Inaugural 2020 Cinema Femme Short Film Fest selected “Cool for Five Seconds”- Short Film is officially released online! Link below!
“Directed by Dani Wieder from a script by Calamity West, this two-hander is equal parts bitingly funny, emotionally raw and deeply empathetic, with an ear and eye for the complexities of relationships between sisters, and how currents of affection and anger can flow between siblings, though it all comes from a deep well of love.”
“Cool for Five Seconds” was written by Calamity West, directed by Dani Wieder, Produced by Katherine Bourne Taylor & Mary Tilden. Starring Mary Tilden & Katherine Bourne Taylor. It was first performed as a play, then adapted to the screen and shot in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago.Please share the link with your network and friends! The first days are important to the long-term visibility of the film and your engagement really helps.
Also, please “like” the film on YouTube and let us know what you think in the comment section! Thank you, and we hope you enjoy
“Cool For Five Seconds”!CW: Mention of eating disorder, mention of addiction
Cinema Femme is proud to present an exclusive screening of the short film GUTTERPUNKS followed by a 30-minute Q&A with the executive producer of the film and music artist KT Tunstall!
Executive Produced By KT Tunstall Written and Directed By Luke Arnold StarringSophie Kennedy Clark, Luke Mably, and Sasha Aston Synopsis: Starring model-turned-award-winning actress Sophie Kennedy Clark (“Philomena”, “Nymphomaniac”) – the short film GUTTERPUNKS follows the unique friendship of a young woman and a girl as both navigate experiences with loneliness and learn to embrace their inner punk. 15 Minutes
About KT Tunstall
Since scoring a worldwide smash with her debut album ‘Eye To The Telescope’ in 2004, which went on to sell over 5 million copies, KT Tunstall has remained at the forefront of UK Singer-Songwriter talent. KT followed up that early success with albums ‘Drastic Fantastic’, ‘Tiger Suit’ and ‘Invisible Empire//Crescent Moon’ in 2007, 2010 and 2013 respectively, keeping the platinum sales rolling and cementing the Scottish singer-songwriter’s reputation as a major recording talent, as well as a mesmerising live artist.
2012 and the years that followed saw a seismic shift in outlook – the loss of her father, a divorce, and a relocation to Venice Beach, California. After a period of healing, soul-searching, and a change of scenery, 2016 hailed the arrival of the first of a trilogy of albums, the critically acclaimed UK top 10 album – ‘KIN’. The trilogy evokes, separately and in sequence, spirit, body and mind. With ‘KIN’ being her phoenix- from-the-ashes ‘spirit’ album, 2018 marked the second offering of that trilogy, the ‘body’ album ‘WAX’.
Tunstall has toured the world many times over. She outsold every other female artist in the UK in 2005, won the 2006 Brit Award for Best British Female Solo Artist, won the Ivor Novello Best Song award for her huge, self- penned hit ‘Suddenly I See’, and a Q award for Track of the Year. She also landed a Grammy nomination for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance with ‘Black Horse and the Cherry Tree’, and lent her tunes to a host of movies and TV shows (‘Suddenly I See’ being used in the iconic opening scene of modern classic Meryl Streep film ‘The Devil Wears Prada’).
The first single from her latest release, ‘The River’, was named one of Rolling Stone’s ‘Songs You Need To Know’.
The last few years have seen something of a creative rebirth for Tunstall. Upon relocating to the west coast of the USA, she was accepted as one of six annual fellows for the Sundance Film Institute’s Composers Lab (hosted by George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch in Northern California) and has since scored music for short and feature films. She has also been awarded the Inspirational Artist gong at the Women In Music Awards and was chosen as the first ever female Grand Marshal (following the likes of Sir Sean Connery) to lead April 2018’s annual New York Tartan Week parade. In May 2018 she and Mike McCready, of legendary multi-million selling Pearl Jam, released a cover of Tom Petty’s huge hit single ‘I Won’t Back Down’ with proceeds going to Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy Foundation.
In 2018, KT performed sold-out intimate headline shows across the UK and US and toured worldwide supporting acclaimed artists including Simple Minds, The Pretenders, and Barenaked Ladies.
2019 saw KT perform a large headline tour across the UK and Europe with her all-female band, playing festivals all over the UK (including a headline set at Glastonbury Festival). She toured the US & Canada, Japan, China, the Netherlands, Mexico and Brazil, as well supporting Hall & Oates on their UK arena tour.
Touring continued for KT in early 2020 with headline shows in the US, performing with Jools Holland across Europe, and playing New York’s legendary Madison Square Garden – supporting Hall and Oates.
Cinema Femme magazine continues our short film festival into 2021!
Cinema Femme is the voice of the female film experience, a platform for stories about womxn in film and their allies that aims to inspire change in the industry. Our short film festival is an extension of our mission, and the womxn we feature (cinemafemme.com).
For 2021, we are turning our four-day festival into a bi-monthly (February, April, June, August, October) showcase paired with our Womxn to Womxn in Film Mentorship program. The festival emphasizes the importance of supporting emerging female and non-binary filmmakers by connecting them to seasoned industry members. The goal is for talented emerging female and non-binary filmmakers to have long-lasting, successful careers.
If selected, you will be showcased during the month of February on our platform through the Cinema Femme streaming platform with four other films. We will have a special online screening for your film during that month promoted through our social media channels and to our subscribers, paired with a Q&A with a well-known female filmmaker. In 2020, we had Karyn Kusama, Alice Waddington and Lara Gallagher moderate Q&As. One of the five filmmakers of the selected films will be chosen for our six-month Womxn to Womxn mentorship program. Mentors for 2020 were Deborah Kampmeier (“TAPE”, “Hounddog”, “Queen Sugar”), Haroula Rose (“Once Upon a River”, “As They Slept”), Laura Moss (“Fry Day”), and Patricia Vidal Delgado (“La Leyenda Negra”).
