TCFF 2018 Indie Film Spotlight: THE BEST PEOPLE &Interview w/ writer Selina Ringel

We’re on a roll! Today we’ve got yet another insights into an indie film screening at TCFF. This time we’re featuring the writer of The Best People, Selina Ringel, a solid dramedy our reviewer calls ‘a must-see at TCFF.’ An emotional roller-coaster in the best possible way, it’s a story by and about women.

Just as she is recovering from a breakdown, Anna’s world is rocked when her younger sister gets engaged. She teams up with the alcoholic best man to break up the engagement; convinced they are trying to save her sister, his best friend, and themselves from a lifetime of misery.

Review by Holly Peterson

Make sure that The Best People is on your list of films to see at this year’s festival. Actors Anna Evelyn and Claire Donald play sisters – who weirdly both have the same first name as their characters – who wind up living together after their mother dies and Anna has a mental breakdown. The two could not be more different. Claire, the younger sister is an organized, accomplished woman in her early twenties. Anna, the older sister, can’t hold down a job, struggles to find the desire to get her life on track, and is probably an alcoholic. When Claire falls in love, Anna can’t handle it and the hijinks ensue.

Dramedies are not easy to pull off, but The Best People does it well. Characters struggle with substance abuse, death, jealousy, broken relationships, mental illness, and more; but the story arc is light enough that the comedic scenes (vagina yoga!) work as pallet cleansers.

Claire Donald as Claire
Anna Evelyn as Anna

Most of the performances in The Best People are solid, but Evelyn especially is a force throughout. From moments like the first scene, in which she gives a long expositional monologue that literally sets up the entire movie, to the tiny choices that she makes as a background character, Evelyn owns this movie. Her interpretation of a broken character with a thick shell and a tendency to lash out somehow still brings in the audience and effectively asks them to empathize with an unlikable character.

There are a lot of things to love in this movie. It is peppered with exactly the kind of manipulative sound design that we all expect in the genre. The incorporation of modern technology is perfect. And it’s a story by and about women.

If you are looking for something that can make you laugh, cry, and want to call your sister the moment you get out of the theater (or maybe you should just bring her with you!) this is the film for you. Jump on the emotional rollercoaster that is The Best People. You won’t regret it.

 

Q&A with writer Selina Ringel

Interview questions courtesy of Holly Peterson

What was the inspiration for this story? 

I got married very young for LA ( actually to the director of this movie!) and had a few people in my life react in an interesting way. I wanted to delve into the point of view of a character who felt like they were loosing everything when their best friend (sister) gets married. I wanted to explore what it means to feel behind, how hard it is to watch someone you love become closer to someone else and how we come to accept ourselves where we are without judgement. 

Why do all of the actors have the same name as their characters? How was the casting process since you also did casting for this film? 

We actually cast people we had already worked with before. I wrote the script with these actors in mind so I was writing from their voice, not as the characters but as the voices of the actors who we cast. 

What do you hope people take away from their viewing of The Best People

I hope people laugh and cry, but also realize that we spend most of our lives pointing the finger at others for things that don’t go right in our lives, but most of the time we aren’t looking at the real issue which is usually us. We can only control how we react to things and ultimately, growth is realizing we have the capacity to be better versions of ourselves but it takes looking inward instead of pointing outward. 

How has reception been so far? 

Honestly it’s been amazing, we’ve had an incredible festival run, multiple full theatres, we won Best Comedy Feature at WorldFest Houston and was selected as the Closing Night movie for Dances with Films with a full 500 person seating at the famous Chinese theatre in Hollywood. We are excited to have Shoreline Entertainment as our sales agent for the film. I feel incredibly lucky and in awe of what can happen when you just decide to go for it, we are obviously also surrounded by incredibly talented people which made the film possible and a huge support system from our families and friends but it really takes a lot of work, time, determination and passion to get a movie made and the truth is you never know where its going to land. You wonder if it will be seen, well received, etc so this has a been a dream come true for us. 

What are some highlights of creating this film, particularly for you as a writer?

One of the highlights for me was working side by side with my husband Dan Levy Dagerman who directed the film. He is such a smart, authentic director who really listens and gives the actors space to breathe and perform their best work. I think sitting by his side every day next to the monitor was a dream come true. He also would read all my pages and give me notes, we would talk through things, get obsessed together.

Another huge blessing was having such talented actors who helped the words come alive and on many occasions improv’d lines and made them better than what I wrote. I also think every crew member added so much to the production value and energy of the set. I really do joke with my husband that I’m not sure it gets better than this, although I hope it can always feel this beautiful and serendipitous!


TCFF Screening Dates:

Wednesday, October 24th, 2018 8:15 PM


Thanks so much Selina for chatting with FlixChatter!

