behind the scenes

The True Story Behind John Early and Kate Berlant’s Freaky Short Rachel

John Early and Kate Berlant in Rachel. Photo: Vimeo

Last week, John Early and Kate Berlant released Rachel, a short film that’s simultaneously terrifying, funny, and lightly surreal. Directed by Andrew DeYoung, the short centers on a low-key house party thrown by Early (playing himself) that’s interrupted by a mysterious guest named Rachel (Berlant), who violates at least 12 social norms in the span of ten minutes. Rachel waltzes up to the party, cheerfully asks to use the bathroom, then attempts to ingratiate herself with Early’s friends, peppering them with intense questions about their livelihoods, joyfully drinking their wine (and spilling it on their artwork), plunging her hands into their cake, and eventually, blasting a podcast throughout Early’s apartment. As Rachel’s behavior becomes more and more unhinged, Early and his friends start to realize that none of them actually know her, and they must embark on one of the most deeply uncomfortable interpersonal journeys known to man: asking someone to leave.

On its own, the short is a freaky delight that raises more questions than it answers. But it gets even juicier: In a post-credit scene, there’s a short iPhone clip of a woman standing in Early’s home as he and the friends from the short look on, horrified. In other words, the whole thing is based on a true story.

As a woman named Rachel with questionable personal boundaries, I had to know the full story behind the video. Who was this woman? Where did she come from? What was behind her next-level bravado? What podcast did she blast at the real-life party? And did she actually disappear into thin air? I reached out to Berlant and Early to get the (absolutely bizarre) details.

Tell me about the real Rachel.
Early: One night, maybe a year and a half ago, I had a show in Silver Lake, and I had friends there, who’d brought their friends. I invited people over afterward — I don’t know if this is where things with the real Rachel started. We still don’t know. People drove from that show to my place, and we sat on the front porch as people arrived, figuring out our evening’s food order. And I started letting people into the house. It was a gathering of, like, eight people. Very, very casual.

As I was letting the last person into the house, this girl ran up the stairs exactly like Kate does in the short, and just very confidently was like, “Can I use your bathroom?” Though I didn’t recognize her, I thought, She must be a friend of a friend. So I just let her in! Because I suffer from toxic people-pleasing. And I’m so terrified of confrontation.

Like she does in the short, she went into the bathroom, then came down and sat on the couch, exactly where Kate does in the short. She took off her shoes and talked to my friend Erin for like an hour — who Kate is actually talking to in the video. She’s a teacher in real life. And Rachel really sat down and started projecting onto Erin that she was a dancer. Insisting that she was a dancer! [Laughs.] They talked for so long that we all assumed, “Oh, she must be friends with Erin.”

At one point, Erin looked over her shoulder at me and was like, “Do you know her?” And I exaggeratedly was like, “No!” And Erin thought I was joking, so she just kept talking to her. When Erin planted that seed — that she didn’t know her — that’s when I started to get a little confused. I started bringing people back into the kitchen and asking them if they knew her. One by one, we all realized that nobody knew her.

Did you kick her out like you do in the video?
Early: Just like in the video, our friend Sam was the one brave enough to kick her out. I was truly terrified — I was like, “If this is somebody who felt like she could intrude into my house, what would she be like in a confrontational setting? If we burst the bubble of her fantasy, or whatever is going on?” I was genuinely scared but also did not want to do it. It’d be one thing if we were having a rager and it was just in the air, like, “Come one, come all!” But we were having a small gathering of friends. So Sam was like, “No. I’m going to ask her to leave. We do not know her.” And he handled it exactly like he does in the short.

How did she react?
Early: She was very, very hilariously defensive; that reminded me so much of Kate. She really said the thing about living on Rowena — which is just a street that’s near me — as if that gave her an excuse to come to my place. [Laughs.] I think she felt very entitled to her free-spiritedness. The subtext of her exit was like, “Y’all are nerds for not allowing me to stay here.”

Then she started doing something very troubling, which we show in the short. She literally was standing at the door and started talking about how she’d been hearing a band in the neighborhood, and asking us if we were in the band. That’s when our stomachs started to drop. That’s when it stopped being like, Oh, this is a fun Silver Lake girl, and started being like, This is actually a bit scary. And she really did the thing where she was like, “Oh, I left my purse here.” And she 100 percent did not enter with a purse. And she darted back to my bathroom!

