SXSW Short and Sweet: "Act of God"

Austin-made short busts the disability drama tropes

Spencer Cook in "Act of God"

Welcome to Short and Sweet, our look at some of the short films screening at South by Southwest 2022. Today we talk with Spencer Cook, star, writer and codirector of "Act of God," and producer and codirector Parker Smith.

Even as duo directors have become much more of a norm in cinema, the relationship between the two is quite unique. Cook has Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA), a genetic disorder, and for the last five years Parker has worked as his live-in caretaker. Their friendship has become a creative partnership, and the result is their first short, about Stuart (Cook) dealing with the daily bullshit in his own irascible way.

Austin Chronicle: Whose idea was it to make a short together?

Spencer Cook: I think it was Parker’s idea to make a short about disability and some of the things we’ve experienced while he was my roommate/caregiver. "Act of God" is my first film of any kind but Parker has been making film for quite a while. We began writing it together, but then, because we’re both stubborn and didn’t really know how to write collaboratively, I took over the project.

It was tense for a while but after some time and hard conversations, we reconciled and, I think, both felt pretty good about our roles. I was the director/actor and Parker a producer when we began filming but over the course of the shoot, it was very obvious to me that Parker was also directing. There were times when I just couldn’t attend to all the things that a director should be, especially when I was in the shot... which was pretty much every shot. Parker really stepped up and filled that role when I couldn’t. I’m very proud of how well we worked together on set, especially after our earlier conflict.

Parker Smith: I remember I was driving around one morning, delivering tacos, trying to come up with movie ideas. I wondered what a film called “Lame” could be about, then remembered that time Spencer found $100 and couldn’t pick it up, and texted him right away. Spencer and I would write it, he’d star, I’d direct. This was pre-Covid. A lot has changed since then, including the title of the film, as well as our own titles/responsibilities. Being a live-in caretaker is an interesting relationship- you’re a friend, roommate, and employee. Adding a creative collaboration to that proved to be pretty difficult, but we figured it out in the end. We made the film we were supposed to make.

AC: Films about characters with disabilities often end up "feel good" in a forced way. Were there any tropes you really wanted to avoid?

SC: There are two tropes that really bother me. The first is just your standard inspiration porn, which usually involves disabled people “overcoming" their many “challenges" with, in my opinion, too cheery of an attitude. It makes disabled people into heroes for really just living their lives while also obscuring the fact that they are only able to function because other able bodied people show up and help them. I wanted to make sure we acknowledged the value of caregiving.

The second trope, and this one was a bit more difficult to avoid, is the portrayal of disability as inevitably sad. Though my life is often really tough, it’s bearable thanks to the people who help me every day. When people only see disabled people as either heroes or miserable wretches, they miss the reality that disabled life is like many other lives: difficult, but also joyful and rich.

PS: At certain points, I was definitely guilty of trying to make the inevitably sad film Spencer is talking about. While writing it we were certain we wanted to make something funny, but in the edit, things just gravitated towards melancholia. Spencer was very clear not only about why that was to be avoided, but how.

AC: There's a painfully funny sequence involving Stuart's coworkers that's agonizingly recognizable for anyone that's had people, based on misguided good intentions, make assumptions about them. Did that come from any particular experience, or just everyday grind?

Spencer Cook

SC: I assume you’re talking about Stuart’s boss trying to find him a friend by hiring another guy in a wheelchair. Yes, people have tired to "set me up" with other disabled people but not since I was a kid. It really bothered me back then, due to my internalized ablism. Looking back, my reaction feels understandable but unfortunate. It was important to me to emphasize that though the boss is being a little odd, he’s actually not doing anything wrong.

PS: We really wanted the boss to be a character who, despite his best intentions, totally sucks. We knew that Stuart had to have a bad day at work, so the trick was to find a way to dump on the main character without anybody actually having ill-will towards him. It was really exciting when we finally figured out how to do that.

AC: There's nothing more humanizing than to let a character be less than perfect, and Stuart's definitely got some edges to him. How much did you want to play with audiences' habits of taking a one-dimensional view of characters with disabilities?

SC: It was extremely important to build a three dimensional character. ... Rough edges were important because I didn’t want the character to fall into the inspiration porn hero category but I also didn’t want him to alienate the audience. In my experience, people are pretty quick to perceive disabled characters as bitter when they fail to fit that heroic mold.

PS: We definitely tried to play with it. There’s a point in the movie where Stuart meets his disability-doppelganger who, despite appearances, is his complete opposite. So even if you were trying to coast through the movie by taking a one-dimensional view of Stuart because of his disability, at that point you’d really have to sit up straight and think a little harder.

AC: I was glad to see you get Tinus Seaux in there, He's great in The Pizzagate Massacre, but much more affable here. How did he come aboard?

SC: In some ways, the story is about the actual relationship Parker and I have, and Tinus makes a pretty good Parker. Like most people who worked on the film, he was a friend of a friend. He's wonderful actor and really great to work with.

PS: It wasn’t until his first day of shooting, when I saw this long-haired dude with glasses standing next to Spencer, that I realized how much Tinus and I looked alike. Suddenly I remembered that the characters “Stuart” and “Paul” were originally called “Spencer” and “Parker”. In all of the pre-production woes, I had forgotten that the film was about our relationship. I was watching Tinus and realized that not only was this guy playing me, but he was better at playing me than I am. I remember thinking, “wow, I really wish I was co-directing this thing.”

Act of God

Texas Shorts, World Premiere
Tuesday, March 15, 3:15pm, Rollins
Online: Through March 21

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SXSW 2022, SXSW Film 2022, Act of God, Short and Sweet, Spencer Cook, Parker Smith

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