Isabel Sandoval beautifully elevates the marginalized in “Lingua Franca”

Isabel Sandoval

“Every image or sound is a vessel for emotion: rapture, despair, sensuousness, fury, a combination of these. That makes cinema a kind of legerdemain: the art of sculpting such seemingly artificial elements to create a singular, genuine emotional experience.”

–excerpt from Isabel Sandoval’s director’s statement

Isabel Sandoval is not just about making great films, she is about making meaningful films that express her vision and point of view. Through her personal approach to filmmaking, you feel more connected to her and the world she is in. I love her fresh take on the city of New York, and how she elevates the marginalized through her third feature, “Lingua Franca”. The film is so much more than the premise, but the premise is a strong foundation to her film.

“Lingua Franca” is about a trans female immigrant, Olivia (Isabel Sandoval), working as a caretaker for an older woman with dementia, named Olga, with the goal of getting a green card and becoming a citizen. While working for Olga, she starts a relationship with Olga’s grandson, Alex (Eamon Farren), who does not know she’s trans.

We sadly lost Lynn Cohen, who plays Olga, earlier this year. Lynn does an amazing job in one of her final roles. She was very passionate about playing Olga, and you can listen to her passionate words on the film’s IG page about this film.

Beyond being an amazing filmmaker and actor, Isabel Sandoval is a great writer. Cinema Femme is not only about sharing stories of womxn in film, we also share advice from one filmmaker to another. Isabel’s piece in Filmmaker magazine is very powerful (here are links to Part One and Part Two of the article).

“Lingua Franca” is now streaming on Netflix. This film is a must-watch, especially during these times. Thank you Isabel for your poignant work that’s full of beauty.

REBECCA MARTIN: What brought you to this project?

ISABEL SANDOVAL: A French filmmaker once said that directors make the same film over and over again over the course of their careers. We keep revisiting the same themes, issues and conflicts. For me, my go-to theme that I always become drawn to are women who are either marginalized or dis-empowered, who are forced to make intensely personal or private decisions in fraught socio-political settings. That’s what happened in my second feature, “Apparition”, which is about Roman Catholic men living in a monastery in the woods who find themselves under siege on the eve of the declaration of martial law in the Philippines in 1971. 

When I started writing “Lingua Franca,” I was transitioning. I was undergoing my gender transition. And halfway through my writing, that was when Trump actually got elected. I was plunged into a despair and hopelessness. It was a dark time, and I think that was an emotional state that I wanted to capture and instill in those two things, my transition and Trump’s election. Both shaped the premise of “Lingua Franca”.  It’s about this undocumented trans woman who is trying to pursue a path to citizenship, and in the process becomes emotionally involved with a man who doesn’t know that she’s transgender. 

MARTIN: I love how you use New York as the backdrop of the film as you explore the fear of being an immigrant during the times of Trump’s immigration ban. Could you go into your thoughts of using New York as the world of your film, and exploring what it felt like to be an immigrant in a city that was built by immigrants?

SANDOVAL: I am very cognizant of the fact that there have been a lot of films set in New York, and they have a particular gaze of New York. You see that with the Safdie Brothers movies, Spike Lee movies , even in Lena Dunham’s series “Girls”. It was important to me to distinguish myself as a filmmaker, and as a voice, one who was Filipina, trans and an immigrant, and impose my singular aesthetic and perspective that feels different than those of other New York movies that have been made before. 

Olivia (Isabel Sandoval) and Olga (Lynn Cohen)

I felt like Brighton Beach in particular is a defiantly and even stubbornly immigrant neighborhood. It’s a very Russian Jewish neighborhood. In a way, it feels like a self-contained world. It has its own character, personality, and it’s extremely remote. I live in Crown Heights, which is still in Brooklyn, but it’s 30 minutes north of Brighton Beach. Whenever I go to Brighton Beach, I feel that I’m whisked off into a totally different planet or country. I just wanted to show a hidden or secret New York that we don’t see a lot of in cinema.

Aside from Olivia and Alex, the other important relationship in the film is between Olivia and Olga, in that they are mirror characters. These are two immigrant women who migrated to the US at different points in their lives, and are experiencing their own kinds of displacement. With Olivia, that displacement is political, geographical and it’s more obvious because she is an immigrant without papers. In Olga’s case, the displacement is more psychological, because she is dealing with dementia. Her sense of self and memory is slowly slipping away from her. I wanted to establish their relationship early in the film with that scene in the kitchen.

Alex (Eamon Farren) and Olivia (Isabel Sandoval )

MARTIN: I love the exploration of sexual awakening in the film, the way you film the intimate scenes. What were you trying to represent or bring to the gaze through those scenes?

SANDOVAL: To be honest, those were the first scenes that I wrote, and then I built the story of the film around them. It’s because those images represent a kind of gaze in an intimate scene that I’d never seen before in American cinema. You rarely see the female gaze when it comes to desire, in sexuality, and much less in the trans female gaze. As a filmmaker, I’d like to think I’m pioneering in a way that I’m a trans filmmaker who’s actually making a film about trans protagonists. I want to include that kind of scene. In the first scene, it’s more of a fantasy sequence. It’s a trans woman who is the agent, the active agent of desire, and not just its object. She’s actually comfortable and celebrating her sexuality in that scene.

In the actual love scene, I wanted to do away with the predictable approach, which is to string together a bunch of images of naked bodies gyrating against each other. There is quite an obsession and fixation over trans bodies in particular, but I just wanted to have the camera hover over her face and take in Olivia’s expression. She’s enjoying herself sexually, but she’s also starting to realize that she’s becoming sexually intimate with a man is not aware that she’s trans. You can see the sense of hesitation and worry about her face. I shoot it in a way that can make it feel so raw and gritty in order to achieve that type of realism. I think you see these conflicted emotions in Olivia’s face, and it ultimately helped to flesh her out as a character, and give her depth and complexity. It’s like a decoy in that I set up what on the surface feels like a sex scene, but it’s also a pivotal character moment for Olivia.

