A guy and a girl are surprised to run into each other on the street. Over a cup of coffee, the guy asks the girl to stay with him until he has to catch a flight home. She isn’t sure, so he suggests they play roshambo, aka rock-paper-scissors, to decide. He wins: They spend a romantic day and evening together in New York City before she walks him to a taxi. The viewer is left to wonder: Will these lovers see each other again?
“Roshambo,” a promotional film for the clothing company Free People, has been shown on Vimeo, YouTube and the Free People website. Its romantic cliffhanger proved so popular, Free People produced two more short films. “Roshambo: Rock” and “Roshambo: Paper-Scissors,” shot with bigger casts in other locations, show what happened after the couple parted and, through flashbacks, how they first met. All three videos star Sheila Márquez and actor Christopher Abbott, best known for his role on the TV show Girls. Drawn in by the romance, viewers might not notice that Márquez is wearing several cute outfits from Free People.
“This is why our film stood out. The clothes are not the hero, the story is,” says photographer Guy Aroch, who directed the film while also shooting images for the Free People catalogue. The emotional pull of the films makes them unusual in the fashion world. “I find that in most fashion films the main thing that happens is that the model moves around; I find that so boring,” Aroch says. In “Roshambo,” shot on dark streets and in a borrowed apartment with only available light, the clothes are not always easy to see. And that was fine with the client, Aroch says. “They’re smart enough to know it’s not about the clothes, it’s about the emotional connection.”
For Free People’s first foray into storytelling on film, Aroch and his rep, Kelly Penford of Jed Root Inc, helped Free People creative director Lauren Cohan gather an experienced crew of about 15 people, including director of photography Carlos Veron, an assistant director and a producer. Sound technicians were supplied by The Mill, a production and editing house with an office in New York City that Aroch and Veron had worked with before.
Even with a seasoned crew, Cohan says producing the film and shooting in multiple locations in Brooklyn, New York, proved more complex than Cohan and Assistant Art Director Kara Schmidt had anticipated when they first considered putting a love story on film. If the crew hadn’t been so enthusiastic about getting everything done in such a short time, Cohan says, “we would have needed a week to get done what we did in two and half days.” Says Aroch, “Working with Free People, they don’t have big budgets; everyone is there because they want to be there. Lauren hires people for what they do and respects everyone’s input. That’s how we get the results we get.”
Cohan, who came up with the story of a spontaneous and serendipitous encounter, says she was inspired by her travel experiences. She explains, “When there is an expiration date on an adventure, I think the stakes are raised a bit. The cliffhanger ending is meant to be interpreted by the audience.” Cohan had model Márquez in mind for the part of the girl. When Cohan and Aroch met with Abbott to pitch the film, the actor suggested adding a game of roshambo to the story.
Cohan says in his four years of shooting for Free People ads and catalogues, Aroch has “helped define” the company’s “sexy, beautiful esthetic.” She was confident he could bring her story to life, and knew that he and DP Carlos Veron “have a similar esthetic.” Aroch says Veron primarily used available light because that’s his style, but it also added to the reality of the situation. They shot the film on an ARRI Alexa, because it “deals beautifully with darker, grittier light,” says Aroch.
“My agenda is to make our films relatable,” says Cohan. She notes for example that there was little styling during the shoot. “The plan was not to have Sheila sit in hair and makeup for hours to have her look like she just came from yoga class. It’s aspirational but attainable.”
“Roshambo” had no formal script or storyboard. There was little location scouting: Aroch says they chose places they knew in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. “There were certain things we had to cover: the moment they meet, the taxi moment,” he says, adding, “We were mostly improvising the whole time.” During breaks in the shooting, Aroch would squeeze in time to shoot stills of Márquez for the 36-page catalogue. The need to shoot the catalogue determined certain changes of wardrobe, but Aroch’s main focus was on filming the storyline, he says. “We decided that the whole concept for the book is in fact the film, so that took priority.”
Márquez had never acted before appearing in “Roshambo.” Aroch insists that the believable performances in the film were the result of good casting. “I’d like to take credit for great directing, but in reality, that’s her personality,” he says. “Also Chris was there for her to riff off of. He had a huge part in terms of creating believability.”
“Roshambo” had been planned as a one-off, but the cliffhanger story generated good press, and demands for more of the story. Cohan and Schmidt brainstormed new story lines and wrote more detailed scripts than Cohan had for “Roshambo.” The new stories would also work with the next season’s line of clothing: The second film, which followed Márquez on a trip to Rio de Janeiro, included clothes from the summer line. In the final installment, Abbott goes to Paris where he recalls meeting Márquez and following her through the city—wearing autumn clothes.
Ryan McKenna of The Mill edited all three “Roshambo” films. The first one came together easily, Aroch recalls, but his job became more complex as flashbacks and layered voiceover became central in the later two films. “Ryan, the editor, is The Wizard of Oz behind the curtain,” Cohan notes.
Free People recently released a new short film, “The Cabin.” Most of the same crewmembers who collaborated on the “Roshambo” series worked on the new film, but it features new stars. What happens to Márquez and Abbott’s characters is left to the imaginations of viewers. But thanks to the attention that “Roshambo” earned, Cohan says, “Free People will definitely continue making episodic films.”
Cohan and Aroch believe more fashion companies will create branded content with narrative storylines in order to hold viewers’ attention. “When people go to a movie, they want to see a story. If there’s no story, there is some kind of expectation that’s not met,” says Aroch. “It’s a dangerous place to tread if you’re a company that’s trying to sell something, because, in some way, you’re turning people off.”
Watch all three “Roshambo” films below: