Experimental filmmaker and all around creative genius Bart Santello is the subject of the gripping documentary The Dome by Adam Ray. Bart was kind enough to discuss the creation of an organic space made solely from a natural earthen composition, the undaunted human will to form its structure, and his approach to filmmaking.
AIFF - The desert climate can be unforgiving at certain times of the year. One of the elements of the film that struck me was endurance. How did you keep from exhaustion and stay focused on both filmmaking and constructing the dome?
Bart - And there are other interests I pursue also. My way to persist in anything is to remove the element of 'time'. Just as I have been working the structure from which the dome was built upon for over 10-years now; I just completed a film that took over 10-years to make. But that's ok. That period was needed to allow the original idea of a particular project to fully express itself.
AIFF - One very interesting idea you mentioned was not planning the dome's construction. Is that your film making style also, let the structure form itself and allow for enhanced creativity?
Bart - Originally when I started this earthen structure, I was thinking low-profile for its visual aesthetic in the desert. The west side of the building is buried in the hillside, so I thought that at certain vantage points on the landscape, the structure may not even be visible. Since the building process continued for years, there was a period where I was reading books on Egyptian arches and domes by architect Hassan Fathy. Then after a trip to Italy, I could not let the opportunity pass, especially since I had already constructed a 12-foot diameter circular room.
In regards to my filmmaking style being similar to the experience above – absolutely. All my films originate with an idea, then I identify the things I'm drawn to that support the idea and film those inspired moments. I call these 'elements'. Then like assembling a jigsaw puzzle, the elements when combined become building-blocks that form the story. The film's consciousness begins to integrate and evolve. New insights emerge as a result and thus the film's production essentially a subconscious process.
This approach is opposite of typical films, where the writer, director and producer assemble the complete story first, then film a pre-formulated story.
AIFF - Is the science related to the composition of the “cob” (nature's fiberglass) used to build the structure, related to the science and creativity of making a film?
Bart - Only if you're speaking metaphorically about physical strength in relation to a film's 'strength'; that being, the idea behind the film is creatively expressed in the film.
AIFF - The texture of The Dome is rich and layered, how does that inform this film's style, and some of your other work such as Outskirts of Infinity.
Bart - Adam Ray as the director provided the structure and style of The Dome. As a collaborating filmmaker and also the person in the story, my role was to provide its 'consciousness', by reflecting on the aspects of the story that I wanted to convey within the framework that Adam provided. My contribution thus can be considered a layer or integrated elements in the story.
My 2006 film Outskirts of Infinity (https://vimeo.com/112452576) was my own production and is a deeply layered film that I'm still learning about with each viewing.
AIFF - When you visited the site at Chaco Canyon and found inspiration for building, what were some elements that influenced you visually and spiritually?
Bart - I prefer to use the word 'inspired' rather than 'influenced' when referencing things that attract my attention creatively. With respect to my “cob” structure I wanted to create something unique and original. The same is true with my films. In my opinion, if you copy a theme or style you will be compared to that original and thus fall short.
The Anasazi buildings at Chaco in New Mexico demonstrated a commitment of creating something over the long-term; provided insight into how 'mass' – thick walls, are needed to keep varying desert temperatures mitigated; and the efficient use of local materials (rock, clay and wood for beams).
The most spiritual part of Chaco for me was the circular 'Kiva' rooms. A circular room is shunned in today's buildings, mostly due to the complexity of construction (especially when building with wood), but also the difficulty of placing furnishings. However, “cob” makes building a circular room seem natural and fewer furnishings are required because the room itself is the focus – the interior design statement.
AIFF - Is Arivaca a model for the world to follow? Is it possible for a city to incorporate the same ideals your community shares?
Bart - I think each location from an individual property to a major city has to develop and customize its own sustainable living plans and solutions. Arivaca is a unique location and community and its remote location provides the opportunity for experimentation. The community is certainly behind the environment, alternative energy and sustainable building.
But this is rare and it's getting harder for people to build and be sustainable. This could be a long topic, but in short, governments and corporations are closing-in on all the frontiers around the world. Meaning 'dependence', not independence is the political, economic and corporate ideal. Thus laws and regulations make it difficult for people to free themselves from 'the system'.
THE DOME received the Best of Arizona Award.
Martine Blue, writer, director and producer and all around awesome filmmaker, is attending the festival with her debut feature film Hunting Pignut. She shares her insight on filming the real, little known world of Gutter Punk, dealing with tragedy and finding your way home.
AIFF - Taylor Hickson as Story, and Joel Thomas Hynes, Pignut gave super strong performances, like all the actors in the film. How did you get Taylor and Joel up for such emotionally hard scenes in the squat, and how did the texture and set/artistic design of Xavier Georges affect your direction and their awesomeness on screen?
