Since we’ve past the halfway mark of the Twin Cities Film Fest, I think I have seen enough movies to indicate which ones have been my favorites. Well, Saving Flora is definitely one of those that I thoroughly enjoyed and I can see myself watching again! Thank you Mark Taylor (and Synkronized Films) for taking the time to chat with me!
Flora is a circus elephant who can no longer perform her tricks. The night before she’s scheduled to be euthanized, the circus owner’s 14-year old daughter, Dawn, sneaks Flora from the circus. All that stands between them and the safety of the elephant preserve is two hundred kilometers of woods, one raging river, two elephant hunters and the fear of not making it.
How did this project come about for you and what’s the inspiration for the story?
I was a creative director at the advertising agency Saatchi in Los Angeles and was getting frustrated creatively and wanted to writes a story that I felt had some sort of meaning, something that had soul. I’d always loved family films and knew how influential my favorites ones growing up had been to me. I knew that I was going to want to direct this story also as just handing it over to an already established film director was going to short change my creative journey. I stories that depict the relationship between a child and an animal and having trained as an advertising Art Director I do tend to see things very visually. What better visual than a small child and an elephant. It was important for me that the young child was a girl, I have many strong females in my life one of which was my seven year old daughter Maya. It was easy to see her making such a journey with an elephant if she had the desire. I started writing Saving Flora with my writing partner David (at the time also a fellow creatively frustrated ad guy), we both love animals and although against animals in circuses we also knew we had to have compassion and an understanding of circus life .
2. There’s always something so mystical and maybe dark about the world of circus, but yet Saving Flora has a lightness and sweetness to it given it’s a family film, was that tough to achieve that balance?
Yes, as I mentioned before, David and I are very much animal lovers but we did spend time with former circus owners and performers and Flora (Thai) herself. Everyone we met was extremely loving and caring and there was very much a family vibe amongst them all. We never intended this story to be a statement about elephants in circuses but a story about the bond between a girl and an animal.
3. I would like to ask you about casting, but firstly I’m curious how it was working with elephants as your directorial debut. Were there a few elephants cast as Flora?
There was only ever one elephant cast and that choice was a no brainer. We visited Thai and her owners a number of times before the shoot. She’s amazing. Not only had she been in a number of films before but she is an older elephant also and her story in some ways related to Floras. Elephants cost a lot of money to feed and keep every year and she is not funded by a charity Thai has to work for her keep. Indians weddings mostly. She is very much loved by her owners and you can feel their concern for the years to come.
4. I adore Jenna Ortega as Dawn, she is completely charming and believable in her relationship with Flora. How did you find her, did you do a big casting process? The boy who played Sebastian is also pretty great.
We had looked at lots of girls to play Dawn but when Jenna was put forward she not only helped us define Dawn’s character but also define some of the tone of the film. Jenna’s latino heritage inspired our choices for casting the other characters also. It made us shake things up a bit and create a world that was a bit more representative of America.
5. How’s the process in getting the appropriate bond between Dawn and Flora for the film?
That was easy. An amazing elephant and a fearless lead actress. The first scene they had to shoot together was Dawn lying down asleep on Flora. Thai lay down on her side and Jenna instantly crawled into her neck and snuggled up. It really was magical.
6. Visually the film looks stunning. Where did you film this and how long was the entire shoot?
It was a 21 day shoot so we knew we had our work cut out for us, especially as we were essentially filming a road movie. We also needed to shoot with the 50 mile LA film zone. Luckily our location guy Frank was amazing. We settled on a private area of land called Newhall ranch, a little town with a train station called Piru, a few days at Piru lake and a day at Angeles Crest. Newhall ranch is 126,000 acres and within reason we could move around quickly and efficiently within it creating different textures and environments depending which way we pointed the camera. I always knew a circus, a girl and an elephant in the desert would look amazing but I was lucky enough to have my friend and DP Michael Pessah on the film. I had directed a number of commercials that Michael had DP’d and we had developed a great working relationship based on trust and respect. We worked our asses off.
7. Lastly, what’s the most challenging part of the shoot, but on the flip side, what’s the most surprisingly delightful part of filming?
The most challenging part of the shoot was definitely the 21 days to shoot it in combined with the 4 to six hours of shooting time with the elephant for only ten days and the limited amount of hours you can shoot with a 15 year old. The surprising and very delightful part was the magic that happened in the filming. I was told that things would go wrong in the making of the film but I felt so blessed to be doing the film in the first place that I felt that if things did go wrong then they would go wrong for a reason and that reason was to make the film better. And I was right. Magic happens on set if you allow it to.
Thank you Mark Taylor for chatting with me!
Check out this TCFF red carpet interview with our host Doug Sidney:
Stay tuned for FlixChatter video interview w/ actors David Arquette and Tom Arnold at TCFF red carpet!