Rhianon Jones rocks the movie industry by producing the work of emerging female filmmakers

When you meet a woman who has the same mission as you, and is doing it in an impactful way, you can only feel an immediate connection and passion toward their work. Past featured filmmaker Haroula Rose introduced me to Rhianon Jones, as she had helped produce her film “Once Upon A River” as well as her short film “As They Slept”. Producer Rhianon Jones started a production company in 2015 called Neon Heart Productions to support emerging female filmmakers, with the goal for setting them up for sustainable careers, and breaking them through the studio system. I feel honored to have this platform, Cinema Femme, where I can share her story, and the work she’s doing with these filmmakers. Be on the lookout for films from Neon Heart Productions this year. Also, this interview took place before the Covid-19 virus put us all on lockdown, and before SXSW was cancelled, so stay tuned for where “Shiva Baby” will land, and be on the lookout for “Circus of Books” on Netflix on April 22nd!

Rhianon Jones

REBECCA MARTIN: What got you started in the film biz?

RHIANON JONES: I’ve been a filmmaker for twenty years. I did my first feature when I was 25 for five thousand dollars with a big camera. 

MARTIN: What was your first film about?

JONES: It was a humanist dramedy. I made it back when I lived in Portland, and I shot it in black and white.

MARTIN: That’s great!

JONES: Watching it now, I’m like, ‘There’s a 25-year-old that thinks she’s really clever.’

MARTIN: Where did you grow up?

JONES: Do you ever watch ‘Twin Peaks’?

MARTIN: Oh my god, yes!

JONES: That’s my home town, not North Bend but a little town around it. I’m from rural Washington. 

MARTIN: What brought you into your passion for film?

JONES: My parents are both really into film. My dad was in a  film society in college. My parents are British, so they let us watch almost anything when we were kids. We watched a lot of classic films and we had a video camera pretty early on. My mom’s a writer, an amateur writer, and we’d write plays as a family. It became a family project. My friends and I would make little movies together, so I’ve been making films since I was a child. For school projects, I would often do videos. Filmmaking was always something that I was pretty comfortable with. In college I studied literature, but a lot of it was based on Russian and Chinese films. When I got out of college I took some practical film classes in Portland, then did my first film by myself.

MARTIN: Talk to me about that.

JONES: This is part of my origin story, why I produce for other people as well as direct for myself. So I’m 25, I’m in Portland, and I’m a punk rock girl. I make this movie and it was an accomplishment. Most people were pretty supportive, but I had so many people, mostly dudes, who were like, “Yeah, nice try,” just patronizing and unsupportive.

When I made my second film a couple years later, I ran out of steam and was a little unsupported. The people who participated supported me a lot, but I didn’t have a “me” as a producer, someone like me, someone really going to bat for me, you know? I left Portland and I went to the AFI in LA for screenwriting, because I felt that was the area I needed to work on the most. AFI is kind of a fucked up place. They don’t treat women well there, to be honest. There were only five women there in the first place. I was being harassed by another student, and they didn’t protect me. So afterwards I took a break and I had a clothing store in the Eastside of LA. I met a lot of cool filmmaking people who came into the store. As I was winding up the store, I was getting back into filming.

“Wonder Valley” (2015)

While I was working with these two writer actresses, who’d actually worked in my store, I decided to write a cheap and easy-to-do horror film, “Wonder Valley”, that premiered at the Atlanta Film Festival last year. I wrote that one, I produced it, and I actually hired somebody else to direct it. It was kind of a learning experience for me, and for her. It’s nice to see your work interpreted by someone as a writer. It’s kind of fun to see that. 

At that point it had been fifteen years, and I had people still giving me a hard time about being a girl and making films. I think things have changed, but it’s still a challenge. I came from a real philanthropic family. We didn’t grow up with very much money, but my Dad worked at Microsoft. He was one of the first people there. As I got older, my parents became very wealthy, and they started to give more and more money to charities. I came to them and I was like, “Look, this [Neon Heart Productions] is something that is really important to me. This is something I’m good at and I’m passionate about.”

Starting a production company to support female filmmakers’ films is really important. For one, women are most often going to do films about people of color and the underrepresented. And if they do, they don’t do it with a negative lens. I mean I love dudes, I’m dating one right now. But there’s this certain tendency, there’s this filter, that still comes through onscreen. Because as women, we’ve had to fight a little bit harder, we can be a little more sensitive. If you want other types of change, start with doing something different. We know what it’s like to be marginalized in some way. So my parents heard me out and decided to give me some seed money for the company. 