Join us as we talk to Sadie Rogers and Grace Hahn about their film “How Is This the World”. Sadie directed, wrote, acted in, and co-produced the short film with Grace.
“How Is This the World”: A mother befriends a burnt-out hacker to help search for her son in virtual reality.
Sadie Rogers has worked as an actor and producer in Chicago for a little over a decade, appearing in independent films including THE WISE KIDS (NY Times Critics Pick), ELLIE LUMME (BFI London), PRINCESS CYD (BAMcinemaFest 2017), COMEDY/FETISH (CIFF 2018), and many others. Her short film RPG screened at Palm Springs International ShortFest 2015, Sun Valley Film Festival 2015, and Bend Film Festival 2015, among others. Her most recent short HOW IS THIS THE WORLD premiered at Sarasota Film Festival 2019, won Best of Fest at Dayton Independent Film Festival 2020, and received the Best Female Director award from MINT Film Festival 2020. She fronts and manages the Chicago fantasy rock band Sadie and the Stark.
Grace Hahn is a Chicago-based producer whose first feature film, PRINCESS CYD [from writer/director Stephen Cone], is now available for streaming via Hulu & Amazon and is highlighted on the Criterion Channel in the series “Three by Stephen Cone.” Her second feature ONCE UPON A RIVER [writer/director Haroula Rose] is currently available in virtual cinemas via Film Movement. She received the 2016 Aida Schvartz Award for Gender in Communication from Northwestern University and is part of the inaugural class of the Chicago Independent Producers Lab through the Chicago Film Office and Full Spectrum Features. she was recognized as one of NewCity’s Film50 “Chicago Screen Gems.”
RITA WISHMAN’S BIRTHDAY (2020) “Rita Wishman’s Birthday” is a dark comedy about ‘Rita Wishman’s’ (played by Ariel Kavoussi) 30th birthday.
Charlotte Film Festival (Virtual Edition) 2020, Official Selection
Director/Producer/Writer/Editor: Ariel Kavoussi
Starring: Ariel Kavoussi, Magnus Kavoussi, Judith Salavetz, Max Drazen
Cinematography/Sound: Moebius Simmons
Additional Editor: Justin Kavoussi
Color Correct: Jenny Montgomery Special
Thanks: Lillian LaSalle, Nick Kavoussi, Saemi Kavoussi
Ariel Kavoussi is an award-winning artist, writer, producer, filmmaker, actor, and curator of film & video works based in New York City. Her work has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art’s Documentary Fortnight, Dia: Chelsea, Louis B. James, Anthology Film Archives, the Williams College Museum of Art, Woodstock Film Festival, Loft Film Festival, Maryland Film Festival, Lighthouse International Film Festival, and elsewhere.
Her most recent short film, THE POET AND THE PROFESSOR, is a dark comedy which stars herself opposite indie stalwart Kevin Corrigan (WALKING AND TALKING, THE GET DOWN) and Bob Byington (THE COLOR WHEEL). It premiered at the 2017 Maryland Film Festival and was selected as one of the few short films to be included in the new Parkway Theater’s regular programming under “Dark Comedy Shorts.” INDIEWIRE heralded the debut as a “truly absurdist, provocative, and contemporary feminist film.”
In 2017, Ariel acted opposite Anne Heche, Sandra Oh, & Dylan Baker in Onur Tukel’s dark comedic feature CATFIGHT (Toronto International Film Festival). Numerous critics have lauded her performance; Vanity Fair singled Ariel Kavoussi out as “Hilarious Newcomer” for her work, as did Variety. Kavoussi can now be seen opposite Emma Stone in Cary Fukunaga’s original series for Netflix called “Maniac,” as well as opposite Mamoudou Athie in Alex Karpovsky’s original series for FX Networks called “Oh, Jerome No.” She graduated from Williams College in 2012.
Cinema Femme Managing Editor Rebecca Martin talks to filmmaker Layne Marie Williams and cast member about their film “Scutly”, currently running the film circuit. Synopsis: The Matour is home to two forces of nature — the spunky, bubbly Pastel Girls and Scutly, a quirky senior citizen facing Alzheimer’s. When these personalities collide, The Pastel Girls and Scutly find common ground in unexpected places. Catch the film digitally Nov 13-20 as part of Film Girl Film Festival.
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.
Katherine Bourne Taylor is an actor, producer and creator in Los Angeles by way of Chicago. Currently, she is in post for her directorial and writing debut, Ships in the Night and filming a commercial here and there. Most recently, she produced and starred in the short film Cool for Five Seconds currently on the festival circuit (BendFilm, CinemaFemme, deadCenter, Ashland Independent, Mammoth Lakes) and appeared in the pilot of the upcoming HBO series, Lovecraft Country. You can also catch her around town performing her alter-ego Grown Up Orphan Annie, and in the indie SAG pilot, Just Jo. She has performed with Raven Theatre, The House Theater of Chicago, The Back Room Shakespeare Project (Chicago/LA), The Gift Theatre, A Crew of Patches and Undermain Theatre (ensemble member), among others. Katherine earned her BFA in Acting at Southern Methodist University and studied with The School at Steppenwolf.
“Ships in the Night” follows a young woman coping with the beginning days of this pandemic by “shipping” two fictional, animated characters together (basically, she wants them to kiss). To combat her growing isolation and a strained relationship with her sister, she turns to an online fandom community and begins writing a fanfiction about the characters she is fixated on. Ships in the Night” is a dramedy about how stories connect us and transcend the days. It makes a case for escapism, nerd girls and leaning into what you like as a way to cope. It also strives to remind audiences that in a barrage of information, healing is not just a bodily thing.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 namedMartin 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.
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.
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.
