I was fortunate to see a rough cut of Jaclyn Bethany’s “Highway One” last year prior to my interview with the director. The film danced in my mind long after. Seeing the final cut, I saw a symphony of personalities, colors, absurdity and moments of humanity. The story takes place in Cambria, a small town in SoCal. A twenty-something group comes together for a New Years costume party. The main character, Maria, has lived in Cambria all of her life, but feels alienated from her peers. Nina, Maria’s friend from the past, shows up at the party, which leads to a reawakening in her. Around Maria’s story, we find a group of Chekovian type characters, who all happen to have Russian names. To name a few, two best friends (Natasha and Martha) who are stoned most of the film, a British woman (Ira) who is getting over a breakup, and a young twenty-something (Sasha) who is trying to define her relationship with her married professor (Alex).With shades of “Dazed and Confused” and “Metropolitan”, Bethany brings us to a place that is stimulating, witty and relatable. This is the kind of film that makes you feel alive, and reminds you of what a good party used to be like.
“Highway One”premieres virtually on the Santa Barbara International Film Festival site, and will run until April 10th. You can also see the film at the festival drive-in tomorrow (4/2) at 12 PM PST. Read my interview with this dream team of womxn behind the film, including director Jaclyn Bethany; producer Rebecca Morandi; DP Irene Gomez-Emilsson; composers Maesa Pullman and Dalal Bruchmann; and actors Aisha Fabienne Ross (Maria) and Greta Bellamacina (Ira).
The film will be available on demand via the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s website until April 10. It will continue its festival run and be released in the UK later this year via Bohemia Media.
What brought you to this project? And what do you hope people see in this film?
Irene Gómez Emilsson (DP): Jaclyn and I have been working together for over half a decade now. That sounds crazy! When she invited me to shoot this film I immediately said yes. I loved the script and knew we could achieve something beautiful as our collaboration has always been wonderful experiences at all levels.
I hope people are drawn into this melancholic yet irreverent party and are captivated by the array of characters that the film portrays, showing us the different moods and mindstates of the millennial generation. And also I hope they appreciate the twist in the end…
Jaclyn Bethany (Director): I wanted to make something lighthearted and fun that also asked deeper questions. I also wanted to work with a big cast, and really dive into that collaboration. I wanted to make an LGBTQ love story and a stylized ode to California mixed with Russian drama. I wanted to give opportunities to amazing, creative women – all my heads of department were female. Thus, “Highway One” was born.
The film can be many things. I want people to enjoy the film. I think there’s a character everyone can relate to. We’ve all been to parties like this, especially millennials. It’s also a beautiful film for this time. I think it really reinforces the importance of friendship, of community, and of art. Something that we have all been longing for during this time.
Rebecca Morandi (Producer): I remember discussing with Jaclyn this project from the very beginning. I loved the idea of developing the film with the actors and bringing to life this fun and nostalgic world. I hope everyone will see a little bit of themselves in this fun, deep and sometimes weird and unexpected characters. I am extremely proud of the deeply human aspect of the story, and the loving and hopeful feeling I hope it will leave audiences with.
Aisha Fabienne Ross (Maria): I’ve known Jaclyn for ages and have been involved in a few of her productions. Jaclyn sent me the script to have a read of it before I knew which part she was considering me for, and I loved it! I loved the weirdness and the sort of Chekovian feel to the story. Jaclyn is a wonderful writer of existential, otherworldly dramas and I really wanted to be a part of this one.
I hope people are able to lose themselves in the world of the film. It’s exactly what New Years Eves can be like. The feeling of both anxiety and anticipation for the new year. A sudden and heightened awareness of the unknown of what lies ahead, as well as being lost in the partying and raw celebration of life.
Greta Bellamacina (Ira): I’ve worked with Jaclyn on a couple of other films. I love the way she works, it’s extremely collaborative and inspiring to be around her dedication. I like how she often puts unlikely characters together. It adds to the surrealism and comedy of her work. We shot the film in Los Angeles mainly in the evenings. We did a lot of improvisation on set, so by the end it really did feel like we were at a very long New Years Eve party. I think this helped the actors fully immerse and let go. I love this kind of realism in a project. Jaclyn works you hard- when you see the actors exhausted at the end of the party, we really were exhausted in those takes as it was like 5am. She can just keep going like a train.
