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HIFF 2022: Interview with Surprised By Oxford Writer/Director Ryan Whitaker

Surprised by Oxford

Below is my conversation with Ryan Whitaker, the director and writer of Surprised by Oxford, a film that’s making its world premiere at the Heartland International Film Festival. We talk about the challenges with creating chemistry between stars, filming at Oxford University, and adapting a dense source material. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

 Ben Sears: Tell me how you came to the project? What was it about Carolyn’s story that spoke to you and believed you could turn it into a movie?

Ryan Whitaker: It was almost five years ago when I read the book and first talked to Carolyn about the rights. The book was recommended to me by my mom and my sister, who thought I would like it because it touched on a lot of things that were interests of mine: British culture, the city of Oxford, and the Inklings, writers like CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien. They were right, I just fell in love with her story and thought it was a beautifully written book, and I immediately began thinking about what this story could look like as a movie. It was a bit of a challenge because it was an almost 400 page memoir with a lot of characters, so it was really about chipping away at the marble and finding the movie hiding within. I loved Carolyn’s story, I loved that it was a coming of age story, a romance, and a spiritual journey. It was all of those things at once.

 BS: How much involvement did Carolyn have once the movie was greenlit?

RW: Carolyn has been nothing but supportive and collaborative from the beginning. I knew things were going to be smooth sailing when she read the first draft – which I was terrified to share with her because of all the things I had changed, which you have to do when you’re adapting a story like this – and she responded positively to it and has been nothing but supportive ever since. She’s remained involved, not directly, creatively speaking, but I would call her a close collaborator. She and Kent were on set for production, and she has a cameo in the film. It’s been a great working relationship.

BS: Were there any details that she helped with, from the Oxford atmosphere?

RW: The University of Oxford is a very strange place, if you’ve never been there. If you haven’t been there or toured, a lot of people don’t realize that it’s not one college, it’s a bunch of different colleges in the city of Oxford. The layout of the colleges is unique, in that there’s little walled gardens throughout the city. You have the quad, and the porter’s lodge at the front, and almost every college has a chapel and a dining hall. They’re all similar but they all have their own character. Getting those details as accurate as possible was really important to me. Carolyn was there in the early 90’s, and the film is set in the modern day, so it was a combination of talking to her about what it was like then and how much it’s changed since then. That town hasn’t changed much in a couple hundred years, but we also talked to students who are there today, trying to make it as accurate as possible.

BS: Was there a creative reason to set the film in the modern day, or was it a logistical concern? 

RW: It was purely practical, just a budget consideration. The question that I asked was, “does this film need to be set in the early 90’s?” Beyond the fact that this is when Carolyn was at Oxford, it would make more sense that it would be set in the modern day, and it would allow our budget to go further. There were very few things in the story that needed to be updated. For example, there’s a text message that Carolyn sees on Kent’s phone, and in real life, that was an email – in the early days of email. Beyond that, there wasn’t really anything in the story that dictated that it had to be set in that time period. 

BS: Speaking of shooting on location at Oxford, how difficult was it to get access to those historic locations? Were there many hoops that you had to jump through?

RW: The original plan was to shoot between terms, in the summer, when classes aren’t in session. We didn’t quite have our financing together, so we ended up pushing it into term time, which made it a little more complicated. Honestly, it really came down to some sheer luck, but then also really great people on the ground, working very hard to secure every location we needed. We were very lucky that we got access to all the locations that we did. We were able to shoot almost everywhere that we were able to, so it was logistically difficult, but you’d never know that from seeing the film, all the chaos outside of the frame.

BS: I know I’d be very nervous the entire time that something would be broken or misplaced. There’s a lot of delicate decorations that would make me anxious.

RW: By far, not only the most expensive location, but the most logistically challenging was the Bodleian Libraries, which are some of the oldest libraries in Europe. We shot upstairs in the Duke Humfrey room, which only deans and students have access to. A few films have shot up there, some have shot downstairs in the Divinity school, but the Duke Humfrey room was the library in the first Harry Potter movie. You can’t touch anything. Every single book has an alarm. You can’t take water on that floor. The gag about the ink pens not being allowed in the library came from a conversation with Carolyn. They’re very particular, so we had some locations like that that required a lot of tip-toeing around. You really don’t want to be the guy that destroys an original Shakespeare folio, or something like that.

BS: How did you come to cast Rose as Carolyn?

RW: I had first seen Rose in a film called Finding You, that my producer Ken Carpenter had done in Ireland, and Ken had said ‘what do you think about Rose in that role?’ So I went and watched that film and found her to be really likeable, the camera really loves her, she has a really great presence on screen. We got together and talked about the character, and I got a really great feeling that she could inhabit this role. The character is a bit of a complicated character, and I needed to cast someone that could somehow be unlikeable and likeable at the same time, and someone who could handle the intellectual side of the character in a way that didn’t feel precocious. I just had a feeling that Rose could do it, and it ended up being a great experience working with her, and after she was attached, it was just about how we build the best possible cast around her.

BS: That character has a steeliness to her that makes you understand how she could be so apprehensive of someone else, but there is a kind of openness that Rose really brings to it.

RW: The messy nature of the character is what I always thought was interesting. Casting is so important because if you cast the wrong person in that role, you don’t want someone that’s only unlikeable. Or at least unlikeable and un-relatable. If the character’s going to be unlikeable, they at least have to be relatable, and I think that’s what Rose really brought to the role.

BS: Rose and Ruairi’s chemistry is really great together, which is really crucial in a romantic comedy, or even a romance. Did you do anything to foster that chemistry or did it just come naturally?

RW: There was very little time – I’m trying to remember back, now – but Ruairi was one of the last people we cast in the film, actually. There wasn’t a lot of time, but I think they did spend some time together before we started shooting. Which was important to me, and to them, just to be around each other and develop a rapport. I do think that helped, but it was a restrained schedule.

BS: It’s not something where you can just put two people together and expect sparks to fly, so it worked out in the end.

RW: And even if you do all the work, whether it’s rehearsals or sending them off to spend the day together, it still might not work on screen. It’s always a bit of a gamble and we were very fortunate that the chemistry was there between the two of them.

BS: You mentioned earlier that you’ve always been a fan of classic literature, which forms a backdrop for the film. Were you worried at all that some of the dense, more academic books wouldn’t translate to general audiences? How did you go about making these people seem so smart but making it relatable?

RW: I realized early on that the most important thing was that the audience doesn’t have to know the literary references. The most important thing is that the audience has to believe that they do, and so that was a guiding principle to me. There is some “inside baseball” in this film, and you may not know the ins and outs of it, but the most important thing is believing that the characters do, so I hope we succeeded on that front. There were certainly even more literary references in earlier drafts of the script, which came down to a practical question of, how much can the audience handle? That was certainly something we talked about, but I just felt from the beginning that, if you know all these references, great. That’s wonderful, but it’s not necessary to enjoy the story.

BS: The romantic comedy can easily be formulaic in its plotting. What are some of the difficulties that you came across to keep this from being formulaic?

RW: Actually, I never saw this as a romantic comedy, I saw it more as a coming of age story. Part of what was unique about Carolyn’s book is that it wasn’t just a romance, it was also a coming of age story, it was a spiritual journey. It was all of those things at once, which I think is unique and I wanted to retain in the telling of the story. It’s easier said than done, and that was one of the more difficult aspects of the adaptation, was finding a way for those storylines to feel like they’re happening simultaneously and they’re all connected. So I guess the answer to the question is that the subversion of expectations was almost built in from the beginning just because it was a very unique type of story.

Surprised by Oxford will screen at the Heartland International Film Festival on October 12 at 7pm at the Deboest Lecture Hall at Newfields in Indianapolis. Buy tickets here.

HIFF 2022: Interview with Waiting For the Light to Change Director/Co-Writer Linh Tran

Waiting For the Light to Change

Below is my conversation with Linh Tran, the director and co-writer of Waiting for the Light to Change, a film that’s making its world premiere at the Heartland International Film Festival. We talk about Vietnamese filmmakers, the complicated process of writing the film, and its visual influences. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Ben Sears: Now that you’ve made your first film, do you find yourself watching movies differently? Do you find yourself analyzing them differently?