Martine - I felt I had to approach Taylor and Joel's real life relationship very delicately. There is an age gap between the two actors (Taylor was 17 when we shot the film), they had to do a couple of very challenging scenes together and Joel can come across as intense or intimidating at times. I wanted Taylor to feel as comfortable working with him as possible. It was very important to me that their first meeting gave them a fun memory together, one that both actors could use as a foundation for their character's relationship. I organized a hike around Signal Hill (a gorgeous and historical scenic lookout in St. John’s where we also shot a scene in the film) for the three of us. From there, we rehearsed the most difficult scenes and discussed personal experiences we've had that relate to the material and correlations they could build off to make the events in the scenes real to them. The PCP scene was especially challenging to Taylor who didn't have the life experience to build those specific reactions on. Taylor puts her heart and soul into preparing for her roles and was able to dig deep to find elements of her own life to make her character's experience real for her. Taylor and Joel, who are also both musicians, became great friends, which ignited their on-screen relationship.
We were super lucky that Xavier and his team were able to work on our film. They were working on a period series called Frontier which had a schedule set back just two weeks before our shoot. The art director we hired wasn't working out so Xavier and his incredible art department researched their heads off and pulled the world together in 2 weeks. I was simply blown away by their work. I lived at C Squat in NYC for 7 years and had pictures of the squat as well as an incredible coffee table book by photographer Ashley Thayer called "Kill City" (also a squatter at the time) for Xavier and the art department to study, so they could achieve the right mix of art and squalor that was C Squat and bring that aesthetic into the film's world. I feel that the authenticity both the art and the wardrobe departments pulled off enabled all the actors, many of whom are from St. John's and had never even really seen a gutter punk before, to sink into the world.
AIFF - Stéphanie Anne Weber Biron, your Cinematographer is incredible, in pre-production what were some of the elements of style you discussed for each world?
Martine - We really wanted a separate aesthetic for both worlds and for our protagonist Story's personal journey to be reflected in the camera work. We started with a muted palate for the rural or "around the bay" portion of the film and for bright, vibrant colors in the St. John's scenes, as her world, life and outlook starts to open up when she runs away to the city. We discussed crowded frames in the early scenes, which reflect her feeling of being trapped, which open up as her world opens up. We also built a strong motif of fishing gear and nautical elements for the rural scenes and we shot through crab pots, lobster cages, anchors, fish tubs and racks. I also sought out my favorite alleys and graffiti in St. John's to show a very different aspect of the city than the pristine, iconic and idyllic shots that are featured in award winning Newfoundland tourism ads. Stephanie and I jokingly called the "film fish things and graffiti" at one point when we saw how much of each dominated our rushes. I actually had the art department scale the graffiti in the squat down when I realized how much was in all the exterior scenes of the film. We also avoided classical coverage in favor of an approach that focused on our main character Story. Some minor characters are only shown from the back and are not covered at all, so we can stay with Story's reaction to how they are affecting her. We also wanted to go with one shot scenes "oners" wherever possible as a stylistic approach.
AIFF - I think to live gutter punk you need to be much stronger emotionally and physically than people would ever give you credit, and you captured that beautifully in the scene where Pignut tries to educate the pedestrian. Your thoughts about courage, (otherness, not necessarily gutter punks) and how that translates in the film?
Martine - The theme of the film is about finding one's clan and place in the world. Exploring a sub-culture that seems potentially hostile at first definitely takes a determined and strong personality. I guess part of the theme is that having the courage to embrace being a misfit and not bowing to the pressure to conform to societal standards can lead to finding a clan of folks who share your core values and beliefs.
AIFF - How hard is it to recreate being high on PCP visually and musically and have people who have never embarked, get a sense of it?
Martine - That was a real goal of mine is to play with the visual and musical treatment of the PCP scenes so that the audience feels like they are on the drug with the characters. To achieve this visually Stephanie shot those scenes through a beveled ashtray to achieve the double imaging, light flares and a surreal, and a slightly off focus quality. My friend Dani Bailey is the singer/songwriter who is Story's voice in music. She has 5 songs in the film. It was particularly challenging to get her to play a discordant version of her song "Close Proximity" for one of the PCP scenes. It meant that she had to play against everything she knows to be sound musically. Our composer Simon Miminis then took the discordant style Dani and I built and composed his own PCP music for the love scene. It was fun to work with artists and ask them to push themselves beyond what is tasteful and considered proper form.
AIFF - You experience any feedback from fellow gutter punks about how you portrayed your world? If so, what resonates or not with the community?
Martine - So far no one from my community has been able to see it yet since it has only screened in film fests across Canada and not in any cities where I knew any punks to invite. However an old friend of mine who used to squat at 5th street in NYC is coming to the AZ screening, so I'm looking forward to her feedback. So far my friends who have seen the trailer think it's a good representation of the world. I expect more feedback from that community as it starts to screen internationally now and especially when it goes on-line and becomes super accessible to everyone in the next few months.
AIFF - The film for me is about family and you made it clear that gutter punks look out for each other, perhaps more than where they came from. Was that a theme you felt strongly about conveying?
