Veronica Miles on the healing power of making “Bess”

This is my first year running a film festival, and I’m honored and blown away by all the amazing womxn from all over the world that showcased their films. All of the filmmakers are passionate people with their own personalities, and their own approach to filmmaking. The Phenomenal Womxn Award was given to the filmmaker that I felt elevated what Cinema Femme is about, womxn supporting womxn in the film industry. Also, another quality that I was looking for was a filmmaker that has a unique style and made me excited to see what they do next. The winner of the award would get an interview with me to be featured on CinemaFemme.com. Veronica Miles, director of the short film “Bess” was the recipient of this inaugural award for our short film festival that took place August 6 – 9, 2020, on the Seed&Spark online platform.

Our interview together was such a joy and it was so inspiring to hear Veronica’s story. Her journey to “Bess” stems from her growing up in LA, an industry town, and how she overcome her past insecurities as a teenager when she first discovered her love for filmmaking. It has taken her to this point to really embrace all the parts of herself that brought her back to filmmaking. There is something to learn from her story about rediscovering your inner-strength while healing from your past. During our conversation, Veronica connected her story with her Mother’s struggle with sexism at film school in the 80s. She also told me about how she overcome the false idea internalized in her that there is space only for “one woman in the room”. Veronica evolved over the years, in her 20s and early 30s as she traveled to and lived in New Orleans, Australia, and New Zealand. What ultimately defined her journey and ties into the themes of her work was her relationship with her Grandmother Bess, who passed in 2015, along with her other grandmother Nana Jana who passed the same year.

“Bess” is based on the premise of a girl who has lost her grandmother and goes to New Orleans to find healing for herself, and to find a street corner where a photo of her grandmother was taken before she passed. “Bess” is available to watch on YouTube, and below.

“Bess” Short Film

REBECCA MARTIN: What brought you to filmmaking?

VERONICA MILES: I grew up in Los Angeles and I was born there. I grew up in this community called Topanga Canyon, which is up in the mountains, north of the city, but still apart of LA. Back then it was kind of a grungy hippy community. But now it’s become more sell-out and pretentious. I feel that growing up in LA ties to my story. My parents are originally from the South. My Mom got into USC film school in the early 80s for screenwriting. My Dad and her moved out to LA, in a hippy van. She was going to USC with the intention of having a career in making films. There was so much sexism going on there, and she experienced a lot of sexual harassment. Basically anyone in the program who wasn’t a white man,was bullied in some way by the professors and by some of the students. She ended up dropping out and not finishing her degree. 

I’ve been reflecting on that a lot lately. First of all, it’s infuriating. But it also gives me a lot of perspective about being a woman in the film industry, like what brought us here, and what women went through before the times we are in now. Lori Shockley’s film “Corked”, that played at the festival, was very powerful for me and my mom to watch. She really resonated with that film. I think it’s interesting because now I’ve grown up to be a filmmaker, and I’m kind of carrying on that torch for her.

Still from Lori Shockley’s short film “Corked”

I have a lot to say about growing up in LA, how it helped me, and hindered me in my growth as a filmmaker. When you grow up there, you are oversaturated by the film industry. So many of my friends’ parents worked in the film industry. You have this high level of access to film events. There are movie premieres that you can go and watch from the street. When I was probably 12 or 13, I went to a screening of “A Simple Plan” that Bill Paxton was at and he did a Q&A afterwards. I was obsessed with Bill Paxton because “Apollo 13” was one of my favorite films. After the screening I met him and got his autograph. He was so sweet to me. 

The next day I went to school, and and I was like, “Oh my god, you’ll never guess what happened? I met Bill Paxton last night.” My friend who I gushed to was not impressed, she was like, “cool . . . okay.” I’m telling you that story because I realized at that moment in my life that my love for film was different. I kind of assumed before that people loved movies in the same way I did. When I went to high school, in History and English they had a media component where you could do films instead of essays on different topics. When I started in high school in 2001, that was exactly the year that digital filmmaking was getting started.

I had this one teacher, Paul McGlothlin at my school who had set up this whole media center where we had Macs that had Final Cut Pro, and had mini-DV video cameras. I was one of the first generations that had that. At my school, I was kind of the only girl making films. Basically it was me and a bunch of guys. They were all making “Matrix” films, or films more in the style of Tarantino. I made a documentary about the LA Riots, and about a little boy who was being overly controlled by his mother. Then he escaped one day to find freedom. I really enjoyed my time in those classes and we had award shows, which was pretty cool. My teacher arranged for me to go to a film camp in Italy when I was 16.