MARTIN: What attracted you to the films you brought to Neon Heart Productions?

JONES: Part of the plan for the company, and part of the reason of why I’m a filmmaker too, is to show that every movie can be made for $50,000, especially for a director’s first films. When somebody tells me that their film costs more than $50,000, I’m like why? When I see some crappy film made for like 2 million, I’m like I could have made 10 or 20 first features by female filmmakers for that amount of money. This is what I’m passionate about, because I have the experience of making films for like no money. 

Emma Seligman on “Shiva Baby” set with actor Rachel Sennott

Originally I did a few shorts to kind of test out the system. That way I was able to learn more about legal paperwork, doing forms, contracts, and things like that. So it was a bit of a learning curve. In a way low risk because they cost less, but now that I know what I know, I kind of wish I had done fewer of them, slightly cheaper ones. Because some of the shorts were almost as much as what I put into the features. But I learned a lot and built up my network. I gave a lot of women opportunities to make films, I’m glad about that. There’s still a lot of them that have not been finished, except one that was finished earlier this year. “Shiva Baby”, the movie, coming out at SXSW, is exactly the model I thought I’d pursue. Not all of them have fallen out that way, the director Emma Seligman had a killer short that she did. She’s very young, like 25. If I had known her before and she brought the short to me, I would probably have invested in her short. I met her after she had cleared through SXSW and other festivals. She did the work, and she has talent, and I see that she can get her product done. She’s made connections at the film festivals, and she’s moving up with producers that are connecting her to people. It’s perfect, she’s making a film for $500,000, and I told her we can do $200,000 and call in favors for the rest. We can make up that difference. It was nice because it was a narrative feature. 

The first film that I invested in was a documentary, and because I come from a narrative background, I wasn’t really thinking that way. The film was “Circus of Books” directed by Rachel Mason. She’s a personal friend of mine, and she had a narrative she had been working on–she’s doing it now. It’s like a transgender space rock opera.

MARTIN: Yes! That sounds amazing, I’m sold.

JONES: It seems hard to picture. I was trying to help her with that, as a friend. And I asked her, “what’s up with your documentary?” Because “Circus of Books” is about her family. I asked her about the documentary because she had been working on this project for years. She said a producer told her she needed $500,000 to finish it. I said, “It’s a documentary, and you’ve already filmed it, you don’t need that amount. I’ll write you a check now for $50,000, but you need to go home now and think about if you really want to make this movie.” And she told me, “I totally want to make it.”  She was able to hire this amazing editor, Kathryn Robson, and it ended up selling to Ryan Murphy on Netflix. It premiered at Tribeca.

MARTIN: How did I not know about this film? Has it come out yet?

Rachel Mason with her parents in “Circus of Books”

JONES: Not yet, it’s going to come out in the spring. It has run at a lot of festivals, maybe like forty of them. It opened the Outfest last year. I’m not sure if you know anything about the film, but her parents ran the largest iconic and historic gay porn store. And the interesting part is that they are this normal Jewish family; a little bit religious and conservative. A lot of internal conflict. It ended up being such a great film. I was a little resistant, because I was like “oh, it’s male gay porn.” It’s seems guy oriented. But it’s actually really about her mom.

MARTIN: That’s amazing.

JONES: Yeah, it’s about a woman. The director is a woman, almost the whole team is female, and it seemed like some kind of female empowerment story. So I was like, “Ok, this is actually really good.” The more women involved, the better it feels. 

MARTIN: I’m excited about this one!

JONES: Honestly it’s very charming. It’s about acceptance and love, family, and freedom of speech. What America is supposed to be. It deals with these big themes through the lens of this Jewish woman who ran a porn store to feed a family, and it’s a true story.

MARTIN: I know there are a few other films that are in the works, and I know that you worked with one of our past featured filmmakers, Haroula Rose, on two of her films–one of the films being the festival hit, “Once Upon A River.”

JONES: “Once Upon A River” was another one that I came later on. She was already filming and just needed some finishing funds, so we put a little money into that film. Then we decided to do a short-film together, “As They Slept”. 

MARTIN: I love that one.

