I love music-themed movies, so I was excited to see SOLD OUT. Somehow I did not realize the Minnesota-connection until I started watching this movie, which opens with a snowy Minneapolis skyline. Strangely-enough, I warmed up to this movie right away. It centers on a down-on-his-luck construction worker John (Sam Bardwell) who wants to pursue his musical dreams as a singer/songwriter. We first meet John in marriage therapy with his wife who clearly isn’t too happy about her husband’s idea of becoming a musician. Later on we meet freelance talent scout Kat (Kelsey McMahon) who’s having a moment as the rock band Lincoln 8 she discovered just had a breakthrough. They’re playing to a sold-out crowd at First Avenue, a major Twin Cities landmark, and getting multiple offers. The scene of the band playing on stage is beautifully-shot and it’s even more fun for me to watch as I actually knew a couple of the actors in the band – Matt Bailey (looking every inch a rock star as the lead singer) and Alex Galick as the keyboardist.
John and Kat end up meeting by chance at a bar, when he overhears that she is a talent scout. John takes a chance and gives his CD to Kat to listen to, which leads to Kat taking him under her wing to help him realize his potential. I usually enjoy music-themed dramas like Begin Again, Sing Street, Once, etc. and this one has a similar vibe. The road-movie aspect as John and Kat go on the road together gives a chance for the two main characters to connect, plus it also showcases some really cool MN Wintry scenes. There’s a memorable scene right in the middle of a frozen lake at sunrise that could totally be the film’s poster!
It’s always important for films about music to have memorable musical sequences in them (on stage or otherwise) and there are a few here. I like the scene where John does a duet of Amazing Grace with Kat’s dad in the kitchen. It’s such a lovely, intimate moment. I love that the film shows the process, struggles and sacrifices that one has to make to pursue one’s dreams, even if it seems out of reach. Director Tim Dahlseid, is quite impressive in his feature film debut, ably balancing the music, drama and romantic aspects. I also commend Susan Brightbill (who’s written a TV movie called Holiday Hearts) for penning a compelling script with a complex woman at the center. There is a lot of layers to the story in terms of who Kat really is–there’s really a lot for a talented performer to dig into.
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.
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
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 …
I’m thrilled that I get to see not one but TWO films by talented filmmaker C.J. Renner this year. Earlier this Summer, TCFF showed the gangster thriller GUNN as part of their Insider Series in June. This time, C.J. and his longtime producing collaborator Sasha Michelle come up with another cool, stylishly-shot film that’s also set and filmed in the Twin Cities.
A Gen Z Bonnie and Clyde, the setting is deliberately simple but done with extended long takes that truly showcase the charisma of the two protagonists Nelle June Anderson and Frank Foster-Bolton, as well as the sharp script. I have to admit the hand-held camera style might make some people nauseous if they have issues with motion sickness, but the story is absorbing and intriguing that you want to stick around to see how it unfolds. The opening scene in the cafe is basically just two people bantering, but it’s amazing how the ‘less is more’ filmmaking sensibility can make quite an impact when done right.
Filmed in the Winter months, the cinematography by Tomas Aksamit (who also shot GUNN) is beautiful. The music by Nick Christopulos (who’s also the go-to sound guy for C.J. and he also did an amazing job in my short film Hearts Want) is also memorable and is an integral part to the storytelling style. After seeing a few of C.J.’s shorts and two of his features, he’s definitely a brilliant storyteller and filmmaker to be reckoned with. I hope he gets to do more films in the future!
She needed a fall guy to frame for a robbery, but when she suspects her partners of setting her up, her sucker is now the only one she can trust… not your average first date.
Q&A with filmmaker C.J. Renner
Q1. What’s the significance of the title?
After the first draft of the script (terribly titled, “Pennies” at the time) the most surprising thing that started to come through was how these two characters are unique to our time and place. Honing that with Frank and Nelle became a big part of pre-production. Exploring the subtleties of the way our young-20s leads discuss race, gender, politics, love became the most rewarding challenge of writing this film, and I think the only word that comes close to expressing that, for better or worse, is “American”. And “tender” hopefully conveys the dual flavor of the movie: both heartfelt (tender) and heist-y (legal tender).
