Portrait of A Lady on Fire (2019)

Written & Directed by: Céline Sciamma

Winner of last year’s queer palm at Cannes, Portrait of a Lady of Fire creates something new. By using the form of a period piece, Sciamma was able to create something contemporary. Set in the late 1700’s on a remote island, Marianne (Noèmie Merlant) is commissioned to paint a wedding portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel).

While the age of Enlightenment is taking place, women remain tethered by convention whether in painting, servitude or marriage the women of this film find themselves propelled by outside/social forces. For a time, these women are seemingly protected, isolated from the mainland and patriarchal society before being forced to confront the reason their lives have come together in the first place. The women of this film learn to depend on each other, finding a sense of companionship and balance only to have it abruptly end.

Hailed as a post me-to0, LGBTQ and feminist masterpiece, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a film most concerned with the artist and the idea of the gaze. This theory can be used a bridge between art as a medium and social theory, integrating politics and art history. While a gaze can be used to confer meaning upon a piece, the relationship of the viewer and the viewed are always in negotiation.

As best stated by [French historian and philosopher] Michel Foucault while studying the function of the gaze in the painting Las Meninas the “observer and the observed take part in a ceaseless exchange. No gaze is stable…subject and object, spectator and model reverse their roles into infinity.” This communication is the exploration of director Céline Sciamma. The relationship between the two main characters blurs until it is unclear who is looking at whom. Through the film, the gaze becomes their mode of interaction. Intimacy and attraction grow as they share in this collaborative act and the painting’s completion serves as tribute.

Héloïse’s journey goes from being an object/the muse to someone who observes the subject and thus becomes the Marianne’s collaborator. This is a really amazing technical performance by Adèle Haenel, which destroys the traditional idea of art as a horizontal relationship to a horizontal one of give and take, or as in painting, layers of alternation.

This film also challenges the assumption that we have progressed as a society as well as in art, or at least that progress happens in a linear fashion. Choosing to place the film in the time of the late 18th century, a time known for a huge rise in female artists who were later censored and removed from art history is a very intentional choice. It is the perfect time to place a critique on the backlash female filmmakers are currently facing. This goes back to the idea of the gaze and one’s in ability to control how one is perceived by others, specifically due to culture and society. As Michel Foucault states “insofar as I am the object of values which come to qualify me without my being able to act on this qualification or even to know it, I am enslaved.”

A truly beautiful and cerebral film that will give you an exciting and new perspective on art and love. It’s a hopeful as well as critical film that offers insight into ideas of identity and personhood.

– Review by Jessie Zumeta


Have you seen Portrait of a Lady On Fire? Well, what did you think? 

Trailer Spotlight: THE RHYTHM SECTION (2020)

Happy Tuesday, everyone!! I’ve been meaning to do a trailer post but somehow kept getting sidetracked. Now, since I’ll be seeing The Rhythm Section tonight, and am quite excited about it, I thought I’d post it today.

Stephanie Patrick veers down a path of self-destruction after a tragic plane crash kills her family. When Stephanie discovers it wasn’t an accident, she soon embarks on a bloody quest for revenge to punish those responsible.

I have a thing for international spy thrillers, I like the cast and the trailer looked promising. Based on a novel by Mark Burnell, who also wrote the screenplay, and produced by EON Productions, the film company known for producing the James Bond films. I’ve been a big fan of Blake Lively, I think she’s a charismatic and versatile actress. I’ve seen her in four films so far, The Town, Age of Adaline, The Shallows, A Simple Favor, and she’s good in all of them. We already know Lively can play a believable femme fatale, but here, perhaps she can display her prowess as an action heroine.

Jude Law‘s grown to be a reliable character actor over the years, and Sterling K. Brown is undeniably a fantastic actor. He’s amazing in WAVES, too bad somehow he’s overlooked this award season. Looks like he’s playing Lively’s love interest in this one based on a glimpse of the trailer? Oooh yeah!

I’m also excited the fact that it’s helmed by a female director, Reed Moreno. This is Moreno’s third film after Meadowland and I Think We’re Alone Now, where she did double duty as director and DP. In fact, you might have seen her outstanding work as a cinematographer in Frozen River, Kill Your Darlings, The Skeleton Twins. For her work directing the pilot for HBO’sThe Handmaid’s Tale, she won both the DGA and Emmy award for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series. I haven’t seen her directing work yet, so I’m super excited to see this. This time she’s working with DP Sean Bobbitt who garnered many accolades for 12 Years Of Slave.

One worrisome part is the fact that the film’s release date was delayed at least twice. Per IMDb Trivia, it was originally scheduled for a February 22, 2019 release, before being delayed ten months, apparently because Lively got injured on set. Then it’s finally ready for release later this Friday, January 31. I’ll give this one the benefit of the doubt though, let’s hope this one wouldn’t be a typical January dud.


What are your thoughts of The Rhythm Section trailer?

