franci dimitrovska, limbs (2019)
Adam: We’re here with Franci - one of my favourite people in the world.
Adam: I hope the other filmmakers don’t read that.
Seb: So you’re gonna put it in?
Adam: Wait no - don’t put that in.
Franci: Put it in.
Adam: Franci, what’s your name? Who are you? What is your film? What is something about your film that you want to share off the top?
Franci: Okay. My name is Franci. I’m a... filmmaker? It’s hard to say filmmaker. It’s like, what am I doing most of the time? Not filmmaking. Which kind of sucks, but anyways…
Seb: I’m sort of a walker.
Franci: A walker. A walker and a sleeper. Sleeper would be more accurate, but that’s okay. Uhh… I’m Franci. I think. I think a lot. I think things. I’m a filmmaker and a writer. Screenwriter. We’ll go with that. From Toronto. I made a short film called Limbs. And Limbs is about one of the puppeteers that sits in the armpit of another puppeteer playing a left hand while the main puppeteer plays the voice and the other hand. So it’s kind of an unsung hero type job, and our main character who does this is nicknamed “Limbs”. [The film is] about her position in this crew and this set, and not being appreciated. And chosen family. And adventure. And mystery.
Adam: What drew you to telling this story about the “unsung hero” behind the scenes of a production?
Franci: I think I wrote Limbs about me. I hope that what people see in Limbs is that this is kind of an unsung hero on a puppet show, but I also think that the main character gets a lot of pleasure out of calling herself an “unsung hero”. I think a lot of people on film sets, or just creatively, like to think that their role is secretly very important. And they always are! But I think people get a big kick out of being that person.
[Seb’s phone rings]
Franci: That’s okay - that’s opportunity calling! Yeah, I just think that people get a kick out of thinking that they’re an unsung hero on a set and that they’re a part of a family and they’re this vital role, when in reality, a lot of groups and crews and teams aren’t quite as thoughtful about things.
I just wanted to tell the story about someone who feels like they’re part of a chosen family when… it’s not so much that, you know? It’s a paid job. And I made the mistake of attaching myself to a lot of projects and teams that I thought were forever. Forever and ever. But they’re not, and it’s about growing up and realizing this. I kind of wrote this around the time that I started to be okay with that. That’s why I wanted to write this.
Seb: I think a lot of artists are in the position where they have a job that they don’t like. Do you think having that flexibility of being able to distinguish what you’re going to attach yourself to emotionally in your work has helped you to navigate some of those kind of shitty jobs?
Franci: This is a good question. I’ve had a lot of shitty jobs, and every time I still try to have this deep emotional connection with everyone in my periphery. Right now, I came out of making Limbs, and I was working 18 hour days all year. So that’s why I chose this 9-5. It almost feels like vacation coming in somewhere and not emotionally attaching to anything, and then coming home and doing things I enjoy.
I burnt out so hard on Limbs. It was great making it, but at some point the amount that you care about a project threatens to choke you out, you know? It overshadows your entire life. For like 12 months all I thought about was this movie, in a kind of terrifying way. So when I have the opportunity to do a job that I like 9-5 and get paid for it, I think it’ll be great. But I think I’m also trying to appreciate the luxury of clocking out at 5 and doing that whole suburban thing where I spend my evenings now writing or making art. We’ll see. I’m trying to really enjoy this part of my life, where I’m making enough money to pay off Limbs. Which I’m still doing...
Adam: In Limbs, Sadie is fully absorbing herself into the Mayor Bobby show, and once she loses that, once it’s over, it’s like “oh shit, what do I do now?” Do you think that making Limbs has helped you to make that transition after you’ve fully absorbed yourself into the creation of the film?
Franci: Something definitely changed while making Limbs. When I was making Cookstown (dir. Adam Bovoletis) and Starring (dir. Lief Ramsaran), especially Cookstown for some reason, I was relishing in the long days and not thinking about anything else other than the shoot and this movie and making it as good as it can be. And I think this time with Limbs, because I kind of wrote it on my experience last year with Cookstown and Starring, I was just very aware - or trying to be aware - of what I was missing when I was making Limbs. And what Limbs was missing in her life. I think because I was directing it, and writing it, and thinking about it so much, looking back on making Limbs I see so many parts of my life that I also was missing out on.
