We could not have had the year we had without you. 2020 was hard for many reasons and in many ways, but we stuck together as a filmmaking and womxn in film community, and that made it all worthwhile. In the spirit of the holidays we wanted to highlight 12 “days” or “events” of 2020 that celebrate our community. Thank you all for your support this year and Happy Holidays!
Last year I edited a video (video also featured at bottom of this piece) with scenes from some of my favorite films I’d seen over that year correlated with my reviews I’d written on letterboxd. I watch a lot of films and write a review for every film I see on that site. They are almost like a log, rather than a review. I just try to write my initial reaction and feelings of what I’ve seen. I’d like to present some of the reviews I’ve logged this year to you like an amuse-bouche. An amuse-bouche, in the food world, is a single, bite-sized hors d’œuvre. Amuse-bouches are different from appetizers in that they are not ordered from a menu by patrons but are served free and according to the chef’s selection alone. In this instance, I’m the chef, and you are the patron, and here are my bite sized reviews.
I have a deep love for film. I watch every film with a desire to be filled with something, either an indescribable feeling, like I felt while watching “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”, being transported to an undiscovered world of weirdness, like “Knives and Skin”, or brought to a place of familiarity, with “The Farewell”. Each of the reviews reflect me being filled in some way, a lasting way that remains, not in an overindulgent way, but just enough. Bon Appétit.
Scarlett Johansson’s character Nicole is pacing in her soon to be divorce attorney’s office, played by Laura Dern. Nicole walks to the bathroom, grabs a tissue, and starts to talk about why her soon to be ex, Charlie, played with a powerhouse performance by Adam Driver, are divorcing. This scene I’d compare to like a symphony. The notes, not quite fitting together, then slowly we get to the heart of why she can no longer be married to him, the climax, she wants to have a voice of her own, be heard, be seen, and with Charlie this cannot happen. Just that one scene is like a microcosm of the film, a symphony starting disjointed with flat against sharp notes, until the heart/climax is revealed in harmony and then a new life is reborn from the mess, fade out song. And my heart goes out to Nicole the most, even though Adam Driver’s performance was equally as powerful, but my heart felt most for Scarlett’s performance.
My kind of f**ked up stepford wives, except this time with a happier ending (sorry spoiler, but doesn’t ruin the movie to know that!). The film was so beautiful, and loved how the insanity of normalcy oozed out like a thorny rose. Well done director Alice Waddington.
Read feature with Hilda Somarriba that talks about her work with Alice Waddington.
Fleabag – National Theatre Live
Phoebe Waller-Bridge I could watch her for hours taking pictures of her vagina fully clothed with an invisible camera phone, and swiping her pictures of her vagina on the invisible camera phone to choose which vagina picture is best. No need for props, Phoebe has it all in her performance in this one woman live show. This is the power Phoebe has, taking female experiences that are usually taboo topics of conversation, and talking about them and laughing at the same time. I’ve taken pics of my vagina before, okay I said it and I laugh because always when you send a dirty picture, the guy immediately asks for another one, it’s exhausting. Thank god for Phoebe for showing women you can be playful in your talk about sex, and own it, but also be honest about it too. I love her.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Chills. There is a scene where the women are around a campfire singing. I got these intense chills, and I felt warm like I was by a fire. It was such an unusual sensation that I never felt before.
The whole film was so impeccable in an epic piece of beauty. I was on the verge of tears through out the film because the beauty hurt so much in a good way.
I have to continue to process my emotions of this film, but it’s heartbreaking, life changing, and demands your attention. My heart flourishes because of this film.
Once Upon a River
Lakes, rivers, and oceans are so essential to my being, with the deepness and the ebb and flow. Watching Haroula Rose’s film “Once Upon A River” I felt these connections cinematically through the main character, Margo (Kenadi DelaCerna). Her journey is very different than my own, but with every touch of the water, the submergence through the waves, I felt exhilarated and felt one with the river, like Margo. The river paces the film, and the people she meets take part in her journey. We feel a familiarity of what it means to find your people, the people who get you. And like “Lost in Translation”, those people we meet in transit can be very special passengers to our lives. The river is always the home, and the people are the gardens we create, which nurtures us beyond.
Read feature with Haroula Rose about her past films and her latest “Once Upon a River”
One of the rawest, most heart felt, personable films of a middle aged plus woman’s journey I’ve seen, played by Mary Kay Place. We see her going through the motions as a widower later in life, doing good for her community and her family and coping with her son’s drug addiction and new found radical religion. We also see a piece of pain from her past trickle in and out. Life’s moments are cyclical and something as beautiful as tree branches and falling snow can give us pause with its breathtaking beauty.
