Stacey Maltin and Margarita Zhitnikova, the founders of New York-based production company Besties Make Movies, are by no means the first within the history of the arts to question the true meaning of the pursuit of happiness. Yet the duo’s first feature length film, Triple Threat, is such a euphoric journey of dreams, individuality and friendship, you would be forgiven for thinking otherwise. The film follows the story of three best friends united by a strong love of theatre and an even stronger love for each other, moving their own original musical to Broadway. It is bittersweet, at times melancholic, often camp, and above all…hopelessly optimistic. Having made appearances at the Outshine Film Festival (Miami/Fort Lauderdale), the Pink Apple Film Festival (Zurich), and being nominated for Best Director (Stacey Maltin) at the Twister Alley Film Festival (Oklahoma), Triple Threat moves to the Blackbird Film Festival in New York later in June.
FRONTRUNNER talks to Maltin and Zhitnikova about creating Triple Threat, the future of independent filmmaking, and the power of hope within storytelling.
Congratulations. This is the first full-length film you’ve worked on together. What makes it different from the other projects you’ve worked on?
Stacey: Well, Triple Threat is the first project that we really took from the ground up, where we raised all the financing and we had complete creative control over it. It was really like our baby from start to finish. So, I think that’s what makes it different, that it’s our biggest project to date.
Margarita: I think it was also very much tailored around what we want to represent us as a company, and then also as human beings, right? I guess that it’s expanded on what creative control we have.
Triple Threat is billed as having a distinctly millennial vibe, whether it be Perez Hilton remarks, or references to Instagram Life. I loved Chloe’s “Pro-choice AF” t-shirt she wore to the pregnancy clinic. This is a film that really immerses itself with the everyday life of young people. How important was this to you in the making of the film?
Stacey: Really important. I mean, they say when you write, you always write yourself. So much of this comes from our direct experiences, like me and my co-writer Jay. We were, back in the day, just obsessed with Perez Hilton. Looking back on it, I’m like, “That’s so awful.” Which is also why there’s this reference. There’s a joke at the end when a character’s like, “Still following Perez Hilton?” But that was just those theatre kids at the party, playing games and just having that vibe carry through. Joking that we’re ageing millennials, 30 now. So, it feels like we’re at the top, we’re getting to the top and letting the whole journey of the millennial – exploring that whole vibe.
Margarita: I think it’s super meta, obviously. It’s a film within a film based off our reality. Tiny decisions that we make on a day-to-day basis. It’s what we as humans, then the characters, take in their lives informs who they become. So much so I think that that was super important to capture those little journeys of how they got there, right?
Yeah, for sure. I think it’s so interesting what you’re saying about the millennial experience. I wanted to ask about the next generation: growing up and starting to make their own pathways into art, film, music. What impact do you think the pandemic will have upon the future generation, and what impact does that have upon the two of you as you continue to make films together?
Stacey: Oh, great question. In so many ways, I think Gen Z is so lucky. We talk about this a lot, that there are a lot of conversations that are happening now, that weren’t happening when we were at school, or when I was in college even. And I feel like so much of things that we’re doing now- it would’ve been great to start years ago. But again…I didn’t feel like I had been given permission. I’m like, “Why was I even thinking I needed permission to tell these stories or make art?” But there was this sort of idea that there was this whole competition among women thing. And that was something that we really broken down between each other and have really focused on in our company- uplifting other female and non-binary voices. And recognising that we didn’t need that competition between each other. And so I think that, with Gen Z growing up with this time and having these conversations is amazing. And I think in so many ways, the pandemic has even allowed those conversations to flourish because people are more engaged online and more engaged with a wider community. And so these conversations are happening. And that’s amazing – for both Gen Z and us.
Margarita: It would have been real, real bad luck if ten years ago Stacey and I met each other but lived on opposite coasts or something and cannot communicate again, whereas now, you know, you might meet somebody while you’re travelling and still end up making incredible things with them because we have the internet and this push during the pandemic to make things more virtual. So if I can zoom down, great. But at the end of the day, its created so much accessibility and I look forward to post pandemic life where its much more balanced, but still use these new things… That we know work now! We got out all of our posts for Triple Threat basically over Zoom. So that’s possible. We could hire a really dope editor in like fucking, I don’t know, Zimbabwe or something.
Another thing I really appreciated is how seamlessly and naturally you incorporate everyday aspects of the 21st century. And yet, towards the end, there was this scene outside the theatre – just so old school, New York glamour. I loved the entwining of the old and the new within the culture of Broadway.
Stacey: I was following the journey of a couple indie musicals that were happening at the time, and I really dug their social media and how they pushed their show from doing these off-Broadway things and got this following through Spotify. And through that, producers were encouraged to take the show to Broadway because they saw that they had a following. And that is a cool journey to emulate. So I wanted to use the social media to show that, but also not have it take over the film- not have it take over their lives and have those real life moments between the characters.
