A unique, intimate bond between mother and daughter becomes threatened when the mother
helps her teenage daughter throw a party to impress new, more popular friends

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“Tangles and Knots,” from Australian director Renée Marie Petropoulos, tells the story of a mother and daughter discovering the boundaries of their intimate, yet complex relationship.

Premiering at the 2018 Berlinale: Generation 14Plus Competition — and created as Petropoulos’ graduating thesis film from Columbia University — “Tangles and Knots” explores how even tender familial relationships can turn toxic. After screening at festivals around the world, including stops at SXSW Film Festival, Sydney Film Festival, and Palm Springs International Shortsfest, we are excited to premiere it online today exclusively on Vimeo.

In honor of today’s premiere, we reached out to director Renée Marie Petropoulos to learn more about the making of the film. Here’s what she had to say.

On the importance of writing what you know:

“As a filmmaker, I’ve always been drawn to writing female-driven narratives and unsettling coming of age stories. The inspiration for ‘Tangles and Knots’ was an evolution of sorts. It came from an ongoing obsession I had with complicated mother and daughter relationships. 

During my thesis years at Columbia University, I was developing a few different projects around motherhood; both long-form and short. I was exploring versions of this bond that defied societal expectations and really blurred the boundaries of traditional family roles. 

Ultimately, none of these stories I was developing really felt authentic enough. But after a particularly troubling summer of writing in circles, something clicked. I decided to take the somewhat cliché screenwriting advice of ‘write what you know and looked inward at my own relationship with my mother.

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On adapting personal history to the screen:

As a filmmaker, I find the bond between mother and daughter to be so provocative and powerful. For many women, this relationship can be so critical: our mothers are usually our first role models for womanhood. There are just so many raw emotions and societal expectations tied to motherhood to unpack!

My relationship with my mother was (and still is) intimate, very open, flawed and of course, very complex. Sometimes we acted more like girlfriends together. My friends would flock to her for advice, as she is so easy to talk to and loving. Our house was always open, and everyone was welcome. The boys that attended these little gatherings would treat her like she was part of our group. The boundaries between us were often blurred. There was an intimate tenderness and thrilling danger to it all. I honestly didn’t realize that our relationship was so special until I was much older, and I honestly wouldn’t be the person I am today without her.

As I continued to explore these characters and take them to a darker, fictional trajectory, the autobiographical elements did really help to ground the story.” 

On starting with details to inform writing dialogue in a script:

I find dialogue so hard to write! I really struggle with it. As a filmmaker, I’m definitely more attuned to the visual elements and gestural details rather than dialogue.

At the inspired instruction of a Columbia Professor, I started the scripting process by first creating an epic document with a detailed backlog of different memories. From little tender details I remembered with my mum, outrageous moments from gatherings, and everything else in between. It became the inspiration but also the backbone for the entire story and was so helpful to turn to when I was crafting these intimate scenes. I’ve incorporated this memory backlog ‘method’ into a lot of my current projects in development, even for scripts that are genre or aren’t as deeply personal. It definitely helps me find fun dialogue options and ground characters and moments in authenticity. It’s a really tricky but cathartic experience.” 

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On threading the line of a complex relationship:

This was a particularly hard line to tread. In writing this film, I knew that no matter how I approached this relationship, the audience is always going to have judgements about the nature of their bond. Their unique girlfriend/sisterly bond is usually a trope for comedy: in another universe, Michelle is the Juicy Couture wearing ‘cool mum’ of Regina George, the brassy Marissa Cooper of ‘The OC,’ or the witty Lorelai from ‘Gilmore Girls.’ I wanted to steer clear of this tone and interpretation at all costs, and ground their relationship in realism with a raw mix of toxic and tender moments.  

One element that really helped was to shift subjectivity between mother and daughter protagonists. As the film unfolds, we begin to share more and more intimate moments with Michelle. I’ll admit that having two protagonists in a short film is a wild idea and was particularly challenging to implement structurally. I honestly don’t blame my classmates that struggled with the idea when I was workshopping it, but I knew that it would add this identification that was needed with the mother character and make their collective journey more relatable.

