Erin Vassilopoulos is filmmaker based in New York. Her directorial feature debut, Superior, which she co-wrote and co-edited, premiered in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and opens theatrically at BAM on March 25 through Factory 25. Her short films have screened at Sundance, the Berlinale, BFI London Film Festival, and Tribeca, and have been featured at Vimeo Staff Picks and ARTE TV. She is now developing her next feature film, What We All Want, a mystery/psychological drama about characters whose lives intersect in a dying mall and also in post on Step into the Mattress, a short film supported by grants from the Future of Film is Female (2021) and New York State Council on the Arts (2019). In addition to filmmaking, she has directed music videos for Horsegirl, Parquet Courts, The Wants and NOIA. (Photo by Marie Constantinesco.)
Back in 2013, I was in my second year of New York University’s MFA film program, gearing up to make the short film that’s considered the centerpiece of the program. I had been mulling over ideas for a couple of weeks but nothing was sticking when one day I got on an elevator and something clicked.
The film school at NYU is housed in a 12-story building on Broadway with just two sets of elevators. So, as a student a significant amount of time is spent milling around waiting for an elevator with room to spare. On this particular day, I got in on the top floor and a few floors down we stopped again, the doors opened and two identical twin sisters entered, side by side. They stood facing me, so I had plenty of time to consider their image as the elevator doors closed behind them, and in that instant, the Grady twins from The Shining popped into my head.
In the unlikely event that anyone out there doesn’t know or remember the reference, the Grady twins are an iconic presence in the film and a source of unease for both Danny (the film’s young protagonist) and audiences everywhere. Murdered by their father, former Overlook Hotel caretaker Delbert Grady, who caught a bad case of cabin fever and finished off his family with an axe, the sisters are specters in the Overlook, terrorizing clairvoyant guests like Danny. They are probably best known for the scene in which Danny sees them at the end of a long floral-patterned corridor and they beckon, “Come and play with us, Danny. Forever … and ever … and ever,” their voices echoing like ghosts (demons?), intercut with subliminal flashes of their dead bodies strewn about the hallway. But it is, in fact, much earlier in the film that Danny first catches sight of them, during the famous “elevator of blood” scene. Danny stares into the bathroom mirror and has a vision: the doors to one of the hotel’s opulent elevators slowly open, unleashing a tidal wave of blood that engulfs the entire hallway in slow motion (even sweeping away a very nice Danish modern chair in its relentless torrent), all intercut with flashes of the aforementioned Grady twins and closeups of Danny’s face, shaking in terror.
When the doors to the NYU elevator opened again, we all went our separate ways, but the violent rupture accompanying the Grady twins soon brought to mind two of my close friends growing up, fraternal twin sisters, whose relationship always struck me as singular. They seemed to have an intuitive connection and a closeness I think I always envied a little. Who wouldn’t want a best friend on hand at all times, someone who knows you better than anyone? At the same time, I saw how that proximity could be a source of friction. Sparked by my encounter with the twins in the elevator, I began to consider how feelings of dependency might be compounded between identical twin sisters, their identities that much more intertwined.
So, in the coming weeks I set about writing a script about the growing pains between teenage identical twin sisters. I was especially interested in the moment one sister decides to distinguish herself from her twin for the first time and the fallout of that need. The other piece of backstory that informed my approach was a breakup I had been through prior to moving to New York to start film school. Let’s call this ex … X. He was a tall, curly haired waiter and radio DJ I’d met while working at a restaurant in Minneapolis shortly after college. I had been with him for a couple of years before we moved from Minneapolis to a rural town in Oaxaca, Mexico, to volunteer at a school for a few months. X was bolstering his resume for a teaching degree and convinced me to go. Our relationship fell apart during that trip — I felt I had no purpose and we became completely codependent. X was distant, which made me cling even more. Still in love, I tried to make it work when we got back, but X needed a break. Eager to live abroad and keep learning Spanish (deep down knowing our relationship was doomed), I decided to move to Madrid — a friend of mine had been teaching there and encouraged me to apply. X said he’d join me soon and I clung to that possibility for a long time, but he never did.
