LGBTQ Spotlight: “Sandbagger” interview with Mitch Anderson

A still from Sandbagger shows a young woman staring past the camera. There is red and white paint on her face.

Check this interview for a (free) link to watch a short feature indie film featuring some cute sapphic characters and an artsy, complex theme.

What is Sandbagger?

Sandbagger is a 42-minute film that released earlier this summer. The film focuses on protagonist, Lee, and her grapple with adulthood and self-discovery (including some canon queer exploration) under the lens of a (seemingly) strange Argentinian tradition. Anderson’s film is artsy, inquisitive, unusual, and a little haunting. Like a dense and detailed short story encouraging new conclusions for every re-read, Sandbagger is worth a watch and re-watch for fresh discoveries and push for deeper thinking and interpretations. [Warning: Nudity!] Click here to watch!

Mitch Anderson is a 24-year-old Grand Rapids resident who moved to GR for his undergrad degree at Grand Valley State University in film and video production. (For those keeping track, yes, Mitch is my former classmate!) His current plans include a move to LA in the upcoming year or two after completing a few projects in the Midwest. In this interview, Mitch answers my questions about filmmaking, his processes for Sandbagger in particular, and queering his mini feature.

AL&HL: How did you get into filmmaking? Why did you choose to study it?

For the longest time, up into middle school, I actually planned to become a cartoonist; I was obsessed with comic strips and dove so deeply into comics history and methodology. The problem is that I didn’t have the drawing skills or patience to actually sit down and do the art, and even with what little practice I had, I just didn’t get any better. I came realize, though, that the part of cartooning that I actually enjoyed was coming up with the setup, the development, and the punchline, and realizing that that translated pretty effortlessly into storytelling and writing.

My family would make semi-weekly trips to the local video rental store throughout my childhood, and when I was in high school, I received a copy of the 1001 Movies to See Before You Die book as a gift, right around the same time we got a Netflix DVD-by-mail subscription, which blew the doors right open for diving into the world of movies and filmmaking. I made a couple video projects with friends throughout the rest of school, and then had my first taste of actual directing during a trip to L.A. with a student ambassador group the summer after my senior year. I didn’t take as many production courses as perhaps I should’ve at Grand Valley, but I made up for it by taking the film study and history courses very seriously (something which I still make an effort to do by trying to take in as many and as wide a variety of movies and pop culture pieces that I can; I feel like whether it’s at a film school level or on a blockbuster level, you can definitely tell the movies made by people whose only frames of reference are movies they already know and love).

AL&HL: How did “Sandbagger” start? What concepts first came to the table in its early pre-production phase?

The very first element of Sandbagger that was in place was learning about the real Argentinian tradition of a university graduate’s family and friends meeting them outside their final exam, cutting off their clothes, and covering them with gunk and paint. I was really fascinated by this, because from the outside, it looks like a very humiliating and degrading thing, but the photographs and videos of the custom are full of joy and laughter. Eventually learning that the custom was meant to represent having to clean yourself up and clothe yourself as an adult, quite literally in this case, made it feel very moving to me.

I’ve thought a lot the last few years about how people of our generation have come to see the ideas that the generations before us saw as givens, home ownership, stable career, retirement, as things we don’t think we’ll ever get to achieve. Very few of my peers have jobs they love, or even like, and even those jobs require way more work and emotional investment than they would’ve in previous generations. Those kinds of parallel ideas, of “adulthood” and what it means in a modern context, felt very compatible to me, and it began to make sense to me to tell a story about someone who was caught in the midst of a job undergoing a “fun” and “retro” redesign and simultaneous harassment having to sort of grapple with the things from her personal life that she hasn’t really had the chance to address and consider.

AL&HL: Did you go into the project knowing you wanted queer characters? At what point did you realize they would be part of the story?

I didn’t directly approach developing the story knowing that I wanted queer characters, but as I built the skeleton of the story and emotional narrative, and when I realized I wanted the development in Lee’s personal life to parallel and eventually drive her major choices in her professional life–I figured queerness had a natural place in this narrative. It’s sort of a catch-22 of our generation that we are simultaneously more expressive, not just in our gender and sexuality but in our emotions and our art, but that at the same time, we have inherited this generational emotional repression from our parents and our grandparents, that so much of the generation before us still hangs on to archaic beliefs about sex and gender and expression, even grandly philosophical ideas such as the existence climate change. These are massive, heavy themes that I don’t (can’t) really address in the movie as it is, but it was something that was definitely on my mind, especially by trying to hit a sweet spot between leaving a lot of Lee’s history and background up to viewer interpretation and making sure that her character was strong and clear to the viewer, and inherent to that was realizing this existence and expression of queerness within Lee.