Q2. Gunn was quite a novelty stylistically with the use of silhouettes, color, etc in storytelling. What’s evident in American Tender is the super long takes and that it’s very talky. How did you end up with this particular implementation to tell your story, particularly using the long takes?
I love a challenge, and as a filmgoer, I’m always excited to watch something bold. At every stage: writing, blocking, performing, and scoring- the real time storytelling was a huge difficultly. But at literally every stage, we discovered really exciting and necessary facets of the characters and story that would never have been captured if we didn’t have to perform, move, and rehearse in these incredibly long takes.
Q3. How long was the shoot overall and did you intend to shoot it in the Winter time?
We were firm on shooting in the winter… the visual of our Owen character walking out into the dead of winter, so in his head that he doesn’t consider his body, was a moment I wasn’t willing to give up. The actual shooting was insanely short; we shot the whole film in two weekends, but there was tons of rehearsal and blocking that occurred before that. The dance between the camera and actors was complex, and we didn’t have the luxury of tweaking individual line readings once the camera was rolling, so Nelle and Frank and I had to all be firmly on the same page about the way these characters interact at each step in the story before we started shooting.
Q4. Which part comes first for you… the concept of using long takes and hand-held storytelling, or the narrative story itself which calls out for that style of shooting?
The story and the shooting style feed each other. I have a bunch of feature concepts I’m dying to make, anywhere from a couple sentences scribbled on a napkin to fully polished scripts, so I always feel like I have a healthy jumping off point. For me, the most exciting part of the process is asking the cinematographer, gaffer, actors, musicians, designers to be wildly creative and nakedly honest then doing my best to infuse their personalities into the story.
Q5. How was the casting process? Both Frank and Nelle are relatively new to acting, esp. as leads. Was that a deliberate choice?
Actually, they stole the roles in the auditions. We had two fantastic actors in mind (who we definitely will work with in the future), and we auditioned them and several other pairs. We could have made this with any of the pairs actually… they were all great in their own way. But there was genuinely something electric with Nelle and Frank… even in the quiet moments during auditions. It was a surprise, but a very exciting surprise. The first time we’d seen Nelle she was the lead in an opera… the casting director and I were blown away by this very young woman who was commanding the stage of all these huge, seasoned opera performers. But opera is so big, we didn’t expect her to be able to go to the subtle places she’d need to in this… but we discovered amazingly she brings that authority with even just a tiny look or a small movement.
Q5. Music is very effective here, just like in Gunn. As a filmmaker and musician, can you tell me a bit about the process of integrating your music into your film?
Huge thanks for the compliment! I’m really excited for people to hear this score. The guy who did the score, Nick Christopulos, was on board this project from its inception, so we had the luxury to discuss the score during blocking and production, to actually be able to say to an actor, “don’t verbalize that line, the score guy here is confidant we can accomplish that with a look and the music” is such an asset. Also, as soon as we had a lead with incredible opera pipes, Nick ran with the idea of using her voice as an instrument in the score of the film. Because music unashamedly crafts your mood when watching a film, having the voice of our lead in the score really adds an exciting window into her character’s headspace.
Q6. What’s been your cinematic inspirations in terms of story and style for this film?
I was able to have a long talk with the cinematographer of Victoria about the nuts and bolts of extreme long take filmmaking, he challenged us to change the scale (close-ups, long shots) as much as possible, which was fantastic advice. Band of Outsiders was another huge influence… it was a reminder to keep our characters playful with each other. And the current political climate had the whole crew feeling very rebellious… looking back, the production feels like a “f*ck you” to authority and filmmaking conventions.
Q&A with lead actor Frank Foster-Bolton
Q1. How do you prepare for your role?
Because we knew our shoot was only going to take place over two weekends, we started prep work months prior to production. At first it was just the four of us (me, Nelle, CJ, and Sasha) talking about the characters outside of the events of the film – motivations, insecurities, strengths, etc. After that the main focus was rehearsing the script to death and finding moments that would be special. The biggest leaps for me happen when everyone’s working in the room together, so preparing for that is super important. I like to start that process solo – taking a bunch of notes on every scene, getting the tone down, all that – so when we have full rehearsals and we’re exploring different ways to do the scene, I have a strong base to work from.
