Andi Morrow, such a genuine artistic soul. Loved our conversation, and loved her film “Pusher”. She educated me through our conversation and film about the “devastating” opioid epidemic that is going on in Appalachia. The film is about a woman, a drug dealer, named Brittany, who is “stuck” in this town saturated by this drug problem. We walk through her story as she comes to terms with the pieces of who she has come to be and who she wants to be. I come from a different place, but I connected with the character, and that gives credit to the power of Andi’s storytelling and filmmaking. Read my interview with Andi as we talk about her journey from Tennessee to New York and back, and about “Pusher”.
REBECCA MARTIN: Where’d you grow up?
ANDI MORROW: I grew up in a small rural town called Scott County, Tennessee. It’s an hour and a half northeast from Knoxville, out in the middle of nowhere. We have a big national park Big South Fork, which is what we’re known for. If anyone has ever heard of it, that’s the one thing we’re known for.
MARTIN: What drew you to filmmaking?
MORROW: I started as an actress. I always wanted to be an actress growing up, from the time I was really, really young. It’s the first thing I ever really wanted to be. I think it was because I watched Shirley Temple movies and the Barney TV show, and there were always a bunch of kids on there. I was like, ‘I want to play, I want to do that.’ I was always really fascinated with acting. I moved to different cities–I lived in Boston, and then New York City. I was focusing on acting and theatre. Just by chance, I fell into acting in a student film. I always thought I was a theatre actor, and then I did the student film. I just loved the process. I’d never been on a film set, and I was just like, ‘This is really cool.’ We shot for one day, and then we were done. And that’s when I started thinking more about it. When I’d direct theatre, I’d incorporate video projections into the shows where we had to edit. And I really liked the editing.
MARTIN: Did you go to school for acting?
MORROW: Yes, I went to Maryville University, located in the Smoky Mountains for acting and directing. Maryville is really beautiful, it’s a small school, which was great for me, because I’m from a small town. I didn’t need a big university. It would have been overwhelming for me. I got a very personalized education. When I was a senior, my advisor was all mine. I didn’t share her with anybody, and she was super supportive and pushed me a lot. She actually encouraged me to start directing.
MARTIN: That’s awesome.
MORROW: So it all kind of happened by chance. I guess as an artist you do eventually evolve into different things. But with film, the more I started acting in films, the more I started thinking in film. I would think in stories. I’ve worked with some pretty awesome film crews and some really awful ones. Once I started thinking, ‘I want to make my own movie. I have all of these stories inside me, and I want to write them’
I was in acting class in New York City at the time, with who I consider one of the greatest acting coaches of all time, Anthony Abeson. Through learning his methods, he taught me how to be a better director. It was actually in his class where I started thinking, ‘Wow, actors need a director that can actually communicate with them.’ It makes all of the difference. He could say one word to an actor and they would open up. There are so many directors who have no clue of what they want from an actor or how to support them. I was like ‘When I’m making my movies, I want to be a director that’s there for actors.’ That was propelling me.
My last year in New York, I went through a really bad depression. I wasn’t healthy and I just needed to leave New York. I felt really hopeless in my career. As an actor it’s difficult because you have to wait for people out there to give you a chance.
MARTIN: It’s tough out there.
MORROW: Yes, it is. So I was in New York for five years. I was really burnt out and run down. I was feeling helpless. So I thought, ‘You know what, I’ve been wanting to make a movie, I’m just going to focus on making a movie.’
MARTIN: I love that.
MORROW: And then I went and wrote “Pusher.” I wrote it out in about a day. I had been thinking about it for awhile. So I forced myself to sit down and write. I went to this little work space in New York, and it just poured out. I think because I gave all my energy to it. I was finally like ‘I’m handing myself over to this.’ It was there in my head a lot, because I’ve had family members and friends I’ve lost to addiction. So there was very much a pull to that story.
From there I moved back to Tennessee. And I was all in on making the movie. I thought, ‘This is what I’m doing, I’m not focusing on anything else.’
MARTIN: Your story sounds a lot like Ashley Shelton’s story. She left New York to go back to Tennessee to be a filmmaker too.
MORROW: Yes, us country girls. [laughs] I spent most of my young life where I couldn’t wait to leave my hometown, and it’s funny because when I’m away from Tennessee, I feel this deep longing to go back. But when I get there, I’m like okay–
MARTIN: Time to go.
MORROW: Yeah, it’s this vicious cycle.
MARTIN: So when you went back to Tennessee, you started to put the film together?
MORROW: Yes. As soon as I got back to Tennessee, it was maybe a couple months later, I started going all in. Before I moved I reached out to this guy I met at Napa Valley Film Festival a couple years before. We had struck up a friendship and he’s a film producer. I had sent him the “Pusher” script mostly just to get his feedback. He wrote back and said he wanted to help me make this film. People always ask me how did you get a producer?
MARTIN: Just a friend you made on the way. That’s how it’s done a lot of the time. People are in our lives at certain times for a reason.
MORROW: It’s true. I wasn’t asking anything from him, just wanted a friend to read my script and give me his thoughts, but then he agreed to help produce. Once I was back in Tennessee, I did everything mostly. It was all very much like a crash course to filmmaking.
