Thursday, March 24, 2016

Jennifer Corcoran on "She Sings to the Stars"

What was your filmmaking background before making She Sings to the Stars?

JENNIFER: She Sings to the Stars is the first feature I've worked on.  We dove in at the deep end. Exhilarating, gruelling, mystifying and demanding.  A thirteen-ring circus.  I wouldn't consider doing anything else.  As soon as we've procured distribution for She Sings to the Stars, we are on to the next one.

I come from the theatre, trained as a director, worked on stage.  I moved into documentary production then picked up a cheap Super-8 camera and started making black and white shorts with no expectations, just a lot of experimentation. 

As a child I fashioned a box to capture my dreams. With a hole in the top, shedding light on a blank piece of paper inside, I tied the box to my head when I went to sleep. I thought to bring the unrestricted realms of dreaming into the confines of our waking world.

I've had some kind of camera in my hand since I was a teenager, most of my inspiration for stories comes either from photographs or dreams.

Where did the idea come from and what was the process for writing the script?

JENNIFER: First, a synopsis:  Mabel is a Native American grandmother who lives alone, tending her drought-ravaged corn in the desert Southwest.  Her half-Mexican grandson, Third, dreams of 'making it big' in LA, but his plans change dramatically when he comes to his grandmother's house to collect traditional dolls he hopes to sell for a high price. 

Lyle is a faded magician from LA traveling with a white rabbit, the promise of one last gig and a life-long dream to be able to magically disappear.  When his radiator boils over, he is stranded outside Mabel's house.  Both men must yield to a timeless rhythm and discover a creative capacity greater than imagined.

I had lived in the Southwest for years and came to know several elders from Third Mesa at Hopi in Arizona.  I was able to draw on a life lived with that land, its skies, its animals -- and at my age, on years spent observing beauty and human behavior. 

One of the voices that plays through She Sings to the Stars is 'what does it mean to listen'?  Can we stop long enough to actually listen to each other, and perhaps more importantly, to listen to something deep within ourselves?  The desert offers a silence, a mystery that engages the film-goer in a way that will, hopefully, inspire.  I find a quiet in the desert that thunderously begs you to listen.

The script was two years in the making, countless years brewing.

I was visited by the character of Mabel in a dream. She told me "It is time to sing the song.  Listen. It will take you four years."  For a year when I lived in the Southwest, one of the elders I have alluded to, appeared to me in dreams with regularity.  When I asked him about the dreams, he replied, "This happens." 

The script required what might be called a lot of "clinical" research which seemed to continue throughout the writing and even once we were in rehearsal, but I also read volumes of poetry and novels, relentlessly wondering, not only 'what is it to be human?', but 'what it is to be a woman?' vis à vis 'what is it to be a woman in a man's world?'  What is our collective feminine nature?

I constructed three life-sized, newspaper-stuffed, dressed figures of the characters and lived with them.  Sometimes they offered clues, sometimes they didn't -- there were days and weeks of nothing but frustration, then 4AM wakings where I could actually see a light inside my brain and ideas would scramble to get out.

The story grew through 17 drafts. 

It wasn't until I had to take a long-haul flight -- my producer brother and our line producer, waiting at the other end, expecting me to arrive with completed script in hand -- that I pulled all the pieces together to create the final draft.  I have never typed so fast, sure that if I stopped, the tap would dry up -- or worse, my laptop would run out of battery mid-flight.

Can you talk about how you raised your budget and your distribution plan for recouping your costs?

JENNIFER: Financing the film was a substantial hurdle, a 'Catch-22':  "You've never made a feature film before.  You have no track record.  Why don't you make a short?"  It reminded me of being 18 again, "You can't have the job because you have no job experience." 

I was trained as a director in the theatre, worked on stage, in documentary production, made Super-8 shorts, as a literary editor, even home schooled three children (Home schooling three children is more complex than working with a film crew in the middle of the desert)

My brother who is producer has an equally diverse and accomplished background in the business world, with several successful, alternative start-ups.  We weren't untested, we weren't 18, had a great business plan and we were hardly asking for millions; but because we didn't have a track record in the film world, we weren't offering enough investment security. Those days were nerve-wracking.  But you learn a lot about presence.  And, ironically, it foists you back on yourself to keep refining your vision, both the creative and the business aspect of it.

