Layne Marie Williams is a filmmaker and leader in the industry. A womxn of strength and tenacity. A womxn who leads a pack of queens in pastels of blues, cotton candy pinks, and purples. Ok, I added the color element, but after you see her films, you’ll understand that reference, specifically her latest, “Scutly”. The queens are Women of the Now, a non-profit company that currently runs in Chicago. That is how I met Layne, as her company produced one of my friend’s films, “Rendezvous in Chicago”. Along with her production company, she co-founded The Women’s Film Festival with Phuong Nguyen in Philadelphia in 2014. The festival is going into their sixth year next month [June 19 – 28, 2020], playing some films that I love. See link to learn more.
As a filmmaker, Layne oozes creativity. Her films are unlike anything else, a splendor of visual and sound. We discuss her latest film “Scutly”, which is about a quirky senior citizen and his relationship with a girl group called The Pastel Girls. The film is about to go through the festival circuit. We also discussed “Golden Voices” that premiered at the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis last year, and “Veiled Tractate”, one of her more experimental films.
To me, Layne is like a superhero, a female filmmaker superhero that young girls can look up to. Young girls who want to see how their make believe can be brought to life on screen. Although I’m not a young girl anymore, Layne is a superhero in my book, a woman younger then me that I definitely look up to.
REBECCA MARTIN: What brought you into filmmaking?
LAYNE MARIE WILLIAMS: I think I have been directing and producing all of my life, and I didn’t even realize it. Growing up in Alabama, I didn’t have role models to see if filmmaking was even a tangible career path. I was always running around with my Mom’s camcorder. I made movies with Barbie dolls when I was a pre-teen, and built really elaborate sets, making these monumental storylines with all of these different characters. I think that it’s always been there, the desire to be a filmmaker. When I hit my twenties, it really manifested itself.
I felt acting was the most cathartic thing I could do in order to tell stories. That’s the incredible thing about acting, you can use yourself. You are your muse, you are your instrument. I did a whole lot of that, and that was encouraged at home. My big brother is also an actor, he’s actually very much still, minus the fact that we are quarantined right now. He’s done very well for himself in New York City. In high school, I did a lot of speech and debate, and that shaped my competitive spirit. I also did theatre, painted, and wrote. I just explored.
MARTIN: And this was all during your formative years?
WILLIAMS: Yes, and I knew that I wanted to go to acting school. So I became very honed in on how to make that happen. I got accepted into The University of the Arts in Philadelphia with a scholarship. It just became clear that was the school I was meant to attend.
I originally wanted to go to New York. But I thought maybe I’m not ready for New York yet, and Philadelphia is right nearby. My brother was already in New York. I went to The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, graduated early in December 2013. And that is when I started The Women’s Film Festival.
MARTIN: Can you talk to me a little bit more about how the festival came to be?
WILLIAMS: For many years I’ve said the festival is almost like a happy accident. And I still believe that to be true. I started making films, being behind the camera, for the first time after I graduated college. I started with just filming myself. I was going through a hard time and was documenting that. Then I showed it to a friend who started editing it, and the next thing I knew we were shooting other scenes and pickups, and building a whole narrative. We were screening the film at various places. Then I met the other co-founder [Phuong Nguyen] of The Women’s Film Festival, entirely by accident. We met in a women’s restroom. I gave her my business card and we went and had lunch. We talked about the film I had made, and we realized there were no women-focused film festivals in Philadelphia at the time. They do have others now, but at the time there were none. And so we were like, “we should just start one.” The next thing we knew I was sitting at tables with Comcast, talking to HBO, and just trying to see what was possible.
MARTIN: Wow, I love it! I love your confidence!
WILLIAMS: I was 23 years old, so everything I was doing at the time was purely based on instinct. It was really beautiful and fun, and a lot of trial and error. I had that youthful confidence after I graduated from college.
I also think the reason the festival came to be was because I was working with some women identified folks at the time. We were telling stories and we were sharing poems, and then we started calling ourselves Women of the Now.
Both the festival and Women of the Now [a non-profit company] were born around the same time. The thing I come back to when I get down about this work is, ‘We did it because we had to.’ There was such a need for us to cathartically release ourselves and one another. It just all happened very organically. It’s grown and evolved into this thing I never imagined was possible.
MARTIN: What brought you to Chicago?
WILLIAMS: I had been considering moving to New York after college, in particular going to New York and acting in the theatre. I woke up one morning and while I was sitting in my chair and having my coffee, I thought ‘what about Chicago?’
MARTIN: What was the appeal to go to Chicago?
WILLIAMS: I had visited Chicago a couple times. I did some acting intensives out in Dekalb, IL at NIU [Northern Illinois University] when I was in my junior year of college, during the summer. I went to study in an advanced Mesner course and I spent six weeks there. Some of the students and I would get on the Metra and go to Chicago during the weekends. I saw the Bean and spent some time in the city. After that experience, Chicago was always at the back of my mind as a place I would want to move to at some point.
After I moved to Chicago, I made a film called “Dollface”. I was also getting different acting agents because I was still very much focused on acting then. “Dollface” was the one thing I had written that I knew I had to make. I got a grant and made that film for about 5 grand. And then I submitted the film and ran it through the festival circuit.
From there I was writing “Scutly”, and thinking about how was I going to make this film. “Dollface” I had put under the umbrella of Women of the Now, along with a couple other films at that time. The next move was to champion Women of the Now, and raise some real funding.
MARTIN: I really enjoyed watching your films (“Golden Voices”, “Scutly”, “Veiled Tractate”). Your style seems very colorful and experimental. Can you discuss your style and your influences?
WILLIAMS: I’m definitely an aesthetically driven director. The Indiana Film Race [rebranded now as The Film Race], I directed one of the films you saw, “Golden Voices”, for them last year. I’m coming on this year as the BTS [Behind The Scenes] director, by directing the reality TV aspects of the filmmakers themselves.
For them we want to celebrate nature, capture those raw yet interesting moments of the filmmaker’s process. It’s going to be documentary style. During the shoot I think about the look of the film, the feel, the smell, and the camera moves. Every different piece has a different aesthetic, a different environment, a different color palette. It moves differently. I feel that delivering those aspects of a film is my specialty.
MARTIN: Regarding influences, are you inspired by any specific films or filmmakers? I was thinking a lot about Baz Luhrmann when I was watching “Scutly”, very sensory through the sounds and visuals. Is he a filmmaker who has influenced you?
WILLIAMS: Definitely, and I have a Guillermo del Toro tattoo on my arm. So he is a filmmaker that also has had a heavy influence on my work. My tattoo is a quote by him that I found in a journal at the LACMA. But Baz is absolutely a favorite. He gets me fired up, and his work is exhilarating.
I have lots of influences through directors and artists. If I had to take my insides out on the table, that’s what “Scutly” looks like.
MARTIN: I see that. The film is very colorful and musical. How you bring in sound, through the color, and the story is amazing.
WILLIAMS: I think every project presents itself differently. “Golden Voices” was a part of The Film Race competition. I did not write that project. Zack Sievers did. It was an extremely collaborative environment and creation. We lived in an RV together for five days, and our RV was also the main location for that film. It was an exercise of what you can do with very little, very quickly.
In my film “Veiled Tractate”, my best friend Campbell O’Hare starred in the film. She’s a fabulous dancer and a mover and shaker. She was at a place where she wasn’t feeling her gorgeous and sexy self. I was like, “Girl, we’re about to fix that. Give me a minute, let me put a camera in your face. It’s going to be great, you’re going to feel so hot.” My favorite thing to do is to make talent feel beautiful. A couple friends of mine got together to make the film, so we were a crew of 5 people. And they all came to be in different parts of the process. I really feel that the film is a visual diary entry for me. I’m the voice over in the film, because I didn’t have Campbell in Chicago with me during post-production. I wrote all of the voice overs, so it just kind of made sense that I would do that part.
MARTIN: I marveled at some of your locations in the film. How did you get on the bridge [Chicago River]?
WILLIAMS: We just went out there and did it. That was all Campbell. But I was also a part of the film. The legs hanging out of the washing machine were mine. The stabbing of the mannequin head, writing all over it with lipstick, that was also me. That film was deeply vulnerable and allowed me to explore the poetic darkness that was within me. I’m very much aware of that part of myself.
“Scutly” is the film that best represents what my thought process looks like. But honestly, I just kind of throw up my words, throw up my scripts, and go in and try to make it make sense. That’s really what the project involved. I wrote it in one sitting with the help of Laura Day.
MARTIN: Do you have any advice for emerging female filmmakers?
WILLIAMS: Find your people that believe in you and your ideas, and you believe in them and their ideas back. Making films is very much a sport, and it takes an ensemble of players to make things happen. Over time you will learn who your people are, and who your people aren’t, and that’s a beautiful opportunity to learn more about yourself as a person and as an artist.
MARTIN: Final thoughts?
WILLIAMS: I think that during this time we’re in, and I’m saying this to myself as much as everyone else, forgive yourself for whatever you come up against along the way. I do feel during this time, it has the power to ultimately be a very good thing for us and for the world. But it’s okay to have moments where you allow yourself to feel the sadness of it all.