Category - Reel 2 Real

Queen Sugar’s Director Shaz Bennett

Shaz Bennett is one of the powerful directors picked by Ava DuVernay on OWN’s Queen Sugar. Bennett talks about her episode that aired in this current season called A Little Lower Than Angels and her upcoming independent film Alaska Is a Drag.

ATM: Are you standing on the hill where the famous Hollywood sign is?

Shaz: Next canyon over, but I can see it from here.

ATM: Interesting. Express your time directing on this show.

Shaz: This season Ava created for many of us an opportunity to get our first steps into television directing. For me, I knew I wanted to prove I was worth the risk. Even though, I’ve heard Ava and Kat talk about how it’s not a risk, they’re hiring strong directors. Coming into the show I was already a huge fan. I had seen every episode. I have known the show runner Kat Candler for a few years and DeMane Davis a long time, who is the producing director. I have known both from the independent film world. I felt comfortable with them as collaborators. A lot of the season’s themes and stories are written by Kat, Ava and the rest of the writers – my job as a director is to make sure, I know where we are in the season arc and make sure I’m setting up and giving them what they need for the rest of the season. Talking to Kat initially and in the tone meeting was asking about how far and what they wanted from each scene.

Each episode is one part of a 13 hour movie in many ways. I was conscious, that I had a lot of big moments for each of the lead characters. Charley finding out Davis had another child, that leads her to the bar to meet Jacob. Blue finding out that his parents aren’t getting back together. Nova and Remy on the lake. It was a big episode. I asked the actors to trust me and that I was going to take care of them. We talked through the scenes. I wanted the lake scene to be quiet, isolated. A moment for these two characters who have known each other their whole lives but don’t get to talk like that alone. It was the beginning of a possibility.

The scene with Charley in the bar is one of my favorites. Dawn-Lyen is such a magical actor. Charley works for control. And none of her plans were working that one day. She lets down another guard in order to get into control again. I love the scene of her crying on Jacob’s shoulder. I love the end of the episode with her in the bathtub crying alone. All of the actors are so strong. They can take a line on paper and add all the layers.

I love the scene with Ralph Angel and Benny in the kitchen too – both those actors brought so much to that moment.

ATM: Why do you feel you are considered a strong director? 

Shaz: I’m a collaborator. I love actors and aspire to add to the cinematic conversation always. As a film programmer, I can’t help but draw on the million films I’ve seen but as a director and storyteller, every shot, every moment has to tell the story first. I hope that’s what I bring as a director.

ATM: How did you foreshadow how your career would plan out?

Shaz: My whole life is self-taught. My first job in film was at 14 years old taking tickets at the Sundance Film Festival. I took copious notes from every Q&A I saw and when I saw a film I loved that resonated with my soul. I asked the filmmaker what your influences were and then went out and found and watched all the films and broke them down — shot by shot — what worked and how it felt to me. I was a film nerd who later became a film programmer.

ATM: Describe yourself as if you were not yourself.

Shaz: I hope someone that didn’t know me well would say what my close friends would say: Loyal. Kind. Exacting. Driven.

ATM: Why do you think the title A Little Lower Than Angels was decided for this episode?

Shaz: I love this title. Every season I understand that Ava selects the titles – this year, the titles come from a Maya Angelou poem. Thematically, it felt right because the three main characters are all at a crossroads. You might make decisions that are not perfectly in line with how you want to be in order to help you get to the next place. We make decisions that are from our heart. We’re all a little lower than angels.

ATM: How does this episode show children’s naivety toward their parent’s relationship?

Shaz: Ethan is such an incredible actor. This was a very personal story to some of the writers. When family members go through a divorce/break-up there comes a point where the children must become aware of it. You are always hoping and dreaming your parents will get back together and be perfectly aligned, even if in your gut, you know it’s not true. Blue is in that place in the scene with Hollywood eating the chicken. “Chicken Cheers” – which was s a little improv line from Ethan. He’s so sweet.

Earlier, he asks his mom when are you coming home? He is testing everyone to see what is really going on. Then at the picnic table with Hollywood and says, “when will my mom and dad get back together?” Hollywood doesn’t respond. But, Blue is getting the answer. The end where they are sitting together. When we filmed this scene, we wanted Blue in the middle. We wanted Ralph-Angel and Darla on the sides of him. Metaphorically they will always be there for him, but in this moment. They can’t be together. Such a heart breaker. Blue had to realize he wasn’t going to get the dream he hoped for.

ATM: “What happened to the forevers.” Express the emotion you believe this line is supposed to evoke.

Shaz: When children are coming to realize nothing is forever. It’s such a big concept. When Ethan said that line “but you said forever”. We all melted. The plan was to get married and stay together. But, it didn’t work out. They weren’t lying. Life just got ahead of them. For Blue, it’s like you promised me it would be forever. It is just such a heartbreaking moment. All of us were like this at one point. I still am. When we thought someone would be there forever – and then they’re gone — through death, end of a relationship, or the end of a friendship. You go in with those intentions but sometimes it just doesn’t work out.

ATM: How did you want to exhibit the mood modifications of Charley’s character in this episode?

Shaz: Dawn-Lyen and the writer Chole Hung and I talked about the full arc – knowing that in the end, she’s going to be alone in a tub washing way the entire day and everything that had happened. So, each scene it was just remembering where we were and what’s next – to play the layers. First, she’s getting teased by her son and his friends about the Almond milk. It leads to this revelation from her ex-husband – then to calling her family. None of them are around to meeting up with Jacob. That split-second decision is the catalyst to the end. There were two break-downs written in the episode. One at home after Davis leaves and one in the bar with Jacob. We wanted these two breaks to be different. Collaborating with the DP Antonio Calvache we shot them differently and gave Dawn-Lyen the space to make them work.

ATM: How did you want to highlight a female’s vulnerability?