On the eve of Cinema Femme’s inaugural short film festival, it seemed fitting to post my feature with a team of talented and amazing womxn. I felt so honored to get the opportunity to interview the artists behind the excellent short film “As They Slept”, including director Haroula Rose, producer Rhianon Jones (of Neon Heart Productions), writer Nicolaia Rips, cinematographer Charlotte Hornsby, and stars Rachel Hilson and Maya Hawke. I was fortunate to interview all of these phenomenal womxn individually and have edited together their answers according to each topic for discussion.
“As They Slept” is a short film about two girls in NYC who are old friends, Margaret (Maya Hawke) and Eleanor (Rachel Hilson). Both have started new chapters in their lives after high school. We follow them late one night as they try to piece themselves and their friendship back together. You can watch the film below, which was originally featured on the site Nowness.
“It’s beautiful but also painful and awkward to reconcile all the moving pieces of each other’s life.”
Being a college student, what inspired you to write this screenplay?
NICOLAIA RIPS: At a certain point during college I began–and I believe this is a common experience–to really notice the dynamics with my high school friends beginning to shift. Everybody is growing in a different direction, and it’s beautiful but also painful and awkward to reconcile all the moving pieces of each other’s life. I wanted to capture that moment of a relationship groaning and stretching.
Growing up in the Chelsea Hotel, how did that shape your formative years, and how was your transition into Brown?
RIPS: I grew up only around artists and writers and club kids and other fantastically creative people. There was never an expectation for me to do anything but be creative. And then I got to Brown and that was not the norm. Suddenly I had friends who were graduating and going to work at Goldman Sachs, and I was like “You can do that?”
It took a little bit, but I eventually found my community at Brown and couldn’t love the people I met there more, but it was a different.
I wonder what Maya [Hawke] would say. It was magical for me and defined so much about me, and the things in which I place value.
“I think I would’ve felt less alone had I seen this short at that age.”
What brought you to this project?
RIPS: Haroula and I were introduced by a mutual friend and hit it off so completely. She has an amazing way about her. She just understands that if you want to get something done, you find a way to get it done. Haroula initially asked me to write something for a competition she was invited to participate in. The script didn’t end up winning but Haroula was like “let’s make it anyway” and sent it to Rhiannon [Jones], who has a fantastic production company. Haroula really held my hand through this project and was so patient with me.
Maya and I grew up together in the Chelsea Hotel, a floor apart. She is my oldest friend and I’m glad she was a part of this. Haroula went through Maya’s agent; it was very official. Maya is a stunning actress and writer and artist and musician and all-around talent. Just a beam of creativity. I listen to her music and just have stars in my eyes. As kids, we would run up and down the stairs and explore the all the nooks and little doors in the Hotel and make up these wild stories. This is a new one.
MAYA HAWKE: I met Nicolaia because she was the girl who lived on 6, and I lived on 7, at the Chelsea Hotel. I think I passed a note under her doorway saying, “I saw that you are a little girl living here, and I’m a little girl, let’s set up a play date.” That’s how I know Nicolaia. We both grew up in The Chelsea Hotel, and we’d set up cookie sales in the lobby. Then we stayed friends because we had a lot in common. She’s incredibly intelligent and a special person who I feel very lucky to call my friend.
And then she got involved with Haroula. Nicolaia had written a short, and she put me in touch with Haroula. Haroula and I have a lot on common. Ten of our favorite films are the same, and three of the same incredible coincidences happened to us that week. So it was a no brainer, and that’s how I got involved.
HAROULA ROSE: I had met Nicolaia through a mutual friend, and she had expressed interest in learning more about filmmaking in general. But she is a terrific writer–I love her book–and so screenwriting seemed like the natural extension which would lead to being able to be on set too. Building a solid team and seeing how it can birth new ideas is one of the best things in life. Rhianon and I had already worked on “Once Upon A River” together so I knew she’d be into this collaboration. We started brainstorming and it just got a life of its own after that.
RHIANON JONES: I first worked with Haroula on her film “Once Upon A River”. That was one that I came later on. She just needed some finishing funds, so we put a little money into that film. Then we decided to do “As They Slept”. Haroula was like, “Look, she’s this young writer [Nicolaia Rips], she’s got a lot of potential. It’s Maya Hawke and Rachel Hilson. Maya Hawke is blowing up, and Rachel is a leading actor in a lot of hit TV shows. Both of them have a lot of potential.” So, I was like, ‘okay, let’s do this.’
RACHEL HILSON: Haroula and I are mutual friends with Josh Radnor, who I worked on “Rise” with back in 2018, and he so kindly connected us.
CHARLOTTE HORNSBY: Haroula and I had just made a feature together and she reached out with this script a few months later. Nicolaia’s script reminded me of my own anxieties and preoccupations when I was 19 and I think I would’ve felt less alone had I seen this short at that age. I think more and more we’re seeing friendships between women get the weight they deserve on screen and that’s been the case for so long in literature. It’s important to have stories where love between friends is shown to be as life-changing as romantic love. I’ve been challenged and shaped by the love and support of my closest friends and those relationships sustained me for a long time before I actually fell in love. It made falling in love feel very familiar.
“But then our two perspectives on the moment blended together really easily.”
How was it working together?
HILSON: Maya’s a lot of fun and a very in-tune actor. Wasn’t hard.
HAWKE: I think she hit the nail right on the head. She was so easy to work with, so smart, quick, and friendly. Whatever I thought was happening in the scene, it became elevated with her in a new way. She always showed me a different perspective on the moment that I saw. But then our two perspectives on the moment blended together really easily. Arguably that’s what created that kind of chemistry, but also friction, between those two girls.
“Not a kid, not a fully-formed adult”
How did it feel playing a character that was your age, someone who is on the brink of adulthood?
HAWKE: The film revolves around this decision about college. Friendships change and old friendships are changing. There are the friends that are unique because you are discovering together what you like and what you like to learn as a grown-up. And there are the friends that you’ve had, because you’ve had them forever. It’s a very painful process.
