A trio of Emersonians star in front of, and behind the camera for the new alien invasion comedy Save Yourselves!
Alex Fischer ’08 wrote and co-directed the movie with his wife, Eleanor Wilson. Actress Sunita Mani ’08 stars as Su, who turns off her cell phone for a getaway trip, only to turn it on and learn that earth has been invaded by aliens. Katie Fleming ’09 was the production designer for the movie.
The trio spoke with Emerson Today in a free-flowing conversation that has been edited.
Q: How long have you known each other before the movie?
Sunita: 2004. 2005. I can remember meeting Alex freshman year in a speech class.
Alex: I knew about Katie in college, her name rang out, but we didn’t become friends until after college, when me and Sunita did a project for the New York City Marathon with the Cocoon Central Dance Team. Katie was the production designer.
It was an introduction video for the marathon.
Katie: Alex “Hot-feat” was his name.
Sunita: “Sexy Achievement” would be a synonym.
Q: Are you the only three Emersonians who worked on this movie?
Alex: I think so.
Q: Alex – when did you come up with the idea of Save Yourselves!?
Alex: 2017. My partner, Eleanor, who because she didn’t go to Emerson is locked in the bedroom (during this interview)…She came up with the movie. We started writing three years ago.
Q: And why did you want Sunita in one of the starring roles?
Alex: I was a huge fun of comedy troupes, like a fanboy, I loved them. I went to all their shows. I tried to make things that cast different people from the comedy troupes in them. She was in my favorite one, Swolen Monkey Showcase. I’m not sure if it still exists. And I was trying to work with Sunita the whole time. I made a web series and 40-minute movie that Katie production designed. When Eleanor started writing, we said, ‘Let’s think of someone to write for creatively’ — it was Sunita. We didn’t know how it was going to go and develop. We decided to write it for Sunita because we thought she was good for the part. We didn’t tell her we wrote it for her until well after shooting.
Sunita: We’ve worked together for a long time. Alex was such an early collaborator in New York. He was such a good friend. He would shoot my reel, shoot my headshots. There’s a real sense of community at Emerson that we stick together. If we like each other, Emersonians naturally end up on the project.
Sunita talked about bumping into Katie while the latter was working on a project in Central Park.
Katie: Alex and I shot a video in Sunita’s apartment (in New York) when she wasn’t there. We ran into each other again and again and really got to hang out last summer when we shot the movie.
Alex: We said we needed a location (for the video and Sunita’s apartment was available).
Katie: The comedy scene was a huge makeup of the social scene at Emerson. I’d be bummed if Swolen Monkeys didn’t exist.
The trio was informed Swolen Monkey Showcase comedy troupe still exists.
Sunita: It’s fun to be a part of the comedy scene (at Emerson). It’s sort of like being the jocks on campus. It’s sort of a funny cult around the comedy scene. But I also was a fan of my comedy peers, and wanted to be more and more like them and be around them.
Alex: I still think those shows were the best of the shows we did on the New York comedy scene.
Sunita: I decided to turn a play I had been working on writing for Swolen Monkey Showcase into my (BFA Creative Writing) thesis.
Alex: Were you writing seriously?
Sunita: I couldn’t ever take it seriously. I’m a bad student. I don’t know how I graduated with a BFA major. I went in with a Creative Writing degree. It was short stories because I could make the thesis whatever I wanted.
Alex: That’s what I got from Emerson — valuing collaboration and irreverent comedy and treating that like art – that is what I came out of Emerson with.
Katie: It takes a lot of work to make it look easy.
Q: The premise of Save Yourselves! is about a couple who go upstate, pledge to get offline and during that time aliens invade earth. How likely do you think something like that will happen in your lifetimes?
Alex: It happened to Jared Leto this year.
Sunita: I hope that aliens come.
Q: Has the message of the movie in regards to our obsession with technology changed since the pandemic?
Alex: We need the phones more. We need the computer more. We need our phones at 100 percent power. It’s a good time to get re-addicted. If you thought you were making progress before, you’re really fu[beep] now.
Sunita: It really raises the stakes of turning off your phone. We look at the characters as really brave, which is so silly. With the barrage of info and isolation now, we need our phones to connect and share info, and know if we’re going to wake up tomorrow. That’s why we can laugh at the characters because it’s a true catharsis of how addicted we are to technology.
Katie: It changed how not being on your phone had touches of this feeling of being virtuous, and a connection to bettering yourself. And now it feels like a different connection because as you were saying, Sunita, we need it to connect. The real pull of spending time on screens disconnects us from being virtuous. Layers from the film discuss climate change and our reliance on resources. Specific resources in my seeing it now. It seems even more clear that’s something we really need to talk about.
Sunita and Alex agreed with Katie regarding climate change.
Q: Can the three of you turn off your phones?
Sunita: I am grossly in a swing of meshing it into my life every day. It’s sad, it’s sad to say, it was much easier before, a few months ago, personally. I’m in a swing of being very connected to people on my phone, for news or press stuff. It’s part of the performance of releasing a movie. When my phone dies, I’m like, ‘Thank god, now I can walk away.’ I make times to leave the house without my phone to take a walk or bike ride. Not just being in the other room is enough.