I think Jaclyn has a fascinating way of documenting female characters. I think the film will be relatable for any teenage girl with hopes and dreams. The film allows the audience to be in a world that is both normal and extraordinary at the same time.
Maesa Pullman (Composer): I had the pleasure of working with Jaclyn on a couple of other projects – “Delta Girl”, “Indigo Valley”, “Under the Lantern Lit Sky” – and with Dalal on “Indigo Valley” and “Under the Lantern Lit Sky”. When I got a taste of the world of “Highway One”, I was so excited to get to sink into it.
I hope people feel they have just been to a legendary party where major shit has gone down. The night floats in one’s memory as a moment when everyone’s aliveness was illuminated.
Jaclyn Bethany – The Director
Talk about the casting process. How did you bring this amazing group of actors all together?
It was really through word of mouth! They came from all over the world, literally. Some actors I had worked with before, some were my friends, some I admired their work and reached out, and they’d recommend others. It just kind of grew from there. Some of them knew each other, which helped the party vibe. This is an ensemble film, and I developed it all around the actors and what they were bringing. We were working from sort of a loose script, so each cast member really had the freedom to play to their strengths and shape their character. To me, this is a dream way of working. I got so lucky with the final ensemble – all so different, but worked very beautifully together.
How was it being behind the camera in comparison to your films where you’ve also starred in the film?
They go together for me. One is an extension of the other. The relationship between an actor and director is one of the most important to me. I think having been on both sides I know how vulnerable and often how hard it is to let yourself go onscreen. Making “Indigo Valley”, my first feature which I appeared in, that whole experience was tough for me. So after that, I really let all inhibitions go about myself both acting and directing. On set the very practical difference is I am not jumping in front of the camera. But this was never really the issue for me. It was more about trusting myself and having confidence. The same DP, Irene, shot both films. Their wasn’t too much of a difference in our relationship other than they were both very different projects. And I just really hope to have great trust with actors and allow freedom. I think I learned how to do that really quickly by being on both sides. But I also very much believe women who want to act and direct should do both and be in their own work. There’s too much questioning of this and acting like it’s taboo. I always get questions about it, and I guess it’s unique, but it’s also not how I define myself.
In our past interview, you talked about Chekov being an inspiration for the film. How do you feel “Highway One” is in that essence?
First off, the ode to Russian names. Also that the film takes place at one house, at a party around a group of people that is going crazier and crazier as the night goes on. Along with most of the characters seem plagued by life, yet seem to have it all. They are constantly complaining or highly emotional. Everyone is in love with someone. All that is very Chekhovian, though I don’t think it’s an adaptation or similar to any Chekhov play. It’s just one of the inspirations.
Anything you’d like to add?
I’m currently directing a short film called “Deployed”, it is a gritty and heartfelt drama illuminating the honest story of a military spouse and her children during a modern day deployment. In our story, a military spouse, Kate, reaches her breaking point during her husbands unexpected military deployment. I’m very passionate about this film, and would love to share our Seed&Spark page to learn more.
Rebecca Morandi – The Producer
As a producer, what was most important to you for this film, meaning, what role did you play in supporting the film?
As a producer I was extremely involved every step of the way. From the very first time we discussed the idea, when it was only this abstract concept of a film we knew wanted to make, all the way to the editing and post-production. From the creative input I was able to give, to the most practical aspects to figure out, I was as involved as I could be with this film.
I loved seeing the script come to life, from the beautiful outline Jaclyn wrote, to how the actor made it real and human in such a beautiful way.
The production phase of this film was definitely challenging… In pre-covid time we shot in this beautiful tiny house in Southern California in early December, sometimes it almost felt like we were really all guests at Anna’s house for her New Years Eve party. The beautiful set design and lighting made the party feel so real that thinking about it now, in post-covid time, makes me so nostalgic.