Linh Tran: It’s actually a little funny for me because I didn’t grow up watching movies. I didn’t really watch a lot of movies until I was in college, but I guess, from back then to now, there has definitely been a change in how I watch movies. I feel like the change is like, I begin to sympathize and appreciate more things and I watch movies in a kinder way. Now, I feel like I can enjoy them more, actually. I just started watching movies that I enjoy over and over and over again, and the first time is always like watching normally, and the second or third watch is more like a study. It’s a little bit of a learning experience, but at the same time, I don’t think it really differs that much.

BS: Do you find yourself looking at it differently from a technical level, thinking how you would have shot a scene from a different perspective, or a different editing technique?

LT: I don’t think so, actually. Sometimes if something is really outstanding, like a really flashy camera movement, then I would notice it right away, but most of the time I feel like whenever I catch myself doing that, it’s probably because I’m not really into the movie.

BS: You mentioned that you didn’t watch a lot of movies growing up. Is it because you didn’t have access to many of them, or you just didn’t have an interest?

LT: I think both. I’m from Vietnam, and it’s really unfathomable for someone like me – because nobody in my family is in the arts or making movies, or anything like that – and none of the kids that I knew growing up was interested in art. We weren’t encouraged to explore that side; the parents were always saying ‘you have to be good at math’. It just didn’t occur to me that that was a possibility. Making movies was never a thing. We did watch a lot of TV growing up, though. I didn’t get that interested in film until I got to college when I came to the states to study.

BS: Are there any Vietnamese filmmakers that you admire, or that you would recommend?

LT: It’s really hard because I feel like Vietnam was a colony for such a long time, and people were too busy with the war, and people were really poor until the 2000’s. So nobody thought about going to see movies, and now people are going to see movies, but they’re a lot of, like, “instant noodles” kinds of movies. Their arthouse scene is booming right now, and there are a few directors that I know and I like. Dang Nhat Minh made movies in the 90s and earlier, but doesn’t make anything nowadays, and I’ve only seen a couple of his films, but his filmmaking feels very honest and authentic, and very unlike a lot of movies that are made right now. Phan Dang Di, who is still working, and I think he’s really popular on the international film festival circuit. I’ve seen a lot of his movies and I have met him once. He’s a very quiet guy and an interesting character. I got to work with one of the actors that was in one of his movies for one of my short films, and that was really fun. I’m kind of jealous of my friends who are Taiwanese or Chinese or Korean because they have a really long and great cinematic tradition that we don’t have. But at the same time, it’s sort of freeing. You can do whatever you want and there’s no standard or someone to judge. But I’m not in Vietnam right now; hopefully one day I’ll be able to make a feature in Vietnam. 

BS: One of the most noticeable things about Waiting for the Light to Change is how most scenes just unfold in these long, unbroken takes. Was it always your intention to film it that way, or did it come about during production, when you were planning it out?

LT: The slowness and rhythm of the films of people like Jia Zhangke and Hong Sang-soo has always appealed to me. With those movies, you can really feel it as if it’s unfolding in front of your eyes. But this was really the first film where I tried to emulate that. It also was because we didn’t have a lot of money or time to shoot the film, so it was a necessity, but at the same time, it works well for the kind of story it is.

BS: I was reminded of Yasujirō Ozu and how his camera was always so static. Was that something you were trying to consciously emulate?

LT: I really like Ozu as well, especially the subject matter of his films. I also really like how stoic his films seem to be. I wasn’t actively thinking of him while I was making the movie, but he’s always been an influence and was probably in the back of my mind. What I like is a lot of restraint. It comes from a character or personality thing, and it kind of extends into the filmmaking.

BS: The dialogue almost feels improvised throughout the film. Was there much improvisation that you allowed from the actors? It feels Ozu-like in that it’s almost like you’re watching something unfolding that you shouldn’t be watching.

LT: So, I’m going to tell you a story of how the script came to be, first. I was a grad student at DePaul University, when they had this program where you pick a script, pitch it, and work on it. This was a very different script, and then we were going to go into production when COVID happened. At one point, after the shoot got pushed a couple times, it wasn’t COVID-friendly, so we put it aside. We thought, let’s just write a new script as what we know as 25, 26-year old’s. At the time, I was working with two playwrights and we wrote the script over Zoom calls, we improvised the dialogue, we divided it into parts, wrote it, read it, and revised it over two months. In January of 2021 we got the first draft, and shooting was in March 2021, so we didn’t have a lot of revision. We were trying to cast the actors who reminded us of the characters we were writing, and we interviewed them and incorporated stories that they told us into the script. Because of COVID, we quarantined the entire crew at the lake house in Michigan where we shot the film. I was so lucky that I got the actors out there a week in advance, so we had the latest draft, we had a table read and I took the script away. When we went into rehearsals, they didn’t have a physical copy to memorize their lines. So during rehearsals, we would improvise these scenes based on what they remember, I would record it on my phone, and write the script based on what they said and send that to them. So on the set, there wasn’t a lot of improvisation, but the improvisation was in the rehearsals.

BS: You can really sense the chemistry between the actors, which is really crucial in this film. Did you do anything beyond quarantining them together to bring that chemistry out?

LT: Yes, in rehearsal, I really tried to get everybody to have trust with each other and establish that kind of familiarity. Before we went to Michigan, I would have these Zoom calls with the actors and I would turn off my camera and let them talk to each other. I would pop in and out, and let them chat on their own. Some of the stories they would tell each other, about their family, or their lives, were really powerful. Sometimes they would just share these things that were so intimate.

BS: Tell me a little about how you chose the location where most of the film takes place.

LT: Well, we didn’t really have money. One of the producers, Jake Rotger, said we could go and shoot at his family’s lake house before he had a story or a script or anything. So we had the location first, and then we tailored the script and the actors and everything to fit the location. Actually, in the original script, there’s a bonfire scene and because we were using the university’s money, they wouldn’t allow us to use fire because it could be too dangerous. We were really upset that morning, we got an email from the school, so we had to think of how we could transform the scene without the fire, so we changed it to a propane oil lamp.

BS: I’ve seen a lot of festival movies that tend to play up the drama with contrivances that don’t really feel authentic, but the drama here is underplayed, which I appreciated. When you were making it, did you ever get the urge to play up the drama?

LT: I don’t like making things so obvious and so external. There’s so much drama going on in everybody’s head all the time, and however we can make that known is more important to me. My best friend bought me a plane ticket to spend Thanksgiving with her. I told my writers I would take notes and come back with a story, so a lot of the bits in the film are things that I’ve experienced in my life. So to me, this is plenty of drama already. And there was a lot of energy on set that it already felt so full to me, and I really didn’t think of making this more dramatic.

BS: You kind of expect that, if things don’t go the protagonists’ way, the world will be over or nothing will ever be the same, but that’s not true to life.

LT: I think, in some sense, it will never be the same. Sometimes you meet someone and you know you’ll never see them again. It’s not always like that, but I don’t think the stakes need to be any higher. When I was writing this, I just really wanted to make something that people around me, people my age, could watch and think ‘oh my god, this is someone I know’.

Buy in-person and virtual tickets here.

HIFF 2022: Interview with The Moon and Back Writer/Director Leah Bleich

The Moon & Back

Below is my conversation with the writer and director of The Moon and Back, an official selection at the 2022 Heartland International Film Festival, and her directorial debut. We discuss the intimidation factor of working with well-known stars, the themes of the movie, and the impact that home movies had on her growing up. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Ben Sears: You only had nine days to shoot the movie, so what was it like to be thrown into that kind of chaos?

Leah Bleich: It was really challenging, I think that our shooting schedule was one of the biggest challenges of the project. I think the only thing that was more difficult was the amount of prep time we had because that was really expedited as well, but I think there’s something really beautiful and fun about not having room to think or dwell or over-think while you’re on set. At every point you just have to keep moving, and that leads to a really charged environment where everyone is doing their job. It’s exhausting but there’s something very fun about that too.

BS: Did the final product have to change at all because of the shortened schedule?

LB: A bit. There was a B-plot that just wasn’t playing when we got into post-production, and part of that was that there was a scene that we just couldn’t get to during production, and it just wasn’t core to the story, which was where the audience was going to be investing emotionally. There were compromises that we made, but I’m very happy that we weren’t forced to cut anything or make sacrifices that affected the central emotional rhythm of the movie.

BS: You’ve directed a few short films before this. Were there any differences in your working style from making a short film versus a feature?

