There is no shortage of ideas, talent, and direction when it comes to Jaclyn Bethany. After initially pursuing theater, she was inspired to take the leap into filmmaking when she attended The London Film School studying screenwriting, before heading to the AFI to sharpen her directorial skills. Since she graduated, she’s got a few directed shorts, features, and an Emmy-nominated series [“The Rehearsal”] under her belt. What I love about Jaclyn the most is that she’s the real deal. The three films of her’s that I’ve seen [“The Delta Girl”, “Indigo Valley”, and “Highway One”] transport me. A young talent, she’s an emerging filmmaker that I can’t wait to follow.
REBECCA MARTIN: Where did you grow up?
JACLYN BETHANY: I grew up in Jackson, Mississippi. I lived in Jackson until I was 19, and then I moved to New York. I hadn’t always been into film. Growing up, I was really into theatre and acting. I was just a really creative kid. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was really influenced by movies growing up. But I didn’t think it would be a career.
MARTIN: What films influenced you?
BETHANY: “The Wizard of Oz”. That was the first film I was obsessed with when I was three years old. My Dad knew all the words. I was drawn to films that I could relate to as a kid. The first two movies I remember watching when I was 10 was “Elizabeth” with Cate Blanchett, then “Shakespeare in Love”. I think they came out in the same year.
MARTIN: That’s correct!
BETHANY: When I’m thinking about things now that influenced me, for my first memories of film, those two often come up.
MARTIN: I saw your film [“The Delta Girl”] that you shot for your final at AFI. What brought you to that school?
BETHANY: That was recent. First I went to college in New York at Fordham, and then I took a few years off of school. Then I went to the London Film School for a year to do screenwriting. After that, I applied and got into AFI. I graduated from there in 2018.
The Delta Girl
MARTIN: Can you talk to me about “The Delta Girl.” I know that was your thesis film, how did that project come to be?
BETHANY: I knew I wanted to make something about the south. I had these two ideas, one about a girl’s school, and one about surrounding Civil Rights. I wanted to see how I could combine the two. The way that AFI works is that the first year you make three shorts, and you are not working with your team, you’re working with different people. You only really write one script. The second year they spend the whole year developing the thesis film with you and working with your team. I had a co-writer. Everyone was from the AFI program on the main team.
I strangely didn’t have a casting director, I just started looking for the two girls that were the main characters. I came across Caitlin [Carver] first. I saw that she was in “I, Tonya”, and then I noticed on her IMDB that she was from Alabama. I reached out to her manager, and then she came onboard. Isabelle [Fuhrman] was the last person to cast. We have mutual friends, and she said yes.
MARTIN: That’s awesome!
BETHANY: It was cool because everyone in the cast was really diverse. The guy who played Beau [Atli Oskar Fjalarsson] is Icelandic. There was also an Irish actor, and then a few actors from New York came in. The film reflected things and people who I’d come across in the past few years.
MARTIN: I love your use of color. What were you trying to bring out of the film visually?
BETHANY: I think what is important to me is that feeling of timelessness. Even though the film was set in 1964, the girls still look relatable. The film is not heavily designed to be a period film. I think it was a specific choice – I know that when you’re thinking about the money, it’s like how are you going to do a period film for that amount of money. And I’m like, why is this the number one concern when you’re trying to tell a story? It is meant to be universal and timeless. My DP [Emilio Oliveira] for “The Delta Girl” was putting gauze over the lens, which gave it a dreamy and faded look. Also, it gave the film an isolated feel from the outside world. The school feels pretty, but you feel like there’s something that is not right. And the outside just feels very dark.
MARTIN: I feel you captured the dichotomy of the school and the racism, and what happened in the woods versus in the school. You nailed it.
Now let’s talk about your series “The Rehearsal”
BETHANY: We took a pilot and broke it up into six webisodes, as a digital series. We released it like a series.
