In the late 1940s, Soviet researchers kept four patients awake for thirty days using an experimental gas-based stimulant. The researchers were cut off from the world and asked to do a series of tests on the subjects for the benefit of the Red Army. What started as a purely scientific research study soon escalated to insanity. What happened next will change the way you view humanity.
The Soviet Sleep Experiment had its world premiere at Twin Cities Film Fest last Friday. Many of the cast/crew were present (many are Minnesota-based) for the red carpet interviews. It’s fitting that the film has a Minnesota premiere, given that it was filmed in the Twin Cities’ southern suburbs of Lakeville (check out this article from the set visit).
FlixChatter media correspondent Holly Peterson had a chance to chat with director Barry Andersson (whose film The Lumber Baron won TCFF’s Best Audience Award last year) and actor Chris Kattan (of Saturday Night Live and A Night at the Roxbury fame). Check out the interview below:
A few bts photos filming The Soviet Sleep Experiment*:
*Photos courtesy of IMDb + The Soviet Sleep Experiment FB page.
Review of The Soviet Sleep Experiment
The Soviet Sleep Experiment is directed and produced by Minnesota native Barry Andersson and written by Michael Patrick McCaffrey. Andersson is back at the Twin Cities Film Fest in 2019 after a successful 2018 Twin Cities Film Fest, where his feature narrative film The Lumber Baron, a period drama about the heir to a failing lumber business and the enduring rumors of a treasure left behind by his grandfather, won the 2018 Audience Award for best feature. The Soviet Sleep Experiment stars Eva De Dominici as Dr. Anna Antonoff, Rafal Zawierucha Dr. Leo Antonoff, and Evgeny Krutov as Captain Yegor Sokolov. It also stars Chris Kattan as Subject 3, Michael Villar as Subject 4, Charles Hubbell as Subject 5 and Paul Cram as Subject 6.
The movie was filmed in and around Lakeville, Minnesota (per IMDB) and is a psychological thriller based loosely upon the urban legend which follows a married research team — Dr. Anna Antonoff and Dr. Leo Antonoff (De Dominici and Zawierucha) who, under close watch of a Red Army Captain Yegor Sokolov (Krutov) , and they set out to study the effects of forced sleep deprivation on four patients locked inside an observation chamber for 30 days. These four patients are given the names of Subject 3 (Kattan), Subject 4 (Villar), Subject 5 (Hubbell) and Subject 6 (Cram) and are placed inside a controlled tank where anti-sleeping gas is pumped into the chamber and each of the Subjects are mentally tested every eight hours, with their reward being a small earing ration about the size of a hockey puck.
After several hundreds of hours inside the chamber, the Subject start turning on each other and the doctors and Soviet Captain are forced to shock them using implants that are surgically implanted inside their necks to give them a jolt of electricity to have them calm down. The hundreds of hours outside the chamber also pays a toll on the doctors performing the experiment, with their also lack of sleep and mental exhaustion. This is brilliantly portrayed by Argentinian actress Dominici (of the 2018 film You Shall Not Sleep) and Polish actor Zawierucha (Roman Polanski in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) acting against Russian actor Krutov (Stranger Things Season 3). Soviet Captain Sokolov, who represents the overshadowing Red Army back in Moscow overseeing the experiment, is compelling and alarming at the same time — making a perfect antagonist to the already tense story!
The actors inside the chamber, most notably Kattan (of Saturday Night Live and A Night at the Roxbury fame) and Villar (of the 2018 film Skin) are featured much more prominently than Hubbell (of the 2013 film Walking with the Enemy) and Cram (of the Minnesota-made film Wilson, which was first shown in Minnesota by TCFF in March, 2017). All four actors portray the victims/subjects of The Soviet Sleep Experiment quite well and make for one bombastic showcase of horror and gore. They act opposite each other very well inside the isolated 1940s Soviet testing facility. The set design team who put together the chamber must also be commended as it is quite believable that such a “deep sea” diving chamber could be used for such a callous experiment. Overall, this is a very creepy and worthwhile movie to see in the lead up to Halloween season.
Synopsis: When spoiled rich girl Sasha Li blows through most of her trust fund, she is cut off by her father and forced to go back to China and work for the family toy business.
Review of GO BACK TO CHINA
When I first heard of the title, I did a double take. It has that anti-immigrant sentiment, but yet that provocative title works perfectly in the context of this film (read below on my Q&A about how director Emily Ting arrived on that title). This is the first time I saw Anna Akana (I wasn’t aware she’s a famous YouTube star), but the casting is spot-on as she brings a natural whimsy and playfulness to the drama. Although her character Sasha spoiled and even delusional at first (as illustrated in the hilarious opening scene where she goes on a job interview at a fashion house), you can’t help but empathize with her and wants to see her do well.