Shaz: Charley very rarely strips away everything. She is always so put together, in control, and knows what is happening. Dawn-Lyen was very excited about this scene. It was a side of her character we don’t get to see often. The vulnerability She strips down and gets into the tub. Washes her face and just sits quietly alone. She’s starting over in some ways. She rebuilds this character throughout the rest of the season. I am excited to see what happens next season as a fan. I love where Charley went this season.

ATM: She is figuratively washing away the hurt and the pain.

Shaz: Yes. I love the line where she says, “When do you hit bottom.” She says this to her ex. Like is there going to be enough? A part of this is about how much do I give over to you. When do I stop dealing with this shit? Dawn-Lyen intuitively knew how to play it. I gave her small little notes but often it’s just about seeing the full arc.

ATM: Why do you think women are more emotional submissive in giving men a change in relationships or in marriages?

Shaz: It is so true to how family works. He is the father of her son. It is hard to cut someone out of your life when they are so intertwined into your family. He is going to be in her life, so how she handles it is the story. I felt like it was her moment of saying to Davis that you need to get out of my life for a while — in this episode. I need to erase you and you are not helping me. But that’s now. Who knows where it will go next season. Ava, Kat, and the writers are always talking about family. And about how women see family. It is sort of ingrained in us to keep the family together and give a second chance to someone who does not deserve it. Like later in the season when Charley says to Remy – Nova and I are forever. Such a beautiful moment of sisterhood.  I love this show because of all of the complications that go into family and relationships. Women see more nuances in others. We’re self-reflective that helps us as directors because we can identify with the characters, even though it may not be our own personal story.

ATM: Are you saying you are a complex woman/person?

Shaz: Yes. Women are, and we see nuances in friendships, relationships, siblings, mothers, and fathers. I cannot make a statement that men do not.  I know in general with the conversations I have had with my female friends that they can see both sides of a story. Whereas, men would say hey that is wrong, fix it. Women see the nuances. Nuance and layers are at the core of great story.

ATM: What is the moral behind your recent from film Alaska Is a Drag?

Shaz: I made my feature film to explore gender. Why/what makes masculine/feminine powerful. I grew up in place that was stunningly gorgeous on the outside but can also be isolating and violent for anyone who stands out in a crowd. I liked the idea of a character who lives and thrives in the collisions of male/female — gay/straight — fantasy/gritty. At its core ALASKA IS A DRAG is about survival and found family. It’s a drag origin story and power that comes from all the above.

ATM: What are the advantages and disadvantages of being self-taught in film through empirical observations? 

Shaz: I can only speak from my side, but I see a lot of advantages in being self-taught and breaking down films and TV shot by shot — because you get a sense of what’s working for you — even if it’s abstract you are developing your own personal style.

ATM: Did the effects of how women and men were seen in this culture affect you growing up?

Shaz: I grew up with four brothers and one sister and our mom and dad did a great job of making us feel equal — with so many kids — that was my tribe for a long time so it wasn’t until I moved to LA and later NY when I felt the expectations of women and men, but by that time, it was too late — ha! I have better days and worse days when society norms weigh on me, but I try not to give those limitations space in my heart and soul.

ATM: What would America look if this was a matriarchal world where men were the minority/marginalized? 

Shaz: I think it’d be so fair and equitable. Women in my experience aren’t trying to take everything — they’re more willing to move over and make space for everyone.

ATM: Why did you link the noun fantasy and adjective gritty together?

Shaz: To me, they’re two sides of the same coin. The times in my life when I had the least and was struggling to survive were also the most inventive — I daydreamed about getting out and beyond.

ATM: What has Ava DuVernay systematically taught you about being a woman in the T.V. industry and a director? 

Shaz: Ava is just an incredible role model for this business — every meeting I got in — I channel my inner Ava — or at least what I imagine my inner Ava to be — if a door is closed to you — open your own doors. And a big thing that stuck with me — the day I was flying to New Orleans to direct my episode — I emailed her to thank her for this opportunity and she responded immediately saying she remembered that feeling and to take it and make sure to give it to someone in the future. What a beautiful way to live an incredible way to approach art and business. So grateful for the chance and I can’t wait to succeed beyond hers and my wildest dreams, so I can do what Ava did for me to more artists.

 

Life with Angie Wang

Chinese American filmmaker Angie Wang reflects back on her young adult self and talks about her nonprofit organization.

 

ATM: What made you decide to put this film out now?

AW: It took me four years to put it up.

ATM: Why could you not get it out?

AW: I am a first-time filmmaker and it is an indie film. The original route is going through film festivals. We had a hard time getting it into festivals. I was baffled that we did not get into any. I was getting feedback about it not fitting into a category or box. They did not know where to put it. They would say, “Well it is Asian, but it is Urban.” I was like, “You mean black.” This is code for black. This is a universal story. They would say, “Well, it is unusual. We do not know where to put it.” It was very frustrating, and I felt very demoralized. The big Asian festivals were more home for us. They embraced it and understood the story. My PR guy always says, “Movies ripen.” I had to wait for it to ripen.

ATM: What made you comfortable to put your life story out there?

AW: A thousand years of therapy. Ha-ha. It is a funny thing when you get old. My old ass does not give a fuck. You start to care less about what people think. I kept thinking this was an important story. I talk to a lot of girls about shame and feelings about being sexual abused coming from “lesser privileged backgrounds.” I had to be honest and forthcoming about my own demons for them to come forth. When going to beg white neighbors for money dealing with my nonprofit. I found they were pretty renascence to go there emotionally. They would be like, “Shut the fuck up. Here is the check.” They did not really want to sink into the skin of these kids and understand where they came from. I realized there is a real lack of empathy in this world. A part of it comes from technology and we are living in silence. I was raised on television and film. This saved my heart and mind. I really do feel media is going to be a powerful force. Besides us having a lunatic in office. It will help us find our empathy and humanity.

ATM: How hard is it being a Chinese American woman in film and not being a nonwhite director and writer? Just how hard is it in this industry for you?