We were very fortunate to have family, friends, friends of friends put their weight behind us.  You just need to find a few people who believe in you. It's heartwarming to discover what people will agree to do with you to make a project that excites them get off the ground.  Passion and enthusiasm are infectious.  And that then spills over into production and post-production; and hopefully, now into distribution.

The market has never been so saturated with indie films.  If you consider how many film festivals there are, how many new ones are created each year, how many films are accepted versus how many turned down, the numbers are staggering.

It's tough raising funds for an indie film. But in retrospect, the gritty, gruelling nature of fund raising, shooting and editing the film is not actually the most challenging part of the odyssey. The Herculean task is to secure distribution or the film will sit on a shelf in perpetuity.

After our first preview screening, I thought we had arrived, at last.  A good friend, who is a multi-award-winning documentary filmmaker, came up to me and said, "Great.  You're half way there."  I didn't have any idea what she she meant.  Now I do.

Distribution strategy, platforms and channels seem to be changing on a daily basis. On the advice of a veteran insider, we have been counselled, "Keep your wits about you, they are shark-infested waters!" 

We need to raise funds for distribution.  Once a contract is signed with distributors, you are expected to turn over the film's "deliverables" which include all music rights, all audio-visual formats for each of the distribution platforms, legal and insurance costs, etc. --  basically everything that is needed to sign off on the film.

This is the only way the film will be released, so we have to raise the funds to be able to pay for the deliverables.  'Recouping' is a concept still too far down the road to consider.

We are launching a crowd funding campaign via the Seed & Spark platform in mid-March to raise those funds.   "Onward!"

What was your process for casting the film?

JENNIFER: We auditioned for the parts of Third and Mabel in New Mexico.  I had lived with the character of Mabel for two years so was sure I would recognise her as she walked in. But though we had some very capable actresses audition, Mabel just wasn't appearing.

Our casting director went to a book launch featuring contemporary Native American artists, where she met two artists.  They invited her to their tribal feast the following weekend and introduced her to their mother, Fannie Loretto.  Fannie had not acted before, but as soon as our casting director saw her, she called me to come immediately, "I think I've found Mabel."  And she had. Fannie is beautiful with long greying braids and an open face which conveys both a depth of feeling and whimsy. She was thrilled by the prospect of being in a film.  When she auditioned on camera, we discovered she had a natural onscreen presence. And her timing with regard to dialogue, was instinctive.

I had trawled the internet 6 months prior to auditions in Albuquerque and had found a head shot of our actor for Third, Jesus Mayorga. He was quite young in the shot with an intense stare.  Our casting director had pre-screened him prior to auditions and decided he didn't suit the part well enough to go through to the next round of auditions; but when I didn't find who I was imagining in the auditions, I showed her his head shot and asked that she call him back. In walked a much older actor than the head shot, with a softer demeanor but still with an uncomfortable intensity that I needed for his part.  He was perfect, and he and Fannie bonded immediately as grandson and grandmother.  We learned that he had a lot from his own life to draw upon for the character as he is, indeed, an immigrant from Mexico.

The casting of Lyle, the magician, was tricky as I was holding out for a box-office name talent. 

Tom Waits came to mind again and again while I was writing the part of Lyle. He even waltzed into my dreams. I modelled the character of Lyle on a broken Waits-like magician, collecting old bits of wreckage and trivia, a junkyard philosopher, a peculiar but loveable, undefinable rogue. Though Tom Waits is a musician and a performer - definitely not an actor - we thought we'd see if he would  play the part when it came to casting; but we couldn't get past his gatekeepers.

Waits' gatekeepers did us a big favor. Larry Cedar offers an amazing and profound performance, one for which I am deeply grateful.  We called Larry at the eleventh hour; he was just closing a one-man show on stage with a Sunday matinee and flew out to New Mexico on the Monday morning.  He was a gem to work with, so fluid, responsive and intelligent with an "actor's actor" ability to share scenes, which was particularly important as he was working with two unseasoned actors.

What type of camera did you use and what did you love (and hate) about it?

JENNIFER: RED.  It was terrific until we shot at 15F.

How much did the story change in the editing process and why did you make the changes you did?

JENNIFER: The story didn't change per se, it tightened, and definitely became more focused -- even if in a dreamy way.

