Female director SJ Chiro surprises SXSW, dishes on making Lane 1974, and that special Seattle connection
By: Daniel Hoyos | PHOTOS COURTESY Sebastien Scandiuzzi
- Los Angeles, California
Female director SJ Chiro, brings the Clane Hayward memoir to life in Lane 1974, dishes on casting lead actress Sophia Mitri Schloss from (The Kicks), and talks about the South by Southwest experience.
Lane 1974 is the story of 13-year old Lane who, grows-up in a Northern California commune with her hippy mom. Can you tell us where the storyline come from?
The film is based on a memoir by Clane Hayward, The Hypocrisy of Disco. I adapted the story infusing it with what I knew from my own similar childhood, growing up on the communes of Northern California.
The star of Lane 1974 is Sophia Mitri Schloss, from the Amazon original series (The Kicks). Can you take us through the process of casting Sophia to play Lane?
Oddly, I first met Sophia Mitri Schloss at a party for my alma mater, Bennington College. She was with her parents who introduced me when they realized I was making a film about a young girl. Unfortunately she was only ten years old at the time, and too young for the role. But fundraising is a long process and by the time I was ready to cast she was 12.
My casting agent, Amey Rene, brought me and producer Jennessa West to Los Angeles where we saw many wonderful girls for two days straight, but none of them had the quality I was looking for in Lane. Amey still had a Seattle girl for me to see, and it turned out to be Sophia Mitri Schloss, one of the most versatile, subtle, talented and hard working actors I've ever had the pleasure to work with.
Over the last few years in Hollywood we have seen an uptick in period films from the 70's like Dairy of a Teenage Girl. What do you think is so appealing about 1970's culture?
It probably varies for every filmmaker. Some seem to just love the fashions. Some films set in the 70s seem like they don't need that era to be told, but other stories, such as Diary of a Teenage girl, are based on personal experience specific to the '70s. The '70s were a unique time in history, particularly around coming of age. For me, 1974 was such a specific and important year to the story I put it right in the title. It's not overt in the film, but from my point of view it was essential.
Before Lane 1974 you directed a series of short films still, most people don't know much about your background. Can you tell us how you got started in the film business?
I started theater in middle school. I was very shy, and initially I saw theater training as a way to learn to express myself. Love of theater continued into high school and through college, where I spent an intense time in London studying. My major was interdivisional: French Lit and Theater, so I also spent time in Paris. This was a particularly lonely time for me, and I spent a lot of time in the many and various movie theaters of Paris seeing all kinds of films.
After graduation I moved to Seattle and became ensconced in the fringe theater scene, acting, directing and even becoming the AD at Annex Theatre, but filmmaking began calling to me. I applied to USC film school, was accepted, but life intervened and I wasn't able to go. Later I began to study in Seattle and make my own films.
Katherine Moenning from, the TV series (The L Word) also stars in Lane 1974. When casting a film what qualities do you look for with actors?
For the role of Hallelujah I knew I needed someone with a fierce independence and a voice that belies no trace of wanting to please. It's more difficult than you might think to find. I was thrilled when I found Kate, and over the moon after our first conversation. In general, I insist on thoughtful, collaborative actors who are committed to digging deep into their characters, and who respect me as a director.
Congratulations on the premiere at the 2017 South By Southwest Film Festival. What was the whole experience like attending the festival?
A world premiere at SXSW was a dream come true. We had three screenings, two sold out and the third larger venue very well attended. We felt embraced, respected and well attended to by the staff. We loved being surrounded by so many exciting, innovative filmmakers and their films. There's so much to do and see at SXSW, it can be overwhelming, but in a good way!
We often talk with up-coming filmmakers who are interested in breaking into the business. What advice would you give someone who wants to pursue a career in filmmaking?
Make sure you believe fully in what you have to say. Be very clear as to why you have to make this film. Find like minded collaborators. Treat each other with honesty, dedication, and respect.
Lane 1974 has a special northwest connection to Seattle. Can you tell us more about the relationship with Seattle?
It's difficult to imagine getting this film made from a different city. Seattle is unique in the way it accepts and even embraces female filmmakers. The connection to collaborators runs deep. Seattle has a professional filmmaking community with a deep commitment to art. If people believe in your film, it's incredible the kind of support you can get. Of course, it's a two way street. We all support each other to get work done. I used to assume this culture existed in most cities, but I've come to find out Seattle is a very special place.
By: Daniel Hoyos | PHOTOS COURTESY Maggie Zulovic
- Los Angeles, California
Spanish indie film director Jamie Valdueza, discusses creating one of the best horror shorts of 2016 "Burned", working with talent Beau Knapp (Super 8), and Malika Monore (It Follows).
Burned is a short film about Jason who only trusts his girlfriend Lila, and together they go to meet a friend in desert. Can you tell us where the storyline come from?
The story comes out of an idea about trust, I wanted to turn the idea of a victim fighting for survival and understanding into a love story where we desperately want this couple to make things work but we discover that this is not an average relationship.
The two lead actors Beau Knapp (Super 8), and Maika Monroe (It Follows) give me chills in Burned. Can you take us threw the process of casting both Beau, and Maika?
First, thank you for the compliment. I’m glad that they gave you chills. The casting started when I gave the script to a director friend of mine, Jaume Collet-Serra, he was working on a film and had a couple of great secondary actors that were starting up and if I liked any of them that he could show my script to whoever I picked. I chose Beau, he was great and he was closer in age to the character. Beau read the script and loved it, so he was the first one to come on board. Maika came after, I was having problems casting Lila and three days before filming I had no one.
Beau proposed Maika, who was just finishing her second film but still wasn’t known, they were with the same manager. When I saw samples of her work I was blown away and couldn’t believe my luck when she wanted to do “Burned”. I had a terrific cast and with the help of our amazing casting director Lindsey Weissmueller, we got Meredith Monroe and Micah Hauptman which are top talent and the best possible choices. I was very lucky and happy with the cast.
Burned has a very unique look being set in the desert. Can you tell us about the location scouting for Burned?
It was pretty hard, I wanted a realistic feel of the area, and the only way to make it realistic is to go to these real people houses and film in them. An exterior of a house you can just see driving by, but the interior is a different story. Adam, the producer went door by door by the areas and houses that I thought could work and he went into people’s houses and sent me pictures of along with a report of how open were them to let us film there. It took him 3 weeks to find something worth scouting. He worked so hard and it paid off.