I haven’t had that many friends forever. I changed schools a lot growing up, and I moved around a lot in the city. My neighbor friends, and my lower school friends, were always changing, but I’ve had a couple that lasted. What’s been amazing about the way those friendships have gone on to change is that the way our interests divided never felt that important. Because our friendship always had to deal with a change in location. Even Nicolaia, for example, always had a change of location, or a change of school, and it was really interesting to get into that headspace of somebody who knew the same people for forever. I was really trying to hold on to that idea.
Something I’ve always craved or wanted is to have really old friends, and to have a consistency in my life that I didn’t have. And to get into that headspace was very romantic to me, and I think it really fit into what my character was thinking and wanting through those scenes too. She was wanting something that she understood, and I was wanting and longing for something I didn’t understand. Both were really interesting to me.
HILSON: This was actually one of the first times I played someone not in high school, so it felt really nice to tap into my own present experience. Your early 20s are definitely a weird in-between age where you’re not a kid but also not a fully-formed adult, and you kind of feel simultaneously 14, 25, and 92 (at least I did/do). I, Rachel, was definitely in that middle ground headspace with Eleanor while shooting.
As I’ve gotten to know you better this year, which has been awesome by the way, I’ve marveled at your ability to portray real female stories that deeply move me, like OUAR. “As They Slept” transported me back to a time that I could totally relate to in my early twenties, when I started college. What did you want to bring out of these characters and how did you bring yourself to them?
ROSE: For “As They Slept,” I wanted people to remember that particular age and moment in life where the anxiety about identity is palpable. Nicolaia and I talked about it a lot as she was writing the script, and she is naturally so vibrant and funny that it was a joy to read. So when we got to filming, I just wanted to make sure that we could really empathize with both of these characters, and the heartbreak of potentially outgrowing your friendships as you change and evolve as a person. I remember that stage of life well, and I think we carry a sense of growing up throughout our lives, or at least I definitely do, so it is easy for me to keep relating!
“I’m excited to start playing less empathetic characters.”
I’m really excited about the characters I’ve seen you both play onscreen. What characters are you the most drawn to playing, and which ones would you be interested in tackling in the future?
HAWKE: I always find it difficult to answer that question. The thing I’m most drawn to is good writing. The thing I’m drawn to is real characters, or totally make-believe characters, but people who are dimensional and complicated as well as have complicated and dimensional relationships, and say beautiful words. I fell in love with acting because I fell in love with beautiful words.
I’m excited to start playing less empathetic characters. For the most part, the characters I’ve been asked to play are characters that the audience is meant to empathize with and care about. But I’d like to play a “bad” guy. Of course when you play the bad guy, you make them an empathetic character. I’m excited to play a character who does bad things in a real way.
Sometimes what can happen, I think, with a lot with female characters, especially when the industry tries to be better about womxn, is that they can become neutralized in their positivity, like they don’t do anything wrong. Bad things may happen to them, but they don’t make any real mistakes. As a young woman myself, I have done things wrong. I’ve lied, I’ve betrayed people, I’ve been cruel to people in my life who love me. I try not to do it very often–I don’t think I have–but I have done those things. If there was a movie to be made about my life, it would probably have to be about those moments where I did those bad things, and how I dealt with them, and how I became a better person and how I learned from those mistakes. Rather than the times where someone was mean to me, and how I got upset about it and moved on. Like if there was a time where there was a mean boy in my life, that’s really not what I’d want my story to be about. Being reactionary is not really how I’ve grown.
HILSON: Yes, I feel very fortunate to have had some great roles. I hope that continues! I’m very excited about a lot of new/new-ish writers and filmmakers that are really just creating space for women (especially those of color) to play and just have feelings and a nuanced journey. I feel like that’s all one can really ask for. I think theater has really allowed for that in the last couple years. I’ve seen so many amazing roles for women of color in that sphere. I just moved to LA from NYC, and that’s something I definitely have missed. I’m very excited about artists and filmmakers like Haroula and Ava and Barry and Jordan and Terrence Nance–his show “Random Acts of Flyness” on HBO is incredible if you haven’t seen it! As far as the types of roles I’d like to play in the future–just humans with a journey! But, if we’re getting specific, I’d love to go back in time and play some period roles.
“. . . but that shit was fire.”
What was something you discovered about yourself during the making of this film?
RIPS: Growing up, I lived for old movies and comedy, but I never thought of it as something accessible. Writing on the other hand was so easy, expansive and you need so little to do it. You can keep it close. When/if I choose to share it, there’s a whole mental thing you go through every time: who’s going to see it, how will they feel, is this too vulnerable, is it ever any good? With this short, it was so sped up. People see your writing at what feels like a much earlier stage. It’s immensely collaborative.
To have people read something I wrote, to drag the story above and into the third dimension, to give characters and places a balance and nuance that I may have not given them myself, was thrilling and scary. I appreciate how much goes into creating movies.
And it really, really, made me want to do it again. Because I’m in quarantine, and my brain has turned to Jell-O, I am going to reference a TikTok here, but that shit was fire.
HILSON: I really enjoyed how this very much felt like a passion project–just a bunch of friends and people who care about each other and the art coming together to make something beautiful. I had really only been a part of a lot of these very structured network productions (which are great, don’t get me wrong!) but they are typically a little more rigid, so it was nice to feel a sense of collaboration and passion and just good ol’ fashioned fun
HORNSBY: It’s all about how you work with other people and what you bring out in each other. This was such a low budget project that we had very little control over our environments and really had to roll with the punches. Thankfully Haroula and I were very used to this after working together for a month with a skeleton crew in rural Illinois, so we were used to navigating curve balls together.
ROSE: There is this wonderful community in New York, and I wanted to have more experiences within that community while I was there doing post on “Once Upon A River”. It was really exciting to be able to make this film happen and within such a crazy timeframe. We had to squeeze it in right before Maya went off on “Stranger Things”, and before Charlotte was committed to another project also. So it’s a testament to having a great team, but also the determination it takes to make something happen. I feel more confident about that with every project.
