It was a pleasure speaking with Kate Hackett about her directorial debut “Oleander”, a shorter version of her feature script “Purify My Heart”. We discussed her experience of growing up in the Catholic schools that taught abstinence, her work as an editor (Cheer, Last Chance U) and in reality TV that brought her to this project along with the collaboration with her amazing cast, Emily Robinson (Transparent, “Eighth Grade”), Peri Gilpin (Frasier), and Jennifer Lafleur (Room 104). Also, we discussed how her work editing “Half the Picture” was her Master Class for stepping up to a filmmaker role, and inspired her to hire a mostly female crew for this film. Stay tuned for her feature film, “Purify My Heart”, and her future editing projects.
The film is about Oleander (Emily Robinson), 17, she is the star and sole creator of her own provocative, sex-positive YouTube channel. She is also an unwilling student at a Christian abstinence program, led by the poised and charismatic Alissa (Peri Gilpin), 50s. When Alissa demands that Oleander issue an on-camera apology for mocking her abstinence program online, a fierce battle of wills ensues. Alissa is aided by Kim (Jennifer Lafleur), 30s, a filmmaker-for-hire who has no allegiance other than to serve her client. Oleander fights desperately for her voice and her beliefs, but will her anti slut-shaming message be able to stand up against the manipulative power of the two adults who seek to suppress her? (Summary from press notes).
“Oleander” comes to streaming through Vimeo and Film Shortage on October 20th.
REBECCA MARTIN: How did you come to this project?
KATE HACKETT: The short film is a shorter version of a feature script I wrote called “Purify My Heart”, which was an American Zoetrope screenplay finalist. That experience really energized me to make a short version of the screenplay just to show my vision, and show the characters for the film. I’ve started my journey to find the right producers to support the feature film. Getting the world of the characters and the story onscreen for the first time was definitely my goal before taking the next steps to making my feature.
MARTIN: How did you go about putting the cast together?
HACKETT: I feel so lucky with my cast. I knew Jennifer Lafleur, who plays the filmmaker Kim, through a friend. I had known of her work in the independent film sphere, and I had always admired the naturalism and the nuanced sensitivity to her acting. Then she came on board, and I had a fantastic casting director named Chris Redondo to find the other actors. With Peri, I’ve known and loved her work for so long. It was so important to me that I paint an empathetic portrait of all of the characters, but especially her character because she is in some sense the antagonist of the film, but I didn’t look at it that way. I wanted to make sure we looked deeper, got nuance, and depth through her character. Peri is so beloved, and she can bring a deep dramatic performance that just felt perfect for the role.
And then Emily Robinson, I knew of her work on Transparent and “Eighth Grade”. She also had made her own film about a teenage girl who is asking questions about her sexual identity. In addition to admiring Emily’s acting, I also knew that I had a collaborative partner in the film, because she was intellectually engaged with asking exactly the kind of questions my short film was asking. That was really exciting for me to have a relationship with an actor and really talk about the themes of the film.
MARTIN: With your work as an editor in documentaries, how did that influence the ways that the story was pieced together?
HACKETT: I really wanted to look at the intersectional themes of religion and the media, and specifically look at the institutions in our country and in our world that have the power to both grant voice and agency, but also deny it depending on how they are executed.
The idea for “Oleander” comes from my own Catholic school experience. I had “abstinence” based education, so the film is talking about some of the difficulties with that. I think one of the things that I learned from that education is that sense of moral responsibility. As media makers, I think we have a great responsibility with how we portray our subjects. Luckily in Cheer and Last Chance U, and in the other films I’ve been able to cut, I’ve worked with filmmakers who have the utmost integrity with how they portray their subjects. They portray them honestly, and they portray them with love. But that is not always the case in the film industry.