This is a coming-of-age story of sort, with Sasha being forced to terms with her father’s wishes of working at his factory, and finally finding her footing in the family business. The fact that the film was shot in Shenzen, China definitely makes the film feels very authentic. There are some tough moments between her and her old-fashioned father (Richard Ng), especially in regards to him constantly getting divorced and remarried. Naturally they differ in what each consider familial duty, with Sasha’s loyal step-sister Carol (Lynn Chen) sometimes caught in the middle. At times the story feels like an adaptation of the prodigal son from the Bible.
If I had to nitpick however, at times the fact that Sasha gets acclimated in the business and excels as a toy designer feels too good to be true. Somehow the toy factory crisis in the third act is resolved all too conveniently as well. But those are small quibbles in an otherwise charming and entertaining familial drama. Having grown up with an entrepreneurial, head-strong grandmother who’s Chinese-Indonesian, I can certainly relate to the story.
This is a terrific sophomore feature from Emily Ting. I really enjoyed her debut film Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong, and here she stepped up the game with a more complex story and also a bigger cast. I particularly enjoyed the scenes between Anna Akana and Lynn Chen, two strong Asian-American performers I’d love to see more of. I also have to mention the extremely-underrated Kelly Hu as Sasha’s mother, I wish she had more screen time but glad she’s part of the cast.
It’s wonderful to see more Asian-American stories coming out the past few years. Emily Ting is a gifted filmmaker I hope would continue making films. Oh, and after watching this, I suddenly got the urge of getting a bunch of stuffed animals! 😀
Interview with Emily Ting
1. Go Back To China was inspired by your own experience and certainly felt personal. Would you share a bit about that experience working in Shenzen at your dad’s company?
I feel like everyone has one story that has shaped the trajectory of their life and defined who they are today. For me, going back to China to work for the family business is that story. I learned a lot about myself in the 12 years I spent working for the family business, and making this film was a really cathartic experience. When I decided to go back to Asia, I thought that meant giving up on my filmmaking aspirations forever. But ironically, that experience ended up inspiring all the films I’ve made since.
2. How did you decide on making the semi-autobiography into a comedy, has that always been your vision from the start?
This was actually my attempt at making a serious drama! But I naturally have a very light touch, so this is just my filmmaking voice coming out. Also, I think that a lot of the comedy is a result of Anna Akana’s performance. She is a comedienne, and she brought a lot of her comedic chops to the role. I don’t think the film would be as funny if someone else had played Sasha.
3. The title is certainly quite provocative, and it’s perfect for this story. How did you come up with that?
I finished the whole script without any idea on what to call the film. I was playing around with some more mundane ideas for the title, like “The Family Business” or something like that. And as almost a joke, I slapped “Go Back to China” on the draft as a working title, since this is a film literally about a girl who goes back to China. But I didn’t think that we could actually call my film that. I think that my manager was the first person I sent the script to and he took to the title right away. And then everyone else that I sent the script to told me they loved the title and that I shouldn’t change it. So it just stuck! I still can’t believe that I got away with making a film called Go Back to China!
4. I LOVE the cast here, esp. Anna Akana & Lynn Chen as the sisters. How did their casting come about? I’d love to hear about Richard Ng & Kelly Hu’s casting as well if you wouldn’t mind sharing.
At the time when I was working on the script, I was doing a lot of general meetings at digital companies and Anna Akana’s name kept coming up. I wasn’t familiar with her work, so I looked her up on Youtube and went down a rabbit hole watching her videos. She is immensely watchable and embodied who Sasha is. Even though she has a huge following on Youtube, she hasn’t acted in a lot of traditional films. I took a leap of faith and made an offer. She responded to the material and came on board. I still can’t believe that this is her first lead role in a film!
After Sasha was cast, the role of Carol was much easier to fill. I had been a fan of Lynn Chen for a long time and knew that she would knock the role out of the park. I asked my friend Dave Boyle (who worked with her on several films) to pass the script along to her. She responded in a few days that she was in! Even though I already knew Lynn could act, her performance in this film still blew me away. She made me cry behind the monitor on set many times!