Olivia (Isabel Sandoval) and Alex (Eamon Farren)

MARTIN: Eamon is very impressive in this role. I first saw him in Twin Peaks: The Return, and he’s such a versatile actor.

SANDOVAL: I’m also a big fan of Eamon’s work in Twin Peaks: The Return. I thought he had a very interesting face as well. He has an interesting character face. I thought he could really add an aura, an erotic danger, but also humanity to someone like Alex.

MARTIN: The film is so sensory, and what I mean by that is that you can feel it. The way the music is present, but quiet, yet part of a scene. And the sounds of the train, the wind, and the snow. Can you talk to me about the use of sound in the film and the feeling you were trying to convey through the sound and ambient noise?

SANDOVAL: I think part of my approach is that I really like mining the tension from the dissonance between the placid and serene surface image and the tensions rolling underneath. In the opening and closing montage, for instance, you see images of Brighton Beach, but it’s juxtaposed with the voice-over of my character, speaking my native tongue, Cebuano. You also hear the sound bites of Trump talking about targeting immigrants as well as news reports of immigrant children being snatched away from their parents. I kept them to a sound bite because I feel sound really does do a lot of heavy lifting, in terms of influencing the mood and atmosphere of a film. So that is what I wanted to do in a film like “Lingua Franca.” As she is trying to live her life in the spaces that she feels safest, the world outside still threatens to intrude and invade the cocoon she set for herself.

Olivia (Isabel Sandoval)

MARTIN: Any advice for emerging female and non-binary filmmakers?

SANDOVAL: My advice would be take as much creative risk as you can, especially as you are making your first work, because you still have the freedom to do so. At the end of the day, with all of the festivals, and the industry, they are not necessarily looking for the most technically polished work, or the one with the highest production value, but they are all looking for talent. They are looking for a unique, distinctive, and singular voice. You should just go for it. 

Introducing Kyra Jones, Filmmaker, Artist, and Co-Founder of BLACK IN FILM

We are so excited to introduce you to Kyra Jones, a queer Black filmmaker and multidisciplinary artist based in Chicago, IL. Kyra received her degree in Theatre and Gender Studies from Northwestern University. She’s the co-founder of Black in Film, an online database created to facilitate hiring Black artists behind the camera. As an actor, she’s appeared on Empire (Fox), Chicago Justice (NBC), Kappa Force (Revry), Seeds (OTV) and more. She’s the co-creator, executive producer, and star of The Right Swipe (OTV), which was an official selection at Austin Film Festival, Urbanworld Film Festival, DC Black Film Festival, and more. In addition to her work in film, TV, and theatre, Kyra is also an educator and advocate, working with survivors of gender-based violence. She’s represented by Stewart Talent.

Kyra Jones Headshot

Black in Film is an online database founded by Ramone Hulet and Kyra Jones, two Black filmmakers from Chicago. The database was created to amplify the importance of hiring Black artists behind the camera and provide producers with an easy way to locate Black filmmakers of all positions in their area. Within the first day of launching, Black in Film received 150 submissions from all across the United States. Going into its second week of existence, the site now has over 500 filmmakers in its database.

Sabrina Doyle shows the beauty of embracing change through ‘Lorelei’

Before we got into speaking about her film “Lorelei”, director Sabrina Doyle and I couldn’t help talking about the trying times we are in, and how difficult it is for everyone, regardless of their situation. After viewing “Lorelei”, I realized that this film is exactly what we need right now. The movie centers on a man [Pablo Schreiber] who is released from prison after 15 years. He reunites with his high school girlfriend [Jena Malone], now a single mother of three.

Through their meeting, we see how the past needs to be let go, and that change, finding yourself, and not trying to do what is expected brings hope. The message is stay true to yourself, and embrace the change. The film is beautifully shot, and embedded throughout it are motifs of oceans and waters and mermaids. “Lorelei” was supposed to have its in-person premiere at Tribeca Film Festival, but the film is currently seeking distribution.

Sabrina Doyle on set

REBECCA MARTIN: What brought you to this particular project?

SABRINA DOYLE: As a filmmaker you sometimes get lucky when someone is willing to fund your film. Somebody was willing to fund my film if I made the main character a stepfather with children who are not his biological children. That was the condition of the company with this character. So I was like, “Yeah, wow”. For someone who had struggled to get funding for their movie, as any independent filmmaker does, you take the opportunities when they come, and that seemed like an enormous opportunity. The person that I was working with at the time, an executive producer, is such a wonderful a person, and happened to be a stepfather themself. It just felt really serendipitous. 

So I thought about the films that I love about fatherhood. Immediately I thought about “Paris, Texas”, which is a film that I love, period. I liked the idea of telling a story about the American dream, about fathers and about expectations, failed expectations. Telling a story about catastrophic failure. And after catastrophic failure doing something meaningful, that isn’t perfect. It isn’t what it should have been and could have been, but something meaningful. For a child, it could be something life-changing. 

“Paris, Texas”

I thought about the stepfather story. It’s a sequential story about a second childhood. You didn’t do it the way you thought you’d do it, a different way, but it’s still great. When I just think about how I felt about writing this film almost four years ago–I started writing in the fall, around the presidential election here in the US–that we are just so stuck in the past, culturally at home as well as in the UK with Brexit, and so stuck on what should have been. Like things were great back then and why can’t we stay in that moment? And I just wanted to make this film about the magic and the virtue of change, embracing change and letting yourself go with it.