LB: Absolutely. I think the biggest change from my perspective, not necessarily in terms of working style, but one thing that took me by surprise was that, despite the budgetary and time constrictions, this was the first time that I realized what it felt like to be a director, where everybody else was a professional doing their job, and I wasn’t there with a backpack full of all of the props and costume changes. It was a very exciting thing to realize that I had stepped into a team where everybody was supporting one another and I wasn’t just doing everything myself. I think, with short films, unless you’re doing a well-financed short film, you’re just handling everything yourself.

BS: And you’re working with established actors like Nat Faxon and Missi Pyle. Was there a level of intimidation that came with that?

LB: Oh my gosh, absolutely! I don’t think I could overstate that. I remember on my first day of production, we were using my producer’s apartment as a home base, and just that feeling of stepping into her house and knowing that Missi Pyle was in a bedroom getting her hair and makeup done. I’m so honored that they gave me the time, and it was highly educational.

BS: One of your mentors also was Cathy Yan. What kind of advice did she give you, or help you out with?

LB: Contextually, because The Moon & Back was produced through Wayfarer Studios’ competition, they matched each of us with a mentor. Cathy was someone they reached out to and paired her up with me, which I was so excited about because she’s incredible. She was there for every step of the process, and she’s in New York, so we would have Zoom or phone calls. At the transition point between every major stage, whether it was pre-production or production, or post-production, we’d typically get on the phone for an hour or two and talk about everything from the fears that come into place to advice, things to avoid or celebrate. It was a really lovely experience and I’m very grateful to have worked with her.

BS: Coming-of-age films usually feel like they’re at least partially inspired by the filmmakers’ real-life experience. Was that the case with you, or was it a totally original creation?

LB: That’s a question I’ve been asked a lot, especially when we were initially sending out the script. I got a lot of questions about whether it was a true story because there are a lot of natural overlaps: I was a filmmaker making a movie for no money, and so was Lydia. We’re both women and we have a lot of shared characteristics. There’s a lot of myself in Lydia, and in the characters that I wrote, but it’s definitely not a true story either. I’m very grateful that my dad is still here and still alive, and hasn’t written any screenplays – as far as I know, although I’d be glad to hop in there if he chose to do so. So I would say that a lot of it is based in reality. The idea came into existence while I was home during the pandemic, staying with my family for a little bit as we were in that really scary moment, so it’s drawn from a real, emotional place, but I’m also grateful that it’s not based in reality. 

BS: Did you or anyone in your family make home videos when you were growing up?

LB: Yea, definitely. I had been playing around with VHS’s before I found out about the Wayfarer competition. It’s funny, when I found out about the Wayfarer competition, I knew they were looking for movies that could be made for a really small amount of money, and I was trying to figure out what my unique angle could be to win. I had previously made a short film on VHS and was having a really fun time playing on VHS, so I had initially pitched this as a VHS story, like a found footage kind of coming-of-age story, because it could stand out and be produced for a small amount of money. It ended up transforming into something else, and I’m really glad that we went the direction that we did. This is all to say that I love VHS and it’s something that I grew up with, and I spent a lot of time digging through the archives of our own home movies. There’s actually a clip of me as a baby, in the montages, subbed in for baby Lydia.

BS: Do you want to continue working in the coming-of-age genre? Did Cathy Yan pitch you on the next DC project?

LB: [Laughs] I love coming-of-age. I certainly wouldn’t turn down a bigger project, but I love big stories, stories with heart. Any project that marries a sense of love and joy, and emotional grounding, with a story that also gets your heart racing is exciting to me. As a creator and a writer, there’s a lot of reason to continue to build in the coming-of-age genre, and it’s something that I can’t get enough of. I’m very happy to continue to work in that space for now, but I wouldn’t say that my ambitions are small in terms of the kinds of things that I’d like to make, but I look forward to continuing to expand as a filmmaker.

Buy in-person and virtual tickets here.

Twelve Percent Dread: Interview with writer and artist Emily McGovern

I recently spoke with Emily McGovern, the writer and artist of Bloodlust and Bonnets, whose newest graphic novel Twelve Percent Dread is available now. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Ben Sears: Your new book is very different in subject matter from Bloodlust and Bonnets in the way that it’s less silly and fantastical. Do you prefer to write siller, more fantastical stories or did you enjoy writing this more grounded story?

Emily McGovern: I’m lucky to be in the position of just writing whatever I want. Whatever ideas I have, I just turn into comics and people either buy into it or they don’t. For Bloodlust and Bonnets, it had followed on from a short comic I had made and when I was approached about doing a full-length graphic novel, I just thought there was more mileage in it. It was originally a four-page comic that I had written for a competition and I just felt like I had more to do with that kind of situation and those characters. I felt like I had more story to tell and I found those characters fun and the real high-octane silly, absurd stuff, I was really enjoying. Towards the end of that book, I started thinking about the next one. Not in any kind of deliberate way but ideas were coming to me that were more based in reality and something that was closer to my own life. And jokes and situations and characters were coming to me, and the Twelve Percent Dread story developed from that. So it wasn’t a deliberate shift, it was more to do with what ideas are coming to my head at any given moment and I had some things to say that were closer to my own reality, set in a recognizable modern world.

BS: The Katie character is loosely based on yourself, at least in the nannying storyline. Did you find it difficult to write a fictionalized version of yourself?

EM: Well, it’s not really a fictionalized version of myself, unless you think all the characters are fictionalized versions of myself because they’re all saying things that I’ve thought or made up. I think it’s more accurate to say that every character in Twelve Percent Dread says something I don’t necessarily believe, but something that has come into my head. Including characters like Jeremy or Michelle. I don’t think I’m like them but the jokes and stuff that I’ve put in their mouths are thoughts that have come into my head. I think you’re always sort of writing based on what you’re thinking since you can only know what’s going on in your own mind. 

In terms of Katie’s situation, I was never in the position of having to share a room in London, though I had some friends that had to do so in Dublin and elsewhere. But after graduating, I did have trouble finding a “graduate job”, so I was nannying for a while; it was under the banner of tutoring, but it was effectively just homework enforcing.

BS: In that respect, in turning part of your life’s story into Katie’s, did you find it easier or more difficult to make jokes about that, or making Katie feel like a more fully-formed character?

EM: I do ultimately think of Katie as separate from me; the situation was inspired by my time as a nanny, and I found myself in funny situations. Just thinking about the interesting dynamic that happens when you’re in charge of a very small person that just happens to be a millionaire. The hierarchy of power is quite interesting, you’re sort of in this service role but a high-level service role. So I took those sorts of dynamics, as opposed to feeling like I was exposing myself, no more than in my previous book which was about psychic eagles and that sort of thing.

BS: For the record, I’d love a separate comic that’s just about the talking eagle from Bloodlust and Bonnets.

EM: [laughs] Yes, I do love it, but there’s a certain quality to a character that appears once every four episodes or so in a sitcom and says something hilarious and leaves again. You don’t want to over-do it.

BS: Twelve Percent Dread is also different from Bloodlust and Bonnets from a visual standpoint. You don’t use any color, and the structure of each page is so unique. Can you tell me a little about the decisions to structure it in the way you did?

EM: I think it’s all quite organic. I did spend a lot of time thinking about some visual aspects of the book. When it comes out, American readers will get a section at the end that shows how different it looked right at the start, where it had the big, four or six panels on each page. I think it was a combination of the way the horizontal panels reflect the text bubbles that we get on our phones, and the kind of 2010s aesthetics with the beveled edges of the panels. I wanted it to reflect that decade; I was writing this during the pandemic, and realized it was going to be a cut-off point between before and after, and this is very much a story from before. And also because that reflects the period of my life when I was in my twenties and living in London myself.

It’s also because my writing is made up of a lot of small moments. I think in a lot of traditional comics, they’re made with six panels or so per page and it’s a collaborative effort with many people, and you can’t just say to a colorist ‘oh, there’s going to be 20 panels on this page.’ It’s got to be a bit more standardized. But my comics tend to be made up of a lot of smaller moments of hesitation, and the rhythm of it has to be very important, so when someone is hesitating over a sentence, it’s very important to me that there be a separate panel while they stumble their way through a sentence, for instance. It kind of diverts from that, or watching a character process something in smaller moments. Some cartoonists really take that to a bigger extreme, where they’ll have a whole page of someone just having a thought, or having twenty or thirty panels of someone moving across a room.

