The Secret Friend

Michael Fishman of Ourspacemovieblog sat down recently with writer/director Flavio Alves to talk about Flavio’s latest short film The Secret Friend. Excerpts from that discussion follow.

Synopsis for The Secret Friend: Based on a short story by João Silvério Trevisan. A reclusive, elderly widow, Anna Marshall (Viola Harris), lives in quiet desperation until she begins receiving daily calls from a silent stranger. An odd and mysterious friendship evolves between the two, as Anna begins to share her life experiences with startling honesty. Empty days are given new hope, but when the calls abruptly end, a devastated Anna is compelled to surprising action to fill the unbearable void.

Written and directed by Flavio Alves (M.F.A., Film, NYU). Flavio’s previous short film, Even in My Dreams, received the Technisphere Award from NYU for Best Student Film, and has been screened at a variety of film festivals all over the world.

Michael Fishman for Ourspacemovieblog (M): For this film, you adapted a short story by Brazilian writer João Silvério Trevisan. What drew you to the story and made you want to make a film based on it?

Flavio Alves (F): Age issues are very important to me, and all of my films deal with elderly people, either they have a main character that is elderly or deal with elderly people. My previous film, Even in My Dreams has to do with an elderly man who just happened to be gay; actually a lot of people think it’s a film about being gay, but really it’s a film about being different, and it portrays this older man dealing with his sexuality. The Secret Friend, however, is something different. With The Secret Friend, I tried to talk about the isolation that elderly people face on a daily basis. In general, our society neglects to talk about the experience of elderly people and as a filmmaker I want to make sure that whenever I talk about issues of the elderly that I talk about the real experiences, not the stereotypes we usually see in movies or on TV, or in commercials. They are just like everyone else; they have fun, they lie, they have sex, there is no difference between them and us. They are us, actually, what we will become eventually. On the other hand, they face unique problems which are mostly connected to their age such as low income, health problems, and lack of support from family and community. So, as a filmmaker, I want to address these issues, but also I want to explore their identity and even their sexuality.

M: Did that interest, wanting to focus on issues of the elderly, come from a specific experience, or is it just something that you were always interested in?

F: Well, my personal life touches on this issue in a number of ways. First of all, I have a relationship with someone who is a number of years older than I am. Secondly, I come from a country (Brazil) where elderly people are more respected. In Brazil, although of course I can’t speak for everyone, but generally speaking we take care of our elderly. The family feels an obligation to take care of their parents. We live with them, we share daily experiences with them. But in America, we isolate them so we don’t know much about their lives, and there’s so much we can learn from them. Again, as long as we live a long life, we’re going to be there some day ourselves. In America it’s very much that no one wants to get old. And so people spend a lot of effort and money on staying young and on looking younger, and I understand that but I don’t think it helps to separate the elderly from our society, to reject them. I don’t think that’s a good way of living. That’s why in The Secret Friend, I wanted to show their isolation and actually, it’s a statement about the struggles and unique challenges they face every day.

M: When did you first read the story?

F: I read it first perhaps fifteen years ago while living in Brazil. João Silvério Trevisan, a very famous writer in Brazil, published a collection of short stories, and I was fascinated with the way he described this experience of an elderly lady, Anna (played by veteran stage and film actress Viola Harris), who lives alone and suddenly started receiving calls from a silent stranger, every day promptly at 3:30pm. At first she finds the calls intrusive and tells the caller that they are invading her privacy, but as the calls continue unabated Anna finds herself waiting for her phone to ring. At one point, for example, when the stranger calls 15 minutes late one afternoon, Anna realizes just how dependent she has become on the calls. For a young person, it would be hard to believe that someone would ever share his or her personal live with a stranger, but for someone lonely like Anna, isolated in her own world, it makes total sense… this is the only thing she had to look forward to. She lives alone in a house, she is a widow, and she is depressed. Now, she has this friend, this secret friend she can talk to, tell about her day and her experiences, her stories. Then, at the stroke of midnight, the silence is broken at last when the stranger speaks. Anna is startled—overjoyed and incredulous. The voice is that of a man. He thanks Anna for the gift of her friendship, wishes her the best for the future, and says goodbye and he never calls back again. She goes to the phone company to try and track him down but is unable to because it’s a private number. So she goes home and she looks even worse than ever, but she will do something that will surprise us all. Well, I can’t tell the rest of the story… it will be soon playing in major cities around the world, including New York City.

M: The original story had a tragic ending. Did the writer accept your new (more upbeat) ending?

F: Trevisan at first was not happy with this change, but he eventually agreed. When I first met him, I brought up the change in the ending, in our very first meeting, and that was the only issue he had and I knew that he was not comfortable with it. But I explained that for a short film, I felt a happy ending would be more appropriate than a tragic one. And when I sent him the script, he liked it. He said, “OK, I think my character can live with that.”

M: I understand you are interested in expanding this into a feature film.

F: Yes. What I would like to do is expand her experiences with the outside world. For example, having her son come to visit but he immediately starts to think about when he is going to leave, or having her daughter come and look around the house and tell Anna to make sure she leaves certain things to her when she dies. But also I would like to show more of Anna encountering the outside world… at odds with it and those who live within it. Walking in the street, seeing people at a restaurant she passes, they are in a completely different world. I would like to explore that, to educate people about this, the life of the elderly. I very much want to push the envelope on these issues. My next film is about an elderly lady who falls in love with someone much younger than herself, perhaps forty years. I really want to do this film not because I think it is shocking, but because there is nothing in the world that says it can’t happen. And I am sure it is happening somewhere. Although intergenerational relationships between older man and younger woman is nothing new, the other way around is virtually invisible.

M: There’s a great sense of transformation in Anna. At the beginning, she’s rather irritable, but eventually, after the calls start coming, she goes back to knitting, something she obviously used to enjoy a great deal but had stopped doing, and she begins confiding in her silent caller. And the music works so well, to emphasize this transformation.

F: Yes, as we go along, the music becomes more jazzy, more upbeat. Jack Woodbridge has worked with me in the past on my previous film, Even in My Dreams, and did a fantastic job, so I brought him again to work with me on The Secret Friend. I sat with him and told him, this is the mood I want you to give to the film, to stay with her, to be sympathetic to her, to make sure people understand what it means to be in her skin. We discussed some films that had a similar tone that I was looking for, such as About Schmidt (directed and co-written by Alexander Payne). I used that film as a reference when we were making The Secret Friend, especially when Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) retires, and when his wife dies. After those things happen, he has nothing, he is alone. That was the mood I wanted to convey. The sadness of Anna in isolation, and then the happier feelings after she starts getting the calls, and the music becomes more jazzy and more upbeat. A short film is, in some ways, more difficult than a longer film, in that you have a very short period of time to get everything across - your characters, your setting, your story. So music is one of the most important tools that one can use. And sound plays a big part in other ways. If you listen, there is a clock in her house that goes “tick, tick, tick.” In fact, we removed some music from some scenes so the audience could hear the clock better. That kind of sound is very important to help portray her life, how long and lonely her days are. Even her phone is an old style rotary phone so we hear it when she dials. All of this adds to the portrait of her character.

M: What was your shooting schedule like?

F: We shot in five days. And I have a lot of footage we did not use. The shooting ratio was about ten to one.

M: Did you rehearse a lot?

F: No, I am not a big fan of rehearsals but it does not mean I don’t want the actors to be prepared. I always like to have a nice conversation with each of them in order to relax them.,. to make the actors comfortable with me and rest of the crew around them. So, for example, with Viola, we had a few minutes conversation about her character and she was ready for the shoot. I like them to come fresh without any direction and if I have to made some adjustments or have suggestions, I will tell them, but otherwise, I wanted to see what she would bring to the role. And everytime, what she came up with was not what I was expecting, but each time, it was better than what I had in mind. So I was very pleased. There were a few times when I or she would say, I don’t think the character would do that, and we would discuss it; we would go back to the script and talk it out, and come up with the answer, the right approach. I was open to the actors trying different things, but at the same time, I wanted to make sure I stayed true to my vision. I wanted to make sure we achieved the tone and mood I had in mind. Like with the ending, we had different ways of her laughing, several different takes. When I saw the dailies and I saw what she did in one take (what she came up with), which to some people seemed like it might be over the top, I liked it, and that’s the take I used.

M: You shot on film, which is somewhat unusual for a short film these days.

F: Yes, we shot with 35mm for many reasons. First, Kodak had agreed to donate part of the stock, and second, and most importantly, considering the nature of the story, shooting in 35mm would make more sense, in order to get the look I was expecting for this film. However, I have to admit that shooting in 35mm helped us to get our cast, crew, and investors more excited. The actors we were going for were much more interested when they found out it was being shot on film. Nothing can replace can shooting on film.

M: Thank you for your time today.

F: Thank you.

For more information on The Secret Friend, please visit the official website at:

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