Hello friends! Ruth here. If you’ve been reading the blog for a while you know that here on the blog we care about diversity in filmmaking, both in front AND behind the camera. So I love highlighting female filmmakers, both locally and internationally, and today we’ve got a veteran MN artist Cynthia Uhrich, founder of In The Moment Films, who constantly wear many, many hats: Writer, Director, Filmmaker, Casting Director, Producer and Educator.
Two of her short films, Oh My Stars and Everyone Goes In The Lake are both Twin Cities Film Fest’s 2019 Official Selections! So read below on my conversation with Cynthia on her journey as a filmmaker and making the two films.
You have been in the film business for a long time, and you have a BA in theatre. Would you tell me a bit about your journey from acting into filmmaking?
Well, it’s been an interesting transition…pretty much facilitated by the fact that I fully grasped about 12 years ago that there were so few roles for women 40+. Since I love every aspect of the entertainment business, I decided that I needed to reinvent myself. I’d been acting since the 3rd grade when I wrote and directed my first play. I was a member of SAG and AFTRA for 26 years, and had worked in the Twin Cities, then Florida, then Los Angeles and then came back to the T.C. at 40. I did some acting when I got here and started teaching acting classes. But, I realized that I needed to shift gears so I started teaching a class called “I Got The Part: Now What?” which took actors through the process of preparing for a role–and I did 3 showcases of the actors work (on stage) for the public–both to help the actors have a chance to be seen, and to sharpen my own directing skills.
I then transitioned into creating acting classes that were for film prep and used those classes to teach actors what I knew about film acting and made a few shorts to expand my knowledge about directing for film. While I’d been on a lot of sets over the years–both as talent and in Hollywood also working crew as assistant coordinator on commercials and working as a production assistant–I needed to start to understand how to plan and direct films. So basically, I’m self-taught and I still rely very much on having a smart, knowledgeable crew around me to help with the things that I’m still figuring out. I looked around and noticed that so few women were in crew roles…so I applied with Springboard for the Arts and created my non-profit film production company, IN THE MOMENT FILMS. The mission is to create employment opportunities for women both in front of, and behind the camera. And to make films about women’s stories and to make socially significant films. As a non-profit, I am able to secure funding for projects and those contributions are tax-deductible for individuals–that’s helpful to incentivize individuals to contribute to film.
I first saw your film Robert in the Bedroom (that you wrote and directed), a heart-wrenching short about a woman dealing with memory loss. I’ve since seen two more short films that you directed. How do you choose your projects?
I have known a few people with Alzheimer’s and started to notice that more and more individuals and families were grappling with this disease. When I started to research, I discovered the statistics for the future are frightening. The percentage of the population that will develop Alzheimer’s and Dementia is expected to grow exponentially…and is going to impact families enormously. Family members are often the caregivers. The financial burden will also be catastrophic to some families…let alone the emotional burden. My experience with a friend’s mother was so profound–it left a real mark on my heart. When I learned about people having to re-live a loss over and over because they weren’t able to recall that it had happened (such as the loss of a spouse) it broke my heart. I didn’t feel as though people were fully grasping just how devastating the illness was to families…and to the person experiencing memory loss. I felt it was a compelling topic to explore.
“Code Green” is based on a true story about a young woman’s (Kayla Coffland’s) battle with her eating disorder. She had been a long-time student and is extraordinarily talented and interesting. She shared a monologue with me that she had written about a specific period of time in her life and it struck a chord with me. I asked her if she’d be interested in making a short film about her illness–and she said “I was kind of hoping you’d ask me.” We had many, many conversations about her struggles and I wrote the screenplay based on those talks. It was a painful film to make. The cast and crew who were there know how much love and support was needed…emotionally one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. We captured really raw, naked truth from Kayla, who stars in the film. Not nearly enough people have seen it–it’s still on the festival circuit and I hope to screen it for the public early next year. Her story is important. I screened it to a group of teens and their parents–and the response to it was overwhelming. It really touched people. It is hard for me to watch. I love Kayla and I think she is incredibly talented and courageous.
I love that your projects often feature women and actors of color. As a casting director, how important is diversity and inclusion in your projects?
