forward with the feature version. We’ve got the story. We’ve got the concept. We’re putting pieces into place to bring on the team that we need to bring on in order to make that happen. I am currently working on the script. And I’m excited to expand the story.

Michelle and Kim face John on Not Him.
Tori Ernst and Katharine Chin in “Not Him.” Photo: PCB Media Inc.

One of my academic specialties was adaptation. It always fascinates me to see one thing mutate to another. So I’m curious in which directions you might consider expanding that. Do we get more backstory leading up to their romance? Do we get more of a consequence afterwards? Something in between? What are you thinking?

Well, I think the part of the story that I am the most excited about is it’s really the cat-and-mouse game. Once we’ve established that the wife is not crazy and she is absolutely right, that there is something very wrong with her husband, and we establish the danger that she is in. Again, spoiler alert, in the film, we put into place barriers that exist for real-life victims around the demon basically threatening to kill the husband if she tries to leave. So she’s in a situation where she can’t just walk out the door, right? She has to choose well, or she risks losing the man that she loves.

So I’m very interested in expanding that portion, especially. I’m looking at a world where we do get more of their backstory. We get more of why her friends are so hesitant to see this side of this man and to expand also things in her past that might not allow people to readily believe her so quickly. So we’re going to put that in and we’re going to expand what we see in the short, which is her confronting him, her getting confirmation that she is correct and then really leaning into the cat and mouse game between the two of them, of her basically trying to figure out how to outwit this demon and how to expose him to other people in their lives.

And from there, there will be a twist around who’s actually in control of the attempts to expose the demon is the wife as comfortable and in control as she thinks or has this all been orchestrated by the demon to basically give himself a hunting ground? So, you know, Act Three will be a lot dicier than [we see] currently in the 15-minute short.

And in the meantime, that 15-minutes short “Not Him” is still working its way through the festival circuit. Do you happen to know your next appearance on the docket?

Yeah, we have the Fort Myers Film Festival coming up later in May. I believe our screening is on 23 May in Fort Myers. And then we have Nevada City coming up in June, which I’m really excited about. That looks like a really, really cool festival. And then we just finished Boston Independent Film Festival and the Chicago Horror Film Festival. So we’ve had a really strong run over the last couple of months, and I’m pretty sure we’re going to have some more to announce over the next couple of months as well.

That is exciting, Sarah. I just want to thank you for taking the time to speak with us at Film Obsessive today and wish you and “Not Him” the very best of success on your continued festival run and whatever shape it mutates into in its future.

Thank you so much. I really appreciate that.

Poster for "Not Him" depicting each of its main characters.
Courtesy PCB Media Inc.

Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Publisher of Film Obsessive. A professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

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