Even years after vaccines allowed us to largely resume our normal lives, the COVID-19 pandemic remains an omnipresent force in American culture. From disruptions in supply chains that continue to impact prices to lifestyle changes such as a spike in remote work that permanently altered our economy, the lingering effects of the pandemic are impossible to avoid. But for all of the disruption that the events of 2020 caused, pop culture is still largely proceeding as if nothing happened.

Theda Hammel’s “Stress Positions” looks to change that. The Sundance hit stars John Early as a gay soon-to-be-divorcee who struggles to live up to his liberal talking points as his life crumbles in the summer of 2020. The satirical film fully embraces the pandemic, never hesitating to mock the ways it shaped American culture for the worse. Following the film’s premiere, Hammel, Early, and co-stars John Roberts and Qaher Harhash stopped by the IndieWire Studio at Sundance, presented by Dropbox, to discuss their fearless approach to weaving the pandemic into the story.

“It emerged out of the pandemic,” Hammel, who also stars in “Stress Positions,” said of the film. “It was very acute in culture, in the world, and it just seemed like any thought that anyone could have had to branch out from that. In our narratives, there is an attempt to suppress or repress or ignore or erase this time of crisis. One of the ways we were able to go in on that moment was through comedy.”

Early echoed Hammel’s sentiments, praising his director for probing her subconscious for complex truths in an era when many people gravitated towards surface-level ideas.

“I think Theda was working from her subconscious, which is what the movie is about in some ways. [The pandemic] was a time when people were so terrified of the unconscious and what wasn’t said and what was in them, and my character especially is a lot like that in the movie,” Early said. “But I was so thrilled when I read Theda’s script by how much I felt she was in touch with her subconscious and was just letting it flow. And also that she saw the metaphoric potential of COVID, which no one seemed to be doing. Everyone was just doing ‘Masks, right?’ Or ‘Zoom therapy, isn’t it crazy?’ It was so mundane and boring and paper-thin the way people were doing it, but Theda saw COVID had a lot of potential.”

Harhash, who plays Early’s Moroccan nephew struggling with his own identity crisis, admitted that pushing boundaries comes at a personal cost. He revealed that he was initially intimidated by the script’s honesty, but ultimately embraced the challenge of playing such a bold character.

“It hasn’t been depicted this way because I feel like people are afraid to tackle something that’s so sensitive,” Harhash said. “For me, when I first read the script, I was like, ‘Oh, this is pretty hard stuff.’ But then I really fell in love with my character’s unwillingness to become like the people around him. That was really strong, it was authentic to the movie.”

Roberts, who plays Early’s soon-to-be-ex-husband, joked that he enjoyed playing an antagonistic character. But for all of the tough conversations that the film inspires, he had nothing but good things to say about the experience of working with the cast and crew.

“He’s got the money, so that’ll make you a little delusional,” he said. “It was such a fun character to play, really thrilling to work with John Early. What a great cast, and Theda’s incredible direction. It really felt like a warm, sort of theatrical experience. It was pure joy.”

The 2024 Sundance Film Festival runs January 18–28, with festival talks taking place January 19–26. See the full IndieWire Studio at Sundance, presented by Dropbox, lineup here.

Dropbox supports and champions independent makers, crews, and teams behind the camera who bring their unique perspectives to life at the Sundance Film Festival. We’re proud that over 60% of films at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival leveraged Dropbox in their filmmaking process. It takes a monumental effort for film projects to go from ideation to completion, and Dropbox is dedicated to helping filmmakers get their projects across the finish line faster. Filmmakers used Dropbox as one organized homebase to keep video files secure, to remotely collaborate with teams around the world, and to get real-time video feedback with Dropbox Replay.

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