Directors Jordan Tetewsky and Joshua Pikovsky are two of the hardest-working young artists in the U.S. Each of their three short films from 2021––the Jewish anxiety dream Bergmensch; the sympathetic stoner comedy Sharon 66; and the melancholy kitchen-sink dramedy Hannah In April––refined a style equally reminiscent of early Mike Leigh, Richard Linklater, and a less-preening Alex Ross Perry. Their writing is filled with specificity, whimsy, and localized attention to detail, and the performances are perfectly captured, despite utilizing non-actors in most roles. These shorts premiered at a steady clip at film festivals and sites like NoBudge throughout 2021.
This week they premiered their first feature, Hannah Ha Ha, at the Slamdance Film Festival. While set to premiere in front of a crowd in Utah, COVID forced the festival to unveil its lineup entirely online. The film is a perfectly realized suburban dramedy, with the titular Hannah (Hannah Lee Thompson, a Baltimore-based musician) fumbling to find employment after her start-up douche brother (producer Roger Mancusi) comes to town. He’s mystified at her life, which consists mainly of hanging with her father (Avram Tetewsky, Jordan’s actual dad), watching The Twilight Zone, and working on a farm. An oddball cast of local characters round out this melancholy, lightly-satirical trip through suburban Massachusetts.
The thing is, I was supposed to be one of those “local characters”––Jordan and Josh cast me to play a metal musician named Vinnie, alongside my bandmate Arden. They bought me a bus ticket to Sharon, MA, this past August, and had a PA (Petr Favazza, who plays Hannah’s coworker Greg) pick me up. It was a hectic day of shooting, and we filmed in a parking lot in front of a Taco Bell while customers went by. By the second edit of the film, the scene had been cut, with only a 4-second clip of us walking in the background remaining.
Watching Hannah Ha Ha, I knew I had to interview these young directors for two reasons: 1) because this is one of the best American debuts of the decade; and 2) because I wanted to confront these guys on cutting my scene. I’d eaten a weed gummie before boarding the bus to Providence and had an incredibly strange, scary experience. It was a Greyhound bus––the low budget meant that the two couldn’t even afford a Megabus. I invited them to talk about it, and invited the film’s star Hannah to offer her experience as well.
The Film Stage: This is your first feature film. What was the breakdown of responsibilities with you guys? The sense I get is that Josh is more the writer and the character-builder; Jordan is more of the eye, the plot structure, and the visual look of things. That’s my understanding.
Jordan Tetewsky: Yeah. It’s not accurate, but you seem to like saying that.
I push this idea?
Joshua Pikovsky: [Laughs nervously] It’s hard to say. I think we both do a lot. I feel like I used to think there [was] more of a distinction. But the more we do things together, the more I think we kind of just do all parts of it together. I was telling Jordan I read an interview with Joel Coen where he’s talking about doing Macbeth on his own. He was saying that one of the nice things about working with Ethan is that you can gang up on people when you have a co-director, you know? I thought that was kind of funny. Not that we do that, of course. But it’s open to us as a possibility.
Hannah, at what point did you realize it was going to be a feature film after doing the shorts? What was their process of pitching it to you?
Hannah Lee Thompson: Honestly, I don’t remember. When Jordan brings an idea to me, I almost always say yes, like off the bat, and then I kind of wait until it’s closer to reality to decide whether or not it’s actually something that will work. I think that’s not probably a shock to him, but I didn’t really think that it was going to be real. Both the short and the feature came along kind of serendipitously for me; I just didn’t really think it was real, and didn’t really have my head wrapped around the fact that we were doing it, until I showed up and we got it done.
Jordan Tetewsky and Joshua Pikovsky
My read on the film is that there’s an air of cultural ennui in it; a lot of the young people in the movie—like Hannah’s brother Paul, his fiancee, and the job interviewer at the start-up—have that kind of… weird, “millennial striver” sheen. That contrasts with the more relatable characters, who (aside from Hannah) are older. What is it about the old world that’s comforting to Hannah, and how does that tie into the greater theme?
JP: I don’t want people to come away from watching it thinking that there is some sort of, like, old-world kind of nostalgia necessarily, and particularly with this small-town stuff, because I don’t think in any way there’s any kind of reactionary theme that “the old way was better.” But I think it’s just like, yeah, we definitely have a strong reaction to the modern “striver” mindset.
JT: We’ve learned enough from medieval films to know the old ways weren’t any better. In fact, many old ways were worse.
I love the scene where Avram, Hannah’s father, goes on a walk, and accidentally stumbles on a private golf course. An uptight golfer appears and is yelling for him to get the fuck off there. Who is that golfer, by the way?
JT: Josh and I had a very true experience akin to that, where we got threatened with––was it murder, a murder threat?
JP: I don’t think it was explicitly a murder threat.
JT: Felt like it.
JP: We were going for a walk in [Sharon, MA] where we grew up, and we were just walking around this neighborhood near Jordan’s parents’ place. And we found this little wooded path. We went on it, and before we knew it, we’d ended up in this weird cul de sac off a cul de sac off a cul de sac.
JT: It felt like a glitch, ya know? Like a poorly composited mirroring effect in a middle school video project. It was like a glitch in––what’s that movie? About how we all live in a virtual reality simulation?
JP: Oh yeah. Barry Lyndon.
JT: Right, right. Ya know, I always felt bad for Barry. He doesn’t even realize he’s in a simulation. It’s heartbreaking really. I still think Stanley should’ve used soiled pantyhose on the lens, but other than that, the movie accomplished exactly what it sought to achieve.