BS: Those in-between moments really help to draw out the humor in a lot of situations.

EM: Yea, I have a friend who says that about my work. A lot of the humor comes from those pauses between things. You have to draw the pause, so it takes up space on the page. Visually, there’s a lot of other stuff that I tried to weave in. I was really focused on zeroes; there’s a lot of O’s and hoops and loops and things like that. There’s things that you don’t want to be too descriptive, but there’s some repetitive imagery that I tried to put in there, so it’ll be interesting to see if people are able to spot that.

BS: Do you read very many comics?

EM: I do. I was never really much of a “U.S.” comics person when I was growing up. I grew up in Belgium, so I would read a lot of Tintin and Asterix. They were my big ones, and I would be more familiar with that sort of Franco-Belgian style. I don’t really know much manga, but when I was in London, this very sweet young lady helped me buy my first manga comic. I do want to start reading more manga.

BS: Do you find that the comics that you read influence your writing style or your sense of humor?

EM: There were some books which had a huge influence on me, when I was a teenager, like the Sandman comics, especially the ones that were more artistically focused. So I really studied those, even before I was a comics artist, but I was really intrigued by the elasticity of the form. During lockdown I probably read Watchmen probably two or three times because there’s so much in there story-wise, and with the recurring imagery. Otherwise, I follow a lot of web comic artists on Instagram and Twitter. I try to follow as many as I can, and I really enjoy seeing someone who’s got a distinctive style. It inspires me when I see someone doing something really weird and different because it reminds you of how boundless the medium is.

BS: You can go into any comics shop and look at a lot of superhero-based comics and – while there are many that look great – they tend to look very similar. So when a comic like yours looks distinctive and unique, I’m already interested, regardless of the subject matter.

EM: Yea, obviously comic books and graphic novels are unlike textbooks, in that you can just pick it up and flip through it and get an idea of whether you’re interested or not. The mainstream comic that I really love in recent years is Saga. The artwork in that is just stunning and it pulls you in. It just has this vibrant quality which is so inviting. When I worked on Bloodlust and Bonnets, I worked with this colorist named Rebekah Rarely, and everybody tells me how great the color is in Bloodlust and Bonnets, and it’s because she did it. And whenever we had a doubt or a question, we would look at Saga, and look at how Fiona Staples did it. And I still do that sometimes if I have to color a comic, I’ll just look at what Fiona did.

BS: It feels like there’s so many comics and graphic novels that are being adapted into movies and TV shows and different properties today. Would you ever want to see your comics get adapted into a movie or TV show?

EM: For sure. I think I’ve said a few times that Twelve Percent Dread is my sort of sitcom. I’m a huge fan of sitcoms, and always have been. My style of writing is very much like that; it’s very joke-based and fast-paced, and I think this book would lend itself quite well to being a TV sitcom or something.

BS: The subject matter is definitely ripe for parody.

EM: My writing is very character-based, and that’s the heart of the sitcom, just characters bouncing off of each other.

BS: Do you think you’ll ever return to these characters? It feels like a collection of characters that could easily become a series.

EM: To be honest, it was really exhausting to make. It took about two years of constant work, and there are advantages to it, but when you work completely on your own it can be a little overwhelming. Obviously it’s nice because you have complete control, but I probably won’t in the immediate future. I have to take some time out, and I’m really enjoying just making shorter-form comics now, which is how I started out. It’s nice to just have a thought, write it down, and have it out within a week or so, and have people see it right after you come up with the idea, as opposed to spending months and months and thinking about it.

Twelve Percent Dread is available wherever books and comics are sold. Emily’s shop and Patreon can be found at www.EmilyMcGovern.com

Indy Film Fest: Interview with It Happened One Weekend writer, director, and star Zac Cooper

Below is my interview with Zac Cooper, the writer, director, and star of It Happened One Weekend, a romantic comedy about two long-time friends who discover they may or may not have feelings for each other after recent dating struggles. The film had its premiere at the 2022 Indy Film Fest, where it won the “Best of Hoosier Lens” Award. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Ben Sears: The film has been called a “love letter to Indianapolis”, and the affection for the city easily comes through.

Zac Cooper: It definitely is. For reasons that I can’t really put my finger on, Indy felt like home. It was like one of the first places I found that really felt like a home to me. I moved a little bit as a kid, nothing dramatic, but I never felt a real connection to a city, and when I moved here, I moved downtown in 2017 and I really fell in love with the city and Indy felt like home to me. That’s where I feel like the love comes from in the film.

BS: You definitely get a sense of the exploration of what’s new and exciting about the city, especially downtown.

ZC: It’s funny, I know a lot of people who have lived here forever and they always talk about how much it’s changed, but this is kind of the only version of Indy that I know.

BS: Did you always plan on casting yourself as the lead in the film?

ZC: I did, because I knew that, with Merry (Moore), we would have the chemistry that I felt like these characters needed. And I knew that it was going to be a low-budget affair and any time you get more than one person involved, schedules get conflicted, and if you can have one less conflict, it would be logistically easier too.

BS: Was this your first time directing yourself?

ZC: I’ve done it a few other times in some short films. I only direct myself in things that I know I can do. I’m not pushing myself to do Shakespeare or anything, so I try not to be hard on myself but I just trust that this person is just a normal person who makes jokes, which I do myself all the time. But on the production side, it’s very important to have people I trust, who are cool with that process because you spread yourself a little more thin. I view it a little bit as having to wear a lot of hats, especially an independent filmmaker, when you’re on set. I look at it the same way as a cinematographer who can operate their own camera, or something like that, it’s just another tool I might have. 

It Happened One Weekend

BS: Tell me a little about how you came to work with Merry and her casting in the film.

ZC: I met Merry in college during our freshman year, so it’s been almost 10 years since we’ve known each other. We’ve worked on stuff together throughout the years, and she’s one of my favorite people to work with. Going back to trust, I knew that I could trust her if I was spread a little too thin. There were times when she said ‘we should run through this scene more’ and I had to do all these other things, but I knew that I could trust her with that. That was one of the reasons I cast her, not only because she’s great, but because I knew we could pull it off together. And I think if I would have worked with someone else in that role who I wasn’t as familiar with, I think they may have felt a little abandoned at times or that I wasn’t paying enough attention. Which is probably true, but I think Merry just knows how I like to work and what I’m working for.

BS: Chemistry between the two leads in a romantic comedy is really crucial. And that’s another thing that comes across really well, is your familiarity with each other. It almost feels like you’re intruding on their personal lives.

ZC: I’m glad that shows up on screen. That was another reason too [that I cast Merry] because I knew these characters had to feel like they had known each other for a bit when you first meet them, and I knew that Merry and I could easily bring that energy.

It Happened One Weekend

BS: There’s a crucial dramatic scene in the third act that you filmed all in one take. Did you always plan to shoot it that way, or did it unfold naturally?

ZC: No, that was one that I probably hadn’t thought to shoot that way before we got to set. It really just had to do with the space that we were in, it was just a really narrow living room/kitchen area of a two-story townhouse. We were just trying to figure out if we utilize the whole space, or do we keep it in the living room? It kind of just naturally unfolded as we would run through the scene and talking through it with Taylor Dekker, the cinematographer, of doing it handheld and doing it this way. It just came of working through production issues of figuring out how to get the scene done but also making it feel alive and not stagnant.

BS: What went behind the decision to shoot the film in black and white?

ZC: That was something that came almost as soon as I thought of the movie. Partially because I just wanted to shoot in black and white because I thought it would be fun. It was something that Taylor and I had talked about doing at some point, and as pretentious as this may be, there is a kind of tradition of first-time filmmakers gathering together with their friends and making something cheap and scrappy and shooting it in black and white. As far as the story goes, I felt like it was appropriate because black and white is very romantic and these characters feel like romance is just around the corner, and that at any time they’re going to meet the right person. So I wanted the audience to feel that way too, and I like the thought of the audience thinking ‘oh, I know where this is going to go’ and then hoping by the end they were taken by surprise just a bit.

BS: Do you see yourself working more in romantic comedies or is this just a unique story you wanted to tell?

ZC: I think a little of both, I don’t feel beholden to that genre. But what I am interested in, and what my mind often goes to, is stories about relationships, so I think I’ll make more things about relationships and they may fall under that rom-com genre, but I don’t feel like that’s what I have to make all the time. I have no shame in the fact that most of what I make is about relationships or romance in some form.