AW: It is really fucking hard. I am used to it being hard as a woman of color. I remember my father telling me as a young girl that “you are a minority twice. You are Asian, and you are a woman. You also do not have a shit ton of money. You are going to have to play better, faster, and stronger. You going to fight harder.”I have never stopped to think about it. I did not stop to think, “Oh, I am a woman of color. It is going to be really difficult.” I was like fuck it. I am going to kick the door down. It is very challenging. It is a tough industry regardless. It is even tougher when you are a minority. You have to get very gritty and you have to get help. There are people that are open to helping people like us get their voices heard.

ATM: When you were a drug dealer in college were you even aware of what your actions? Did you know the significance of what you were doing?

AW: You know I did not stop to think about it. I was just a foolish young child. I look back and say you were so fucking stupid. This movie was my way of sitting my 18-year-old self-down and to slap her across the face to say, “fucking idiot.” Also, to say you can grow up to be a really nice person and have a nice life. You do not have to live in this reckless fashion. I did not stop to think about the impact of what I was doing. For me, it was like, “I feel bad about myself. I want to have money. I want to be as good as everyone around me. I think I am going to make drugs.” Looking back, I see my frontal lobe had not even engaged. I was pretty stupid.

ATM: Was your 18-year-old self-having fun or were you just wanting to fit in? Was it like the more you made the ecstasy, the more people liked you because you had the drugs?

AW: I always felt like an imposture. I learned how to speak and be like them, but I never really felt like them. There was a lot of insecurity and isolation that came with this. In the Chinese culture, you do not tell your business. I would walk out of the house and my father would say, “We do not tell our business, right?” I would respond of course not. I think it locks you up in isolation and shame if you have trauma in your background. I see this regularly with the kids I work with. I was hiding who I was. I was always trying to fit in. I was like, “Hey if white people want my drugs, then I will charge them up their ass.” I had no problem taking their money. Then I realized we had more in common then I thought.

ATM: Did you have laughable or tearful moments when writing about your 18-year-old self? Explain the writing process for this film.

AW: I looked like a fucking crazy person. I decided to sit back after my therapist suggested I write. I sat down to write a journal entry, and this led me to have a crazy idea to write a script. I wanted someone else to write this script for a while. Then that little voice said, “Just sit down and write the fucking thing yourself.” It took 10 to 12 days. I was looking like a totally crazy person. I was in sweatpants, no showering. I was muttering to myself, crying, and laughing. My daughter was like what is wrong with you. I was in a very cathartic process. The process of writing is not linear. You cannot sit down and be like ABCDEFG. The creative process is fragmented, and it flows. I thought to take a break while behind this computer or take a walk. I thought if I had smelt something, then it would be a reminisces of something I smelt from 4th grade. It was such a great journey to tap into all this. The rewrites are hell. It took me 10 to 12 days to get the first drafts done. I was rewriting until the day of shooting.

ATM: What did people who did not know you think about this script?

AW: A lot of jaws dropped. People were like, “Whaaat?” I was living in a very beautiful neighborhood. I was lucky enough to live in a safe, but also secular, hegemonistic, and wealthy suburb. I always felt like an imposture. I moved away from here for several reasons. People realized why I did not fit in once knowing my story. My background was so different. I ride Soul Cycle a lot. I invited a lot of the people I ride with to my screening. A lot of them were like holy shit that was your life. A lot of them did not believe this was my life.

ATM: Did transforming this from paper to film to the theater help you basically love yourself more as a person?

AW: Yes. I have been working for years and years to accept, like, and love myself. I think seeing myself or a lens of myself through a 52-year-old woman allowed me to have more empathy for the kid. She did a lot of stupid shit. She was also damaged and broken. She had beaten herself up to do better. It allowed me to dive into another people’s story. I still pop into screenings to feel the work of other people. We share this experience. It brought me closer to humanity and to have a tighter voice for myself. This makes me a kinder person to others. I am still a raging person sometimes. It is an ongoing process.

ATM: What was your career before film?

AW: I sold software, technology services, was a hunter, founded a nonprofit, and then I had this idea of being a filmmaker. It sounds different when I say it. This has always been my life. My friends say they cannot believe this.

ATM: How did you get the woman portraying you to exemplify your younger self for the film?

AW: She actually stayed with me during pre-production at my house. It was not like she was going to jump into my skin and be me. She brings her own heart and soul through all the experiences. It is an interesting process for her to bring life into this character from being on a page. On the screen, you see a little bit of me and a little bit of her. This makes it more complex and a richer experience.

ATM: Are there new things you have figured out about your past self that you did not realize? When you saw the film did you notice it differently than before in your life?

AW: I had a different perspective on the tunnel scene. I did not perceive this scene as a rape until my AD was like we are filming a rape scene. I thought it was not a rape scene and that she was just really drunk. It was shocking to me because they were staring at me like, “No, it is a rape scene. You were driven down to a tunnel and fucked.” I thought whoa. I was a progressive woman, a young child who was trying to live life. I still wore the burden of this experience. I had to say if this happens to my daughter I would do something about it. It was a real eye-opener experience. It gave me more empathy to learn about the girl’s experience who I talk to in my nonprofit. I could see in them that it would not be okay, but I could not see this for myself. It was a huge experience to let go the burden of this.

ATM: What did your family and daughter think of your past?

AW: They said it did not really happen. I was not forthcoming and coming home saying, “Guess what I did?” My cousin knew about it. He said the less he knew the better. He knew the details. My daughter and I have been living with it for four years. We can now use it as a talking piece. It was a little shocking. My cousin also said it was kind of like reading your journal. This was very challenging for them to watch. They did not want to see me fucking or getting rape. You have to accept it at the end of the day. My sister is not happy about it. She does not talk to me.

Trevor Long’s ‘Seeds’

Battling inner demons could be a part of a lot of our daily issues. Living in a world where your real desires cannot be explored because of societal norms. Trevor Long worked with his brother in the horror indie film Seeds. Long is also a recurring actor on Netflix’s Ozark.

ATM: How did the film come about?