That’s how I found my way into that story. I managed to start out in that arena of making a meaningful film about a stepfather. I arrived at this inspired by “Paris, Texas”, and also looking culturally at the moment we’re in, and the nostalgia. You don’t want to undermine the past, you build your sense of identity from the past, which is kind of the spirit of it. You don’t want to say to people to forget the past. The past matters, but I also think we say, especially in the west, that we hold on to the past too tightly. The world is changing. And that’s a scary thing, especially for people who have status, and no longer have status, or people’s status who’ve changed a lot. So I thought, ‘Let’s look at change as something positive, and use the children to represent change and the future, using them as the vessel for that.’  

Sabrina Doyle on “Lorelei” set

MARTIN: I love that. There are so many things I loved about what you said. I wanted to get a little background on you. I know that you grew up in the UK and were a journalist, then came to the US, and attended AFI. When did you come to the US?

DOYLE: I came to the US in 2010. I got a full ride scholarship to study Directing at the American Film Institute. 

MARTIN: I love how filmmakers who are not from the US capture the country from an outside perspective in their films, like Wim Wenders in “Paris, Texas”, and nail it. You touched on various themes like “Paris, Texas”, especially through the character Dolores, played by Jena Malone. She is fantastic in the film. You can see that Dolores feels held back by her past, but has a dream, and how she goes about pursuing it is beautiful, in a way. 

DOYLE: Well before I even came to the US, I felt that I knew the US. You just grow up being in love with American cinema, at least the mythology of it. That’s deeply ingrained in me. I’m also mindful of the fact that this isn’t my culture. We spent a lot of time before we shot the film in rural Oregon, visiting small towns, talking to bikers, and people in the motorcycle club culture. We’d been to the prison, and visited the halfway houses. We wanted to do the film from a place of having done the research. I think that’s important, especially when you’re telling a story that is outside of your immediate experience. That was really helpful.

Jena Malone in “Lorelei”

MARTIN: What were you trying to convey onscreen through the theme of water in relation to Jena Malone’s character? That seems to be linked to her right from the opening. Could you talk more about that?

DOYLE: Water, for me, is something I’ve been obsessed about. I have to think back to where that came from. I think it comes from when I was little. My mother is Italian and when I was little we would go to Italy once a year to go see my Grandmother and relatives. She lived by the ocean. And every time I’d go to Italy to visit my Grandmother, I’d go to the ocean. Throughout the year, I would long to go to the ocean. The ocean is such a foundational thing from my childhood. Living in dreary London, the ocean was part of my dream world. It was the thing I’d dream about, think about, and kind of long for. 

There’s just something personal to me in that. Symbolically I think of Jena’s character Dolores as a newborn in the beginning. She’s in the fetal position, it’s like she’s in the womb. It is a place where something just is and life is born, and like we came from the ocean, we’re suspended, like Jena is in the beginning of the film. The idea of water is a kind of baptism, it’s kind of a cleansing, a renewing, being born again. Water is the agent of change in the film. Water comes in every time something is about to change in the film. Like, there’s a scene where Wayland is lying in bed, and the rain is falling on the window. Water is the disruptive force. It sweeps away the old and brings in the new. There’s something kind of dangerous about it, but at the same time, tremendously exciting. It’s a primal desire to kind of be absorbed by the ocean, to be consumed by it, destroyed by it, changed by it, and reborn by it.

For me, that was how I expressed the ways on a symbolic level, how I expressed the change in movie. And Jena was just so great. We really put her through the wringer with all of this. The water scenes are just so hard to do. That mermaid tank at the end is very claustrophobic and small. Being in a mermaid tail, your legs are bound together. You’re trapped by that as well. And you can’t see underwater. Everything is fuzzy. It’s very disorienting being in that environment, and she just did it so well. It’s kind of incredible to me. It’s because of her that we got the ending in the film that we got. We did some work with some people who helped us teach her how to swim with a tail. But we didn’t have too much time to perfect all of that, it was just a few sessions. I’m just so impressed with her. Because physically, I think it was really hard. Also, Jena being a single mother herself, although she could probably speak better to this than me, but I think that she profoundly connected with the film on that level.

Pablo Schreiber as Wayland

MARTIN: How was it working with Pablo Schreiber [Wayland character]? I didn’t even recognize him. I’ve seen “Orange is the New Black”, but he looked like a totally different person. He really transformed himself for this character.

DOYLE: He likes to transform physically for his roles. I think that’s a really important thing for getting into character for him. He’s been doing a lot of action films. He did “Den of Thieves”, and he’s currently–well, filming stopped because COVID-19–but he’s in a series called “Halo”, which is a complete action hero kind of role. So he changed his body to fit this role. He ate a lot of food–

MARTIN: Yeah he bulked up. 

DOYLE: Yes, but not to look like a muscly hero type, but to look like someone who’d look like a person who had been lifting weights in prison. I think he just loves that process of physically changing himself for a role. I think that’s how he understands his characters, through their physicality. 

Jena Malone as Dolores and Pablo Schreiber as Wayland

Jena and Pablo have very different acting styles, but I think they have such tremendous chemistry. Pablo comes from a Stanislavski style, while Jena is extremely an intuitive actor. He has the vigor and discipline of being a theatre actor, so they kind of come at it in different ways. But it somehow really works. Onscreen I think they are so great together. It’s a love story in many ways. I just wanted that bit to work.

MARTIN: It totally did. I loved the children in the film, and I loved how you played with gender and representation in their characters. I also thought it was interesting how you captured the girl’s first period, connecting to your short film [“Code Red”] about mensuration. 

DOYLE: Yeah, I know. My family always jokes with me about that.

MARTIN: I love that, it’s not shown enough in film. I appreciate that. Because it is a thing. How was it working with the three kids? 