2018 TCFF Red Carpet Interview + Review of ‘When Jeff Tried to Save the World’

Wow, can’t believe we’ve pretty much the halfway point of TCFF already! But hey, there are still five more days of film festivities… great movies to see, film stuff to learn and more filmmakers to meet!

Well, one of the highlights of TCFF coverage happened on Friday night, just before the festive INDUSTRY NIGHT began at the TCFF Can Can Wonder-Lounge. My dear friend and longtime FlixChatter contributor Holly Peterson was FC’s media correspondent for the night! She interviewed filmmaker Kendall Goldberg & actor Jon Heder (remember Napoleon Dynamite back in 2014?) about their new film When Jeff Tried to Save the World on the red carpet!


Here are some pics from Day 3 of TCFF – including INDUSTRY NIGHT

 

TCFF Lounge is sponsored by the fabulous Can Can Wonderland in St. Paul, MN.


When Jeff Tried to Save the World

It’s weird to call a movie about a grown man a coming of age film, but in a lot of ways, When Jeff Tried to Save the World feels like exactly that. Jeff (played very charmingly by Jon Heder) is a bowling alley manager who must come to terms with his future when the owner decides to sell the bowling alley. The stress of losing the one steady thing in his life is exacerbated by his sister’s unannounced visit – which might just wind up being exactly what he needed.

This is a fun movie. The writing is full of one-liners that had our entire theater giggling constantly. Steve Berg, Maya Erskine, and Brendan Meyer all had especially fun roles, which all three of them leaned into really well. Jim O’Heir was very miscast as the jerk owner who is closing down the bowling alley. There is too much Jerry Gergich in that man’s face for him to play the villain – no matter how tame that villain may be.

Taos Whittaker created some amazing visual effects for this film, which are most brilliantly showcased in one of Jeff’s dreams when he’s suddenly walking through a Tron themed version of the bowling alley. It is absolutely gorgeous. Whittaker also played a huge role in creating the underlying tone of anxiety in several scenes with nifty tricks like turning Heder’s hands yellow.

Personally, I disliked the romantic side-story. It was a little too “man and woman who have never met before cannot exist in the same room without falling in love for no reason” and, although it fit in with the general coming of age theme of the movie, it felt forced.

This is one of Kendall Goldberg’s first features, and it is a solid first. Goldberg has a strong comedic voice and the ability to reinvent an old trope in a new, relevant way. I think that as Goldberg grows as a storyteller the less neat elements (the fact that she caved in on that unnecessarily romantic side-story, the neat summary three quarters of the way through the movie that took place in a completely unnecessary argument, and her tendency to approach sentimental moments in the most conventional way possible) will likely improve as she continues to write and direct and is increasingly able to use her own voice. I’m excited to see what she makes next.


Thanks Holly for the review and interview,
and for TCFF + Allied Global Marketing for the opportunity!

TCFF 2018 Indie Film Spotlight: RICH KIDS & interview w/ filmmaker Laura Somers

One of the things I love most about blogging for Twin Cities Film Fest is getting the opportunity to see so many indie gems, as well as insights about making them from the filmmakers themselves. Filmmaker Laura Somers has been such a personal inspiration to me as a newbie filmmaker from the moment I reached out to her to do this interview. For the past four years, day in and day out, she somehow found the energy to push herself to get her film out there. “It’s a crazy form of dedication.” she says, and I can totally relate.

This film has been making ways in various film festivals and rightly so. Such a thematically-rich film (pun intended) with a talented young cast, plus diversity in front AND behind the camera. What’s not to like?

A group of troubled teens from a low-income community break into “Los Ricos”, the local mansion with a border fence, and spend the day pretending to be rich in order to forget their difficult lives.

Twin Cities Film Fest Screening:

Sunday October 21st – 10:10 AM

Q&A with filmmaker Laura Somers

Q1. Before I go into the film itself, I’d like to ask you about your filmmaking background. What makes you want to be a cinematic storyteller?

I have been making films since I was five. My mom and dad bought an 8mm camera and we used to write scripts and act and my parents would shoot and edit them. I got hooked early on, and it’s always been a part of my life. I ended up directing theater for a long time before I decided that for me the stage felt like it wasn’t enough. The biggest obstacle for theater to me is limited audience reach. Being an indie theater director often means short runs in one city – now as a filmmaker my work can live forever and travel around the world – for better or worse!

Whenever I talk to a filmmaker, I’m always interested in what inspires them to make this particular film. How did you come across this screenplay that’s based on an actual event?