TL: My brother created the story. We had to hire a writer. He wrote it with me in mind. I ironically loved the script when I got it. I was doubtful I could pull it off, to be honest with you. I was a little afraid to take on this part, to be honest.

ATM: Why?

TL: It was so different than anything I have done. There has very little dialogue and it is very internal. It was dark, and the subject matter was not easy. I had a lot of questions about it. I have never carried a film to this size. I am in the entire film. I had normal fears. I did not know if I could do this. I wanted to do it, but I had questions. I said get a named actor and I’ll play the brother at one time. I did not know. I was scared to do it. It worked out.

ATM: How is it playing in a film with less dialogue compared to others?

TL: It was a challenge. I had to prepare a bit longer on this on to get into this inner life. A lot of it is inner. I really started to prepare 3-4 months before shooting. I knew it really well, but I just had to go into this imaginary world to feel the demons he was facing.

ATM: What head space or environment does a watcher have to be in for this film?

TL: This is a good question. What head-space did you in have to be in for this film? I am curious.

ATM: I was in a curiosity head-space. I read the synopsis and thought it was deep.

TL: That is interesting. You have to be drawn to this sort of material. There are a lot of people who cannot stand the film and there are people who love it. You have to be curious about this film as you said. I like films that mess with your mind a bit. If people do not generally like this type of stuff, then they might not like it. People should just go and watch it. I do not think it is going to be for everyone.

ATM: Explain the opening scene with the young girl walking on the rocks.

TL: Marcus was with the young woman and he is acting out his desire that is buried. Obviously for his niece. You do not what really happens. Some people think it is Lily. It is not supposed to be her. He is acting out on his desires that are secretive. He is trying to deal with them. We wanted to keep it ambiguous and prerogative.

ATM: How should a person deal with their inner demons?

TL: They should probably go to therapy. I am not a fan of people acting it out in a way that is going to hurt someone. It is interesting. We had a sex therapist who deals with real-life people that have these issues. She said we really captured the reality of people who have desires that are taboo or unhealthy. She has clients that discuss these issues. They are attracted to someone they should not be. They do not act on it a lot of the time. We have all faced a desire that is not really societal correct. We navigate it through a way that is healthy to deal with it.

ATM: What was one of your most interesting scenes to shoot?

TL: This is a good and interesting question. I loved the innocent scenes with his nephew. He is tucking him into bed. The love scenes in contrast to the darkness. I love the scenes where he shows real love and care as an uncle. This is an interesting contrast to a man who battles this circumstance.

ATM: Why is the title named Seeds? How do seeds relate to the story plot?

TL: This is a good question. We had the title from the beginning. This seed has been planted in Marcus. This is a metaphor about the creature planting a seed in him and giving birth to creatures coming out into him.

ATM: Let’s move on to your role in Netflix’s Ozark. What does your character Cade’s in destructive choices say about fatherhood?

TL: It made me think about fatherhood a lot. I looked a lot at my own fatherhood and how I am as a father. I have a nine-year-old. It helped to deepen it and understand fatherhood. I thought it was a positive thing to explore. Fatherhood is not black and white. I think am a bad father at times. I am not doing what Cade is doing. Every father I talk to do thinks that they are screwing their child up or not doing the right thing. You might see fathers that look great on the outside, but everyone is trying to do the best they can. Cade is very self-centered. He is trying to do the best for his family the best he can. This is the way he is. No one wants to be a racist or a criminal. This is just all he knows.

ATM: Explain the atmosphere and experience on the sound-stage.

TL: The soundstage is a synthetic environment. You might shoot a scene in the trailer that is on the soundstage. You cannot let the sound distract you. It is different, but you have to focus. It is fun. I prefer to be in a real environment, but you have to do it.

ATM: How do you feel about the way the two main characters are living their lives now?

TL: It is very compelling because we can relate to them. They are likable people. He put his family in a bad position by doing what he is doing. Do I think it is right? No. Do I think it is healthy? No. Do I think it is a bad choice? Yes. It is compelling because they made this choice and cannot turn back. They are trying to save their family. Cade is also trying to save his family in a destructive way and far more abusive. They are doing things to put their children in danger. You root for them because they are fair decent people in this circumstance.

 

Joan Jett: A Bad Reputation

Director Kevin Kerslake talks with ATM about his new documentary Bad Reputation. The documentary is centered around the ups and downs of Rock ‘n’ Roll singer Joan Jett career. With the film heavily inspired by the music of Joan.

ATM: What does this film observe about the rock culture during Joan Jett’s time?

KK: Joan spans over a lot of eras. The era she first started in was definitely male dominated. This has not changed that much. There has been a little more female pop artists. These are people who are already a part of our culture. Her cracking into the rock world was endlessly difficult. It felt like men and women were threatened by a woman who wanted to plug in and own her place in the universe. She did not do what was expected of her. Joan broke in during an era that was heavily acoustic. All the females were singer and songwriters. All the other females did not have that alpha dog aspect to them. Joan plays this role and people still find it threatening. Her popularity is definitely a testimony that people do respond to it. It seems to be an endless struggle in terms of what is going on in politics today.

ATM: Why a documentary on Joan Jett?

KK: Joan’s story is so epic and cinematic. All the stars aligned where it came time to do her story. A lot of these issues had to go next level in terms of music and politics in our culture. There was this implication to tell this story and the topics. There was a need to touch upon the story she experienced throughout her life. She was defiant and persistent. This is a story for all ages. I was honored to be the one to tell it.

ATM: Express the moments in editing.

KK: Documentaries often start in the editing room. You see what exist with a lot of parts in the story. There is a lot of reading. You decide the people who you want to interview once you have a grasp of the material and the story you want to tell. They check in to see the battle plan and what the story needs. There are a lot of phone calls to get people on board. You are talking to people about things that will end up in the film while a camera is in your hand. It is pretty erratic with a documentary in terms what you are doing.

ATM: How did this film teach you more about women needing equality?