DOYLE: I think we were just so lucky. None of those kids had acted before. 

MARTIN: Wow!

DOYLE: Yeah, Chancellor Perry, who played Dodger, the oldest, had done some catalog modeling, and just a couple commercials. But he’d never done anything like this before. The other two had never acted at all. 

MARTIN: That’s so surprising, the girl was fantastic!

DOYLE: I mean, it’s kind of incredible. We spent months looking for the kids. We toured theatre camps in the area. For budget reasons we were tied to casting in the Portland area. We limited our search to Oregon basically. We toured around that whole area and went to theatre camps, after school clubs, the whole thing. We cast a wide net and the whole thing is very serendipitous. We found Parker, who plays Denim, and one of Parker’s family friends was Ameli, who plays Peri. She asked, “Can I audition as well?”, and we said, “Sure.” And she ended up being great. And because they knew each other, they already had that relationship.

We really wanted them to feel like a family, so before production, we had the kids hang out with each other. We’d laugh and play games with them. We kind of gave them an acting bootcamp, but really, it was just for them to get to know each other, and to really bond together. Chancellor was great with them. He really did behave like an older brother. Every time we met up as a film family, they were just delighted to see him. That kind of relationship became really important to all of them. I think the key with the kids is they just really, really bonded.

We put the time in before production to make them feel comfortable together. And that was just so key. It would be remiss to talk about the kids and not the kids’ parents. They were supportive in the emotional process. Amelia found it really hard to say swear words, because she wasn’t allowed to at home. We told her, “This is your character saying these words, it’s not you. No one will judge you. Your character is hurting right now, and she’s not saying these words because she is a bad person, but she’s saying them because she’s hurting, and she’s in pain. She’s using the words as a defense for herself.” And I think she understood that.

The intelligence of these children is just remarkable to me, they are just able to understand abstractions like that and translate them to behavior. I just feel so incredibly lucky. It’s very hard to work with children. It’s hard as well because when you’re filming a low-budget film like ours, you have to get everything you can out of the day. And obviously, they have very restricted hours that they can work. So I just feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude working with the three of them. That’s the thing I am most excited about is introducing these three young actors to the world. 

“Lorelei”

MARTIN: Absolutely, and what I love is the family as a unit: Jena, Pablo, and the kids. The chemistry works with all of them together, and it’s believable that there is a connection there. What advice do you have for emerging female filmmakers?

DOYLE: I think my advice would be what I tell myself constantly, which is that you shouldn’t second guess yourself. You always have a sense of imposter syndrome, right? Or at least as a woman, you seem to have that. In my case, I’m a woman from a working class background, I was the first generation of my family to be a high school graduate. And what comes with that is you feel you have to please people, give people what they want. I think sometimes the mistake I’ve made in my career is second guessing my own instincts and not trusting my own instincts, by believing that I just have to fit into a mold. I think what will give you your unique voice as a filmmaker is your visual instincts, your gut, that primal bit of your brain. Anytime I’ve done something that I have not been proud of is because I’ve overridden that instinct, that knowledge I already have, by doing what I think the industry wants from me.

Sabrina Doyle on “Lorelei” set

My advice would be around that, to have the confidence to tell the stories you really believe in, and try not to second guess yourself about what you think people want of you. It’s important to have role models, and find role models, especially those who come from a similar background to you, because they show you a path. I just think it’s really important to be yourself, and to express yourself, and tell the story you were meant to tell. I know that’s advice a lot of people give–

MARTIN: I don’t feel we hear it enough. That’s great advice. 

DOYLE: It’s so important, we’re all just trying to forge our own path in this very difficult industry. And sometimes I think the ways we try to stay “fresh” and “current”, and “relevant” as an industry is if we take creative risks and try not to do the same thing or do what everyone else is doing, on both an individual and an industry level.

Pablo Schreiber and Jena Malone in “Lorelei”

Argentinian filmmaker Valeria Vallejos talks about her empowering short ‘Me También’

Valeria Vallejos is a talented filmmaker of Indigenous and Spanish descent, born and raised in Patagonia. She left her country for Paris at the age of 17 to pursue her career in film. After a brief study experience in Paris, Valeria went on to travel the world extensively, continuing her education in the arts and collecting an MBA along the way. Vallejos wrote, directed and starred in her debut short film Me También (in English, Me Too).

Me También is set in of Los Angeles and revolves around two women from strikingly different worlds. Cristina (played by the director herself) is an undocumented Mexican immigrant, running from her past and trying to live out her personal American Dream as a nanny to a wealthy family. Monica (Kathryn  Romine) is a rising executive in a prestigious marketing firm. At some point, both of their lives will be derailed by the same hardship and by the abuses of the same person, Mr. Reynolds (Regen Wilson).

We had the chance to interview Vallejos and talk about the making of her film. You can watch the entire 17-minute short here: https://youtu.be/O2JCh7iWZbU 

Valeria Vallejos

DAVIDE ABBATESCIANNI: How did the idea for this short come about?

VALERIA VALLEJOS: I’ve always wanted to tell stories about who I am, a woman, an immigrant and a person of color. I had been formulating the story of two women struggling with hardships in their lives, but the real spark that I needed to start the writing process for Me También was Oprah Winfrey’s speech at the 2018 Golden Globes. Here, the main goal was to tell my truth, a truth to which every woman can relate to.

ABBATESCIANNI: What message is your short willing to convey within the wider #MeToo debate?

VALLEJOS: Definitely, it is a message of hope. The last scene of the short is the message I really wanted the audience to take away. Despite everything that Cristina and Monica had been through, they found hope in standing up for one another. I think that what just happened with Harvey Weinstein feels like the continuation of what I wanted the audience to read into the open ending.