Finishing Limbs I was very excited to go back to doing things like seeing friends, or cleaning my room. But the truth is that I don’t even think Limbs or I went back to all those good things that we missed. I went immediately into work. I have less time than ever to see my friends because I go home and sleep for the first time in like a year.
So… Limbs has made me realize that being all consumed by a project can be good, can be bad… but uh… dang, I still don’t know how to navigate it at all. I still feel like I don’t know how to handle burn out or exhaustion or leaving teams or groups. I’m still not used to not seeing people every day that I know. So it’s been foreign to wake up and go to work and go home. I’m just not good at switching between states, and I think Limbs isn’t either. Maybe that’s the next movie… Limbs 2: Getting a Hobby.
Seb: I think that’s part of the pain of Sadie - she’s unable to leave the work at work. Do you think that’s why she doesn’t have as many social connections or hobbies?
Franci: Yeah. I don’t think anything is as thrilling to her as her job. I don’t think anything could compare, so it’s almost like an economy of time. She could spend her time going out and developing new interests, but nothing will be quite as interesting or “fulfilling” to her. Which is kind of how I was. When I used to develop an interest it was all consuming. I still kind of see it in myself. I think I’ve seen a lot of people bounce back and forth between being all consumed by a project and coming back to a normal life, and then getting busy again. But I think for some people - like me - you kind of almost prefer being in that one track mind.
Seb: I think sometimes we’re either in a one track mode, or we’re in a period where we’re not doing as much, and we’re like “oh man it would be so much better if we were doing the other thing”. But then when you’re in that transitional period, it’s like “what the hell do I do”, and it’s actually the worst one.
Franci: It is. It is! I had one week between making Limbs and work, and it was the strangest week of my life. I was still stressed. I still had nightmares every night about Limbs, but I was like “it’s over I guess”. I have a lot of nightmares about filmmaking all the time. Whenever I’m making a movie. I produced my friend Andy Reid’s Your Mother and I, and I had nightmares about that set for three weeks non stop. Just of not having enough food. The cast isn’t there…
A lot of my dreams - this happened for Limbs a lot more - I’d be asleep and we’d be shooting and someone would be outside my door like “come on, call action”, and I’ll be like “fuck, I fell asleep”. And I get it a lot! I still get dreams where I’m back in the mixing room, or I’m colouring. I think I get too stressed out.
Adam: Is that just from letting the film be an all consuming thing?
Seb: Like your subconscious is still working on it, even though it’s done?
Franci: Yeah, I never relax when I’m working on a project like this. Cause it’s not 9-5. I could always be working on it, and then there’s always the feeling that if you’re not working on it right now, it’s not gonna be as good. And going back to that [transitional] thing, now that I’m in this 9-5 job, I found that I have free time, so I immediately picked up a new thing. I filled my week with it, and now I still struggle with time. But I don’t know why instinctually I threw myself into something else. And now I’ve blocked off like 8 hours of my week with it, and it’s only when you look back when you’re like “fuck - I made a whole movie about this. I was in this zone this whole time and now I did it again!”
Adam: That’s that hustle culture trap. You see all these people doing all these things so you’re like “hey, I have 5 minutes off on Tuesday… I could do something then! I could fill that time somehow!”
Franci: And I do! I picked up doing improv as a way to de-stress while I was making Limbs, and I just got into my first grad team. It’s been fun. It’s been really great. And I always said “I’m gonna stop when it stops being fun”, but because I want to write and because I want to do comedy, it’s become again like I’ve got to be practicing. Like this is another way for me to get to my ultimate goal. What was supposed to be this fun thing I now take very seriously.
Adam: That’s the other side of it too. I remember reading an article about how we have this tendency for all of our hobbies to become hustles. Anything that we do for fun we think “how can we manufacture this into a hustle or success in some kind of way”. It’s hard to just do improv, for example, and not think about what comes of it.
