SUSANELAND made me literally LOL both times I watched it! Each of the five short episodes playing at CAAMFest in the EPISODICS shorts program is a slice of life-gone-awry. What happens when civility breaks down, in an elevator, or a checkout lane? What happens when you’re the target of judgments and criticisms instead of warmth and acceptance? We’re not talking big stakes fallout like, say, threatening nuclear war, or neo-Nazi marches – but we’re in an era in which the milk of human kindness seems to be running dry. SUSANELAND is the perfect mirror to our interpersonal sins and shortcomings. It’s like that Chinese parable, about the nail that comes out of the horseshoe, the horse that loses the horseshoe because of the lost nail, and on up the chain until the war is lost. SUSANELAND is about that nail we’re in danger of losing every day. I sat down with co-writers and creators Susane Lee and Andrew Olson just prior to CAAMFest in a videochat. The following is an edited transcription of our talk. The entire interview can be heard on my Pacific Heart podcast (SoundCloud, Stitcher and iTunes).
First, tell me a little bit about your backgrounds and your collaboration.
Susane Lee: My background is as an actor. We got together through improv – we had a team together, we hosted a weekly show, then we started writing.
Andrew Olson: Which led to short comedic videos, and we decided to branch out into something episodic.
The CAAMFest program suggests that SUSANELAND was inspired by events in your life, Susane. Please tell us more!
SL: They were all loosely based on things that have happened to me. We started writing and re-writing, and picked what we thought were the strongest – and that’s what ended up in season one. Most of the stuff is just day-to-day interactions. And there is one flashback to something that happened to me as a child. And then we would blow them out. We love dark comedy and the surreal. But all of the performances are supergrounded, and real.
When did you decide you would start collecting the residue of bad behavior?
SL: You know, these are just moments that stick out to me and we thought would be interesting if we pushed further. A lot of weird things happen to me! (Laughs!) I have a massive reservoir of things to draw from!
Well, I’m sorry! (Laughter) Your shorts were very much about the underbelly of human relations, and the things that go wrong – as if our collective dial were adjusted towards meanness, hostility, judgment, criticism and schadenfreude. Where do you feel that dial yourselves on a day-to-day basis?
SL: The core of SUSANELANDis trying to find connection. And in doing so, it’s awkward.
AO: You live day-to-day and things happen to you, and you go “that was just weird.” And sometimes you try to do a nice thing for someone and it blows up in your face…We wanted to take these simple things and create a sort of – like a moral – but not really. Human beings are weird. In this simple moment – where all you’re trying to go to the grocery store and buy something – this total bizarre thing can happen, not of your own making, you certainly didn’t expect for this to happen, yet it does. Sometimes in life you find yourself in situations and stop at the end of it and just say “how did I get here? This is not where I meant to be!” Just taking those simple situations and make them interesting.
SL: Examining what draws people (to do things they do) is just fascinating. Even in the (music episode), this man who was so emotionally connected to music, so sensitive, and yet could be insensitive to a small child.
AO: Those people exist. This is a person who lacks awareness, but has emotions. That’s life. There’s not good people and bad people. There are some people who are just indifferent or lack awareness. Doesn’t mean they’re terrible or don’t have emotions – it just means in this area of their lives they have blinders on.
I think that will make the audience very sympathetic. I’ve certainly been judged in the checkout line! And a lot of people will appreciate the episode with the harsh music teacher. I really felt like your films could have been a perfect metaphor for social media! People can be so mean online – doing exactly the kinds of things your characters do or worse. Do you think online meanness is shifting the dial? The trolling etc.? Is that one reason these issues became prominent for you?
AO: Maybe subconsciously. With social media, people have more of a voice which is a positive in some ways but also a negative when some people use that for trolling…but it’s a much more potentially sensitive world. We do live in very interesting times!
SL: Any time you’re creating content, you are subject to so many….the crazies come out!
YouTube comments are the worst!
SL: The worst!
What about these experiences do you think were particularly powerful for you as an Asian American woman?
What is particularly powerful about these experiences is that they are really human experiences that demonstrate a commonality between people regardless of one’s cultural background. I think we’ve all experienced wanting to connect with others and how awkward that can be at times.
I agree – I think the universality of the experience was why I didn’t ask this question originally! (This question was asked in a later email exchange.) But I think as minorities, many of us do experience devaluations and microaggressions. Andrew started to suggest that these might be viewed as kind of morality tales – and I think they could be viewed as kind of “empathy prompts” or humorous outtakes on our common humanity / common human predicament.
Obviously, there are far worse things than getting judged in the checkout lane or an elevator. But your film touches with comedic lightness some really dark areas of the human psyche. I thought it was really “primal comedy.” Some of the notes I scribbled while watching – themes of being policed and judged by others, being asked for your papers, not being accepted, not belonging, the judgments of the old on the young and vulnerable, being all alone in an uncaring world. This is a gold mine – do you have plans for more? I hope you don’t have to have new experiences to do that!
SL: Our goal is to develop this into a half-hour format. With our combined personal experiences, we are developing it into a series where we can explore and blow out these situations.
AO: We are jumping to the half-hour format.
SL: This is just a little taste!
Your shorts really hit a sweet spot! I look forward to the full-length treatment! Thanks for your work, and for taking the time to talk with me!
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See Susaneland.com for trailers, meet-the-artists interviews and more.
Ravi Chandra, M.D. is a psychiatrist and writer in San Francisco. His full-length nonfiction debut, Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks, won the 2017 Nautilus Silver Book Award for Religion/Spirituality of Eastern Thought. His latest longform essay on gun psychology, Guns Are Not Our God! The NRA Is Not Our Church! is available now. He also leads compassion and self-compassion workshops. More MOSF posts can be found here.