Martine - I'm so glad that's what you got from the film. My goal was to portray the gutter punk scene authentically, which means showing the alcoholism, drugs and violence, but I also wanted to make sure that I highlighted the aspects of the culture that I love and what drew me to it, which are the fun we had and the incredible sense of community and family it gave me. C Squat and my present home in Newfoundland were the two communities that I felt at truly at home in, where I felt I belonged and felt like family to me, so I wanted to reflect that and have these two divergent worlds come together. As an only child with a tiny extended family, finding a community to belong to was vital to my own happiness and sense of self worth, so it is a major theme for my life as well.
AIFF - The clothes really do mean something to Maggie, can you talk about that?
Martine - Maggie is growing out of the nomadic, spanging scene into studying tattoo art and wanting to buy a tattoo gun and start her own business. I wanted her to be cleaner than the other characters and for her wardrobe to reflect the transition from nomadic gutter punk to an artist interested in exploring the world and a change of focus.
Father and Son
Luong Dinh Dung is visiting Tucson with his film Father and Son, depicting the harrowing journey that shows the strength of a father’s love of his child. This epic and intimate film shows the strong sense of community families share along a glowingly picturesque river that becomes an awesome force of nature.
AIFF - How did you get Do Trong Tan as Ca and Ngo The Quan as Moc to work so well together on film and how did you direct the young actor to give such a strong performance?
Dung - For Tan as Ca, I did not explain the screenplay to him; he’s too young to understand the character in the film. I narrated it to him as though it was a story for kids instead. Similar to Tan, I suggested Quan not to study the script deeply and not to rehearse in advance nor ask others for advice on how to act. He might do so because of a fact that he has not married yet.
Besides, I let Tan and Quan stay together for some days before shooting. They lived, played and learned some skills together like swimming or sailing. So they quickly love each other. When we did the real shooting, I often described the situation and let them act it out by their nature. Only when it did not match my ideas, did I make some adjustments.
AIFF - What issues did you and Bui Kim Quy face writing the film? What were the challenges of working together and working out such a challenging story?
Dung - The first difficulty was that we had to balance our creativity and budget limit. We always wanted put as much creative details as possible into the film to make the story impressive and interesting but this was an independent project that I had to cover the production cost by myself, so we had to take all the details into consideration to find out what we need to retain and the details that we can omit for cost savings.
For example, the detail of rain on the hill is an indispensable detail, but the cost to bring equipment and crew to the hilltop is huge and difficult. Another detail is the families avoiding the flood at the top of the hill. We did consider that we might change that shelter to a lower location instead of the hilltop. However, it will reduce the characteristics of reality and excitement of the film. Finally, we still choose the first option.
The second difficulty is to find out the unique way of telling the story. As a matter of fact, the subject of family affection is a familiar theme in film and has been exploited by many people. So we have to choose between to follow the familiar style of telling the story and to do our own style, that is, I let the story unfold as naturally as in our daily life, so that the story develops itself. I am like a person who holds the camera and captures the life of the character instead of asking them to follow what I want them to act. Feelings and climax depend on each of the audience. And that’s what I did in my movie.
Regarding working with Bui Kim Quy, she was a truly creative scriptwriter with lots of amazing ideas. However, it’s unavoidable that we sometimes encounter some disagreements. Each of us wanted to keep our own idea. At that time, we had to stop and share our thoughts as well as explanation; whose ideas support most the plot will be chosen. (Father and son is the spin-off of my short story written in 1995)
AIFF - Before shooting the film, what did you and cinematographer Ly Thai Dung discuss about the difficulties and artistic style of shooting in remote locations and contrasting that with the city?
Dung - We discussed about the remote locations of the hilltop and river and the harsh weather, because the rain and the flood in this area were unpredictable so we all agreed on the flexibility of the scene, as well as be ready to adjust the script a bit to fit with the current situations on the setting. I also expressed my desire to capture the true nature with DOP Ly Thai Dung, so that we could prepare for the scene. And luckily we did that after many failed attempts. We use most of the natural light to make the film more real. Also, we agreed to use a variety of wide shots to portray all the beauty of nature in those locations. And we restrict doing CU shots, so actors can act in the most natural way. All the shots in the mountainous area were beautiful and dreamy while shooting in the city was done as real as a fact in life.
AIFF - What does this film mean personally for you, it feels like your film was made with great care for subjects that you dealt with?
Dung - The incident I saw when I was a child is one of those reasons that urge me to make this movie. There was a son holding a wooden bar hitting his father’s head until he falls down. At that time I painfully felt the sense of powerlessness. In Vietnam society today, the act of violence from the parents, children’s mistreat to their parents, family separation happen every day. I wished that I could have done something to make this society better.
Another powerful reason of mine was because of my mother. My family lived in poor mountainous area and we never travelled by the airplane at that time. My mother kept wondering how it would feel to be on a plane flying high in the sky. Unfortunately, she passed away several years later before she could do that. It was the dream of hers as well as mine. I also had a chance to catch the delightful eyes of the children looking up to the sky when the airplane went pass.
All those things drove for me to write the story and to make this movie.
