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:

TCFF 2017 Reviews: Little Pink House + The Ballad of Lefty Brown

There aren’t enough days in TCFF to post all the reviews. In fact, I still have a few more TCFF reviews coming your way next week, which will be interspersed with new release reviews such as Only The Brave, The Foreigner and The Snowman.

Thanks to TCFF blog contributor Andy Ellis for these reviews. Definitely something to check out when it’s released near you.

The Ballad of Lefty Brown
review by Andy Ellis

If there is one thing that makes The Ballad of Lefty Brown stand out from other westerns it’s Bill Pullman‘s performance. The story itself is a different take on the revenge-type western, because the underdog takes center stage. Lefty Brown (Pullman) witnesses his partner get murdered in front of him, and vows to find the men responsible.

For a western it’s great. There’s plenty of gun fights and suspense to go around. And there are definitely scenes that allow the supporting cast to shine. Peter Fonda plays Edward Johnson, Brown’s partner, and does a great job with the limited screen time he has. Kathy Baker is great as his wife Laura playing a woman is suddenly dealing her husband’s death, keeping the farm going, and finding out who killed her husband. Tommy Flanagan shines as the hardened Federal Marshal Tom Harrah and a longtime friend of Johnson and Brown, who is still trying to overcome a tragedy from his past. Jim Caviezel and Diego Josef also have great supporting parts that make for very memorable scenes.

This, however, is Pullman’s film. If there ever was role that would should garner him some sort of acclaim from critics and awards voters, this would be it. He transforms into Brown, a sidekick with a who no one sees as someone who is capable of successfully avenging his partner’s death. He’s got a bad limp so he’s not always the smoothest at moving, may be mentally slow, and other peculiarties as well.

He overcomes all of that, with a few missteps along the way, with a determination to get justice for his friend. Even with everyone telling him someone else will take care of it, he’s going to get it done or die trying. Everyone can come along for the ride if they want.

Yes, the story is about revenege. But it’s also about one man with a really big heart. And despite all the obstacles in his way won’t even let the possibility of death get in the way of getting justice for his partner, a man who gave him everything.


Little Pink House
Review by Andy Ellis

Academy Award-nominated actress Catherine Keener (Get Out, 40-Year-Old-Virgin) may find herself in the running again with Little Pink House. Adapted from the book Little Pink House: A True Story of Defiance and Courage by Jeff Benedict, it’s centered around Susette Kelo (Keener) and the events that led up to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in the Kelo vs. City of New London. The decision allowed the government to bulldoze neighborhood property for the benefit of a multibillion-dollar corporation.

The story consists of many characters, but there are two that stand out the most: Keener and Jeanne Tripplehorn who plays Charlotte Wells. She’s hired by the governor of Connecticut to convince the citizens of New London to let the government buy their homes. Tripplehorn delivers a great performance as Wells who is undeterred by any obstacles put in her way, but you still really hope she fails.

Keener, who resembles the real-life Kelo pretty well, delivers a great performance of a woman starting over. She just wants to be able to live in her home, but when Wells and the government try taking that away she’s determined, passionate, and rarely loses her composure.

These two women lead a talented supporting cast including Aaron Douglas, Miranda Frigon, and Callum Keith Rennie. They and many others all contribute special moments to the film.

The fact that this is a true story makes it that much more powerful. It’s a story about defiance, courage, and hope. Despite its outcome, this is a movie that have you cheering from your seat.


Have you seen these films? Well, what did you think?

 

TCFF Indie Film Spotlight: DARCY + Interview with filmmakers Heidi Philipsen-Meissner & Jon Russell Cring

I’ve mentioned several times that my favorite parts about covering Twin Cities Film Fest is about discovering new films, filmmakers and talents. Well, one of my favorite discoveries in all three fronts comes courtesy of this coming-of-age drama, DARCY.