The idea for Rich Kids came out of an incident that happened in the neighborhood I grew up in. Our road cut through two completely different neighborhoods, one, a low-income working class neighborhood and the other, an upper middle class neighborhood. Although the road was only eight feet wide, the divide was clear as day.

My house was on the edge of the upper middle class neighborhood at the road. It was a beautiful, ostentatious fortress built incongruously in the neighborhood. The house was a neighborhood legend that the locals spun stories about. School friends and kids in the neighborhood were always breaking in to get a look inside. It wasn’t until I moved out on my own, did I grow to appreciate what that house represented to people who didn’t even have a house. The luxury and tranquility it offered. An escape from the hardships of life.

A few years ago, a group of kids broke into the house. Evidence left behind tells us that these kids lived in the house for a few days, having one hell of a time before it ended in tragedy. We turn on the local news and see stories like theirs all the time. And many people just think, “Well, they were bad kids,” change the channel, and forget about them. But I knew kids from this community, they were my friends. I wanted to use this opportunity to give those kids a voice.

The story speaks about economic and perhaps racial disparity amongst youth, which is a timely subject in today’s climate. Yet the title signifies that ‘richness’ isn’t always about money/materialism. How did you/your team come up with that?

The title was literally the first thing I came up with. It was just the obvious choice. At that time I really only took it as face value – that poor kids were pretending to be rich. The dual meaning grew organically out of the whole process – the writing, the crowdfunding, the acting, the editing, the music. Everyone that has touched this film approached it with so much dignity, so much love for the story and the characters – the themes evolved and presented themselves as we went along. It was truly a magical experience.

What’s the biggest challenge you as a filmmaker faced in bringing this story to life?

I’m a filmmaker, and I’m also a mother to a four year old. I started working on Rich Kids when my son was six months old. I’ve been a stay at home parent with him this entire time, and my husband and I don’t have any family near us in Los Angeles to support us and we couldn’t afford regular childcare. So for the last several years I’ve been juggling these two worlds – new motherhood and indie filmmaker-hood – two dreams have come true at the same time, which is such a thrill!

Since the story is based on a real event, were you able to film it in the location where it happened? If not, how was the location scout process?

We filmed in the actual house the event took place in – it was my childhood home. The location was really the push that we needed to get us going – my parents were preparing to sell the house as we were writing the script – I kept telling them – “I’m doing this film that I want to shoot in the house, but if you have to sell the house, do it – don’t let me hold you back”. So I was really moving fast to get it all done. We shot the film right as my parents hired a real estate agent and they started showing it after we wrapped. Lucky for me that agent wasn’t very good – because after we did our first edit pass, we had to come back a few months later and shoot a few extra days at the house – and it was still available. They’d gotten a new agent by then who literally sold the house a week after we wrapped that second shoot! The universe works in amazing ways sometimes.

I’m interested to hear about casting, as most of the young cast are unknowns. Is that a deliberate choice and did you do a wide casting call to find the right people?

It was a deliberate choice to work with unknowns. I just find it really exciting to discover new talent. I love their energy, they are so joyful because they’re at the beginning of their careers and that really radiates on the screen. There’s so much talk right now about the need for diversity and representing people of color on screen, about lifting each other up. This is the small part I can play in that. If any of the people who worked on Rich Kids can benefit from this film in any way, I’ll be very proud.

The casting process was amazing. I did a very wide open call, reaching out to acting teachers and agents, putting ads online everywhere, including Craigslist! I looked at a ton of people, just trying to find talent who I felt had a similar soul of the characters. My sister and I held a big group audition and we had 10-15 actors in two hour blocks and we did improv and cold readings. Then we had each person spend five minutes talk about why they felt they could relate to the story of Rich Kids and what it would mean to be in a film like it. And these amazing young people just talked and talked – they were so anxious to tell their stories. It was so cathartic for all of us. We went back and used some of the inspiration from the auditions as lines and scenes in the film. Once I’d narrowed down my favorite actors, I spent a lot of time on Skype getting to know them and letting them know me so that we could build a lot of trust and we could use our life stories to craft their performances. And the actors who were finally cast spent a lot of time getting to know each other on the phone and in person, so by the time we walked onto set, we had already built solid relationships.

DP Eun-ah Lee on the set of Rich Kids

What’s your favorite parts about filming? Is this the first time you work with a primarily young cast?

I love working with actors! I really have fun guiding them to great performances, helping them see a moment or movement that they hadn’t considered before. I love all the emotion that gets poured into their craft and I enjoy emoting along with them. I’ve worked many times with a young cast, their creative energy is always invigorating and inspiring to me.

Lastly, what would you like the audience to come away with after watching your film?

Simply that they feel like they’ve been on a really good journey. They walked in as one person and left as another. And they’re excited about what kind of film we’re going to make next.