Topside: Interview with co-director Logan George and co-director and star Celine Held

Below is my interview with Celine Held and Logan George, the directors and writers of their debut feature film Topside, which premiered at SXSW and the Venice Film Festival in 2020 and will be available in select theaters and digitally on March 25. We talk about the real-life inspirations for the film, how Celine prepared to act in the film, and their careful approach to portraying New York City. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Ben Sears: Topside is very clearly influenced by Jennifer Toth’s book The Mole People. What were some of the elements that you took from the non-fiction book that would eventually become this fictionalized film?

Celine Held: The Mole People is from the perspective of Jennifer, who is a journalist, and who went down and had some interactions with some specific people that ended up turning the book in a very different direction. As you’re reading it, you think that it’s purely an exploration of the people that lived in the Freedom Tunnel, and it becomes something a little more different. So we wanted to take her experiences, especially with Bernard, who for us really felt like John in Topside. We felt him in that character, but so many of the other characters that she explored like Blaze went in a direction that we didn’t want to explore. There’s the idea that you could approach this as a journalist going down into the tunnel. Like, there’s always that thing of, what if this is told from the perspective of someone else who is more like your viewer approaching this subject.

Logan George: Where it’s this sort of foreign world and you’re discovering it with them, but we were interested in that idea of normalizing it and having it from the perspective of Little (Zhaila Farmer), and that was our way to be inside the story from the beginning and not have to treat it like such a foreign identity. It’s the home that she knows and understands, and that’s sort of inverted as she goes out into the NYC that we all understand, but that is totally foreign to her. So cinematically, that was really exciting to us. But the one line from the book, which is the opening quote from the film, was almost the genesis for writing the script to begin with.

CH: It was huge for us. We had been into the Freedom Tunnel a few times. The first time I went down there was in 2012, when there was still one person living down there, but in the times that we’ve been down, almost all the graffiti had been painted over and so much has been removed, and it truly feels like you’re entering a different world. It feels so different from the world above; you can hear echoes of people in Riverside Park above you. We wanted to make sure that we were putting our viewer inside that world and not approaching it with an outside eye.


BS: Was it always the goal to have the film as shown from a child’s perspective, or did that come as you were trying to break the story?

CH: I think that there’s something really magical about how resilient children are. As a two person crew, we filmed for a lot of non-profits and international schools, so we worked with children a lot. We did a piece for a hospital up-state for children who are suffering from severe illnesses, and these children were all smiling, and it felt like something where you could approach something that was so serious and, on the surface, so bleak, and you could find magic in it through a child’s eyes. So we were really drawn to the idea of the resilience of children.

LG: I don’t think there was ever a version of the script where it wasn’t about being a part of Little’s experience of the world.

BS: It’s a smart way to introduce not only the tunnel ecosystem and that way of life, but that transition of going above-ground, and how different that feels.

CH: Yea, I think it’s a little fictionalized because I think her eyes would have been way more affected.

LG: … A lot of conversations about that, yea.

CH: Which is why we went into night so quickly, because we didn’t want it to be such a point but she had to see day. Initially when we were filming that section, we were really hoping it would be a sunset. It was our wish that she would look up and look into these colors of the sky. But we learned that this area where we wanted to film actually is not an area where you’d ever get a sunset.

LG: But it helps a little bit more that it was a more cloudy and overcast day in general, but to her it’s blinding. It harkens to a lot of discussions of how much light she would have been exposed to. The location we worked at was really, truly underground and was like a real black box of a space in a way that the real Freedom Tunnel was not. You get a lot of shafts of light that come down into the Freedom Tunnel during the day, but this space that we filmed in was in Rochester, New York, and it’s a mile and a half-long stretch of tunnel underneath that the city doesn’t know what to do with. It was perfect for what we wanted to do, but it was a huge logistical challenge of how to light all of the scenes that take place down there because you have no natural light available to you. But it ended up serving the story in a really great way because we weren’t dependent on that natural light. Everything that you see, we brought in, essentially.


BS: The film does do an effective job of portraying that disorienting feeling, just through the sound alone, in those first moments when they go above ground. It helps to sell the feeling with just the ambient sound, and no dialogue. There’s so much noise in NYC, and to go from such a quiet place underground to a place with so much noise.

LG: It’s a really wild intersection, where three different roads meet, and it’s not your classic crossroads – there’s actually five roads that connect. So we had this crosswalk where we just kept the camera rolling, and it’s meant to be incredibly disorienting, and the cacophony of it all ends up working really well. Just being able to throw ourselves into that environment and start filming, where there’s dozens and dozens of people, in the magic that is New York, where hundreds of people are just doing their own thing and have no interest in what you’re doing. It was just a perfect location to be able to film that kind of scene.

BS: New York City, in a lot of movies, can be portrayed as a menacing place, especially for someone seeing it for the first time. I like that, in the film, New York is a scary place, but it’s not menacing, and I think that’s an important distinction.

CH: I think that, in a lot of ways, this was our love letter to New York. Our next feature takes place in Texas, and we’ve lived in New York for over a decade now, and we’ve both had circumstances happen in New York where horrible, intense things have happened. Everyone has those stories, but overall, it’s a place where you can turn a corner and your day was horrible, and then suddenly it’s the best day ever, and there’s something that’s happening that you’ve never seen anywhere else. We wanted it to feel like people are trying to help Nikki (Held) and Little, and it’s Nikki’s blindness to that goodwill. What would the answer have been if she had accepted the help of any of the people that had come to help her? We made it a point for those people to be women because we felt like that is even more of an opportunity for her to accept help. It’s a woman who initially comes down into the tunnel, and the MTA worker, and the woman at the church, and there’s a constant presence of people there who want to help her, but her distrust of the system is so great that it never breaks through.

LG: It was a very conscious choice that we didn’t want to overplay our hand or do any camera trickery or anything heavy-handed about a violent New York. It’s very everyday and commonplace things that she’s interacting with, but it’s her first-time exposure to it that makes it so scary.


BS: Celine, at what point did you decide to star in the film? I had read that you had gotten to know Zhaila fairly well off-screen.

CH: Logan and I met when we went to NYU when we majored in acting. I started writing this script in 2012, and I started writing it without the idea of playing a character in it. At first, Nikki wasn’t a character and Little was by herself. It wasn’t until after the success of our short film, Caroline, where I play the mother in it, that we thought it would be a good idea. Caroline is a story about a mother and her three children. We were able to get so close with those three children and I was able to kind of internally direct, which was so helpful, and the short wouldn’t have worked without it. So we felt like we could use those same principals for the feature.

LG: It was ultimately very unorthodox, a lot of the ways that Celine was able to direct while being within the scene, which was super important as far as mining the right performances in both Caroline and Topside. Zhaila, just like the kids in Caoline, was never given a script.

CH: Her parents obviously were, and they were super aware of her role. She also was never exposed to any of the more violent elements of the film. She’s actually never seen the film, but she’s really excited, so we’re going to make a cut of the film that’s just her parts of the film. I actually wore an earpiece on set, which Logan used to communicate with me, and we did a lot of pre-production, and we were really on the same page with what we were looking for. So if there was a moment where Zhaila did something that felt very honest but there was a camera bump, or it was out of focus, or whatever, Logan would give me a suggestion or I’d be able to talk back to him during the scene. We cast Zhaila about a year in advance to filming, and I ended up becoming really close with her family. I ended up picking her up from school a few times a week, and we live about 10 minutes away from them in Brooklyn, and it was incredibly helpful. We re-wrote huge parts of the film for her. She decided what color her wings would be, and where we would go and what that would be like. Her vernacular was completely from who she is. We were never trying to make her be someone else. Even in the more intense parts of the films like when she cries, we talked about what makes her scared. She wears her heart on her sleeve, much like Caroline, in Caroline, she’s very vulnerable with her emotions, and I am too, and we would talk about things and that’s how we were able to get those moments out of her. It was very brief, she would cry for just a minute and be like, ‘I’m fine’, and it was just about being able to capture that and spread that out throughout the film.


BS: Other than spending time with the family and Zhaila before filming, what did you do to prepare for the role? I imagine it’s difficult to get into the headspace of a character like Nikki.