Franci: Especially when things are so connected. A big thing I wanted in Limbs was that I wanted a lot of the actors to have improv backgrounds, because I love that when making a movie. But now, last night, I completely bombed my set. And it was a bigger audience this time, and I couldn’t stop thinking when I was going to bed, “what if someone there, like if they liked my performance, we could have made a connection?” But it’s supposed to be my fun thing!
Adam: Do you have anything where you just do it? I can’t think of anything I have. Cause even watching movies, I’m always analyzing and thinking about how it can help my practice.
Franci: I would say the closest I come to that, and it’s still tied… Lief got me into Survivor. Survivor is sick! Who knew? It’s very hard for me to sit down and be like “tonight I’m gonna watch a movie”. “Tonight I’m gonna read a book”. “Tonight I’m gonna have fun”. Unless I’m going out and doing a thing. Survivor is like… sit down. Have fun! Everything else comes with a thing I’m developing. Like squash was my thing for a while and I was having fun, but now I’m trying to get fit so that’s part of it. Even playing games I think… oh! It’s permeated every part of my life!
Seb: I’m always trying to get better when I’m playing games.
Franci: Everything that I’ve internalized over the past 4 years at film school. Like every time I’ve played a video game over the past 4 years I was like “man, you could be doing something way better”. And now I can’t relax or unwind when I do that stuff.
Seb: Do you think it’s kind of Sadie’s downfall that she’s turned on her passion - something she probably got into because she loved it - and she’s conflating how successful she is on that one show with her self worth and her happiness?
Franci: I don’t want to say that throwing herself into this puppet business was her downfall, because I like to think that she’s naturally gifted at it. I think there’s something about puppets that lends itself to this manufactured coziness that Limbs goes for. My mom always used to see me and say “you’re not grounded right now” and I was like “shut up, I’m doing something cool. I’m investing myself in something I love. What are you doing?”
And now that I’ve grown up I see that she’s trying to say that you’re placing your entire self worth on something that’s not going to work out the way that you think it is. I think a lot of us do that. I don’t know a single person that doesn’t place their self worth on something that isn’t in their control always. I think that’s kind of the kick in the gut - Limbs’ perception of herself isn’t dependent on anything she does. Which sucks. But the end of the movie - she confronts it. That’s all I’m gonna say. Is it good? Is it bad? You’ll have to watch!
Adam: Speaking of the end, the mouse is so beautiful as a symbolic extension of Sadie…
Franci: There are very few things that pull humans out of what they’re doing more than a live animal. In my field, I don’t see a lot of them. I don’t see a lot of mice around, but one day… it was a very stressful day before a music video shoot that Lief and I were co-directing. We were at her house after this big long stressful day of storyboarding. I opened the door and she was so distraught, and I was like “what’s going on?”
Basically she had had a mouse infestation. The mouse guy came, and basically the traps work like they do in the film where they’re these boxes with poison food. When someone has that as their method of control, you watch these mouse die in front of you. They just get slow, they tottle around, they don’t run from you, they’re just in the middle of the floor. It’s so… I don’t want to say humanizing, but it’s just the saddest thing in the world to see. As a dramatic person I was like “that’s how I feel when I get rejected”.
So I was talking to Jack on the phone - the PD of this movie. And as I was writing Limbs it originally didn’t have the mouse in it. I was trying to figure out the core of what Limbs was going to be and Jack was like “you should write a movie about that mouse”, and I was like “mmmm absolutely not - I’m writing a movie about puppets”. But I hope that what people instinctively get out of the mouse is the connection between a puppet animal and a live animal, and the connection you can have to a living thing right away versus creating a puppet mouse. It’s kind of the difference between Sadie’s real friendships, which we don’t even get to see, and her brief connections [with the crew], which are so brief and are dying as she’s leaving the set.
I hope people can see the difference between those glossy, manufactured coworker relationships that you can attach yourself to - versus these real life mice. I hope people feel that, because there’s such a cozy feeling when you see the mouse on screen. Marty the Mouse. A nice little actor mouse. He’s so good. He looks in the camera… spoiler alert.