And until now it’s my deep belief that my movie has contributed to create huge impact, calling people to cherish family relationship, provoke affection inside every human being not only in Vietnam, but more in global term.
AIFF - What scenes were the most enjoyable, or satisfying to shoot, if you had to choose one or two?
Dung - The first impressive scene is the father and the son sitting together on the driftwood with a flock of white birds flying high on the sky as a background. It is extremely peaceful and tranquil but at the same time shows the latent ferocity and ruthlessness of nature. The second scene is the one of the blind man appearing gradually on the hill, carrying five kids on the bike on his back. It evokes unforgettable memories in those audiences who used to live in the mountainous area of Vietnam.
South Korean director Lim Young-Hoon's film The Soup is receiving critical acclaim as it tours the festival circuit. The director shared with AIFF some insight into his film.
AIFF - If you had an extensive rehearsal process with the actors, what did you talk about, and what did your actors bring to the table that really surprised you and let you know they were perfect for the parts. Or did you know they would be great when you cast them?
Young-Hoon - I don't think the handicapped people are all the same. That's why we had so many rehearsals before filming. Some actors were cast through the auditions before shooting, and the actors of the main characters were cast through the images of former works. So what we found out during the filming was that the actress So-Yeon Jang (the child's mother character) actually has a mother who has disabilities and it was very surprising. We thought that it'll be best when it comes to expressing the pain.
And also the starring actors and the movie team visited community facilities to meet actual people with disabilities and spent lots of time to help and listen to their own stories.
AIFF - The characters in the film were treated viciously by seemingly everyone they encountered on the street. Is this something that is common and you wanted to shed light on?
Young-Hoon - I believe that people are all alike whether they have or don't have disabilities. But people who think they are normal at some point think that there are a lot of disabled people and some are socially surplus. I wanted to show how hurtful it is because of some regardless and thoughtless actions of people and it can be seen through the movie.
AIFF - Did you ever consider some cutting some of the scenes with the child actor that were disturbing or that's the reality, it must be part of the film?
Young-Hoon - This movie is based on a true story. I am a person who believes there is no absolute evil, and everyone just needs attention and love. But some people grow up without basic needs and have bad customs and habits. That shows why Jae-gu goes back to his bad habits and makes mistakes while he hopes to be a part of Sun-yeong's family at one point. I don't think that the basic needs like love, attention and education has anything to do with fortune. People might think that disabled family could be unhappy or even depressed, but that's not true. They feel grateful and happy for smaller things.
The parents affection for their children are the same whether disabled or not, and that was why we had so much considerations about the scene which Jae-gu sexually assaulted Sun-yeong. But I thought it is necessary to picture the true story.
AIFF - How did the locations affect your style of shooting?
Young-Hoon - I mostly liked the location of the filming site, and I think we have done our best when considering the cost and environment we had.
AIFF - Have you experienced any negative feedback from home about how you showed the disability of the characters?
Young-Hoon - There weren't much negativity. Rather, we were told that the characters' gestures and actions were more realistic and interesting than conventional films.
Multi-talented artist and filmmaker Paul Gray will be in Tucson to exhibit his newest film And Violet, where he takes us into the complex world of adoption. Paul discusses performance and the challenge of telling this important story set in the cinematic world of Scotland.
AIFF - The three main characters each fight for their lives. When you were writing the screenplay, what was the challenge of creating their worlds and what was the difficulty of writing and directing a film with three equally strong characters?
Paul - Telling a story from the perspective of three characters was an intention from the very beginning. The screenplay was developed with this narrative structure in mind, so creating a coherent story that engaged, and allowed for three separate points of view to be expressed, was certainly a challenge that I had to consider throughout the writing process. At the centre of the story is the emotive topic of open adoption - where there is on-going contact between a birth family and adoptive family – and we experience the complex relationship that adopted teenager Violet has with both her birth Mum and adoptive Mum. I wanted to give a balanced and non-judgemental insight into the lives of these three characters, so while we spend time individually with each character's story, the narrative is built around key moments when their lives cross and impact upon one another.
AIFF - Hana Mackenzie, as Violet, gives a very subtle and gripping performance. There is a lot going on underneath that wonderful head of hair. How did you work together to find the right tone of her character for a part that was difficult to portray?
Paul - I initially met Hana after Ian Dunn, who plays Violet's Dad, recommended her. Ian is a lecturer in acting at Edinburgh Napier University, and while Hana was in the process of completing her studies, he suggested that I really should meet her. From the first audition Hana immediately made the role her own. This all happened about six months before we started shooting, so we had a lot of time to discuss Violet's character and refine some of the detail.
We would discuss particular themes or scenarios from the story and Hana would improvise video diaries based on these discussions. The results were wonderfully raw and very natural, and some of the ideas from these rough recordings found their way into the final film - where we only really get an insight into what Violet is thinking when she shares her private thoughts directly to camera.