I am not Chinese, my grandmother is in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and not half way across the world, but I so strongly identified with the relationship between Awkwafina’s character Billi and her grandmother. We do not have a Chinese tradition in my family where we don’t tell your loved ones if they have a terminal illness, but my Grandma is currently at the end of her life at 94, and I always thought she’d live forever, never a doubt in mind, until recently her health has been a real struggle for her. Like in the film, my grandmother’s mind and tongue is sharp, and heart is full, but she can no longer take care of herself as she used to do. She recently had to be put in a home, and for me it’s heartbreaking, but it’s the reality. And watching “The Farewell”, my acceptance of acceptance to my Grandma coming to the end of her life is similar to Billi’s transition. I immediately wanted to see if I could move to Fort Wayne to take care of my Grandma, but she would not want that, she wants me to live my life. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop calling and visiting. She is so precious to me. And this film encapsulates all of it. Thank you Lulu Wang!
Abortion … bloody periods … maxi pads … breast feeding. We are living in a time that escapism is no longer what the movie-goer wants.We want to see the realness on the screen, especially when it comes to women and minorities. We want to see the humanity breaking through the falseness and the absurdity we find ourselves surrounded in. We are tired of the yelling voices, we are tired of the facades, we just want to see stories about human connection that shows the struggle and the hope. This film is what the movie-goer is hungry for. And as a movie lover I can attest to that. Kelly O’Sullivan who wrote the script and starred in this film brought this humanity and representation to the screen, elevated by director Alex Thompson. Very excited to see how “Saint Frances” will make an impact in our culture, because this is the time for this kind of film.
Read feature with “Saint Frances” actor and writer of the film’s script, Kelly O’Sullivan
“High Life” to me is a horror film that has an ending like a SciFi sense of hope, kind of like “2001 Space Odyssey”. A piece of beauty and light after a demon (Binoche in my opinion) terrorizing the members of the spaceship. What I love about Denis (I’ve only seen two of her films), but comparing to “Let the Sunshine In”, she takes a genre and flips it to her own, which becomes a creature of it’s own. “Let the Sunshine In” on the surface is a romantic comedy, but there are deep levels of sadness below the surface. For “High Life” it could be seen as a horror film like “Alien” with Juliette Binoche’s character, the evil nurse, as the alien, which also plays around with the idea of birth. But in a weird way it’s a hopeful film with the relationship between Pattinson’s character and his daughter.
Knives and Skin
“Knives and Skin” seemed Lynchian in weirdness when it started, but then I realized Jennifer Reeder is an original and the weirdness reflected through her characters and style is done in a feminine raw way that I’ve never seen before. I loved it. The film grows on you. The neon pinks and purples reflected off the high school grounds and suburban homes brings together an odd beauty. Can’t wait for people to see this film.
Read feature with Jennifer Reeder about her film “Knives and Skin”
I’m Greek, my family is from Greece, but I grew up in the Midwest, and I also love Americana as well as folk and country music. Who gets to have a right to those things that are evocative of their experience? If you’re a fish out of water, you can find them anywhere.Director Haroula Rose
To say Haroula Rose is a quadruple-threat would be an understatement. Her success as a singer-songwriter would alone have singled her out as one of the most promising talents of her generation. Yet over the past decade, she has also proven herself to be an enormously gifted and versatile filmmaker, not to mention a fine actor in her own right. After directing numerous sublime short films, as well as a television pilot that earned the Audience Award in Bentonville, Rose has released her powerful and deeply poignant first feature, “Once Upon a River,” based on the novel by Bonnie Jo Campbell.
Remarkable newcomer Kenadi DelaCerna stars as Margo Crane, a teenager who journeys along the Stark River in search of her estranged White mother, following the tragic loss of her Native American father. Upon realizing that she might be pregnant, Margot finds an unexpected father figure in Smoke (John Ashton), an ailing outcast who shares her stubborn belief in living life on one’s own terms. Gorgeously lensed by Charlotte Hornsby, this lyrical parable follows in the footsteps of its heroine by defying convention at every turn.
“There is a sales agent out there who said, ‘Your movie feels so homespun in this really charming way,’” Rose told me during our chat earlier this summer in Chicago. “I was so flattered by that because it really did come together in that way where everybody got involved for the love of it. No one was getting paid or anything.” She was more than happy to sit down with Cinema Femme Magazine for an in-depth discussion on her fascinating career. We explored everything from her early collaboration with Ryan Coogler to her latest superb short, “As They Slept,” featuring Maya Hawke on the cusp of her “Stranger Things” stardom. She also shares the invaluable advice given to her by none other than Warren Beatty.