At that point, we were all so shaken by the whole thing that it felt very insane that she would go into my bathroom. We were scared she was, like, looking through my shit. And then she left out the front door, in real life. She did not disappear. But for the sake of making an impactful ending, we kept it real loose.

Then she left, and we talked about it for five hours. We could not stop breaking it down. It was just so rattling and terrifying. I was very, very scared that somebody had followed me from the show and entered my home. The place where I live is tucked behind these trees, so it’s not like she was just walking on the street and heard music pumping and really had to pee and was like, “I’ll just stop here.” She really had to wind her way up a path to come into the house.

When did you tell Kate about it?
Early: I told Kate the next day, and Andy DeYoung, and we were immediately just like, “We have to make this a short, and Kate has to play Rachel.” It really is such an iconic, Kate Berlant, delusional, heartbreaking character. So we assembled everyone who was in town — including my boyfriend, Gordon [Landenberger], who lives with me now but didn’t at the time — who was originally there. The short is full of our actual friends who are nonactors, and we tried to re-create it as accurately as we could. And we added some cinematic flourishes and improvised. Kate, if I may, brought so much humanity to it.

Berlant: Thank you.

Early: Her Rachel is absolutely devastating. We hope that people feel the kind of actual fear that we felt, because she did intrude into my home, but we also hope they feel the ambiguity. Rachel kind of has a point, you know?

What’s her point?
Early: She loves wine! She loves wine and community. [Laughs.]

Berlant: She’s here to party.

Early: There were so many people who tweeted at us and were like, “Oh my God, I’m Rachel.” We’re like, “That’s not a bad thing!”

Berlant: It’s not an indictment of Rachel.

It’s not?
Berlant: Well, she’s not hurting anyone.

Early: The crux of the short is that she’s not being actually dangerous, but she did need to leave. She actually needed to leave; it wasn’t okay that she came into my house. But that’s what’s so painful about that confrontation. It’s almost more brutal than it needed to be. But in order to get somebody out of your house, you have to be short and brutal.

Was it actually that difficult to get her to leave?
Early: Yes. It took a very, very long time. The first part of the conversation was on the couch. She was very defensive; in real life, she was also like, “Well, will you walk me to the door?” And Sam was like, “I mean, yeah.” She extended her exit by 15 minutes by standing at the door and talking to us about the band. It felt like she didn’t want to leave. She just wanted to hang! And again, in another scenario, maybe we’d have been open. If there had been other strangers or we’d been high out of our minds. But it was a sober, intimate evening. And it didn’t make sense to have a total stranger there. [Laughs.]

Kate, what was your reaction when you first heard about this?
Berlant: John texted me the next morning and was like, “This insane thing happened.” And then I called him because I was like, “Gossip!”

Early: She loves gossip.

Berlant: I just immediately was like, “I have to play her. That’s my dream role.” Absolutely desperate to play her. And because I wasn’t there, I could do my own interpretation of Rachel. The process of shooting was so fun. We were just like, “We’ll buy lots of nice wine and a cake and order food and just hang out.” Everybody did it as a favor. It was a long shoot.

Early: We shot till like 5 a.m. But our friends were shockingly good.

Kate, talk to me about your interpretation of Rachel. Where did she come from?
Berlant: It’s all in what she did — you can extrapolate a person behind that behavior. Somebody who feels the entitlement to just walk into someone’s house, take off their shoes, and have some wine. It’s all there! [Laughs.] She’s passing for somebody who’s belonging in that space.

Early: She’s passing for stable. Which is why it’s so alarming. It took us so long to figure it out. Or, if she is totally stable, she very consciously decided to intrude and be very defensive about it.

Berlant: But my interpretation of her was not that she was mentally ill. It’s much more interesting to have somebody be not abiding by a certain social norm. Breaking that boundary — she’s not doing anything wildly incorrect, but it’s just strange enough that it calls her whole personhood into question.

Early: Yeah, it wasn’t like Girl, Interrupted.

Berlant: We’re not making fun of somebody who lives on the street.

