The new short film Connected, directed by acclaimed fashion photographer Luke Gilford, is a fabulous work of science fiction. The film, which physically premiered at Milk Los Angeles and was released online by Motherboard, recounts the tale of a spin instructor in Los Angeles named Jackie. She tries all manner of items that supposedly provide the key to enlightenment, listening to self-help podcasts (narrated by Jane Fonda), making juices and taking supplements, and lying in a mysterious hyperbaric chamber in a wellness center that happens to be managed by Dree Hemingway.
Jackie seems lonely and vulnerable, a wounded bird just looking for meaning in her life. This quest leads her to a retreat with Hemingway, where Gilford manages to intersect LA’s wellness culture and our increasing reliance on technology in a way that’s both sinister and beautiful, exploring a strain of science fiction that’s absolutely fascinating.
The hook? Jackie, an aging, slightly tragic woman who’s desperately searching to connect, is played by legendary sex symbol Pamela Anderson. And she’s fantastic.
Anderson has been famous for decades, but as she’s said, she’s never truly acted. She’s depicted on screen in a way that she’s never been before; there’s no red bathing suit, and the only time she shows any skin is in a tender scene where Jackie looks in a bathroom mirror, critically examining her body. “There’s some pretty ugly scenes in the film, but they turned out to be the most beautiful,” said Anderson. “I looked in that mirror in the bathroom and went, ‘Are you serious, Luke? Am I really gonna do this? I don’t have any light, like it couldn’t get worse than this. I think I’m gonna have a seizure. I feel like I’m in Target, what’s happening?’ And then I looked at him and he looked at me like, ‘Pamela, we’re here. We’re doing this.’”
Anderson was understandably nervous. But she pushed through and accomplished what is perhaps her finest work ever. “I saw just a little clip by mistake [during production],” she said. “It was very blue, and I thought, ‘Wow, that is such a beautiful image!’ It had nothing to do with me. I just felt something and I said, ‘I didn’t realize even the slightest emotion that you’re feeling can really transfer onto the screen, especially a big screen.’” It was a real breakthrough.
It’s certainly a new experience to see Anderson in this vein: stripped back, raw, while simultaneously more covered up and more naked than any Playboy spread she’s ever done. Gilford knew that he wanted to go for a disarming effect. “I’ve always been very connected to sex symbols—Brigitte Bardot, Marilyn Monroe,” he said. “Their allure is primarily as a sex symbol, and that makes me wonder what’s underneath.”
So it was with Anderson, who was America’s most adored pinup during his childhood. Gilford told me that he’s fascinated by transformation, self-perception, and body modification, and that he knew he wanted to cast a sex symbol in a film exploring said issues. So when Anderson cut her trademark blonde locks into a pixie cut in 2013, Gilford took notice and saw this as confirmation that there really is more to Pam Anderson than meets the eye. He had his publicist send her a copy of Safe, the great Todd Haynes film starring Julianne Moore. “The logline of that film was, ‘A horror movie to the soul,’ and I wanted something really similar, but for now,” said Gilford. “Then it was about chemicals. [Moore’s] character was afraid of chemicals and the environment, which was actually an allegory for the AIDS crisis. At this point, I was wondering about how technology has affected our lives— and this eternal, existential search, longing for connection, and how hyper-connected we are, and this sort of inverse quality to this hyper-connected world that we’re in.”
“I EXPECTED HER TO BE THIS SORT OF CRAZY, PILL-POPPING PARTY WOMAN, LIKE A REAL HOUSEWIFE OR SOMETHING, AND THAT WASN’T HER AT ALL.”
Anderson responded immediately, and the two met for what was supposed to be a half hour-long meeting. They ended up spending hours together, going through “several bottles of wine,” according to Gilford. “I expected her to be this sort of crazy, pill-popping party woman, like a Real Housewife or something, and that wasn’t her at all,” he said. “She was really, extremely intelligent and down to Earth, and she was inspired by a lot of older films that I loved.” They connected over the Louis Malle classic Elevator to the Gallows, and a partnership was born.