ABBATESCIANNI: How did you work on Regen Wilson’s role on set?

Valeria Vallejos and Regen Wilson on-set

VALLEJOS: Regen is a particularly experienced actor. He was extremely prepared, we didn’t have the resources to rehearse or even have a table read, so the performances developed very organically. He came to the set full of ideas and his contribution was crucial to bring Mr. Reynolds’ character to life. And, most importantly, he never judged his role, despite being so drastically different from him.

ABBATESCIANNI: Why did you also decide to star in the film? Did you want to make your message even more personal?

VALLEJOS: My intention, starting from the inception of the project and all the way through the writing process, was to act in the film. This was definitely a very personal project and I never hesitated to be in front of the camera. Being behind the camera was a decision that came later, after a male director that I approached wanted to alter the tone and the voice of the film and tried to push me out of my own project. That’s when I realized that the film I’d envisioned was going to be directed by myself.

ABBATESCIANNI: How would you judge the current state of equality in your country of origin’s film industry? How are things changing?

VALLEJOS: That’s a tough question to answer! I love my country, but I recognize that there is still a major lack of diversity in the Argentinian film industry. I have indigenous blood, from the native tribe of Mapuche, and I still don’t see anyone who looks like me in film or on television there. I left my country when I was 17, so I can’t really say if things are changing or not but I dream of being part of that change.

On-set Me También

ABBATESCIANNI: How did your crew contribute to bringing your artistic vision to life?

VALLEJOS: I don’t think I’d have made this film without them. As a first-time director, Me También was in many ways my film school. My director of photography Jorel O’Dell was a great collaborator, who earned the Best Cinematography award at Los Angeles’ DTLA Film Festival, along with the master of the invisible art – my editor Brett M. Reed – and my fabulous composer, Nuno Malo. We made a great team and I hope to work with them again in the future.

ABBATESCIANNI: What initiatives do you think may be successful to implement equality and give more exposure to women in film?

VALLEJOS: The simplest and most impactful initiative is to just give opportunities to female filmmakers. To believe in their talent and their stories. The sensibility, intuition and strength that a woman can bring to a project is invaluable. 

ABBATESCIANNI: What women filmmakers from the present and the past do you find inspiring?

VALLEJOS: Definitely Ava DuVernay, especially because of how brave and determined she was to change the trajectory of her career from publicist to storyteller and with such an original voice. Then, Kathryn Bigelow for sure, because of the types of complex stories she chooses to tell and her impeccable taste. Finally, Mira Nair, for her passion for storytelling and for doing it with such little support and resources. Her wisdom and love for filmmaking really inspire me.  

ABBATESCIANNI: Are there any new projects you’re working on? What kind of themes would you like to explore in your next endeavors?

VALLEJOS: I’ve just finished writing the script for a feature-length film, entitled It Was Written. It is about the journey of a Latin teenager, who escapes his abusive home life and finds the truth about his past and love along the way, through his poetry. It’s a very compelling story with twists and turns and I anticipate that will take your breath away. I’m kind of obsessed with it and can’t wait to bring it to life. I’m also developing a pilot for a limited series, called Lady J. It revolves around a woman struggling with infertility and her dark and unexpected metamorphosis.

Ashley Shelton brings her movie vision to the lens with ‘Magnolia & Clementine’

Today we’re bringing back Ashley Shelton’s feature from June 2019. You can see Ashley in “The Evening Hour” premiering at Sundance 2020. Stay tuned for her future directed projects.

I had the pleasure speaking with filmmaker Ashley Shelton a month ago about her short film “Magnolia & Clementine” (2019). During our conversation, I learned Ashley and I are cut from the same movie loving cloth. We both go through our lives with movie vision, meaning movies are on our brain most of the time, and what we see and experience in life we connect to cinema. Ashley took her passion and love for movies in to an acting career, which led in to directing her short film.

GROWING UP WITH MOVIES

REBECCA MARTIN: What drew you to making films and acting?

ASHLEY SHELTON: From as early as I can remember, I always wanted to be an actor and be in movies. I was a real weird kid growing up. I was an introvert. I’ve always been like a lone wolf. Movies were like my best friends.

From as early as I can remember, I always wanted to be an actor and be in movies. I was a real weird kid growing up. I was an introvert. I’ve always been like a lone wolf. Movies were like my best friends.

MARTIN: That’s totally me. I am the same way.

SHELTON: Movies were how I experienced life growing up. That’s how I traveled. I felt like I was best friends with Julia Roberts. That’s just what I did, I watched movies constantly and related to them in a weird way. And movies were always on in my house, always on in my grandmother’s house. And my grandmother loved the movie, which is so weird for her because she’s like a preacher’s wife, so it’s really awkward, but she loved “Dirty Dancing” and she loved “Misery” with Kathy Bates. 

MARTIN: Are you serious? That is awesome!

“Misery” (1990) movie trailer

SHELTON: From an early age I was introduced to these strong female characters, especially in “Misery” with Kathy Bates. And “Nell” with Jodi Foster, was another staple. 

MARTIN: Those are great films.

SHELTON: Yeah, both of them are brilliant films. That’s what I grew up watching and I was like yes, that is what I want to do. And of course, I loved “The Outsiders.” When I was growing up I’d watch a lot of movies with male leads, but I always wanted to be the male in the movie. I never wanted to be the female character, because the male had all the power and the cooler part. 

When I was growing up I’d watch a lot of movies with male leads, but I always wanted to be the male in the movie. I never wanted to be the female character, because the male had all the power and the cooler part.