While I was definitely over the relationship by the time I was writing the short [clears throat], I found it helpful to channel some of the strong and often overwhelming emotions I’d felt in the aftermath of the breakup into the short I was writing. When someone leaves you, it’s arguably the ultimate loss of control. Approaching the story like a breakup between twin sisters Marian and Vivian, the short – which I titled Superior – explores the tension between Vivian’s fear of change and the inevitability of Marian’s need. While Vivian’s fears are universal — of losing a partner, of shifting identity, of spiraling out of control – Marian’s needs are equally familiar: the desire to feel free, to grow up and to be recognized as a unique individual.
Excited about the script, I quickly realized I had no idea how I was going to cast it. I started researching twins forums online, surfing Facebook groups, reaching out to twins clubs and twins casting agencies. I also distributed a printed casting call at some acting schools around the city, including Stella Adler, where Ani and Alessandra Mesa happened to be enrolled in a summer workshop as part of a BFA in Drama at NYU. One of their instructors saw my flier and encouraged them to respond.
When the Mesa twins and I met for coffee, I pretty quickly knew we were on the same wavelength. Ani and Alessandra are incredibly smart and have a striking presence. They also picked up on a lot of the tonal and visual references I had in mind for the short. In the weeks that followed, I had a chance to film a couple directing exercises with them, basically rehearsing scenes from the script, and a month later we were making the short, which was shot by Mia Cioffi Henry, my then-classmate at NYU.
Not only did Kubrick’s elevator of blood set off a kind of mental chain reaction that led to me writing the short, I think it also inspired certain details in the film. During a nightmare sequence, Marian experiences an uncontrollable bloody nose and wakes up to find Vivian watching her. I wanted the dream to convey a desire that spirals out of control and the feeling that Vivian is somehow tuned into her sister’s nightmare. (Around the time I wrote the short, I was also getting a lot of bloody noses, including once during a screening of student shorts when I had to rush out of the theater with blood all over my shirt.) The short builds to a desperate final act when Vivian slices into Marian’s leg, then her own, with a large kitchen knife. The girls scream and the scene cuts away to several rapid shots of Niagara Falls, the roaring sound of water drowning out their voices. Although I wasn’t consciously thinking about The Shining while writing these scenes, in retrospect their symbolism feels inspired by the elevator of blood — violence unleashed.
Superior premiered at Sundance in 2015 and in the years that followed, I kept in touch with my collaborators on the film, as we supported each other’s work and occasionally hung out in New York. Mia and I worked together again on our thesis project, a short film called Valeria. Then a few years later, in 2018, Alessandra approached me and asked if I’d be interested in co-writing a feature together. Since making the short, she had started writing more, completing a couple of short films and a play. So, we got together to talk about the possibility and after about 20 minutes had already started outlining the feature version of Superior. I’ve always felt that the short film is a very different form from a feature, so I had never considered stretching one into the other. Given that several years had passed since we shot the short, and Ani and Alessandra were now well into their twenties, that wasn’t even a possibility. But we fairly quickly became interested in the time jump itself, imagining what might have happened to Marian and Vivian after the short and where they might be “now.”
The more we talked, the more excited we became about writing a feature that picks up the story of Marian and Vivian six years later, as adults, with the added backstory that Marian ran away from home soon after the short ends and the sisters haven’t seen each other since. If the short film is like a bad breakup, the feature is all about making up. And the threat of violence is now external. Nearly a decade later, it’s incredible to reflect on how a chance encounter and some deep-seated cinematic memories sparked creative work and collaborations that have spanned so many years. Maybe more than anything, it’s a good reminder to look up from my phone and keep my eyes and ears open.
Featured image shows Erin Vassilopoulos with Ani and Alessandra Mesa during the making of Superior (2021).