KK: It should be an even playing field. We are conditioned to know there are more male artists than female artists. This is not more of the amount of the material created by men and women. It is a lot more even. The world is made up evenly of both sexes. It is fucked up that over 80-90% of music is sold by men.

ATM: What about her daily routine or beliefs spoke to you?

KK: Joan stuck to her guns and knew what she wanted to do. She was put on the planet to do one thing. As someone said in the film, “she has Rock ‘n’ Roll in her DNA.” Everyone should be doing this even if it is a career or hobby. You should nourish life on this planet. Certain things do not allow this such as economical cultures. Joan was persistent and sticking to her guns about doing this. It is a big aspect of her game.

ATM: Name one song from the Runaways that you learned or connected with.

KK: Cherrybomb is awesome. I like the song Wasted. This was written when Joan left the band. She comes into her front woman duties. Joan sings it with a great snarly voice. This was a point in time when Joan came into her own. She had a lot of success before this. This song was emblematic at the time to turn on the jets and really took off.

ATM: How can a man perceive Joan singing during a male-dominated period?

KK: I would hope men have respect for her. We all have respect for her doing this. I would love for men to say, “Fuck yeah girl.” This is how it should be. You have to have respect for someone who put this much devotion into their craft and talent. A lot of people are just threatened by this with a woman singing at this command. I come from a world of music and everyone had a lot of respect for her.

ATM: What is your background in music?

KK: I stuck my teeth in music videos. I come to from a music family. My grandfather was a music composer and wrote pop standards in the early 20th century. I played in garage bands that never got out of the garage. I still really love putting the film to music. I got out of film school when music videos on T.V. where coming onto the screen. I got pulled into working in this medium with amazing bands. I have always been around bands and music. I love to express this love for music and championing it for change. There is not a better world to play in than this.

 

World Channel’s ‘G is for Gun’: Its Message On Taking A Stand at School

Seems as if there is a mass school shooting every few months. These mass shootings have allowed new policies to be set in schools for the student’s safety. Julie Akeret explores this issue in her co-directed documentary G is for Gun.

ATM: How did this film allow you to transform into a better director?

JA: This is a good one. While working for the last three years on G is for Gun, I think I became a better listener, which I think translates into being a better director. I went into this film thinking that we would make a piece about both sides of the debate, but my own personal perspective deep down was that it was a bad idea. In general, I don’t like the idea of fighting fire with fire and when we made our first trip to Ohio, I thought it was going to be a bit like the Wild West, the kind of place where gun culture rules and moms go to the supermarket packing heat. But that’s not what I found. I didn’t see one public display of a gun, and important people we talked to who voted for the safety measure shared a regret that things had gone in this direction. The bottom line for many school officials is that, if they are worried about increasing security but are dealing with a decreasing budget, they feel that guns are their only option.

I think film-making is about having an exchange with a community. And listening carefully to what is being said is the filmmaker’s difficult job. A lot of my films in the past highlighted a personal or communal struggle despite difficult circumstances. Since the election, and what I perceive to be a growing divide in our world, I’m more interested in exploring the grey area where there may just be the possibility of finding some common ground.

ATM: Why do you feel schools went from allowing their teachers to hit students to now allowing them to wear a gun for safety? How did we make this transition?

JA: This is a response to what has happened in education. There are some really big issues involving school structure, policy, and standardized testing. These issues have created a certain tension inside schools and lack of attention to students who are on the verge of trouble. These predominantly white male students who have shot up schools are suicidally depressed. They have records dating back to their early stages of disruption. The schools are bigger now, and have less mental health services. These kids shoot to prove themselves. They have been horribly bullied themselves. They do not care if they get killed. They want to go out in a blaze of glory. They have been treated like losers their whole life. They would rather get negative attention than none at all.

This is a toxic environment for students. I also have a big problem with standardized testing in schools. I think a lot of it is done to figure out who has been left behind academically. But teachers do not have time to get to know the kids when they spend endless hours in standardized test preparation and then evaluating the results. This needs to go. The money that goes into this testing should go into mental health. The ratio between school counselors to students is like 1 to 500 in our country. It is inconceivable to think schools are supposed to function with this lack of mental health care. I am so glad I am not in school anymore. Sandy Hook started this whole move to arm teachers. There is less money going into the school budgets than ever. This causes schools to respond in any way they can.

ATM: What is it about guns that intrigues these students? I am not condoning the mass shooter, but why guns? When these students pick up guns they plan to shoot it. No one picks up guns for fun. Could they pick up something less violent and harmful?

JA: We did an interview with a guy who trains law enforcement all around the country. His name is Lieutenant David Grossman. He trains law enforcement in all types of shootings. He wrote a book tiltedKilling, which was nominated for a Pulitzer’s Prize. Grossman was a psychology professor at West Point for a number of years. This interview was interesting. We asked him what he thought about all of the school shootings. He said that it had to do with the proliferation of video games. There are a number of popular video games that are extremely violent. Games where players receive points for killing and rape. The more violence you commit, the more points you get. This, combined with suicidal depression and sleep deprivation are, according to Grossman, the ingredients leading up to a potential shooter. Their wiring is off to begin with and they get positive reinforcement for violent behavior. These kids are also not doing well in school or socially.

ATM: What happens to the teachers who want to take it upon themselves to use the guns in a negative way against the students?

JA: That hasn’t happened yet and let’s hope it never does.

The goal of this film was to present both sides of the guns in schools debate. It would have been much easier to make a film on one side. We wanted to show both sides because we need to have a conversation about this. To make a film that said yes or no to guns in schools would have been a mistake. Industry peers at screenings still perceived it as pro-gun-piece. One friend asked to see my NRA card. There was a real concern in her voice. Another person said we have gone too far with being fair. I was taking notes at the screening. Should armed teachers appear less heroic? Should we see more footage of the teachers looking confused at the gun range? This is not what we saw. One of the distributors compared our film to something that Trump said about Charlottesville. Trump said: “there are good people on both sides…” So basically, from the superintendent of schools to the teachers who had volunteered to be armed responders in schools were being compared to neo Nazi’s.