Ponyboy in “The Outsiders” (1983)

SHELTON: I watched “The Outsiders” and I wanted to be Ponyboy. I didn’t want to be the female characters because they were just portrayed as young and stupid. The same thing for when “Mission Impossible” came out, I wanted to be Tom Cruise. But I was drawn to strong female characters, especially with “Misery.”

SHELTON: All I had for a lot of my life was just movies. And it’s my connection point. I started wanting to make movies, because I knew how they made me feel, and I wanted to be that for someone else. 

MARTIN: Yes, I love that. 

SHELTON: Whether you watch a movie either to escape or relate, that’s what I wanted to be. 

NEW YORK AND BROADWAY

MARTIN: Walk me through what’s next, did you go to college in New York, or did you go there afterwards?

SHELTON: No, I went to college at The University of Tennessee. I graduated from college and then moved to New York. I have a degree in theatre, so I started out doing theatre. One thing was that when I was at college they didn’t have a film department, I had to major in theatre, it was the next best thing. 

MARTIN: You went to New York, then started acting?

SHELTON: Yes, of course when you move to New York you can’t make any money doing acting. I did some side jobs. I actually worked at a theatre. I did a couple off off Broadway things. Because I always wanted to do movies, I just didn’t know how to navigate that, and it seemed unrealistic to tell anyone. Also, everyone that is on Broadway is a movie star. You’re a movie star and they ask you to star in a Broadway play. 

MARTIN: They’re all big time in New York, it’s different here in Chicago for sure. 

SHELTON: I was like that’s the game, I need to be a movie star. Then I could come back and do Broadway. But I’m happy I had my foundation in theatre, because I was exposed to Chekhov and Ibsen, and all of these great people. It really taught me how to tell stories the right way. 

MARTIN: When was the cross over from theatre to film? What broke you in?

SHELTON: It’s kind of a crazy god thing, a weird story, I was going back and forth a lot from New York to Tennessee. And there was this guy named Paul Harrill and he was casting for a movie. They Facebook messaged me, and asked me if I wanted to come audition. I was like, sure. I went and auditioned, and that was for the movie “Something, Anything” (2014). It did great on the indie film scene. And that was kind of how it happened. It kind of just fell in to my lap. 

“Something, Anything” (2014) movie trailer

MARTIN: What was your role in the film and what was the film about? 

SHELTON: It’s about a woman, really a slice of life film, and it’s about a woman who goes through a midlife crisis, and it uproots her whole life. It’s quietly spiritual because there’s symbolism about her maybe wanting to become a monk in a monastery. It was my first time ever trying it, doing it. I really had no idea about what I was doing. My only film school was just watching movies. 

I really had no idea about what I was doing. My only film school was just watching movies. 

WRITING AND “MAGNOLIA & CLEMENTINE”

Ashley Shelton in “Magnolia & Clementine”

MARTIN: What happened next?

SHELTON: The film did well. It went to the IFP in New York. It screened in New York, and then it was at a couple festivals. Sundance kind of distributed it, in a way. Then slowly, I started to do more indie films, did some TV, and then I went through kind of a really hard time, mentally, and just emotionally, and then one day I was like, you should start writing. I always enjoyed writing when I was younger. I was one of those kids at school that enjoyed writing essays, as long as it was about what I liked. And so I just started writing, and I wrote a script. “Magnolia & Clementine” was actually the first script I ever wrote, and that was like four years ago. I just wrote about what I was feeling about at that time. It was really bad, and I felt like I wasn’t ever going to make it, be anybody or do anything. 

MARTIN: You say it was inspired by real life, I thought it was so creative. I’m interested I how you did it, because you played both Magnolia and Clementine. Can you share more about the process in putting the film together?

Ashley Shelton in “Magnolia & Clementine”

SHELTON: When I wrote it I had gone through some betrayals in my own life, and I guess it translated in to this way, putting it down on paper, and my feelings of my creative unfulfillment. The scary world of trying to be an actor. It was birthed out of a broken heart, really. So I wrote that script, four years ago. It was a completely different script. It dealt with more mental health issues. I had the writer dealing with mental health, and that is why she was seeing those characters.

We had a friend that moved back from New York, and when he moved back we all just wanted to make something together. So I was like, I have this script that maybe we should try doing. Then I wrote more of a concise version of the script about finding yourself and all of these things, then we filmed it. It started as one thing, and then it kind of became something else. I mean you go through all of this stuff and then time goes by and it turns into something else. It feels more true to who I am now, and what I am going through in my life. I tell people I think it’s about a woman finding her power. She’s been standing in her own way, I mean yeah he stole her story, and it’s bullshit and wrong, but she’s just been standing in her way for so long. Like she’s been too scared of success. She has to get out of her own way. Sometimes as creators we do that and we can really sabotage ourselves. 

MARTIN: I love how your main character finds her power, and it’s empowering. Your film is realistic and real. Not like a superhero, your character is a real person who is finding their creativity inside. That’s your power, your inner power. 

Ashley Shelton behind the scenes of “Magnolia & Clementine”

SHELTON: That’s a big thing to me, it’s representation, for women especially. I want women to see me or other characters I create, and see themselves in them. That goes as far as looks too. I know we are at this point now in the industry where I think women have spoken up and say that they want to see women like me on the screen. I think that also goes hand in hand on how you tell a story too. Like you were saying, it’s relatable, and real. It’s something she goes through and rises up from. Representation is really important to me in that aspect.

CHANGE

MARTIN: Do you feel like there’s changes with Me Too, or Times Up? Is there more words then action? What are your thoughts about the climate right now for women in film, with change, and representation?

Ashley Shelton behind the scenes of “Magnolia & Clementine”

SHELTON: I do think it’s changing, and I also, I always say this too, I don’t want to get a job because I’m a female, I want to get a job because I am talented. I am just as talented as my male counterparts. And I just want to have equal footing. I don’t want to be thought of as better, or put on a pedestal because I’m a female, or have a vagina. But I do think it’s changing. And I also think we’re in a time where women are finding their own voice, where we haven’t before. Like we have the courage to be bold and to have our voice, and to say what we think. Where as before, I don’t feel it was so much like that. 

And I also think we’re in a time where women are finding their own voice, where we haven’t before. Like we have the courage to be bold and to have our voice, and to say what we think. Where as before, I don’t feel it was so much like that. 

Ashley Shelton behind the scenes of “Magnolia & Clementine”

MARTIN: That’s right on, and that’s what I’m hearing, and that’s what I think as well. The conversation is there now. Whereas before people didn’t really talk much about this. Like it wasn’t at the front of peoples’ minds. Like yes, this is a problem. There seems to be some changes of representation now behind the camera, like making choices to have more of a female crew.

SHELTON: Yes, my crew, even when I was submitting my film to Amazon Prime Film Festival, they ask what was the gender percentage of your crew? Because it’s an all-inclusive film festival, and they want to give voices to those people who never had them. My crew was 50% down the middle. And that’s everyone who helped with the movie, as far as locations, DIT, poster design, anybody – split down the middle between women and men. To be honest I didn’t think about that while I was doing the film, I just ended up being that way. Which is kind of even cooler that it just happened to be split down the middle like that.

Ashley Shelton behind the scenes of “Magnolia & Clementine”

MARTIN: What’s coming up?

SHELTON: I would love to do more with the short if the opportunity presented itself, in that regard. But I also have a feature that I would really love to do, that I finished up this year, it’s a female empowerment movie, totally. I would love to do that in the coming year. Acting wise I have stuff coming up in the next year too. It’s so weird because now I know my whole life I’ve thought as a director. I’ve always thought in movies. Anything I do, or experiences I have, I always think about the movies. Like oh, this is like a movie scene. It’s always in my head, that’s how I think. I mean people who see color when they listen to music. I see movies constantly.

It’s so weird because now I know my whole life I’ve thought as a director. I’ve always thought in movies. Anything I do, or experiences I have, I always think about the movies. Like oh, this is like a movie scene. It’s always in my head, that’s how I think. I mean people who see color when they listen to music. I see movies constantly.

MARTIN: We have so much in common. I’m right there with you with movie vision. 

ADVICE

MARTIN: Advice for young female filmmakers?

SHELTON: I would say just do it. That’s the best way to learn and that’s the best way to “practice,” is hands on, do it. And get on a set somewhere, whether it’s PAing, I think everyone should be a PA at some point. I think you just have to do it. You have to jump in. I’m that type of person, I jump in and think later. Also, don’t worry about what people think about you. Don’t worry about what people are going to think about your work. Because all of your work as an artist is like this embryo. I think Elizabeth Gilbert said that, it’s like this child and you want to keep it safe, but you have to send it out into the world and let it do what it’s going to do.

Don’t worry about what people are going to think about your work. Because all of your work as an artist is like this embryo. I think Elizabeth Gilbert said that, it’s like this child and you want to keep it safe, but you have to send it out into the world and let it do what it’s going to do.

With ‘Alice,’ director Josephine Mackerras explores preconceived notions of independence, motherhood, and marriage

Josephine Mackerras debuted her first feature film, “Alice,” at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival. The story depicts how Alice, a wife and mother, reacts to her husband’s double life, leaving them in debt and on the brink of eviction. Where she turns is an unexpected choice, creating emotionally loaded questions regarding preconceived notions of independence, motherhood, and marriage. Mackerras recently shared her thoughts about making this complex, compelling film.

PAMELA POWELL: What was the spark that helped to create this story?

JOSEPHINE MACKERRAS: Years ago I did a screenwriting weekend with Mark Tilton in London. He proposed an exercise of joining opposites in character traits to think up a story. I came up with a one-line pitch based on the exercise. The idea kept niggling at me, it got bigger and bigger, and years later it became “Alice.”

POWELL: The opening scene beautifully exemplifies the idyllic facade in which Alice and Francois live. … You truly give the viewer a different point of view about prostitution and society’s perception. Can you tell me about your own understanding of it before and after writing the script?

MACKERRAS: I guess at the beginning I had the idea that most working girls are actually victims, and we know that is often true. What I now know is that many of them (particularly at the high end) are in the job temporarily with specific goals and do not experience the work as degrading or feel themselves to be victims.

POWELL: Take me into your thoughts as you look at prostitution from multiple angles: the public, those that use it, those in the profession, and those that are hurt by it.

MACKERRAS: I think the easiest angle is about those that are hurt by it, because this is an open, understood dialogue. We all know about the exploitation that goes on, and usually it is poverty that perpetrates terrible and damning conditions for so many women around the globe.

What we hear less about are women at the higher paid end who chose this work because the money is so high. They may work one or two hours a week and be paid more than the average full-time job. There is actually a sort of female privilege that seems to me a bit taboo to talk about. … The stories I’ve heard about clients can also be surprisingly human. Some clients have a desperate need for human connection that for whatever reason they cannot find in the “real” world. I guess this is the aspect that fascinates me the most.

POWELL: What parallel lines do you find that are drawn between Alice and her profession and Alice’s marriage?

MACKERRAS: To prostitute oneself by definition means to erase your own desires for someone or something else. The parallel for me would be Alice’s training has been always to put the needs of others before her own. As she has done this her whole life, it’s unconscious. At the beginning of this story, Alice is not aware that she doesn’t know her own true desires in life.

POWELL: I loved the focus on female friendships and their importance. Tell me about creating Lisa and Alice’s friendship and why you felt the need to have this aspect in the film.