CH: We did two different documentary projects. One where we filmed the people on the streets of New York who were currently experiencing homelessness, called 50 Moments, which also premiered at SXSW, which unfortunately was cancelled but will be online soon. We also did a project where we spent the mornings with families experiencing homelessness in shelters, and these were incredibly informative. There was one woman in particular in 50 Moments that really affected the way that Nikki talked. We recorded this woman for about 40 minutes and I just listened to it constantly. The system is black and white, and it’s not easy to make these rules of where the poverty line is. There’s so much red tape, and so hearing these stories and understanding what this distrust is, you really get it. There aren’t enough shades of gray for these people to come through unscathed. That really affected us, and changed the ending of the film, and a lot of things. There was another woman that we interviewed who talked about how her mother was never meant to be a mother, and that really affected me and changed my perception of what I thought motherhood is. I think that research that we did, about five years before we went into production, was incredibly influential in the character.

BS: It’s easy for films and documentaries about homelessness and homeless people to feel like “misery porn”, but I felt that Topside is ultimately a hopeful film. What did you guys do to try to avoid that misery feeling?

LG: Certainly the idea of operating from Little’s perspective helped to make it not feel so bleak. It’s true, it’s hard to tell stories around this kind of subject matter. We were also out to communicate a sort of sensation, rather than any kind of commentary, about the topic. That feeling of not having a place where you can rest, that moment-to-moment decision-making that has to happen when you don’t have a place to just take a breath, that was what lead to the way that we crafted the story of having to jump from different places and turning into more of a “journey” film and not just sit in a place of misery. Ultimately, there is action and a drive to it, and Nikki is really striving for something throughout the story. It was really important to us that it didn’t feel like it was sitting and languishing in what is ultimately a very sad story. We see the ending as being equal parts hopeful but also very sad and tragic. The ultimate decision that Nikki makes isn’t necessarily a guarantee that Little will have the best life going forward. Some of the stories we’ve heard about the foster system isn’t a guarantee that the child is going to be well taken care of, but that felt like a real change within Nikki, which was important for us. The decision that she makes is ultimately something that she never would have made at the beginning of the film.

CH: We also felt like it was an opportunity to humanize a population that often doesn’t receive that kind of respect. Hopefully in all of our films, the next time you get on the subway, maybe you’ll see a Nikki, and maybe your perception of that person will be different than it would have been before you saw the film. That idea was always in the back of our heads.

So Cold The River: Interview with director Paul Shoulberg

Below is my interview with director and co-writer Paul Shoulberg, whose newest film So Cold the River was set and filmed on location in West Baden, Indiana. We talk about the differences from the source material and the film, the difficulties of working in a new genre, and the uniqueness of shooting in a historical location. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Ben Sears: Did you have any history with West Baden or French Lick before deciding to make the film?

Paul Shoulberg: No, I went to grad school at IU and moved to New York afterwards. We moved back to Bloomington in 2011 and I’ve been living here since then and I had heard about the hotels but didn’t really know much about them. I was kind of lucky because I had learned about those hotels first from reading Michael’s (Koryta) book. After I was brought on, we went down there and everything changed once I finally got into that space. It can be an advantage to approach something like this as an outsider, having that space being very new to me. It does sort of hit you in a weird way when you first walk in, and I was glad I was able to tackle it with that sort of energy.

BS: You definitely sense that when Erica (Bethany Joy Lenz) first arrives there. I came into this with a different history, in that my family would always go down to French Lick for fall break almost every year when I was younger. At the time, the West Baden hotel was closed, but we would always see it driving down there and I’ve always been curious about the space. It’s a strange area.

PS: Very. It’s like it doesn’t make sense. What is this doing in a small town in Indiana? It’s like nothing else.

So Cold The River; Saban Films

BS: You really incorporate what it feels like to be there because there is some weird folklore and history that just feels like it could be too much in a movie. But as someone that was already familiar with it, it checks out.

PS: The folklore, yes, but the actual history is pretty crazy too. There’s something about historical places that have that sort of mystique to them that gives you this extra vibe of something that you won’t get somewhere else. Certain churches have that feeling too. It’s like there have been a lot of lives that have passed through this place and there’s something there that’s hard to describe. Michael’s book did a really good job of doing that where it kind of brought this place to the world, in a way. You can’t really explain it until you’ve stepped in. You can look at photos online but until you’ve stepped in that dome, you don’t really understand what you’re dealing with.

BS: Were there very many changes from the book to the movie?

PS: Yes and no. As far as the plot, there were a lot of changes. There’s a lot going on [in the book] and to have filmed the book as a one-to-one, we would have needed at least a season of television and a budget that would match accordingly, and that was never going to happen (laughs). We changed a lot to make it make sense for a movie. I’m of the belief that movies need to be their own thing and not just recreate the book. A movie has to be its own thing or it won’t work. If you’re trying to chase a different medium that isn’t meant to do the same things, and lives off of language and description, but with filming there are time and budgetary and physical restraints that are completely different from what you do as a fiction writer. We had to change a lot in that sense. I was able to work very closely with Michael on this, and that’s not always the case in an adaptation. Michael was heavily involved, so I was able to check in at every step and find out ‘what’s important to you showing up in this movie?’ and his writing tells me what’s important to him. What I do think came across from the novel was how majestic the space was, how the vibe of the hotel, which is the ultimate inspiration for the novel, came through. The biggest goal, in a cinematic way, was to bring to the world the power and the mystery of this place. And I think the spirit of the novel in that sense came through really well.

So Cold The River; Saban Films

BS: This is your first horror film as a director. From a filmmaking perspective, was there anything challenging about working in that genre?

PS: Oh yea, the things that excite me about horror are the things that make it very challenging. The visual possibilities in a horror film, so much depends on what you put in a frame – what you show and what you don’t show. Whereas in a comedy scene, it’s all about the timing and the flow. It’s the same thing in horror, but the visual timing is so critical. The slight camera move will reveal what’s in frame, or shooting properly to cut to a reveal or not cut to a reveal, if that’s more tense. The visual precision required in horror I think was a very new challenge to me. It wasn’t just cutting to the rhythm of the dialogue, it was like, if this doesn’t work on this exact cut, this scare does not exist. It won’t make any sense. The visual planning, not just because we were tackling this huge location but just to make horror move in a proper way, was a huge challenge that I was really excited to take on but it was a lot of work.

BS: You use a lot of long takes with some really fluid camera movements. Are you generally someone that likes to incorporate long takes, or did you feel that that was necessary in this material?

PS: I love long takes and always have. You’ll see long takes in various places in the other two films that I’ve directed. It’s always something I’ve loved and I find that in horror films, specifically, it’s my favorite thing when directors make that decision. If you do it properly, when you don’t cut, you don’t give a break in the tension to the viewer. It forces the viewer to lean in and figure out where the scare is gonna come from. You don’t know exactly where to look in the frame, you’re lighting it and framing it to move their eyes to a place. Sometimes it’s a misdirect, but you’re left stuck in the tension of the shot, if you do it properly. It’s very hard to coordinate that stuff, but I love it. When horror doesn’t spoon-feed me every moment and makes me have to sit on the edge of my seat and lean in a little bit, that’s when you can play with tension, and a long take is always a great tool, when used properly.

BS: Do you see yourself doing more horror films or will you continue to bounce around and work in different genres?

PS: I would love to do more horror; I’d love to find a way to take what I learned doing horror and then kind of pull from some of my earlier stuff, like comedy or drama and mash them up. I’m very interested in taking genre and applying it to pure character studies and things like that.

So Cold The River; Saban Films

BS: Going back to the book and some of the changes that were made, were you ever tempted to really play into the supernatural elements and really make it go off the rails, or did you always want to make it more of a grounded horror film?

PS: The book does an excellent job, I think, of delving into the supernatural aspect of it. I did pitch a more grounded version for a couple reasons. First, budgetarily. I wanted to stay in the pocket of our budget and do things well and not have to rely on CGI versus practical supernatural stuff. We never would’ve had the time or the budget to pull off some of the stuff that was in the book. It’s very big in what it goes for, and I love it. But I wanted it to be more contained, both stylistically but also practically. I wanted to be able to execute all of our ideas. So many times in a horror film, if you’re relying on the razzle-dazzle element of it, you don’t really know if it’s gonna work or not until you throw that stuff at it, so I wanted to make sure what we were doing was working in the frame. So anything we brought to it, supernaturally, was icing on the cake, but not the cake itself. I personally am drawn more to the implied stuff than the actual stuff. Like when you show a monster, to me that’s less interesting than when you feel one around. I wanted to rely on tension and a feeling, as opposed to throwing a lot of crazy visuals at you.