In general, I don’t think we should have guns inside our schools. But I am not totally against a school deciding to do this in their district. Especially struggling schools in rural areas that have no other options.

Akeret wants this film to have a lasting impact. The kind of impact that facilitates a conversation about the pros and cons of teachers as armed responders. This film is currently screening in NBC’s Meet the Press film festival in Washington, DC.

 

A Trans-Woman’s Justice?

True crime is becoming the new topic in the documentary sector. It is about merging investigation with storytelling. Filipino American Filmmaker PJ Raval adheres to this but took a different direction. In his documentary, Call Her Ganda, Raval follows the family of a trans-woman named Jennifer Laude from the time of her murder to April 2018.

ATM: How did the participants in the film become sensitive to sharing details about this murder? For instance, Jennifer’s mother?

PJ: I met the attorney early on at a panel discussion in the Philippines. She had trust in me with my previous work. I told Vergie this was something important the world needed to see. I kind of felt me as Filipino American should not do this, but rather a Filipino. I got comfortable with it the more I thought about it. I was a person coming from both sides. I wanted to use my skills as a storyteller and filmmaker to aide this movement. I wanted to have the family’s blessings and support. I knew the family would be the focus. I could not make this film unless having the support of the Laude family. You have to work up to them telling you things. They understood my reasons for wanting to make it. I am a Filipino American and a part of the LGBTQ+ community.

ATM: You take the audience step by step of when the murder happened. You even provide specific times. This gave it a CSI feel to it. How did you want the audience to convey the expression of this time chart?

PJ: You want to be cinematic and embrace the elements of storytelling. It is interesting to actually go through the events of Jennifer being discovered dead. Instead of having someone just telling us this in the News report. It was important to present it this way. These are the little known facts we do know. This is presented in a procedural narrative eye type of way. This was the basis of the legal evidence. This evidence went into the trial. This is based off the journalistic reporting Meredith was able to uncover.

The news reports gave you a response, but never the specifics. They just told you a trans woman was found dead in a motel room. This is it. They do not talk about the things that led to it. They do not talk about the potential intent of how this happened. It was important for me to show the starting point. This is not a crime drama. This is very big in the documentary world and their series. Everyone is focused on true crime and investigation. This film follows the story of those trying to get justice. I want to take the viewer into their experience of obtaining justice. Meredith and Vergie are telling their story of what they learned through Jennifer.

ATM: Talk about the title of this film.

PJ: This title does not quite translate to U.S. Culture. This word does not mean only pretty, but it also stands for physical beauty. It also alludes to dignity and inner strength. Everyone in this film had inner strength in order to take on the U.S. as a foreign superpower in the forms of justice. This all revolves around Jennifer. There will always be attempts to question her character and undermine her life. She was a poor Filipino trans woman. I wanted to start off the film by talking about a beautiful human being who was murdered.

ATM: How can Jennifer’s story give people more knowledge about this situation and lifestyle?

PJ: There are several things. I hope the film humanizes Jennifer and makes someone understand her experience. This is where the film becomes powerful. It helps you walk in someone else’s shoes. You have the ability to understand Jennifer from a more intimate, personal, and deeper level. You cannot get this from just reading the News report. You hear the way Jennifer’s family talks about her. She has her own dreams and ambitions. These were unfortunately cut short. I realized in editing that every scene was tied to Jennifer somehow.

Jennifer Laude’s life was cut short on October 11, 2014, in Olongapo, Philippines. Laude was a transwoman in an environment that did not provide trans individuals with equal opportunities. Her most convenient answer seemed to be working as a sex worker. One night she left her fiancé’s home, went out with a few friends to never return. Laude’s mother’s anger and pain are addressed in Raval’s film.

Elizabeth Stillwell: LIZZIE

Elizabeth Stillwell produced and financed the film Lizzie. This psychological thriller stars Chloe Sevigny and Kristen Stewart. The film addresses the conspiracy around the deaths of Lizzie Borden’s parents. We see more about how the societal norms influenced her motives and decision making. 

ATM: What was your prior knowledge of the Lizzie Borden story?

ES: Weirdly…nothing. I went straight to google before I even read the script and the top 5 search results showed Lizzie Borden’s name synonymous with Chloë Sevigny’s. It was clear to me it would be an incredible story, but, almost as enticing, a team of amazing were women backing it. It definitely lived up to those expectations!

ATM: Explain the energy around the suspense presented in this film.

ES: Bryce Kass wrote such a powerful script that our director, Craig Macneill, took to the next level. No one really knows what happened in the Borden house, and our film presents Lizzie Borden as a woman tied down by so many societal and familial constraints. Humanizing her and following her journey up until the murders really pull you into the story.

ATM: What were your likes and dislikes about the time era in this film?

 ES: I remember reading this script and thinking, “Wow- this happened in the 1890s? It feels so current.” Lizzie is suppressed by the men in her life – her father who controls her everyday life and frequents Bridget’s room in the middle of the night, and her uncle who seeks to steal her inheritance. It’s always liberating to have a story told where the women fight back.

ATM: How different were the social norms compared to now?

ES: It’s interesting to see that, while a lot has changed, we haven’t progressed the way one might think. We have a long way to go.

ATM: Do you feel the social norms influenced Lizzie’s murder?

ES: Assuming you are asking about what drove her to commit the alleged murders, yes. That’s how this film seeks to humanize her. She’s not some psychopath who picked up an ax and decided to kill her parents. Under her constrained circumstances, she lashed out!

ATM: How does this film present women? Men?

ES: The women steal the show in this film! All of the characters, male and female, in LIZZIE have a strong presence and role to play (acted by a ridiculously talented cast), and no character is completely innocent in this tale.  And, if I were, to sum up the film in short, Chloë so powerfully delivers to us “Men don’t have to know things. Women do.”