I had also been consulting with a local adoption agency, Scottish Adoption, who were hugely supportive during the development stages of the screenplay. They helped facilitate meetings with people whose lives are affected by adoption, including adoptive parents, birth parents and a group of adopted teenagers. Hana and I met with the teenager group and we screened some of the video diaries. The group was extremely open about their experiences and insightful in their discussions on Violet's character.
AIFF - The environment is stark and the colors are muted in many of the scenes. I do not find the film sad but rather uplifting. Is that a theme you want to resonate with the audience?
Paul - I am glad to hear that you found the story uplifting, and yes it is very much the theme I want to resonate with the audience. Adoptive parents and birth parents can sometimes be labeled in very simple binary terms – that of good parent versus bad parent - but it is not always so straightforward. Violet is caught between two conflicting parts of her identity, between nature and nurture as represented by Birth Mum Zoe and Adoptive Mum Cathy. Put simply I would say that part of the story of And Violet is Violet's pursuit to try and regain a sense of equilibrium.
As for the environment of And Violet, we shot the film in Edinburgh, which is a World Heritage Site, but I wanted to show a different type of beauty to the elegant sandstone structures that it is famous for. Like the relationships between the characters, areas of the city are in a continual state of development, so this is reflected in the characters' surroundings. I set Cathy and Zoe's homes in contrasting locations to reflect something of their differing circumstance - Cathy and Violet live in a solid modern and spacious apartment overlooking the sea. It is high above ground, safe and ordered, which is in stark contrast to Zoe's temporary home in a small and cramped urban canal-boat that floats on standing water.
AIFF - Birth Mum Zoe (played by Kirsty Strain) has been down a hard road and Adoptive Mum Cathy (played by Shonagh Price) battles to protect her adopted daughter at all costs. Can you talk about the dynamic between these two mothers?
Paul - Both characters are motivated to do what they think is in the best interest for Violet but they don't always get it right and their own needs sometimes affect their judgement. I think this is an important aspect to explore - that Zoe is seen as a fallible character trying to right previous wrongs, while Cathy is the capable mum who fears losing her daughter. Cathy believes that she has done the best she can in bringing up Violet to be a well rounded person, while also repairing some of the wrongs that Violet experienced while in Zoe's care. On the other hand Zoe accepts her failings, but she is also aggrieved in knowing that she never got the chance or the support that she desperately needed.
There is also an underlying mutual gratitude between Zoe and Cathy. Zoe knows that Cathy has given her daughter safety and security, and a life that she never would have been able to offer. While Cathy knows that her wonderful daughter shares something of Zoe's spirit, and ultimately wouldn't exist without Zoe having brought her in to the world in the first place. This dynamic adds further complexity to the relationship between the two Mums.
AIFF - The music in the film is great and used sparingly, which greatly added to the effectiveness of scenes, and I especially liked the live performance of Hook. Can you talk about how you decided to use music or not use it to accompany particular scenes in the film?
Paul - I use music sparingly at times, again to help contrast the worlds of Zoe and Cathy. When we are with Zoe, there is generally a lot of intrusive noise - the canal boat is right next to a building site - whereas Cathy's world is far quieter and more controlled.
The use of music in the film is generally diegetic and is either played by the characters or in the background of a scene. I didn't use a film score because I wanted to strip certain aspects of the film-making process back, as I felt this was in keeping with the type of story that is being told. I used music in scenes where the emotional connect between characters defines a turning point in the story. Like in the live performance of Hook in the club, where we see Zoe let go and act freely for the first time, but she is also reckless and this collides with her past and with Hook's world. These actions then go on to have consequences for her relationship with Violet.
Hook is Zoe's confidante and a very quiet character. We don't hear him say much, but when he does, he chooses his words carefully when advising Zoe. I liked the idea that this very quiet and thoughtful personality could also surprise, by performing live in the way that he does. All of the music in the film is by local acts and Dave (who plays Hook) is the emcee of Scottish hip-hop group Stanley Odd, who are a fantastic live act and it was great to have him bring that energy to the film.
Halfway to Zen
Toby Poser, John Adams, Zelda (Z) Adams, and LuLu Adams are the Adams Family, a film production unit that makes awesome films as a family. The Arizona International Film Festival is proud to discuss their newest film Halfway to Zen.
AIFF - Zelda, your character is complex and your performance is powerful. How did you approach your character Eddie? How do you prepare before shooting, does the director require endless rehearsals?
Zelda - I like to think of my character Eddie as a strong kid that has a lot of hard things going on around him like his father coming back and his mom's stroke including his change from Edie to Eddie. To be honest, since I luckily work with my family (and they are the directors) I don't have to rehearse like at all. Maybe not even recognize lines! So I probably before the shoot just take a nap or so and then put on my acting face.
AIFF - You shot some scenes in the film as well, do you enjoy taking on other roles besides acting?
Zelda - Yes! I love being both in front of the camera and behind. Ever since I was six I got to do everything in the film since I have awesome parents so yes I am quite lucky to be able to shoot movies with them. I also love taking photos and drawing.
And I play soccer and drums. My dad and I have a band, Kid Kalifornia.