The menacing look, came from conversations with Harris the DP, we made the decision to film it in a blue winter light which it made the desert seem more sinister. We also decided to film everything needed to be handheld to feel real and let the actors free to improvise.
Meredith Monroe from, the TV series (Dawson’s Creek) also stars in Burned. When casting a film what qualities do you look for with actors?
Besides the obvious talent and that they fit the role, I love actor’s commitment to a story or a character. When I met Meredith she was fearless and ready to go wherever I would tell her emotionally. That’s one of the best qualities that you can have in an actor the commitment to explore a character in order to understand their story.
Congratulations on the successes of Burned. Do you think film festivals are still an essential part of marketing your film?
I think it’s the only way for independent filmmakers to have their film be shown and get people interested and if you connect and get lucky you might have a chance to make another film. I’m not sure that there is another alternative.
We often talk with up-coming filmmakers who are interested in breaking into the business. What advice would you give someone who wants to pursue a career in filmmaking?
If you are obsessed with making films, go for it. Try to always be involved in films or filmmakers, offer to help even if it’s for free and eventually people notice your passion and hire you.
Burned would be the perfect short film to turn into a feature film. Do you plan on making Burned into a feature?
Some people told me the same thing, which it’s great to hear, but I never fully planned it as a feature. I do have a couple ideas of how the story will continue, I might write a long version of “Burned” after I finish with my current project.
Follow Burned on Twitter.
Director Rod Blackhurst discusses the Tribeca feature film Here Alone, and casting Lucy Walters via Twitter
By: Daniel Hoyos | PHOTOS COURTESY Rob Fleming
- Los Angeles, California
Award winning director Rod Blackhurst talks about the Tribeca audience favorite thriller "Here Alone", casting lead actresses Lucy Walters, and Gina Piersanti via Twitter. Also Rod dishes about filming the critically acclaimed Netflix documentary "Amanda Knox".
Here Alone is the story of a young woman named Ann who, struggles to survive after a mysterious epidemic. Can you tell us how you came to direct this film?
For almost six years my friend David Ebeltoft and I had been trying to make our first feature film and try as we might, we kept running into the same roadblock over and over again; money. Before HERE ALONE we built two different films into turnkey operations - projects that were fully realized across the board from a production, logistics, and creative standpoint - yet because we weren't independently wealthy ourselves, and because we didn't know anyone who could afford to produce a 1-2 million dollar film with us, those films stalled out. We were exasperated with the process of trying to find the producing partners we needed to help us source that kind of financing and so David reversed engineered a film that we could produce on our own, for the amount of money we could raise, that would allow us to have agency as friends and collaborators, instead of continuing to wait around asking for permission from those who said "Well, you've never made a feature film, so how do we know you can make a feature film".
David wrote HERE ALONE for me to direct. He also wrote HERE ALONE to be a film that in producing it ourselves could prove our business acumen and understanding of how to be responsible filmmakers who make films for audiences. We had three goals when we set out to make the film; to prove that we were capable of delivering a coherent and cohesive feature length film no matter the constraints, to have the film play at any film festival, and to have the film distributed world wide. Two years later we can proudly say that we've accomplished everything we set out to do.
The star of Here Alone, is one of our favorite actress Lucy Walters, from Starz hit series Power. How did you end-up casting Lucy to play Ann?
We cast both or our actresses, Lucy Watlers and Gina Piersanti, via Twitter. True story. We couldn't get the bit talent agencies in Hollywood to cover our film and then because we couldn't afford a casting director we decided to do it ourselves. Lucy steals a scene in Steve McQueen's film SHAME and just based on that we knew that she was the right actor for us. I wrote her a message on Twitter. We Skyped and then we went off to make the movie. It was that simple.
Here Alone takes place in upstate New York's rugged wilderness. What did Lucy do physically or mentally to prepare for such a challenging role?
No amount of physical or mental preparation could have prepared Lucy (or any of us for that matter) for spending the first two days on set in pouring rain and in mud up to our shins. The role of Ann was already demanding on the page, and I think Lucy would be comfortable with me saying that after we finished shooting she told me that she truly had no idea how much more physically and emotionally exhausting the role would be than it was on those pages. I have no idea what juju she conjured up to keep up with our relentless production schedule but she did. Lucy is in almost every scene in the film and she owns this performance.
Here Alone also stars Adam David Thompson (Mozart in the Jungle), and Shane West (A Walk to Remember). When casting a film what qualities do you look for with actors?
As a filmmaker I want to work with actors whose first inclinations and choices are better out of the gate than what I could first ask of them. I want to work with actors who make bold choices, have a reason why, and have something to prove. Our producing partner Noah Lang had worked with Adam David Thompson on another film and knew that Adam, who was a bit tired of being typecast as the bad/creepy/weird guy, would be fired up about taking on the role of Chris. But past all of that, I wanted to work with Shane West because in 2005 he was on my wife's Top 5 Hottest Guys list, and I just wanted my wife to think I was cool.
Last year you directed the critically acclaimed documentary Amanda Knox which, is streaming on Netflix. Our readers would be interested to learn what Amanda Knox is like in real life?
Amanda Knox, like all of the individuals who were caught up in this tragic situation and story became 'accidental celebrities'. None of these people asked to be in the spotlight. None of them wanted to be reality TV stars. None of them wanted to be in the positions they found themselves in, especially not the poor victim Meredith Kercher who tragically lost her life. Everyone at the heart of the story were turned into characters living this Kafka-esque existence. They were all trapped inside a nightmare which had been created by the media and the audiences voraciously consuming the narratives they were presented - most of which were false narratives designed purely for entertainment. I often tell people that everyone involved at the heart of this story has had an identity and narrative crafted for them when at the end of the day, they're all very normal and real people.
Congratulations! Here Alone opens in theaters on March 31st from TriBeca Films. Can you tell us how you achieved some of the amazing make-up effects on Lucy?