Veronica Miles

MARTIN: Film camp in Italy, that’s great. 

MILES: I still can’t believe it to this day. I got a full merit scholarship, and without it, I wouldn’t have been able to go. That camp was the first time where I was in an environment where I had to collaborate with other students, people who I didn’t know. Even though it was an incredible honor, and it was so special to be chosen, going to Italy when you’re sixteen is life-changing in a lot of ways. I realized a few years ago that I had pretty negative experiences at that film camp that really set me back. To me I see it as one of the reasons why I didn’t make movies very much after that. I’m telling you this in case someone might realize they also had experiences like mine.

At my high school, I was the only girl making films, and then I get to this camp where there was a bunch of other awesome girls making films. There was so much talent at that film camp. I wasn’t conscious about this at the time, but I remember feeling there was only room for one woman in that space. I internalized that. One day, one of the boys on my crew said something to me that really made me feel like I didn’t know what I was doing in that way that men do. Then I doubted myself. I can’t remember what he said, but whatever it was, it totally sunk in and I basically believed him. I remember feeling deflated the rest of the day, and I gave up.

When I came back from that camp, I felt really confused, like I didn’t know if I wanted to go to film school anymore. I felt like I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I got really depressed. It’s crazy how just one experience can affect you like that, especially when you’re young and very impressionable. I was just this 16-year-old girl. Then I think about all the things that women are up against, along the way in their lives, just like in daily life. How these things are just getting in the way believing in yourself.

I wanted to bring up that story because it’s been recently that I realized that. I’m still working on letting go of all of what happened to me. I made three movies as a teenager, and since then I made a film for my senior thesis. I did go to film school for a year, and then I left because it was such a broey environment. I really didn’t feel supported. I just didn’t  want to deal with that energy. I ended up getting a degree in a liberal arts degree from a school in New York City. I knew that I wanted to be a director, and a storyteller. I wanted to study a lot of things so I would have a lot of knowledge of different ways to tell stories. That was the choice I made. 

In my 20s, I did a lot of work in proximity to filmmaking. I learned about exhibition, distribution, and producing film screenings, and working in cinemas. I worked for three years for a company that worked on TV commercial sets in making them eco friendly. That was really cool, and that allowed me to learn about production. My twenties allowed me to learn skills outside of filmmaking, with the goal of still wanting to be a filmmaker. But I still wasn’t doing it. I was afraid to work on my own films. 

Making “Bess”, surprisingly, has been so uplifting. I almost didn’t make this film. 

MARTIN: I’m so glad you did. 

Sarah Belle Miles in “Bess”

MILES: The festival was wonderful because it was the first time I showed the film to people who were not in my friend circle. I think this has been a breakthrough for me. I hope explaining everything has been interesting and helpful and has given you a window into the “why”. I’m appreciate what you do because there are so many women that want to make films, but they doubt themselves. I feel that confidence and self-esteem is one of the main reasons we don’t have more female filmmakers out there.

MARTIN: Thank you, and I agree with you. I’d love to be part of the change in the thinking that there is only space for one woman in the room. One woman does not tell the story of all women. We all can bring something to the table. 

MILES: I think also what you said shows how so much has changed in the past 20 years. That feeling that there is only space for one woman in the room has started to shift. There’s been so many amazing things that have happened, even in the past 10 years that have shown there’s room for all of us.

“Bess”

MARTIN: What brought you to “Bess”?

MILES: When I was 25, my ex-boyfriend and I literally just packed up our car, and did a road trip cross-country to New Orleans. We just moved there with nothing. We got jobs in the local movie theater in the French Quarter. We made friends with all of these people that were from there. That year of my life was so transformative.

It was time for a change. I felt out of touch with myself creatively. New Orleans helped me feel creative again. Everyone there is so creative, and everyone there is enjoying life, despite any hardships. Being in New Orleans was such a positive time for me. There were some ups and downs too. When we first got there it was really hard. By the end, I was so full of joy. It became this really special and important place to where part of my heart lives. Since that time I’ve always wanted to make a film there. 

One of the things that got me reconnected to this idea was that book “The Artist’s Way”. I was reading that book, and then one morning while I was doing yoga, I was thinking how much I wanted to make a film in New Orleans. My sister and I had this trip planned, and it seemed like perfect timing. I thought when I was there with my sister Sarah it would be a great way for me to practice filming the city. That idea evolved into “Bess”. Because at that time I didn’t own a professional camera. And because of my insecurities, I didn’t really want to involve a crew or anyone else. I needed to do it for myself, so it could be completely in my hands if it got done or not, and I would have all the creative control. I guess all of those experiences I had in the past made me want to insulate and protect myself with my first venturing into filmmaking again. That’s why there is no sound, that is why it was shot on an iPhone, and that’s why it stars my sister. I created this comfort zone around myself.

