Denver couple J.D. Gonzales and Jessica Higgins rolled their eyes when they saw people sharing the poem “And the People Stayed Home” on social media at the start of the pandemic last year. The hopeful, positive spin on the shutdown felt unrealistic to them. “It annoyed us like the natural cynics that we were,” Gonzales says with a laugh.
“People who were already struggling with things in their personal lives — mental health problems, grief, loss, abusive relationships — all those issues would be worsened by quarantine,” Higgins says. While Gonzales and Higgins hoped that the pandemic would bring mental health conversations to the forefront, it became clear that the topic would not garner nearly as much airplay in the national conversation as it demanded.
Their dissatisfaction with the media’s representation of mental health during the pandemic got them thinking about how they could tell a story about the singular social moment everyone was experiencing. Gonzales, the founder of his own Denver-based production company, LivaLittle, and Higgins, a vocalist in local indie-rock band Subatomic Hero, wondered if they could make a film together with all the time that they had on their hands. Quarantined in their 600-square-foot apartment, they began writing a script for their short based on their own experiences.
“Both of us have had really devastating experiences in our lives when we reached out for help and there was no one there for us. We know how harmful and psychologically traumatizing that is,” Higgins says.
Since their favorite genre of film was horror, they angled to make a psychological thriller fueled by that trauma. Quickly, the central plot of the film, which would be titled Open Up, fell into place. Adaline, the protagonist, is traumatized and heartbroken by the loss of her partner. Concerned friends and family make attempts to offer their support, but Adaline avoids them, holing herself up in her apartment and refusing help under the guise of shelter-in-place orders. For Adaline, the pandemic is not a time of rest and relaxation; instead, it facilitates her psychological breakdown.
Gonzales and Higgins wrote the screenplay in three days, then shot for three days. Higgins would play Adaline. This represented an exciting challenge for Higgins, who had no prior acting experience beyond some musical theater in college.
They couldn’t rely on a larger crew with strict stay-at-home orders in place, and were making the film on a tight budget. So Gonzales had to think about new ways to shoot. The monster in the film, for example, is made of duvetyn, a black twill fabric. “We made a pulley system,” Gonzales explains. “I went to King Soopers, and I saw this hundred-foot piece of clothesline string, and I was like, ‘that’s the secret to the monster.’ Pretty soon, I had my clamps and strings connected to it, and I tied a string to the camera so that I could pan it while we were dragging this fabric across the bed.” For some scenes, Gonzales steered the camera with a string while puppeteering the monster at the same time.
Despite Higgins’s inexperience with acting, she found a natural talent for it. In the final scene of Open Up, Adaline looks at a picture of herself with her late partner, sobbing while screaming for help. Higgins’s performance was so shatteringly convincing that Gonzales felt hurt to see her in such pain. But once the take was done, Higgins laughed, proud that she had pulled it off.
“It was this amazing moment when I realized the partner I had was someone that I could really partner and work with," Gonzales says. "I felt like I could see her vulnerability — not just in that moment, but also in our partnership."
Shooting the scene was a revelation for Higgins, too. In the film, the photograph Adaline looks at is a photograph of Higgins and Gonzales. “In that last scene, what propelled emotion was thinking about just how much I loved J.D., and just how much joy he’s brought into my life. I couldn’t imagine being without him,” Higgins says.
Soon after, unbeknownst to Higgins, Gonzales decided to have the film edited. It included a rough cut of a scene in which Gonzales kept the camera rolling and accidentally caught a tender moment in which they expressed their love for one another. Gonzales told Higgins to block off May 30 on her calendar. When that day came around, he took her to a friend’s house, where a private screening room had been set up, replete with a red carpet. After they watched an initial edit of the film, he proposed to her. She said yes.
Higgins has found her acting experience so gratifying that she has auditioned for two roles since — and gotten them.
“We’ve never made anything creative together before, and it was so much fun," says Higgins. "We just had such a blast making it. ... It’s a story that doesn’t necessarily need to be about quarantine to still have meaning. It’s a story about the experience of grief and loss and not knowing how to reach out for help."
Audiences can stream Open Up online on LivaLittle's website. Open Up has won four awards and has been accepted at several film festivals, including FLICKFAIR and the Oklahoma Cine Latino Film Festival.