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Pet Rituals: A Chat with the Filmmaker Who Weaved Hardcore Into His New Drama

A still of a scene from Pet Rituals.

"It’s not autobiographical in a strict sense, though I have been in relationships (romantic and otherwise) where people have leveraged threats of self harm/suicide for attention (and I may have been guilty of doing the same back) — though I say this carefully because I don’t want to undermine the gravity of genuine cries for help," says J. Casey Modderno about his new critically-acclaimed short film, Pet Rituals. The reason I'm speaking with the director for No Echo is because hardcore is an integral part of his film, a story about a toxic relationship and the fallout from it.

As Casey tells me, his main collaborator also had some past experiences that helped inform the narrative. "The writer [Jarret Rosenblatt], too, was in an intense relationship in which his partner would do performative acts of self harm to keep him from leaving her, and so we kind of pooled collective emotions and experiences when developing the story. From there, specific scenes (the firework in the mouth, cutting during a live show) we took either from our own lives or from things we’d seen our friends go through."

Pet Rituals begins in the parking lot of a VFW hall, where a hardcore band (Pet Rituals) is loading in for a show. It turns out that Anita (played by Sophia Dueñas), the lead singer of the group, is in a doomed relationship with their drummer Jason (played by Austin Ford) and she's trying to end it before the situation gets worse. During the band's performance, things take a shocking turn. You can stream the entire film below.

The way Casey weaved the music throughout Pet Rituals doesn't feel forced or contrived in any way, not an easy feat to pull off and a testament to his respect for the artform. "In terms of what you see on screen, all the credit goes to Torie Rivera, the bassist in the band Maladjusted, who I’m a huge fan of. They wrote the song 'Depravity' that Pet Rituals plays, and they got the band Left Astray interested in being Pet Rituals’ openers. The music in the parking lot is actually Maladjusted’s, which we were thrilled to use.

"The music interludes that play during the flashbacks were assorted from people or musicians that are important to me. My best friend growing up, David Shapiro (from Nagual and Alexander), wrote the first two parts and the song you hear while they’re making animal faces in the car, which I wrote the lyrics to (Wendy Eisenberg from Birthing Hips sang it). Infinite Body, who I’m a fan of, is a noise/ambient shredder who graciously let us use one of his songs. The last flashback you hear was a piece that a really good friend of mine, David Miller, wrote. He was originally going to do the score, but he passed away before we filmed the piece, so it’s my own hidden, loving nod to him. Finally, of course I’m just a big fan of Fugazi and that piece really speaks to some of what we’re getting at in the film. The two leads actually did a cover of it for the film, I think they slayed it."

"All in all, the films’ musical landscape is a collage of a lot of my passions and interests and people who are important to me. It means a ton they were involved in making this, I couldn’t be more grateful."

Director J. Casey Modderno (Photo: Lidia Nikonova)

The aforementioned flashback scenes are threaded throughout parts of the film, and they show the doomed couple during their honeymoon period. I wonder about the psychology of filming such opposite ranges of emotion with the two young actors. "The flashback scenes were actually the last thing we filmed — in fact they weren’t in the script. The actors just had such a great chemistry off camera, and really hit it off strongly to the point that we wanted to capture that in the film itself. It made us care more for them, it made their pain more understandable and their love more relatable. Plus, we just think they’re fun to watch when they’re just goofing off and being themselves."

So, was she just calling his bluff right before the performance? "It’s really up to the viewer to decide, but watching it back with some distance, I actually think it’s a mixture of pure emotional exhaustion and calling his bluff."

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Pet Rituals is streaming in its entirety on Vimeo, where it landed a coveted Staff Pick slot.

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