The hardest role to fill was the father. I had to push the production several times because we couldn’t get the role cast. The father’s casting process was in a way very reflective of a film about daddy issues! I had wanted a name Asian actor for the role. Actually, one of the first people I thought of was Richard Ng, who is a very beloved veteran Hong Kong actor, and we had worked together on Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong previously. But the internal consensus was that, at almost 80, he was too old for the role. We started sending offers out to younger name Asian actors. But we just couldn’t get anyone to read the script! After months of this, I returned to my initial idea of Richard. I thought, what if we just aged him down through HMU and wardrobe? My producer was on board with this idea, and I wrote an email to him. He read the script in about two weeks and agreed to take on the role. We gave him a new haircut and a more stylish wardrobe, and he was transformed into Teddy instantly. In hindsight, I wish I would’ve just followed my gut and could’ve avoided months of anxiety.
We were really lucky to get Kelly Hu for the mother role. It is a very small role and my casting director didn’t think any name actors would want to take on what is basically a glorified cameo role. But I thought it wouldn’t hurt to ask. We sent the offer to her on a Thursday, and by the following Tuesday, she signed on. Even though her role would be small, she loved the script and wanted to help the project any way she could.
5. Some of the toys featured in the film are adorable. How did you get them, did any of the ones you designed make it to the movie?
The sloth was actually from our family’s toy company’s Christmas line! I did come up with an idea for a Christmas sloth in real life, and the item was sold at Dollar General, Kroger, and some other stores. All the other toys that you see in the movie were products that were being manufactured at the factory on the days we were shooting. We went around the production line and picked toys that fit with our pastel color palette to appear on camera.
6. What are some of the challenges you faced making this movie compared to Already Tomorrow In Hong Kong, which also has elements from your own personal journey?
The two movies are such different beasts, and both had totally different challenges. Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong was shot in very uncontrolled environments and situations (running around the streets of Hong Kong). We didn’t have any control of the weather, traffic, or the people on the streets. Every day was unpredictable. But it was a very simple movie in terms of coverage, because we just had two people walking and talking. We shot the film in 14 days and only worked 6 – 8 hours on most days. For Go Back to China, the locations were all very controlled, since we shot mostly in locations that my family owned, but it’s a much more complicated film in terms of coverage. This is a much bigger story, with a lot more characters and scenes. We just had so much more to shoot in order to get all the coverage we needed. We shot for 21 days and worked the maximum 12 hours every day. And this is also a much more personal film for me than the last one. This film is about my family and not just a random encounter. It felt more meaningful and the stakes higher.
7. Lastly, with the release of Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell in the past couple of years, and the ongoing diversity/inclusion discussion, do you think the cinematic landscape has changed for Asian filmmakers?
I definitely think that Crazy Rich Asians opened a lot of doors and the industry is more receptive to Asian American stories. At least now, they can’t use the excuse that Asian stories can’t attract an audience. I have been having a lot of general meetings with companies that are actively looking for Asian content or Asian filmmakers, and it’s certainly an encouraging trend. But at the end of the day, Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell are still the rare anomaly and not the rule yet. However, I’m much more optimistic about the future than ever before.
Thank you for chatting with me, Emily!
TCFF screening times of Go Back To China: Wednesday October 23rd 12:15 PM
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 Lakeare 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
Hello FC readers. It’s Ruth here. Today we’ve got another MN film and MN filmmaker whose film Only Dance Can Save Us is premiering tomorrow at 7:20pm.
I got to see the film last week and I’m really impressed! Kudos to John Kaiser on his feature film debut–it feels like a personal film which highlights the artistic process and the struggle of an artist. Even more impressive that he chose dance, which apparently is an uncharted territory for him, yet he’s able to capture the beauty of that world.
I like that that the film didn’t spoon feed everything to the audience, it’s not drowned by exposition. The pacing could’ve been improved a bit however, but overall it’s a terrific film that gives me an insight into the world of dance that I’m not familiar with. As someone working in the creative world, I can relate to the challenges of making a living as an artist.
The acting, especially Larissa Gritti (Sophie) and Matt Bailey (Alan) are strong and believable, which is important in a dialog-heavy film. The dance sequences by choreographer Berit Ahlgren are lovely to watch, and it works wonderfully with the music by Sarah James Elstran. The dynamic camera work by DP Tim Schrader also highlights the dance sequences beautifully.
It’s one of the most unique and creative indie films I’ve seen at TCFF, worth seeing on the big screen so don’t miss the screening tomorrow at 7:20pm! Get your tickets here.
Synopsis: Following the death of her estranged mentor, contemporary dance choreographer, Sophie Florence, seeks to make sense of their relationship through her art. As she faces her past, she can’t help but be influenced by her present. By weaving performance and narrative, Only Dance Can Save Us creates an interdisciplinary portrait of the artistic process.
Interview with John Kaiser
1. The film explores the ups and downs of the artistic process. Was the story inspired by your own journey by any chance?