BS: Coming from someone that is a bit of a horror skeptic, I always appreciate more grounded material. With horror, there’s a suspension of disbelief that I have a hard time getting past, and that suspension of disbelief is diminished with more grounded types of horror.

PS: One of the things, when I pitched this, was that I didn’t want to tell a story where the characters don’t make any sense with what they’re doing. So many times with horror films, a character will break off from the group to go down in the basement with a match to light their way, or something. It’s like, what are you doing? Nobody does that! You want to put your characters in harm’s way, and I wanted to make sure there was a human motivation with what was happening to these characters. I wanted everything to be character-driven, and since the novel does that, it’s not like that was a hard sell. I like horror where I don’t have to say “well, this is a horror film, so that’s why this character that I’ve spent an hour with is suddenly really dumb”. The whole thing was properly motivating people that were involved to continuously dive deeper when a normal person would run away. That was a big goal to make sure the decisions that they made make sense so you’re not trying to spend time trying to make that leap as an audience member.

BS: No, I didn’t yell at the screen at all at the characters throughout the film.

PS: *Laughs* Yes, exactly. In so many horror films, it’s like, why don’t they just leave?

So Cold The River; Saban Films

BS: There’s a lot of themes in horror films about inherited violence or psychosis, but So Cold The River incorporates this in a fresh way.

PS: One of the things that was really important with this film, and one of the big changes from the book, is that the lead character is a male, and we switch genders in the film. There were a few reasons for that, but one was that there are so many horror films where a deranged male is tormenting various females, and they’re running away, and even if the women are leads, they’re victims until the third act. I wasn’t really interested in having this male descent into darkness and watching women run away or having to fight for their life the whole time. I didn’t want to jump into that trope of horror, and we’ve had a lot of women directors of horror over the last 10 years that have emerged, and that’s solving that problem to some extent, but I didn’t want to contribute to that trope at all. I’m not interested in that. This was always a horror film about ambition, which I wanted to pursue, Michael was really on board with that approach. I also don’t like using mental illness as a plot point to explain everything away. I was more interested in exploring something like ambition, about something which we all possess, but once you tip it a little too far on the scale. Like if ambition goes 1% past where the balance is supposed to be between our humanity and our ambition and what can happen. I was driven by doing that and not by just saying “this person’s crazy”, which you see all the time in these movies. But I do think that horror is one of the few genres of film that has continued to thrive over the last 10 years, so many genres have just fallen off to TV or just disappeared and horror just keeps evolving really nicely.

So Cold The River will release in theaters on March 25 and on VOD on March 29.

La Liste: Everything or Nothing: Interview with director Eric Crosland

I recently spoke with Eric Crosland, director of La Liste: Everything or Nothing, a documentary chronicling extreme skiers as they attempt to conquer some of Earth’s most extreme peaks. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Ben Sears: What was the most difficult thing for you, logistically speaking, to shoot?

Eric Crosland: The most difficult thing was getting there at the right time of year. For the skiing to be the way these guys wanted it, to ski it really aggressively and fast, you really needed nice snow pack and really good outer skiing, and at those higher mountain ranges it only happens once a year for a couple hours, or maybe once every two years. So the hardest part was really knowing when to be there.

BS: How about from a technical standpoint? What was the most difficult thing about setting up the cameras?

EC: The cameraman – the on-wall cameraman who was actually climbing up to the summits of the peaks with them – that job was probably the hardest because they had to climb as well as operate the cameras They were bringing really small cameras and it was really hard to get good audio and cover the climb in a verite manner. It was so cold and you’re always catching up and they’re climbing quite fast, so that’s one of the most highly skilled positions.

We learned a lot about the drones as we went. The first time we went to Peru, we didn’t unlock them because they’re only set to fly 5,000 meters above your controller because of DGI and aviation rules. But you can hack it so you can fly it as high as you want, above the operator, so that’s what we did in the second and third expeditions; we went into the software and removed that restriction so we could fly it 6,000 feet above the drone operator and get much better shots. But it became really difficult to manage the battery because you burn almost 3 quarters of your battery just getting it up to the proper height, and then you have to get the shot and get it back down before it dies. And because of the cold, the higher you go, the colder it gets, so the batteries would degrade and get colder as you go up.

La Liste: Everything or Nothing

BS: I felt a lot of similarities in the film to Free Solo, where the filmmakers there were worried about Alex’s safety but still wanted to make a compelling film. How did you balance your desire to get good footage with making sure everything is safe and nobody gets hurt?

EC: As far as those guys skiing, and where they wanted to ski, and how they wanted to ski, it was completely up to them. It’s so much pressure on these expeditions, especially when you’re going deep into Pakistan where it takes 5 days just to get to base camp and 10 days from your house before you even see the mountain. Everybody’s feeling the pressure, including the athletes. It was something I really had to wrestle with and learn, to let them decide where and when they wanted to ski, and not give them any input because it would be too much if anything went wrong. You’d have to live with it for the rest of your life and it would be a horrible feeling. It was so dangerous, what they were doing, that you just had to let them make the decision. As far as them opening up to the camera and developing their characters, that was really difficult too because I feel like, coming from a couple guys who just made their own ski movies, they weren’t really as open as some other people would have been because a lot of the film was in English and there was a language barrier. I feel like that was a huge challenge, to capture the moments when these guys were really being themselves or actually making decisions.

BS: You’ve spent a lot of time in the mountains and have done a lot of commercial work in extreme terrain. Was there anything you learned while making this about skiing that you hadn’t learned before?

EC: Yes, I think I had always been told that there’s always so much pressure on the expeditions to come home with enough footage to make a sequence. So it’s always a struggle to enjoy the mountains while you’re there because you never know if you’re gonna get back. That’s something I didn’t do too much but I think I’ve learned more while I was editing the project and realizing that it would be really hard to get back to any of these areas, and try to separate yourself at least once a day and take it in. That’s always been the biggest challenge.

As far as skiing, I had no experience in these crazy Himalayan snow packs or where you’re really close to the equator [in Peru]. Just trying to figure out if the snow was safe or if there would be an avalanche, or if it was even skiable was a huge learning curve, just to see what snow was like in the biggest mountain ranges in the world.

La Liste: Everything or Nothing

BS: It’s ironic that this is being released during the winter Olympics. Are you watching that and thinking ‘that’s nothing’ or ‘that’s like amateur hour compared to what I’ve seen’?

EC: I have a lot of respect for athletes at the Olympics, obviously. It’s crazy how skiing is just syphoned into so many sub-genres like cross-country or big air or slopestyle or racing. It’s like cycling, so it’s really interesting to see how core each of those sub-genres can get and how they’re all part of the sport of skiing but each one can go so deep into their specific discipline. For me, I think skiing is a tool for exploring the mountains; that’s how it was developed, as a way of hunting in the mountains. It was a pure form of what we were doing but I appreciate all sides of it. But it is interesting to see the winter Olympics all on man-made snow in the middle of a desert. That being said, I think climate change is really changing the sport a lot.

BS: That was in the back of my mind as I watched the film. How does the climate crisis affect this sport? Will these athletes be able to do these big mountain expeditions ten years from now? Or are they even thinking that far into the future yet?

EC: I don’t think they are; I think that how climate change is affecting the mountains, from the snow pack, to the windows in which you can ski when it’s stable, it’s shortening, and the time periods are switching. Traditionally, all the big ski movies that you saw in the 90s and early 2000s were all made in the first or second week of April or last week of March, when the snow was consistently good that year for alpine descents. Now it’s in the middle of March and it’s maybe only a couple of days before it gets too warm. You basically have to go to places much longer and really hope you catch the window because there’s no consistency anymore. When it warms up, it warms up really quickly and it’s done, so it’s definitely made it way more challenging. You really get to see the differences after you do a bunch of winters in a row for 10 years or something, you can really see it changing.

La Liste: Everything or Nothing

BS: There were several potential setbacks throughout the film, from Mika’s injury to the difficult weather conditions. Were you ever worried that you wouldn’t get enough material after all of that?