Katie: It depends where I am, I can’t imagine leaving a workplace for a walk without it. Over the weekend when I can leave things behind, I can leave it. At night it is in another room and put it to bed. I have found a similar freeing feeling of the realization that I haven’t even thought about it for hours. But then once you feel that feeling that, ‘I have to look at my phone’ — it’s intense.
Alex: I looked at my phone activity. It shows how much you use it. My average is about five hours a day, which is brutal. That’s a brutal statistic to be aware of. It’s mostly reading news articles.
Sunita: I thought it wasn’t too much. You’re constantly reading and answering emails, like it’s an 8-hour day.
Alex: The only social media I use is Instagram and I delete the app from my phone, but reload it when I want to make a post.
Katie: Last week was 1.5 hours and this week is 2 hours. Maybe I’m ignoring the news.
Sunita: I did learn about Katie’s husband, Sean’s (Hanley) movie.
Sean Hanley ’10 directed The Whelming Sea.
Alex: Sean made a film, and it’s fantastic. I tried to get Sean on [Save Yourselves!]. He did work on Snowy Bing Bongs Across the North Star Combat Zone. We all worked together on it.
Q: In the trailers and clips the aliens look like pouffes. Could you talk about why pouffes?
Alex: It was such a reason of functioning. We wanted the alien to look like it could be mistaken for piece of furniture in a bespoke cabin. What’s the only piece of furniture it could look like? A footstool.
Q: But they don’t actually look that scary? Should we be scared of pouffes taking over the world?
Alex: They don’t look scary until you know what they do.
Katie: Your ability to be scared of something is based upon your previous knowledge. If your previous experience with pouffes is positive then you’re not going to be scared. When we were designing them, we wanted each pouffe to have their own personality, feel, and look a little different. We came in with an internal board about why they’re got different fur. It was a great joy to develop and work with pouffes.
Q: Considering the pandemic, how can people watch the movie?
Alex: In Boston you can see it in a movie theater. It’s playing at 300 movie theaters across the country. The easiest way is on demand.
Sunita: in some ways it’s a blessing. I’m so happy that Alex and his movie can be shared so widely. We are glued to our screens wanting to connect to people. It’s a timely tale. It’s some kind of blessing it’s out there right now.
Katie: We all have the feeling of wanting to escape to a cabin. And it’s cathartic to see someone doing it and having it not go as planned.
Alex: Originally the plan was for it to be in New York and LA in July. Then plans got switched. Then we planned to do the inverse, play everywhere but New York and LA. It would’ve been interesting if it changed to see how it would do in NY and LA, and whether it would’ve followed patterns (of being in more theaters as time went on).
Katie: When we get the director’s cut we can rerelease it.
Alex: I can put the shot of the bags falling. That’s my favorite deleted scene. There was this static shot of bags falling. It was my favorite cut shot. There’s a blooper reel.
Sunita: I’ve got to see the deleted scenes.
Q: Sunita — you’re in Save Yourselves!, the Amazon Prime thriller Evil Eye, you were a cast member on GLOW, and among other things, you’ve showed off your dance moves in the viral “Turn Down for What” video. What kind of role would you really want to play? TV, movies, live action, musicals?
Sunita: I get that question a lot. I wrestle with my own desire of that. Sometimes I feel like I should want something. But also I’ve gotten to play so many different roles that I’m so invested in. That’s the dream. So I hope I can keep playing characters I’m so passion about. I feel like I just got here. I’ve been doing this performance thing for a while. But now I’m getting roles on camera. I just got here. I’m so open and wanting to try them all out and keep it fluid.
Alex: A starring role against Channing Tatum in a dance role.
Sunita: I’ve got to do that.
Katie: Elizabethean dance films.
Q: Alex — this is your first writing/directing credit – what are you working on now?
Alex: I made Snowy Bing Bongs with Rachel Wolther. We are working on a film. Eleanor and I are working on a couple of things we’re doing the writer and director thing. We’re writing things we’re going to direct. Right now, we’re adapting a book, but I can’t talk about any of this stuff.
Katie: Next spring there’s going to be a book on shelves everywhere.
Q: Katie – you’ve been an on-set dresser, assistant art director, a production designer – what would be your ideal role?
Katie: I’d love to do another period piece. But I think the excitement I find in my job is the world-building. So anything in a certain period or the future, or in this kind of comedy land of creating a mix of between what you might expect to find in reality and what you actually find there. It’s all interesting to me. Since COVID I’ve been an assistant directing on Modern Love, and started art directing for a new HBO Max show being developed. I’m also working on a modern adaption of a period novel.
Q: Anything else?
Alex: One interesting thing is that Katie has directed some incredible work, and Sunita has written and created work that I’ve been part of. It’s so nice that we do a lot of stuff and come together in a more organic way depending upon what the project needs. Emerson has a good crop of kids from when we were there. It’s fun to work with different people on different stuff.
Sunita: Here, here.