In researching and writing HERE ALONE David Ebeltoft was inspired by the work of the Cuban American performance artist, sculptor, painter and video artist Ana Mendieta who was known for her "earth-body" artwork. What you see on screen is an amazing interpretation of that by our hair and makeup artist Lisa Forst. Lisa deserves all of the credit for crafting the shit/mud look, all of which was done practically on set. Lucy and Gina started calling the 'mud look' the 'spa treatment'. It took hours to layer on the different makeup and clay that you see on screen and to this day Lucy and Gina tell us that they still have dirt under their fingernails and behind their ears from all that beautiful grime.
Here Alone will be released in theaters and VOD March 31st, 2017.
Follow Here Alone on Facebook, and Twitter.
By: Daniel Hoyos | PHOTOS COURTESY AliKay Photography
- Los Angeles, California
Teen actress Ava Cantrell discusses Nickelodeon's Haunted Hathaways, finding the right agent, and filming the Warner Bros. picture Lights Out. Ava also talks exclusively with We Blab Entertainment Magazine, about booking roles outside of Hollywood.
You started acting at eight years old, and before that doing dance competitions. How did Ava get started in the business?
I actually got started in the business because of dancing! My parent loved the performance aspect of dance, and thought I might like to try acting. They saw that I loved It was all about being on the stage, under the lights and making people smile. Once I got started acting, I was soon booking roles, and I fell in love with the craft. I've been doing it ever since! Dance is still a major part of my life but, my priority is acting.
In 2013 you landed the role of Penelope on Nickelodeon’s The Haunted Hathaways. Can you tell us what the audition process was like?
Penelope Pritchard was such a fun role, and a fun auditioning process as well. I knew a lot of people went out for it and, saw friends in the room, and I think we fell in love with Penelope. It was a role I really connected too. I thought Penelope was hilarious and, so out of touch with reality. I went in for the first call in full costume. I was wearing high pigtails, an unbelievably huge tutu skirt, and I was even carrying a doll. It was one of those auditions I took a risk on. I personally knew a girl that was very bratty like Penelope, so it was fun to act it out. I would never call someone a brat; it's more fun to imitate one.
Congratulations on the outstanding performance in the Warner Bros horror film, Lights Out. For our readers who haven’t seen the film yet, can you tell us about your character Young Diana?
Thank you so much! I am not only Human Diana but also the voice of creature Diana. Young Diana had issues that went way back. Her parents put her in a mental institution where she met Sophie. Diana could control people's minds. Diana was a human but, got killed in the institution yet, she can't have light of any kind on her skin or else she burns. She is the type of friend that will never leave your side, and is completely obsessed and, wants the people she loves to herself. I find Diana sympathetic in the way she really just wanted a friend or anyone in her life, and was desperate for that.
We always hear if you want to pursue a career in acting move to L.A. Can you give us some real world advice, on how to book studio roles in Hollywood?
Honestly I think the whole move to LA advice is changing. I live outside of L.A. in San Diego, and I actually love having an outside life, outside of Hollywood. So many roles you can go on tape for. Many kids fly in and out of L.A. I have friends that live even father away from L.A. then I do, and work all of the time. Also so many things are filmed outside of L.A. lately. I have a successful career not living in Hollywood so, it can become a reality.
Actors tend to get overwhelmed when seeking out representation. How did you find the right agent?
My Dad was a kid actor, and he was the one initially that thought I should be an actor. We went to an agent that wanted to charge money to represent me, which we all know is a no-no! My mom told my dad to pick the top three agents submit me and if anyone bites, it was meant to be. Luckily I got meetings with two top agents out of the three. We chose our favorite, and have been with them ever since.
In your latest film One Under the Sun you play Amelia Voss the daughter whose mother is going to mars, but also has terminal cancer. Can you tell us some more about your character?
Amelia Voss is my most challenging role to date. I go through all stages of cancer. I stay alive even when very ill because I am waiting for my Mom to return from her expedition and my life, and my choices matter immensely to the world. Amelia is a fighter, she's strong willed but, also very loving. She is a character that screen audiences will fall in love with. The response I gotten from the role of at the premiere was the most enthusiastic response I have ever received. Amelia will make you cry, but also will inspired you and you see the world in a different way.
A large part of the audition process is rejection. How dose Ava personally handle rejection?
I really don't see not getting a role as rejection. I don't want anyone to feel rejected over the roles I have gotten. We as actors have to give it all in the room. We make choices, and sometimes they work, and sometimes they don't. We can't second-guess ourselves. We can only prepare, and leave it all out there. I myself as an actress get invested in roles, but some just aren't mine to have. I'm that actress that will watch the shows, or movies that I didn't get and completely understand why I wasn't the right person, and I see how that person fit the role perfectly. Sometimes that will be me, and other times it will not. It feels pretty good when everything aligns!
By: Daniel Hoyos | PHOTOS COURTESY Suzanne Houchin
- Los Angeles, California
Director Brian Dannelly talks exclusively with We Blab Entertainment Magazine about, making the cult comedy Struck by Lightning. Also casting Glee's Chris Colfer, Modern Family's Sarah Hyland, working with Macaulay Culkin, and transgender issues in Hollywood.
Struck by Lightning is a brilliant teen comedy about, an unpopular boy who, recounts the way he blackmailed classmates into help with his literary magazine. Can you please tell us, how you came to direct this film?
My friend and producer, David Permut (Hacksaw Ridge), had the script and he was a big fan of Saved. He thought Chris and I would be a good match and he set up a meeting. I already loved the material and related it to my own time spent in high school. Chris turned out to be an amazing guy. He was thoughtful, kind and smart and I connected with him right away. I LOVED the idea of a teen script that was written by an actual teen- the voice was authentic in a way it may not have been had it been filtered through the passing of time.
The casting for Struck By Lightning was genius because; we got to see some familiar faces playing roles outside their normal TV personas. What was the casting process like for Chris Colfer, Sarah Hyland, and Allie Grant?
Casting was a good deal of fun and we took great care in bringing this cast together. We were in love with Sarah from Modern Family and I have worked with Allie Grant since she started in Weeds. Carter Jenkins and I became friends on a series I did and he joined us and we were thrilled to discover Graham Rogers. Everyone was a fan of Chris’ and it was a rather easy process getting people to join us. I mean the whole cast is kind of amazing- Christina Hendricks, Dermot Mulroney, Alison Janney, Angela Kinsey, Matt Prokop, Robbie Amell, Polly Bergen and Rebel Wilson.