MARTIN: I love that you have that element of surprise in the series, when you open up, like you’re watching a play, and then you see the actor, who is actually just practicing a monologue for a rehearsal. I saw the series as a reflection of the performance. Can you talk more about that?
BETHANY: I think I had an idea of what I wanted to do with that opening, and then we just shot it. It was just fun. But I didn’t have a set plan of how I wanted it to look or be. That opener is really different than the rest of the series, it really just sets the tone. I do like that play on the performer. Bergman does that a lot with his films. Something that changes the element that you are watching something, which I think is interesting. That theme kind of carried onto “Highway One”, but in a different way.
MARTIN: “Indigo Valley” and “Highway One” are so different. Watching them both, it’s hard to see it’s from the same filmmaker. You have such range when it comes to style and story. What brought you to “Indigo Valley”?
BETHANY: I always gravitate towards a three person conflict, like a ménage à trois situation. I’m also very interested in sisterhood. I don’t have any siblings, so that’s something I’ve always been interested in exploring. I wanted to explore this sister relationship and the conflict they have. And this man comes in and sort of confuses things. The story was first birthed by the place I wanted to shoot it. We were originally going to shoot it in Iceland, and we did a proof of concept out there a few years ago. Then it seemed it was going to be very expensive and too difficult to shoot there. So we kind of figured out a way to eliminate that cost and time, and just shoot it in California. We filmed in the desert, near Santa Clarita, about an hour outside of LA.
I think it was lucky because I shot it two months after graduating from AFI. I had a lot of people really excited to work on their first feature. I don’t think now I could have gotten that kind of luck. The film was something I originally started working on when I was in London, then sort of continued when I was at AFI. I knew I wanted to shoot it when I finished my time there.
MARTIN: The main character Isabella is very complex, which I appreciate. She obviously suffers from some kind of mental illness, but that isn’t all she is, it’s not black and white. I think that adds a lot to the thriller aspect of the film. Can you talk to me about how you developed that character?
BETHANY: I was just interested in showing someone who was damaged, and she obviously has something going on with her. It’s not a hit over the viewer’s head that she’s bipolar, or that she has something that is affecting her behavior. But obviously there is something there. I watch a lot of shows with interesting female characters, like “Homeland”. These are the kind of shows that depict smart, capable, and interesting women that kind of have this other side to them.
I don’t know if I was consciously trying to capture a specific addiction or a mental illness, but I was trying to capture someone who was sort of damaged and conflicted. Also, someone who is trying to be better but then continues to relapse into this body of behavior that was destructive.
MARTIN: Anything else you’d like to add about “Indigo Valley”.
BETHANY: Just logistically, I think the film will be coming out this fall. [September 2020 via Giant Pictures]
MARTIN: Let’s talk about “Highway One”. I definitely felt a Sofia Coppola vibe with this one, in terms of color and style. I loved everything about the film. I felt like I was a part of the party and I was loving every minute of it. Was there a reason for the location of the film, Cambria?
BETHANY: I feel that Northern California is really beautiful. It has the feeling of being small towny in certain areas, but also being close to a lot of vibrant life. We have a character who is the techy girl from Silicon Valley, and Anna who is wealthy and has never left Cambria. The house was a friend’s house. It’s actually really small, but we made it look much bigger onscreen. It’s this crazy Swiss cabin from 1922.
MARTIN: And the hot tub!
BETHANY: Well that was added.
MARTIN: With the film I was also reminded of Baumbach and Linklater, particularly “Dazed and Confused”. How does one go about putting a script and a story together with all of these different scenarios happening at once?
BETHANY: The script was mainly improvised. I wrote a detailed treatment, it was about 50 pages. I scripted the scenes between Nina and Maria, just to have some kind of grounding to the film, and to have everyone know that context. And then I really built the film around the cast, around the actors. They were given a lot of freedom with their characters. It was really a lot of fun.
MARTIN: I love those girls that are high all the time, Natasha and Martha. I felt the improvisation with their characters, they were hilarious.