Q2. There’s a ton of dialog done in multiple long takes. Was there a lot of improvisation happening during shoot?
Dialogue improv was very limited on this project. Because the takes were going to be so long, and we were only going to get so many cracks at them, CJ, Sasha, Nelle, and I worked really hard on getting the words right. With the words set in stone, we didn’t have to worry about them. The idea, at least in my head, what that because we didn’t have to worry about the words, our body posture and movement came across as more natural. If anything I’d say that movements in the blocking were what we improvised the most.
Q3. What’s been the most challenging as well as most gratifying part to shoot?
As it most often is, the most gratifying thing on this project was entwined with the most difficult. The takes were very long, and because we weren’t going to be doing any cutting, everyone had to get everything right for a usable take. As you can imagine, it took a lot of hard work from the crew and the cast to get a 15-minute “sweet-spot” take. When it came together, and everyone was firing on all cylinders, it was such a reward. Those takes transported everyone on set to the world of our story, and made the end product all the more special.
Q4. How was working with CJ as writer/director?
Awesome. Traditionally we’ve worked together behind the camera (most recently I edited his film, Gunn, and he and Sasha produced a project I directed), so we have a pretty good understanding of each other’s taste and style. It was great getting to springboard off of our previous relationship into a new artistic dynamic. The big thing I learned about CJ: He knows what he wants to see in his movies. He has a big goal with each scene. Once you figure out how to accomplish that goal he kind of lets you loose on the character. So it’s a good balance of structure and freedom.
Q5. If you were on a first date playing the same game as in the movie, and your date asks you to do something way out of your comfort zone, what would you do?
Eat potato salad with raisins in it.
TCFF Screening Date:
Wednesday October 24th at 2:45 PM
Thanks so much C.J. and Frank for chatting with FlixChatter!
This was one of the films I most anticipated films at this year’s MSPIFF. Of course the fact that it was shot here in the picturesque Lake Superior coastline, but the story about fragmented friendship immediately grabbed me. So imagine my delight when I get a chance for a one-on-one interview with the director/writer Daniel Stine.
We’ve connected via Twitter already (thanks Helen Stine!) so we arranged to meet at the Filmmakers Lounge at MSPIFF office (one of the major perks of also being a filmmaker this year with Hearts Want as well as a press pass holder). It’s definitely one of the most fun interviews I’ve had and certainly a highlight of my MSPIFF37 experience!
VIRGINIA MINNESOTA is now available on Amazon Prime (Prime Video), Redbox, ITunes, Google Play, and other Video on Demand platforms.
Two young women, torn apart by a childhood tragedy, unexpectedly reunite and embark on an illuminating 24-hour journey, where they unlock memories of long-forgotten innocence and what it means to truly believe.
Sometimes a place in a film can be a character in and of itself. That’s certainly the case here in Virginia Minnesota, captured in such an evocative way by writer/director Daniel Stine. It’s obvious he fell in love with the northern Minnesota coastline, and it shows in the film. But he also filled this road-trip, coming-of-age drama with wonderful human characters who are fun to watch but also relatable.
It opens with Lyle (Rachel Hendrix) driving to the North Shore of Lake Superior, accompanied only by Mister, a robotic suitcase that’s amusing but makes for an unreliable GPS system. She’s heading back to Larsmont Bluff Home for Girls (with troubled families) for a reading of the owner’s will. When one of the four former residents refuses to come for the reading, Lyle chases after her and we find the rebellious Addison (Aurora Perrineau) in Grand Marais. That’s when the real adventure begins.
I’m always skeptical whenever I see films where a lot of things happened in a single day. One could argue perhaps too many things happened in a 24-hour-period here, but yet the two leads managed to keep me engaged and curious to find out what’s happened between them. There are laugh-out-loud moments but overall the humor is not over-the-top and is organic to the story. In his directorial debut, Daniel Stine is able to weave a charming story that’s sweet, poignant, mysterious, and even surreal at times (that theatrical troupe bit comes to mind). The story certainly benefits from the talented cast.