As an artist it’s impossible not to infuse a little of yourself into your work, nor should you ever resist that urge. For this film in particular I wanted to incorporate that sense of insecurity that we artists feel around our work. Those questions of, “Why are we doing this? Should I be doing something else with my life?” Like our protagonist Sophie, I definitely have had those moments of self doubt. We all have. Maybe a project doesn’t turn out how we thought, or we get rejected from festival after festival, and we question why we’re dedicating so much of ourselves to art. Then we have another great idea and we’re pulled right back into that cycle.
2. You’ve written quite a bit of shorts and a few features, including DARK CLOUD that I covered last year. What made you decide to direct this story in particular for your debut?
For this project I really wanted to explore that artistic process. That self-doubt, that inspiration, how the world around us shapes our work. The key was finding the right medium to explore on film. Dance was an uncharted territory for me, I’ve grown to appreciate it over the years and it felt like the perfect vehicle to showcase that process.
Having written and directed a couple shorts, I knew I wanted to try my hand at a longer narrative. With all films, sometimes things just come down to timing, finding the right project at the right time. This was a story that had been bouncing around my head for awhile and felt like the right project to apply for a Jerome Foundation Artist Grant with. Low and behold, much to my surprise and delight, they liked the project and funded the majority of the production costs.
3. I love the dance sequences. Can you talk a bit about the process of casting those dancers, in addition to casting the actors for the film?
When it came to casting dancers, I leaned completely on our choreographer Berit Ahlgren. I gave her carte blanche to bring in anyone she thought would be a good fit. In this case some of our restrictions acted in our favor. Due to some scheduling issues not everyone was available every day. So Berit developed pieces that required only a handful of performers and other pieces that required a lot more. She herself performs an incredible solo at the beginning at the film, so it’s a little like you never know who’s going to show up in the sequences. As the film progresses we see the pieces grow and become more complex, with more and more dancers joining in.
In terms of casting our actors, one of the challenges with some of the roles was finding individuals who could both act AND dance. This requirement really helped narrow our field and gave us a more strategic pool to focus on. And we were lucky in that we had enough talented people express interest that we didn’t have to sacrifice quality on either front.
4. I also notice that the music seems to appear in the dance sequences, while it’s mostly music-free in the dialog scenes. How was the process of incorporating music into this film?
I often joke that when characters in this film aren’t talking, they are dancing. And that was sort of the approach with the music as well. I personally like to let the dialogue (and there’s a lot of dialogue in this film) speak for itself and not compete with the score. I like to find a rhythm and pacing with the actors that feels musical at times.
This also gives our dance sequences their own energy and feel when we finally do add music into the film. The dances and dancers are there to act as a Greek Chorus of sorts and really portray Sophie’s mental state. We were incredibly lucky to have Sarah James Elstran (The Nunnery) contributing the music. Her work sounds like nothing I’ve heard and that’s what jumped out to me when I was exploring composers. It’s haunting at times, celestial at other moments, but it’s also incredibly catchy and upbeat when it needs to be. It really gives the film its own unique sound.
5. The film practically takes place in a single building, save for a couple of scenes. What has been the biggest challenges of setting a film that way?
As a writer it’s always a fun challenge to create something with as few locations as possible and this piece for the most part takes place not only in one building but one room for the majority of the film. So it’s this fun little challenge where you give yourself limited resources to work with.
As a director though, focusing your story on one particular space presents a different set of challenges. Namely, how can we keep that space fresh for the audience. We were able to do a lot with lighting, playing with the time of day the scenes are set in. I also wanted each corner of the room to feel more like it’s own space. There’s a space for socializing, one for business, one for reflection, then of course a big empty space for the dancers to move in.
6. When I first noticed the dancers’ costumes, I thought I noticed the specs of blood in them. Is that just my imagination thinking that perhaps it’s hinting at the ‘bad blood’ between Sophie and her recently-deceased mentor, or just a coincidence?
Oh that’s a very interesting observation. I hadn’t thought of that before, but that’s the fun thing about getting this film out in front of an audience. Everyone brings their own interpretations to things. Part way through the production I noticed the blood-like spots. For me that represented the dedication and passion these artists have for their craft.
The costumes themselves were created by the incredibly talented Caroline Sebastian. She and I shared vision boards and had several discussions about what these pieces should look like. We wanted something that made them stand out from the rest of the world. We drew a lot of inspiration from dancer costumes of decades past. In particular we were both drawn to those used by the choreographer Merce Cunningham in the 1970’s and 80s. Caroline had the brilliant idea of adding this tie-dyed pattern which gave the outfits a texture that stands out in the space and on film.