 

Greenleaf’s Desiree Ross

Sophia Greenleaf is continuously perfecting her walk with God and realizes this walk is not going to be easy. She knows she will have experiences and situations that test her patience with God. Desiree Ross portrays his character and gives a vivid description of Sophia.

ATM: Do you feel this show takes the perfectionism off the church family?

DR: Yes, because we are putting everything out into the opening. Families are still families. No one is perfect. You see the people who should have it together but fall apart on this show.

ATM: How does your character fall apart?

DR: Sophia seems like the perfect girl. She is a Christian, has a high GPA, and is abstinent. My character seems to have it all together. In this season, something happens that shakes her world a little. You see her fall apart and start to doubt everything she believes in. She pushes away people who love her the most. It gets to her head and affects her entire life. People who seem to be perfect have their troubles underneath their pseudo.

ATM: How would you describe your character’s walk with God?

DR: She started off atheist and did not know much. My character committed herself to Christ. Sophia has experienced a complete unwavering faith. Life has hit her a little harder and she cannot comprehend these things. Sophia has learned to have faith in God when things are not going her way. Things have been going her way. I think it is going to be interesting to see how she gets through this and reconnects back with God. You see her step away from God in this season.

ATM: Personally, how do you have faith in God when things are not going your way?

DR: I have to remind myself to pray and take time with God. I have to remind myself that God has a plan for me when things are not going my way. There is going to be something better waiting for me at the other end of the situation. God is not going to let me down. This is how I get through dark moments. I say a lot of prayers. I am around people who encourage me and help push my relationship with God.

ATM: Explain the progression of your relationship with Zora.

DR: They were really tight when first meeting on the show. The more Sofia got into the God, the less she saw Zora get into God. It became a brick between them. Zora got into a toxic relationship that pulled her away from Sofia. She tried to have Zora’s back and be there emotionally. Sofia cannot stand to see her cousin hurting because of these choices.

ATM: How is the relationship between Sophia and her mother Grace? Is your connection with Sofia and Grace?

DR: They have gotten closer, but Sofia is now pushing people away. Sofia has distanced herself from just about everybody. It is hard for her mother to watch. The bond and love are still there. Everyone is waiting for Sophia to realize life is still going and to see the light is at the end of a tunnel.

ATM: What is now your ideology of an average churchgoer?

DR: Now, I go into church wondering what is going on. I just wonder. The show, in general, has forced me to look at things from other perspectives and not make assumptions about anybody. Also, this show broadens my point of view about people coming off a certain way based on what is going on behind closed doors. I take a step back to think about what a person’s point of view. I do not take stuff as personal anymore.

ATM: In what ways does Sophia relate to Desiree?

DR: We are pretty similar in different situations and circumstances. I am a part of a church family, but my family does not run a church. Her parents being divorced is a little different for me. People say we are always completely different, but I do not see it.

ATM: What do you see?

DR: I see that we are the same. Sophia is more on the conscious side. She is soft, gentle, and innocent. Whereas, I have seen and been through a lot of stuff. I am kind of like “uhh.” I am not as naïve as Sophia. She has more of a naivety. I was not grown up as sheltered as my character or maybe I was. I went to public school and I am also in the film. This has forced me to mature a lot quicker. Desiree is more gangsta than Sophia. Whereas, Sophia is more like a flower child.

ATM: Explain how acting shows your life values. How do you show your values and morals through acting?

DR: This is a good question. Most of it is off camera when I am not working. It is about how I manage to be in such a chaotic industry filled with a lot of toxicity. I manage to deal with all of this.

ATM: Does acting in a scene help release prior anger?

DR: Through acting, I am able to have experiences that I do not actually have to experience. I feel I’ve been through all of the things Sophia has without actually going through them. It is an outlet for me. It gives me a platform to make good work for whenever I have the stuff to let out. I am not running off without expressing my emotions in unhealthy ways. I just put it into my work. I’ve had to cry at work. I break down sometimes in the first take a work. They say, “Dang you must have had a lot of let out.” I respond, “You have no idea what I’ve held in.”

 

The Dawn Wall

Yosemite National Park located in California has a giant mountain that has been impossible for any rock climber. Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson make a challenge for themselves to do the impossible. They make efforts to climb the mountain. The Dawn Wall is the focus of their seven-year journey to climb this mountain. Did they reach their goal? Director Peter Mortimer and his team capture the whole footage of the incredible adventure and the groundbreaking moments.

ATM: How do you want your film to captivate an audience?

PM: It is a film about climbing but it is about more than climbing. This film is about Tommy’s incredible dedication and motivation to this thing he loves. The Dawn Wall concentrates on Tommy’s own obstacles throughout his life and his investment with time into this project. It is also about the relationship between Tommy and Kevin. They make sacrifices for each other. I want people to connect with the film on a more human level. The climbing is very fun and has dazzling footage. They are sleeping on the side of the cliff and hanging from their fingernails. It is amazing to get people immersed in the life of the side of the wall.

ATM: The same fire Tommy spoke about from being held captive in Kyrgyzstan for six days, where in your own life have you witnessed this same burning fire sensation?

PM: (Laughs). WOW! This is a good question. I can definitely relate to his emotional journey. It was a really intense experience for a young naive kid. The intensity of it is really special to Tommy. We all can relate to this. You go through a trying a experience and do things to get yourself out of it. There is a sense of empowerment you go through to get out of it. This was a huge event. They slept for 20 days on the wall while they were trying to finish the climb.

ATM: Wait. How do you sleep on a wall?

PM: You live inside a little portaledge, which is the hanging cot on the side of the cliff. The New York Time ran this as the cover story on their eighth day. The story was about two guys trying to do the hardest climb ever.  It put up momentum after this. It had reached live casting by the time they summited. This was on ABC, CBS, and more. Even the former President Obama tweeted congratulations to them.

ATM: So, they slept in the air?

PM: They slept on the side of the cliff. Yes.

ATM: How you ever slept on the side of a cliff?

PM: I have.

ATM: How was it?

PM: You know it is beautiful.