On the challenges of making a student project:

“We had a few interesting challenges throughout all stages of production. From the personal nature of the writing, to the at times tiring nature of crowdfunding, to the ever-changing weather on set, working with heaps of energetic teenage extras, and wrangling animals and insects in shots. But the real challenge was orchestrating post-production back in the United States.

Post-production took an entire year to complete due to a lack of funding. Here I was editing the film between jobs, classes, and film shoots when I could. ‘Tangles and Knots’ is the deepest I’ve gone in writing something semi-autobiographical and it was a little hard at first to see the film objectively during the edit. It ended up being a blessing in disguise to be stuck in post-production for so long as I really got to challenge the editing structure.

In the end, I collaborated with another editor, Chelsea Taylor and a few other Columbia peers to help get an objective view of the edit. Through this collaboration, I found that the unspoken moments between Michelle and Laura exposed much more about their relationship. Once the edit was locked, we then had to organize ADR with a few of our actors which were predominantly located back in Australia. So then we had a bit of a struggle orchestrating the sessions back home at a time when I and all of our talent would be in the country together. The fun challenges of scheduling!”  

On choosing to shoot the film in Australia:

To be honest, I thoroughly enjoy shooting in both countries. However, the location choice for this project was purely a creative one. I was pretty adamant about shooting back in my homeland of Australia given the personal inspiration of the story. The specificity of this world was of the utmost importance. Although the film could have translated to an American setting, it would have drastically changed many story elements and details: everything from character to production design, locations and even sound design.

I’ve found shooting in the United States and Australia very similar, save for a few things. The days are shorter on Australian sets, there’s no chance misunderstanding of my accent, the coffee is stellar, and if you ever turn up late-onset, you better be buying a slab of beer for production.” 

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On turning “Tangles and Knots” into a feature film:

I am currently in development on the feature version ‘Tangles and Knots.’ The feature dives deeper into the complex relationship between Michelle and Laura and further explores the toxic community the pair inhabits. The feature also navigates the aftermath of the events of the short film and how this trauma comes to alter their bond forever. The film is ultimately a character-driven portrait that further dissects themes of female identity, motherhood, class, sexual violence, and masculinity in Australian culture. 

I’m also developing a horror feature film set in contemporary Greece, two short film projects to be shot in Australia, and I am also part of an anthology web series ‘MASC’ which involves eight female and non-binary filmmakers exploring masculinity. My episode in this series will be the first story I’ve written with a male protagonist, which I’m very excited about! “

Festivals:
68th Berlinale: Generation 14Plus Competition 2018
SXSW: Narrative Shorts Competition 2018
Sydney Film Festival 2018
Palm Springs International Shortfest 2018
Melbourne International Film Festival 2018
Athens International Film Festival 2018
Pluk De Nacht Open Air Film Festival 2018
Adelaide Film Festival 2018
41st Denver Film Festival 2018
17th Cinemaforum International Film Festival 2018
London Short Film Festival 2019
Flickerfest 2019
Reelgood Film Festival 2019
New Filmmakers Los Angeles 2019
Brooklyn Film Festival 2019
St Kilda Film Festival 2019
Athens Short Film Festival 2019
CinefestOz Film Festival 2019
Hollyshorts Film Festival 2019

Awards and Nominations:
Winner of Best Female Director Award, Hollyshorts Film Festival 2019
Winner of Canon Award for Best Direction in an Australian Short Film, Flickerfest 2019
Winner of Best International Student Filmmaker Award, Denver Film Festival 2018
Nominated for Best Achievement in Screenplay, St Kilda Film Festival 2019
Nominated for the 2019 ADG Award for Best Direction in a Student Short Film
Nominated for Best International Short Film & Leeanna Walsman for Best Performance in a Drama,
New Filmmakers Los Angeles 2020 Awards
Nominated for AACTA 2018 Best Short Fiction Film Award
Special Mention, Event Cinemas Australian Short Screenplay Award, Sydney Film Festival 2018
Winner of Best National Short Film, Greek Australian Short Film Festival 2018

Starring: Leeanna Walsman & Odessa Young

Supporting Cast: Mitzi Ruhlmann, Toby Wallace, Govinda Röser-Finch, Bryn Chapman Parish

A Jars Productions & Paper Moose Production

Read more Tangles and Knots

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