7. How excited are you that your first feature is premiering at TCFF, on its 10th anniversary no less?
I’m ecstatic. TCFF has always been a great supporter of the local film community and it’s always fun to play to a hometown crowd. There’s just a different energy when you know your friends, family, collaborators, and colleagues are in the audience. It gives the screening a Sunday dinner kinda vibe.
8. What’s next for you? Would you share about some of your current/future artistic endeavors?
The next thing on my agenda is to breathe and to unplug for awhile. This project has been my life for the last year and a half and now it’s out in the world. We’re hopefully going to focus on taking it around to other festivals across the country and get it in front of as many eyeballs as possible.
Beyond that, I’m writing for the fun of writing. Playing with new ideas and seeing what the next story to take root in my mind will be.
Set Visit – Fall 2018
I had the privilege of visiting the about a year ago in St. Paul MN, thanks to writer/director John Kaiser, executive producer Jay Ness, and producers Ellie Drews & Kirstie House for arranging the visit. Jay, Ellie and Kirstie, plus DP Tim Schrader + costume designer Caroline Sebastian were actually part of the crew of my own film Hearts Want). I really enjoyed the visit and meeting some of the cast/crew, here are some pics from the fun visit:
Thank you for chatting with me, John!
TCFF screening times of Only Dance Can Save Us: Tuesday October 22nd 7:20 PM
On its 10th anniversary, more than 60% of Twin Cities Film Fest’s 2019 program are driven by female filmmakers. It’s something I’m happy about of course, but I wish the general statistics about women in Hollywood is something to cheer about. As of right now, according to Women And Hollywood stats, women only make up for a mere 4% of directors.
So naturally I’m intrigued by documentaries that highlight women filmmakers. I featured the doc Be Natural about Alice Guy-Blaché (the Mother of Cinema). This time I had the privilege of chatting with Cady McClain, the director of Seeing Is Believing: Women Direct.
It’s a documentary film which emphasizes the opportunity for women to use their voice through media to change the social and political landscape and achieve full equality. Focusing on inspiring and uplifting young female storytellers through the mentorship and leadership of four diverse directors, Seeing is Believing: Women Direct opens the conversation up to ask “What is the broader role of storytelling in our society and how can women use filmed media as a unique opportunity to catalyze progress?”
The best documentaries are entertaining, insightful and fascinating. Well, this is one of those documentaries and then some. I love that there are clips from their projects along with the filmmakers’ interviews. I also adore the the stunning animation by Chilean artist Xaviera López that supports the themes of the doc.
I learned that Cady McClain is planning of turning this doc into a podcast series with female filmmakers and I really hope that would happen!
Check out the trailer:
Q&A with Director, Producer, Editor Cady McClain
1. What triggered you to make this film as your first feature? I read that it had started off as a 28 minute short, then an 58-minute version before this one (84 min) doc feature?
I actually started out with the idea of doing a feature. But there were two other women who wanted to make a similar feature and we each have our own vision. We all wanted to support each other but also wanted to have our own journey of going about it, which is kind of crazy but that’s how it turned out. So I didn’t want to compete by making another feature, so I thought I’ll make a series. So the short was supposed to be the first episode, the pilot. So I sent it to Soho Film Festival and they called me and said, ‘you should make it into a feature because they think it would be really competitive in their feature doc category.’
When a film festival called you, it was the encouragement I needed. I mean I never made a documentary before, I’ve never trained in documentary, but at least the short helped me understand what documentaries are. Plus I could build it from there, and the 84-minute film ended up winning the Audience Award at Soho International Film Festival which was amazing.
Then we also had a distributor come around who said, this isn’t long enough for iTunes (because it was under an hour). Now I have a little more understanding of how to make the doc feature I had wanted to make in the first place. So I went back and added more women [filmmakers] that I had wanted to but I hadn’t figured out how to fit them in. It’s like weaving a giant quilt to form a certain pattern, and you’re making the patterns as you go along.
2. Out of the filmmakers that were interviewed, I particularly love Lesli Linka Glatter, Li Lu and Sarah Gavron… I love their stories and the way they tell their stories. So how did you choose your subjects?
A lot of it was happenstance. It was who I knew and who people I knew knew… you know, how certain people connect me to certain people. Suffragette [movie] happened while I was making this film, one of my friends who was a member of the DGA invited me to that screening and I was so blown away by it that I wrote to her agent. She said she was too busy touring for this film, but if you fly to London she’ll make time. So I flew to London to interview Sarah Gavron. I was also so inspired by the careers of the people I interviewed.