Gus Birney, the young starlet of TV’s “The Mist” (based on a story by Stephen King) is making her feature film debut in the independent narrative feature DARCY. DARCY marks the first narrative feature film debut for co-directors Heidi Philipsen-Meissner and Jon Russell Cring. In co-directing DARCY, both John and Heidi made it a priority to consider both gender viewpoints when interpreting the script and its characters’ behaviors, another factor not lost by the film’s cast. Most of the production’s crew was carried by women below and above the line. The film’s ensemble cast includes: Johnathan Tchaikovsky (“Keep The Change”), Paulina Singer (“The Intern”), David Thornton (“The Notebook”) and Bernadette Quigley (TV’s “Mr. Robot”). The 17-year-old newcomer is the daughter of veteran New York actors Reed Birney (Netflix’s “House of Cards”) and Constance Shulman (Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black”).

My review of the film:

Billed as “A girl’s awakening in the sunlight of harsh reality,” DARCY is a coming-of-age tale about an innocent teenage girl living with her parents in a seedy motel on the edge town who meets a stranger that changes her world.

The film presented the contrast between the unwholesome surrounding of her family business and Darcy’s innocence and being so sexually ‘green.’ Casting is so important in any film, but especially a film like this where it hinges on the believability of the protagonist. Fortunately Gus Birney did a fine job and you’re immediately taken with her as she attempts to navigate her life without much guidance from her parents. We see the world through Darcy’s eyes, and frankly in this world there’s really no good role model for a young woman. Even her mother at times behaves inappropriately with seductive male costumers coming to her motel. One thing her mom said to her is one every teen should take to heart however… “Don’t be in such a rush to be grown up. It’s not what you think it’ll be.”

The film gets more interesting with the arrival of a stranger… a brooding young writer Luke whom Darcy takes an immediate liking to. I like the moment of their meet-up, innocently enough when she was working the front desk and he came down to borrow a pencil sharpener. The chemistry between the two leads, Birney and Johnathan Tchaikovsky, is palpable. It’s fun to watch them being drawn to each other but each hesitate to get too close. The film takes its time to reveal just what’s really going on with Luke, which adds to the mystery.

Sustaining the motel is the practice of taking in occupants who have until only recently been incarcerated, an arrangement that Darcy’s parents have arranged with the Department of Corrections for a price. Naturally there are unsavory scenes in this seedy operation, but they’re not gratuitous. I have to say I’m not fond of those scenes but they’re there to serve a purpose, to fully understand the world Darcy lives in. Kudos to co-director Heidi Philipsen-Meissner who had to wear multiple hats as a performer as well in the role of Toni. I also think the scenes between Darcy and Luke, the heart of the story, is beautifully-shot and acted.

The film takes place over one Summer. It’s an honest, realistic portrait of an innocent young woman on the brink of adulthood. Don’t expect a neat resolution tied with a big red bow, because often times, life just doesn’t turn out that way either.

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Q: Congrats on your debut feature film! What’s the inspiration behind this project and how much of the story was inspired by real life?

JON: I think when you start from real life and then expand upon it you can find a really cool alchemy in writing. I lived in a motel for over a year and my wife and co-writer has brought a lot of her personal family experiences. Then you stop judging your characters and see where they take you.

Q: Looks like you changed the name from This Is Nowhere to Darcy, what’s the reasoning for the title change?

HEIDI: I think it was just part of our journey along the way. When I started making this first feature, it was with the idea of making it for a super micro budget on a weekend with friends in the biz… and, thus, the title THIS IS NOWHERE felt especially real… almost like a rallying cry… and had to do with the location of where our main character, Darcy, lived and the place that she was in the world: Nowhere. But as the journey of making this film continued, and I worked with one of my mentors Larry Jackson (Mystic Pizza) and Jeff Dowd (aka The Dude) in getting it out there to test audiences prior to completing the final edit, it became evident that the title THIS IS NOWHERE, did not fully encompass the center of the story. Darcy may have felt like she was “nowhere,” and we wanted to take the audiences on that journey through “nowhere,” but, truly, in the end, it was about DARCY… this girl on the cusp of womanhood, who would most definitely not stay “nowhere” in her life.