As you were getting your start in filmmaking, you created songs that were chosen to accompany Julianne Moore’s Oscar-winning performance in “Still Alice” (“Brand New Start”) and the first season of “American Horror Story” (“Lavender Moon”).
Music, to me, has always been inextricably linked to cinema. I know it’s a visual medium, but I always remember where music is well-placed, and I think you notice when it is not. You notice when a perfect score is married to the right image, and the tone and the vibe of things, so I’m always happy when a song fits someone else’s vision. You end up reaching an audience that you normally wouldn’t get to. Life is a funny, strange path, and I love it so much when you don’t know where you’re going, but you’re aware that you’re on the right track when a strange synchronicity happens, and the work that you create becomes its own life form.
I don’t go for genre stuff in terms of thriller/horror. I like psychological thrillers, but I never really watch stuff that is too gory or too dark. But it was cool to see my music used in this darker way on “American Horror Story.” People in China found out about my music through “How I Met Your Mother” and “American Horror Story,” so you can now hear my music playing in Starbucks throughout that country. Two summers ago, they brought me over for a twelve-city tour, and I played at festivals in Beijing and Shanghai. I had never been to Asia before, so it was pretty mind-blowing. This cross-section and convergence of music and film has always been important to me because it gets more people interested in what you’re doing in either medium. These art forms feel so married that I wouldn’t know how to unlink them in my mind.
How did the experience of serving as an associate producer and music supervisor on “Fruitvale Station” influence your approach to filmmaking?
I met Ryan Coogler at USC Film School. He was my first friend there. I had just gotten back from living in Madrid for two years, so I felt a little shy and out of sorts. He was just the friendliest, warmest person, and struck up a conversation with me. We had to do these exercises and projects together, and it all felt very organic and supportive. Even though I didn’t finish my MFA, a lot of the people that I met during my two semesters there became friends for life. We all still talk and work on each other’s things and give each other notes. It’s ultimately about finding your community and you clearly don’t need that degree to make films. Ryan had been trying to get “Fruitvale” off the ground for a few years, and he needed a bunch of us that would be willing to help him out.
I was at a crossroads where I was like, “Do I continue at film school and go the path of film, or do I pursue this music thing that has been haunting me? If I don’t do it, I’ll have more regrets, because music is more of a young man’s game, if you want to tour and spend the time putting out records.” It just felt like the music was more urgent, so I put the pause button on film for a while. The guy who runs the label services company in Nashville that puts out my records, as well as those by amazing artists like Patty Griffin, Lucinda Williams and Jason Isbell, ended up helping us out on “Fruitvale,” at a time where not many people were willing to provide their assistance. He has been helping me with music and I’ve helped him with film, and it’s become this very cool, overlapping thing. It’s funny to me that I used to think being a musician would be a distraction to people, but it has actually enhanced everything.
You’ve also collaborated with another remarkable filmmaker, Sarah Adina Smith, on 2016’s criminally overlooked “Buster’s Mal Heart.”
Sarah’s got an incredible mind, and so does Ryan. They have an incredible heart and a philosophy behind what they do. I’ve helped out Sarah a little bit musically on everything so far except for “Hanna.” You don’t know exactly what you’re doing at the time, but it’s part of this larger whole, and it’s such a cool process. “Buster’s Mal Heart” wasn’t a full script. She would send it to me and I remember reading it and feeling pretty enthralled. It was only fifty or sixty pages max, and it was mostly ideas and visuals. As someone who also writes and directs, it was liberating to see someone else’s method for conveying what they need to get and how it will come together.
From the perspective of a writer and actor, what was it like exploring the creative process of collaborating musicians in Joselito Saldera’s 2013 short “No Love Song,” where you starred opposite Daniel Ahearn and Rosanna Arquette?
That was very special for me because I’m not trained as an actor, but I wanted to try it out. Being a singer/songwriter has really helped me understand better what it is like to be the person in front of an audience or the camera. My vocabulary and way of talking with actors is the thing that makes everyone feel really comfortable, and I’m able to get a lot of vulnerability from that because I’ve been there myself. I really wanted to have that experience on film, and it was fun to be with Daniel because he had never acted before. I just get this sense about people where I am seeing what is beyond whatever they’re seeing in terms of their abilities. Daniel has done a ton of stuff since that short, and it makes me feel really good.