AIFF - Toby, you're taking on quite a lot by acting, writing, producing, directing god knows what else taking care of the family and seeing one child off to college. How do you balance these roles and still be able to settle down as an actor while dealing with so much?
Toby - I remember on our first film, this was the toughest challenge. Before then I'd only identified as an actor-- (Oh man, I can hear John making fun of me now, saying in a very serious, dramatic tone, "ActING!"). Yeah, so suddenly remembering lines and getting into character were dwarfed by things like "Do we have a permit for this? I like the dialogue; why are we improvising? The dialogue stinks; let's improvise!" And then on top of that I was always thinking of the kids. They were 6 and 11, and we were shooting in the desert, on mountain tops, and in secluded incredible locations around the country. So instead of my "ActING!" I was more worried about their being hungry.... or not getting eaten by an alligator or bitten by a cottonmouth shooting in FL or falling off a cliff in Utah. So much for Mom of the Year.
But now, after four films, we've learned how to juggle well, the kids are older, and I feel lucky I can wear all these hats and be around them at the same time. Or I should say be working alongside our kids, because they are equally involved with the process.
AIFF - Does your character understand Pop in ways no one else can see? Your performance is awesome.
Toby - (I love this question, and thanks for the kind words.). Yes, I think Pop and Vick have something in common because of their respective brain issues-- very different issues, but they both feel trapped, imprisoned by their limitations. While Pop is sadly only going to go deeper into his dementia, Vick has the chance to recover from her stroke.
This theme of imprisonment was very important to me and helped guide my writing. Nick and Eddie fit in here too because Eddie feels trapped by his birth gender-- he is a boy in his heart, as he says. And then Nick really was incarcerated. Of course the other side of prison is freedom, and I like to think that all 4 characters find their particular freedom (or peace) by the film's end.
AIFF - How did you prepare to play Vick? What themes about her character interested you while writing the script?
Toby - I watched a lot of videos and talked with women my age who'd recovered from strokes. I'm grateful for their stories-- they really helped me get to know who Vick is. My friend shared something that really cracked open the role for me: that Vick might actually like something about the escapism her stroke allows. She can use it as an excuse to disengage from the world, from her emotional pain, even from her responsibilities as a mother.... To act like a big brat if she chooses to. It doesn't put her in the best light, and I like finding those small unappealing complexities in characters. It also helps illuminate the fact that 11 year old Eddie, who's got his own issues to navigate, really is the most courageous and confident of the bunch. And then physically, I practiced in the mirror and borrowed something from Brando: I shoved a tiny piece of cotton in my left lower gum to remind myself not to move that side of my face.
AIFF – John, as half the writing team on this film, how many hours a day do you write? (I hope I haven't asked this before) Do you write together or do you take turns writing scenes, how does that work? Do you ever get writers block, and if so how do you fight it?
John - On Halfway to Zen we had a fun writing system. I wrote the first draft in a couple months. (I can only write for about an hour at a time because I can't sit still very long). Toby worked it over and filled in more details. Then we walked a couple miles everyday together and talked through the scenes and worked together on finding all the lines and circles we wanted completed. We call our hiking trails "the office". Halfway to Zen is the first of our films that we really wanted a locked down script and it really helped the filming and ultimately the editing go much easier.
AIFF - Adams Family – what was a difficult scene to shoot either technical or performance wise?
John - Technically shooting in the restaurant was the hardest thing because there was a lot of noise and dialogue to capture. You'd be amazed at how much a refrigerator hums and air conditioner rattles and cars outside honk.
The easiest and most fun was to shoot all the broken down train towns. Driving across country I followed train maps so I could construct a beautiful broken town through film. It was wonderful to take the time to explore these towns to find the buildings and sections of train tracks I found most romantic.
Toby - This wasn't as difficult as it was insane: we shot a few scenes of us swimming in the river, and those shoots always made me cringe: we literally just submerged the tripod into the water with the camera hovering a few inches above the surface. But that's why working with John is the best-- he's a bit of a lunatic who doesn't understand the concept of "NO, this can't be done." Without him, nothing would get done-- and you can count on it all getting done with flavor!
And then there's the kids, Zelda and Lulu (who's a freshman in college now). They've gotten really good behind the camera, and it's always fun to see what cool shots they've lined up. They are also our BS monitors (can I say bullshit on here?). Their unique perception is really important; helps us keep it real.
AIFF - Family - going into this project what were some of the issues you faced?
John - I think the toughest issue was to be vigilant not to be heavy handed with these subjects. When I had cancer, my nurse said to me the people who make it are the ones who can laugh. And that beautiful philosophy also applies to life. One of our main goals in this film is to show how we can and should laugh even in the darkness.
Toby - We have a very thin budget, no special lighting or equipment.... Just simplicity, determination, using what nature throws our way, and if we're lucky, a lot of happy accidents. In other words, rather than feeling limited by our limitations, we kind of run with them. There are a lot of generous people out there who offer their cafe or home to shoot in, their food, their time. Making films can be so heart-breaking and heart-filling on any given day, and it's always worth it.
