‘This American Life’ Video Series Kicks Off by Helping a Couple Say “I Love You” — After Eight Years

In honor of Valentine’s Day, This American Life has teamed up with Brooklyn filmmaker Bianca Giaever to make an adorable video, the first in a collaborative series called Videos 4 U. Giaever’s short film “The Scared Is Scared” went viral in 2012 for its quirky aesthetic and sneakily masterful storytelling and editing. In Videos 4 U, Giaever helps a stranger say something they’ve been having trouble sharing with another person, via a custom, high-production short film. Warning: it would take a heart of stone not to find this incredibly heartwarming.

Giaever’s experience in radio and film left her with ample storytelling skills and unique opportunities to connect on a deep level with others. But when she found herself feeling frustrated or lost creatively, she fantasized about the satisfaction of making something more concrete. “I would envy friends with practical jobs that served a specific purpose,” she tells Flavorwire. “Like baking bread at a bakery, where they knew it would be eaten and enjoyed.” Videos 4 U is her version of a loaf of bread: a carefully crafted, specific product whose function and meaning is very clear, with a result Giaever can see immediately.

After putting out a call for stories, Giaever waited for someone with a clear message that would benefit from the project’s format. Some submissions concerned issues where Giaever’s involvement would have made the situation more awkward or difficult, not less; things that the person just needed to say themselves. Others were mundane and wouldn’t have benefited from — or held up to — a video message. But finally, a story appeared that’s so perfect it’s hard to imagine anything better for the project. Its subject was a woman named Maia — only her first name is used in the film — and Maia had quite a problem.

She contacted Giaever asking for help with something that borders on unbelievable: in the eight years they’d been together, neither she nor her boyfriend Alex had ever said, “I love you.” The couple live together, share finances, and have many times discussed marriage and having children. But Maia had never said those three small words because she wanted Alex to take the initiative. It took so long that the window of opportunity passed, and they’ve spent nearly a decade finding creative ways to express the sentiment without actually saying the words. This was the story Giaever was looking for.

“[Maia] seemed like she was actually stuck in the situation [of] a standoff [that had become an] epic misunderstanding,” says Giaever. “[It seemed] she could use a push to help her out of it.” It didn’t hurt that Maia’s imagination shone through so clearly in her interview. Despite being reluctant to appear herself, she had ideas that lent themselves to filming: piles of burritos, animals to represent her and her boyfriend, and his favorite rock star. Her sense of humor about the situation also helped; she recognize its absurdity, and fully embraced that aspect of the story. They got to work, with Giaever managing the production on a small budget and through a handful of mishaps, like their van getting stuck in a ditch for hours. But it was worth it: the result is almost too adorable to be believed, but just shy enough of saccharine that it’s hard to fully hate.

Adding cutesy elements to an already sweet story exudes a twee aesthetic not lost on Giaever. “Making this video felt like a fight to tone down the hipsterness,” she says. “Maybe being in Brooklyn it felt like the video naturally wanted to be like that.” Grounding it in radio-style storytelling helped. A lifelong fan of This American Life, Giaever collaborated throughout the process with her TAL producer Stephanie Foo to create something that drew from the medium with which they’re both so comfortable.

“It’s hard to find a story that’s Internet-length [but] warrants making into a film,” says Giaever. “The Internet is a tough space, with so much distraction and competition.” She says that having a background as a radio producer helped her hone in on exactly what would work. Once she and Foo interviewed Maia, the two producers brainstormed with This American Life‘s Ira Glass about how to present the story visually. In this respect, the film represents a continuation of TAL’s — and specifically Glass’s — recent interest in expanding radio methods into a visual format: the TAL stage show last year was a smash hit, and this summer Glass will appear in David Byrne’s musical performance blowout Contemporary Color.

Like Miranda July’s Somebody appVideos 4 U is ultimately a way to bring people closer at a time when our unprecedented options for communication can leave us feeling deeply disconnected. The project mines our shared experience (whether we admit it or not) that the Internet is weird, social media replacing in-person communication is weird, the way we relate to each other generally is weird, and by acknowledging and indulging in that, allows a heartfelt message to come through.

To Giaever it’s a new way to continue a very old tradition: letter-writing for subjects that casual conversation bungles. “If you want to be closer to someone in any way, that’s a tough thing to bring up over dinner — why aren’t we closer, really?” asks Giaever. “Making letters is great. Making gifts for others is great. I hope this will inspire more of that.”