Writer, editor and filmmaker Cassidy Olsen is no stranger to the world of online film writing, with by-lines in The Boston Globe, Film Comment, Little White Lies and more. Olsen moved to Ireland in 2020 and since then has written and directed her debut film Convince Me I’m Real, which will be receiving its world premiere at the Achill Island Film Festival.
Blending elements of drama, psychological horror, and slow cinema, the short is a window into the world of Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response and a story about loneliness and not recognizing yourself. With an engaging off-kilter tone, on point sound and some eerie editing, it makes for a promising debut and an exciting introduction to more talent in the Irish industry.
Featuring real life ASMR artist Starling ASMR, Convince Me I’m Real is a 5-minute experimental narrative short fiction film. Madeline, a tired young woman living alone in a comfortable yet isolated apartment building, wants to look — and feel — more alive. But when Madeline searches for a tutorial to brighten up her appearance, she finds Chloe, a beautiful makeup and self-help guru who looks something like her. Chloe’s intimately whispered videos are entrancing, and as Madeline watches, the boundary between the women begins to dissolve. The short touches on themes of parasocial relationships, body image, sensuality and sexuality, the emotional economy, and how the connections we make define ourselves. Are imagined connections any less real when the emotional result on the subject is the same?
Ahead of Convince Me I’m Real’s showing in Achill, we spoke to Cassidy about ASMR, the ups and downs of moving across the Atlantic mid-pandemic and the new experience of going to a festival as a filmmaker for the first time.
When you hear the ASMR premise for Convince Me I’m Real, instantly your interest is piqued. What is your own experience with ASMR, because it can be a love it or hate it thing for many people?
I think I started watching in earnest in 2019, I mostly got into that world on YouTube because it’s a specific niche interest, and even then, there’s so many sub-categories of what ASMR is, and it became something of an ‘oh isn’t that odd’ trend. Then there started to be some actual filmmaking on the world of ASMR, Peter Strickland’s ASMR horror (Cold Meridian) for example.
I personally approached it because it was something I thought was intriguing and from there I found it really relaxing. I have close friends for whom it’s part of their life, coping with anxiety, relaxing, trying to get to sleep. Then during the pandemic when everyone was stressed, I really dove into ASMR and was getting lost in it in a way that I wasn’t before. This calming first person speaking to you, there’s this dichotomy because it’s inherently very odd, unsettling and can be very creepy but at the same time, the intended use case is to be relaxing, inviting and warm. And it has this parasocial side where you are interacting with this person that you do not know and they’re treating you like a friend. It’s uniquely intimate, you feel like you’re with this person, but they’re not really there and they’re doing this for millions of people. I thought that performance aspect was really interesting.
I know also that a lot of ASMR artists and people in that space struggle also because it can often be sexualized, and while there is a space for sexual and sex work content creators who do that work, certainly for Starling and others their work is not in that space. Overall with ASMR, it’s just something I thought was fun. Of course, some people absolutely hate it and think it’s just like the creepiest thing in the world, and I think that reaction is fun too.
It feels like a lot of that comes from an assumption of what ASMR is and what it’s for, but there’s so many different aspects to it, which this short gets across within 4 minutes. Short films can be a challenge in that you’re building up to one moment of catharsis. How do you as writer and director, pull together all these ideas about your subject matter?
I was a film journalist throughout my career, and I still consider myself a film writer, but this is work that I had been wanting to start doing for a while and the time just arose, and I had built creative relationships that I wanted to explore. I mostly wanted to try to nail the tone, explore some of those ideas and get that on screen to see how does it look, how does it feel, what is our lead going through? What is that relationship and how do you represent that on screen?
It is a very brief short, not dialogue driven, our lead Eiméar Howard doesn’t have any lines. It’s very much Starling ASMR providing that reaction and that dialogue between a subject and someone who is performing. I really do like directing and in this case, I really wanted to see what I could do visually and emotionally. I tried to challenge myself to say, how do we do that without using much dialogue. That challenge was fun and interesting for me and for my Director of Photography, Dearbhaile Collins.
