The conversation begins when a man calls his partner “old.” His longtime companion, being an accomplished and self-assured woman in her ‘40s, has no time for that word. And so the starting gun sounds on an impassioned back-and-forth discussion that’s like listening to a game of mental tennis over a dinner table.

The winner of the first Vimeo Staff Pick Award of 2021is “Sinking Ship,” by Sasha Leigh Henry. We could not direct our eyes or ears way from this smartly written film about a couple whose quarrel on the surface sounds like a lukewarm spat, but underneath touches on a myriad of complex topics, from modern gender norms, to evolving expectations in relationships, to how language often misses the mark in describing our true feelings.

“Sinking Ship” inspired many questions about its message and the angry green screen image looming over the two main characters throughout the film.

Director Sasha Leigh Henry and writer Tania Thompson graciously answered each question ahead of their drama’s exclusive debut on Vimeo. Read on for excerpts from the Q&A: 

On inspiration: 

Tania Thompson, writer: “There is this thing that often happens to cis women as they hit their forties: they start to give no f—s. I wanted to see a smart, funny film about the changing dynamics in an adult cisgendered hetero relationship, a film that looked at how attraction is often based on power arrangements that are unnoticeable and unproblematic until the power starts to shift. And the idea that deeming who and what we find attractive can function as a safe haven for a sense of control. It is hard to talk about. Even within a loving, respectful relationship between self-critical people, these conversations are tumultuous and often take relationships down.”

Sasha Leigh Henry, director:As the director, I was eager to explore how the dynamics Tania described could differ for people of color, and from different cultures. More often than not in North American film, stories of women finding themselves and their power are seen through the lens of relatively privileged white women. I realized there was a huge opportunity to broaden the scope of Black people on screen simply by casting a Black couple in these roles. This also inspired our ambitious attempt to shoot the film in multiple languages. We’re currently working on a version that will accompany an art installation extension of the film that features the same conversation taking place in Japanese, English, French, and Spanish.”

On choices made behind the camera:

SLH: “The conversation taking place in the film is so nuanced. I didn’t want anyone to dip out or assume where it was gonna go as soon as they heard the first line.  That’s why when we start with the explosive peak of him calling her old, we are farther away and as we begin to unpack we’re brought in. The camera movement confirms that the first line is only the tip of the iceberg and we were going to dive in deeper. 

For the head-on shot choice I wanted it to feel a bit like a ping pong match. I also wanted to limit how many shots we used to cover the conversation to keep us focused on them and the nuance of what they’re saying. The moody lighting obviously helps set the tone of what eventually unravels and gives a nice dimension to the mural that cements a dark and brewing feeling from the outset.  The lighting also helps the restaurant environment feel a little luxe and more high-end, the kind of restaurant where people may want to keep themselves restrained or ‘in-check’ as the two leads do when they begin the conversation.”

On using the set as a third character:

SLH: “[The oceanic background] was something written into the script as if it was a third character and so that’s how I wanted to treat it. Everything the leads are stifling when the conversation begins is reflected in the mural once it comes into play. We considered many ways to make the mural ‘come to life.’ Going with a photorealistic version gave us the most potent sense of navigating rocky waters. 

The mural reflects what lies beneath when people are having hard but necessary conversations and what that looks like juxtaposed against the demeanor, facial expressions, and words of the person in the moment.”

On challenges faced:

SLH: “This was my first time working with a completely VFX set up and that was nerve-wracking. It looked really bad until it looked perfect, and I wasn’t expecting each iteration to feel so rough especially when the mural plays such an integral part. 

It was also tough because I only speak English. I have a fair understanding of French, a less than solid grasp on Spanish, and speak no Japanese whatsoever so rehearsal and working with actors bilingually was a challenge for us all. We came up with little cues or moves that the actors could do that served as benchmarks that would let me know where we were in the script as I followed along. For French and Spanish I needed less of those but for Japanese we relied on them a lot.”

On ideal audience takeaway: 

SLH: “I think Tania summed it up best when she said ‘I think the ideal takeaway is that you can really say anything if you say it with sincerity and respect.’ I would add that it’s worth trying. I think the truth of how so many of us feel is often tempered because we don’t want to be seen as mean or hurtful but hearing hard things does allow us to get to the  deeper root of things and allows for more of the nuance of life and complexities of being human to come to the front.”

Sasha’s personal take on the film’s intense conversation: 

SLH: “I think it’s real and possible. I think part of why I was compelled to make it because it may prompt some questioning for people. ‘Is this what I’ve always wanted to say but couldn’t?’ Film is so powerful and can play such a great hand in what audience members believe can really happen and who and how they want to be as they navigate the world. I think it’s great to be able to show more women holding their own in conversations like these and feeling okay and resolved with the outcome. I think it’s great to be able to show more men saying things we’d typically write off as shallow and stupid and spend the time to unpack what’s really underneath it without the scene ending in her throwing things at him.”

Her advice to aspiring filmmakers: 

SLH: “Every filmmaking journey is a long and winding road. Nothing will really happen the way you think it will so it’s really important to enjoy the process and what it is you’re trying to make it. Enjoying the journey is really important and one way to help ensure you enjoy the journey is building and investing in your film community. It’ll take a while and there will be bumps in the road but slowly but surely you’ll start to find yourself with a team of people you trust to help you tell your story and bring it to life. A lot of this is not easy but good friends make it better. Connect with others, join groups, and ask for coffee chats. Eventually you’ll click with someone and it’ll grow from there.”

What’s up next for Sasha:

SLH: “I have an original comedy series in development with New Metric Media about a millennial Black woman navigating adulthood in a predominantly white world, made all the more chaotic — but also tolerable, by Black Attack, her invisible hype girl.

Tania and I are working on Sinking Ship the art installation this summer and hope to have it live and in gallery within the next year. 

I’m also teaming up Tamar Bird and Iva Golubovic to produce Kelly Fyffe-Marshall’s upcoming feature film, “When Morning Comes.” This will be the first title from our production company, Sunflower Studios.”

Check out more Staff Pick Award winners