Gus Birney as Darcy

Q: What makes DARCY different than other coming-of-age films or those dealing with youth growing up?

JON: I grew up on great coming of age films but there always seemed to be this escapism of trying to create your own world outside of adult influence. Sort of the Charlie Brown syndrome. My experience growing up is that your life and decisions are dominated by those older than you. Everybody in this film is trying to get by, but it all comes from a self-centered place. That tends to lead to dark conclusions. Darcy isn’t a simple story, but neither is life.

HEIDI: The majority of coming-of-age that I have seen, i.e. Stand By Me, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Anne of Green Gables…. Have either been more about the coming of a young male’s life, or very rose-colored and about the coming-of-age about a young female as directed, editing and created by a male. Those are very different eyes and things you focus on… the male gaze versus the female gaze. And, honestly, in many ways, I often most thought about the story of “Lolita,” only we’ve completely turned Lolita on its head and made it about seeing the world through Lolita’s eyes if we could.
Further, this film does not steer clear of those unfortunate experiences that youth sometimes witnesses when the responsible adult is nowhere to be found. (If anything, it’s a wake-up call to our society that we are not connecting to our young ones and losing our sense of connection to those in our communities who don’t necessarily “fit in.”)

Many films try to do the opposite – pretend that all is perfect in the world in spite of life’s hardships. But this one looks at the resiliency of a girl who refuses to be a passive bystander in her own life, even though she has to behave like one to keep the adults in her world from getting on her case even more.

On the set of Darcy with Gus Birney

Q: How did you end up collaborating together as directors and what has the experience been like?

JON: We admired each other’s singular creative projects so collaboration made sense. It also is a story that needs multiple voices, male and female, to tell it. It has been a fabulous process.

HEIDI: In what the big film industry meccas of NYC and LA consider “nowhere” – upstate NY – Jon and I saw talent in each other and the drive and passion to want to do more. Though we are both Type A personalities in our own ways, we found that the fact that we were bringing two different genders together as directors to create the fully equal perspective in our film made the collaboration all the more exciting, fulfilling and eye-opening, while allowing both of our voices to be heard.

Q: Heidi, you also had a supporting role in the film. How does acting in the film help you tell the story as a filmmaker?

HEIDI: When you get into the skin of one of a complex character like, TONI, who is, in effect, both a prostitute, but also a mother and wife, you have to do a lot of research grounded in reality to understand her. You just get so much closer to the creative, evolutionary process of exploring the emotions, the forces driving her, as well as what is holding her back.

You can’t fake those emotions – at least, I can’t. And understanding TONI –who was, in essence, a “Darcy” without a safety net who never left “nowhere,” but fell in through hard times, sex abuse, violence, drug use, probably mental illness, desperation and, ultimately, only had one thing keeping her going: the love for her child, Peanut—was a huge part of unlocking the key to the rest of the characters for me as a director.

Heidi Philipsen as Toni

When I act and direct, this experience does two things for me: First, it keeps me grounded in what my fellow actors have to go through and ensures that I respect their process (because I am going through the same thing), it bonds me closer to them, and, second, it gets my head in the game as a director as to what the story is all about… grounding me in the truth of the imaginary circumstances.

And – okay, I lied – there are three reasons – lastly, it enables me to do something with all of that emotion and energy I am processing as a director. When you are a director, it is more of an analytical process than emotional… and I love being able to go through the full journey to bond with my fellow actors, while steering the “directorial ship” as well.

Q: I’m really drawn by the relationship between Darcy and Luke. Could you tell us a bit about casting Gus and Johnathan specifically?

HEIDI: First off, I have to give props to our Casting Director Caroline Sinclair – I met her while coordinating and working with her on several features prior to producing and directing my own and I never dreamed that she would say “yes.” But when I approached her with the script, she loved it from the beginning and was one of my biggest supporters as both a producer and director.

Caroline is the one who said, “I think you REALLY have a special script, here. Don’t rush this. Give it time and when you are ready, let’s cast it with some great actors.” And she did just that.

Finding “Darcy,” was no easy task. She had to be able to portray that very special age of 15… you know, we are different, much different, developmentally at 15 than we are… even a year later..

And even when my Executive Producer Kathryn McDermott was urging me, “Don’t cast a child. It’ll be brutal on our schedule, our budget and the expectations of working with child labor laws,” I couldn’t help but see something in Gus that we hadn’t seen in the 18-year-olds coming in. It was that naïve innocence, but also that “I’m becoming an adult and I will conquer the world!”

We girls do think that way – you know—until, unfortunately, as we get older and we are told that we are only special in how we help to define a man in our lives.

I also want to give props to Tracy Nicole Cring… she is the Co-Writer, Director of Photography and Muse of Darcy. I believe, deep down, that she is the original Darcy… Tracy, Jon and I had gone over and over in our creative visualization of art works and styles of the way we saw Darcy.

And so, when Gus walked in, tall, lanky, a bit like a dear-in-headlights, on the one hand, somehow evoking an old English painting, like John William Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott, yet fully modern with an undercurrent of tough-girl faith in her dreams, maybe it was subconscious from all the prep we had done, but something just “clicked.” That was it. She WAS Darcy.

As an aside, Kathryn McDermott, who teaches Production Management at the Motion Picture Institute of Michigan, and was my teacher and mentor in film school, tells me that she now has a “caveat” when it comes to teaching her students. The case of Gus Birney and “Darcy” is the only one, she says, where it went “right;” otherwise, she still advises against hiring children on your first feature on a low budget.

In the case of Johnathan Tchaikovsky, who plays “Luke,” that was truly magically, as well. We had done several castings by that time and were, originally, looking for a character with a southern accent, most likely from Tennessee, and the rest of the look – i.e. cowboy hat, boots, torn jeans….

And then, right at the very end, one of the last to be seen, in walks this guy from the Bronx, who reminded me of a young Robert DeNiro, yet had something very zen like Richard Gere in “A Master and a Gentleman.” I’ve never experienced it until that day – this actor literally came in and TOOK that role. He owned it. There was no one else who could do it or WANTED it as much as he did.

And I’m happy to report that both actors were so committed from day ONE. They never backed down or gave us any reason to regret casting them.

JON: Gus Birney is a star. When she came in we knew there was something truly special there. Jonathan reminds of me of a young Brando and their chemistry together was palpable. These characters are struggling with appetites and they break your heart. Their relationship is complicated and evolves and I am also struck by the depth these actors brought.

Q: The nature photography is really beautiful, it’s as if it’s a deliberate juxtaposition to the seedy motel setting. Where’s the filming location?

HEIDI: Again, that was a deliberate action. In partnering with Tracy, our Director of Photography, and all of the creative visuals that we had accumulated to emulate a certain look, we came up with this idea of making the interiors feel so uninviting, cramped, crowded, dreary, lonely, even a bit frightening… while the outdoors would be the opposite: inviting, free, full of life, hope, peace of mind. I have to give kudos to the entire team for making that happen.

We shot the film on location at the Catskill Mountain Lodge in Palenville, NY and in downtown Catskill, NY. Gorgeous – gorgeous countryside there.

JON: We shot in the Catskill region of New York. Tracy Cring as Cinematographer wanted that feeling of two worlds. Where Darcy lives is so completely different from the beauty once you exit the motel. The grass is definitely greener outside.

Q: Lastly, this film is brutally honest and doesn’t have a perfect ending tied w/ a big red bow. What is the main thing you like people to take away from the film?