MARTIN: I’m always in awe of the filmmakers I interview because there is so much that goes into it, with all of the post-production and working out distribution.
MORROW: I haven’t mastered the distribution part yet. It’s funny because it’s so much work. There were definitely days where I was like, ‘What have I done?’ But overall I really did actually enjoy it. It seems to work out really well for me because it fits in this strange category I like. You need to be really organized, you make lists and you know exactly what you need to do, and all of the things in-between. And you can check them off as you go. But within that there’s a lot of creativity. That really suits me. I really enjoyed it.
MARTIN: I wanted to go a little bit more into the story of “Pusher”. I appreciate you exploring those different sides of addiction. What I love is how you humanize the characters. You show that these are real people with real dreams, not just “addicts”. They are dealing with these addictions, but they are not just one-note characters. I appreciate the fully dimensional aspect, especially with the main character you play.
MORROW: I really appreciate you saying that, because that was truly my goal. I grew up in a town like that. We filmed the movie in my husband’s old town, which is next-door to mine. It’s six-hundred people, and it’s been devastated by drugs. But the word “devastated” doesn’t really do it justice. My town is bigger. You can get away from it a little more. My husband’s brother was an addict, and he’s the first person I knew who had a family member that was an addict. So I got to see addiction from a close perspective, with his wife, his kids, and his parents, you know.
There was this girl who grew up in my husband’s hometown, but she went to middle school with me, and she had a really bad family life. She was really mean, like the meanest person I’ve ever come in contact with. She was a horrible bully, she’d hit us. We were all terrified of her. As a kid, I hated her with all of my passion.
And then she went back to the next town over, my husband’s town, to go to high school, which felt like a relief. I didn’t see her again. And then I started dating my husband, who was my boyfriend at that time. We were talking about people we both knew, and I mentioned her. And he was like, “Yeah, I know her.” And I said, “I hate her, she is so mean.” I went on this tirade, coming from a middle-schooler’s perspective. And he was like, she “OD’d” and died last year.
MARTIN: Oh my god.
MORROW: And it just really hit me. It taught me a lot of harsh lessons. Because then he told me about her family life. How hard it was, and the reason she came to my town to go to school was because they were trying to get her out of her bad home situation. She did not know what to do, that was just how she was acting out her anger. She was really smart, and she was athletic, and she competed in sports with me in middle school. I went into this kind of spiral after I heard all of that. I spent so much of my life hating this girl, and I wish I had taken a step back to think like maybe she is going through some things. She was messed up on drugs, and she had a kid. And then I thought, ‘Oh my god, that could have happened to me.’ Because drugs can effect anybody. You don’t have to be a homeless person or in poverty to get addicted to drugs, which is what a lot of people think.
That was the first time I started to really take a step back at looking at the addiction problem in that area. And she just made me think of myself and some of the people I grew up around. In my husband’s hometown, I think eighty percent of the children are being raised by a non-parent, because of drugs. My niece is one of those kids. When I heard that I was like, ‘Whoa, what is going to happen when these kids grow up, what is that town going to look like?’
MARTIN: Wow, yeah, that’s so sad.
MORROW: Those three things, the addiction, the family, and learning about her, that was where the story started turning. I just knew I had to do something. I did not know what, but I want to tell a story that helps kids, the ones that are in Appalachia. If they saw it, they would think, ‘I don’t have to take this kind of community, I have a choice, I don’t have to repeat this cycle.’ And for those people who are not from Appalachia, I wanted them to have a story where they can see themselves and the people close to them in these characters. That’s the thing about Appalachia. People like to throw us away a lot because we are stigmatized. That’s all that I want. I want people to watch the movie, and think–
MARTIN: These are real people.
MORROW: Yes, these are real people that live in these communities. They’re complex and there are a lot of things going on. They’re doing things in the best way that they can.
MARTIN: Right. There are a couple parts of the film that I thought were really powerful. One, when your character dives into the water, which seems to be kind of the heart of the film. I connected to that scene because whenever I’m super stressed out, I go to the lake.
I remember a couple weeks ago when I was really stressed out, I just walked into the lake. It was warmer then, and I just stood in the water for a long time, just looking at the water wanting to just come back to center. I totally saw myself in that character. It also really touched me when she comes back up. She is just so at peace with herself, and then all of a sudden she starts to remember what pain she has in her life. That really moved me.
MORROW: Thanks. I do that too. For me, it’s rivers. Being in the river, it feels like a cleansing. It’s funny because that scene was not in the original script. We were a week away from shooting, and I was like, ‘Something’s missing.’ I just felt it. Something is not here and I don’t know what it is. And I knew about that swimming hole. We filmed around a Fourth of July festival that was going on around my home. I was thinking, ‘Maybe she goes to the carnival, walking around, and seeing the community.’ I actually had my DP come to my hometown on the Fourth of July. And we hadn’t shot any of the film yet, it was the first time I put on the character.