JP: Well, we’re walking and there’s all these half-constructed McMansions. And then we just see this green meadow. We’re totally confused. Don’t know where we are. And we walk onto the meadow and within seconds of getting onto it, some guy starts yelling at us, some old man, with a golf club, telling us that we’re on private property. That we can’t be here and that it’s really dangerous for us to be here. And we’re like, “What? What are you talking about?” He yelled “you get hit with a golf ball and that could kill you.”
JT: And it sounds like a death threat to me.
Yeah, that sounds like a death threat, for sure.
JT: And then on set, we had the exact same situation happen, like 30 seconds after we finished shooting. Almost identical scenario. Then our actor went apeshit on the guy yelling at us. This part made my head swim. I couldn’t make sense of it––what was real and what was the movie. Josh had to explain it all to me afterward.
You actually faced repercussions, or you were prepared to?
JP: No, we got kicked off and probably that––
JT: About as much as we were prepared for, though––
JP: That’s all we can say legally about what happened that day.
What a Hannah Ha Ha–type twist that you guys get a festival premiere and it’s all digital. It’s like the ice cream shop scene, where they go get ice cream and the shop is permanently closed.
HLT: You know, our lead actor who was supposed to play Paul got replaced the day before by Roger because he had COVID. So. We’ve been flying by the seat of our pants this entire time, as you saw when you were on set with us.
JP: Yeah, tell us about your experience on set.
Well, this is this is something I was going to ask: what the fuck happened to my scene?
JT: Difficult decisions have to be made in the edit. We tried to cut just your character out of the scene to salvage Arden’s part, but it didn’t work. So we had to scrap the whole scene. It was actually harder for us than for you, having to make this choice.
Maybe I’ll just put all my questions into this interview and then I’ll just cut out all of your answers. How would that feel? As a meta protest of my treatment. I mean, by the way, I took––which I don’t usually do––I was given a weed gummie for the bus from New York to Sharon, MA, to get on set for this movie. I was on the bus and I was pretty stoned and this guy came on that was having a really hard go of it, and he looked really freaked out, and he was clutching a large backpack to his stomach. And he kept yelling. And then he went into the bathroom and people were knocking, trying to get him out. And they ended up pulling the bus over for two hours, and the bus driver went and checked on him and the guy tried to fight the bus driver.
JP: Oh my God.
That was stressful. And that was the same day we shot.
JT: That’s a Friedkin movie.
It wasn’t easy.
HLT: You got on set just the time that we were like, “this scene is canceled.”
JP: Yeah, Matt, we had a horrible day. That was one of our top two darkest days of shooting. And you and Arden showed up to set and––
JT: You were like, “Begone.”
JP: I don’t think I told them to begone.
Alright, whatever. At least I have the IMDb credit. Hannah, this is your first movie. It’s a qualitatively different experience from touring. What did you think of the experience? How did you prepare yourself for the stamina aspect of it?
HLT: I am genuinely, without a hint of irony, very grateful that I did it, and that Josh and Jordan put me in this movie. It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. Hands down. It was also exhausting. We just did not––there just was no time for any of us. I got to be a part of the process creatively; Josh and Jordan were very generous with me, with letting me improvise and have input into the decisions that were being made on set. It was a major mindfuck. I guess I would say overall I’m very grateful for the experience, and I think anytime you do something that’s like… creative, and outside of your comfort zone, you learn a lot. About yourself, and whatever, blah blah blah bullshit that you know, you’re supposed to like, feel when you go through something and make something. And I think it wouldn’t have been sustainable without Emily and Roger, our producer and co-producer, because ten days flying by the seat of your pants without like–
JP: Adults in the room.
HLT: Yeah, adults in the room, would have been a disaster. But another thing about Jordan and Josh is: even if it’s chaotic, there’s still a product that you’re going to get at the end of the day. Like, the ball is never dropped. And so I think that that’s something that we all had respect for.
My friends have been saying for a while that you, Jordan, would be the perfect late-nineties Letterman guest. Because you have kind of a scary vibe–
JT: Scary? They’re scared of me?
So in the spirit of the thing, who do we want to diss? Who do we want to make it known that Hannah Ha Ha and the Josh and Jordan Partnership—
JT: We know exactly who we hate.
Who are we taking aim at?
JT: Andrew Bujalski. Ethan Coen. Stanley Kubrick. Ourselves. The guy on the golf course. The Gray Man. But mostly Andrew Bujalski. People keep telling us we’re dead ringers for him. Physically.
JP: We’ve never even heard of him. We certainly don’t email him seeking his approval, even if we do look like him…. It’s funny, I feel like our movies have this weird mix of sincerity and spite. In our writing, [there’s] a lot of sincere feeling. And then just scenes written purely out of spite, like–
JT: It used to be all spite, but now it’s mostly sincerity, and I think they’re better movies for it. So.
JP: But the spite’s a little nice, you know. It feels good, sometimes.
Do you think that making art, and bothering to put the thing together, to go out there on location, to go out and do the interviews…. do you think it’s because deep down, you feel like there is something that you’re not seeing anyone else do? That’s kind of how I think about art. It’s like, if everyone else is doing it right, then why would I even bother?
HLT: Something that we talked about, and something that also motivates me in music, is like… just the lack of representation for people who are gay or overweight. I just feel like that perspective is not portrayed very often. So I appreciated that Josh and Jordan gave me an opportunity to be a lead in a movie, and treated this character with so much respect. And it’s definitely a driving force for me when I’m on stage and shit, is just saying, like, “Fuck you, everyone, I’m going to,” like, I mean… [but] then that’s so fucking corny, to say that it’s rooted in that, like, you know––“representation” and that kind of bullshit. I feel like that’s not––representation is not bullshit. Excuse me, you know–
That’s the title of the interview.
JP: Yeah, we got the headline.
HLT: It’s not “political.” It’s just, like, “fuck you.”