One of the more notable themes is the sexual preference of Carson Phillips and, the scene where he stumbles upon two closeted gay students. What has been the reaction from the LGBT community?
We were lucky enough to be the closing night film at Outfest which I think speaks volumes. In addition, we screened at festivals all over the world and I think people of all orientations could identify with the film and being an outsider. I love how Chris wrote a character that wasn’t struggling with his sexuality - it was part of who “Carson” was but it wasn’t the driving force. I thought it was a very sophisticated choice. I mean, while it’s important to tell our stories it’s also important to see that our stories have changed.
What dose the industry have to do in order for us to see more gay roles in the mainstream?
I don’t know if it’s as taboo of a subject anymore. I mean MOONLIGHT just won the Academy Award. In general, I think television and movies need to reflect more of the world as it actually is—all the colors and complexities that make us human—the experiences that connect us and the experiences that are unique to our being.
You also wrote and, directed your first feature film Saved! Starring Mandy Moore, Jena Malone, and Macaulay Culkin. Can you give some insight into how you got started in the film business?
I wrote the script with Michael Urban while we were at AFI. During that time, we were approached by an agent who got the script to Sandy Stern at Single Cell Pictures. After that, every studio turned us down. Finally, a small Florida producer came onboard and we started the process of making the film. However, they turned out to not have the money so we closed up production. A short time later, MGM/UA agreed to finance the film and we were saved and premiered at Sundance.
We often speak to students who want to enter the film industry. What advice would you give someone if they wanted to move to Hollywood and, start a career in the film business?
As a guy who grew up in a small town, I’m a huge fan of film school. I went to the American Film Institute (AFI) and that changed everything for me. I had the right instincts as a director but AFI taught me the craft and the importance of collaborating with cast and crew. I was immersed in a community of like-minded artists and we learned from each other. It was the most amazing two years of my life and I use the tools I learned there in every single thing I do in the business.
Saved! was the second theatrical film Macaulay Mculkin starred in since 1994’s Richie Rich. Our readers would be very interested to know what it was like working with child-star Macaulay?
Macaulay was a dream. He was kind, funny and humble. He went out of his way to make everyone feel comfortable and he was very helpful to me as a first time director. I will always be grateful he agreed to be in the film.
Can you tell us about any future projects you’re working on currently?
Well, I have another project with David Permut (Hacksaw Ridge) written by Craig Houchin. It was the First Place winner of the Final Draft Screenwriting Contest. It’s about an alcoholic dad who gets out of jail and kidnaps his three young daughters and takes them on a road trip in the 70s. It’s beautiful and moving and funny and everything I love about storytelling. We are out to cast now.
I have also been very lucky in that I got the opportunity to direct the season two premiere of MTV’s SCREAM. Directing horror and working for the Weinstein Company was a dream come true. In addition, my writing partner, Michael Urban, and I sold two TV shows in the past year. One went to pilot and one we are waiting to hear if we will be going to pilot. I’m not sure if I can talk about it but it’s EXTREMELY close to my heart and very timely.
Follow Brian Dannelly on Twitter, and Instagram.
Struck by Lightning is available on Blu-Ray at Amazon and digitally on itunes.
Actor Evan Peters, and Actress Juno Temple on the set of Safelight.
Director Tony Aloupis, talks exclusively about making the highly anticipated feature Safelight. The film stars renown talent Juno Temple (The Dark Knight Rises), Evan Peters (Kick-Ass), Kevin Alejandro (True Blood), Jason Beghe (Californication), and Ariel Winter (Modern Family).
Your first writing credit was for the feature film Sugar. What inspired you to become a screenwriter?
I was formerly a musician and I felt comfortable writing within a structured song format. When I decided to write more, I found the same structure in screenplays. That’s what led me into screenwriting.
Safelight tells the touching story of a teenage boy and girl as they go on a road trip to photograph lighthouses. Can you tell us where the idea came from?
I used to take a train into Manhattan for writing classes and there was a kid on the same train who had CP. I wondered how he might come to accept his affliction. I liked the idea of young people helping each other believe in themselves. And, the lighthouses added visual and thematic dynamics.
Evan Peters also gave one incredible lead performance as handicapped Charles. How do you achieve making Evan crippled in the film?
I studied the different ways CP could affect someone. Then, Evan and I discussed Charles and which type would fit him. It came down to Evan feeling good about this direction. During filming, it was all Evan making Charles’s handicap real.
Safelight tells the story of a teenage boy and girl who discover a renewed sense of possibility as they go on a road trip to photograph lighthouses along the California coast.
Everyone knows California is famous for it’s beautiful lighthouses. How many lighthouses did you actually visit during production?
We actually shot 3 lighthouses: Point Arena, Point Cabrillo and Pigeon Point.
Safelight was shot in the vast California desert. Can you give us some insight into the location scouting for Safelight?
We started in LA and went north until we found lighthouses that we loved. The northern California lighthouses were perfect for the way we wanted to shot the scenes. The furthest north we went was Mendicino.
Actor Evan Peters, and Actress Juno Temple in promotional posters for Safelight.
The immensely talented Ariel Winter from Modern Family plays Vicki’s little sister Kate. How did Ariel approach acting in such a dramatic role being so well-known for playing Alex Dunphy on Television?
Ariel is so prepared and professional. We briefly discussed her character and she ran with it. She needed very little direction from me.
Rising actress Juno Temple gave a breathtaking lead performance as Vicki. How did you end-up casting Juno?
Our casting agents, Nancy Nayor and Andy Henry, sent the script out to the talent agencies and the response was amazing. Juno came in for an audition and then came back to read with Evan and we decided that she was the one. She had an incredible understanding of the character of Vicki.
Safelight features the music of alternative rock band Typhoon performing there single Young Fathers.
Safelight recently screened at the Newport Beach Film Festival back in April. What has been the audience reaction so far?
The audience reaction has been fantastic. People seem to respond to different aspects of the film.
Safelight is a perfect example of how one can tell a beautiful story while, still getting captivating performances. Do you have any advice for our readers who might be looking to choosing screenwriting as a profession?
I think you have to learn the craft and then write as much as possible. Everything you write is important to developing your skills.
