- Was there a particular event or time that you recognized that filmmaking is your way of telling stories?
I have a vivid memory of watching Amadeus with my dad when I was 4 years old. The film opens with two valets finding Salieri bleeding in his den after a suicide attempt and the music swells right at that moment. It then immediately cuts to them carrying him to a hospital as the credits begin and I was transfixed. Somehow I knew in that moment, from just that little section, that I wanted to be in and around movies my entire life. When I was a kid, we had one of those huge Sony VHS video cameras and my siblings and I would constantly put on little plays, cooking shows, hip-hop operas (you heard me right), re-enactments of movies we were watching, anything we could film or force my dad to film. I would always be bringing the camera out, and in recognizing my obsession, my dad bought me my first digital video camera when I was 14. I filmed everything. I was always directing little horror movie trailers, music videos, short films, anything + everything. I would conscript my siblings and friends to be my fellow actors and I brought it to school constantly. Since I was knee high I’ve always known movie making was in my blood and a natural extension of who I am in the world.
- Do you think it is essential to go to a film institute in order to become a successful filmmaker?
No, not necessarily. It’s interesting because the record is mixed regarding some of our most successful and impactful filmmakers. You have a number who did (Spike Lee, Spielberg, Kathryn Bigelow, Scorsese, Dee Rees) and many others who did not (Ava DuVernay, Christopher Nolan, Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson). You also have filmmakers who make incredible films who come from different disciplines (Agnes Varda, Steve McQueen, Kubrick et al), so you can’t quite say being a successful filmmaker is tied to going to film school. There is definitely not one set way to become a filmmaker. I do think it’s imperative to have film knowledge and curiosity in order to be a good one, however. I believe if you want to be a good filmmaker your appetite for movies is insatiable. You learn so much by watching a shit ton of films. You also learn so much on set that there is little excuse not to just start making your own movies. Especially with equipment being more accessible nowadays, great and affordable film phone apps, Lynda tutorials, even YouTube with incredible accounts like No Film School, Film School Rejects, etc. that teach you all kinds of film techniques. There’s so much to be learned by getting access to what you can and start making things. There are also a plethora of film streaming services (the Criterion Channel, Mubi, Kanopy etc.) where back in my day I had to scrounge Blockbuster or record a movie if it came on TV. It was much harder to find some of the more obscure films than it is now, so there’s no excuse not to ingest as much as you possibly can and start making movies! Mistakes are a great learning tool.
- Is it harder to get started or keep going? What was the particular thing that you had to conquer to do either?
In my experience, it is harder to keep going. Overcoming the fear of beginning something new is undeniably difficult, but it requires substantially more stamina and strength to keep going in the face of constant rejection and a changing industry landscape. I was a cripplingly shy kid, so pursuing acting professionally at 15 required me to overcome my shyness (spoiler alert, it’s still there in many ways!) and feelings that I wasn’t good enough. In terms of being a filmmaker, I have had to conquer a lot of internalized misogyny, systemic exclusion and negative self talk that told me I was only one thing or that nobody cared what I had to say. I still wrestle with those voices, but after nearly 20 years of experience, they are substantially quieter. I’m proud to say that not only am I still standing, I am thriving in ways I never thought possible when I first started. I’m lucky to have an incredible support system of family and friends that keep me afloat. As hard as it may be to stay true to yourself and persevere in spite of other people constantly saying ‘no,’ it is beyond worth it.
- What was the most important lesson you had to learn that has had a positive effect on your film? How did that lesson happen?
My acting teacher often used the phrase “murder your darlings” and that is hands down the maxim that has helped me most as a filmmaker. I readily welcome criticism and when it came to making Joyeux Noël, I definitely needed to murder a few darlings. I showed my husband every draft I wrote and he would help me edit it down. I was on such a time crunch with it that every suggestion meant more time spent editing, so it was an excellent lesson in patience, persistence and trust. Without his suggestions, the film would not be what it is. There are things I was attached to in the script or in the editing process that did not ultimately serve the film and in helping me see that, he helped make my film better. It’s difficult to let go of the little (or big) things that you love in service of the greater good but it is so worth it.
- What were the production realities from casting through editing that you had to accommodate? How did you navigate those compromises or surprises and still end up with a cohesive film?
I produced Joyeux Noël for $500 and only had two and a half weeks from writing the script to the finished product to complete it. Needless to say, time and money were not my friends. Luckily, I’m married to a brilliant cinematographer who understands my vision and whose vision I trust, so we didn’t need to have long pre-production meetings. Our home is also filled to the brim with film equipment, so I didn’t need to rent equipment, which is a luxury. Not having money, we shot guerrilla style sneaking into a Christmas tree lot and we placed the camera in a backpack for all of the grocery store scenes. I taught myself how to edit when I produced my short film Patti back in 2011, so I put together a detailed shot list beforehand and had a good idea already of how I would edit, which was extremely helpful and streamlined shooting times. I also asked my friends to be extras in the for the party scene and paid them in food, hugs and endless gratitude. I stretched every resource I had at my disposal and spent day and night editing and refining the film down to the minute it had to be completed. When people say they had no money to make a film but raised $30k on a crowd funding website, a piece of me dies.
- What was the hardest artistic choice you made in the making of a film, at any stage in production?
Having to cut out entire characters in service of the story as a whole is pretty devastating. We had to cut out 2 characters in the final edit of one of our short films and it still breaks my heart to think about. I suppose this fits squarely in the murder your darlings narrative.
- You are a collaborator. How have you discovered members of your team and how do you keep the relationship with them strong?