“I love being a woman. I love working with women.”
MARTIN: How was it working as an all-female crew? What are your thoughts about female representation on camera and behind it?
HAWKE: It was incredibly positive. But I will tell you, I’ve worked in my life with a dangerous amount of women. And I don’t mean they are dangerous women, but I mean that in a wonderful way, I’ve been so lucky. My first job was with a female director, my second job was with a female director, my third job was “Stranger Things”, and then I did “As They Slept”, which is with an all-female crew. I worked with a female DP on this film I did called “Human Capital”. I’ve worked with Gia Coppola on a movie, which is about to come out. My experience is unique with the amount of women I’ve worked with, and it’s always been wonderful.
When you work on a movie set, it’s such an amazing place to work. And the only way a film is going to work is if you have the best people doing everything–the camerawork, the lighting, the costume, the acting. And the best people are just not always the same people. Sometimes the best people are women, sometimes the best people are men, people of color, it’s essential to recognize that, and have an understanding that everyone on set–whoever they are, whatever their gender, or demographic–they are the best people to be there, and that was definitely the case on “As They Slept”.
RIPS: It was incredible. I recently directed my first short at Brown, where the crew was basically all men, and the difference was striking. I had to fight a lot harder to assert myself and have the crew listen to what I was saying. I was left off of email chains and this one guy kept getting my name wrong. I was directing! My name is my email!
I realized that so far in my career, I’ve gotten to work only with women and enby folks. Everyone involved in the publishing of my book, from my lovely agents to the cover designers and my editors, were women. When I headed this project on gender fluidity for Gucci, I got to meet even more talented women and gender nonconforming people. I took it for granted but it’s really an incredible thing.
It goes without saying that the women I am talking about in particular are extraordinary and dedicated to what they do. Aside from all being women, Rhiannon, Haroula, Charlotte, Gabby, Maya and Rachel are all brilliant women. And Fred [Hechinger, who plays Alex] is also brilliant, my god.
This experience also leaked into the rest of my life. I’m currently working on a graphic novel and the most important thing about the project for me was that the illustrator be a woman.
With regards to female representation, and this is a little bit of a tangent, I’ve made it a point this year to only read female authors. I got into a bit of a spat with a friend who’s a snob for “classic” literature. If you’re confining yourself temporally to the past, you basically are saying you don’t read women. Because female writers were so marginalized. Now, you see these brilliant literary voices emerging. So, if you’re not paying attention, what are you doing really? My thoughts are that there should be more female representation everywhere.
HILSON: I love being a woman. I love working with women. It was a great experience to work with this team.
ROSE: I really loved this whole crew so much, and it’s like “Once Upon A River” in that regard, where it’s primarily women department heads and crew. I have worked with all types of people, but there is something inherently supportive in telling young women’s stories with a crew that is also made up of women. There is a lot of trust and support that goes unspoken, a certain comfort and knowledge that people will just “get” a moment or how to go about it and be respectful of what is needed without having to explain it all. Not wanting to generalize or suggest that one has to explain everything to a man, but just that there is a certain flow and care that I loved and that I know the actors loved also especially in more vulnerable moments.
JONES: It’s kinda cool that now you don’t necessarily have to go out looking for an all female crew–you can hire a few key players, like a DP, who are female, and they bring with them a team of trusted crew members who are more likely to include other women. So a little bit of intention can go a long way into getting more women on set, in positions of authority, which in turns clears the path for other women who are maybe less established in their particular fields, looking to get a foot in the door of the film industry.
” . . . that period of life where you are becoming yourself yet someone else but more of yourself in a sense”
Cinematically the city of New York hit all the right notes for me. The lighting enhanced the NYC cityscape at night, specifically the shots where they are in the subway, and in the bar at the end. What strikes you about the city on a visual level?
HORNSBY: I first moved to New York when I was 19. I think the initial shock to the system was that Manhattan at night is drenched in artificial light. When you’re 19 and infatuated with the idea of hooking up, that constant, prickly glow feels like it’s telling your body you should be out clubbing. So when instead you’re walking around feeling lost and aimless, the “party lights” are a reminder that you’re failing to have a good time. My gaffer Sean Gradwell and I chose a lot of aggressive party gels and brought the S60 out on the street when we could try to keep that artificial club vibe alive in the streets–so it’s stoking Margaret’s anxiety that she needs to be “living her best life” hooking up with someone at a prestigious club even if that’s ultimately an empty commercial fantasy.
JONES: “As They Slept” was actually my first proper shoot in NY, which was such a great experience coming from LA. I know there is a lot of LA vs. NY talk, but the film industry really does operate differently in each place. New York is, in some ways, more film-friendly, with more permissive permits and obviously a wealth of different interior locations. But LA has a bigger pool of talent and trained professionals, plus the weather and more diverse natural settings. Which is why I think both places will always be separate hubs for the industry. It was great to work with the mostly NY crew there and get to meet the young female filmmakers who are making things happen on the East Coast!
ROSE: New York is a city filled with light, so capturing that was not a problem at night. While on one street scene we used what was available, and that worked great, on the main street scene outside the club, Charlotte and I discussed setting a certain vibe. We also had discussed a certain visual theme for the film overall when indoors and that was achieve. I wanted a kind of warmth and iridescence like the inside of a coral reef that represents that period of life where you are becoming yourself yet someone else but more of yourself in a sense… So there is a lot of that in the dance scene and I just about cried when Charlotte and Sean [Gaffer] were setting all that up.
“She holds the room with this incredible ferocity.”
HAWKE: The last thing that I’ll add is that Haroula is truly a wonderful director. I’ve witnessed it in the way that she can see character, and the way that she can hold a room. She holds the room with this incredible ferocity. She has the ability to move the day forward and to get the scene done. She makes sure the set and the camera are perfect, while still creating space for the actors, and make them feel like they have all the time in the world to get it exactly right. As actors, we feel that we can experiment, and be bad, and try things, and she will pick the perfect moment. That’s a very special sort of director. I’m really excited to see what she does in the future for her career.
During quarantine, a series of amazing cat videos have been produced once a month on Instagram by CongestedCat Productions. I encourage you all to check them out. That kind of ingenuity in a pandemic is brained by filmmaker Christina Raia, founder of CongestedCat.
Christina Raia is what I like to call a female filmmaker super hero. She’s paving the way for womxn filmmakers in story, style and creative approaches to the industry. She’s always harnessing her environment, whatever it may be, to make her films work and defy any trace of formulaic structure. I love that about her.
I interviewed Christina a year ago about her film “About A Donkey” and her work as Head of Education at Seed&Spark. In my follow-up piece, we focus on her current work at her production company CongestedCat and her latest three shorts (“The Gaze”, “Affliction”, and “Game Brunch”). Her subversion of the comedy and horror genre brings us deeper into the stories. What she’s doing is unlike anything I’ve seen before, though it does call to mind Jordan Peele’s take on horror by bringing social commentary to the genre. Christina’s films do that, while also enhancing the narrative by viewing it with a feminist lens.
REBECCA MARTIN: How did your production company, CongestedCat, get started?
CHRISTINA RAIA: My childhood friend, Chris Carroll, and I started CongestedCat in 2011. We started the production company because we wanted an umbrella to put our work under. Chris is a fashion photographer now, but at the time we were collaborating a lot because I was wanting to make films. When I was in school, I felt like I was surrounded by people who had access in ways that I didn’t, specifically connections in the industry and to money. Being a multi-ethnic person–my friend is also multi-ethnic in addition to being queer–we had a unique perspective of the world and what we could bring to storytelling. We decided to make a couple shorts, and we wanted to unify them under a brand. The name of the production company came out of a joke.
MARTIN: What was the joke?
RAIA: We wanted to do something with “C and C” because we are Christina and Chris. We were trying to think of words that start with C that we both have in common, and “cat” was one, because we both love cats. We were saying a lot of different things, and then we put into Google “C Cat”, and the first thing that came up was “Congested Cat”.
MARTIN: That’s hilarious.
RAIA: At first we thought the name was silly and we weren’t taking it seriously, but then the more we said it, we really loved that it had this offbeat quality to it. The name of the company makes people think, ‘What is CongestedCat?’, and has made the name more memorable. People hear it and they don’t forget it. And the name of the production company applies to the horror and comedy element of our films.
In 2013 I made my first feature, and we really had to commit to the name and the existence of the company. We decided to create branding for the company and create a social media presence. Chris ended up moving on. He’s still our internal photographer, but he’s moved on from film, and now he’s a fashion photographer.
Kelsey Rauber, a friend from my school, joined the company and became my main producing partner. She is the writer and the producer of “About a Donkey”. And then we started to fill the team out with this group of ragtag queer multi-ethnic people. That’s our thing in a way. We are people who have intersectional identities that are just trying to make work that make people feel seen and that is challenging social norms in ways that are really story-focused. We’re not making cause-driven content on the surface, like documentaries on social issues, although those kind of films are important. But our path, which I feel is definitely the thread in “About a Donkey”, is empathy. Our films make you identify with people onscreen for their universal humanity. For example, fear is unifying. If you’re afraid with that person, you may identify with them. Same for comedy. If you can laugh with that person, you may identify with them, even if you don’t look like them, or love like them.
MARTIN: I’d love to discuss your latest work with your short films. I love how in all of the films they have this twist. I feel that your films have mastered that. You go in thinking one thing, and then it comes out completely different. It makes you think deeper about things.
Are all the films you sent me out in the festival circuit now?
RAIA: “The Gaze” was supposed to be wrapping up. We have a couple left, but some of those festivals have cancelled or are going online. “The Gaze” is going to be streaming on the platform “Alter” in August.
“Affliction” is just starting its festival run. It’s unfortunate because we were supposed to have our premiere in March. Everything shut down the weekend it was supposed to have its premiere.
We’ve had one online film festival experience so far, and we’ve heard from a couple others. I think that the run of that film, “Affliction,” is going to be completely online because we had planned to finish the run before the election in November. We’d release the film before the election, so we could create a conversation around consent. The person we currently have in office is not someone who follows consent.
MARTIN: That’s totally correct. “Affliction” is such a unique film of the #MeToo era, whis is reflected in many films released this year (“Athlete A”, “TAPE”, “The Assistant”), because it touches on the climate of #MeToo. What makes your film different is the genre element, bringing humor to the subject through the horror aspect of the film. There is a conversation between the two characters that is so interesting and familiar. Could you talk about how you came to making the film, and what you want to leave with the viewer?
RAIA: I wrote and directed “The Gaze” and “Game Brunch,” which are my other two short films that are in the festival route. On “Affliction,” I was just the director and the producer, while Kelsey Rauber wrote the script. That was born out of our weekly writing group. We often will come together with pages we have been working on with new pitches every week. That was a pitch that Kelsey had and was rooted in conversations that we had been having about the #MeToo movement. We felt that the movement was really excellent about bringing these horrific things to the forefront, but what we were frustrated about was the fact that men were not going deep enough into how they may have crossed lines. That sexual assault, and sexual violence, is not binary. It’s either you did or you didn’t. You’re either a rapist or you’re not. So much of the conditioning indicates that there are lines that may have been crossed, maybe not intentionally, but that doesn’t mean that you didn’t do something wrong.
We wanted to create a film that removed the idea where the assault was open to interpretation. The body is deciding that some violation has happened, and that is not up for debate. It’s really about the fact that you don’t realize what you violated. We must have that conversation, because I believe that is the only way that we grow. The average woman who has experienced sexual violence has not been walking home down an alley where a stranger jumps out and attacks. It’s often in the nuances of dating, like when you’re on a date with someone, or inviting someone up to your apartment. And that’s the only way forward, if good men who don’t necessarily mean to do wrong, admit that they’ve done wrong and reflect on that within themselves.
This is a film that we hope would push some buttons, and get you thinking and talking. That is kind of the downside of losing the festival circuit, on the ground. But I’m hoping we can still facilitate that online.
MARTIN: Let’s transition to “The Gaze”. The film is so unique in its subversiveness of the horror genre. Could you talk to me about how you came to this project?
RAIA: That film was rooted in insomnia. I couldn’t sleep. It was in 2018, and I had been having a lot of sleepless nights. When I can’t sleep it’s because my brain is going a mile a minute. When that happens, I need to just start writing. “The Gaze” came out that night.
I wrote the script during the summer. During that summer, being cat-called on the street was a regular occurrence. #MeToo was a thing then, and was rising more to the surface. I had been talking to a lot of women who work in independent film. We weren’t just talking about the bigger elements of sexual harassment, but the small microaggressions that you experience being a women on set. I had been thinking a lot about how women are so often defined through the male gaze, whether it is in film, but also just in life. All of these things were working their way into my head and I just started spilling this thing out on the page, like a meta dissection of the male gaze. I wanted to show that the male gaze is in the movies we watch, it’s in the making of the movies that we watch, and it’s just a part of everyday life.
So I did that through one character, through a film that she is in, and then on set, and then out in the world. I also wanted to play with your perception as an audience member. You think that you know what you’re watching, but then realize that it’s not that kind of movie. Only to find out that it’s not that kind of movie, either. Part of that was to pull you out of a typical slasher film. Right in the beginning, we see that it’s a movie set and a female director is behind the film. I just really wanted to completely subvert the gaze. I wanted to make you think about how the objectification of women exists, and what does that look like if there were a group of people who could channel that and turn it back around? I’ve had really interesting reactions to the film on the circuit. One man came up to me and said, “Thanks for scaring me away from dating.” And he was like, “God forgive me if I look at a woman.” I said, “Well if you understand the story, you have nothing to worry about, if you’re just looking at a woman.”
It’s just been really interesting hearing different reactions to the film. Women love the ending and the world it builds. That’s something I really like to do. I like to build a big world that already exists, and capture a moment of it, which I think is the thread through all three of these shorts we’re discussing.
I’m really excited to see “The Gaze” have a wider audience. On Alter they get a ton of views-
MARTIN: What is Alter?
RAIA: It’s a free platform, they have a Facebook channel and a YouTube channel comprised of horror content. But the content tends to be more selective, higher brow. And the head programmer is a woman, so that appealed to me. There is a lot of engagement on their videos, and most of them have received a minimum of half a million views. The comments are kind of crazy. I’m excited about that and I’m also mentally preparing for the trolls.
MARTIN: I love that you always just go for it. I remember when we spoke last year about your film “About A Donkey,” you intentionally brought the film to festivals in red states knowing the push back you might get. I admire that. You always have a vision for long-term impact.
Let’s talk “Game Brunch”. Another genre flip-
RAIA: I do want to keep the reveal a secret, because that film is the newest one and it hasn’t screened yet. That film was born out of a couple things. One, I wanted to make this film fun. After finishing “Affliction”, the conversations we were having around the film were so heavy. I wanted to make a lighter film, something fun, that’s going to make people laugh. But I cannot resist having some level of commentary in the film, even if it’s just playful and silly.
“Game Brunch” came about because I wanted to write something for the actors. It was the first time I’d ever done that, where I asked myself, “Who do I like working with and what can I do with them in one location and in a short?” So I just thought about off the top of my head a few actors that I liked working with recently, or had been wanting to work with recently. Then I came up with those six actors.
For a location, I was thinking about my apartment, and how I could use it in a way that I hadn’t yet. It was helpful through a writing process to have their voices in mind. That gave me a set up of personalities, and who would clash, and who would work well together. The spark was that I hosted a game night a couple years ago where we played “Werewolf,” and that was fun.
MARTIN: I’ve never heard of the game “Werewolf” before. What is it?
RAIA: It’s like if you played “Mafia” or “Assassin”. Those are just other names for it. It’s just a role-playing game. You essentially just try to trick each other into thinking who the werewolf might be. It’s a game of pointing fingers, trying to figure out who the last person is to survive. The game itself is irrelevant to the short, I wanted it to function in a way where you don’t need to know how the game works for it to have fun or to be entertained.
It’s funny now thinking about that film in a Covid world, because there are different stakes to having a party at your apartment now. I wanted to make a film that was about friendship, a rom com, but for friends, that isn’t about trying to pursue romantic love, but more to find a friend.
MARTIN: I did love how you did that. For example, the two queer female characters that the hetero couples were trying to set up weren’t attracted to one another. That was funny because of that assumption, and loved how you played off of that.
RAIA: I also wanted to make a film about representation without going deep. There are one-off jokes about how representation is often portrayed. For example, having two queer women characters, that is a part of it, the idea that you put two queer people together in a room and that makes them automatically a match. So I just wanted to subvert some of that and play with a lot of little things. But ultimately the film is fun and I hope it entertains people, giving them a little bit of an escape, but without being able to completely unplug. Because I think some films are just going for escape, and they’re still so white and heteronormative. And this is a film that is offering you a humorous escape, but it’s still making you think of things better, on the forefront of society.
MARTIN: What’s your filmmaking process right now going into the new world we’re in with the pandemic and Covid-19?