Of course a Minnesota-based film critic can’t review this film without mentioning just how gorgeous the scenery is here. The cinematography by Pedro Ciampolini is absolutely stunning and it can be said this is a love letter to Northern Minnesota. Even the lovely animated sequence that bookend the film is a nod to the Minnesotan folklore and myth in which the plot is heavily rooted in. The music is also wonderful and adds much to the atmosphere of the film. I really enjoyed this movie and I hope Daniel Stine continues to make movies!
Ruth: I’m always curious about what inspires filmmakers in creating their work. Virginia Minnesota especially seems like a personal story, and I love that the story was female-driven. Where did the inspiration stem from?
Daniel:I’m always inspired by locations first and foremost. When I’m inspired by a place I imagined what kind of characters I can drop into there and what kind of stories come out of that. My grandparents ran a home for troubled boys for about a year or two. It was in a big mansion and my grandfather was a strong lieutenant colonel type. So there were always telling me stories about these kids growing up in this mansion, some of the stories were sad, some were funny, but they’re all inspiring. As a kid I wanted to expand on those stories or tell something that’s kind of similar.
As far as the female-driven thing. I hadn’t thought about my characters being male or female. In the first outline or maybe even earlier drafts, Lyle (Rachel Hendrix) was a guy and Addison (Aurora Perrineau) was a girl, but for some reason it just wasn’t interesting to me, I don’t know why. But then when I saw Grand Marais for the first time, I fell in love with that town immediately. It was in the dead of Winter too so nothing was open. I wanted to do something like Short Term 12, where it was about a person and shot in a single location. So the more I kept driving around Lake Superior, the more I saw of all these incredible places that Minnesota has… Split Rock Lighthouse, Duluth, Silver Bay, and learning about the legends, the folklores…
R: And there’s also a mansion, Glensheen, in Duluth.
D:Indeed, Glensheen. So when we saw that all the pieces kind of come together. Then the story kept getting bigger based on the location. It kind of morphed into a road trip movie, even though it didn’t start that way.
R: Having done shorts in various genres. Is drama the genre you set out to make for your first feature?
D:Actually I had a thriller lined up. It was a bed and breakfast thriller. We had big name cast, we even had a location locked up. I moved out of my place in L.A. to South Carolina to get ready for it. But we sort of got a bad deal, some of the money fell short. So we went back to our investors, some of them stuck with me. I said, well, we could wait a few years to get the thriller going. Or I have this other idea that’s simpler, a little bit more in the vein of stuff I’ve done with the short films and some of them ended up putting their faith into that idea. So Virginia Minnesota sort of accidentally became my first feature.
R: So it turns out to be a ‘happy accident’ then considering how well-received the film has been.
D:Yeah, that’s true. And now the thriller script now has a chance to develop. Looking back now I imagine if I had done that one, how badly I’d have screwed it up.
R: I’m curious about the beautiful animated scene that’s in the film. Did you set out to have animation be a part of the film given the plot having something to do with the characters’ childhood?
D:It’s always been in the back of my mind to do something like that, even though it wasn’t in the script originally. I initially wanted to do chapter headings, so perhaps to introduce a certain segment there’ll be an animated chapter heading. But it made it far more whimsical that way. So I did the film without the animation bits and see if the story could stand on its own without it. I think the story does work without the animation but having the film bookended by the [animation of a] childhood drawing it’s a nice way to introduce a child’s perspective and reminds you of what’s important that’s revealed at the end.
R: Now, there’s an amusing bit of a theatre troupe in the film. I learned that you have a theatre background. How has that helped you as an actor and writer/director?
D:I started out doing theater before I started doing film stuff. I almost went to a theater conservatory but I also wanted to do films so I didn’t want to be limited to that. But having done a lot of theater and directed plays, that gives me a bit of a shorthand with actors. They’re very much in the forefront of my mind when I’m making a film, making them comfortable and feel connected to the material, because I know how important that would be for me if I were doing that role.