Maya Hawke and Rachel Hilson in Haroula Rose’s “As They Slept”

JONES: It came out really great. Haroula was like, “Look, she’s this young writer [Nicolaia Rips], she’s got a lot of potential. It’s Maya Hawke and Rachel Hilson. Maya Hawke is blowing up, and Rachel is a leading actor in a lot of hit TV shows. Both of them have a lot of potential.” So, I was like, ‘okay, let’s do this.’ I had never done anything in New York before, so it was fun to go there and get to know New York people, which has been helpful. I would say now half of my projects are in New York. I live in LA most of the time. I also have a place in upstate New York, where my partner’s kids are. So we’re back and forth.

Chloé Zhao and “The Rider” (2017)

Because of “Circus of Books,” I got hit up for a lot of documentaries. I had to be like, “Look, I love documentaries, but unless they’re interested in crossing over into narrative, I’m really focusing on women, who can then go into the studio system. Because then we can start getting rid of these tropes, where women are only prostitutes or strippers, or nags, or girlfriends.” In the film “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels” there are only two shots of women, one of just female bodies in a strip club, and another where a woman gets shot on the couch. That is literally the only women in the film. And it’s sad that it still happens now. It’s even worse for people of color. A great example of a female filmmaker breaking through the studio system is Chloé Zhao. She is going to be doing a Marvel movie, and she started with “The Rider”. It’s great. I mean it’s happening. She is such a wonderful filmmaker. I am in a position to help women do that first film, or make their first films even better, and get them to a wider-audience. Within three movies you can be in the studio system. 

MARTIN: What other criteria do you look for in the films you produce, besides being made by female filmmakers?

Jaclyn Bethany

JONES: The only thing I care about, because I don’t have enough resources, is the cast. A friend of mine, Jaclyn Bethany, is someone who hit me up from out of the blue. She only needed 10 grand from me. She had this amazing, really super talented cast who were clearly going to do well. Her work was super impressive, really ambitious, really focused. She’s a writer, director, and actress. The film was great, and I made the decision based on her cast to support the film. If it was just a bunch of random people she knew, I don’t think it would have made sense to me. She has a lot of drive. The cast is what elevates the profile of the director. 

But it’s not always about the cast. I’m doing something with Amanda Kramer, who did “Lady World.” This film [“Sin Ultra”] is not particularly cast driven, but it’s so artistically unique. Her vision is so specific. 

MARTIN: Just to go back a sec, what was the name of the film you did with Jaclyn?

Amanda Kramer

JONES: The film is called “Highway One”. She just did a film called “Indigo Valley” which I think might be premiering at the Bentonville Film Festival. I really like Jaclyn’s work ethic. She works so hard, and she’s a force of nature. She’s kind of unstoppable. She found me because she’s a fan of Amanda Kramer. And I found “Shiva Baby” because I knew Amanda Kramer, and she knew Emma. At first I wasn’t going to do “Shiva Baby” because technically it’s about a woman who is in the sex trade. I was with my DP for my documentary in Dallas, and she was like, “This summer I’m busy because I’m filming this movie called ‘Shiva Baby’” And I told her I had heard of that project. We then had a conversation about old feminists. In the view of “new feminism”, you can post nude selfies of yourself, feel good about yourself, and that’s your right. In my world it’s like, post a picture of the book you’re reading, who cares about what you look like, and don’t worry about it. If you want to send a sexy picture to someone you like, go for it. It depends on the interpretation of it, this idea that some people clamp down on the idea of somebody’s sexuality, which is valid, but it’s just not part of my world. I was into punk rock when I was like 25, wearing hooded sweatshirts. In the northwest, nobody knows what one’s body looks like.

“Shiva Baby” (2020) directed by Emma Seligman

So it was just very different, I went back and looked at the script, and the writing was so good. She had really proven herself with her short. She was very focused, ambitious, had a very clear plan. The cast is amazing. They really pulled it off.  

MARTIN: That’s great, I’m looking forward to that one. I wanted to ask you, it seems like you’re really involved as being a voice for female producers. You had told me that you were recently at Sundance, as part of a panel with the women’s leadership council. How did you get connected with the women of the council?