AIFF - Family – the texture of the film is hard and unforgiving on the outside as predators lurk about. From your other films, I know you do not shy away from controversial themes. As a family of filmmakers, Zelda was brave to be in such a frightening and disturbing scene. Was there ever a question as to whether or not to put it in the film?
Zelda - hmmm. Yes, most audience members thought that scene was very scary and horrific, but luckily I was working with my drum teacher (the guy who played the molester dude) and he is such a sweetie and very kind. So it was no worries and he was very pro for instance he was the only actor who wanted to do a rehearsal!!!!
Toby - Oh yeah. I had a hard time with that scene. I think I even pushed to drop it, because it disturbed me so much. That actor, Nathaniel Meek, is a close friend so Z was very comfortable around him. (He's the sweetest guy, by the way, which makes his creep factor skyrocket in that role, and he did it so well.) I do think that scene helps drive home several important issues in the film: It gives us the chance to see Nick as both a hero and a criminal. It also highlights Eddie's courage and yet vulnerability; the fact that she is overwhelmed by her circumstances. And Nick hits the end of the road regarding Pop. He knows he's got to put Pop in a "home," which is really hard, but in a strange and kind of beautiful way it also pushes the rest of them together. This was a good example of when having a yin yang kind of partnership (where John and I balance each other out) was really helpful, because John really advocated for that scene and in the end I trusted his instincts. Sometimes it works the other way too, so after 4 films we work well together that way. And then sometimes we have to shoot things two ways and duke it out in the editing room!
AIFF - Family – Please talk about the films contrasting worlds, inner strength, and forgiveness.
John - I had a religion teacher in college who said true genuine love is being able to forgive anything. I don't know if that's true, but I see families that have gone through so much pain and yet they still stick together. Whether that's admirable or not, it's a pattern that's undeniable. Our characters take a chance on forgiveness.
Actor, writer, director Catherine Eaton, a new powerful emerging voice in cinema, will be in Tucson with her highly acclaimed film, The Sounding. We are excited to have Catherine share her insight into the art of language, and raising important issues about how we perceive the world.
AIFF - How was blank verse cinematic to you when you first visualized the film and how it translated into the films imagery during production?
Catherine - The character of Liv – and her eventual journey to speaking blank verse – existed as a play before I conceived of it as a film, so rather than the verse inspiring the film, the verse inspired the character and the character inspired the film. The film isn't really about Shakespeare or verse at its core; that's a tool Liv uses (and I use) to tell the story of the film, but not its center.
That said, I think there is a similarity in the rhythm an edit lends a film and the rhythm verse lends language. The same is true of music and film – music has a rhythm that influences the cut of a film (and our emotional response to it). And there is certainly a relationship between music and verse, so it seems to me verse and film have the ability to yield a similar potential symbiosis.
Also, there is a creative opportunity available: poetry tends to prioritize sound and image (vs. literal meaning), and the same could be argued about film (and sound/image vs. plot).
As to the second half of your question, it was my intention that the film's verse not translate into the film's imagery (doing essentially the same job), but rather, that they would at times compliment and at times contrast each other while striking separate notes.
AIFF - In your performance of the poetry from each play, as an actor, how did you approach a role this complex and make the language flow so seamlessly with co-actors speaking back to you in prose?
Catherine - In his own plays, Shakespeare's poetry all stems from each character's need to communicate or “get” something from another character. The poetry of each line – the rhythm and sound – are always in service of that communication (An example of this is Juliet's speech “Take him and cut him out in little stars” – the imagery and her breathless impatience is contained in the sounds of the words, as well as the meaning).
In the case of THE SOUNDING, even though Liv is using Shakespeare's words outside of the context of his plays, their primary purpose is still the same: to communicate, to get what she wants. And so as long as I (in playing Liv) used those words – both their meaning and their sound – to really say something to the other characters and try to get something from them, then there wasn't really any difference between how they spoke and how I was speaking.
AIFF - In pre-production with your amazing cinematographer, and art department, what did you discuss regarding the color palette of the film to complement or contrast your character, and co-stars performances?
Catherine - My production designer Rocio Gimenez is a genuine artist, so we had long in-depth conversations about the themes of THE SOUNDING and Liv's connection to the island. I had lots of images and clips I had pulled as references that I shared with Rocio. From that, Rocio went away and created her own mood boards to reflect her interpretation of all of that, and the result was the draining of color as Liv moves from the natural wild raw beauty and power of the island to the man-made arena of the psychiatric hospital. We knew we would begin with the greens and blue-grays found on these islands off the coast of Maine and have that inform everything – and then Rocio had the wonderful idea of imbuing the interior of the home Liv shares with her grandfather Lionel with deep burgundy reds as it is their emotional center and where the catalyzing event of the film takes place. So the palette begins rich, gets richer, and then – snap – when we hit that catalyzing incident, from that point forward color is drained from palette of the film to the point where the final fifteen minutes of the film takes place almost exclusively in a white room.