As is often the case with lower budget indie films, once I was in the editing room, I longed for shots I hadn't taken.  Our shooting schedule was short and intense.  The last night of production was the coldest, it was 3 or 4 in the morning, the actors were wet and freezing, with stiff faces.  There was a shot in that scene that was never taken.  Everyone was crumbling and I remember our AD coming up to me, ever so gently saying "We have to wrap this movie in 9 minutes."

That scene should have been re-shot another night.  I never got what I wanted in it.  We went around and around in the edit process trying to find a way to make it work.  It was a compromise.

When you see shots in your head and you never get them, they linger in mind like phantoms.  Each time I see the film, I still expect that shot to be in there.

What was the smartest thing you did in production?  The dumbest?

JENNIFER: Smartest?

The set was a quiet one. I was ridiculed by our Art Director who asked me why I wasn’t more demanding, why I didn’t raise my voice to assert my authority. “You need to be an asshole, get tough, then people will respond, you’ll get things done. This is your film.”  To me, it was listening that was needed.

In a recent online interview about She Sings to the Stars, actor Larry Cedar put it this way:
Would you say that this was a completely unique film for you? Unlike anything you’ve previously done?

"Without question. The experience was almost indescribable in its uniqueness. Every day was full of surprises, challenges, joy, stress, exhaustion, and supreme satisfaction. Rarely have I worked on a project of such creative purity, i.e. where everyone involved, from cast to crew to cinematographer to director and producer, was completely and passionately committed to capturing the story in the best way possible. Add to that the sheer magic of working in the vast expanses of the New Mexico landscape under the cover of what seemed like a billion stars, and you have a fairly intoxicating creative brew."



Not only were we in the desert, we were in the middle of nowhere.  We had miles and miles to drive every night  -or at dawn, if we had been shooting all night - to get back to our motel. 

All electrics had to run off generators.  Fine desert sand and grit ground into all the equipment.  The sun could be intense and burning during the day, we weathered dust storms and driving winds, and at night temperatures went down to 15F.  Because we were delayed with financing, what was a summer story was now to be shot at the end of October and into mid-November where night temperatures fell well below freezing. The rain and fight scene occurred on the coldest night.  The water coming from the rain tower froze into icicles in between takes, the actors were in summer T-shirts and had to warm up in electric sleeping bags as soon as they came off set.

It can be challenging to make intelligent decisions when shooting through the night in those temperatures. I watched us all stutter with brain freeze and fumble at simple tasks.  On November 1, All Soul's Night, our actress, Fannie Lucero who is native Jemez Pueblo, asked for the night off as it was an important feast and night of ceremony for her tribe.  Her parting words were, "You all should take the night off because the spirits of the ancestors will be out.  We honor them and then go inside for the night because they are all wandering around.  If they find you outside, they can play tricks on you."  Well, we thought we had a film to make, so we forged on, shooting scenes which didn't involve her:  a generator broke down, the picture car broke down and the camera broke down.  When Fannie heard our news the next day, she said, "I told you."


And finally, what did you learn from making this feature that you will take to other projects?

JENNIFER: My brother, Jonnie Corcoran and I created Circeo Films, our independent film production company in 2011 with the intention to produce a cycle of films about women -- innate feminine voices are too often missing in the story-telling world of film. And we seem to have forgotten the feminine nature of the Earth and our intimate relationship to it.  I think it is a time when women all over the planet are beginning to come forward with their own voices -- ones which seem to have been quiet for a very long time.

Once She Sings to the Stars has been distributed, keep an eye on the Circeo Films website.  Our next film of the cycle will be shot in Ireland with a 28-year old woman as protagonist.  I have nearly completed the screenplay, so we'll be hunting for investors. 

The learning?  Let the “no”s from potential investors, festivals or distributors drive you forward. If the project is genuine and you encounter resistance, it’s probably a healthy sign; you're offering something new that may clash with an old way of thinking, of making films.

Suspect anyone who calls themselves “an expert.”

I don’t think filmmaking is a navigation of logic, it is a fluid, intuitive medium. Apply what John Keats described as ‘negative capability’: It is about trusting the process, looking for and listening to what is not obvious, paying attention to what is elusive and yet to be defined.

The process, itself, is how the vision comes to life. It requires courage, but it works.

Above all, keep a sense of humor intact.

Twitter:  @SingstotheStars
Crowd funding:  Seed & Spark SHE SINGS TO THE STARS

No comments: