Whitney Call and Mallory Everton, the writers and stars of the new movie “Stop and Go,” know the question is coming: Is it too soon to laugh about COVID-19?
“We weren’t trying to say anything about the pandemic, about the world, because we really had no ground to stand on, no context,” Call said over a recent Zoom call, talking about the Utah-made comedy. “What we could do was just make something light, and just hope that people had a good time with us going through it.” As alumnae of BUYTV’s sketch comedy series “Studio C,” Call and Everton are used to finding the funny where it may be least expected.
In “Stop and Go” — opening Oct. 1 at the Megaplex Theatres at Thanksgiving Point in Lehi, and in other theaters around the country, as well as on demand — Call and Everton play Jamie and Blake, two sisters in Albuquerque trying to get through the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. They have self-isolated, put on their masks, and spray each other and their groceries with disinfectant when they return from the store.
The action begins when the sisters talk to their grandmother (Anna Sward Hansen), who’s stuck in her room in a nursing home in Washington state, quarantined because of COVID-19. The sisters hatch a plan to drive 1,200 miles and 20 hours — through Utah, Idaho and Oregon (though the movie was mostly shot in Utah) — to rescue Nana, while making contact with as few people as possible along the way. They must get there before their sister, Erin (Julia Jolley), who’s so oblivious to COVID-19′s dangers that she left for a cruise during a pandemic, gets back and reaches Nana first.
Call and Everton started brainstorming for “Stop and Go” shortly after the coronavirus shut the world down. They thought seriously about what humor they could find out of a tragic, and universal, situation.
“We were just stuck inside, and we were watching videos about whether the COVID virus lived on cardboard, and whether take-out was even safe,” Call said. “That was such a specific bookmark in all of our experiences, that even by the time we were filming was no longer the place we were in. It was still tragic, it was still scary. … None of our intention was to make fun of the tragedy of it. It was more, ‘Hey, remember when you felt this crappy? I was there, too!’”
‘Can we do that? Is it too soon?’
The pandemic forced Call and Everton to shut down their production company, JK! Studios — where they make the web series “Freelancers” — and Everton was in the middle of shooting a movie that had to stop production.
“Because we had no work, we had all the time in the world,” Call said. “So it was just us, saying, ‘Hey, do you want to try to make something right now?’ We’ve always wanted to make a feature.”
Call and Everton have been friends since age 8, growing up in Portland, Ore. They both attended Brigham Young University, and joined a student improv group, Divine Comedy — initially with Call as a performer and Everton, who was a broadcast journalism major, as a videographer. From there, they were part of the original cast of “Studio C,” the sketch comedy show that ran on BYUtv from 2012 to 2019. Many of the “Studio C” cast then formed JK! Studios.
“It’s always been surreal, us turning to each other and being like, ‘Can you believe we’re still making stupid stuff together? Gosh, when is this going to stop?’” Call said. “And it hasn’t yet.”
That attitude, Call said, “really lent itself to us being able to make something with such limited means. … What we did know we could work with was our voices. We knew our chemistry, and we knew how we interacted with each other.”
“Studio C,” Everton said, “was writing boot camp. We had to write two sketches a week every week for, like, 5-1/2 years. You start to really figure out what gets your creative wheels turning.”
For their quarantine-enforced project, they immediately thought of making a road-trip movie. “We thought filming in a car would be easy, because we had never done it before,” Call said.
After two days of brainstorming, they thought of the idea of saving Nana. “We thought, ‘Well, I guess we’re writing a COVID comedy. Can we do that? Is it too soon? Are people ready to laugh about this? Are people going to be tired of watching this, or hearing more about COVID?’”
The work answered their own questions, Call said. “We just thought that what we’re coming up with right now is giving us relief, and it’s helping us find some light right now. So let’s just keep going with this. And if it starts feeling too crazy, then we can pull out and do something else.”
With film festival deadlines coming up fast, they set themselves a tight deadline of two months. “If we’re going to make a good film, no one’s going to want to watch it in 2023. Let’s do it now,” Call said.
They wrote a script in two weeks, were in pre-production for two weeks, shot the movie in two weeks, and assembled a first cut two weeks after that — and submitted that rough cut to festivals.
One thing about making a road-trip movie, Everton said, is that they didn’t realize how complicated filming in a moving car could be.
First, the car goes on a flatbed trailer, called a process trailer, pulled by a truck, “to make it safe, so that the actors are not actually driving while they’re ‘driving’ in the shots,” said Everton, who co-directed the film with Stephen Meek. “Getting a process trailer was easier, technically, because nobody was using the process trailers in Utah because nobody was filming anything. So we were lucky in that sense.”
They also had to find a long, straight road so they could do a scene in a single take, Everton said. Thankfully, they said, Utah has plenty of those.
“We did get pulled over by a cop once,” Everton said. “But she happened to like ‘Studio C,’ so she let us go.”
“We took a picture with her,” Call said. “She was very sweet. She just said, ‘OK, just stick to two-lane roads.’”
‘Well, we’re still married’
Since she was going to be acting in almost every scene with Call, Everton brought on Stephen Meek as co-director. The two had worked on “Studio C” and at JK! Studios — plus Meek is Call’s husband.
“It’s tough to get a vision yourself, let alone get a vision into two people’s brains at once,” Everton said. “I knew it wouldn’t be easy, and it wasn’t, but we were able to find a really great system. … He made it so much better than it would have been otherwise.”
Call’s take on collaborating with her husband? “Well, we’re still married.” She added, “you know someone so well, and you’ve worked with them for so long creatively — Stephen and I worked together before we were married — that we know how to communicate in the work lingo, and realize it’s not personal if you have creative differences.”
Everton added that “it really, really helps to work with people that, at the end of the day, intend to be your friend after [it’s over]. … We made this project just to stay sane. We just made it to be able to learn. So it would have been a real tragedy if our friendships ended because of it.”
The fictional relationship in the movie, with Jamie and Blake’s sister Erin, allows Call and Everton to mine some humor by parodying the attitudes of those who haven’t taken COVID-19 protocols seriously.
“We really hope that our love for that character comes through,” Everton said. “There’s never [a sense of] ‘I never want to see her’ or ‘I don’t love her.’ … I can’t help but love that character when I watch those scenes.”
“Stop and Go” was accepted to the SXSW Film Festival, which was held digitally in March. It received positive responses from audiences, and secured a deal with Decal, an independent distributor.
As “Stop and Go” goes to theaters, Everton said, the filmmakers are keeping in mind a lesson they learned while making sketch comedy: “You have your intentions, but you do not get to decide your result.”
“Our intention was to connect,” Everton said, “and to give people something to laugh about, and to help relieve tension, and to help people relax, and feel heard and seen.”