Lastly we’ve gotten requests asking where people can view the film. Do you have any more upcoming festival screenings for Safelight?
We have actually just sold the film to a domestic distributor and it looks like we will have a theatrical and digital release very soon!
Follow Safelight on Twitter, and Facebook.
Youth filmmaker Shantal Freedman (A Strange Day in July, Ticketed) shares her advice for students who are looking to study filmmaking in College, and shares her professional journey in the film industry.
Your career in the film industry began at just 14 years old. Tell us how you got involved in the business?
I was always very creative. My parents were very supportive through each and every interest that I developed growing up. It started with piano lessons and drawing, than gardening, than back to drawing and painting, then horseback riding, then back to piano lessons, then guitar lessons, then writing lyrics, then making slide shows for friends and for school (I loved doing digital visual presentations in school. I think I was the only one who enjoyed putting pictures and music and making them look nice!), then finally, combining all of these experiences, I moved on to filmmaking. And it stuck! I believe that filmmaking is the most powerful form of communication. It’s visual, musical, dramatic, comedic, sad, and exciting. It’s a universal language.
Universal Music published a song you wrote while still in High School. How does a teenager accomplish such a feat?
I just always had to shoot for the stars. I also think one of the things that helped me push so hard and never give up was the fact that I was so young. It’s harder now than back then because now I have all of these other elements of life and responsibilities calling for my attention as well. When I was younger, it was easier to be able to focus all of my energy on these things. You have so much available energy as a kid, and I channeled that into specific areas. One of the things I used to do was send my lyrics to bands and A&R executives, my press kits to labels, etc. I would go on all of the music sites and search all of the artists. When I came across someone I liked, I messaged him or her. I once had this guy email me back 6 months after I emailed him my lyrics. He said he loved them and wanted to write music to it. He then got signed with Universal Music Group in the UK. The point is that no one is too small and no opportunity is too little. I can now say I wrote lyrics for an artist that was signed to Universal because I sat for hours every night emailing people big and small.
Your second film The Child was a music video with a narrative. What did you find most challenging about that project?
My biggest challenge was the intricate and precise planning that happened between the script, music, and lyrics. I was really lucky because the composer that I worked with, Scott Reich, is my father. Asides from the fact that he is extremely talented and he brings the cinematic elements of his compositions to it’s highest potential; we also had a really great connection. We were really in sync with what each other was thinking and doing. This is most ideal form of collaboration. So it could have gone horribly as it was a task that required a lot of work and attention, but instead it was very fulfilling and rewarding.
The writing for the short A Strange Day in July was exceptionally good. Where did that story come from?
It’s based on a story that Andrew Freedman wrote when he was 12 years old. It’s about the need to accept the difficult things in life and find a silver lining. I really identified with the youthful aspect of it. It was only because of the innocence of being a child that the main character was able to push through. He let his memories and imagination guide him. I’ve found in my life that the way to get through a lot of difficult times is to tap into your inner child because sometimes adults can let their heavy thoughts and feelings weigh them down and they forget to dream.
We first met while I was working at (NFFTY) National Film Festival for Talented Youth. Do you find it hard for people to take young filmmakers seriously?
Sadly, yes. I remember when I was starting to network both in the film and music industries; I would always keep my age a secret. There was this band that once hired me to write lyrics for them, and they wanted to continue the collaboration in person by coming to their city. They had a small house that they were renting out but their manager offered for me to stay there for free. At that point I was 14! They had no idea! I made up some excuse instead of saying that would pretty much be impossible. As a matter of fact, every time I ended up telling someone in the film and music industry how old I was, their response was always shock. In a way it was flattering that they thought I was so much older (as if being “older” or an “adult” is actually a compliment when you think about it), but on the other hand, I didn’t like the attention it put on me and I just wanted to be viewed as an equal and not an exception. I wanted to be seen for who I am and not for my age. There are so many extremely talented young filmmakers out there capable of so much.
This question comes up quite a bit in our industry. Do I need a degree to get a job in film production?
I hope not! Haha! But in all seriousness, I don’t think you need a film degree. I think all you need is passion and a drive to make it. Degrees are becoming less and less significant because people are acknowledging more and more that there are creative forms of intelligence that aren’t necessarily sitting in science class all day. That’s why I chose to go to the New York Film Academy in LA. Their program was so hands-on and we can make over 12 films over the course of two years. Some universities only have their students make 1 film per semester! And in a program like the New York Film Academy’s, you then have so many films to test out and practice your personal interests. I think that makes you a strong candidate. Of course there are some jobs that would need an official degree, but those jobs are the less creative ones. I guess what I’m trying to say is, your success in the film industry is not determined by your degree or what college you went to, but rather by your passion and energy.
Can you give us some insight into Shantal’s directing style?
I like to do whatever will service the story best. This actually connects to the question before about “A Strange Day in July”. That was the beginning of something that I still believe today. That film made me realize what kind of films I want to make and, except for one really depressing experimental film, I’ve been making films like that ever since. I strongly believe that we all need a little more laughter and joy in our lives.
Your short film Ticketed just got accepted into Cannes Short Film Corner. Can you describe the feeling after you got the news?
It’s really nice to know that people like the film. I just hope that it gives more people an opportunity to see it, and enjoy it. And I also hope it gives me the chance to show people what I can do! I’m trying to work out a way to attend the festival. I would love to create some opportunities for myself while I’m there and meet people who I wouldn’t otherwise get the chance to meet.
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Boston native Elgin James talks exclusively about working with superstar talent Juno Temple (Maleficent, Safelight), in the critically acclaimed feature that rocked Temple to fame 2011’s independent film Little Birds. Elgin also tells us how the Sundance Institute Labs became essential in the making of Little Birds.
Little Birds was your directorial debut. Can you tell us what inspired you to become a Director?
I grew up in an environment where the very things that make someone an artist, empathy and vulnerability, were the things you had to bury inside yourself and keep hidden at all costs. When I was young I was terrified of the world and of the violence inside my home and developed nervous tics. The only time they wouldn’t affect me was when I was watching a movie, so film became my escape. I beat the tics by trying to become worse than all of the things I was scared of. Even when I was older and fully engaged in a criminal mindset, movies were still my refuge. I’d slip away from my friends and spend the day in one of Boston’s art house theaters like The Coolidge or The Brattle, discovering Terrence Malick, David Gordon Green, Larry Clark.
