Posts Tagged indie film

STEELE INTERVIEWS: Claudia Myers

Michelle Steely Eyed

Fort Bliss, written and directed by Claudia Myers, came out in December. It’s the second feature film for Myers. She also wrote and directed Kettle of Fish starring Gina Gershon and Matthew Modine. She’s made lots short films and documentaries for the military such as ones about combat stress and PTSD and severely injured soldiers returning from Iraq and the impact to their personal lives.

Fort Bliss movingly and effectively shows the difficulties that a single mom in the military faces in balancing her career as a medic and her home life. Michelle Monaghan turns in a strong, edgy and multifaceted performance as Maggie. It’s currently streaming on Netflix and iTunes and absolutely a must-see.

After some back and forth on twitter, Claudia Myers and I spoke on the phone a few weeks ago.

Amy Steele: You live in DC– outside the Hollywood scene but close enough to New York. How is that for you as a filmmaker?
[Claudia is a professor at American University so has that stability and commitment.]

Claudia Myers: Positive is that I wouldn’t have written Fort Bliss. That first assignment to work with the military with a local company. I wouldn’t have had that opportunity in another city. It sparked my interest in the military stories. I like the Wash DC film community. It’s much smaller but it’s very supportive and I receive a lot of support from American Univ.

DC is a diverse city in terms of its interest. It’s not dominated by film and it can be a positive.

writer/director Claudia Myers

writer/director Claudia Myers

Amy Steele: Do you think you can live anywhere and be an independent filmmaker?

Claudia Myers: Depends on what you want to do. If you want to work in TV or film it helps to work in NY or LA but there’s also more competition but to write and direct your own project it helps to be in places where there’s smaller film industry.

Amy Steele: You’re a professor of film at American University. What do you like about teaching? What influence does it have on your film-making?

Claudia Myers: I’ve been teaching for seven years. Being a teacher and being a filmmaker simultaneously forces me to keep thinking critically about what I do. So I feel like with every new class I learn something from my students. They challenge me to look at things differently or explain things better. It keeps me engaged and sharp and more current.

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Amy Steele: Where did you get the idea to write Fort Bliss?

Claudia Myers: Working on a training film for the army at the actual Fort Bliss. Was doing a focus group with infantry soldiers and one was a single dad who had deployed twice to Iraq and I remember being surprised by that. I never thought about a soldier facing multiple deployments as a single parent. As a mother it piqued my interest. Was something I’d never thought about.

Roughly 40% of women in the military are moms. As I developed the story, I felt like telling the ultimate working mother story. As any parent trying to balance with a career they think is meaningful and important with raising a child.

There was a story to be told that hadn’t been told from a female perspective. I found it wasn’t such an unusual circumstance. I would hear “my sister is in that situation” or “I know someone just like that.” It is gratifying that it is a projection of this and interesting to get people thinking about how women are perceived.

People would connect in a way that they hadn’t thought about.

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Amy Steele: Why did you make Maggie a single mom?

Claudia Myers: That was a side of the story I hadn’t seen told and a side of the story I could relate to as a mother and get a strong sense of connection. A real empathy and curiosity for women in the military balancing career and being a parent. To make an independent film there has to be a reason to do it and I hadn’t seen that story told.

Amy Steele: I didn’t think it all that unusual for a woman to serve in the military with a young child at home but I browsed a message board and people thought it strange. This was Maggie’s job. I don’t think she was trying to get away from her son at all but she liked what she did and was trying to secure a better future wasn’t she?

Claudia Myers: I’ve had some conversations with people who don’t understand that she re-enlisted and then got caught in a set of circumstance. As in life there are no right solutions and people do the best they can under the circumstances. Everyone just does the best they can. I wasn’t trying to demonize anyone or make anyone a villain.

As a filmmaker and viewer I have empathy for Maggie but she makes some questionable choices and that’s fine. We sometimes recognize ourselves in a character’s flaws. I wasn’t interested in making her perfect.
Why is it cool for a guy to go off and fight and leave his family but for a woman she’s abandoning her family, she’s a terrible mother.

Claudia Myers: Such an emotional response to the story is a good thing. It gets people to think about their feelings about these things. Things have been changing for a while. Can it ever be completely equal. I don’t know that I have an answer. That’s why I wrote the movie. I was happy when I was writing the script and I wasn’t sure how I could resolve this in a way that was honest.

