Not Quite A Happy Birthday: A Look at Short Film ‘Peggy’

We all like to imagine what would happen if we could read people’s minds. However, we’d probably end up hearing a lot of things we wished we hadn’t. Peggy (Or: The Art of Coveting in the Age of Social Media) gives us an idea of this, with all the local parents in a community going to a child’s birthday party, thrown by the titular Peggy, the seemingly-perfect mother who can do no wrong. As the story goes on, more and more unravels about what everyone thinks, until everything comes according to Peggy’s plans. We spoke to the film’s director Justin O’Neal Miller to find out more.

What inspired this story?

The story came primarily from being a parent, and both hosting and attending kid’s birthday parties. In particular, I remember my oldest son opening a bunch of presents that I would never let him have otherwise: rot-your-teeth-out candy, violent video games, and the like. It felt like everyone was trying to sabotage our parenting style, and as I looked around at parents drinking beer, and coworkers without kids there for the networking, I realized that kid’s birthday parties these days are more about the adults than the kids.
 
What’s it like telling a story in such a short amount of time?
 
You know, I’ve wrestled with the short film format for nearly ten years now, at least in my mind. This is my fourth short film, and while I have always wanted to create longer format content for features and television, I knew that I needed to master this shorter content, and there’s a part of me that hopes I’ll continue to work in it, as I do think there are some stories that are much better suited to it. The main challenge, I think, is creating a beginning, middle, and end in such a short span of time, and bringing characters to life very quickly. Peggy has a lot of characters, so this was a specific challenge for us, but we addressed it with careful casting and an approach to world building that made exchanges feel like the characters were in the middle of relationships. This is the fastest paced short I’ve made, and that was very much by design, as we knew there was little time to waste.

Muretta Moss as ‘Liza’, Josh Warren as ‘Smidge’, and Jeremiah Castleman as ‘Uncle Jameson’ in Peggy (2018)
Dir. Justin O’Neal Miller

They say never work with children or animals. What was it like working with both?
 
We stacked a lot of difficult things into this project. Kids, animals, VFX (with animals), all exteriors in July with no rain cover (it rained)… but we did everything we could to be smart about our approach. Thematically it made sense to maintain focus on the adults at the party, so we only photographed children from the back and tops of their heads. This has an obvious ease-of-use benefit, but really helped drive home the “Reverse Charlie Brown” mechanism in the film. We also limited the overlap of children and animals, and tried to not wear them out. Owls are particularly stubborn to deal with, if only because once they are well-fed, they don’t mind sitting in one place for hours. There definitely was a time when we were unsure if the owl would do anything at all.

How did you come up with the idea to have the audience hear the characters’ thoughts?
 
There is this running joke/truth in the south regarding hospitality and the appearance of pleasantries, but with an undercurrent of gossip and disdain. The idea of hearing multiple characters’ internal monologue was born from putting that concept into a birthday party setting. We actually struggled to find many examples of projects that had executed this before, and we were really worried that it might not work. That it would be confusing for the audience if they didn’t know exactly where this disembodied voice came from. Chris Campbell (Director of Photography) and I were very deliberate in our shot design, to make sure that we established a visual vocabulary for a general viewership. In general, unsurprisingly, our audiences have been extremely hip to the concept, and pick up on it immediately. 
 
Why does everyone seem to hate Peggy?
 
I think everyone seems to hate Peggy because life is hard! It’s a struggle to find balance and happiness in your everyday life, and to see someone pull it off with grace and style is frustrating. Each of the characters has a unique relationship to her, but I think that there is an innate pleasure in seeing a successful person struggle, however ugly that instinct might be. But I think that everyone also loves Peggy, to different degrees. Brad, her husband, certainly loves her. I think that Liza, her good friend, admires her even more than she covets. Smidge probably just thinks she’s hot. Hahaha. Peggy is the person that you think you want to be, but how much of that is a facade? I’m sure there are ways in which Peggy feels insecure, and incomplete.

 

 

Sarah Blackman as ‘Peggy’ and Mies Isaac Miller as ‘Ander’ in Peggy (2018)
Dir. Justin O’Neal Miller

Seriously, is Peggy some sort of witch? Or was the thing with the owl, not to give too much away, a coincidence? Or is she simply just that perfect?
 
Hahaha! Peggy is definitely not a witch, but I do think that her success is a combination of old-fashioned elbow grease, some ruthless decision making, and the universe being titled in her favor. Right before the finale, we get to see a little chink in her armor.
 
How can we all be more like Peggy?
 
Becoming Peggy is a dangerous prospect. There’s a self-preservationist in all of us, and there’s something exciting about success, but at what cost? Half of this film is me worshiping my wife, in particular, and mothers in general, for everything that they do to raise children and maintain a household. But the other half of the film is a critical look at the pressure our image-driven culture and social-media saturation puts on them. Some of that pressure is self-imposed, if not invited, but there’s something insatiable about the human spirit, something that never lets enough be enough. That can be a useful, and beautiful thing, but it’s the end of a rainbow you’ll never reach. Truth is, there a lot of Peggy already in each of us, and that’s why the film seems to land so universally, regardless of age, race or creed.
 
Tell us about your future projects!
 
Peggy was born without any big plans for its expansion, but there has been so much interest in her story that I am developing it into a half-hour comedy series in the vein of HBO’s Barry and FX’s Atlanta. The scale of the show is so attainable that it has become a front-burner project for us. In addition, we have two features and two series lined up for the near-to-medium future. I think that the features are very much in the scale and tone of Peggy, but both series are quite serious, and quite large. We are trying to lay out a road map that gets us from one to the other, without giving up much in-between. Hopefully I’ll be able to speak more about them in the near future!

 

 

Sarah Blackman as ‘Peggy’ and Jason MacDonald as ‘Brad’ in Peggy (2018)
Dir. Justin O’Neal Miller

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