When I finally had to leave Boston, I had nothing, so I had nothing to lose. I decided to dream big and try to make movies in Hollywood. It wasn’t until I got out here that I realized how utterly foolish that was. I didn’t know anyone, had no film education and absolutely no skills. I showed up and was like “How do you make a movie?
Little Birds tells the story of a restless teen that convinces her best friend to help her steal a truck and head to Los Angeles. Can you tell us where the original idea came from?
My best friend and I had ended up homeless in Boston as teenagers, and we, with a few others, helped form a multi-ethnic street gang that attacked Neo Nazis and robbed drug dealers. The gang would spread not only across the country but also to other parts of the world. We had nothing and we built, what we saw as, a kingdom. A lot of people, including law enforcement, saw it as only a kingdom of shit, of needless violence and terror. But at least we built something.
And after a year or so after I got to L.A trying to figure out how the hell to make a movie, suddenly people were interested in the numerous articles and media specials about myself and the gang at the time. A studio project of my “life story” quickly got set up with an A-List director and an A-list actor attached. And I was like “It’s easy to make movies, what’s everyone complaining about? (Obviously even more foolish on my part.) I wasn’t even going to write this version or direct this version; I was just the “dumb gang member” in the room to give it “authenticity.” But when the project began to take on a different tone, glorifying the violence I was just coming to terms with, I decided to write and direct it myself.
I’d never written a real script before, and in trying to do so I realized I didn’t want to tell the story of us building this “empire.” I wanted to tell the story of how we both got there. Of the hopelessness and the lack of opportunity and the constant desire to set the world on fire, only to always end up getting burned yourself. And to capture that emotionally I realized I had to strip away the sensationalism. So I turned our characters into two fifteen year old girls trying to leave their small town for L.A.
Ironically the day after we got the financing for the film, I was arrested by a dozen FBI agents outside my home for an old gang related charge (I had extorted someone with white power ties into giving money to an anti-racist charity.) So we lost our financing and had to somehow find the money again, and shoot the film before I inevitably went to prison. And after my arrest, so many of my “brothers in arms” three hundred pounds face tattooed criminals, ran for the hills. While a little English actress named Juno Temple never left my side. Leading us to your next question…
Rising actress Juno Temple achieved worldwide acclaim after playing Lily Hobart. How did you end-up casting Juno?
The producers had told me to make two lists of actresses. One of whom I wanted to play Lily. And one of whom I wanted to play Alison. I put Juno Temple (who I’d never met at the time) at the top of both lists. We were told by her agents that she wouldn’t be able to audition because she was leaving to go back to the UK, but on the very first day of casting she surprised everyone and showed up (like a fucking rock star, hangover in a leopard jacket.) And as soon as we laid eyes on each other, we were like two lost tribesman who’d finally found each other. She never did audition we just hung out and talked. And I told her she could have whatever part she wanted. She chose Lily, because she wanted to set Lily free.
And after my arrest she stayed with me and with the project. We didn’t know if the money would ever come back, and if we’d even get to shoot before I went to prison, but we still would get together several times a week to talk about the film, to talk about Lily, to talk about life. And we became family. Which we still are six years later.
Kay Panabaker played best friend Alison Hoffman a complete contrast to Lily. What went through your mind while creating the character?
Initially the characters of Lily and Alison were my best friend and I. But as I worked on it, I had incredible mentors who pushed me to make the script even more personal, and the characters became the two different parts of me. Like Lily, I grew up suffocating in a small town, wanting to get out into the world. And when I did, the world ate me up and spat me back out. And like Alison, what I wouldn’t give now to go back to that small town, to hear my mother’s voice calling me in for dinner. To understand how important the very things I was trying to leave, actually were.
Little Birds was filmed in the California desert. What made you change locations from Boston to the desert?
I’d spent my childhood in a small rural New England town, and I always felt like I was suffocating. I was a twelve-year-old brown-skinned punk rocker wanting to get out. I wanted asphalt and cement and adrenaline and I was surrounded by pigs and sheep and confederate flags in pickup windows. So when I went to the Salton Sea, with it’s dead water, dead bird bones lined beaches, and harsh acrid desert wind, I realized that even though it looked completely different, it perfectly captured how my small town felt emotionally to me.
The feature was produced though the Sundance Institute Labs. What kinds of opportunities come out of the Sundance Labs for Little Birds?
Robert Redford, Michelle Satter and all of the Sundance institute changed my life. I was a gang member, and they made me an artist. There was no reason for them to take a chance on me. I didn’t even know what a grip was, I’d never been on a film set. But they saw something in me and gave me the tools to express myself in a different way than violence. And they pushed me constantly to go further inside myself to find truth. And after I was arrested, when I was bonded out they were the first people I talked to. They rallied behind me. And when I went to prison they sent me letters and books. The film had so many opportunities because of the labs, from it’s creation, to help getting film stock, to grants etc… But more than anything the labs and the institute gave me not only my career but also my life.
Both drug use and skateboarding culture are a strong underlining theme in the film. Was this based off any personal experiences?
Truth is, when I was growing up we were doing worst things than the boys in the film. Definitely worse than robbing people off of Craigslist. But these girls would come around and hang out or live with us for a while. At the time I was only interested in them for what teenage boys are interested in teenage girls for. But later, as I grew older I thought back on what the hell had led these people to us. And what happened to them after us. They’d come in seeing only this candy shell of excitement and danger and fun. But then end up getting close enough to see the real darkness and hopelessness in the center. I wasn’t as interested in the homeless boys in Little Birds, who become a family and pull off petty crimes to survive. I’d lived that. I was more interested in the girls, who even though they were smarter than us, had ended up snared in our web. Like Lily and Alison.
You developed a long-lasting working friendship with Juno. Did you give her any career advice before she hit superstardom?
It’s been incredible to watch Juno take off. She, and Reed Morano (Little Birds cinematographer) were really my bulletproof vest on Little Birds. No way I could have made that movie without them. That’s why they are still two of the closest people in my life. And it’s been really incredible to all be coming up career wise together, though I’m always trying to catch up to them, because those women are killing it. And no, no real advice, except the advice we all regularly ask of each other – about projects, our opinions on people we may possibly work with, reading scripts etc… But Juno doesn’t need my advice on her success. She is the most loyal, bravest and toughest soul I know. She’s gonna be fine.