One of the things I love about this industry is how many talented, creative people you meet. I met my husband 12 years ago when I auditioned for his college thesis film that he wrote + directed, so I got really lucky in that respect (in more ways than one). Most of the rest of my team I met on other projects as an actor or through mutual filmmaking friends. I really cling to the people that I meet with whom I have an artistic connection. They feel like lights in the dark. I find that good communication and letting people actually do the jobs you hired them to do is helpful in keeping people around! I’ve seen a lot of directors try to (poorly) do every job on set and it severely impedes work flow, morale and the final product. The beauty of filmmaking is its collaborative nature. Not allowing someone to contribute in the way they’re most qualified doesn’t make any sense to me. I think it’s also important to strike a good balance of fun and professionalism on set. I take what I do very seriously, but I also don’t hold back in expressing how much fun I’m having doing what we’re doing and don’t want anyone else to either. When everyone is having fun, creativity and focus have a tendency to flow freely.
- What do audiences want? And is it the filmmakers’ role to worry about that?
All audiences may not want the same experience when watching something, but there are some structural expectations, no matter the genre, that the filmmaker should consider. I think it’s safe to say that people want their intelligence respected, to be transported in some way, and they don’t want to see the strings (unless it’s a stylistic choice, of course) as much as possible. I do think it’s a filmmaker’s responsibility to consider their audience as they’re creating. You’re telling a story and you typically tell stories to other people, so what you say, what you don’t say and how you say it all make a difference depending on the desired effect. I think all of those considerations should be made as you construct your film. You’re communicating something and you have to make sure you’re saying it as clearly as possible. I don’t necessarily think you should allow the audience to dictate how + what you’re saying (unless you’re David Benioff + D.B. Weiss), but I do think a good filmmaker wants to make sure they’re doing it to the best of their ability.
- What role have film festivals played in your life so far? Why are they necessary? How do you get the most out of them?
I LOVE film festivals! I love them because they are filled to the brim with people who love and are knowledgeable of film and I am a pure, unadulterated film nerd, so they are like heaven to me. There’s always such a special buzz at festivals from people excited to see new and exciting work. I’ve attended festivals solely as an actor in a film and as the writer, producer + director of one. I feel very much at home at festivals no matter why I’m there. I feel like festivals are the glue of the film community. They not only bring us together, they are a beautiful place to learn and get inspired. You get to see films you may not have the opportunity to see elsewhere yet, talk to the filmmakers and learn new ways to tell your own stories. I think you get the most out of festivals if you go in with an open mind and a bold spirit. Watch as many films as you can, take opportunities to talk to filmmakers if they’re there, other film lovers, anyone and if you’re a filmmaker, seek out submitting to some of the more niche festivals. Some of my favorite ones are the smaller ones.
- Do you believe that a filmmaker should be original and fresh or he/she should stick to classic but safe cinema style?
My instinct is to scream ORIGINAL + FRESH! That being said, as nauseatingly cliché as it may be, sometimes you need to know the rules before you can break them. But, I don’t think that’s always the case. There’s a wonderful movie called Mysterious Object at Noon directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul that’s told using the exquisite corpse game format. One person says one thing, then the next person adds onto that and so on and so on, but they only see/know what the person just prior to them has said, not all the people before them. It’s such a brilliant way to construct a film and certainly throws the “normal rules” out the window. So while I have an undeniable respect for more classic film styles, there is something so wonderful about messing with the tried and true.
- What qualities or attributes do you look for in people you are looking to employ or work with?
I look for passion, honesty, dedication, flexibility, curiosity and artistic vision. I love guiding a team through a project and creating the space to let them do their respective jobs. I really love working with people who love movies as much as I do and are as committed to making a film the best it possibly can be.
- Would you recommend writers think like a producer when writing their script? Or, just write with reckless abandon and then worry about the cost, or whatever, after they’ve grabbed a producer’s attention.
I think there’s a good way to balance the two. A writer should be able to freely execute their vision as they write, without any consideration of production pressure that may block their flow, but also be aware that they may need to be flexible when it comes to a few elements down the road. I believe in getting everything out the way you see it and then tweak as need be. If you know you’ll be approaching indie and lower budget productions, you might save yourself a few headaches by considering budget beforehand. It can be a good challenge to write knowing you’ll have a limited amount of locations or what have you. I have had to write some of my short films knowing I would have limited resources and others, like Joyeux Noël, I wrote like a sort of wish list and due to creativity, balls and luck, was able to make it work! It definitely depends.
- How involved in the writing of a project do you get? Are you more involved in the initial development?
I love being involved as much as I can be from start to finish. I have written or co-written most of my short films, so am definitely involved in the writing process. I love writing and also respect writers so much, that I’m happy to respect whatever process they may have. If they’d like input, I’m happy to be involved, but if they’d like me to stay out of it until they’re finished, I absolutely will. I like chewing over all of the shot possibilities, getting a playlist together, and ruminating over how to direct the actors as early as possible.
- If you had an unlimited budget at your disposal, what would be your dream production project?
I would love to do a drag queen opera.
- What does the future of film look like?
I believe it will be much more prolific and democratic. I love what Jim Cummings is doing with his new film The Beta Test by allowing people to buy equity as opposed to simply procuring funding through a crowd funding website. It allows people to truly invest in a film and potentially secure a return dependent upon its success. It’s such a brilliant idea and I love the idea of film lovers owning films and those profits going to them instead of huge studios. There is a sort of Renaissance happening with indie film with so many more avenues for self distribution, self production and community ownership popping up. It has a sort of punk quality to it and I’m very much here for it.