Amy Steele: How long did it take from script to screen?

Claudia Myers: I got the idea about five years ago. I was intrigued by this character who was a soldier and a mother and was balancing these two sides of her life in an extreme situation. Worked on [the script] on and off for years. It took time to get funding. We had a leisurely editing process. It was good in that it was always on my mind but I wasn’t working on it constantly. The shoot itself was quick. We shot it in 21 days.

Amy Steele: By choice or necessity?

Claudia Myers: It’s never a choice. We always want more time. It was a very intense shooting schedule. It gave the whole process an energy. Everybody wanted to be there. Everyone on our team was really dedicated. That included a number of veterans on the film itself and active duty soldiers. That grounded the production. It helped creating a greater sense of authenticity. The army supported the film so we had subject matter experts. Michelle [Monaghan] was trained by a medic. The army was tremendous in their support.

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Amy Steele: Did you screen it at Fort Bliss?

Claudia Myers: It opened at Fort Bliss and in NY and LA in December.

Amy Steele: And what was the reaction?

Claudia Myers:The reaction has been very positive. Also we had a Los Angeles screening by Veterans in Film and TV [VFT]. 400 veterans at LA premiere. The film got a standing ovation. it was a special night.

Amy Steele: What kind of director are you?

Claudia Myers: I love the whole process. I love working with actors. I just have a lot of respect and admiration for the actors’ craft. I see my job as being as clear as possible about what I’m trying to achieve. What the story’s about, what I’m fundamentally getting to and I work with the various departments to help me bring the story to life. I welcome their input so it’s a real collaboration.

Amy Steele: What were the greatest challenges for this film?

Claudia Myers: So many intense or logistically different scenes on a short time frame and budget. I think that was the overall production challenge. Michelle was so committed and so passionate about the script. As preparation she did an abbreviated medic course. She was a great collaborator. I felt that she understood all the sides of this character which I wanted to bring out. She didn’t hold back and she gave an incredible performance.
The weather was another challenge. It was very hot. We shot in the desert in 100 degree weather. We felt the importance in sharing this story.

Amy Steele: I’m going to remind readers of some statistics of women filmmakers from Indie Wire, 2014:

• 29.8% of filmmakers (directors, writers, producers, cinematographers and editors) were female.
• Women were 16% of the directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films.
• Women directed 6% of the films.
• Women wrote 10% of the movies.

Amy Steele: What are the barriers facing female filmmakers today? What do you think needs to change? Is it getting better?

Claudia Myers: It is getting better. Maybe a little bit outside the studio. I think there are a lot of independent women directors/writers working. It isn’t a level playing field. There’s a lot of progress needing to be made. People can support films written and directed by women. They can seek them out and watch more of them. I think the more attention we pay it is a positive thing. I hope the trend keeps developing. It’s slower than it should be for sure.

Distributors are still trying to figure out revenues with all these distribution strategies. It’s not what it used to be. We aren’t quite at the place optimally.

In terms of female films being less lucrative, it’s demand driven. If people make a point of watching those films and more films about female protagonists. More films about women. The vast majority of mainstream films feature male protagonists. Some stories need to be told the way they need to be told. You need multi-layered complex women in film. Actresses are eager for more meaty roles.

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STEELE PICKS: 12 BEST FILMS of 2014

I’ll choose indie, quirky and dark over anything else anytime. Also quite clear that I support women screenwriters and directors and women in film. I also immensely like Kristen Wiig, Keira Knightley and Elisabeth Moss. THREE films from Knightley make the list. Themes running through my list: depression; finding oneself; feeling wayward; and musicians.

For two years while I worked at Harvard Business School I was a film critic for the newspaper The Harbus. I wrote reviews for several other publications but I’ve always been primarily a music critic. I’ve also become a book critic. I appreciate great films but don’t write about them.