ATM: No, I do not know. (Laughs). I have never slept on the side of a cliff.

PM: (Laughs). I have not done it a lot. These guys do it so much which makes them more comfortable with it.

ATM: How did you encourage them during the moments they did not want to continue to persevere?

PM: It became a massive thing. People started to say, “What’s your Dawn Wall?” or “Go find your Dawn Wall?” Every time I saw how hard they tried, their dedication, and the times they came back after each being beaten down it inspired me. I take a little bit of this into my own life from being around them.

ATM: This seven-year journey is a metaphor for life. They should have stopped and told themselves not to go further. We never would have been talking or the film would have never been made. Former President Obama would have never sent the tweet. I believe they saw themselves already reaching the top, but they just had to convince everyone around them to see it. Everyone did not see it. Even Tommy father stated that it was impossible. Anything is possible. This journey and the film prove anything is possible. When you see a vision, you must keep going.

PM: Totally. This is the big life lesson that these guys offer.

ATM: What changes in their demeanor do you see in them throughout the film?

PM: Tommy loves being up there and loves the struggles. He loves having a big project. Tommy gave his life a meaning to have something he had dreamed about and invested in. He talked about having a feeling of loss after reaching the top. He felt he did not have this big dream or goal that am working toward. This was driving him forward. It was a little of sadness combined with a sense of relief.

ATM: No one has any excuses not to achieve something.

PM: Nope no excuse.

ATM: What did you think of Tommy climbing high and big mountains at six?

PM: His father was big and tough outdoorsmen. There are two types of parenting. You either try to pave the way for your kids to make it as easy as possible. You can let them know that the road is going to be bumpy. You try to toughen them up to prepare them for anything that might come and get that grit. This was certainly Tommy’s dad’s philosophy. He is a very loving father. He wanted Tommy to be ready for whatever the world was going to throw at him.

ATM: He was ready alright.

PM: Yeah.

ATM: Most kids are playing with Legos at age six and playing in the dirt. Instead, Tommy was climbing big mountains. What was little Peter doing at age six?

PM: I was more of a normal kid. I rode bikes and fighting with my siblings.

The Dawn Wall took three full years to edit with the amount of footage filmed and to fit into a sequenced storyline. Mortimer and his team dealt with the footage very delicately and delivered an excellent job of adventure storytelling to the world. One of the cameramen stayed up on the cliff for 20 days with them. So, did Tommy and Kevin do the impossible? You have to go see the film to get your answer.

The Dawn Wall in theaters September 14.

 

Isabel Coixet, Director & Writer of The Bookshop

Books help us all understand life as we flip through the pages. Each page invites us into the author’s mind. The Bookshop expresses the hardships of opening one of the first book stores in England. This film is inspired acclaimed novel with the same title by Penelope Fitzgerald. Isabel Coixet expresses her film origins and goes more in depth about the main character.

ATM: Take me through the preparations for this film.

IC: I discovered Penelope Fitzgerald novel many years ago and I was completely taken by it: the tone, dry, never sentimental, the main character, Florence Green (I felt an instant connection with her) the subject, the banality of evil… I fought for 7 years to take the novel to the screen. We live in times where if you want to make a 100 million dollar film about superheroes, it’s kind of easy, but if you want to tell stories of a modest woman wanting to open a little bookshop in a little town, then be prepared to be really patient and stubborn.

 ATM: Explain how receiving an 8mm camera as a communion present stirred your passion for film making.    

IC: I always, since I can remember, wanted to be a filmmaker and my parents gave me the super 8mm camera because I couldn’t stop pestering them about it. I loved it and I made many very silly films with it with my friends and cousins. This helped me to have a clear idea about what “directed by” meant. 

 ATM: Why are there not many films made with a similar narrative such as The Bookshop?

IC: Every film I’ve done has a very specific quality. I always let the story find its own unique storytelling. The tone of this one was “breathe.” I consciously let the images, the human gestures, nature “breathe” and let the audience breathe with them.

 ATM: What is your favorite, 19th, and 20th-century novel? and Why?

IC: My 19th favorite century novel is Madame Bovary because it’s real, and raw, and tragic and fun. Also, Flaubert makes you understand the personality of this woman, without making her likable or loved. My favorite 20th century novel is the whole 7 volumes of “In search of lost time” of Marcel Proust because it’s the most formidable Wikipedia of human nature I ever read. Once you have reached the 7th volume you can start again, and it could be a totally different book.

 ATM: Where in Florence Green do you see the pieces of yourself?

IC: I see a shy, modest, humble, innocent and determined person. I’ve lived situations like Florence in my life. I react just like her: soldiering on

 ATM: How would this film be different if Florence was written as a male?

IC: I think things would have been very different for him. At least he never had to experience people “manxplaying” things all the time. I don’t think Violet would have refrain of getting rid of her if Florence would have been a man.

 ATM: Recent statistics express there are fewer people reading books in 2018. Since this film is inspired by an acclaimed novel, do you believe film adaptations derived from books are the cause? The film adaptions from books provide readers with a more visual approach than a tangible one.

IC: If people read fewer books because they are glued to their phones, it’s their loss. I know for a fact all audiences who have loved The Bookshop, they run to buy the novel afterward, and this makes me very happy.

ATM: Florence Green said, “You have to succeed if you give everything you have.” How true is this? Where in your life have you given everything?

IC: I gave everything many times in my life. Sometimes It was worth it, and sometimes it wasn’t. This will not stop me to do it again

 ATM: If Florence was a character that gave half of everything or nothing at all, then would she still have succeeded? Would it have been possible?

IC: Her success is not her hands. There’s a dark conspiracy against her with forces she can’t even suspect. For me, she succeeds in doing whatever she always wanted to do. The outcome is not the most important thing. Her courage is.

Cultural norms limit the main character to receive support from her town by opening up a bookshop. Florence finds some courage and strength once the bookstore opens. Her journey through this film is not easy. The Bookshop was released in theaters August 24, 2018.