Diversity in casting is SO important. I recall living in Los Angeles and I was dating a Hispanic man for a year named John Vargas. He was an actor, and shared the statistics with me. Being a Caucasian, it had never really occurred to me that there was an inequity in casting. So, it was the mid-90’s and he told me 20% of all roles were going to actors that were African-American, 7% to Latinos and only 2% to Asians. (Native Americans weren’t even in those stats!) He shared with me how he would ask his agents or casting people to ask directors to please consider a non-Caucasian for roles–because there wasn’t enough opportunity for him to audition. It was such a frustration for him–and he was a really hustling, talented guy. I never forgot that. So when I started casting…I made a point of asking directors or writers to consider seeing people of color. I also like to point out that certain roles don’t need to be cast as male…to open up more opportunities for women, too. But, at the end of the day, it always must be the best individual for the role, regardless of gender or race. That’s paramount.
The last two projects I’m focusing here, Oh My Stars and Everyone Goes In The Lake, were both written by someone else. How’s the filmmaking process different from directing something that you wrote yourself?
Oh, it’s easier in some ways, and more challenging in others. Lorna is an amazing writer…prolific and so hard-working. She wrote two screenplays for us to choose from, both approaching the story from very different perspectives. One of the screenplays had far more of the protagonist (Violet) as the older woman on-screen reliving her past. Greg Winter (my cinematographer) and I both preferred the piece with more narration. It just felt more active to see more of the protagonist’s struggle as a young woman on the screen…and it felt more like a memory, using the narration as the thread weaving through the story. I also really liked the way 1979 served as book-ends to the film. We also used chocolate filters and pushed towards sepia in those 1930’s scenes because my vision was to really give those early years the feeling of memory–and the sepia just felt like the way to go. As the film goes on, the chocolate fades and as Violet’s life changes, more color comes into the pictures. These ideas were in my head from day one and Greg was onboard with the ideas. It was fun to expand scenes visually, though, on bits of the dialogue in ways that I don’t think Lorna had expected.
With “Everyone Goes in the Lake,” Rudy Pavich had written a funny screenplay (’cause he’s a funny man) that just needed a bit of fine-tuning so I recommended that we get my former MCTC colleague Jeremy Bandow’s eyes on it. Both Jeremy and I weighed in with notes and Rudy was open to making adjustments and that collaborating really helped me to hone my vision for that project. When it’s not my script: It’s much easier to just focus on the actors and to not stress about the dialogue and wonder constantly if it’s working. It’s one of the monkeys that’s off my back!
Oh My Stars was adapted from a novel by Lorna Landvik who also wrote the screenplay. Can you tell me how that project come about?
I had been teaching a commercial class at the Sabbes JCC and met a woman named Jan who happened to be in a group that Lorna was a part of. Lorna had been sharing with the group that many of her books have been optioned for films (one as a vehicle for Ashley Judd) but that none had ever made it to the screen. Jan suggested Lorna and I meet…we did, she looked at some of my other projects, we met again and I (of course) ran out before our first meeting and bought and read 50% of the book so I could really talk to her about “Oh My Stars” and it worked out.
The trend now is to make “proof-of-concept” short films to pitch a longer feature. I suggested we do that–and build a platform via festivals and word-of-mouth and here we are! It was also important to me that our proof-of-concept was more than a “pitch” but also a stand-alone film…one that piqued the viewer’s interest and that made them want to see more. I think we succeeded in that. It’s the most amount of money I’ve ever had to raise for a film. Fundraising went on for a full year on that one. Both through GiveMN.org and we did special fundraising events. Lots of heavy lifting to get it finished. And more work now shepherding it through the Festival gauntlet.
Have you ever done a period drama before? What is your favorite genre to watch and to work on?
I had never done a period piece before…that element made pre-production terrifying. Truly daunting. I started 4 months ahead of filming to prepare…for a short film! I couldn’t sleep at night for all the thoughts of the details running through my head…it’s amazing what a motivator fear can be in the creative process! I wanted to get it right. I knew this was an extraordinary opportunity for me as an artist and I didn’t want to fail Lorna, the cast, or the crew. Lots of pressure. Then, things fell through in the 11th hour–specifically—two vintage vehicles. That was so disappointing and we had to scramble to re-write and conceptualize those scenes to accommodate for those missing elements.
