'Sometimes, I Think About Dying' Explores a Young Woman's Existential Crisis

Sometimes, I Think About Dying_Stefanie Abel Horowitz_Inset - Publicity - H 2020
Matthew Pothier/Courtesy of Sundance Institute; Hayley Hill/Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Stefanie Abel Horowitz speaks to the universality of her Oscar-shortlisted film, as the lonely protagonist struggles to find her place in the world.

"We all think about dying," says Stefanie Abel Horowitz, director and co-writer of the short Sometimes, I Think About Dying. Indeed, this universal truth is at the center of her introspective film, which focuses on a few days in the life of young office worker Fran (played by Katy Wright-Mead), who is overcome with debilitating loneliness.

"Fran has closed herself off to the world in so many ways, and death is just more of a chance to be unmoved, to be someone who can't be in pain. She just wants to experience a nowhere, nothing place," says Horowitz. "She's a kind of everyperson. It's more about the deeper truth that we all feel that way. It doesn't have to be because of anything. Or sometimes you can just feel sad and not know why. That's what we were trying to get to."

The live-action short, which made the Oscar shortlist, is Horowitz's second short film and began as a stage play she directed in 2013 called killers, written by Kevin Armento.

"He said, 'I have this really weird piece. I don't even know if it's a play,'" Horowitz recalls of her first coffee meeting with Armento, arranged by her partner at her theater company. Horowitz, who directed theater for about a decade before turning her focus to film and commercials, says it was while working on killers that she "started to think, 'I wonder if I'd like to make movies.'"

Wright-Mead, who co-wrote the script with Horowitz and Armento, originated the role of Fran in the play. She's the one who came up with the idea to adapt the story for the screen years later, after Horowitz had moved to Los Angeles, where Wright-Mead was living. "It took a long time, but Fran is very much the character that was from the play," Horowitz says. "There were two stories, and we got rid of one completely. We did a lot of work to shift it over, so it's really her story told in 12 minutes."

Lifted straight from the play is Fran's opening voiceover, establishing her place in the "bigness of the world," as it is "in a universe" and her "country is in a world." Horowitz suggests: "That's how she feels, like this single, lonely person inside of all these other boxes. It lets you into her mind in a way that feels really specific to the character."

But that key voice was one of the hardest aspects of the film to nail. "We did so many rewrites, and in the edit, [editor] Stephanie Kaznocha and I would think, 'Oh, we need something here,' or, 'The version we have of Katy saying this doesn't feel good.' We'd often text or call Katy and say, 'Here are the five lines we want.' And since she was with her child, she'd hide in the closet, go on her iPhone and record them a bunch of different ways," says Horowitz. "Quite a lot of stuff in the short is actually recorded on an iPhone."

Horowitz shot the film in Maine at the Barn Arts collective, which hosts artist residency programs during the summer. "When we were thinking about where to shoot this, it really doesn't feel like an L.A. story. And it really doesn't feel like a California story," she says, adding that seven of her friends from college came out to help with the production. "The friend who did craft [services] works on a farm. He'd never worked on a film set before. And he made us mayonnaise with the eggs from his chickens."

Fran's story begins when she connects with her co-worker, Robert, played by Jim Sarbh. "She's a wonderfully funny, to-the-point person. If only she could say things out loud, which she sort of manages to do with Robert," says Horowitz. "If only she knew that other people wouldn't think she's weird and she didn't have something to be ashamed of. Then she could be in the world."

A character who was beefed up through the writing process, Robert indeed revels in her quiet nature and sense of humor, which draws them together. "In a lot of ways, he is kind of weird, truly. If everybody just let everyone know what their 'weird' was, we'd probably feel less alone," Horowitz says.

Yet on a trip for Robert's birthday, Fran's sense of self-doubt consumes her. "Fran doesn't know why anybody would like her," says Horowitz, whose father is a therapist. "Isn't that what makes trying to be with someone so scary?"

The film premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival before making the rounds at other festivals and landing on the Oscar shortlist. No matter what happens next on the awards path, it won't be the end of the line for Fran: Horowitz already has finished a feature-length script based on the short, one that would explore Fran's backstory. Horowitz considers that Fran was a girl who didn't really have any friends and was an only child. "Slowly as she got older and everyone became closer, she was still left out," Horowitz says. She became so afraid that it overwhelms her, and she fears that it will overwhelm someone else, like Robert. "But when she tells someone, she's relieved of that. That's what I would hope for her."

Two years after beginning work in film, Horowitz says community is exactly what Fran needs in her life. "That's why I want to make the movie. How are we vulnerable and connect with each other? How do we feel that feeling that feels so good and makes life worth living? That's Fran's story," she says. "In my life, I make art in a community. Theater and film are how I feel OK in the world. That's like my Robert, I guess."

This story first appears in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.