I personally found little pockets of humor in Little Birds. How did you approach the humor in Juno Temple’s character?
I love Lily. She’s challenging, for sure, because she’s real. And she’s real because Juno played her that way. Juno did not care if anyone liked Lily, all she wanted was to bring her to life. Which I would later realize I was so spoiled by. The majority of actors, especially once, who’ve had success, are cowards, worrying if their character is “relatable.” Which is just code word for the actor is lazy and scared. It’s like a cinematographer asking if you could shoot the climactic rain-soaked night scene during the day when it’s sunny, because that would be much easier for him. If you’re an actor it’s your job to make the character human, no matter who they are and what they do. I met with a quite successful actor on a project where his character would be playing a fugitive on the run, which’s forced to do some pretty heinous things to survive. And he asked if I could write in that he had a little daughter he was doing it all for, so even though he has to kill people, the audience would still “like” him. I will never work with that guy.
Can you give us a small preview of your next film?
I’m currently in Pre-production on a film adaptation of the novel A Million Little Pieces with Plan B. Juno and I have another project we’ve been working on together since before we got to shoot Little Birds, a love story about traveling homeless kids. TV is an incredibly interesting place right now, so the journalist Lisa Ling and actor Diego Luna and I have a show in development at a cable network. And I’ve got a feature I’m doing with Jamie Patricof and Lynette Howell (Electric City) that I wrote with Justin Marks, where a fugitive has to do some heinous things to survive, but I promise you, he will not have a little daughter he’s trying to save.
Little Birds is available on DVD at Amazon and digitally on itunes.
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Screenwriter ‘Judy White’ recalls family trip in Dramedy Lies I Told My Little Sister starring Lucy Waters (Starz TV Series Power), with a special appearance by Alicia Minshew (All My Children).
Your writing career began at Seventeen Magazine. Can you tell us what that experience was like?
My first published article was actually for a scientific journal, on my college research in neurobiology. But on the side, I was writing humor essays. I sent the first one to Seventeen Magazine – how I used to drop library books in the bathtub while reading and make my little sister return them so she’d endure the librarian’s wrath instead of me. If I’d known then how hard it is to be published in major magazines, I probably wouldn’t have had the audacity. But Seventeen bought the very first piece and asked for more, and I did a half-dozen funny columns. The second was called Lies I Told My Little Sister. So many of us either tortured our younger siblings, or got tortured, or (in the case of middle children) got to be on both ends. Childhood patterns fascinate me because we are set in cement so early on, which is why I returned to that idea for my first screenplay. Most of my career has been writing non-fiction books and articles, usually technical, but my trademark was to infuse humor wherever possible. So in Lies, there is a serious theme of dealing with grief, and a more humorous theme about trying to recover from being a sibling, and about integrating both into your adult life.
Lies evokes nostalgia, the older sister who tortures her little sister with myths. Is the script loosely based on your family?
Yes, definitely. I don’t know why my little sister always would believe the ridiculous things I would tell her, but she kinda still does. And we had an older sister who died of cancer. So those two realities became the backbone of the script. The reason I even wrote it was that my nephew, Jonathan Weisbrod, who is the son of my tortured little sister, ended up at NYU majoring in film & television, and he said, “You’re a writer; write a screenplay,” and eventually he became co-writer. So here we were, writing a story about a family trip with a little kid in it, and that little kid is now grown and in college, helping me write the screenplay based on our family. When you write fiction about your own life, you have to toss out a lot of actualities in order to drive the plot, but there are things in the film that really happened. Including my mother with that porn magazine!
Lies I Told My Little Sister was your first feature-length film. Did you find any difficulty with securing funds?
After helping me co-write Lies, Jonathan decided to produce it himself. He recruited the most talented of his NYU colleagues, with whom he’d already been making award-winning short films. He put together a SAG-ULB budget that was funded entirely by equity investors in first-position, allowing a lot of people to have a piece of the film for very little money. It was the crew’s first feature film, but because these were kids clearly at the beginning of promising careers, there were a lot of people who wanted to invest.
Backdrop was set in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. How did you locate that beautiful beach house?
Lies follows a NJ family who travel to Cape Cod (which we used to do), and so of course a lot of the film was shot on iconic spots on the Cape, but that beach house was actually in Sea Bright, New Jersey. We used our home state as much as possible to keep costs down. As co-producer, I found the house on a vacation rental site, and not only was it used as location, a lot of the cast and crew lived in it during filming. Four months afterwards, Sea Bright was decimated by Superstorm Sandy. That beautiful house was flooded, though it is still standing.
Lucy Walters portrayed Cory brilliantly. You mentioned this was her first lead role?
Lucy is astonishing in Lies, a perfect combination of tough and sexy and vulnerable and broken. She essentially plays “me” as the middle child. Lucy first got noticed in director Steve McQueen’s Shame – stunning in two sex-charged scenes opposite Michael Fassbender. Now she is in 50 Cent’s STARZ drama series, Power, playing the ‘hot white chick’ – which has just been picked up for a second season. Lucy wowed us at the Lies audition. It was obvious how good she is, and also how completely she got the humor as well as the agony. Besides being incredibly intelligent and beautiful, she has an older sister and two younger brothers, and knows all the sibling tricks. Lucy Walters. Remember that name, for she is definitely a rising star. I adore her.
Lies deals with loss in the family. What has been the audience reaction thus far?
There’s been wonderful word-of-mouth because the film is funny as well as touching. People who have had a family loss really relate, especially if they also have siblings. I love the story of one viewer who said that she had been a little afraid to come see it because she’d recently lost her sister, but came anyway, lugging a box of tissues – and she never had to use any of them, because every time she’d start to tear up, something funny would happen. I tried for a good blend so that you never feel like you are wallowing. Because life keeps happening all around you, and some of it makes you laugh out loud even when you are terribly sad. The older you are, the more likely you are to have gone through some hard stuff. I am always amazed, for example, at how much older men like this film. It’s kind of a litmus test of how much you’ve personally been through, because if you’ve been touched by grief, no matter what your age, you appreciate that you can keep going, and that you are allowed to be happy. It’s a very hopeful film.