Margarita: Just like real life. You gave to remind yourself sometimes. But while social media can feel like your whole life, it is a tool, and should only be used as such!
“Dreams can come true, but real life keeps going.” I love that line. How much can you two relate to this, both within your careers and your personal lives?
Margarita. A lot.
Stacey: For the characters, there’s such a different connection to that line, because for Gus, real life is having a child, having a family. And for Chloe and also Maggie, to an extent, their real life is their dreams- that what they want is this career that really is their life for them. And I think that’s the disconnect between the characters. That’s what the climatic fight is about, is work your dreams, is art? Can that be your life or are there other things that are more important or equally important?
Margarita: And it’s super true and especially difficult for artists because so much of our lives is doing so much shit for free before you start making money. And so you question, how long can I do this and expect to work for free and live in these rat infested chew boxes, just so I can live out my dreams? I’m like, I want that- but also as ageing millennials, you also start to be a bit, ah, my decisions affect more than just myself- the people around me, people that are worried about me and this starts to creep in. And you have to remind yourself that this is what I want and it’s fucking hard. And I chose to be here, but I think that during the pandemic, I’ve been thinking about, for example, where I want to live. New York is great. But do I have to be here all the time and how does that affect my dreams? And so yeah, I think that line is super, super relatable on so many levels.
What I found so powerful is that they’re just so relatable. It’s somewhat of the perfect coming-of-age. The journeys of the three characters; there’s such a spectrum within the conclusion. You can have it all, Triple Threat concludes, which is something quite optimistic that I haven’t really seen within millennial culture for a while. To what extent does this optimism reflect your outlook on life, both micro and macro?
Stacey: I have an incredibly optimistic quality, to a fault. I think you need that a little bit as an artist. Something I really love about Triple Threat is that it shows these different phases of being artists from when you’re starting out, to making it. And it’s all about dreams. I wanted to do this and imagine your life to being thirty and the hard work that it takes to stay in the industry as an artist at thirty and say, okay, look, I put all this work in and this is what this looks like. For me to have stayed here this long, it has taken an incredible sense of optimism that if we keep going and telling stories that resonate with us, that those stories will resonate with other people. But for me, I’m a people person. You know how people talk about resting bitch face? I’ve often been told I have resting smile face.
Margarita: Between being Russian and a New Yorker, I really mastered the resting bitch face. So. Optimism. I have a lot of depression and anxiety, so for me it’s a rollercoaster. I think on the surface, I tend to suppress a lot of those things because if I let them get to me I’ll be out of commission. So to an extent I have to suppress those things and smile and be happy- you know, you get a good email and you’re okay. But this is one person’s opinion and something I’ve been saying to Stacey is if everyone likes what you’re doing, then you’re doing it wrong. If you have a situation that we do because our mission is to be subversive, is to tell news stories from different perspectives, is to have a diverse cast and crew. So if the Hollywood machine media aren’t going to like our work or our acting or directing or whatever, we should fucking celebrate that.
Right. That’s something I really appreciate about this project: representation. LGBTQ people and different races are so normalised, without there being an element of tokenism. How important was this to the two of you when making it?
Stacey: It’s really important. It’s especially, I would say, a big mission of mine to have queer representation that just feels normal – to tell stories that highlight the queer community. But where the queerness isn’t the issue- where the people are dealing with universal issues that everybody can relate to. You know, it’s about love. It’s about different ways of communication between the two women who are having the relationship. And when they gave communication issues, it’s not their queerness that is the problem. And the diversity for me, that’s what our community looks like. That’s what the New York community looks like. That’s what the theatre community looks like. I think it’s actually inauthentic to not have that be representative. So yeah, it’s definitely important to us. I also don’t want every story to be a trauma story, where diverse stories need to be full of trauma. It can also be full of hope and optimism and love and universal issues that anyone, I think anyone can relate to.
Margarita: I don’t know how to phrase this. Okay, if there’s a lot of closeted people, and you let people live their lives around those people and nothing really changes – well, they’re not a different person. So who cares what their gender or sexual identity is? That should not, in my opinion, also be the focus of every single story that you see. And I just think having multiple points of view on things enhances and enriches so much in ways that you don’t know until you incorporate people that are different from you and you’re just like, wow, this is what I’ve been missing and this is what the world needs. I think one of the things that made Stacey and I really click is that we are not people that are at all integrated in the Hollywood system, like we don’t have family in any of those industries or facets of the industry. And we are just two people that are going to do what needs to be done because we’re not beholden to anyone. And that’s super fun- that we get to do that.
Margarita: We’re creating the Hollywood we want. As Bonnie Phillips Gillespie would say, “We want to be the new Hollywood, not take chances – does all the things, be super inclusive and awesome.”