I realized I wanted the development in Lee’s personal life to parallel and eventually drive her major choices in her professional life–I figured queerness had a natural place in this narrative.

AL&HL: You’ve made a short with some queer subtext before, why did you decide to pull the queerness of these characters into the direct text this time around?

I made a previous project that had a queer subtext regarding a character’s previous relationship, and in hindsight, it was something that I treated a bit too much like an afterthought on that project. Once I’d decided that the relationship between Lee and Evelyn was going to be the emotional backbone of this film, I wanted to be sure that I took it seriously and handled it as such.

The complexity of queerness and that self-discovery seemed to be a far richer source of drama and character than, say, Lee discovering feelings for a male friend.

Not to reduce queerness to an “interesting thing”, but I felt that the evolution of Lee’s character and her realization of her feelings towards Evelyn, and the interconnected self-realizations that would come with that evolution, were more interesting in a queer context than in a heterosexual context. I’ve been grappling with my own sexuality and its manifestations for some time, and the complexity of queerness and that self-discovery seemed to be a far richer source of drama and character than, say, Lee discovering feelings for a male friend. The chemistry between the two actors only helped this, and it was an approach to Lee’s self-realization that make sense once everything else in the narrative came into place.

AL&HL: What did the actors bring to these roles? Did they meet your expectations?

The drawn-out pre-production process was frustrating in the sense of waiting to make the movie, but I would say it was ultimately for the better, since Lindsey Normington and Lindsay Bruce–our two leads–could spend a lot of time looking over and discussing the characters and their emotions and motivations, and discuss those with me for both their sake and mine to be sure that I myself had a full understanding of their stories.

The film process itself was a whirlwind, but since we all had spent so much time with the characters, we all had a pretty complete sense of who they were and what they were feeling throughout the story. Additionally, Kevin McCasland, the actor who plays the Patron, wasn’t involved until a week or so before production began, and he engaged with the material right away. He and Lindsey have worked together before, and they just clicked into the dynamic between their characters right away. None of this would’ve been possible without Lindsey as Lee; I never had anyone else in mind for the character, and Lindsey was just an incredible sport and amazing collaborator every single step of the way from pre- to post-production. I want to work with Lindsey for the rest of my life.

AL&HL: Were you worried about audience reading the sexuality of these characters as something for the male-gaze? How did you approach this to avoid a scene that felt this way?

Avoiding a feeling of exploitation or gaze was super important for me. There’s an incredibly fine line between exploration and exploitation, and most of my work went into the framing of the scenes, both narratively within the script, and literally, working with my Director of Photography to make sure the actual camerawork didn’t feel leering.

I find human physicality very fascinating as a subject, the way we as humans use our bodies to express ourselves and communicate, and obviously, sexuality and nudity is a major part of that. And the sad truth of things is there doesn’t seem to be any middle ground in America; there isn’t really a place for healthy sexuality and depictions of sex, queer or even otherwise, in mainstream film or culture, but expressions of sexuality often manifest as fetishistic or pornographic, and, sadly, even sincerely thoughtful expressions and explorations will just get stripped of context and reduced to simple spectator pornography. (And given responses to the film in corners of the internet, this is something I should’ve been way more considerate of during production, and is absolutely something I be mindful of on future projects).  

AL&HL: Did you have any “queer consultants” in the process of this film? How did their voices help shape the queering of “Sandbagger”?

While I didn’t have any specifically designated “queer consultants” during production, I made sure to show the script to a wide variety of friends and emphasize that I was open to specific feedback. Lindsey and Lindsey both identify as queer, and Lindsey identifies as nonbinary, and as I’ve discussed, much of the story comes from my complicated views of my own sexuality.

Lindsey and Lindsey both identify as queer, and Lindsey identifies as nonbinary, and as I’ve discussed, much of the story comes from my complicated views of my own sexuality.

While we were filming, communication and comfort was a key element. I made sure that any discomfort or question was addressed, and that everyone in the cast and crew could come forward with any concerns. Having said that, that sort of direct, active collaboration with people specially designated for that sort of thing is very important to me, and when I tell this kind of story in the future, I will absolutely work to have that sort of direct consultation.

AL&HL: Tell me anything else you think I (or readers) should know!

The response to the film has been overwhelming in the best possible way, and I can’t express how thankful I am for everyone who has watched it. I so, so appreciate your blog and the things you talk about, and I thank you so much for taking the time to ask me these questions. 

Mitch F. Anderson is a filmmaker currently based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He specializes in screenwriting and directing and has experience with editing and producing. He is currently working on potential scripts and is brainstorming a feature-length project. He can be found at @MitchFAnderson on Twitter and at mitchfanderson.com.

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