Check out some exclusive BTS photos from the set
(Thank you Laura!)


Follow RICH KIDS journey online:


Check out the trailer below:


Thanks so much Laura Somers for chatting with FlixChatter!

TCFF 2018 Indie Film Spotlight: NOAH WISE & Interview w/ writer/director Ben Zuckert

The best part about attending film festivals is you get to see indie gems you normally won’t be able to see on the big screen. Twin Cities Film Fest celebrates indie films and indie filmmakers from all over the globe. And TCFF loves alumni! Ben Zuckert is back to TCFF after he premiered his directorial debut Larchmont a couple of years ago.

For his sophomore feature, Ben has crafted a wonderful music-themed comedy drama Noah Wise that’ll surely made you leave the theater with a big smile. It’s one of my 20 most-anticipated TCFF selections!

As a saxophonist’s quartet comes to an end, he meets a singer-songwriter whose career is just beginning.

Review by Vitali Gueron

Having it’s World Premiere at the Twin Cities Film Festival is the indie drama Noah Wise. The movie stars Mat Vairo and Raffaella Meloni as leads, and is written, directed and scored by Ben Zuckert. The premise seems quite simple — Noah Wise is a saxophonist whose quartet comes to an end.  Just as it seems like he is down on his luck, he gets set up on a blind date with singer-songwriter Rachel Byrd. The two hit it off right away and are there to support each other as they go through their own struggles in music and in life. The reason this movie is a must-see is because of its music, especially the delightful guitar and vocal performance by Raffaella Meloni towards the end with a trio of backing musicians.

The movie never feels like it’s trying to preach a message to its audience, although several subjects are brought up through character conversations including young peoples’ life ambitions, their financial responsibilities, and how one becomes civilly-engaged in the political process. The characters are very relatable and easygoing, and the young musicians cast in this movie — some are quite young — are very talented which adds a family-friendly element to the main plot line. Also mentioned in the movie is an average New Yorker’s lack of knowledge about the Midwest and how the fall foliage in Minnesota is far superior to that found in New York City. Maybe writer/director Ben Zuckert might have anticipated a fall trip to the Twin Cities, where audience would appreciate his knowledge of windchill values and the cold temperatures.

Overall, this is the perfect indie drama to watch with your best friend or significant other. You’ll find new appreciation for each other and come out at the end with a big smile. It’s just what is needed for the current politically-charged climate we’re living in. And just how many times can you say: “I just watched the world premiere of a movie in Minnesota!” This film certainly does not disappoint.

Q&A with filmmaker Ben Zuckert

Interview questions courtesy of Vitali Gueron

Q1. You’re returning to the Twin Cities Film Fest after successfully premiering Larchmont in 2016 with your second film Noah Wise – a world premiere! First of all, congratulations! Welcome back. Is there something about Minnesota or the Twin Cities that’s special for you and what have you learned about this state/these cities since premiering your first movie here?

Thank you, excited to be back! I had a great time visiting with my first film and really enjoyed the city. Being a part of the festival two years ago helped give me the momentum to write this new script and put the film together. In terms of Minneapolis, a big takeaway for me was how much the city is invested in the arts. I loved the museums, especially the MIA.

Q2. Your movie stars Mat Vairo as Noah Wise, a struggling musician who’s less than successful in a quartet, living off cans of sardines, and seems to be struggling to find himself career-wise. Is this character based on yourself or someone you know? If so, who is that person and if not, how did you come up with the idea of the character when writing the movie?

The character is fictionalized, but there are definitely aspects of myself. For one, I do tend to eat canned fish. But I also relate to Rachel and her self-doubt. I wanted her to be opposite Noah. She has talent, but questions music’s meaning, and he has less talent, but doesn’t question it.

Q3. I really enjoyed the music in this movie – especially the last song performed by Raffaella Meloni’s character Rachel Byrd. You’re credited as the music creator for the film on IMDb. Can you talk about the process you used to write the music and any struggles you had doing so?

Really glad you enjoyed the songs. I spent countless hours trying to write chord changes and lyrics that could fit both characters’ storylines. I would imagine the scene and try to have the tone match the feeling of the story at that moment.
I had never written lyrics before and I found it to be a good challenge – too on the nose and they fall flat, but too ambiguous and the song has no meaning.
Raffaella actually didn’t know how to play guitar before the movie, so I simplified all the guitar voicing. She learned how play them in only a month. I couldn’t believe it. She really made them her own.

Q4. In the movie when Noah Wise is asked if he’s Jewish by two separate Jewish Orthodox men on the street, he tells them that he’s not and “it’s complicated”. What did you mean by that and did this come from any personal experiences you might have experienced?