TCFF 2019 MN Filmmaker Spotlight: Cynthia Uhrich on her short films ‘Oh My Stars’ + ‘Everyone Goes In The Lake’

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.

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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.

On the set of ‘Oh My Stars’

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.

On the set of ‘Everyone Goes Into The Lake’

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.

Cynthia on set with her mostly-female crew

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

TCFF 2019 Documentary Spotlight – ‘Seeing Is Believing: Women Direct’ + Interview with director Cady McClain

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?



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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.

Tilda Swinton in ORLANDO

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.’


Follow the film journey online:


Thanks Cady McClain for chatting with FlixChatter!


TCFF screening time:
 Tuesday, October 22nd 4:15PM

TCFF 2019 Film Spotlight: ‘International Falls’ – Review + Interview with writer/director Amber McGinnis

INTERNATIONAL FALLS

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 a  Minnesota 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

FCInterviewBanner

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.

BTS photo at Voyageurs National Park

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.

Rob Huebel and Rachael Harris on set

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

2019 TWIN CITIES FILM FEST features WOMEN series + ENVIRONMENTAL SUSTAINABILITY films

It’s one of the most wonderful time of the year!! For film fans like me, for the past 10 years TCFF has brought so much joy and excitement since its inception in 2009! I still can’t believe it’s been ten years since it all began, I guess time flies when you’re having fun, and I’m so honored and privileged to have been a tiny part of it from the start.

There are many things to love about TCFF, as I have blogged about here, and one of them is that they champion issues important to me. TCFF 2019 marks its 10th anniversary with a special focus on both female filmmakers and films that advance this year’s social justice cause: environmental sustainability.

Celebrating Women at the 2019 TCFF!

About Women. For Women. By Women.

Check out the HER series category on TCFF website… more than 60 percent of 2019 program are driven by female filmmakers. There are documentaries exploring the world of plus size models (A Perfect 14) and the rise of female artists against the backdrop of the global electronic music festival scene (Amplify Her), a thriller about three women seek justice from the internet (Netizens), there’s something for everyone highlighting female storytelling.

All of these are so intriguing to me … I love films that gives me new insights and take me to a place (physically and metaphorically) I’ve never been before.

AMPLIFY HER looks especially intriguing to me as it combines animation and film, and it explores real female musicians in a genre I’m not familiar with: electronic dance music. The film explores how these artists navigate the challenges of the music world and find their own unique voices.

 

Of course as a newbie filmmaker, I definitely want to see Seeing is Believing: Women Direct, where four diverse women share the story of how they became directors, what motivates them, how they lead, and how they overcome obstacles to create the most optimal working environment and work that makes a difference.


Speaking of female filmmakers, I’m happy to announce that the historical drama short I helped produce last year, MASTER SERVANT, will be part of the 2019 lineup!

Master Servant tells the story of an ambitious, young railroad executive comes face to face with his own moral decay in his blind pursuit of wealth and status among the Social Elite.

Thanks to my friend and colleague Julie Koehnen, the writer/director of Master Servant, for inviting me to be a part of the journey in bringing the short film to life. We shot the film at the historic James J. Hill house in St. Paul, which is fitting given the story was inspired by true events of the Gilded Age and the Industrial Revolution. It’s such an honor to have its premiere at TCFF once again, just like my previous short Hearts Want back in 2017. Check out a clip from the film:


One of TCFF 2019’s spotlight films is also by a female filmmaker, Alma Har’el, who’ll be attending the screening on Monday, Oct. 21st. From a screenplay by Shia LaBeouf, based on his own experiences, award-winning filmmaker Har’el (Bombay Beach, LoveTrue) brings to life a young actor’s stormy childhood and early adult years as he struggles to reconcile with his father and deal with his mental health. Fictionalizing his ascent to stardom, and subsequent crash-landing into rehab and recovery, Har’el casts Noah Jupe (A Quiet Place) and Lucas Hedges (Boy Erased, Manchester by the Sea) as Otis Lort, navigating different stages in a frenetic career. LaBeouf takes on the therapeutic challenge of playing a version of his own father, an ex-rodeo clown and a felon.

 

And here are four more films by female directors to check out:

 


Changemaker Films at the 2019 TCFF!

This year’s social justice cause is absolutely important and oh-so-timely: environmental sustainability. There’s a variety of films that promise to entertain and inspire us to care about the earth we live in… Food Coop tells the story of a historic coop supermarket that booms in the middle of an economic crisis, and Salvage explores a city dump in Yellowknife, Canada, while Juice: How Electricity Explains The World highlights how darkness kills human potential and electricity nourishes it.

There’s always something new to learn about our mother earth, and with climate change being one of the most important issue of our lifetime, these films will sure have some teachable moments in an entertaining way.

Youth Unstoppable certainly brings to mind 16-year-old Swedish climate change warrior Greta Thurnberg. It proves that one is never too young to fight for something one believes in. Its director, Slater Jewell-Kemker, can also be described as a climate change warrior herself. She was just 15 when she began documenting the untold stories of youth on the front lines of climate change.

