Seeing Double: Interview with Zack Russell

Christie Pits Film Festival presents an evening of doppelgängers on August 18th as part of its summer-long Dynamic Duos programme, with the sci-fi cult classic Gattaca. The film takes place in a world where advanced genetic manipulation technology has created a society in which those conceived without the technology, called in-valids, are considered inferior to those with pre-selected traits. Vincent (Ethan Hawke), an in-valid, dreams of space travel but his genetics bar him from the opportunity. In an attempt to pursue his dreams, he impersonates another man who is part of the privileged class. Paired with Gattaca is the short film She Stoops to Conquer, directed by Zack Russell and making its second appearance at TOPS (it screened alongside Cabaret at Corktown Common in 2018). In the short, a woman meets her drag king persona’s double at an after-hours club.

We sat down with Zack Russell to discuss his short film.

TOPS: This year’s festival theme is titled Dynamic Duos, and features several films about doppelgängers. Although doppelgängers are often a source of psychological anguish or fear, your film blends those tropes with more comedic, even sensual, elements. How did you develop your approach to the concept?

Zack Russell (ZR): Because this was my first film, everything was very intuitive - all the choices, all the story beats - none of it was particularly conscious. Also, I think there is something about sameness that is attractive and can even be appealing. A true doppelganger can make one feel like one's identity is being stolen, but imagine running into someone who has consciously constructed themselves to look like you? I think there's something about that act that can make a person feel very seen. That's part of what I was interested in exploring in the film.


TOPS: She Stoops to Conquer is an enigmatic title, that we understand is based on a Oliver Goldsmith play. What made you choose that title, and how have viewers interpreted it?

ZR: I think a lot of people don't know the play, or it's one of those titles that sounds familiar but you're not sure why. I chose the title because I was inspired by a New York playwright, David Greenspan, who did a riff on it for his play She Stoops To Comedy. For some reason, that title stuck in my head and came to me in the early days of making this film. I really like the mythic, war-like resonances of it.

TOPS: She Stoops to Conquer is paired with the 90s cult favourite Gattaca, another film in which a character fashions themselves as the double-image of another. Any thoughts on this pairing?

ZR: Only that I'm excited to see them back to back and love Gattaca

Gattaca 9.jpg

TOPS: After the two leads meet, together they build on Kayla Lorette’s character’s performance. Did you have the tensions of creative collaboration in mind when you developed this premise?

ZR: Not so much the tensions, more questions of appropriation, access, and what it means to be in another person's house and have them show you a private part of themselves. I think of their interaction less as a conscious collaboration and more as an encounter without the usual rules and social guidelines that govern typical interactions.


TOPS: Julian Richings is a national treasure and a familiar face to many Canadians. What was it like working with such a well-known figure? Did you have him in mind when you wrote the film with Kayla?

ZR: We did have him in mind. He was absolutely the person we wrote the film for - and we went to such lengths as making a mask of his face without his knowledge (via a helpful make-up artist) and sending him a video of Kayla wearing the mask. It was our first film and we really wanted to charm him and show that we were serious. In retrospect, it was a bit of a creepy move but it worked, and working with him was a dream. 

She Stoops to Conquer screens alongside Gattaca (Andrew Niccol, 1997) on August 18th at Christie Pits Film Festival.