In New York, I get approached by Orthodox men during Sukkot and Hanukkah, and I find the conversations really fascinating – I always try to talk to them. Some of them will walk with you for multiple blocks! So it’s definitely from personal experience and also thinking about my own identity, being raised one way, but not currently practicing and sometimes feeling like others can define your identity for you.

Q5. While the movie is set in New York City, one of your characters (Rachel) talks with her roommate about the weather in Minnesota and the foliage this time of year. Is this because you’ve seen the foliage first hand and you can talk about it or is it purely coincidental?

Definitely firsthand – the last time I was here was the fall and the season really struck me. I was also trying to capture how people talk about the weather as a way to get conversation going. I tend to think, are you actually talking about anything?

Q6. There are some fairly young actors and musicians in this movie, and a good number of grade school level children. Talk about the process of working with these young musicians and the challenges (if any) to working with them?

It was one of the best parts of filming, but I had never worked with a group of kids that size before. I started to figure out a few techniques – I stopped saying “Action!” and we did slate after we finished filming. This way, the 5th graders wouldn’t get tense. I would point to Mat, who played Noah, and then he would just start the scene. So they didn’t always know when we were filming a real take. None of them had ever acted before. They were just local musicians in my hometown.

All their playing was recorded live on set. An unexpected challenge was them faking playing badly. I first said, “Ok, just play anything,” but it sounded too ridiculous. Instead, they each played the song in a different key/tempo. For getting the different angles for the performances, I’d have the 5th graders or lead characters play the song again each time we changed camera positions. They all did a great job with keeping tempos consistent between takes – it saved me a lot of time while editing.

Q7. Both main characters Noah and Rachel are set up on a date by mutual acquaintances. Have you ever been set up on date by someone you know and how did that end up? Do you think that Noah and Rachel have a future together or is their relationship just a good friendship?

It was made up for the story. I was trying to weave in a joke about people knowing people through other people and how you can’t keep track of how someone knows someone.

I was thinking that it’s just a friendship – I didn’t intend for it to be a romance. I wanted them both to be focusing on where their music and careers were headed. But it’s definitely up to the viewer to decide.

Q8. At separate times, Noah and Rachel meet a man in the park who is interested in talking/complaining about the elections and politicians, but admits that he didn’t vote himself. This seems timely as the 2018 Midterm elections are just a few days away. Was this on purpose? What has been your experience with the elections and why did you include it in your movie?

After the 2016 election, it was a strange time, and I was thinking a lot about politics and art and how they intersected. I was trying to figure out how art played a role in society under the new government. I was asking myself, could there be better uses of my time besides making films? Should I only be making something political? I was grappling with these questions and tried to explore them through different characters and viewpoints. I always find it interesting when people are opinionated politically, but don’t actually vote.

Q9. What’s next for you and when do we expect your third movie/project? Maybe next year in a few years back here at the Twin Cities Film Fest?

I’ve become more interested in politics in the past few years, so I’m hoping to write a story more in that realm. I find all the Democratic energy for change really inspiring. I’d love to come back in the years to come. It’s a great festival that supports independent filmmakers in a tangible way.


Noah Wise is now available on AMAZON PRIME and TCFF Streams!


Thanks so much Ben Zuckert for chatting with FlixChatter!

TCFF Indie Film Spotlight: STRANGE NATURE + Interview with writer/director James Ojala

An eco thriller based on a true story AND it has a Minnesota connection? Well, even in a throng of fantastic indie feature films playing at the TCFF, this one is definitely a must-see!

The film is an eco-thriller, the first to cover the deformed frog phenomenon that began in the mid-90’s in Minnesota. The story examines how a small Midwestern town copes with the deadly malformations when they move beyond the ponds.

Writer/Director: Jim Ojala
Starring: Lisa Sheridan, John Hennigan, Stephen Tobolowsky, Carlos Alazraqui, Tiffany Shepis, Bruce Bohne, David Mattey, Justen Overlander and Jonah Beres.

JIM OJALA’s BIO
Strange Nature‘s FX Supervisor/Writer/Co-Producer/Director

Based on the success of My Three Scums, his Duluth, MN horror/comedy cable access TV series, Jim Ojala landed his first film job with Troma Studios in New York on their film, Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger 4. Upon completing the feature, Jim was offered a position in the special makeup effects dept. of Tim Considine’s Direct Effects where he went on to assist Tim on features, commercials, photo shoots and theatre. While in New York, Jim also attended the Millennium Film Program working with experimental filmmaking pioneer, Michael Kuchar.