When I was a young filmmaker I dipped my toe into the reality TV world a few times. I never wanted to be there, but I had to be there a few times for financial reasons. I just saw characters, documentary “subjects” of reality TV, treated as the butt of the joke, having their voices taken away, their words totally twisted, and their personality completely changed. I also saw in many instances, in both scripted and documentary filmmaking, where I would turn down projects if the film had a secret message that was suppressing the voices of vulnerable people in society. I’ve always felt the responsibility, as a filmmaker, to not engage in those types of projects, and to have integrity in how I treat a subject. It’s not a discussion we have enough in the film industry in where our own integrity lies. They think, ‘Well, you’ve got to make money.’ I feel like there is a need for a lot of accountability in the media and we don’t hold ourselves accountable enough. I really wanted to explore that in the film.
MARTIN: Oleander uses YouTube as a platform to talk about her sex-positive lifestyle. What were your thoughts about that?
HACKETT: I wanted to have a character who would have these intellectual arguments with adult authority figures. I was thinking what would I have done with the tools that are accessible to me now? Like if I had those tools accessible to me, which I didn’t when I was a teenager, how would I use the internet as a platform for these type of arguments? I think it’s a blessing and a curse to have access to these tools, and hopefully the film shows that. The internet can be immensely empowering, it can be a tool to convey your voice, but it is not purely that. I was concerned with the adult structures of power, how as an adult you can always have the last word, whenever they want to. I feel that you are very vulnerable when you put yourself out there into that environment. If you don’t know how to harness the energy and the power of the internet, I think you can really be harmed. So I think the power of the internet as a platform can be a blessing and a curse. I was really interested by that.
MARTIN: Being an editor for “Half the Picture,” did that influence you in how you put together your film crew?
HACKETT: I would say working on that project influenced me in every way. The filmmaker for “Half the Picture,” Amy Adrion, is amazing. She and I had met in film school. Our relationship is a testament to how those film school relationships can develop when women get to meet each other in that collaborative environment. Sitting through these long interviews with some of the most prolific female directors of all time, was like this great masterclass for me. There were so many women who were interviewed in our film who were a part of our film that were inspirational to me.
If I really had to talk about someone who’s journey has inspired me as a filmmaker, first is Ava DuVernay. She has been an inspiration to me in terms of hearing her speak about your responsibility to seek out women to work on your crew. She would say that you absolutely can find them, you just have to find them. That attitude that she has with how she forms her company, that was absolutely foremost in my mind.
Another inspiration for me was Lynn Shelton. In her interview she talked about beginning her filmmaking career as an editor. That was very empowering for me. She spoke about watching Claire Denis’ films, and realizing that Claire Denis started her career later in life. That was an inspiration for her to step into a filmmaker role. Lynn’s vision of the world and the fact that her filmmaking was based on editing for so long has this extremely nuanced way of working with actors based on her skill in editing.
Also, Mary Harron was an inspiration. She is so amazing. I think the reason why she is such an inspiration to me is because I want to make intellectually provocative statements with my filmmaking and my art. She is not always totally interested in naturalism as the only cinematic form. Her background in the punk scene brought the idea of an intellectual provocation, and being interested in provocative concepts. You see that in “I Shot Andy Warhol”, looking at these intellectually provocative concepts as well. I’m so inspired by her.
MARTIN: Any advice for emerging female filmmakers?
HACKETT: Two things. One, trust in your voice. Trust that the stories that you want to tell will be embraced by someone else who needs to hear that story. When I was a young woman and I would say I want to make this story about a woman, people would say that story doesn’t sound very interesting, like that doesn’t sound like an idea that could be a feature film. I think now that’s not as much the case for young women, but I think they can still be in rooms as an aspiring filmmaker where someone can say that doesn’t sound too interesting, like that doesn’t happen, the experience you’re describing. So I think you really have to trust in your own vision.
The other advice would be to constantly be making the type of work that you want to be making. Like if you are a director, then shoot something on your iPhone that reflects your vision, or if you’re an editor seek out a collaborator from film school or from a grassroots setting where there is an environment where people are making their own work. I think we rely on other people to give us the green light, or the money. It can really halt our own development as filmmakers. Seek out the work and the collaborators who take you where you want to be.