One was Joanna Kearns (best known for Growing Pains), who was an established actor before she became a director. Some people said it might be easier the fact that we started off as actors, but it’s still very hard to make that transition and to earn your place [as director]. And also with Lesli Linka Glatter, there is a lot of happenstance that comes in any one’s career. As she said in the film, if she hadn’t met that one man in the coffee shop in Japan, she wouldn’t have gone into directing. I learned that no career is a straight line. It’s helpful for me because intrinsically, you don’t just go to film school and then have a film career. It’s a lot to do with the people you’re in school with, the connections you made there, what’s being made now, what are you inspired to make, how you craft your forward movement, etc. Nothing is guaranteed And if you didn’t go to film school and want to be a director, you really have to look around you, what resources are available to you, who are the people you know and what stories you’re inspired to tell. You really have to work with the circle you have around you instead of thinking it’s out there or you’d have to come to LA and expect things to happen.
3. How has your background as an actress help you as a director?
I feel like I could help comfort the actors, even when they push back. Some actors could get very insecure and some deal with their insecurity by becoming very tough. I learn not to take it personally, and just read it as total insecurity as that’s all it is. They need me to be the one in control, to be the strong one. If I’m not the strong one then they get afraid and nervous, ‘oh she’s not in control.’ So they need to know that ‘I’ve got it. You can be nervous and I’m holding the line here for you and I’ve got your back. Everything’s gonna be fine.’
4. Seeing the grim statistics about women in film, what do you think, from your perspective as a female filmmaker yourself, needs to be done in the industry level?
I think there is a comfort factor for the guys. When they work together there is a code of behavior, I don’t know if I would call it a pack mentality, but there’s an unspoken code of behavior. They call it the ‘Boys Club’ for a reason, it’s like in an athletic club you know, if you think about it like that, there is a code of behavior that’s been long held that they’re comfortable with. So when you introduce a randomness, which is the female into that space, they’d have to get into a learning curve. So is this a friendly person, is she going to judge us for our code? What’s their take?? So as a female leader, I feel like I have to be kind about that, and not be like ‘I’m coming in to blow your game away.’ The way I’d do it is to say, ‘I’m coming in to make your show great, to respect the work that you’ve done thus far and respect your set up here, but now I’ll bring in my intelligence, my talent and ability to the story.’ It does take a certain kind of crafting in that conversation, so we can move from a gender conversation but more about ‘let’s talk about the work.’
5. I’m glad you included Alice Guy-Blaché in your film. I watched her doc Be Natural last year and I felt so guilty that I hadn’t heard of her. So who’s been your fave female filmmakers, or those who have helped path the way for you as a filmmaker?
I saw the film ORLANDO, directed by Sally Potter and I was so blown away by it. It’s such a huge production and it’s a stunning story about gender… a person, a being, moving through bodies, through time… yet there is something so inherently similar no matter whether she was a male or female.
There was a glimmer of me ‘Could I do that? Is that possible?’ I was trained intensely by my mother that no, it isn’t something I could do. ‘She [Sally Potter] was British, it’s different over there.’ That old argument… You see, my mom was, you know the 1950s mentality, where if you’re going against the patriarchy if you will, the consequences would not be small. You’d have to have a lot of resilience to buck the status quo. I don’t think she felt she had that external or internal support, she was fighting different battles. She wants us to be safe, you know, she wants us to be happy, to survive. Unfortunately, her understanding of the world of what is possible is so limited. I think for her, standing up for what’s right is more satisfying for her.
What’s next for you? I saw you’re in the process of directing two dramatic features (Paint Made Flesh and Journey to Now)?
I’m afraid I can’t say anything about the projects I’m working on, but yes I’m definitely excited to be working on a narrative feature. Storytelling is what I’m about. Although I enjoyed making a documentary, I don’t want to be branded that I’m only doing certain type of things. I like to jump from medium to medium, I’m glad that these films found me and it resonated in our conversations. It worked out, they like me and then I got attached, so now we’re in long conversations of developing something into being. It all came about in a happenstance way, someone I met while making the doc recommended me for one, and someone else I met through the the process of finding more women directors recommended me as a female director, ‘hey think about Cady McClain.’ I think people who saw the documentary thought ‘oh she could tell a good story.’
What do world-famous onion rings, legendary band KISS, a beloved chef from Minnesota and a former gambling addict have in common? A loving tribute to a special family in Minnesota.