Making the pilgrimage to Los Angeles, Jim has worked on the makeup/creature effects for commercials, TV series such as The Shield and Buffy the Vampire Slayer as well as numerous features including Where the Wild Things Are and Pacific Rim. In 2005, Jim opened the doors to Ojala Productions, which produced the internationally distributed short film, The Incredible Torture Trio as well as co-directing the viral video hit, Marvel Zombies The Movie.

Jim Ojala on the set of ‘Strange Nature’

The short was also featured as #1 online video to see on cable TV’s G4 channel “Attack of the Show”. Ojala Productions’ makeup/creature effects continues to be a strong force in the independent film world providing makeup fx for the critically hailed indie hits, DEADGIRL and PROXY, as well as television series such as Tim & Eric Awesome Show and Comedy Bang! Bang!

Currently, Ojala Productions wrapped up FX creations and co-producing, co-hosting the Shudder Channel hit show, The Core, their second season of Verizon Go90 sci-fi series, Miss 2059, and is now releasing Jim’s debut feature film as a writer/director, eco-thriller – Strange Nature.

Strange Nature‘s official website

FCInterviewBannerInterview with writer/director Jim Ojala

Q&A questions courtesy of Andy Ellis

Q1: Where did you find out about this story?

It was on the front pages of our local Duluth newspaper when I was still in high school.  The images of these hideously deformed frogs, what might have caused these malformations and how it could spread instantly captured my imagination.  When it showed up on Nightline with Ted Koppel you really got the feel that there was no end in sight.  

Q2: Why did you go the route of a thriller?

I’m a huge life long fan of thrillers and horror films.  I felt like we really needed the horrific and terrifying potentials of this story along with the dramatic aspects to really drive it home and get people to pay attention to it.

Q3: What was the most challenging part of filming this movie?

The most challenging part of the shoot was by far contending with Nature. As the entire film is shot outdoors, we dealt with bugs, rain, heat, wild rivers, storms and dense forests. In many moments it felt as if we as a team were on an expedition into a dense wild forest as well. Thankfully a little less toxic than in the film.

Q4: What was your favorite part?

I really liked filming the “Sweeter Than Kandy” music video. There’s a lot of heavy, serious stuff in the film but after all that we just got to have pure fun making a wacky late 80’s music video starring Simone Beres, sister of STRANGE NATURE star, Jonah Beres. What better person to play a really young version of his mom? Also, the big day of the home invasion on Joseph’s house really stands out. It was a total ballbuster of a day but it was such a unique challenge to have all of these characters in this cramped, beat up trailer and then throw in kids, stunts, breakaway props/sets, makeup effects, blood gags and a lot of intense acting. I had never directed something before with so many moving parts. I’m really happy with that scene and it took everyone being super focused to bring that all together.

Q5: Was it shot in Minnesota?

It was shot about 90% in Minnesota (Grand Rapids, Bovey, Coleraine and Duluth) and 10% in Los Angeles. A lot of insert shots of the puppet creature effects were shot in LA due to time limitations during principal photography. We also added a scene once we got back to LA and looked everything over.

Q6: It looks like there were plenty of practical effects used. How long did those take to plan and create?

Special makeup/creature effects are what I do for a living so we would just work on those aspects of pre-production while we were trying to find investors. We first started trying to get the film going in 2003, so the practical effects were worked on from around then right up to when we began shooting in 2014. Normally these type of effects would be very expensive but doing them on our own dime over time made it affordable and allowed us to show investors we had our own skin in the game.

Q7: Was there a scene that stood out to you the most while shooting it?

The night we filmed Judy’s baby being taken really got under everyone’s skin on set. There was just this creepy heaviness in the air that made you feel uneasy and kind of disturbed. I knew if that feeling translated to the screen, we really did something right.

Q8: What do you want people to take away from this film?

That one person can make a difference. That person doesn’t need to be a politician or in the military or a doctor. There’s no reason why someone wouldn’t and shouldn’t care this much about their environment. These large outbreaks of frog malformations are still happening in different areas of the country. Atrazine, one of the world’s most widely used pesticides can turn male frogs into females yet is considered totally safe for humans even though it has been associated with cardiovascular disease and diabetes in infants. Frogs are one of the first bio-indicators of a healthy environment and these deformity outbreaks are resulting in massive population die-offs. Are these deformed frogs trying to tell us something? Time will tell.

Strange Nature’s cast & crew in Duluth, MN

Thanks Jim for talking to FlixChatter about your film!

(Special thanks to producer Jessica Bergren for facilitating the interview!)

TCFF Indie Film Spotlight: FLORA + Interview with writer/director Sasha Louis Vukovic

One of my favorite film genres is sci-fi mystery. It’s also a genre indie filmmakers have thrived at, which includes some of my favorites such as Never Let Me Go (2012), The Machine (2014), Ex Machina (2015), and one of my faves that screened at Twin Cities Film Fest in 2014, Time Lapse.