Now, Sustainable Nation tells the story of three innovators who are taking valuable lessons learned from Israel’s water shortage to the rest of the world. Humans have lived without electricity before, but nobody in the world could ever live without water. We live in an increasingly thirsty planet where water is getting more and more scarce, so I’m definitely intrigued by this film.


Download 2019 TCFF Schedule Grid


TICKETS ARE NOW ON SALE!

To buy tickets, learn more about TCFF, events, or to donate, visit twincitiesfilmfest.org

Ticket prices are $13 for General Admission & $20 for Spotlight Films. Festival Passes can also be purchased as follows: Silver Pass – $55 (5 pack of non-Gala tickets); Gold Pass – $90 (10 pack of non-Gala tickets); Platinum Pass – $130 (12 pack of non-Gala tickets + 2 Gala tickets); Spotlight Pass – $100 (6 tickets to any Spotlight Film).

The passes are such an incredible deal!! Get it soon so you can order your tickets right away. Trust me, it’s SO worth it!!

PLUS… All tickets guarantee admission to that evening’s afterparty in the TCFF Lounge located onsite at The Shops at West End.


Stay tuned for an awesome list of studio and indie films playing at TCFF!

FlixChatter Review: LATE NIGHT (2019)

I watched Dame Emma Thompson on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert where she described this movie as a science-fiction given that her character is a late-night talk show host. Ba da bing! She definitely has a point there, a jab at the establishment she delivered rather stealthily the only way she could.

Thompson’s character, Katherine Newbury, is the only woman ever to have a long-running program on late night in a male-dominated field, just like real life. However, the award-winning late-night talk show host has been losing her mojo. In fact, her ratings is declining so much that her network threatens to replace her with a younger, more hip male host. Portrayed as a sarcastic British icon who’s notoriously principled and detached, she’s also, as her producer points out, has a reputation as a ‘woman who hates women.’ All her writers, which Katherine herself barely even knew, are all white males. Along comes Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling), a former quality control expert from a Pennsylvania chemical plan, who’s swiftly hired to fulfill the gender diversity quota.

It’s amazing how timely this film is right now, so much so that you can’t help but cringe at some of the humorous bits. Not cringing because the jokes were bad, but because they feel so true. There’s a scene when Molly came in to an office full of guys who refuse to even give her a chair to sit on that she had to sit on trash bin. Not to mention the blatant male chauvinistic remarks and how they constantly made her feel that she doesn’t belong. I find myself astonished at how Molly seems impervious to those remarks and how she’s able to deflect those harassments. But of course in real life, it’s the kind of thing many people of color have to deal with and I for one, can definitely relate to her.

The fact that Katherine and Molly are from very different backgrounds and have led extremely different lives are played to great effect here. Naturally, culture clashes is always a potent subject for comedies, and in the right hands, they can be poignant, eye-opening as well as hilarious. Thompson is a legend on and off screen and I can’t imagine a more perfect actor for the part (apparently Kaling wrote this character specifically for her). Katherine is quite a difficult person to like at first, but then again, it’s not like she gives a hoot if you actually like her or not (so long as you watch her show), yet she made you care about her journey. Molly on the other hand, is someone you utterly sympathize with from the start, but soon you realize she doesn’t want/need your pity. She doesn’t need a savior, thank you very much. A message that’s delivered brilliantly in the ‘white savior’ bit in Katherine’s show where she basically forces herself to ‘save’ people of color in various circumstances such as hailing a cab. It’s delivered with glee but the message is utterly powerful.

The world of late-night TV feels really believable. Now, I don’t know how it actually works behind the scenes with the writers, etc. but it felt like the filmmakers spent a great deal researching it to present something that felt true. Director Nisha Ganatra keeps the flow at the right pace while balancing the funny bits with genuine emotional moments. The parts between Katherine and her husband Walter is deeply moving. John Lithgow‘s performance elevates him far above the token supportive husband role. Hugh Dancy is quite convincing as the pretty boy home-wrecker, while Reid Scott and Max Casella have some memorable scenes as two of Katherine’s writers.

Kaling and Thompson plays on the the ‘odd couple’ type that you don’t often see on screen. What an intriguing and powerful new dynamic duo who actually displays character resilience and inner strength that’s truly inspiring. It’s also refreshing to see a ‘coming of age’ story about a woman in her 60s for a change. As in real life, it’s never too late to reinvent oneself and it takes courage to admit one’s mistake and own up to it. I also appreciate the ending that offers a subtle nod to the burgeoning relationship between Molly and Scott’s character, without pandering to the fact that the leading lady wouldn’t be complete without a man in her life. We need more movies like Late Night, it proves just how satisfying AND enjoyable a movie can be when women get to be in charge of their own narrative.


Have you seen LATE NIGHT? Let me know what you think!