It’s been a fulfilling work relationship for both Anderson and Gilford. “Luke’s so young, so he knows better than all these dinosaur filmmakers,” said Anderson. “He really has this rebel idea and he can agree with everybody. So I really trust him and I really trust that he knows what he’s doing and I’m just so grateful to work with him. He’s such a visionary.”
Exploring elements of aging in Hollywood and its connection to (or lack thereof) technology were of interest to both parties. The character is both foreign and familiar to Anderson, who isn’t looking for much connection through technology; last year, she got rid of her phone for about six months, only using it to speak to her children, who attend boarding school in Canada.
“It’s funny: when I look at the film, I don’t see me at all,” she said. “Which is really bizarre, because anything I’ve ever done has been just basically a cameo or playing myself. Even Baywatch was just me. They wrote the character about me and about my experiences. So I really haven’t had an opportunity to play a character outside of me.”
“Of course, you always draw from experience and I am the same age as the character. I’m going through similar things. I’m alone, I don’t have my kids, they’re growing up and they’ve moved on. And it really is an emotional time for women when they start looking in the mirror and see, you know, you’re changing, you’re getting older, what does that mean for me? Am I gonna be alone the rest of my life?”
“I TOLD LUKE, ‘I CAN’T DO THIS FILM IF I’M MARRIED. I CAN’T BE IN THIS [HEAD]SPACE IF I’M DOING THIS FILM.’”
Anderson felt that she needed to be in a certain emotional place before doing the film. “I told Luke, ‘I can’t do this film if I’m married. I can’t be in this [head]space if I’m doing this film.’ So it worked out that I got a divorce and we did the film right after, and it was really therapeutic for me because a lot of [the issues the film covers] were on my mind, about the choices I’m making for the wrong reasons.”
Her character is constantly reaching for something that might be emotionally helpful, therapeutic, freeing. As a Southern California native, I thought one of the film’s greatest strengths was how it tackles the underlying darkness of LA’s cult of self-improvement. Gilford was born and bred in California, and understands its allure and inherent fallacy.
“Pamela represents California culture in a really interesting way,” he said. “On the one hand, California represents this obsession with youth and beauty that’s quite shallow, and around the world that’s associated with California. California also represents this sort of existential longing for deeper meaning, and wellness culture. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that those two things coexist in places like Malibu. Those two things lead to a very specific kind of alienation that I wanted viewers to feel in the film.”
I’ve always been an Anderson fan. She’s charming and passionate about causes that matter to her, especially animal rights and veganism. After speaking with her, it was especially clear that she deserves solid, intelligent work like Gilford’s. And she wants to keep going. “I feel like now I got the bug,” she said. “I want to do more and I want to expand it more, because now I really have the opportunity to apply myself to anything.” But there is no straight career path. “I have no plan. That’s kind of my plan. David LaChapelle always says I’m the least ambitious person, and the least calculated person. But I do want to do some great things.” Films with LaChapelle and Franco are next up, as well as a continued collaboration with Gilford.
The 1960s-style photos seen here come from another project with the director, called “Movies.” It’s an ongoing series, inspired by films that both Anderson and Gilford love. “We just started telling each other stories about this woman’s life: her trauma, her pleasures, her highs, and her lows,” said Gilford. “Throughout the shoot, we started acting things out together for me to capture in a single photo. It’s a really fluid and experimental process that we’ve developed through creating these different characters.”
“For a while, Pamela represented this one type of character: this sort of cartoon image of this blonde bombshell Barbie doll,” he said. “So now it’s been really fun for us to create [these] kind of other characters that are much more complex and nuanced and layered.”
“There’s this kind of curiousness people have about me, and these people that have shown interest in working with me,” said Anderson. “I’m on these people’s radar, and a lot of young filmmakers I find are looking to me in a different way than my peers look at me. They’re looking at me like, ‘There’s a human being behind this person.’”
Milk presents limited edition prints of Luke Gilford’s untitled portraits from two new series of photographs, “Connected” and “Movies,” featuring Pamela Anderson.