BETHANY: I kind of think of their characters like the clowns. Those two are actually best friends in real life.
MARTIN: You could tell! They had great chemistry. I also noticed that all of the names were Russian names, along with the character. Was there a reason for that?
BETHANY: The film was kind of inspired by Chekov and Chekov plays, like the parties that are often depicted in his work. The film leaned more into that when I was developing the film, and then there are elements of the party. I don’t know if you noticed, but they are all drinking Russian beer. There are small details I added involving the use of red. The colors in the film feel of that world. I think it was because I was creating a very specific kind of world.
MARTIN: With Maria and Nina, their relationship is threaded throughout the film. What influenced you to bring that kind of female relationship to the screen?
BETHANY: This goes for heterosexual relationships too, but sometimes when someone is in love with someone, they aren’t necessarily in love with them. Nina has been on Maria’s mind for a long time, and she hasn’t gone away. The circumstances of her that night when they meet are she’s single, she’s there at the party, and Nina comes back. We don’t really know why. Nina was the person at their school who everyone was intrigued by. And Maria was the closest to her, and just happened to have this geek level of admiration, this love for her that she wasn’t able to express. The whole time she is struggling with this she is trying to find her moment to do that, express herself to Nina. It’s very nerve-racking putting yourself out there in that way, and she tries to distract herself by doing that by hooking up with Nick. When Maria and Nina are together, you can sense something is there.
You can tell Nina is there because she is trying to figure out her own life. That slice of her life from her school and her friends that she feels comfortable around at that time. They were presented as an option to her because she was home. That’s not the life she chooses in the end. I was also just trying to explore the complexity of female friendships. Maria just wanted Nina to be this person that she just isn’t anymore.
MARTIN: Did you see yourself in any of the two characters?
BETHANY: I saw myself in both of them, the two of them together in a lot of ways. But I was never ever the girl all the girls wanted to be, like Nina. But that kind of character is someone I’ve always been fascinated by because I’d think back to when I was in school when I’d be like, ‘Look at the girl three or four years above me, she’s so cool.’ That kind of feeling.
MARTIN: I love how funny the film is, it’s definitely a comedy.
BETHANY: Yes, it’s meant to be funny.
MARTIN: There are some serious elements though. I love how you brought Maria in and out of it. And I did love how great the chemistry was, which probably had to do with the improvisation.
BETHANY: That is a Linklater thing. It brings you closer to the characters.
MARTIN: Any advice for emerging female filmmakers?
BETHANY: Well I am kind of an emerging filmmaker myself but I think it’s important to always be learning. I think about the amount of stuff I’ve watched during this lockdown time. I think about the things I’ve missed before that I didn’t have time to watch. I think it’s great to keep learning and researching. Moving your path forward and your story forward in that way because you know there’s really no right way to direct. That is something that I’ve learned, but also I think it’s important to find your team to collaborate with, find people that get you and keep them around you. I’ve been lucky to find that pretty early on.
MARTIN: Final thoughts?
BETHANY: I have a few things that I’m working on for the future. I’m in the late development stage of this feature about nuns in isolation, and they are confronted by the people that are spirits that represent good and evil. It’s called “The Willow”. I started writing it a year ago, and it’s kind of been made into this end of the world theme, or second coming. That’s something we’re working on at the moment, and I just hired a casting director. Also, figuring out fundraising now, and all of that stuff.
I’m also writing two scripts. Both of them are in the very beginning stages, but one is about Elizabeth I, when she’s a teenager. There is a lot of controversy about if she was seduced by her stepmother’s husband, and that might have been one of the reasons that she was never married. And the script explores that. I wanted to make a big period piece.
The other one is about the first female private investigator in Mississippi. We had a big national disaster here in 1979, it’s about the disappearance of a girl during that time, and this young woman who is sort of not really supposed to be in that job. It’s about fighting to have a voice in a really male dominated society. There were a lot of politics going on during that time.