Veronica Miles with sister Sarah, and Grandma Bess

Then one morning I just started writing the story out, which is based on something I did myself. After my Grandma Bess died I found this photo of her standing at this street corner in New Orleans. She and I had always talked about New Orleans because she had a blast when she was there in her 50s and 60s. She went there a lot, loved it, and had so much fun. I think I really got this love for life from her. She just really enjoyed life. My other Grandmother, Nana Jana, was an artist and writer, so I think her spirit helped guide me to make a film again.

When I went to New Orleans to look for that street corner, I was a hot mess. She had just died, and it was very shocking when she passed. I couldn’t find that street corner, but I thought it was a good premise for a film. I shaped the story of “Bess” around that premise.

I also wanted to show what it’s like to go to New Orleans for the first time. From an outside perspective you think of New Orleans just like Bourbon Street, a party place. When you get there, you usually first get really drunk. And then the next day you’re kind of hungover. In a way, New Orleans kind of detoxes your demons. Also, it’s a city that I feel has a real healthy relationship with death. Like the way they do second lines [A Second Line is traditionally a funeral parade led by a brass band as mourners walk the streets dancing], it’s a way of celebrating life after death.], it’s a way of celebrating life after death.

“Bess”

I molded the story around the stages of the grieving process. When I discovered those stages, it became a part of my healing when my Grandmother died. That’s what the character goes through, she is in shock, denial, depression, anger, and then it ends with hope. I also wanted to give this kind of tribute to the magic and the beauty of New Orleans. It can really heal you, if you let it.

That’s where I came up with the story. I wrote a treatment and I made a shot list. But it was really more of a scene list, where I had shots in mind. What I did was write out inner thoughts for the characters of those scenes.

When we got to New Orleans, I was trying to talk myself out of it to be honest. I feel that the universe intervened. I had a sinus infection, so I couldn’t drink. I was sober and had energy. The first few days we went out, there is a shot where the characters are dancing in a club to this band. That was the first night we got into town, and we didn’t plan on filming anything like that, but in the moment, I was like, “Why don’t I start filming it?”

MARTIN: I love that shot.

Veronica Miles with sister Sarah [Sarah Belle Miles] and Kaitlynn Clement

MILES: That kept on happening where we would just be hanging out, and I would see it was a perfect moment to take some shots. I started to do what I intended in the first place, which was filming the beauty that I see in New Orleans. I would just pick up shots here and there, the light in the sky, the beads in the trees, the bubbles, and what it’s like in the streets. Also, what it’s really like when it’s Mardi Gras time when you are trying to get to a parade. Then when we would find the places I would ask Sarah to do a scene, and if she could get in the mood. It was like we were all just experiencing those things in the moment. We were on Bourbon street, trying to get these shots, but Bourbon Street was stressing us out, and we couldn’t figure out what shots to do. I had intended for the finale of the film to show her finding the street corner on the day of Mardi Gras. This was to capture her having a great time and partying all over the city. But of course on the real day of Mardi Gras, it was so crowded on Bourbon street, totally impossible. Everyone was drunk, and it was just crazy. In the end we had to improvise. Most of what you see in the movie was improvised. I added this solid story arc to go off of so I was just like, “I have to get this shot.” And then the edit really added to the story. 

“Bess”

MARTIN: Let’s get into the technical aspects of the film.

MILES: When I lived in New Zealand, I made friends with this awesome filmmaker named Martin Sagadin, who shot their whole film on their iPhone just over the course of two years. They shot footage here and there capturing different parts of their life, and then cut it into a feature film. The film is very poetic. Martin gave me a lot of technical advice about what to do. I ended up using this app called ProMovie. ProMovie allowed you to shoot 60 frames per second. It also let you choose the type of aspect ratio, and it let you shoot in 1080. There is another app called FiLMiC Pro that does the same thing. Apple just released a film that Damien Chazelle shot, that uses the FiLMiC Pro app on the iPhone.