EC: Yea, so many times I had people telling me I should shut it down and it’s not doable. Either someone’s going to die or you’re not going to make the movie. The Mika situation was the first expedition in the film and really affected everybody from there from a safety standpoint. For a long time we didn’t even know if we could use Mika’s footage because it was tied up in usage rights and other legal issues. And then COVID came and that paused us, and we ran out of money and we were basically working for free to finish the film, so we were going over insane hurdles to get it done. We always knew we could do it, it was just a matter of taking it one step at a time. I think Jeremie felt a lot of guilt for inviting Mika on that expedition and when that [injury] happened, he took that really personally, even though he caught Mika and saved his life. That really made him question why he wanted to ski 6,000 meter peaks. Then they hopped into Pakistan after that, which was insanely ambitious and dangerous, so we were on pins and needles the whole time right up until this past September to know if we could even make the movie. There were a lot of key issues and story elements that were up in the air until the last minute.

BS: Where do you see these big mountain free-skiing expeditions going from here, now that these guys have tackled these giant mountains? Is there anything bigger or better that they can do?

EC: Yea, I think Pakistan is insane because of how many mountains are there. It is the biggest and most beautiful mountain range in the world. Nepal steals a lot attention because it has Mount Everest but Pakistan has so many mountains that are above 7,000 meters and there’s so much unexplored skiing there. You could ski there for a lifetime, and nobody is skiing there. But they’re really dangerous mountains. The other place that doesn’t get skied very much is the Kluane national park in Canada – in the Yukon territories – which is where Mount Logan is. It’s virtually unexplored from a free-riding standpoint, but it’s really remote and hard to get to. There’s lots of zones, it’s just a matter of how much travelling you want to do to get to the bottom of the runs. There’s a lifetime of skiing in these mountains, but what’s stopped everybody before is just walking for 2 weeks just to even look at it.

La Liste: Everything or Nothing will release on VOD on February 15.

Salt In My Soul: Interview with director Will Battersby

I recently spoke with director Will Battersby, director of Salt In My Soul, a documentary about Mallory Smith and her battle with cystic fibrosis, and the irrevocable impact she had on everyone she met. We discuss Will’s involvement in the project, the difficulties of telling Mallory’s story in a concise and compelling manner, and raising awareness for cystic fibrosis. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.

Ben Sears: How did you come into this project and get involved in telling Mallory’s story?

Will Battersby: One of our producers, Richard Abate, sent me the book at the end of 2019, and he was involved in selling the book to Random House. Mallory’s mother, Diane [Shader Smith], found her way to him and he always thought it would make a great documentary. He sent it to me, and I agreed immediately. I read the book in one sitting. I knew it was filled with interesting characters and huge themes.

BS: One of the things I’m always fascinated by with documentaries is the editing process. How difficult was it to sift through so many hours of footage, from Mallory’s family’s home videos to Mallory’s recordings, plus all the interviews you did?

WB: It’s hard, and that’s why you hire brilliant editors. Lucky is the wrong word, but we were fortunate to have the time that the pandemic afforded us. Otherwise we would have been more distracted by other projects and developments and various things but April Merl, who edited the film, and I, were able to really just kind of live with this and dig into it. I think it’s definitely challenging when you have that much material, but it’s what makes the film work or not. And that was one of the reasons I knew we could make a film. When I talked to Diane early on, she wanted to know what kind of film I wanted to make before she gave us the rights to do it. I always had the instinct to make it a kind of coming-of-age story from Mallory’s perspective and then as soon as I started to hear how much audio there was, I thought, ‘okay, great, I know I’ve got my narrator’. I really wanted it to be a first-person feeling from Mallory’s perspective and then we made some amazing discoveries along the way. There’s the sit-down interview with Mallory, which we didn’t conduct – it was done by a choreographer in California who did a dance based on Mallory’s life – and nobody had watched it; Mallory’s family had said it was too painful to watch. We watched it and thought ‘it’s gold’ because you have her on camera talking about her experiences, and then we discovered very late in the process that they had used two cameras. They hadn’t even thought about the value of that second camera. They said “oh, it’s handheld, it’s shaky” and I thought it was even better. You have some of the stuff with the dog by Mallory’s side, and we were able to cut between shots in that interview. It’s challenging and takes time to craft it and, as always, we had a 3.5 hour cut, and I thought we were done, and the film’s 96 minutes, so it took a lot of time to then work it down into what we ended up with.

Salt In My Soul

BS: You mention the two cameras that Mallory used, and you mirror that as well with some of your interviews, which you don’t always see with those segments in documentaries.

WB: I’ve always been kind of adamant about two cameras for interviews. It makes an editor’s job easier because you can cover cuts and you can cut to the same camera or overlap audio. But I think you also want to be closer on people because, unless you’re just doing a purely informational piece – which this isn’t; there’s so much emotion and you want to make sure you’re capturing it and you want to make sure you’re close on people’s faces. So it was actually dumb luck that the interview with Mallory used two cameras. We didn’t know that before we started shooting, so we were thrilled that that resonated. I don’t know if you noticed, but the interview with Diane in the living room is almost the exact same spot where the choreographer had interviewed Mallory. So that shot has a kind of strange resonance between the two of them. They’re different types of cameras so it feels different, but there was some really fortuitous and amazing stuff like that. Plus the footage of her surgery, we discovered that by accident.

BS: I liked the way you had done that surgery segment, where you just use the raw footage with no narration or music over it. It drives down the power of that moment.

WB: It’s interesting you identify that because we tried several times to put voices over that, whether it was Mallory or Mark or Diane, and you just have to be in that moment. Of course, the family doesn’t know what’s going to happen there, so you almost need to just be in that moment and have the audience have that similar experience.

Salt In My Soul

BS: You had mentioned this feeling like a kind of first-person documentary, and I agree with that stance since you have so much of Mallory’s narration and her perspective. But because she was such an open and outgoing person, the interviews with her friends and family almost feel like an extension of her.

WB: That was certainly by design. If you notice, the lower-thirds that we used to identify them are the same as what Mallory used to identify them. Uncle Danny is named as Uncle Danny, et cetera. It wasn’t just to be cute, it was to put you in the middle of Mallory’s experience and then also their experience. What I realized in doing my interviews with them is that we weren’t in the present, as it were. We weren’t there during Mallory’s life. We were meeting these people in grief, so that was a really important space to remain in with those interviews. So calling Danny ‘Danny Smith’ or ‘Danny Shader’ would knock you out slightly.

BS: Not to spoil anything, but you have the moments where everyone is reading from the book, and it really makes it feel like they’re almost surrogate speakers for Mallory.

WB: Yes, Mallory’s voice leaves the film at a certain point, and so what’s left is the book and other people reading the book. It’s other people reading her words, and being affected by her words, and definitely the people involved. Hopefully that gets passed along to the viewer as well.

Salt In My Soul

BS: One aspect I noticed is that there’s kind of a similar outlook that both Mallory and her mother have in trying to put a positive spin on every situation. From your perspective, would you think that Mallory inherited that from her mother, or do you think Mallory had it all along and it rubbed off on Diane?

WB: I think it’s very much a Diane quality that Mallory inherited. Diane is an extraordinary community builder. She’s one of those people that, within 5 minutes of meeting somebody, she wants to know what they need, how they are, and she wants to help. I think what I find moving about both of them is that they’re willing for that to be a two-way street. And obviously Mallory kept some of her mental health stuff secret because she didn’t want to burden people, but I think one of the messages that I really want to come out of this film is that it’s OK to share. It’s OK to share what you’re going through, good and bad and ugly, with other people. Because it’s only through that empathy and that community that we survive.

BS: What do you hope that the film does for cystic fibrosis awareness and people’s understanding of it, and what it does to a person?

WB: I hope that a lot of people simply learn what it is. It’s something we all hear about, but until we take the time to learn something, you don’t really know what it is. It also helps that 100% of the profits from the film are going back into research, specifically phage and anti-microbial resistance research, and my hope is that people are moved and inspired by it. I hope that we can do a little bit of good in the world. We’re a small documentary, we’re not gonna change the world, but I think Mallory’s story actually might. And that’s the book, the film, and Diane gives talks all around the world. That treatment that Mallory received at the end of her life is now being studied because of her case by universities and institutions across the world.

Salt In My Soul will release in theaters in New York and LA on January 21, and available on VOD on January 25.