Rosanna’s always been supportive and would show up at my shows. She is an awesome person who really helps women in film, and would tell me, “Anything you do, let me know and I’ll help you out.” We had always intended on making that short into a feature, and haven’t gotten around to it. But it was really important to have that experience of being the one in front of the camera so I can relate better with my actors. It was also fun writing a song, knowing that it would end up being a part of a larger story and woven into it. It’s kind of melancholy and bittersweet because we know how it’s going to end.
That song, “Every Time I See You,” forms the heart of the film during that final montage.
I made my first LP in Athens, Georgia with this really amazing music producer named Andy LeMaster who worked with REM and Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes, and I met Daniel through a publicist that he knew. He came to one of my shows and there was something about his songwriting and the way that he was able to harmonize that made me realize that I wanted to write with him. The guy who directed our film, Joselito, is also from Chicago and had done a music video for me, so I knew how cool it was to work with him. It was my first time not only co-writing a script, but co-writing a song as well, and it felt right doing it with these people because we could be honest with each other. We knew what this song should be about, so we just got together, riffed on it and then built out the ending from there.
STEPPING INTO THE DIRECTOR’S CHAIR
There’s a similar wistfulness in your prize-winning pilot for the Melonie Diaz series “Lost and Found,” with its “un-marriage ceremony” between the central couple, officiated by the great Jennifer Lafleur, whom I met through another female director, Valerie Weiss.
I love Valerie! She’s been really helpful with giving me advice. Jennifer is one of my good friends. She just directed her first short, and I was giving her notes literally yesterday. As for that pilot, it was inspired by a bad break-up that haunted me. It was one of those times where I was like, “God, how can you love each other for so long and then it all goes awry?” It wasn’t like we were mean to each other, and I felt like there should be some kind of ceremony that could bring exes closure, like a funeral or bat mitzvah. These events mark significant chapters in your life in a way that is helpful and healthy in theory, but it’s also difficult because other things get unearthed in the process. Melonie was very interested in being involved as more of a co-creator, because she was feeling frustrated as an actress, where your whole fate is left up to other people. She really wanted to be more pro-active, and it was fun to empower her in that way.
I’d like to see more episodes.
You and me both. The rights got reverted back to me, and people have explored whether it could be developed into a movie. I would love to make something more of it someday.
I especially loved the scene where Terence Nance, auditioning as “Thug #2,” is directed by white women to say the word, “Yo.”
I saw a lot of humor in the potential sensitivities and offensiveness that people don’t necessarily see or haven’t been paying attention to. I thought it was especially funny doing the scene with Terence, considering what his show, “Random Acts of Flyness,” is about. We were in the same Time-Warner incubator program, so he had shown us his show, and I loved him onscreen. That’s when I hatched the idea of doing this meta-satire with him where we would play it straight. That was my favorite scene, actually, because it was touching on some real stuff that I had seen, as well as what friends of mine in the industry have recounted to me.
Two of my favorite Chicago actors, Brad Smith and Jaclyn Hennell, star in your wonderfully surreal 2013 short, “Baby Crazy,” where a man questions whether the baby reportedly materializing before him is a hallucination. It reminded me of the infamous “There Ain’t No Iguana” scene in “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.”
I love that! [laughs] I don’t exactly know where the idea came from. I woke up one day and thought, “What would be the scariest thing for a guy afraid of commitment to be haunted by? A baby, naturally.” On a lot of my projects, I haven’t needed casting directors. Knowing Brad and how he would play this sort of character had me already laughing in my mind, so I wrote it for him. I actually found Jaclyn through a casting call. That was an interesting role to cast because it couldn’t be someone who was too sad or too hammy or big. She just needed to be authentic. That was my first short that I ever directed, so I was nervous about communicating the right way with my cast and crew. I wanted to make this leap with someone I felt comfortable and confident with, and Brad’s the best. I brought him into the auditions, and saw the chemistry he had with Jaclyn.
The threat of impending violence in your next narrative short, 2015’s “Wedding Dress,” foreshadows the tension in your feature.
That’s totally what I was going for! I really want to go for a tone that feels authentic and true in the moment. It’s building to something, but you don’t know what it is yet. Sometimes you don’t know whether something is funny or uncomfortable, and I really like that kind of feeling. The idea for “Wedding Dress” came to me via an image. Fellini would dream things, then wake up and sketch what he had envisioned. That journal is what “8 1/2” sprang from, and you can find the images in Fellini’s Book of Dreams. I remember falling in love with his comic surrealism, and thought it would be cool to one day work from an image, which ultimately became a woman in a wedding dress who was running away, and not in the style of “Runaway Bride.” She was running from something that was more harrowing but not obvious. I was partly inspired by the ending scene of Mike Nichols’ “The Graduate,” where he just kept the camera rolling, as the characters began to wonder, “What now? What happens after this adrenaline rush?” The ending of “Wedding Dress” is a direct homage to that.
There’s also dirt encrusted on the dress. When Rayanne (Abby Wathen) wears it, you notice the visible bruise on her back.
That was a really trying and emotional role for Abby because she’d been through a lot, and I knew that she was in a very fragile, vulnerable space. But she trusted me and I love her as a person as well as an actress. I actually got her cast in Colette Burson’s movie, “Permanent,” with Rainn Wilson and Patricia Arquette. Abby won a couple awards for “Wedding Dress,” and I was happy for her. Taking a beautiful, pure wedding dress and fucking it up was a really interesting task for me and the costume designer. I respect and value process—all these little moments that make something up—especially now after having done a feature and seeing how it can be such a tumultuous, tortured experience at times. You have the most beautiful high of highs and lowest of lows. The end result is nothing like what you think it will be at the beginning, and keeping focused on the end as you originally pictured it is entirely misguided.
MAKING HER FIRST FEATURE
What aspects of Bonnie Jo Campbell’s book, Once Upon a River, did you and your cinematographer, Charlotte Hornsby, want to capture onscreen? There’s a striking contrast between the beauty of the environment and the ugliness of human nature.
Thank you for noticing that. In terms of our visual references, I wanted us to watch the Zeffirelli version of “Romeo & Juliet.” It’s one of my all-time favorite films, and I think that it has deeply impacted my psyche—not just my movie life, but also who I am and the fibers of my identity. Charlotte hadn’t seen it at the time, and now she’s obsessed with it. I love the way that they use the color palette, and how it reflects the beauty and ugliness within. We were also looking at the use of wind and the naturalism in Andrea Arnold’s “Wuthering Heights.” You are really in the heroine’s shoes, like when she’s riding the horse and you see her hair blowing. You feel like you’re on the horse with her, and those moments last just a hair longer than they would elsewhere. There is such poetry in those moments.
The film’s first half captures the essence of Emily Bronté’s text with almost no dialogue.
Yes, it’s so masterful. Cate Shortland’s “Lore” was a huge one for us too. Tonally and visually, it’s a bit more in the blues, and a bit colder, while illustrating what it is to be a girl in the world. We also watched “Into the Wild” a bit, just because there aren’t many movies centering on a woman skinning animals in the wild. “Winter’s Bone” was an obvious choice too. One movie I am obsessed with is Altman’s “McCabe & Mrs. Miller.” I loved the way that the interior of the cabins were lit by candlelight. I also love how the setting is as important as the characters in Malick’s “Days of Heaven,” because that does inform who they are, especially in this story. It’s Americana, but what does that mean if you’re not a white family, if you don’t look like other people—even for me, personally. I’m Greek, my family is from Greece, but I grew up in the Midwest, and I also love Americana as well as folk and country music. Who gets to have a right to those things that are evocative of their experience? If you’re a fish out of water, you can find them anywhere.
Maybe I’m a little too precious in terms of feeling like I have to be in love with something, but when you’re making a feature, you have to be married to it for at least two years of your life. I had been seeking what should my first feature be for years. I read Bonnie Jo’s book after reading a review of it in the University of Chicago alumni magazine. Bonnie Jo and I were enrolled there at different times, and there was something about the expression in Bonnie’s eyes, in her photo, that made me go, “I need to read her book.” When I did, I could see the story unfolding in my mind, and I could feel it too. At first, her agents weren’t too keen about a no-name person adapting the book, and she had offers from a couple other more well-known, middle-aged dudes. Then I reached out to her, and she asked me to meet her at the river in Michigan that is featured in her book.
So I drove up to Michigan and met her at the cabin where she grew up, and we had the most amazing afternoon together. We were finishing each other’s sentences in a way that felt very natural, and we were seeing eye to eye. I told her how it was important to me that the book’s protagonist, Margo, would be portrayed as a survivor rather than a victim. Her foibles, follies and trials make up who she is in a way that makes her stronger. There wasn’t going to be any shame about a girl who likes sex and explores that side of herself. She pursues this thing that in her current, seemingly pro-fascist state, is a little bit out there. Her decision against aborting her baby doesn’t make the film pro-life. It’s a pro-choice movie because she chooses to keep it. I don’t like any of these labels anyway. I don’t want to make a didactic issue film, even though the story does deal with some very serious, pertinent issues.
