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Interview: Filmmakers Kelley Kali and Angelique Molina on ‘I’m Fine (Thanks for Asking)’ and its Message of Social and Mental Health Awareness

April 1, 2021Ben MK

From students to seniors, blue collar workers to professionals, the pandemic has affected many people in many different ways. Most importantly and perhaps most noticeably, however, it's affected our mental health. And in their feature debut, I'm Fine (Thanks for Asking), which premiered at this year's SXSW Film Festival, directors Kelley Kali and Angelique Molina tackle this topic head on, in their story of a woman named Danny (Kali) who must juggle being a single parent and trying to make ends meet in the gig economy — all while dealing with being houseless and living out of a tent.

I caught up with Kelley Kali and Angelique Molina to chat about I'm Fine (Thanks for Asking), how the pandemic affected its production, and the messages of hope, empathy and mental health awareness at its heart.

First of all, what was it like shooting your movie in the middle of the pandemic?

Kali: Shooting during the pandemic was very challenging, as you can imagine. We had to take major precautions by keeping the crew small, which then resulted in us making the decision to also have the crew act in the movie. Plus, we're the ones taking the risk and we're all friends. Bringing in outside people and putting them at risk — it wasn't a risk we wanted to take. And so we just took the struggle upon ourselves of trying to do this safely during a pandemic. And thank God we did, everyone was well.

Speaking of the pandemic, Danny's situation is not an unfamiliar one to moviegoers, but the financial hardship that some people have experienced during this time makes her struggle much more relatable. Where did the idea for the film come from?

Kali: In a lot of our body of work, Angelique and I focus on social issues. And so we knew that we wanted to focus on a story of substance. We had a lot of ideas, and this one came up, being that we were from Los Angeles and there's a large homeless population here. The pandemic really revealed how a lot of us are living paycheque to paycheque. And many people have ended up on a friend's couch, or at a family member's home, or in a car — or, heaven forbid, in a tent temporarily — while they still have some work and they're one paycheque away from getting back on their feet. So we wanted to focus on that.

Molina: And I don't know what the exact statistic is, but the percentage of L.A.'s homeless population that's black is an insane amount compared to the population of black people. So it's something that's truly happening right now. And it looks like all kinds of people. Because we have this stereotype of what homelessness looks like, and sometimes we can ignore certain types of folks cuz we don't think that they're in that situation.

Can you talk a bit about the cast? In particular, Wesley Moss and Deon Cole?

Kali: Wesley is a friend of the family. So again, we still kept it in our circle. We didn't want to go with anybody we didn't know. Ever since she's been a little girl, her parents always joked that she looks more like my kid than theirs. And we didn't think of her right away, but when we were looking for a little girl she came to mind. She was perfect, and she's brilliant and so easy to work with. I was so happy the days it was a Wesley day, because she was so organized compared to us adults. [laughs] She was a trooper. And then Deon Cole is my writing partner. I've been working with him for years now. So he came on board to support us and do a cameo, and to bless us with that moment of comedic relief that's needed in this film.

The movie's dialogue has a very naturalistic feel to it. Was there a lot of improvisation on-set?

Molina: There was a lot of improvisation because of the way that we wrote it. We allowed people to just understand the outline of the script, and if they wanted to take it slightly in a different direction with their own humor and their own personality they could do that. I think that it helped because it made so many characters come to life in a way that we weren't expecting.

Kali: Yeah, we had to move so quickly. From the moment I approached Angelique and [producer] Roma [Kong], we came up with [the story] in two weeks, outlined it, and then we were in production two weeks later. But one thing that Angelique and I noticed before going in — being that we have crew members acting for the first time — was their nerves. So we decided to write out the scenes every single night before, just to help whoever's day it was next. But everyone did so well, it just was very easy.

Was there a certain scene that was especially memorable for you both to shoot?

Molina: The [underwater] pool [scene]. We had goggles on — the DP, someone that was assisting the DP, and myself — but even though we did, our eyes still burned. Kelley didn't have goggles on the whole time, so her eyes were bloodshot by the end of it. We were shooting in my uncle's pool, which was heated. But apparently because we had these black backdrops that were blocking the filters, we clogged the filters and it was cold the whole time. So even though the heater was on and wasting my poor uncle's energy, it literally was an ice box. But it was definitely memorable because we worked well together and had a good time, in a sense.

Kali: The shots came out beautifully. And for me, roller skating underwater was fun. Of course, it's hard because there are weights pulling you down to the bottom of the pool, and I was trying to balance my buoyancy in the water with these weights and trying to get the shot. But that was fun for me cuz I had never been in water with roller skates. It was a lot of work but it was fun, even though it was painful and cold.

What advice would you give to those looking to break into the industry as a filmmaker or an actor?

Kali: My advice to them would be just do it. Because no one can tell you who you are. People will always want to categorize you and tell you what you can and cannot do. You can do whatever you want to do. Surround yourself with people who have the skills who also have the same passions as you, and figure out how to do it. Filmmaking is a hustle. You can't wait for the opportunity to come to you, you have to go and get it. And that's what we did on this project. Very few people were shooting during the pandemic, and people close to me were like, "Slow down, you're going too fast. Take your time, think about it." And it was like, "No, we have these goals, we want to do this." The point is to go for it. Reach for the stars and fall in the clouds.

Last but not least, what do you want viewers to take away from your film?

Molina: Hope and empathy. We talk about having hope at the end, and how times are gonna be tough. You might still be living paycheque to paycheque, and you might still have to hustle a little harder. But there needs to be some sort of hope in your life, [even] if that hope looks like rest, or if that hope looks like family or friends. And then empathy, because we need to have more empathy on people in general — to give them their dignity as human beings. Just making sure that people are ok and taking care of each other.

Kali: Especially right now, people can see that they could easily be those same people that they overlook. This pandemic has really brought light onto how vulnerable we all are. So another thing is the mental health awareness that we wanted to talk about through this film. Someone had asked me, "How are you?" And I said, "I'm fine, thanks for asking." But I wasn't fine. That's just what we do, and that's how the title came to be. I don't care what situation you're in, this pandemic has shook us up. Whatever the case may be, we're not all fine and it's ok to not be ok. Those are the first steps to making sure that you heal and get better.

I'm Fine (Thanks for Asking) screened under the Narrative Feature Competition section at the 2021 South by Southwest Film Festival. Its runtime is 1 hr. 30 min.

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