As a producer I was also in an unusual situation as I edited the film so I was in the editing room every minute of the post production, and I am so glad that was the case. Last but not least I was happy to give over the film to our wonderful sound designers and composers who really made it all come together to be the beauty the film is now.
Irene Gómez-Emilsson – The Director of Photography
Talk about how you coordinated with the director the look and the mood of the film.
Jaclyn and I shared a lot of references. From Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo+Juliet” to pictures from 1990’s Russia, Montreal underground club photography through to Orthodox Russian Icons and contemporary Russian films . I think it is that eclectic blend of references that gives the film its distinctive look. The location also had a lot of character which really gives a lot of texture to it. And of course Lisa Garcia and Daisy Stackpole’s stunning contribution as production designer and costume designer respectively.
A lot of the scenes involve more than one person in the room, and a lot going on at once. Can you talk about how you brought all of these stories and people together?
How did you get that 1970s look of the film?
For the lighting, I wanted to achieve something ethereal and spiritual. Because there was an underlying Russian theme and the script being inspired by Chekhov’s works, I found a lot of inspiration in the feeling you have when you are in a Russian Orthodox Church, with the golden tones, low key lighting, candles, a sense of intimacy and of mystery. Most fixtures were gelled with amber correction which gives that feeling of warmth. I also added a ½ Black Pro Mist filter which softens the image and gives the characters some kind of holiness to them (even if some of them are not necessarily holy!).
Jaclyn wanted a real distinction to be established between the dialogue scenes and the party scenes and so for the party scenes the light is colder with blue tones. Colorist Garry Maddison did an amazing job at bringing up these blue tones and enhancing the contrast between the two very different atmospheres. I think that 1970’s feeling is heightened in those party scenes!
Maesa Pullman and Dalal Bruchmann – The Composers
I noticed there was a lot of singing and sort of stringy scores. Can you talk about your inspirations and influences for the sounds of the film?
Pullman: Dalal and I were inspired by the Russian flare that weaves through the film – Dalal is a master string composer/arranger! – and that was really fun – combining Slavic folk and rap in some places… as well as dreamy cosmic airy saturated vocal vibes for Nina and Maria that enhance the surreal nature of some moments in the film. We also leaned into some psychedelic rock-ish sounds.
Bruchmann: “Singing and sort of stringy scores” describes Maesa and my work pretty accurately.
Jaclyn had a strong music vision for “Highway One” that ranged from slavic folk vibes to 90s grunge ballads, which made for an incredibly fun and adventurous soundtrack with lots of musical colors.
The first pieces we wrote for the film were vocal pieces and then we slowly added instrument by instrument until we ended up with a full band in the house and 33 original pieces.
Aisha Fabienne Ross – Maria
Aisha, great job! You did such a great job at bringing a realness to Maria, and to the woman playing Maria. Talk to me about playing a layered character like that, and bringing it to the dream like world of the film.
When I read the script, what I loved most about Maria was that in all of the craziness and confusion that goes on throughout the evening – Maria remains this sort of constant observer and is witness to a lot of the drama. She sees herself as a bit of an outsider and so naturally is quite removed from what’s going on. The audience is able to be observers through and with her. And I think it’s because she is so removed, but she is also weirdly very self aware that she has all of these layers and quite a complex inner life. Everyone else is expressing themselves but she’s not really. Until she sees Nina of course. That was all really fun to play with as an actor.
Greta Bellamacina – Ira
Greta, your comic timing was impeccable in this film. Can you talk to me about your experience playing Ira and how you play off of your acting counterparts. You could tell there was a lot of play there, I loved it.
Thank you, at the time I was coming out of a film I just made called “Hurt By Paradise” which was also a comedy. I wanted to bring a similar sense of irony to my character. I wanted Ira to be flawed but also innocently trying to figure it all out. I think the surrealism in Jacyln’s depiction really helped me pull further into the absurdity, but also playing alongside Bailey Edwards was great fun. He and I felt very natural together. I think being in the moment as a character really helps with comedy.
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