Hi everyone, Ruth here. This is perhaps one of the most unusual documentaries I’ve seen… it’s rare that a documentarian ends up being part of the subject of the film he’s creating, but that’s what happened here. Zach Capp initially wanted to make a film about a film about the Worthington chef and his famous onion rings, but The Ringmaster is what I would call a ‘meta’ film as it turns the camera on the filmmaker and ends up documenting the efforts and almost-failures over a 3-year journey. The result is something extraordinary… bizarre, sometimes even painful to watch, but also fascinating and endearing. I think the film is a sweet love letter to chef Larry Lang and perhaps even the town of Worthington as well. Zach said to me at the beginning of our chat that the film reminds us of an onion – the more you peel away the layers the more you discover.
Before I get to the interview, let me share a bit about the background behind the film, and Zach Capp specifically.
Zach’s subject, shy, quirky chef Larry Lang, is loved by his town, Worthington, MN and known for making the best onion rings in America (as verified by food critic Tom Sietsema of the Washington Post). Zach’s mother is from MN and his family vacationed in southwest MN when he was a young boy. Zach never missed an opportunity to sample the world-famous rings at Michael’s which was the Lang family’s restaurant. Larry’s father Michael created the “secret recipe” in 1949 – the 70th anniversary in 2019.
Zach’s beloved grandfather, Martin Capp spent his formative meager beginnings in St. Paul and later in life became a huge philanthropic figure in the Twin Cities area. His name appeared on downtown hotel towers in Minneapolis and St. Paul and thousands of families would live in houses built by his company, Capp Homes, which pioneered affordable pre-fabricated housing in the postwar years. Martin and wife Esther Capp aided many charities in the Twin Cities including the Minnesota Children’s Museum.
Martin Capp thought that his grandson Zach should pursue his passion and become a filmmaker. When Martin passed away, Zach decided to use the inheritance his grandfather left him to make a documentary. The young former gambling addict began a four-year journey filming onion ring chef Larry and sister Linda Lang with the intent of making them and their onion rings world famous. Much of the hundreds of hours of filming took place in Minnesota. Additional footage was shot in South Dakota and Las Vegas.
This documentary was made in loving memory of Martin Capp, who had such strong roots in The Twin Cities. Zach is continuing his grandpa’s philanthropic endeavors. Part of the proceeds from the film will go towards Alzheimer research.
Check out the trailer:
Listen below for the Q&A with Zach Capp:
1. Have you shown this documentary to Worthington residents who knew Larry? If so, how has the reception been?
2. In the doc, you said that ‘maybe I should’ve cut my losses and walk away.’ I’m curious as to the main reason why you didn’t walk away and persisted in telling this story?
3. Watching the doc, it’s evident that you really had a heart for Larry Lang and want to see him succeed. But it was evident that you faced some challenges in making this film. What was the toughest day filming in your 3-year journey?
4. How was working with directors Dave Newberg + Molly Dworsky?
Dave and Molly helped me see what I couldn’t see because I was too close to the story… they really reshaped the whole narrative, they breathe new life into this whole project. I’d say they helped the film find its voice.
5. Some people might see the film and think that you and the directors were unfairly coercing Larry into doing something he didn’t want to do. How do you feel about that viewpoint?
6. The part in the film with the KISS band and seeing Gene Simmons ate those famous onion rings, that must have been surreal. How did that scene come about?
7. Now that Ringmaster film is done. Are you still interested in making the American Food Legends series?
Synopsis: A woman stuck in a small, snowbound border town has dreams of doing comedy when she meets a washed up, burned out comedian with dreams of doing anything else.
International Falls is hard to fit in a genre. Dee (Rachael Harris) is born, raised, and settled in International Falls. Tim (Rob Huebel) is a traveling comedian who has a two-day stop in Dee’s little middle of nowhere Minnesota town. Both characters have reached a breaking point in their lives, and their meeting briefly gives them a human connection they both have been desperately missing. The two bond over their brokenness and by the time the credits roll both characters have made a huge decision.
Counterintuitive as it may sound, International Falls is a coming of age film. Sure, its protagonists are well into their forties, if not past that, but both are wrestling with decisions that will dramatically shape their futures. As Ernest Hemingway taught us in The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, not all of us grow up on schedule, sometimes we have to grow up more than once, and more often than not there is collateral damage to that growth.
Amber McGinnis (writer/director) excels at directing emotionally fraught and comedically awkward scenes alike. She has a unique ability to make space for her actors to really dig deep into the non-verbals of their characters, which both Harris and Huebel put to good use.
Tonally, International Falls is almost romantic, but neither character is available. Their sweet moments are almost always intruded upon by their families.It’s a funny movie, but only in very short bursts. And the dramatic tension is broken every single time Dee’s husband Gary (Matthew Glave), who is every inch the caricature of aMinnesota native, steps on screen.