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1. Whiplash

incredible film about the power of music, redemption and perseverance.

starring: Miles Teller, JK Simmons
written and directed by: Damien Chazelle

BEGIN AGAIN

2. Begin Again

promising singer-songwriter gets her shot at recording an album.

starring: Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Catherine Keenar, Adam Levine
written and directed by: John Carney

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3. Under the Skin

a weird mesmerizing film. stunning cinematography.

starring: Scarlett Johansson
written by: Walter Campbell and Jonathan Glazer
directed by: Jonathan Glazer

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4. Belle

In 19th century England, a young black woman gets brought up alongside her white cousin. She learns that she’ll never be treated equally despite their similarities. Belle [Gugu Mbathal-Raw] battles racism and joins the fight for equality under the law.

starring: Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Gugu Mbathal-Raw
written by: Misan Sagay
directed by: Amma Asante

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5. The Skeleton Twins

touching film about estranged twins with depression and stagnant lives. perfectly played by Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader.

starring: Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader
written by: Mark Heyman and Craig Johnson
directed by: Craig Johnson

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6. Nightcrawler

didn’t expect to like this film as much as I did and I was blown away. it’s riveting and disturbing. Gyllenhaal outstanding in every scene.

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton
Written and directed by:Dan Gilroy

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7. Laggies

loved this film about not being quite an adult and no longer being a teenager either. That point where you just don’t know what to do with yourself anymore but know that you can’t remain in a stagnant life.

starring: Keira Knightley, Sam Rockwell, Chloe Grace Moretz
written by: Andrea Seigel
directed by: Lynn Shelton

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8. Frank

sometimes the best (or most memorable) artists are eccentric, sad or both. Frank is about such a musician leading an indie group who makes it to perform at SXSW.

starring: Michael Fassbender, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Domhnall Gleeson, Scoot McNairy
written by:Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan
directed by: Lenny Abrahamson

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9. The Homesman

Not generally a fan of westerns this one got me. a feminist Western with a strong, uncompromising woman [Hilary Swank] at its core.

starring: Hilary Swank, Tommy Lee Jones, Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto
written by: Tommy Lee Jones and Kieran Fitzgerald
directed by: Tommy Lee Jones

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10. The Imitation Game

amazing story about the small group of mathematicians led by Alan Turing [Benedict Cumberbatch] who broke the Nazi’s Enigma Code during WWII. what happens to Turing in the 50s– getting prosecuted for being gay– is horrific. The film is wonderful. Keira Knightley excellent as the lone female in the group.

starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Good, Allen Leech, Mark Strong, Charles Dance
directed by: Morten Tyldum
written by: Graham Moore

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11. Selma

An important film about civil rights. So moving. I cried. Martin Luther King Jr. works to secure equal voting rights during the 1960s with a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.

starring: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tim Roth, Lorraine Toussant, Tom Wilkinson
written by: Paul Webb
directed by: Ava DuVernay

Listen Up Philip (2014) Jonathan Pryce and Jason Schwartzman

12. Listen Up Philip

starring: Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, Jonathan Pryce, Krysten Ritter
written and directed by: Alex Ross Perry

Acerbic wit. Arrogant self-centered writer (aren’t most writers?). Highly quotable and darkly amusing film.

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Choice Quotes: Lucky Them

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“I am the industry-wise transition girlfriend to his soon to be model-fucking teen heartthrob.”

LUCKY THEM

“I’ve decided to embrace my defects. It’s all part of the package.”

–Ellie [Toni Collette]

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FILM of the MONTH: Damsels in Distress

ONE OF THE BEST FILMS I’VE SEEN THIS YEAR.

Greta Gerwig, Adam Brody and rest of cast are fantastic. It’s about a group of young women intent on radically changing the male-dominated environment of their college campus. Fraternities and rape crisis centers get equally sardonic treatment. Whit Stillman is a brilliant writer/director. Of course I’m already a fan of Metropolitan, Barcelona, The Last Days of Disco. If you enjoy intelligent humor, go see it!