How did you find Kenadi DelaCerna for the role of Margo?
That was an odyssey in and of itself, to be honest. Every movie has its strange magic. There are things that you absolutely cannot plan for, and some of them are really anxiety-inducing, like when you finally have money in the bank, and you are ready to pull the trigger on the option of the book. I had all these other roles cast, but I didn’t have a lead girl yet. I was working with Angelique Midthunder, a premiere casting director of native talent, and she found Tatanka Means and Ajuawak Kapashesit for the roles of Margo’s father, Bernard, and Will, respectively. She sent me a lot of young women, but none of them were right, for whatever reason. My assistant Jules Reed, who I met through “Saint Frances” director Alex Thompson, put up ads on casting networks like Backstage.com, and told me about a girl who sent in a tape. At that point, I was in such despair. If I couldn’t find an actress within 48 hours, I would’ve had to pull the plug. We wouldn’t have been able to shoot because winter was setting in and that witchy instinct inside of me was like, “It’s going to snow!”
Then I watched the video, and it was from Kenadi. She was based in New York and that’s where Charlotte, the DP, is based. Weirdly, Warren Beatty and I met through the Nantucket Screenwriter’s Colony, and he was giving me advice. He loved that this movie was set in the ’70s and he liked what it was about. I told him about Kenadi’s casting tape, and he said, “You gotta go meet her. You can’t do anything over a tape. You need to put her in a room and see what the chemistry is like. Is she sexy, is she funny, what is her vibe? Can she riff, is she by-the-book, can she pull it off, especially if she has no experience?” That’s when I decided to get on a plane to New York. I wanted to test out vintage lenses for the film, so I rented a space at Washington Square Films, and we shot the scene with Margo at the campfire. Kenadi knew all her lines and was totally enthralling to watch without being inauthentic.
She never overplayed anything. There’s just that thing about Kenadi that makes her totally, endlessly watchable, even when she is doing nothing. I was like, “Thank god we found her!” Margo has a kind of stoicism, but there is a lot going on behind those eyes all the time. She is like a child, but also a woman, and I couldn’t believe one person could encapsulate all of that. When we shot her sex scene, she was like, “I’ll do whatever is right for the role.” Actresses get scripts where there is senseless nudity, and she has said no to a lot of that stuff. I’m proud of her because it shouldn’t be like that. It has to be in service of the character and the story, and she was all about it.
This sex scene contrasts with the abuse that Margo endured earlier in the film. It almost seems like she’s reclaiming her sexuality.
That is exactly right. She is reclaiming herself, in a way. She thought she knew what she wanted with her previous sexual partner, but it wasn’t that way at all. It turned out to be the wrong person and circumstance. If you’re drawn to power, like a lot of young women are, and it’s used against you, that’s pretty evil. Then she decides to have sex with someone who is her equal, someone who has seen something in her, and she is learning about herself. It’s almost like she’s falling in love with herself and how she wants to be seen. She’s reclaiming that when she switches positions with him and gets on top. That also happens in the book. Bonnie Jo wrote one of the best sex scenes I’ve ever read in my life, and it was impossible not to include in the film. In their union, it’s almost like they become part of the earth around them. It’s so explosive and fiery and sweaty and all those things, and I felt like, in our sensitive way, we put that on film. That’s what it really should be like if you are creating a new life.
Was John Ashton someone that you wanted to work with in the past?
Oh gosh, yeah. When we spoke on the phone, I could tell he was a purist and he doesn’t do just anything. I was so fortunate to have him because he’s a true master craftsman. I also knew that having a veteran actor paired with a person who has never made a movie before would be either the worst idea ever or the best thing that’s ever happened. I just needed to make sure it was someone who was patient and open. That difference in their level of experience worked on so many meta-levels when it came to their chemistry onscreen. She learned a ton and he was excited to be with a young person who had such vigor and interest in the craft. When students ask him, “How can I get an agent?”, he’s like, “Be a good actor.” He really valued that Kenadi is interested in being a good actor instead of chasing fame.
You’ve created such a touching showcase for him with the role of Smoke. His line about America not caring about those who wish to live on their own terms resonates on so many levels.
We use the word “freedom” a lot, but when you really start to break that word down, what does it mean for each person, and how are we to govern such a massive country with such massive social inequalities, while looking at every situation fairly? You can’t make blanket assumptions or rules or laws because you’ll be missing a lot of nuance. I don’t know how to fix anything, and I’m not suggesting that I have any answers, but I do think that it is worth noting that we are all trying to do the same thing. I think that everyone has the best of intentions, but we get bogged down in the politics or bureaucracy of it. If we just accepted people for who they are, we’d be in a way better place, and in fact, that’s what all of our religions tell us to do, but no one really does that. The hypocrisy of that really bothers me, but self-reflection and self-awareness are hard to achieve. I just love how Smoke has his way that he wants to live, and who am I to tell him to change his ways?
That theme of living on one’s own terms is also reflected in the character of Margo’s estranged mother, Luanne (Lindsay Pulsipher), who abandoned her baby daughter in order to keep her head above water.
She says that she would’ve drank herself to death had she remained with Margo. When you try to hold water, it just falls through your hands faster. I think that our ability to define things is shaped more by the things that we are not seeing, and I feel more liberated and free knowing that I’m not really in control of my destiny. All you can do is try to live your life and treat people as best you can. It is a live and let live kind of attitude. I feel like Margo has that, and we need more heroes and heroines like that. I didn’t want to paint her mom as a villain because she’s just doing the best she can.
There are a lot of people who hate Luanne, and that’s their right to, but I cast Lindsay because she’s a deeply empathetic person, and for her to go against that was appealing to me. No one is born that way. Luanne had a kid way too young. I think we would all do a lot better to our society and serve each other better if we weren’t all constantly pointing fingers and telling each other how to be. Margo does not adhere to any social norms. She is someone who feels more comfortable outdoors, and is described in the book by her family as more like a wolf cub than a woman. That person wouldn’t get an abortion. It would be against her nature. She’s going to right the wrong committed by her mom. It’s a really strong, pro-feminist choice for her character to make.
In her scenes with Smoke, we see the caregiver instinct with Margo that suggests how great a mother she’ll be one day.
I told John and Kenadi that their characters’ relationship is romantic with a capital R. It’s not romantic in the sense that they have a sexual relationship at all, but they develop a type of love that allows them to fulfill a deeper need within each other. She doesn’t criticize or question his choices, and neither does he for her. They become each other’s family in a way that feels authentic and not preachy. Margo sees someone who needs help, and realizes that he can help her too. It’s very symbiotic, like the definition of symbiosis, I guess. I wanted to think of the scene where she bathes Smoke as sort of a love scene in its vulnerability.
How did your musical background inform your approach to the film’s score, composed by Zac Rae?
I wanted the composer to be someone I was familiar with, and Zac can play every instrument in a way that is not predictable. There is a sort of mischief about him that I thought would be perfect for this film. On another level, I wanted to include music in the experience for my actors, so I actually worked with the composer first. I told him to riff on a character and create a theme for the actor so that when the time came during performance or prep, I could play it for them. I wanted it to feel like a cohesive process where it’s not just like, “Shoot the thing, edit the thing, and then score it.” The music comes first, and then it’s interwoven throughout production. Directing is such an interesting misnomer at times because, in a way, it’s the opposite. It’s just about staying open and holding space for someone to step into a feeling, so some of the time, I wouldn’t even say anything. I would just sit with Kenadi and we’d both cry before she would go do her thing. Everyone better have a good time on set, and feel like it’s all worth it, because stress will send you in the wrong direction.
The river itself serves as a spiritual metaphor that bookends the film.
Water is beautiful and freeing, but also scary, and it’s something I fear. It represents the vast unknown of our subconscious. You go to the water to remember and to forget. It’s a contemplative space, and I like that at the end, Margo just becomes it. That shot of her in the water was actually the first thing we filmed. It was the one sunny, hot day during prep, and I was like, “We need to get this shot now.” The people at Panavision were visiting the set that day, and our gaffer, Sean, came up with the idea of putting the camera in a fish tank and floating it in the water. Underwater casing would’ve been too expensive. The Panavision people were like, “We’ve seen way crazier things done on Lake Michigan,” and they were totally supportive of it.
DIRECTING MAYA HAWKE
Your latest short, “As They Slept,” contains a marvelous performance from Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman’s daughter, Maya Hawke, whose career has just entered the stratosphere, thanks to her roles in “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” and the third season of “Stranger Things.” The short film you made together is a lovely portrait of two friends (Hawke and Rachel Hilson) affirming their self-worth, and it concludes with a terrific song by Hawke that plays over the credits.