It came from seeing a real mouse and realizing that I should be writing about that. Because that’s a real thing and I’ve been writing about this fake thing.
Adam: So, you’re a superstar now. How does it feel? You’ve won so many awards and now Limbs is being played on the TV!
Franci: Um… yaaaaa! It’s gonna be on CBC, it’s gonna be at Insomniac. Um… I don’t… I never expected anyone to like a movie about puppets. Everyone that I initially approached with this movie idea was really supportive but there were a lot of people that were like… “puppets?!” So I started getting defensive when I was introducing the movie to people. I’m surprised in a good way that people like the movie for what it is. Cause it is a bit of an indulgent puppet film about this world that I don’t know that well, but that I tried to recreate.
Adam: But you get fully into the world! That’s something that all my favourite comedies do, where it feels like we’re getting absorbed into a subculture that me as an outsider doesn’t know about, but then the filmmaker shows it with such heart and personality that I feel like I’m a part of it. What was your process in learning about the puppet community and showcasing it in Limbs?
Franci: Well, even before I knew that much about the puppet world, I went to film school almost entirely filled with dreams from behind the scenes reels. I originally wanted to have the behind the scenes of the Friends ending to end Limbs, but we didn’t get the copyright. They said no. But in it they’re all crying and hugging and taking home parts of the set and it’s a very meaningful ten years. A lot of the things that I admired had that, and that’s why I wanted to be in film so badly.
So I kind of modeled this universe of inclusion and exclusion off of the Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Theatre. They do a thing called the “Del Close Marathon”, which is 56 hours straight of improv. They bring all their superstars back to New York. It’s moved to LA, but it used to be in New York. And theres articles about how the whole thing is just like a 56 hour party and if you’re good you’re in it and everyone’s family and you do all these nuts shows at 4 in the morning. And it’s not exactly what a puppet show is... but there’s this unspoken bond. I tried to create that in this puppet universe. The feeling that people who might never have shared a screen might still be good friends.
As for learning about the puppet community… a lot of documentaries. People have really catalogued Sesame Street and The Muppets, man. There’s been a lot of archival efforts. I went to the Jim Henson exhibit when I was in New York. And I think people catalogued it because they had a lot of fun together. But there are stories about puppeteers who never got to be main puppets there too. Luckily, there’s a small but very passionate puppet community in Toronto. We reached out to every person in the GTA who seemed to be professionally aligned with puppetry and they were all so kind and were so willing to share knowledge and space and puppets.
We got to borrow puppets from Puppetmongers. They gave us a bunch of puppets just to throw in the film and use as set dec. I think they were just really excited that young people cared about puppets because it’s kind of dying amongst young people. So a lot of it was just the generosity of puppeteers telling me what it was like.
We had Mike Peterson as our puppet consultant. He’s iconic. When you mention Mike Peterson to puppet people they know him. He stayed in Toronto, he’s always doing puppet work, he came on set. When he was on set he said something to me… we were doing a scene where puppeteers were improvising as a sound check. And he was like “this is so right. This is exactly what they do.” And I was like “if you’re not telling me that just to make myself feel better, that’s like singularly what I wanted.”
Adam: That’s a huge compliment from Mike Peterson.
Franci: It is! It’s a huge compliment, so I hope the people that are into puppetry watch it and feel the same way. Hopefully. Hopefully I did it right. I hope so. I really, really tried hard.
Adam: Have Mike and the other puppeteers seen it?
Franci: Yeah! We sent it to everyone who participated and they’ve all been really nice. Mike Peterson especially has been such a supporter and a fan and has come to every event and is constantly sending us good words. You kind of… you feel… um… like you can never repay people’s kindness, you know?
I’ve always said that film is just a collection of favours. I don’t want it to be transactional, but every time I do a film I’m like “this is the kindest thing you could have done”. I feel like the good film industry, where there aren’t narcs and rats… my ideal film industry is just a series of people doing kind things for each other. Hopefully that makes good art, but nothing is easy and nothing is simple. How did I get here?
Adam: You can see that in your film! Limbs feels like it embodies all the things we try to do at Insomniac in a great way. Like thematically. It’s this anti-establishment thing at the end in celebration of the people behind the scenes that really care about the product.