On the downside, I think I tend to over-write, especially dialog. I’d say the theater background makes me want to write so much dialog. When I saw the final script, I’d say ‘Whew, that’s a long movie!’ So I’ve learned to shave things off. Some of my favorite movies are things like Before Sunrise by Richard Linklater which is just two people talking…
R: Oh I love that one. I mean, I love dialog-heavy films and the dialog is sort of the special effects of the film.
D:Yeah, but of course it depends on the films you want to make. But back to the question about my theater background, I think it definitely helps me with the actors and what I want them to convey the story.
R: I have to ask you about filming in Minnesota. What’s your favorite aspects about filming here?
D:The people, hands down. I mean, I know there’s the term ‘Minnesota Nice’ but I think it goes beyond that. People here are so proud to be from Minnesota, it makes you want to be a Minnesotan. I might have to move up here and become one. I think the pride is quite infectious. But then there’s the scenery. You can be up on a lighthouse one second and then you can drive inland, like Bemidji, I mean there’s so much variety of locations. Even in Minneapolis, I don’t feel like I’m in the United States here. I went to school briefly in Monheim, Germany, and it reminds me of that. And I love that it’s a big city with a lot of art. I mean, if you look at the Top 10 things to do while in Minneapolis, so many of them are the different art galleries!
So really it was the people and the great support that we got. It makes me want to come back and do another film, maybe that thriller that I was telling you earlier.
R: Yeah, well there’s a lot of bed and breakfast around here. Especially in the Winter time…
R: Let’s talk about casting, particularly the two leads Rachel Hendrix and Aurora Perrineau. How did you find those two actors?
D:Rachel and Aurora are definitely the heart and soul of the movie. We had a lot of submissions came in, we used a casting company in Atlanta. There were about two thousands submissions for each of those roles. Rachel we cast pretty early on based on her audition. She was so much like what’s been described on the page that it was like, ‘yep, that’s her.’
As for Aurora, she came at it from a different angle. Actually, from both of them I learned more about my characters than what I’ve originally written. With Aurora, I had worked with her father, Harold Perrineau, one of my favorite actors. We had done a boxing film together (The Championship Rounds) so I was talking with him about the film and so then I talked with Aurora about it and it just seemed like a perfect match.
R: There’s a certain scene involving a boat in the movie (I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t seen it), but can you talk a bit about filming that day? That must’ve been quite challenging to shoot.
D:Well, we originally was going to have a rolling, trash can that was burning. But when we got to the set, I was like, no that’d be too subtle, it’s not going to be enough [of an impact]. So we told the producers that we need a bit of spike in the movie, so we had to [spoiler alert (highlight if you want to read it):blow the boat up]. So yeah, we had to do it in one take but we had the fire department there and everything for safety.
R: Your production company, Rushaway Pictures, is a family business. How was working with your parents on this film, the fact that they weren’t in the film business previously?
D:Well, my dad is a retired army colonel so he handled logistics for 27+ years so it’s a natural progression for him on a movie set. It’s as if he’s meant to be doing that. My mom is a writer. In fact she’s got a book that I’m looking to adapt into a film one day. So both of them are just good with people, they’re good with numbers and all that. So working with them have been such a pleasure. I mean, I don’t really see them as my parents when we’re working together. We’re collaborators and they’re people I obviously can trust.
R: Ok last question. What’s next for you?
D:Well, I have the thriller I mentioned earlier. But there’s that chicken and the egg dilemma you know. Between getting the actors attached and getting financing, which one you do first. Sometimes you just have to figure out who the investors are before you can start committing to the story that you want to do. So I’ll just see where the wind blows, and we’ll see how this movie does, hopefully it’ll make its money back. So far it’s been well received at film festivals, we’re thrilled about that. Whatever happens, happens. We’re keeping the faith.
Check out the trailer below:
Thanks so much Daniel for chatting with me.
VIRGINIA MINNESOTA is the Opening Night Film of Duluth Superior Film Festival
Wednesday, May 30th
Clyde Iron Event Center
Doors: 7 PM / Film: 8 PM
Director Daniel Stine and lead actress Rachel Hendrix in attendance!
Saturday, June 2nd
9 PM at Zinema