Katy Drake Bettner

JONES: Normally I wouldn’t bother putting money in for a million dollar movie, because I can only contribute so little. But I was like, ‘Look, I’m going to get this cheap little credit. I don’t even know if my company logo gets up there.’ What I really want is to meet wealthy people, preferably women, who can help support my filmmakers. I met this amazing woman, her name is Katy Bettner. She lives in Dallas, and she’s an investor. She has a company called BetRed with Robert Redford’s daughter [Amy Redford], who is very active in film financing. The producers of the film I invested in connected me with Katy, and she convinced me to join the board of the leadership council. She is one of the few people on the council who is actively a producer. At Sundance she was going meeting to meeting, not event to event. But meetings with filmmakers, she’s a hands on producer like I am. 

So she convinced me to join and I was like “okay, I’ll try it”. I mean literally a week ago, I was invited to Tom Steyer’s wife event at the Peninsula. I went from being with my friends who don’t have healthcare to hanging with billionaires. I mean I was kind of hoping for a little middle ground, but I guess it’ll all trickle down. All the women in the council are amazing, they’ve done so much. Philanthropy is a job, it’s a choice. They spend a lot of time and effort giving back to people. It’s really inspiring to see.

I’m actively a filmmaker too. I’m in the middle of a doc that hopefully is going to wrap up in May. 

MARTIN: Too early to talk about?

Jangmi, K-Pop cover group in Dallas

JONES: Happy to talk about it, it’s about K-Pop fans that live in Dallas. There’s a lot of them. A couple years ago, just after Trump got elected, I saw this news blip about K-Pop fans in Dallas. It was a shot of these girls in a pizza parlor, in a Dallas suburb–they were black, latino and white, all different sizes, between the ages of 13 to 25. They were all hanging out watching these K-Pop videos and they would get up and dance together. They loved it all so much, and it was so positive. And I was like, “This is America, right?” This is the country I thought I lived in. In all of this Trump negativity, I just want to do a movie that shows different people without an agenda, connecting over a very random thing, which is K-Pop. K-Pop is so weird, so different. It’s so manufactured, and also it’s so safe and clean. K-Pop has this very universal appeal. It answers the questions of what makes K-Pop universal, then makes us universal with each other, and brings us together.

Just about a year ago, I went down to Dallas and started filming a couple of dancers who are called Jangmi [Korean for Rose], a group of girls that my Producer at the time discovered. So I’ve gone down there to do interviews. It’s been great and really rewarding.

MARTIN: I really love you’re doing a film like that. I look at the news lately, and everything is a bummer–the virus, and the tornadoes, and the politics. Anything that can lift us out of the gloom.

JONES: Yes, there’s a market for it. 

MARTIN: Definitely.

JONES: One of the things I’ve learned a little bit more about, this last time I was at Sundance, something I feel that I also stumbled upon with “Circus of Books”, is impact filmmaking. A film like “Fruitvale Station” is obviously not just about the story, it’s dealing with a social justice issue. And I feel like “Circus of Books” is a movie about acceptance. It shows how a woman came to accept this world of gay porn, even though she owned a gay porn store, but she had a lot of personal growth to do. When you see her reach that acceptance, you’re inspired that you can too.

My documentary is kind of like impact light. I do have a social agenda, I chose it because I want to show Latino Americans as Americans, which they are. It doesn’t matter what race you are, we’re all Americans. I want to show that in a way that hasn’t been done that often. And have it be funny and entertaining. Hopefully it’ll be all that.

MARTIN: Is the film in post-production? 

JONES: I filmed most of it, but BTS, the biggest K-Pop band is coming to Dallas in May. So after that I will be wrapping the film up. So a lot going on.

MARTIN: What’s your advice for emerging female filmmakers?

JONES: I have two things. The only difference between someone who makes films, and someone who doesn’t make films is that one person made a film. They’re not magical, they’re not smarter than you, they’re not stronger or more creative. If you can just get out there and do it, you can make a film. The other thing is get in the habit of taking “no” as I better fucking do it now. You tell me “no”, I’m doubling down on my determination. And that can get you over that initial fear.

I always try to teach the women that I work with basic editing skills. Because I really think it’s important for women to have power from the written word, all the way to the end. I’ve seen women’s vision taken away by editors. I just want them to be able to do their own version of it, and understand the language. I had one friend who was ready to get started shooting, and she was like, “I don’t know if I can do it.” And I was like, “You owe this to women to do this. It’s not about you. Your fear is about you, but think about the greater picture.” The more women that do this, the better. If you don’t make it about you, then you don’t need to be scared anymore. You don’t need to feel guilty that you might accomplish something, and that you’ll be punished for it. You’re doing it for other people, and that’s a great reason to do something. 

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