Franci: What scared me about making films was that I never wanted to ask things from people, but I wanted to support others’ projects. I was too scared to ask people, but I think I walked away from Limbs with this huge confidence knowing that other people could rally behind your idea and make things just because they like making it with you. And you go back and perpetuate that cycle hopefully. But yeah - I’m definitely anti-establishment and I’m… pro-people? Pro lots of people? Pro community. I mean obviously.
Adam: Well, it sounds obvious, but you can get caught in the structure of the establishment.
Franci: Yeah, and working your way up. Transactions. “If I key grip on this, they’ll key grip on mine”. I think that’s what film school teaches you to do. Scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. Which I guess is what happens. But yeah, I never would have imagined in a thousand years that people would have wanted to work on Limbs. I think that’s just what happens when you’re lucky to be surrounded by so many friends that are making things with kindness - no matter what it is. So I’m glad. I’m glad that you feel like Insomniac is echoed in this film.
Seb: One of the things that the movie articulates so well is somebody not only making peace with the fact that they’re a supporting player, but also focusing on themselves and their own story so that they can walk away from the establishment and do their own thing. I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s connected with so many people.
Franci: That’s really nice!!! People don’t have to be emotionally committed to a puppet show, but hopefully after [the film] they are!
Adam: You unravel it in a really great way in the movie too. At first it’s fun and it’s silly and you’re a part of this great world of puppeteering.
Seb: And it’s this weird thing.
Adam: Yeah, but then as it goes on you get to the heart and the humanity of it, and I’m always moved by the end.
Franci: Oh my gosh thank you! I think with puppets… the way you grow up you’re either pro Sesame Street or you don’t know Sesame Street. Pitching Limbs, thinking about Limbs, talking about Limbs, connecting the puppet show to the emotion behind it felt like a lightbulb moment. I was like “of course - there’s nothing more wholesome than a puppet show”.
Seb: I like that in Limbs, Sadie projects onto the other puppeteers. In the same way that some may project [emotion] onto puppets, she’s projecting onto other people as well. She can’t actually see what’s in front of her.
Franci: Yeah. A while back in 1980...5? In some year, I think in the 80’s. Big Bird kept talking about Snuffleupagus on Sesame Street, but no one had every seen him, so everyone was like “Big Bird stop making up this made up creature thing”. But the producers of Sesame Street, who I always will praise… they made Snuffleupagus real to teach kids that if something that you say matters, you can talk to an adult and you’ll be listened to.
Apparently it was effective, and I forget what I read about the stats, but the effect that it has on a kid to see another kid “believed”, you know, seeing someone get listened to even if it’s a puppet… it’s like, projecting yourself onto other things happens so early. I don’t know when you fully grow out of it. I still do it a lot.
For a long time I projected these feelings of intimacy and closeness onto people I was doing projects with, and I think it can be really effective but it’s also heartbreaking and empty when you realize that it’s not real. But I feel like everyone does it. Hopefully Limbs leaves you reflecting on it in the way that Sesame Street encouraged kids to take part in telling adults important things. I think puppets are great, and I think we use people as puppets all the time and we don’t know it.
Adam: Any final shout outs? Anything you’ve seen in the past at Insomniac that you want to give a shout out?
Franci: I want to say that in this interview I’m speaking a lot, but this movie is so not just mine. This movie would not have been a 17th of what it is without Lief, who developed it with me, and Jack who PD’d it, and Luke who shot it, and Sam and Andy who produced it. Don’t enjoy the film without thinking about them in your head at night. Remember these people!
The film that I talked a lot about from last year with my friends that aren’t into film was Wet (dir. Sonia Beckwith). It was such a visceral experience for my friends and me. It was one of the few films that I get to talk about with my friends long after because it crosses every boundary for who you are and what your level of practice in film criticism is.
It’s hard to forget, and it’s hard to describe what it makes you feel like. Who knows what! But I still remember frames of it in my brain to this day right now. So I’m excited to have that experience again at Insomniac. It’s gonna get litty. I’m gonna get litty. Limbs-y.