I remember after I saw the film, the amount of voice over is perhaps the most extensively-used in any short (or even features) I’ve ever seen. How did you come to such an approach, was it something Lorna specifically wanted for the film?
Yes, that was the way she wrote one of the two scripts…and I thought it was a really interesting way to tell a story. I knew it was a bit risky—but it makes the film special, I think. To primarily see the emotions coming from young Violet, but the narration from older Violet works, and here’s why: distance (as in time) creates a bit of an emotional disconnect—so while Violet’s narration is somewhat “these are the facts” all of the emotion from when the original events occurred are living in the depiction of Violet as a young woman experiencing the events in the moment.
Now, as for Everyone Goes Into The Lake, is this the first comedic film you’ve worked on?
No, I wrote and directed a short called “M4W” that screened at the Bryant Lake Bowl as part of IFP’s Cinema Lounge (now “Film North”). I didn’t submit that one to festivals. I simply didn’t have the confidence in my work at that time. It has also screened on MNC6 now. I learned so much making that movie. I realized doing that one that I had much to learn—but again—I had amazing people around me to support me. These projects are never just “mine.” I’m always a little bothered when I read a director/producer/writer indicate in a posting “come to see MY film.” I try to always write or say “our film” because it is such a team effort. Every single person is working hard, tired, fighting the elements, working with small budgets, doing the absolute best they can in their positions—it’s kind of like going into a battle. As an introvert, I have to put on a special pair of pants when it comes to directing. I’m not entirely comfortable with being at the helm, but someone I suck it up and get it done. I always have a strong sense of what I want, but I’m working on having more ease about making a film. I want to enjoy it more and stress less.
The cinematography is beautiful, but I was really in awe by that cabin. How did you come to find that location, and how involved are you with the location scouting?
I am very hands-on with location scouting—mostly because I don’t have the budget to hire someone to do it! Charlotte Ariss was an incredible help on “Oh My Stars” really pointing me in the right direction and offering wonderful suggestions. I’m so grateful for her help. I have to see and feel a place before filming…places have energy and I need to walk the space myself to be able to block and visualize the pictures for a film.
The cabin in “Everyone Goes in the Lake” belongs to dear friends of mine (Dan and Marie Hilliard) I had been dating Marie’s brother for 3 years or so, and finally got up the courage to ask if we could film there…to my amazement she said “yes!” It was able to sleep our entire cast & crew and has an incredible kitchen where my significant other at the time (Michael McColl) was able to cook up some incredible meals for the team. He also made some meals for “Oh My Stars.” We were all lucky to have someone on the team with such amazing culinary skills. I will forever be grateful to that family for their help with my projects.
Lastly, just for fun, can you share an anecdote from filming either one of the TCFF shorts that you find particularly memorable?
On “Oh My Stars” we had rain off and on our final (4th) day of filming—all outdoor shots. It was the longest day of my life…by the time we got to our very last set-ups of the day (the bus crash) I was beyond exhausted. I will never forget driving in pitch-black to our location—a remote country road…and seeing the headlights from around 20 cars with all the cast and crew following me…I was so oddly moved by that…and so nervous that I would miss the turn-off in the dark and the mist. There were so many roads we shot on and I’d scouted them 3 times over and made maps and did everything possible to make sure we weren’t all driving out in the country, lost. I prayed the entire time I was driving. I almost cried when I saw the little graveyard that was on the corner—that was the marker I needed to see. So, it’s been a funky day and it feels like maybe the rain will clear…and we have all these extras who’ve been waiting on us all day due to the rain delays—and my gut tells me we’d better shoot the dialogue with the leads first…and then we’ll get all the sweet extra’s bits. So we shoot the dialogue—and I swear, the moment we got the take we wanted—the skies opened up and it was a torrential downpour. I miss those little vignettes we’d planned with some wonderful actors. For the sake of the film, I’m grateful I listened to my gut—but sad we had to sacrifice some background artists to the fickle movie Gods.
Check out this BTS video of Oh My Stars
(courtesy of IN THE MOMENT FILMS)
Thank you for chatting with me, Cynthia!
Everyone Goes In The Lake is screening as part of the Lost & Found shorts block
Tuesday, October 22nd 5:00PM