What do you feel then was the most valuable experience you picked up from working on this film for yourself as a director going forward?
So much of it is really building relationships with people, which is what filmmaking is; understanding how you interact with a room of people making creative decisions. That might seem like a non-answer, but for me it was about those close collaborations like with Dearbhaile, and with Starling. She was born and raised in Uzbekistan and is based now in Italy, working in English and in Russian. I was directing her remotely from Dublin which was such an odd experience, but Starling did a wonderful job, she’s a professional to the utmost degree and a wonderful actress and it gave me a great sense of trusting my own voice and also being able to trust other people who are professionals even when you’re not all in the same room.
A lot of the editing was done remotely as well. I was working with our editor Cecily Lo and she’s based in LA, that was wonderful but it was challenging, uniquely so.
That sense of trusting people you work with was important for me, connecting with people and being interested in broader ideas. This project was fundamentally about loneliness and feeling deeply disconnected from people. It was made at a time when everyone was very much isolated, I had moved to Ireland mid pandemic, just with my partner and no one else. It was difficult to not have those connections and through the film, I was able to make a lot of important and special connections and get into the local film scene.
Starling ASMR really gives so much to this, how was it that you came to be involved with her for the project, and did you have her specifically in mind to work with?
I didn’t have Starling specifically in mind. Weirdly enough, I was thinking about red hair, I was like, ‘she needs to have red hair’, which is a silly thing and also, you know, wigs exist…
I’ve since toned down, but at the time I was following many different ASMR artists and would watch them religiously. She was one of them, but I came by her later, she wasn’t someone I had followed for a particularly long time.
When I found Starling I was really enamoured of the way she spoke, she has a very distinct accent and way of engaging the audience. She has a lot of different styles and some really wonderful sets. Essentially I just reached out and said I’d love to work with you and she was immediately very excited, open and interested in collaborating. There was no casting call like ‘please audition by doing more of your videos that you do every day!,’ we had some calls and emails and went from there. Starling shot her footage in advance of us shooting in Dublin, so we had that on lock for Eiméar to engage with.
It must help a lot when you’re working with people that are excited and get it and are buying into what you’re doing.
This short is self-produced, we did not do it for much money, it was a real ‘let’s do this’ situation. So I was very grateful working with people who are complete professionals like Starling and everyone else. And I really lucked out because she was already such a strong performer, also she has her own audience, she only became professional full time also during the pandemic, so it’s all still new for her in a way.
It’s always important obviously to have the right people, but particularly when you’re doing something that’s quite low budget. It can be hard to find people who both care a lot and have a lot of experience. It was great to get people who are excited and who ‘get it’, certainly with Starling, but also with the editor Cecily. I knew Cecily from school and we got on well, we’re interested in a lot of the same ideas, we’re both super online and invested in those communities and she’s just talented and sound.
Even the poster, that was designed by our friend Emma Bers who is an amazing, self-taught graphic designer who also picked it up during the pandemic, she’s doing a lot of cool stuff at the moment.
I don’t think I always want to be doing very non-conventional, experimental stuff, but for me that was the thing that felt right at the moment and something I was excited to do.
You mentioned Peter Strickland, in my notes I had In Fabric written down right away, The Love Witch was another one – for yourself with this project and more generally, what influences and creators are you drawing from for the stories you want to tell?
My background is in film writing so all I’ve done is admire filmmakers, I would do interviews with directors for The Boston Globe. For this specific project we’ve discussed Strickland, but I was also thinking a lot about Safe by Todd Haynes, which I love. It’s a film that’s not telling you what to think and isn’t guiding you precisely into one grand emotional conclusion. It’s emotionally powerful but it’s not saying this is about one thing; in turns its about AIDS, consumerism, it’s about a million things but it’s resonant and open-ended which I really liked.
I love Joanna Hogg, I love a lot of British and Scottish film makers, women filmmakers, there’s a lot of trans and non-binary filmmakers doing really interesting work that I admire a lot.
Fundamentally I want to be making intimate stories, something that’s challenging emotionally, just a little off and a little bit complicated.
Moving to Ireland during the pandemic, what has it been like arriving in a new industry and new culture?
Doing film writing, I was mostly familiar with what things look like more from the media landscape, I’ve never myself been a filmmaker in the States so it wasn’t really my relationship or my work when I was there. I will say arriving as soon as a lockdown began, I would not recommend doing that…
We arrived in August of 2020 and right away we had to go back inside. But it’s been very exciting and very welcoming. I took a course remotely when I first landed through the National Film and Television School in London, we ended up shooting in London in the spring of 2021, I met Dearbhaile through that course and it really bred for me an ability to open up and connect with others. I met Eiméar at a Zoom networking event for people in film in Dublin, I’ve been lucky.
There was a lot of figuring it out as I went. I knew when I left the States that I wanted to push into filmmaking having been a journalist for a long time, there was very much a sense of ‘everything’s changed, we might as well go for it!’ It was helpful to have the time and space to have ideas, try things and meet people, but it was challenging, especially not having access to people the same way that you usually would. That’s also why it’s exciting to see festivals coming back and meeting people face to face.
How much are you looking forward to Achill, as a first-time festival in this unique location?
I’m excited, it’s new, I’ve not been to Achill before and I just love festivals in general. I have family in Birr, so I’ve been to the Offline Film Festival in Offaly. I went there last fall and I was just hovering around people, without really engaging in conversation, but now I have a free card to be like, ‘I’m also here’ and then engage in those conversations without my journalist hat on.
When you’ve covered festivals as a journalist previously, is it a very different experience going at them as a creator? You do have a different hat on but you’re still you, what is that like?
The thing is I was always kind of a bad journalist at festivals because I’m bad at hustling. I was speaking to a friend who’s going to Cannes, somebody told her they had 100 meetings and she said she had ten, and to me, that’s so many meetings! I know that’s what you’re supposed to do but I like festivals because I like watching movies and engaging and when you’re there as a journalist it can be harder to enjoy them. I think it’s difficult for both journalists and creative to enjoy; creatives because they feel like they must be selling themselves and then journalists, because they have to be covering it just so they can afford the trip! I am looking forward to not feeling like I have to see everything because if I can’t get a by-line, I will freak out.
Also it’s always hard to write out of festivals, you have to do it so quickly and it’s exhausting, so I’m looking forward to going to Achill and Cannes as someone who is not there as a journalist for that reason. I don’t think I’ll be doing a bunch of pitching of myself; I suppose I should be, but I’m just happy to be connecting with other filmmakers from Ireland, there will be quite a few names in Achill that were at Offline and were at DIFF, which is cool to see.
Convince Me I’m Real has a real universal appeal to it, is it something you’re trying to get out there internationally at more festivals?
At the moment it’s in the pipeline waiting to see if it gets into some festivals and I’ll be throwing into some others probably in the fall. We’re going to submit it around, though again for me frankly, the film was more an experiment and challenge for myself. I’m trying not to worry too much about it, it’s gonna go where it’s gonna go. I’m looking forward to going to Achill, everyone involved is working on other stuff and it will just be really fun to meet up, but I’ll be glad when the short is living online too.
Ironically, it’s best viewed online, right? It’s best viewed with headphones on, alone. Once we’re done with the festivals, it will be nice having it live online, we’ll have a launch with Starling and she can share it to her audience too. It’s something she’s proud of and she’s not used to having to wait for a year to share something with them!
Cassidy Olsen is a 25-year-old writer and filmmaker based in Dublin. Born and raised in Toms River, New Jersey, Cassidy developed an early interest in film and film criticism and earned a degree in English from Tufts University in Somerville, Massachusetts. As a film journalist, she’s contributed her writing to publications including The Boston Globe, Film Comment, The Improper Bostonian, Dig Boston, and Little White Lies. In 2021, she earned a Certificate in Filmmaking from the National Film and Television School and wrote and directed her first short film, Convince Me I’m Real, which had its premiere at the Achill Island Film Festival in May 2022.
Cassidy can be found on Twitter at @olsencassidy.