Early: She’s, like, a Silver Lake girl you see in candle shops. That’s why it was so ambiguous, and what we were trying to capture: the slow-burn realization of who this person might be.

Well, I think that behavior is recognizable, if bizarre. Do you have any theories on what she was doing there, in the year and a half since?
Early: My one theory is that she maybe overheard us at the show. We were making plans, obviously using our voices, in a public space.

Berlant: That’s the most likely. But then she’d have had to follow you.

Early: That’s what’s so scary. She would have had to drive because we all drove to my place. The other interpretation is that she literally was just walking on the street at night alone in a very quiet area in the Hills.

Berlant: I identify with Rachel. Like, I love the idea of doing that.

Early: Kate and I have literally done that. A few weeks ago in Silver Lake.

Berlant: Well, we were technically invited in.

What happened?
Early: This woman saw us on the street and was like, “I love you guys!” We were so touched. She was standing in front of this beautiful old Silver Lake house and we were like, “Can I get a tour?” She was delighted.

Berlant: She and her wife gave us a tour and we hung out.

Early: We were oohing and aahing over their ceramics. There’s a little bit of Rachel in all of us. That’s the pull quote.

Do you think Rachel was a superfan, or just wanted to party and you were having one?
Early: The latter. She had zero interest in me. I didn’t talk to her the entire night, beyond the first moment when she came in and said she had to pee. For the rest of it, I was just observing her. If she was a superfan, she was playing the long game and had yet to connect with me. But I don’t think she was. I think she just wanted to party. Or truly wanted to pee. That’s another interpretation. And was just charmed by my décor.

Berlant: But that’s crazy. Who the hell is like, “God, I just have to pee. I’ll just ask this house”? I would be hospitalized before I would pee in a stranger’s house.

Or pee in a bush!
Berlant: Totally. I pee in the street all the time.

Early: Same.

Do you think the real Rachel has seen the video?
Berlant: Oh my God.

Early: That deeply terrifies me. I get the feeling she’s disconnected from our work, and from pop culture. I get the feeling she’s kind of a wanderer. I mean, I know — she wandered into my home. But there’s no way to know.

Berlant: But when the Vulture article comes out, you’d have to live under a rock.

What’s the best response you’ve gotten to the video?
Berlant: Claire from Fleabag.

Early: Oh my God, yes. The sister from Fleabag tweeted it [Sian Clifford]. We were stunned. We’ve been talking exclusively about her performance for three weeks. But also we love people saying, “Oh God, I’m Rachel.”

Did you get your sweater back?
Early: She didn’t really take my sweater. But Kate herself actually wore the sweater home, and it was my boyfriend’s, and I didn’t get it back for like a year.

Berlant: That’s true. I really am Rachel.

Early: Sorry to talk about Kate’s performance again —

Berlant: Please, please.

Early: But she looks so childlike and wounded, which is hard to watch. If you look at the real footage at the end, I’m looking at my computer screen and I have a huge smile plastered on my face. I was so uncomfortable that I was just pretending to order pizza the whole time. But tonally, the real Rachel was more brutal and defensive than Kate. What I love about Kate is that it’s just kind of heartbreaking.

Berlant: We’d never have included that footage if it had shown her face. And that’s all the footage we have.

Early: A girl who was there and sitting on the floor was just like, “This is crazy,” and filmed it for two seconds.

What podcast was Rachel listening to in real life?
Early: That’s another detail we added for the short. We used the NPR podcast How I Built This on the creation of Five Guys. A brilliant touch by our friend and Foley artist Theda Hammel. Gordon, the painter from the short, also painted our Rachel poster! Look very closely at the hair.

Photo: Gordon Landenberger

I feel dumb. What’s in the hair?
Early: Two eyes and a mouth!

If you guys could Rachel anyone on earth, who would it be?
Berlant: Oh my God. Let’s get that trending, folks. It’s so obvious, but right now, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, for me. Or Patricia Clarkson.

Early: I’m trying to think of whose home I want to see. Do you have anyone you think I’d like? Who do I love? [Laughs.] The creative team of Chernobyl. That’s my answer.

The Story Behind John Early and Kate Berlant’s Short Rachel