Professor’s story used in Sundance film

A mango-craving woman finds solace in the desert. A couple with pumpkins as heads mourn a devastating loss. A woman is gifted seven sentient potatoes.

Combining worlds · Director Jessica Sanders (left) and writer Aimee Bender (right) on set of “End of the Line” at Quixote Studios in August. The film premiered in January at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Photo courtesy of Jessica Sanders.

These are only a few of the premises of short stories in Willful Creatures, a book written by Aimee Bender, an author and USC English professor.

Recently, one of the stories from Willful Creatures, titled “End of the Line,” inspired Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Jessica Sanders to create a narrative short film of the same name. The film premiered in January at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Sanders and Bender’s paths crossed in 2005, when Bender published her third book, Willful Creatures.

“[Aimee] was my best friend’s writing teacher at UCLA Extension,” Sanders said. “She always raved about Aimee, and so I started reading her work [and] became an immediate fan.”

Upon reading “End of the Line” in Willful Creatures, Sanders was moved by the poignant story, setting in motion a project that would materialize 13 years later.

“I read [End of the Line] and it just always stayed with me; Aimee’s writing is so visual and unusual and striking and specific,” Sanders said, “There’s a lot of deep themes, like power, and desire, and loneliness that [Bender] explores in a very short amount of time.”

Bender’s stories are simultaneously inventive and organic, since her surreal premises are deeply rooted in her own synthesis of larger emotional truths. “[Surrealism] is definitely my natural leaning as a person … it’s the kind of art I respond to more,” Bender said, “I like things that are a little skewed.”

Willful Creatures certainly exemplified her unusual style of writing, but Bender’s creative process is anything but willful. “I’ve tried outlining, I’ve tried knowing what the story was in advance, I’ve tried all of those things,” Bender said. “It always works best if I don’t know, and it always is most interesting to me if I don’t know and can let myself be surprised.”

For Bender, the premise of “End of the Line” took months to discern.“ [‘End of the Line’] was initially titled ‘A Series of Sadistic Episodes’ because I was just writing these little moments,” Bender said. “I found them really disturbing so I would write them, and leave them, and then leave them for a couple months, and then another day open the file and write a little more.”

Ultimately, Bender’s piece culminated into a work that explores power imbalances in a way that leaves much up to the reader’s personal interpretation. Bender noted how she has received readers’ feedback, who recognized that her story’s power struggle relates to the aspects of gender in society.

For Sanders, exploring these power disparities through her filmmaking was key. She adapted “End of the Line” into a script, and in 2016, with Bender’s permission, she pitched it to Refinery29 as a part of its Shatterbox Anthology series. The series was created by the company to support short films created by female filmmakers.

“Hollywood is so unequal in its hiring practices, [and with] so few female directors getting hired, [Refinery29] was like, ‘We want to change that,’” Sanders said of the series’ purpose. “The theme of their campaign was power.”

Refinery29 was supportive of Sanders’ project and the vision she hoped to bring to life on the screen. While Bender and Sanders kept in touch, Bender preferred to give Sanders space to cultivate her own creative vision. “I think part of being a fiction writer is you like to do the whole thing — I like to do the sentences, I like the rhythm, I like to create the scene,” Bender said. “But I’m not a filmmaker, so in that way it’s just complicated because obviously it’s [Sanders’] vision.”

Although Sanders’ work was based off of Bender’s literary imagination, her film is a different work of artistic interpretation. But Sanders’ film and Bender’s original story still share synchronous elements. To Bender’s surprise, while watching the trailer for Sanders’ short, she found elements of the surrealist world she pictured in her head when writing the story visualized on the screen.

“It does look like the pet store I imagined,” Bender said, commenting on the opening setting of the film. “[I wondered,] how did that get translated so well?”

Sanders suggests the synchronicity in both their artworks is a result of similar life experiences, which shaped their perspectives. “Aimee’s a woman, I’m a woman,” Sanders said. “It’s a female lens on masculinity and power and the and abuse of power.”