Alicia Minshew from All My Children makes a special appearance. How did you casting such a notable actress?
We were so lucky in the timing, because All My Children was ending after 41 years. We needed someone gorgeous and fabulous as the oldest, favorite sister who dies, so we sent the script to two-time Emmy nominee Alicia Minshew (10 years on AMC as ‘Kendall Hart’). Alicia reads lots of scripts, and said most are pretty terrible, but she thought Lies was really special. We only see her in flashbacks, but she is the heart of the family, whose loss causes such a hole that it triggers the entire plot of everyone trying, badly, to go on without her. At one point Lish was made up as ghastly sick, and I said, “Oh my God, you look awful!” She laughed and said, “This is my third coma!” Being a soap opera star means you love getting your teeth into a good coma.
How did William J. Stribling approach directing Lies?
Because on first glance this is a “female-driven” film, William confessed he was a bit intimidated going in. But the lead character’s choices made sense to him on both an intellectual and emotional level, regardless of gender, connecting to the universal struggle between order and chaos. He definitely didn’t want to hit the sad stuff too hard, and the ultimate takeaway is a peaceful, spiritual one. William is inspired by music, and he compared Lies to a Beach Boys song, one from Pet Sounds or Surf’s Up – melodic and catchy and complex, definitely pleasurable to listen to, but with something darker and unsettling going on under the surface. “And that’s where the honesty is,” he says, “because that’s life; often happy and upbeat on the surface, but underneath there’s something you’re trying to work out.”
Are you currently developing any new scripts?
I’m working on two new scripts. One is a romantic comedy (Nora Ephron is my hero), and the other is another comedy-drama, about trying to fit in where you just don’t fit in. I want to keep working on stories that touch universal real feelings – and to keep interweaving sad with humor, because even amid grief, even amid hard stuff, life is still funny, if you just let it.
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Director Jen McGowan shares exclusively the journey to create her feature debut Kelly & Cal starring Oscar nominated actress Juliette Lewis (Cape Fare, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape).
You received a BFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. What first got you interested in filmmaking?
I did but I actually studied acting there. I first got interested in filmmaking after I finished NYU and tried making a film on my own for myself, and my friends to be in. When I did that I realized directing suited me far better than acting.
Kelly & Cal tells the story of a punk-rocker turned suburban mom. Can you tell about the inspiration behind the film?
Well, really the person to answer that is the writer, Amy Lowe Starbin, but I’ve heard her answer this before so I hope she won’t mind. It was a combination of experiencing new motherhood and a memory of having been attracted to a guy who used a wheel chair she sort of combined elements of those two things to create a script that examined identity, aging and new parenthood.
Oscar nominated actress Juliette Lewis did an outstanding job in the lead role of Kelly. How did you end-up casting Juliette?
Thank you. Amy and I had her in our minds when Amy was writing. She was our dream cast. But we didn’t really think we’d get her. It was an incredible amount of luck. When we offered the project to her it just so happened that she was starting to act again after having taken six or eight years off to tour with her band. Also, she really connected to the material and she & I hit it off too. Lots of things you can’t really plan for. But I am so grateful it worked out that way. She really is my perfect Kelly.
The relationship between Kelly & Cal played by (Jonny Weston) is quite complex. Can you describe the writing process for Kelly & Cal?
I can in as much as I developed the script with Amy. When we first discussed the project she had about a third of it written I believe. But she knew what she wanted to do with it and knew the characters intimately. Basically, she would write, I would read and give feedback. We would talk. She would write again. As a director I love working with writers because I know the script is being crafted specifically for me so the development process is very constructive. I think writers also enjoy working like this because they know they’re never going to get opposing notes. There’s only one of me!
Filmmakers often wonder how to fund their next project. How did you raise funds for your feature film debut?
I know. It’s the worst. The tricky thing is each situation is not really replicable until you get to the studio level. And even there projects are being set up in ever more complicated ways. For me, quite honestly, my producers discovered me online. They happened to be looking for young up & coming directors and I happened to have a short, TOUCH, playing the festival circuit at that same time and it was doing really well winning a bunch of awards. They saw my name popping up again and again.
They got in touch through LunaFest and asked me if there was anything I wanted to make. I had KELLY & CAL ready to go so I said YES! I sent them the script; they loved it. And they were able to put together all the finance through private equity. That’s pretty much a nice way to say “film-loving rich people”. Like I said, not exactly repeatable. But they key takeaway in that is you just have to always do your best because you have no idea where it can lead. If my short film sucked, this film would never have happened.
You were a finalist for the prestigious Clint Eastwood Filmmaker Award. Can you give us some advice for aspiring directors?
I was! Well, for all filmmakers, just make what you love. You have to have a point of view and an opinion and then just make it. Don’t try to copy any one else just do your thing. And give yourself time. This is a very different time than when anyone who got into Sundance got a deal somewhere. Take your time. Do your thing. Let the world catch up to you.
You studied acting at the Atlantic Theater Company under William H. Macy. What made you change your direction?
He taught a couple of my classes. As did David Mamet and Felicity Huffman, I loved acting. And I was good at it. But I did not at all care for the business of acting. I think I was just impatient but I felt as a director I had more control over my work and my career. That may not actually be correct but it’s how I felt. No way to know what would have happened, but I love where I am now so it doesn’t matter. And my acting studies and experience gave me the best training for my directing so it was a good route for me. Everyone has to find the path that works best for him or her.
Kelly & Cal premiered at South By Southwest in 2014. How much involvement did you have in post-production?
I worked with my editor, David Hopper, who cut my short films. We cut out of the office in the back of my house so I would say I was fairly involved. Maybe too involved! You’d have to follow-up with him. J we cut in LA and we colored and did sound post in NY. I was there from first draft of the script until final delivery. Editing and sound design are incredibly important to me. They really are the last secret weapons of movie making.
Getting feedback from an audience is essential for any director. What has been the reaction thus far for Kelly & Cal?
It’s been incredibly positive. From critical response to individual members of the audience it has been overwhelmingly positive. I’m very, very grateful.
Kelly & Cal is available to purchase and rent on itunes, Amazon, and Google Play.