The Short History of the Long Road” is a new take on the road trip movie, starring Sabrina Carpenter as a young woman who has been raised on the road trying to put down roots. With the film being released on VOD June 17th, We chatted with director Ani Simon-Kennedy about van-dwelling, the community built around it, and how “The Short History of the Long Road” got made.

You both wrote and directed this film so, I wanted to first of all ask how this idea developed for you, and what was your inspiration?

I started writing the script five years ago, obviously not anticipating anything that is happening currently. It came from a couple different places: one was I’ve always loved road trip movies – I’ve always loved taking road trips, I’ve always loved watching road trip movies – but so many of them were about a sort of a young man setting forth and striking out on his own. And I wanted to see what that would look like from the perspective of a young woman, so that was sort of the initial spark.

And then I learned about this wild world of van-dwelling, that I knew nothing about (and now I know way too much about!) I was having this image of a woman behind the wheel of a van, driving alone at night, and I just kept coming back to that. Where is she going? And I realized that if she had been raised living out of a van, that she would feel comfortable, because that’s home for her. And if she had only known life on the road, what would happen if she tried to get off it for the first time? So it’s sort of an anti-road trip movie in a way.

Is that something you had to do a lot of research on, this subculture of van dwellers?

Yes, definitely. I did a deep dive, and ended up living out of a park myself and driving from Arkansas to California, because I’d never traveled alone and wanted to feel firsthand what that experience was like, which was very illuminating and definitely changed the draft a lot.

I ended up interviewing lots of different van dwellers and connected especially with Ryan Sellmeyer through Instagram who wound up being our van guru and sourced the van for us. He drove it from Seattle to Albuquerque, where we shot, and was on set every single day throughout the whole shoot, and was just a wealth of knowledge and insight.

He runs a van festival, a huge gathering that happens every year. This year was cancelled, but it’s called Descend on Bend, and I got to go while I was shooting. It was amazing to see hundreds and hundreds of vans gathering together for a weekend.

The film is sort of focused on her trying to find her a community and a family and some kind of a connection, so that’s interesting to see that played out in real life with van gatherings and festivals and how there is a community built in that way.

Yeah, and it’s growing more and more. Post-pandemic van sales, which were already increasing heavily, have completely skyrocketed at this point, so it’s interesting to see how much it’s growing. And I think so much of it is coming from this idea of wanting to live with less, and if you’re living out a van, you’re inherently kind of narrowing down your possessions. So it was a really incredible community.

And it also feels like there’s a lot to this idea now with Covid, we’ve been forced to become so remote. But in a way there’s a lot more freedom with being able to work from anywhere. So that’s also been a big factor, and plays into the story.

I saw this for the first time at Tribeca and now watching it in the environment that we’re all living in, I think this idea of finding ways to make connections with people definitely hits a little different right now.

Yeah! And speaking from where I am in Brooklyn, and seeing all these mutual aid networks develop and take hold — this idea that we help each other in a community and support each other and build these networks for ourselves was something that was very much on my mind already when we shot Short History two years ago, but right now feels like we’ll be able to get through this and survive, because we do depend on each other and we always have.

Sabrina Carpenter in The Short History of the Long Road (2019)

I wanted to talk to you a little bit about Sabrina Carpenter in the lead role. I had known her prior to this basically from her role in Girl Meets World on Disney, but in this film she has so much to do and she’s basically the emotional connective tissue of everything. I wanted to ask you about the casting process for this and how you nurtured that performance that grounds the film.

I mean, Sabrina’s a phenomenon. She’s so hardworking, she’s so talented, and she really brought so much to this role. Because the casting process was a little unusual in that we didn’t have a casting director and it was a very hands-on process. Basically, I was meeting with different actors, and our initial meeting wasn’t an audition or anything like that, it was, “Just read the whole script and tell me what you think.”

It was really just a conversation, because I love really collaborative actors who are ready to roll their sleeves up. The way I was presenting it is like, “Yeah, I wrote this script, but you’re going to be in every single scene, this movie will essentially live or die on your shoulders. So whatever you’re responding to, or not responding to, tell me now, because I want to hear your opinion. I don’t want you to be parroting this, I want you to be involved.”

So I met with thirty actors and of the thirty my top six had sort of a callback, which was essentially the first time they were auditioning. It ended up being sort of an acting workshop, I brought in two actors who are friends of mine so we could just play around. There were two scenes that they had to do, but then each actor could choose any scene from the script to bring in as well. Which was also interesting to see what they gravitated towards and what they wanted to show.

And then from that Sabrina just blew me away, she fought hard for the part. She was so game for no makeup, she didn’t shave for a few months. It was only after the fact that I saw that she’s this huge international pop star with a massive Disney following, because the image that she projects that is very glamorous is very different from how she is in real life. She is much more of a tomboy, down to earth, so this role more accurately reflects who she is in a lot of ways even though it seems like its casting against type.

With a role like hers the collaborative element is so important, that the lead actor feels connected to the role and is able to contribute. I wanted to ask you about the shooting process for this film. I was thinking about how compartmentalized it is with all of her different interactions, and if it was at all a struggle to have so segmented. How were you able to build up really strong emotional connections between characters and actors in what I’m assuming was a limited window of time?

The scheduling definitely revolved around all our actors. Sabrina was there for the whole shoot, and then we had one week with Steven Ogg, who plays Clint, her father, one week with Maggie Siff who plays Cheryl, her mom, one week with Danny Trejo and Jashuan St. John, who plays Lou, and then one week with Rusty Schwimmer, who plays Margie. So it was almost like making four short films.

But what was really wonderful was that we all got to live together – we found through Airbnb this sort of off-campus housing in Albuquerque, but it wound up being a really great way for all of us to spend time together. We could sneak in rehearsal time, because we were all just living next door to each other, have meals together, and the van was parked right outside so everyone got to hang out there.

They could all kind of see it come to life, and our production office was also right there, so everything just felt like a mini commune village. That was the best way to sneak in as much time together as possible, given what a short production window we had.

That makes so much sense, I was thinking about how lived in the relationships felt and how great it was to see that, so it’s awesome that you guys were able to spend so much time together.

Yeah, there was definitely this great campus housing feel of a bunch of college students, but it really worked out!