One of the most intriguing films that played at TCFF this year is a feature film debut by Canadian filmmaker Sasha Louis Vukovic. I had the pleasure of meeting Sasha as well as lead actress Teresa Marie Doran briefly during the film fest, but we didn’t get to connect for the interview until after.

Thanks to FC blogger Holly Peterson for the review and interview questions!

In the summer of 1929 -at the end of the golden age of exploration- an expedition of Ivy League University Botanists enter an uncharted forest on the North American frontier. Tasked to study the native flora, the students unearth a deadly organism and are soon in a fight with nature itself, where they must use their limited resources to understand, survive and escape the wild and terrifying forest that surrounds them.

FlixChatter review (courtesy of Holly Peterson):

A misunderstood villain is not a new idea. Excessive violence perpetrated at the hands of a gentle being goes back at least as far as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in the 1800s and I am sure I could come up with an earlier example if I weren’t so gosh darn tired right now.

Point is, that although audiences are used to villains being villainous, we also understand that sometimes a villain just doesn’t have the right tools to express their good will. Everyone would get along fine if they could just talk out whatever is bothering them.

But what happens when a dealer of death, a perpetrator of violence, is not just misunderstood, but completely oblivious? What if it isn’t even sentient?

That’s the story Flora chooses to explore.

A group of intrepid young scientists treks out to a secluded forest to study it, only to find that their point of contact has gone missing. As the scientists try to unravel the mystery of this disappearance, they also begin to study the forest, which they gradually realize is more dangerous than they anticipated. Flora builds a sense of creeping dread with an intense score and several one-off scenes of tempers flaring and traps being set that you can’t help but expect to snap whenever the score begins to build again.

My one quibble with the film is that it wants its audience to see that it is diverse and doesn’t trust us to notice without calling it to our attention. This is problematic because it really isn’t that diverse to begin with. Half of the characters are white males. The Asian character goes off on a weird, unnecessary tangent about his heritage. One of the female characters has a really awful emotional speech about how she’s “just a nurse” because “they” wouldn’t let her study. The other female character doesn’t even get to tell her own story – it is told by a man behind her back and is an annoying soapbox moment about how talented and unappreciated she is because other people in her field cannot see beyond her gender. There is nothing wrong with a character facing adversity because of their gender or their race, but when six people are stranded in a forest, that is probably the adversity we should focus on.

Of course, there were a couple “DON’T GO INTO THE DARK CREEPY HOUSE BY YOURSELF” variety moments, but I think that’s kind of par for the course as far as horror/suspense goes. Humans don’t always use their best judgment and for the most part I thought the “what are you thinking!?” moments felt pretty organic.

The actors’ performances are solid and it is a compelling experience to watch a group of people fight for their lives without fighting against anything. Definitely worth a watch!

*images courtesy of IMDb

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Sasha Louis Vukovic is a filmmaker from Toronto, Ontario, Canada. A graduate of the New World School of the Arts in Miami, Florida, and the Chicago College of Performing Arts, in Chicago, Illinois; his 2017 debut feature, Flora, won Best Feature Film at the London International Science Fiction Film Festival, and Best Original Screenplay at the Amsterdam International Film Festival.

FLORA’s DP Eric Irvin and director Sasha Vukovic on set

Q: Where did the idea for the story come from?

The idea for the story came from my personal lack of knowledge about my ecosystem. I was amazed by how little I knew or understood about the Flora that surrounded and interacted with me everyday. So many people come and go through life subsisting and relying on Flora with very little thought of the life of those organisms. I was also fascinated with creating a non-malicious antagonist. A villain with no villainy. Something beautiful and strong.

Q: What was it like shooting a period piece on a budget?

It was excellent fun. And actually a great creative box within which to imagine and create. Every element of the script was written with budget/period in mind. So I actually found it to be quite an interesting puzzle. The period was far more boon than bane.

Q: What was the most challenging part of the shoot?

The most challenging part of the shoot was by far contending with Nature. As the entire film is shot outdoors, we dealt with bugs, rain, heat, wild rivers, storms and dense forests. In many moments it felt as if we as a team were on an expedition into a dense wild forest as well. Thankfully a little less toxic than in the film.

Q: What is it like writing a script about / acting against a non sentient “villain”?

Again, a wonderful challenge. Creating action sequences in which characters are ostensibly running from a stationary pursuer was intersting.

A lot of the film focuses on the eeriness of how silent the forest is, coupled with the mystery of what befell the past humans who inhabited it. That way, suggestion and ambiguity does a great job at allowing the audience to build up a monster in their heads.

