A GoPride Interview

John Early and Theda Hammel

Stress Positions is a cinematic lesson in nervous tension

Thu. May 9, 2024  by Jerry Nunn

This movie is attempting to show people who in our daily life we would just dismiss or possibly shun
John Early and Theda Hammel

john early

photo credit // neon

John Early and Theda Hammel talk about Stress Positions

The new independent movie Stress Positions stars John Early as Terry Goon and Theda Hammel as Karla (no last name).

The story centers around pandemic times when Terry is taking care of his nephew Bahlul from Morocco who is stuck in bed after a scooter accident.

Many may recognize Early from previous projects such as Search Party and The Afterparty. Theda wore many hats for this undertaking by being a performer, director and scriptwriter.

Stress Positions was the closing night film at the Sundance Film Festival in 2024.

Theda and John talked over Zoom about the project recently.

JN: (Jerry Nunn) Start off by talking about how Stress Positions came together in the first place.

TH: (Theda Hammel) It came from a piece of writing that I sent to John on his birthday in 2021. It was about 15 to 18 pages and it was basically a monologue with a dialogue breaking out occasionally with character interaction. It was not a script or a treatment. It was meant to be readable from beginning to end and stand on its own.

I thought it would potentially lead to a very low-budget experiment where we would rent a house. We would shoot there for a week with a crew and see what would happen.

One thing led to another and I wound up extending it to a longer more proper script. We received a wonderful offer from Neon and we made the film. We had no choice at that point since it was such a rare opportunity.

JN: How did you know each other before this project?

JE: (John Early) I worked the front desk at the Atlantic Theater Company Acting School, where Theta always likes to interject and say that she was rejected there. She was taking the summer intensive program when I was working there.

We worked on theater projects together in the early part of 2010…

TH: When theater was really at its peak!

JE: We were making a lot of money. [both laugh] We went on to co-host a variety show together. Those were truly some of the best nights of my life. We have been very good friends since that time.

I was lucky enough to have Theta write something for me. She used her access to my emotional life and our collective ideas about the world. I don’t know if that will ever happen again and someone will write for me with such intimate knowledge.

JN: You will both always have this project. Theta, how was it juggling acting, writing, directing and also doing score work?

TH: I was able to compensate for the defects of one area to pair with whatever skill I might have in another.

I am not the most wonderful actress in the world, but I was able to write myself a part I could play and then I was able to edit myself so I looked competent. I might not be the greatest director in the world, but I was able to synthesize things by the end with scoring.

It was not a burden at all. It was a real pleasure. I was released to be able to work that way since that is how I have worked my whole life on much smaller projects.

JN: That’s a good lesson for others as people sometimes self-sabotage. They should just try it out, right?

TH: I had no idea until the very end how good it would end up being. There are many drafts of this film that are not good including the one we shot.

There was potential in the script and appeal there. It was enough to get us all going. The film became what it was over the course of working on it day by day throughout the shoot and the edit with the scoring, right up until the very end.

The movie has a voice-over component that is prominent. One of which runs throughout the entire movie and covers the experience with the character of Terry’s nephew Bahlul. That voiceover was drafted and reshaped until we filmed the last day.

JN: Talk about the huge disco ball scene. I had one like that in my house and it is heavy!

JE: It was horrible.

JN: Where did it come from?

TH: Someone working in production picked it up for $600 at a prop warehouse. They claimed that it was used in one of Beyonce’s music videos that was unreleased. Since it was never released that is hard to confirm.

It was six feet wide and impossible to hang from the ceiling. We kept bumping into it during preproduction. It was so obnoxious to look at and I felt it was a colossal waste of money. The only way to recoup it was to use it in the opening and closing parts of the film.

It had to stay outside the house because it was so big!

JN: What was the most challenging thing to work on besides that?

TH: I had no challenges in working with John. He came to the set extremely prepared. He was the one part that I didn’t find challenging in any regard.

There was a lot of memorization and physical work. We had stunt coordinating and a plan.

JN: What would you like audiences to take away from the film?

TH: This movie is attempting to show people who in our daily lives we would just dismiss or possibly shun. Stress Positions is holding a window open on them for about an hour and a half.

Hopefully, viewers can suspend judgment as much as possible so they can look at them and maybe be even charmed by them. More than that I hope people can see the whole shape of their interactions with each other in a way that they normally wouldn’t do in daily life.

JN: John I had interviewed previously with Kate Berlant and after that, you performed at The Vic.

JE: Did you go?

JN: I didn’t because I wasn’t sure how to contact you to meet up.

JE: That was one of the greatest shows ever when I was in the Windy City.

JN: Oh no! I will not miss your show next time. What are you both working on next?

JE: I am very much inspired by this experience. I am trying to put together something very low-budget. There are ways that it puts strains on the process, but comes with a certain amount of freedom that you can’t have with bigger films. I am trying to put together something very similar to Stress Positions and use some of the collaborators that I have met over the years.

TH: I am just trying to get through the press cycle.

JN: I hope the press is nice to you!

TH: They have all been very kind.

JN: Good. What is everyone doing for Pride?

TH: I will be in Sydney, Australia this June, which means I will have successfully avoided Pride in two countries.

JE: I have no Pride plans. I am usually surprised when Pride arrives. I will find a Pride song to dance to around in my home!

Stress Positions is currently screening at Landmark’s Century Centre, 2828 North Clark Street. Visit landmarktheatres.com for tickets and information.


Interviewed by Jerry Nunn. Jerry Nunn is a contributing writer to the GoPride Network. His work is also featured in Windy City Times, Nightspots Magazine and syndicated nationally.