He walked around with me, and we filmed some things, and it didn’t feel right. I thought, ‘Well this isn’t it.’ Then like a lightning bolt in my head, I said, ‘She needs to swim, I know the perfect spot.’ Because I had swam in that swimming hole before. And when that fell into place, I was like, ‘Okay, we can complete it now.’ Because she needed a moment to have a moment of peace with herself, to really process everything else. And there is a lot of symbolism there. A lot of people told me, ‘I really felt what she was feeling.’ It was powerful for me too.
MARTIN: It’s probably very therapeutic for you as well. You said that you started this story when you were having depression. I think the best way to get out of a depression or a difficult time is to create something. That’s kind of where my magazine came from. I have this drive, even if I can’t make it a full-time thing.
MORROW: That’s so important. Life is so short. We’ve got to do things that get our fires going. This movie kind of did save my life, in a way. I was ready to quit my acting career, you know, get a “real job”. I was in such a dark place. And this film pulled me out of it completely, because it was a story that was so much bigger than me too. Even in the times where I was feeling frustrated by it, I would read the script, or look at the story, and think about the characters, and think about their lives, and I was like, ‘I need to keep going, this needs to happen.’
MARTIN: For sure.
MORROW: That’s why I feel a lot of pressure for my next film, I need that passion behind the next one.
MARTIN: The other scene that I thought was really powerful was the end scene, when you’re sitting with James. I don’t know if this was your intention, but when James said his dream was to be a dad, was the main character, Brittany, ever pregnant with his baby? That was my natural inclination, but if that was your intention, I’m glad you didn’t go there.
MORROW: I’ve been asked that a couple times. I never thought of that. I wrote it with the idea that they were high school sweethearts. They’d always been popular and athletic, they had promising futures, and then something happens that really drove them apart. Brittany has a lot of anger towards him. There’s something that has happened that has put a wedge between them. I think where the dad thing came from was that in Appalachia, in that area, there are not a lot of jobs, there are not many prospects, having a family is a dream. You grow up and you’re told you are going to get married, and then you are going to have kids. It’s the highest honor. For me, I think James telling Brittany that was a shock to her, because she had never heard him say that. She also still loves him. She saw a glimpse of what their lives could have been, and it still could be, but she doesn’t necessarily see it that way, which is the tragedy in it.
MARTIN: You could tell that she immediately shut it down. She shut down her feelings. I could see that quick switch, so that was interesting to me.
MORROW: That scene was the first scene I wrote. I was sitting in that work space in New York and when I was writing it, I just started weeping. After I wrote it I realized that will be the end. It was just there for me, it was almost like I was another channel. It went right through me. I like that people think that she is going to be changing her life. The whole movie looks like she is going to change. And then in the end, she serves that curve ball. It’s like a gut punch. I didn’t necessarily set out to do that, it just happened. I think it works so well because there is no answer. There’s no one answer to the opioid epidemic. How are we going to help people in these towns who have no resources and no help? There’s no answer, I certainly don’t have the answer. I feel that ending is symbolic of that. It leads to a place where people take that home. I want it to sit uncomfortably with the audience. I want to let it churn in them.
MARTIN: I like that you did it that way. So where is “Pusher” headed?
MORROW: Yeah, with “Pusher” we’re still submitting to festivals. We just had our New York City premiere. I’m still new to the festival process, submitting a film, but what I’ve heard people say is that a two-year run is normal. So that’s where I’m headed with “Pusher”, to go to the places that really want to play it. It’s important to me to get the film in the south. I wish there were more Appalachia film festivals. I’m trying to organize some screenings, I’ve had a couple organizations reach out to me that want to host a screening of the film. I’m hoping that can happen in West Virginia at some film festivals there. Those are the communities I really want to get into. That’s kind of where we are now, waiting, and organizing our own thing. And then we’ll get the distribution eventually.
MARTIN: What are your thoughts about women in film, the landscape, and do you see change?
MORROW: I feel really good about where we are at. I’m new to the filmmaking side of it. I don’t have a lot to compare it to, doing well in the industry, in that aspect. But from what I’ve noticed, from other artists I’m friends with and that I follow online, women who I really admire, that create their own work, I just feel like there is so much energy happening. People want to make their own projects, people are doing their own writing, people are doing their own web series. That really excites me to see other artists and women making their own things. When I see people creating, I’m like, ‘Now I’ve got to get back to creating.’
MARTIN: It is inspiring.
MORROW: It makes you proud to be a creator. Because as an artist you should be creating, it’s your life source. I see Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and I really love her work. People like her are really starting to pave their own path in the industry, and people are noticing. I think people like Phoebe are really starting to lead things towards inclusion. I do think we have a ways to go, and there’s still a lot further we can go. We’ve got to get Harvey Weinstein in prison for one. There are still battles to be had, but I do feel positive about where things are going and the next generation of female artists are going to have even more opportunities.
MARTIN: That’s wonderful, that’s really good to hear. Final thoughts?
MORROW: I think something that’s really important is supporting other artists, like really building a community of support. We’re not competing with each other, we’re not. We’re all different, we all have different stories. That’s one thing that I think is really important, especially with women. We’ve got to support each other. Help other filmmakers, repost their announcements. You know, just little things. The more you support each other, the more you are going to get back. Then it creates this community, and it really keeps you going.