Then, the key is creating a believably toxic environment, from which there is an immediate need to escape. Think about the urgency that befalls people during an earthquake or hurricane. Flora is about non-symbiosis, about what happens if we have to run from nature.

Teresa Marie Doran and Dan Lin on the set of FLORA

Q: How did you find your composer?

Our composer Nathan Prillaman is incredible. He was introduced to me by one of our lead actors/executive producers Dan Lin.

Nathan and Dan went to school together as kids and right around the time that we were hunting for our Composer, they ran into one another -for the first time in years- at a dim sum restaurant. It was fantastic luck, and lead to a great creative partnership.


Thanks Sasha for talking to us about your film!

For more info about the making of the film,
check out this article from Sound & Picture magazine:

Check out this behind-the-scenes video of FLORA:

Indie Film Spotlight: GUNN + Interview with writer/director C.J. Renner & four cast members

It’s always fun being able to wear my film journalist hat once in a while. So whenever there’s an opportunity to chat with a filmmaker, whether locally or from other parts of the world, I always jump at the chance. This time, we’ve got something special because I get to do the interview on a different format… on video! Thanks to Minnesota-based filmmaker C.J. Renner and producer Sasha Michelle, as well as four of GUNN cast members for taking the time to chat with me last Friday afternoon.

I always love a good noir. GUNN is a gangster crime drama unlike anything I’ve ever seen. From the way the story is written to the deliberate surrealistic production style, it’s so refreshing to see a classic story done in an unconventional way.

All Elston Gunn ever needed to survive was a little luck and his Tommy gun. But when he discovers his whole world is just a staged play, he must dodge not only cops but stagehands… he must save not only his crumbling empire, but his last hold on reality.

There’s a lot to like about GUNN. The film is quite stylish with great camera angles and lighting for maximum effect. Despite the limited indie budget, Renner and his team are very creative and resourceful in constructing the minimalistic sets to support the narrative. Right from the fantastic Mondrian style opening credits, this is a cool, stylish film. I like the deliberate dreamy/surreal quality which fits the themes and storyline well, and he’s got a terrific ensemble cast to bring his story to life.

Andrew Stecker as Elston Gunn

Andrew Stecker portrays the inner conflict of Elston nicely. The fact that he doesn’t look like a typical gangster works in the story’s favor, and I like the vulnerability he brings to the role. Amanda Day and Anna Stranz are two wonderful talents I’ve seen in previous films before, glad to see each have a decent character arc in the film. Richard Keats as the mob boss and Noah Gillett as Elston’s closest crony, as well as Peter Christian Hansen and Tyson Lietz as the two cops hot on the gangsters’ tail, are all terrific in their roles.

Click to see a larger version

Some films that are shot mostly on set sometimes felt constricting, but that’s not the case here. Once you accept the surrealistic nature, the film flows quite nicely. The creative use of lighting and camera work create some striking imagery on screen. Because of the minimalist set, the costumes play a huge part in conveying the Prohibition era and boy, do the cast look fabulous in 1930s outfits. I love the satin dresses, fur accessories on the women… and the guys look oh-so-dapper in vests, suspenders and Fedoras.

I can’t write this review without mentioning the wonderful music by Travis Anderson, one of the biggest strengths of the film. The jazzy score and some of the songs performed in the film are not only catchy, but they add so much to the mood and atmosphere.

The pacing could be a bit more dynamic, some of the heavy-dialog scenes, as the scene between Keats and Stecker in the middle of the film felt a little too long. But really it’s a small quibble in an otherwise a smart, enjoyable debut film. Kudos to C.J. for coming up with such a cool story, but also in executing it in such a clever way.

The film is now up on Amazon… FREE for prime subscribers! Just search “gunn” wherever you watch Amazon, or click banner below:

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Interview video with writer/director C.J. Renner:

In my 7+ years covering Minnesota films and filmmakers as a blogger, I’m even more impressed by the local talents we’ve got in this town. C.J. is definitely a filmmaker to watch and I truly hope he continues to write and make more films in the future!

Interview video with cast members Andrew Stecker, Noah Gillett, Anna Stranz and Peter Christian Hansen:

It was so fun interviewing the cast! It was so great meeting Andrew for the first time just before the interview. Peter & Noah are both in my short film Hearts Want, so it was lovely seeing them again. I had met Anna last year at Twin Cities Film Fest and was impressed by her performance in Miles Between Us, surely she’ll have a fruitful acting career ahead of her.

I’m really grateful to everyone for taking the time out of their busy schedule to do this on a Friday afternoon. In fact, Peter had just got done filming another MN indie film shortly before the interview!

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Thanks so much C.J. Renner + Sasha Michelle + the GUNN cast
for the delightful interview!