This leads me to my biggest, pettiest quibble about this movie. The accents were bad and unnecessary. Unless you’re trying to make a comedy (which International Falls is definitely not) the accents just get in the way. Do some people talk like that here? Sure, a couple. But they are few and far between and most of them are living in retirement homes at this point.
My only other quibble is that all of the standup writing is bad. For Tim, that’s kind of a given. He tells us a million times that he is bad and we are supposed to believe him. But (very mild spoiler alert) when we get to see Dee do her standup routine, it is also quite bad. Worse than that (she is a newbie after all, we can forgive her a little), her standup has a completely different tone that her character does. It doesn’t feel like the kind of standup that she would write.
Overall this is a great movie. It relishes in the frigid Minnesota landscape, pays homage to a couple of our favorite eyesores (hello Smokey the Bear dressed up as a lumberjack holding ice skates), and subtly pokes fun at the Minnesota nice stereotype. I have a feeling that non-Minnesotans are going to like it better than those of us who live here (seriously those accents are grating), but it’s a nice reminder that the puberty isn’t the only chance that humans have to turn into adults.
– Review by Holly Peterson
Interview by Ruth Maramis
with Amber McGinnis
1. How did you get into filmmaking and how do you choose your projects.
This is my first feature and it’s been one of the most fulfilling, exciting, and hardest things I’ve ever done. I’m a trained theatre director, so I’m used to doing more long form storytelling in that medium, but up until this project I had only done shorts and industrials with film. I was ready to take the next step and make a feature but I had a hard time finding traction and funding. So in the spirit of true indie filmmaking I decided to stop waiting on someone else to give me an opportunity and set out to make one for myself. That meant partnering with our amazing writer Thomas Ward to develop the script, starting my own production company, and learning the nuance of producing a film alongside my co-producer Nick Dunlevy. It hasn’t been a perfect process. It’s been long and grueling but I have learned SO MUCH! And I am so proud of how we persevered. There were so many times when it felt like it wasn’t going to happen. Luckily I am a very stubborn Southern gal so when we hit obstacles I just dug in that much harder.
2. I read that this film is based on a 2-people play, which I find so intriguing. How was the process of adapting a play and what are the challenges of doing so?
Thomas really deserves all of the credit for the brilliant writing and adapting of this script. The two person play is basically a more stream-lined version of the same story. It all takes place in one night and in one location. So developing the screenplay was really about breaking open the possibilities that existed for the story visually: adding more locations and characters and time, while maintaining all of the heart and soul of the original story. One of the biggest changes that I love is that the town of International Falls now feels like another character in the film. We had the generous support of the Chamber of Commerce in International Falls and I think it really shows. Also the screenplay focuses more on Dee’s story and journey which excited me as a female filmmaker.
3. I also read that you were pregnant when you made this film? How was that experience, especially as the film deals with a protagonist dealing with a broken marriage?
I tell ya, giving birth to a feature film and a baby in the same year is no small task. We were still in the process of finishing the sound/color when I went into labor, and my husband has this insane picture of me sending emails from the hospital between contractions haha. “Hard” doesn’t even begin to describe it. But it was so WORTH IT. Our protagonist is on a journey in the film towards authenticity- for her it means confronting some really ugly truths in her life so she can fully be herself and chase her dream. I’ve been on a similar journey over the last few years. But once you set your mind to doing that, it doesn’t matter how hard or exhausting it is. Because being true to who we are will always, ALWAYS be less hard than faking it and living inauthentically.
4. Looks like you filmed it in Minnesota, was that in International Falls? Were you set on filming in the Winter months, which I’d imagine also possess an inherent challenge to tackle.
Yes, even though we filmed on location in International Falls in March we were still battling sub zero temperatures. We filmed on a frozen ice lake at Voyageurs National Park for 3 days and every day the park ranger had to come out and measure the thickness of the ice to make sure it was safe for us take all of our trucks out to the tiny island that served as our main shooting location. We had to put hand warmers on the camera batteries to keep them from shutting off. But our Twin Cities based crew was so amazing. They never complained about the cold or the long hours or the grueling work. It was such an awesome group of people, I am forever indebted to them.
5. The casting looks great for this film, would you talk a bit about the casting process?
The cast IS amazing! Everyday I feel so lucky that we got such an all star cast. We had an incredible casting director, Matthew Lessall who brought the core ensemble together. He had a keen eye for actors who could do comedy but were also not afraid of the dark and dramatic. Our lead Rachael Harris was also a great advocate for us as we rounded out the cast with some of the supporting roles. It was truly a team effort.
*All BTS photos are courtesy of Amber McGinnis
Thank you for chatting with me, Amber!
TCFF screening times of International Falls: Saturday October 19th 7:25PM …