MACKERRAS: The power of female friendship is phenomenal. I wanted Alice to discover the feeling of courage that comes when she finds that connection. I wanted her to experience the fun of it, but also the deep strength that comes from it. Without Lisa and the bond these two women have, Alice would not have had the fearlessness to do what she does in the film.

POWELL: And finally, do you feel the tides changing for female filmmakers?

MACKERRAS: Absolutely! I’ve wanted to make films since I was a teenager. I recall a filmmaker telling me at the time “actresses can’t make films,” and I bought it! I cannot imagine a young woman buying that nonsense today. … everything is changing in the world; power dynamics are not as stagnant as we once thought.

2019 Girl Power Film + Media Summit

The work I saw was crafted with time and effort and filled more than just quotas. They were filling us with inspiration for a future in which female-identifying filmmakers are seen as equally important to our male counterparts in the film industry. And that is the power in attending the 2019 Girl Power Film + Media Summit.

As a college student, you don’t get many opportunities to network outside of your own classmates, and while my classmates at Columbia College Chicago are amazing creators in their own right, it can feel suffocating. I’m on the cusp of graduation, which is why working for Cinema Femme has been so liberating to me in terms of networking opportunities.

This past winter, I was brought in as a marketing coordinator for the team, and one of the first companies I reached out to was Imagine This Productions through their support for The Light Leaks, who I’ve worked with before. We were invited by founders Susie Francois and Patrice Francois to be a partner for the 2019 Girl Power Film + Media Summit in Brooklyn, and the summit blew me away.

As a student in Chicago I can feel limited to just Chicago creators, but stepping into New York to discuss women in film with an international group of people was refreshing. This experience allowed me to connect and talk about not only my work for the magazine, in terms of us looking for future interviews, advertising, and collaboration opportunities, but also my work as a student studying television. I was able to speak with other college filmmakers and even see their screened work.

I also spoke to industry professionals who are building a place for themselves in a male-dominated field, and it could not be more inspiring. I went in feeling like a shy college student who was out of their element and I came out feeling empowered and in my right place.

Sometimes it can feel as if imposter syndrome sneaks up on you fast in this line of work, and being reaffirmed that you have a voice that can make waves with what you do is important. I can recall tangible moments in my career where I’ve felt like my work was a waste, but my work with Cinema Femme has shown me that even the smallest of connections can make a difference. If I hadn’t sent a simple email, then I would have never found this beautiful opportunity. No matter the amount of work you do, it is still valuable to this industry as we move forward with empowering women directors. I think that is what I learned the most during my time in New York as I saw each woman around me sharing her experience and her work from international places.

The allyship of sisterhood is such a strong connection that we at Cinema Femme are proud to uphold so that female-identifying filmmakers have a place within our society that has previously swept them under the rug.

Our voices ring out louder when we support each other, and I know as I move forward in my career it will not be without women at the helm bolstering us up.

You can feel as if you’re not fulfilling your full creative potential, and then be sparked into coming to the understanding that your mere contributions are part of the process in which you come to your creativity, and that constant creation does not define a creator.

The work I saw was crafted with time and effort and filled more than just quotas. They were filling us with inspiration for a future in which female-identifying filmmakers are seen as equally important to our male counterparts in the film industry. And that is the power in attending the 2019 Girl Power Film + Media Summit.

The Future is Female

Over the past few years, and it seems like from the beginning of time, when it comes to an opinion, in general, male (specifically white men) have been the represented majority through print, on camera, and behind the camera.

But now, we are starting to see the beginnings of women not giving a f**k of the way things used to be, by carrying on, standing strong, and doing what they love. It wasn’t always this way, as we know, but as women passionately pursue their dreams and voice their passions we stand stronger, and even stronger together. On the pages of Cinema Femme the voices of the female film experience. I, as founder, realize now, more then ever, that there is a need for a magazine like Cinema Femme that celebrates the female voice, whether it’s through film criticism or filmmaking. Cinema Femme is meant to go beyond just the magazine, by being a movement, and impacting the film culture and climate.

The Cinema Femme movement and impact will hopefully bring more female and diverse representation in film criticism.The white men, who have been the voiced majority have the most influence on the movie goer, by recommending what films they should see and shouldn’t see, and what’s a “good” or “bad” film. An increase in representation of female and diversity in film criticism will bring more diverse films to the surface and the funding will follow to support these films.

The Future is Female, I believe that, because women are standing up, and we’re realizing that we stand up stronger together. Viva Cinema Femme!

The Cinema Femme Movement

Cinema Femme is meant to go beyond our digital pages. We are a movement. The Cinema Femme movement will support more female and diverse representation in film criticism, resulting in more female directed and diverse films being recognized for their value. These reviews will attract more movie goers and interested backers to financially support these films. We will do this by having top female critics writing personal essays about the issue’s film focus, and interviews with female film critics and female filmmakers.

It’s glaringly clear that there is a lack of balance when it comes to diversity in film making and film criticism. We see this through Rotten Tomatoes. The past year they have been stepping up their game and increasing the percentage of female and diverse critics since this report came out in 2017. But if you google a film you’re interested in seeing that came out before 2018, I recommend you looking at the critics who vote on the percentage before you make a decision in seeing a film. For example, google The Zookeeper’s Wife directed by Niki Caro (North Country, Whale Rider) and you see the first page of critics on the Rotten Tomatoes site are all white men and there are no female or diverse critics that are represented. Pamela Powell and I discuss this in our interview for the inaugural issue. Pamela was recently accepted as a Rotten Tomatoes critic, which is great to hear!

To combat the lack of balance in Rotten Tomatoes a new site is coming soon called CherryPicks. This site is exclusively for film criticism by women. Stay tuned and subscribe here: https://www.thecherrypicks.com/