One of my executive producers, Rhianon Jones, has a company called Neon Heart Productions that only supports women directors. She came through with what we needed for production on “Once Upon a River,” and we enjoyed working together so much that when I had to take a break from editing, before Chicago Media Angels got involved to help with post, she told me that if I came up with a cool idea for a short film, she’d fund it. I had recently met Nicolaia Rips, who had written a beautiful, hilarious memoir about growing up in the Chelsea Hotel. She had never written a script, but was very interested in learning more about that process, and I showed her how it would be a natural extension of her storytelling. So she wrote the script on a whim, and sent it to Rhianon, who loved it. The story was originally set in Berlin, so the only thing we had to change was the location.
Maya Hawke also lived in the Chelsea Hotel as a kid, and I happened to know one of her agents. I knew Rachel Hilson through Josh Radnor, who I met because my song was on “How I Met Your Mother,” and he liked my music. Rachel is so adorable and was perfect for the role. Another person I cast in the short who is currently blowing up is Fred Hechinger, who played one of the high schoolers in “Eighth Grade,” and just made “The Woman in the Window” with Amy Adams. He postponed going to Harvard because of his numerous films in production, and I’m so happy for him. He made a lot out of a small part. Everyone had fun making “As They Slept,” which consisted of us running around New York for two days, stealing footage at locations like Chinatown without getting caught.
Maya is a special person. She obviously comes from very deep talent and great artistry, but she herself is so open and brave and vulnerable simultaneously, and it was very cool to find her at that point in her life, before all this stuff happened. I don’t think it will mess with her because she has a very strong sense of herself. She’s a great visual artist, and she’s also a terrific singer/songwriter. Her music just blows me away. We went to a festival in upstate New York a few weeks ago to screen the short, and she got her first-ever award for anything she’s ever shot, which was so sweet. I just love that there’s no ego with her.
Both “Wedding Dress” and “As They Slept” contain a climactic dance scene.
It’s a good way to show character through movement, how people are relating to one another without talking. It’s another way of finding what you can show without explaining it. I’m really interested in what people are doing beneath what they are saying, and dance is a cool way to illustrate that. There was an amazing director who said, “Make sure that you get a take where the characters don’t say anything to each other.” A lot of what we used in the scene where Margo and Will first meet was from their nonverbal take. I told them to communicate their lines without saying anything, and you’d be amazed at how instinctive things are. That approach can save you in the editing room. If a line isn’t working, you can use the expression instead. If I have time to get that nonverbal take, I will for anything I make.
Tell me about your future projects, including the pilot you recently shot for “Girl Town,” featuring Jessie Pinnick, the star of Stephen Cone’s excellent film, “Princess Cyd.”
Jessie is incredible. She and her co-star in “Girl Town,” Sam Straley, know each other from Chicago. He played Billy in “Once Upon a River,” and the two of them are absolutely amazing together. The show is a five-minutes-into-the-future Michel Gondry-esque sci-fi rom-com based on the graphic novel by Carolyn Nowak, which I found at the wonderful Chicago bookstore, Women & Children First. You discover so much at a place like that. In graphic novels especially, there is something about the saturation of the colors and the way scenes are framed that shows you how the author has envisioned their story cinematically. If I wanted to see how Carolyn would film a scene in her book, all I’d have to do is locate it on the page. The story is about a girl who gets this robot boyfriend because she’s really lonely and is getting over a heartbreak. It rides that line of, “Is this funny or creepy, or kind of both?” I don’t want to tell people how to feel.
As for other future projects, there are a few of them, one of which I co-wrote with a friend. It’s about a female musician who’s sort of like Lucinda Williams, successful but still living this kind of pauper’s life in her late 40s/early 50s. She has a way younger boyfriend, and gets stuck with his kid for a weekend while on tour. It’s sort of like “Paper Moon” meets “Crazy Heart.” It’s a drama about nontraditional motherhood, but there is a lot of levity to it in that the kid is precocious in her way. She’s 12, so she’s at that in-between age where she’s not really a kid but not a woman either. Stephen Cone wrote a script that Shane Simmons brought to me, and that I’m planning to direct. I love shooting in Chicago so much, so I’m always looking for ways to be back here. I’ve kept my tiny apartment, and my family’s still here, so I’m trying to plan something with people who are based here that would be fun to do. At the same time, I don’t want to rush anything. I want to be in love with whatever I choose to make, and I don’t believe these projects are ready to be tackled as of yet. Anything could happen, though.
For more information on Haroula Rose, visit her official site. You can also find updates regarding “Once Upon a River” on Facebook. The film will screen at Colorado’s Vail Film Festival on Friday, August 16th, and Saturday, August 17th.
Header caption: Cinematographer Charlotte Hornsby and writer/director Haroula Rose on the set of “Once Upon a River.” Photo by Daniel Klutznick.