Martin also gave great advice for the editing process. I edited the film in Adobe Premiere. There are so many videos out there to show how to make iPhone footage look not like iPhone footage. There are YouTube videos that show you all the kind of filters and color correction tools to use. In the end, I was able to make it look it like it did. I’m grateful for that. I also shot on an iPhone out of necessity. Using an iPhone made it a lot easier to capture shots in the moment.  I was able to get all of these shots in crowds that were undetectable. I think that added to helping you feel like you were on Bourbon Street yourself, as the viewer. The editing wasn’t really that difficult in the end. It’s interesting how you can just teach yourself from watching YouTube videos. 

MARTIN: Can you talk to me about the music in the film?

MILES: I didn’t realize until the festival how much I relate storytelling to music. It’s been a theme in all of my films. Not only music, but also nostalgia and memory. When I was younger I was very obsessed with movies that were about timing the image to sound. I love the film “Yellow Submarine” for that reason. I was also obsessed with music videos in the 90s. I’d record them, and watch them over and over again. I loved music videos that made you feel something by attaching a certain movement to a shot or an emotion to a moment in the song. 

When I was starting to write the story of “Bess” down, one particular song kept running through my mind. I was listening to that song a lot during that time in my life. The song is called “Phases” by this New Orleans artist, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah. Christian Scott comes from this wonderful New Orleans background. He’s so skilled and talented at his music and his composition. He has these really interesting trumpets that are really beautiful. There is another artist on that song named Cliff Hines, who is also a New Orleans-based musician. I feel he brings a lot of layers to that song.

Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, feat. Sarah Elizabeth Charles and Cliff Hines, Stretch Music Publishing LLC

When I started discovering Christian Scott’s music, it really inspired me as an artist to be more in touch with myself and my creativity. He is so expressive in a beautiful way. He has a way of channeling his ancestors, and bringing the creative spirit of the universe into his work. His work inspires me and I feel sets a good example for me. Having his song be in the film was really special. The lyrics are basically just “time and space”. I think it also fit well with the story because that’s what you need when you’re healing from something. You need time, and you need space. You need to explore space.

When I was cutting the film, I first compiled all of the shots and the scenes together. It was way too long, and then I just really had to fine tune it to the song. Piecing it together reminded me of that metaphor people have when you are making a sculpture and you have this block, and then you just chip away at it until you find your piece in it. That’s what it felt like. I had ideas of certain moments in the song that I wanted to align with certain shots in the film. I first structured those shots into place and then I filled in around it. In the end there were all of these kind of magical moments where little bits of the song that went with little bits of the shot. Those settled, kind of unintentionally, and it all was meant to be in the end.

MARTIN: Future projects?

MILES: When I turned 30, I moved to Australia, by myself, and I got a working holiday visa. Any American under 31 can apply for this working visa where you can work in Australia for a year, and New Zealand for a year. 

MARTIN: Just under the wire, that’s great.

Veronica Miles in New Zealand

MILES: I applied and I spent 2 years living in Australia and New Zealand. Living there was also a powerful and transformative time for me. I spent time shedding away baggage and reconnecting with myself. This was before I made “Bess”, and I don’t think I would have made “Bess” if I hadn’t gone through that experience. 

When I was living in New Zealand, I came up with this idea for a short film about a young woman from America who has her heart broken and decides to move to New Zealand. The film takes place on her first day there. It has similar themes to “Bess” where she is looking for healing. The film’s essence is about being at the beginning of a journey and discovering your own inner-powers to heal yourself. I wanted to make a film where women, or anyone who’s traveled alone, can relate. I also wanted to make a film where anyone who dreams of doing it can watch this film and believe they can do it too. I’d really love that. I think that’s a thing about me and my film ideas, the idea that women can find their own inner-strength to heal themselves and others in that kind of resilience. I’m actually writing the film with my friend Jhane [Sanders], another American who lived in New Zealand for a year. So that’s in the works now.

MARTIN: What have you learned from this experience making “Bess” that you can pass along to other emerging female filmmakers?

MILES: The advice that I’d give is based on the advice I’ve received that supported my journey as a filmmaker. I saw Ava DuVernay speak at an LA Film Fest panel in 2012. She was there with “Middle of Nowhere”. She gave the advice to just go make your own films and to not wait for a job path to directing. That advice changed my perspective in a big way, especially as someone who also grew up in Los Angeles, where it seems like you need an impressive job in the industry to feel like a success.

I also saw Emily Best (founder of Seed&Spark) talk a few years ago. She said that your friends and family are your first audience and your first fans. They want to see your movies because they care about you. I think that advice helped me a lot with my acceptance of myself as a filmmaker and submitting to the Cinema Femme Short Film Fest.

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