They’re in that sympathetic range of being not good looking and not smart. There’s something reassuring about that.

written and directed by: Whit Stillman

starring:
Greta Gerwig
Adam Brody
Carrie MacLemore
Megalyn Echikunwoke
Analeigh Tipton
Ryan Metcalf
Jermaine Crawford
Caitlin Fitzgerald
Zach Woods

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film review: Turn the River

When he introduced the film at this year’s Independent Film Festival of Boston, writer/director Chris Eigeman said, “If handmade is the opposite of corporate, I hope this feels handmade.” It does. It has its charms. Eigeman starred in the Wilt Stilman trilogy: Metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco. He’s very good at playing the buttoned-up, upper crust preppie type. So it’s somewhat surprising that he wrote and directed a film like Turn the River. But then again not that surprising as in those films, the characters drew the interest. Turn the River is a character study. Eigeman met Famke Janssen when they starred in the indie In Treatment together. Eigeman wrote the character in Turn the River specifically for Janssen. That tells a lot about her acting talent. She’s a tall, beautiful woman, yes. If you’ve only seen her in the X-Men films, you are missing out. She’s fantastic in little films like Monument Ave. and Love and Sex. [I’d love to see a film with Janssen and Elizabeth Hurley playing sisters.] While effortlessly beautiful and cool, Janssen can delve into nearly any role with conviction. She’s fearless. And there’s no Charlize Theron-technique of hiding her beauty to play serious roles either. Those beautiful, expressive eyes carry her character through this film. She turns in a gritty, natural performance as a pool hustler mom in Turn the River.

Kailey lost her custody of her son Gulley (Jaymie Dornan) to her ex-husband about a decade ago. We’re not exactly sure why but can guess. She seems from the other side of the tracks. She plays a lot of pool, isn’t educated in the conventional way and shuffles from place to place like many a grifter. Life experience shapes her and provides her with that hard edge. Yet her heart remains open to her son. Kailey has suffered losses at a young edge when she may wasn’t even enough of an adult to realize their implications. She’s not “book smart” like her son but certainly appreciates the virtues of his private schooling. Rip Torn plays the owner of one of her regular joints. He’s the father she’s always wanted. He doesn’t ask her too many questions and he supports her and unconditionally loves her and cares for her. It’s sweet. She spends most of her time at pool houses, sizing up potential marks, storing wads of cash in the back of a pick-up truck she won in a card game. When she finally decides to make the big move with her son, she’s going to risk everything.

Turn the River is a quietly moving film. It’s not flashy but is direct and complex. It slowly unfolds to show this street savvy woman who’s so on the edge and so close to going over the top. Will she make it? The ending may leave you completely confused and even asking, “Why did that just happen?” It’s flawed, absolutely. There are holes throughout but also plenty of heart. Overall though, this is a fine little film with stellar acting from Janssen.

STEELE RECCOMENDS: SEE THIS IN THE THEATER!

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film review: 2 Days in Paris

It’s not easy being in a relationship, much less to truly know the other one and accept them as they are with all their flaws and baggage.

2 Days in Paris is a refreshing, layered, truthful depiction of relationships. The film makes shrewd observations on how a relationship influences the human heart, soul and mind. The coupling without losing the individual. Sometimes you get blinded, often you are insecure and eventually, you might get it right. This chatty, extremely funny and insightful romantic comedy finds talented actress Julie Delpy directing her own script. She co-stars with ex-boyfriend Adam Goldberg, her own parents and even her cat makes a cameo appearance.

This sharp film reveals the minutiae and varied aspects of a relationship. Marion [Delpy] is a 35-year-old French woman who lives in New York. She’s a photographer and has been with her serious, brooding, introspective boyfriend, Jack [Goldberg], an interior designer, for two years. After a trip to Venice, the couple stops in Paris to see her parents. During those 48-hours, Marion runs into several ex-boyfriends, throwing him into an insecure spiral and he starts to question her commitment. It’s a turning point for them as the relationship will either wither or bloom in the City of Love.

Delpy attacks Parisian stereotypes in a way only someone French can really do. She shows the real, gritty parts of Paris; the political undertones, the racism, the immigrants and the less-romantic side– the dark underbelly. 2 Days in Paris simultaneously evokes Delpy’s love of the city and her distain for its politics and hypocrisy. And the best part is that Delpy is hysterical. The film is a winning romantic comedy full of surprising moments.

2 Days in Paris is thoughtful, genuine and amusing in its reflections on love and self-identity for a career-oriented woman in her 30s. She’s independent, has had many loves and relationships in her past. In this refreshing film, the focus is a career-oriented woman who does not want children, has slept with more than a dozen men and is neither regretful nor apologetic and loves her cat and boyfriend equally.

STEELE RECCOMENDATION: SEE IT IN THE THEATRE

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