Q&A: writer/director/editor Justin O’Neal Miller on short film PEGGY

By Josh Muchly

PEGGY is a short film which tells a tale of a housewife who appears to have it all … until the cracks begin to show. Peggy’s social graces are put to the test when she throws a birthday party for her eight-year-old son. Justin O’Neal Miller, who wrote, directed and edited the film was gracious to answer some questions about it.

Informer Media Group: What inspired this story?

Justin O’Neal Miller: As a father of four that attends a lot of birthday parties, the initial seed for the film came from examining parents drinking beer and networking while their kids run around hyped up on cake and soda. I say that like I wasn’t drinking beer and hyping my kids up, but it really made me wonder what implications are buried inside the modern birthday party. On top of that, the character of Peggy was born from a hyperbolized version of my wife, who really has had four kids and is still gorgeous, and manages to juggle an amazing amount of responsibility. In that regard, the short film ends up being half praise-song to the underappreciated housewife, and half sardonic treatise on the pressures that our social media-driven culture places on women (and that they sometimes put on themselves).

Informer Media Group: I can’t quite tell if Peggy is the protagonist or the antagonist … was that intentional?

Justin O’Neal Miller: You know, I’m still trying to sort this one out. There was a specific opportunity to make her a bit more of a villain, or at least an “other”. Someone we could not identify with as much. But we steered away from that, because I think it is important that we could see ourselves becoming, if only we worked a little bit harder, and things went our way for a few minutes. She’s something of a bad-ass at the end of the film, and I think that we are somewhat cheering that on. I’ve begun to think of her as something of a villainous protagonist. One that we are empathetic to, but that we watch with some form of disdain and disapproval.

Informer Media Group: Why do people hate on the “Peggys” of the world?

Justin O’Neal Miller: I think, as a general rule, humans are driven by self-preservation instincts, and that seeing someone succeed where we fail is really difficult to absorb. It’s hard to see pictures of the rock-hard bodies and beautifully prepared meals on Instagram and Facebook. It’s hard to see someone maintain their figure after having children. It’s hard to see someone get into the school you wanted to attend, or the film festival you considered yourself worthy of. We struggle to come to terms with the fact that some people really do just have it easier, even if they have to work really hard for it… or maybe because of the fact that they’ve worked really hard for it.

Informer Media Group: Why was a birthday party the best setting for this story?

Justin O’Neal Miller: The birthday party presented an opportunity to see a lot of different characters, each with their unique brand of envy and admiration for Peggy. And the gift-giving scene, in particular, allowed us a way to really ramp the story into motion while balancing a lot of characters. Birthday parties are so over the top these days and seem to be more about the adults than the kids. ! I’ve gotten carried away with them before, myself, but ultimately these kids probably need something more like a walk in the woods and a moment alone with mom and dad.

Informer Media Group: What is the significance of toys/gifts being used as ammunition against Peggy?

Justin O’Neal Miller: At my son’s eighth birthday party, I remember him opening a bunch of presents that I would never let him have otherwise: rot-your-teeth-out candy, violent video games, and stuff like that. It felt like everyone was trying to sabotage our parenting style, but I ’m sure they were just innocently wanting to get him something he’d like. It was fun to explore that as something like a small battle, and it’s fun to imagine what happened with all those gifts after the party. I suspect Ander never saw them again.

Informer Media Group: You wrote, directed and edited this short, correct? Why was it important to be at the helm for PEGGY?

Justin O’Neal Miller: Editing is sometimes referred to as the “third writing” and while each phase of crafting the story requires a different skill set, sometimes maintaining a single authorial voice helps a project maintain focus. Sometimes I think it makes sense to hire someone with a voice that can supplement your own, and that might even be my theoretical preference, but my schedule and budget more or less dictated that I drive all three phases. One of the greatest compliments I’ve received, regarding PEGGY, is from women who can’t believe that it was written by a man. To some extent I consider empathy a job requirement, but it’s also worth noting that I had a lot of support and input from my wife Mindy (who plays “Denise” in the short), my sister Stephanie (who art directed and notices the homemade sprinkles) and from Sarah Blackman (who plays “Peggy”). Those three women really helped breath life into the film and made it very accessible and complex at the same time.

Informer Media Group: What are some the benefits of transitioning from the Art Department to the camera? Some of the challenges?

Justin O’Neal Miller: There’s a certain sense of fearlessness about my approach to filmmaking now, particularly with regard to location and setting. I’ve overseen spaceships and boats and ruins, making the basic sets required for the type of film that I am capable of making at the moment seem rather easy. That said, one drawback is that I also see how much effort and cost goes into them, so that I may be scared away at times. I hope that I can build a career making wise decisions that use sets effectively without ruining people’s lives.

Informer Media Group: What’s tentatively next for you?

Justin O’Neal Miller: I’m currently art directing on a series, but have been developing Peggy as a half-hour comedy series that I hope to take to production very soon.

Informer Media Group:  Where can folks go to learn more about you / your projects?

Justin O’Neal Miller: My production company Alchemy Set posts regularly about our projects, and you can reach out on Twitter (@alchemyset) and Facebook. Our website is a good place to check in on from time to time, and to check out our previous work.

Informer Media Group: What movies (full-length or shorts) are you looking forward to?

Justin O’Neal Miller: Oh man! Do I get to answer this about other people’s movies? In the near term, I’m extremely excited to see Jordan Peele’s US, and I think that the live-action trailer for DUMBO was incredible. My wife and I love DOWNTOWN ABBY, so I have no idea what that movie is about, but I expect to like it! Todd Phillips’ JOKER is really intriguing, and I really just want Spike Jonze to make something!

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