RAIA: It’s hard. There’s the safety element. For me it doesn’t seem responsible to ask people to show up in a group and make a thing, even if we follow all of the guidelines. There’s also just the feasibility of meeting those guidelines on a micro budget, which is how I work, which isn’t a reality within the new perameters that SAG has put into place. It’s just not possible with no real money. So I’m not really looking at production anytime soon.
I was hoping to be thinking about working on my next feature. I already have written the script. I was also hoping to start fundraising this year, but it doesn’t feel like the right time for that either. I’ve been focusing on writing. The nice thing is that with the writers group that we have, we can do that virtually. I’ve been thinking of other ways that we could possibly collaborate. That is my favorite part of filmmaking, it’s the collaboration.
For one thing, and this is only really happening on our CongestedCat instagram, every month I’ve been releasing a short starring one of my cats. It started in quarantine where I just wanted to start shooting stuff and play around. I had no actors in my apartment, but I had cats. I’ve been looping other people in, and we’ve been doing voice overs. The whole team has been involved in some way, whether it’s doing the music, or a voice. And they’re really short, they’re like a minute to a minute and a half.
MARTIN: That’s amazing. I will check those out.
What do you feel are the benefits of moving films online, rather than in physical theaters?
RAIA: There’s no replacing being in a room with people watching your movie, and hearing people react to your film. There’s no replacing that. But people finding my film from states or countries that I would have never been able to go to is a benefit. I’ve experienced people tweeting me about my film from a totally different place than where I was trying to bring my film.
Also, I don’t think we talk enough about able-bodied privilege. People who have not been able to go to their local festival because of their disability can now experience their festival virtually. And that’s really cool.
Another benefit is that before it was harder to get lots of views online for independent content because people had so many options to go out and watch stuff. Because of the pandemic, people are more willing to watch content online, and have hit a cap in mainstream content and now are looking for more independent content.
The creativity and accessibility that is available to people didn’t exist before on multiple levels. And I appreciate the creativity of conversations like the use of Zoom and social media Q&As for films. I ask myself why wasn’t I doing this before? That’s something I’m definitely going to be doing moving forward. When we put a film online, I’m going to initiate an online Q&A. It’s a great way to create conversation, and reach the people that are already paying attention.
This pandemic has created new doors, and new creative thinking around video content.
In the wake of Harvey Weinstein’s guilty verdict, and him being the man who sparked the #MeToo movement, there is a film that captures precisely where we are today. Women like Melissa Stephens and myself, and many other women, are reassessing our past histories with a #MeToo lens. Melissa’s film “Travis” is unflinchingly raw. It’s about a man who confronts the girl he sexually assaulted in college at a coffee shop. In this short film, we feel the awkwardness, and we hear with resounding clarity what remains unsaid. The film is brilliant in its portrayal of how women are navigating this particular moment. Melissa and I also talked about her collaboration with her friend, “Russian Doll” director and writer Leslye Headland, who was the co-creator of this film. “Travis” launched on Vimeo today, and is linked at the bottom of the page.
Rebecca Martin: Loved your film! Very powerful, a lot was expressed and felt during that film, and I was so moved by it.
Melissa Stephens: Thank you so much. I’m really touched that it impacted you.
Martin: I couldn’t help thinking about what #MeToo has done to our culture, and the way it has woken up women about their past experiences, and how they would redefine them. I know for me, personally, I have thought back about some encounters I had and now with the #MeToo lens, I feel I could have said more about some things. I didn’t feel like I had a choice at the time. What led you to approach this subject?
Stephens: I started working on this piece as part of a television show I was working on. The idea ended up being scrapped but what I ended up writing and creating with the help and encouragement of Brett Goldstein and Leslye Headland was something I wanted to bring to life fully. I feel like the below statement adequately summarizes the lens to which I approached this project.
I didn’t think what happened to me was sexual assault for a long time, no matter what anyone else said to me–police, friends, therapists. Women are assaulted in a variety of different ways and have a variety of different reactions. Mine was not an uncommon one.
When I finally accepted the truth of my experience, it was a revelatory moment, and a starting point for recovery for me.
I wanted to write a female protagonist who undergoes that same journey, in real time and in one shot. The piece isn’t about forgiveness, even if one of the characters is seeking it. It’s about Brie coming to an understanding and hopefully beginning a journey of repair.
Martin:The script is amazing. You and Brett brought an awkwardness that was very revealing. For example, the uncomfortable pauses, your walk to get your coffee, and back. Can you share more about the approach to this performance and the script?
Stephens: The awkwardness and pauses come from how both characters came to this coffee in very different mindsets and with different objectives. It was important for both of us to not play the ending at the beginning and let the characters react to the information they are getting in real time.
Martin:What was the intention of choosing one scene, and one conversation for the film? To me that was a perfect choice.
Stephens: Thank you so much for saying that and I couldn’t agree more. It organically developed once I knew what the female protagonist was learning.
Martin: Can you share more about your collaboration with Leslye?
Stephens: Leslye has been my best friend for over a decade. We have been collaborating for years. Something really shifted when I started writing and directing, and she started to become a mentor to me. She supports what I do and always pushes me further and asks questions that make the project and me better. It was her confidence in this piece that helped me make it. She is a very selfless, honest, incredibly gifted and hardworking woman whom I admire and love. I learn from her every time I talk to her. Our collaboration is the best kind of collaboration, it’s very easy.
Martin: Anything you’d like to add about the camerawork and the crew?
Stephens: The camerawork I am very proud of and my DP Christine Adams is a genius at Steadicam. I really love her and her work. The crew was all excellent and heavily female, which we set out to do. Every single person came to set that day with an energy I can only describe as selfless.
Martin: What’s coming up for you?
Stephens: I’m developing a show I created with Tom Detrinis and Leslye Headland is producing. I’m developing a show with AMC Studios and I’m hopefully going to be directing my first feature. My one-hour comedy show, “Some Assembly Required,” directed by Deanna Cheng is going to Edinburgh Fringe Festival this August.