THE SOUNDING's incredibly talented DP David Kruta and I chose a camera and lenses (Alexa and Leica) that would allow us to really enhance those natural colors but achieve a clinical sharpness on the other end of the film, and he further emphasized that color-concept with lighting – working from source-sensitive, reverse-key lighting and natural light and progressing through to brighter harsher exposed aggressive lighting.
Finally, Caitlin Conci, our fantastic costume designer, reflected all that in the color palette and textures of the clothing of the characters. For instance, Liv is always in natural colors – even in the hospital – supporting the essence of the character regardless of environment, and Michael progresses from contained layers to loser fibers and rustic patterns as he loses the careful constructs he brought with him to the island.
AIFF - I believe your film asks a lot of important questions. Do we really need answers or is starting a conversation about the freedom to be who you want to be enough?
I'm so glad to hear you say the film raises a lot of important questions, thank you. As a filmmaker, one of my goals is to raise questions rather than answer them, and to present new ways of looking – be it at an issue, at a person, at a culture - that we may not yet have experienced. When we live with certain norms (as a society or as an individual), it can become difficult to see outside of the box we are presented with. I'm very interested in what's outside that box.
As far as the specific concept of having the freedom to be who you want to be (and of equal importance, allowing others to be who they want to be), I don't think questions are enough, no. But questions are a point of entrance for change.
AIFF - Why did you choose Pyramus and Thisbe for the play within the film? Does it have special meaning to you personally?
Catherine - I chose it because it's funny and brief and entertaining and the players are always the subject of affection and mockery (which was valuable at this point for Michael's character within the film) - but most importantly I chose it because it allowed me to stage a twist at the end of that scene (no spoilers!) that we've never seen before which served the film and the play within the film. To see a new twist on staging of ANY of Shakespeare's work that has never been seen before is a rare opportunity!
Kate Can't Swim
Amazing writing, directing, and acting team Jennifer Allcott and Josh Helman are here with their poignant and gripping film, Kate Can’t Swim about the complexities of love, relationships, and forging ahead with renewed spirit.
AIFF - What was the most challenging scene emotionally and how did you work through it?
Josh and Jen - The most challenging scene emotionally was probably the break-up scene. It’s a really challenging scene for any actor, not only emotionally, but especially considering the improvisational nature of the film - it’s not easy to go deeply into a break-up scene without specific words to work with. We were fortunate to have worked on that scene in rehearsals, though, and doubly fortunate to have had the actors we did - not only could they handle the improvisation, they could handle the dexterity of moving from beat to beat through the scene while never losing their connection to their characters’ emotional lives. We shot two takes that ran almost 15 minutes each. At the end of the second take there was a group of about six of us, huddled in the next room around the tiny monitor, crying. We thought that was probably a good sign that we got it.
AIFF - As a writing team and or directing team, were there elements of the film that you absolutely felt needed to be there, and if you disagreed how you did ultimately resolve the issues?
Josh and Jen - What we found worked for us was to lock ourselves in a room and go back and forth through each beat. One of Jen’s great strengths is a real handle on emotional texture and emotional logic, and one of my particular strengths is structure and unity. So together we found that the best way of doing things was to build it together so that we were both happy and felt our particular ways were honored. We always knew that the film had to be in Kate’s perspective at the beginning, but that at the midpoint we would (hopefully) divorce ourselves from her perspective as her nuances and the other characters’ nuances come to light, which we felt would allow us to see every one of the four characters in an increasingly different light, so that by the end you were surprised by every one of them. That was key to us.
AIFF - What would you hope your female audience takes away from the film?
Josh and Jen - We hope that the film feels truthful to everyone who sees it, male and female alike. It was very important to me that the depiction of the relationships be realistic and naturalistic and not tethered to any traditional notion. Jen and I are committed to writing roles that are complex, interesting and human - particularly our roles for women. We’re often irritated by how women are portrayed in media, and as actors we have seen the inner workings of that firsthand. To study the casting breakdowns for female roles can be a maddening and sad experience. As a director, all I want to do is be able to tell a truthful, engaging and hopefully moving story and never lose sight of my own particular biases in the process. And on a personal note, I am white and male and as such I can never fully know the ins and outs of being female or a minority but if I’m going to be a part of that conversation then I want to listen and learn and make sure that my part in it adds to the conversation instead of subtracting from it or muddying it.
AIFF - How did your lakeside location set the tone of the film?
Josh and Jen - I think it helped in a few ways - it was an effective misdirection for us in cinematic terms, because cabins in the woods tend to be places where young people die - and we wanted to use that to our advantage in getting our first impressions of Nick. But also it is a place that suggests a kind of timelessness - especially that particular location - and what I think that does is allow us to subconsciously feel the time passing in these characters’ lives - these people will inevitably change as sure as the cabin and these woods will remain. And finally it was just helpful to emphasize different aspects of the woods and the cabin when we needed to feel claustrophobia, remoteness, and finally a reawakening.