By Andy Stark, special to Tacoma Film Festival
Winner of the Outfest Film Festival 2021 Grand Jury Prize (U.S. Narrative Feature), Firstness is the debut feature film by multi-disciplinary artist Brielle Brilliant. A maladjusted dad (played by Tim Kinsella) is trying to heal in an experimental therapy group, called Infinite Beginnings. Meanwhile, his non-binary kid (Spencer Jording) is getting close with an older man (Caleb Cabrera). Their relationship feels both dreamy and concerning—depending on who's watching.
In this interview, conducted via e-mail, director/writer/co-editor Brilliant discusses the genesis of the film, its unique cast, and deeply personal themes. Firstness screens on Saturday, Oct. 9 at 6 p.m., and on Tuesday, Oct. 12 at 1:30 p.m.
In addition to being a filmmaker, you’re also a novelist, an artist, and a prank caller. I’m interested in the process of how Firstness became your first feature-length film, as opposed to a work in a different medium.
Sometimes I choose the container, and sometimes the container just shows up. If I choose, it's usually after trying out other ones—like a bed you sleep in for a couple weeks and then give to your friend instead because it fits them better. But with films and books, the container seems to always be there. Maybe this is ‘cause the organs of my body are already in the shape of those things, so they come more obviously? I don’t know. My mom is a dancer and painter, so maybe her organs are shaped like dances and paintings, and that’s why those forms happen more often and more obviously for her, maybe. It’s kind of pretty and alien to think about all the different shapes your organs can assemble and offer out. So yeah, I just try to follow what feels alive. The characters, images, and events of FIRSTNESS were and still are very alive for me, so I follow(ed) it.
How did you go about casting the lead roles of the film?
Friends make fun of me a lot that my whole life is kinda just— casting. Like, I’ll go anywhere, do anything, ruin whatever, to find the right people and places and sounds and experiences for the movie. I don’t really know what else to do. That’s just how I organize my life, I guess, and I actually don’t even really know what the movie is. Like, I used to be really attached to everything being a “movie movie,” that you could watch in the theatre or on your laptop, 24 frames per second; a 90-minute kind of thing that I write and direct. But now I don’t really think like that. I just know everyone is kinda casting and not casting in various ways, and we go to places where we think we’ll maybe meet those people; and sometimes we do, and sometimes we don’t.
Like, a few years ago, I moved to Idaho to look for the teenagers for this movie I wanted to make called SICK BABY and spent most of my time at the Ace Hardware parking lot hanging out with some wheelie kids; but if I hadn’t written that movie and was determined to find Jaden and KP's friends, I don’t think I would’ve gone there and been hanging out so much in the parking lot with them. So, who knows?
With FIRSTNESS, I drove around the country looking for Mel and Tavi and Julian and everyone; took some weird jobs, lived in my car, watched a lot of audition tapes online, and eventually I met Anna and Spencer and Caleb and everyone in the movie. That sounds vague, but it’s the most precise way of putting it.
Tim Kinsella, known primarily as a musician (Joan of Arc, Cap’n Jazz, Owls), has only acted twice, both times in your work. What is it about his music that led you to cast him?
As for Tim—I didn’t ever consider anyone else to play Keith. It always had to be Tim, and I never had any doubts he could act, even though he never had. But like, when you’re a legendary, prolific, devoted musician/artist whose been doing that since you were like, 2, you have decades and decades of experience performing and creating and collaborating, so you’re more prepared than many people who are so-called actors. And Tim is obviously most prolific at music, but he uses all the containers and makes new ones and doesn’t think that fact’s anything special, because he knows it’s just what keeps him and others alive. Which is what I know, too. So, it’s very obvious and easy and inspiring to collaborate with him, and I’m just really grateful for him, as a human and friend and artist and mentor that teaches me things.
The film is remarkable in delineating how people identify themselves versus how they are identified by others. For example, Tavi identifies as non-binary, whereas the carceral state defines Julian as a “parolee.” The thoroughness with which you explore these themes makes me wonder if they've been a long-standing facet of your work, and if you imagine delving further into them in future work.
Yeah, I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t think about how we talk about what we’re experiencing. The words we use to describe ourselves and others. Like, I always wrote poems, but I f----ing hated calling them poems and hated when people called me a poet. It really made me want to puke, and I wouldn’t call myself a poet for so long (even though I was literally, like, in summer poetry class stuff and writing poems on tables and subways and s---.) It felt so pretentious, and I always felt like a real poet would never call themselves a poet because they know being a poet is attending to language in such a way that one word could ever encompass the immensity of the process of building and being.
But then something happened where I got a bit less reactive and rigid. I think I read something where Rimbaud called himself a poet (which is honestly even more pretentious and arrogant looking back.) So, then I was like “f--- it, I guess I am a poet even though I also know this word is so ridiculous sounding to me and makes you think of images that I kind of resent. So I’ve felt that way forever, about words, how they simultaneously can frame everything and also point you in the complete opposite direction; how you can get profoundly precise with an arrangement of words and also be completely inaccurate; and I investigate this seeming paradox constantly, incessantly, like an inevitable part of my throat that comes up every time I speak or listen or whatever mysterious beautiful painful s--- is involved with communication.
What are you working on currently?
I'm working on my next feature, called MiNOR PERVERSIONS, which mostly takes place in the woods. It's been radicalizing me and the other collaborators, so we're pretty excited about it. I'm also writing a book and getting better at being here and stuff.