HEIDI: Not sure if you read my blog in the Huffington Post this past week, but that pretty much sums it up. For me, as a women director, I did not want a “happy bow” ending – and that’s certainly not what Jon and Tracy wrote as co-writers.
As an aside, I will admit that we DID try it after being advised from outside sources – re-edited the entire ending and made it “happy,” –but it didn’t work; our test audiences were too smart and knew that it just didn’t feel right. They rejected it.

And these days, in the wake of the Weinstein sexual harassment cases, I guess you could call it a disruptive innovation statement very true to current times: We women are not going to pretend that our world is rosy when it is not. And the men who respect and love us don’t want us to. At some point, something needs to be said about how we are forced to keep a smile on our face while enduring harassment and abuse and discrimination. But that means facing the flaws and the struggle NOW.

Darcy’s future may very well be rosy – but not just yet.

JON: I really believe it’s a message of empathy. Caring is a political act nowadays. When you live with these extremely flawed people I hope you can feel something for someone who is struggling. It’s easy to box people up and say this is all they will ever be. This film turns those conventions around. As far as the ending, I find tragedy doesn’t come obviously. We survive our own mistakes.


It was so much fun meeting Heidi, Jon and Johnathan at their hotel. It’s palpable Heidi and John had an effortless rapport as they could practically finish each other’s sentences. As we’re about to wrap up on our interview, Johnathan arrived from the airport! What a lovely bunch, definitely one of the highlights covering TCFF for me this year.

Thanks Heidi & Jon for chatting with me!

For more info about the film, visit
darcymovie.com

Twin Cities Film Fest 2017 has wrapped! Check out the list of winners!

It’s one for the books!

The 8th annual fun-filled cinematic marathon has officially wrapped last night with yet another festive closing night party.

Pardon the lack of post yesterday as it was literally an extremely jam-packed day and I’ve also been hit with a bit of a cold and cough. Every single TCFF staff and volunteers pretty much ran on adrenaline around the 11-day film fest, but hey, time still flew when you’re having a great time!

The best part of covering TCFF is discovering new films, filmmakers, and talents. And boy, just in the last two days of the fest, I saw three of my top 5 films…

The three films may seem very different on the outset in terms of setting and plot, but they actually have similar themes of letting go of the past, growing up and celebrating life for what it is. The female-led Instructions For Living, directed by Sarah Heinss based on a script by Heinss and Morgan Owens, deservedly won the Audience Award for narrative feature.

Writer/Director/Actress Sarah Heinss, Writer/Actress Morgan Owens, Actor Drew Paslay, and Producer Maggie Hart were at the red carpet, interviewed by our host Amanda Day, on the first screening of the film on Saturday 10/21.


Two of my fave films starred this year’s Indie Vision Breakthrough Award recipient Josh Wiggins, who’s absolutely phenomenal in both films, playing the teenage son of Matt Bomer in Walking Out and J.K. Simmons in The Bachelors. This 18-year-old young man certainly showed an incredible range as well as screen presence. I think people will hear more of him in the future and I’m glad to say I first saw Josh at TCFF and got to talk to him a bit at the after party.

Here he is being interviewed by one of our awesome hosts Rachel Weber before the Walking Out screening:

On the festival’s closing day, TCFF also honored actress, and Minnesota native, Rachael Leigh Cook (who’s the lead in the modern adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream) with the festival’s coveted North Star Award.

 

On Saturday I started the day with learning from great filmmakers!

Two of those filmmakers’ films are one of the finalists for Best Feature Film award, Alex and Andrew Smith for Walking Out and Kurt Voelker for The Bachelors.

TCFF announced its 2017 award winners Saturday evening, recognizing films in ten top categories. The 11-day event showcased more than 140 titles — 60% of which were directed by women — and facilitated a broader conversation around the social cause of addiction (our theme for this year’s Changemaker Series)

The full list of 2017 award winners:

  • Best Feature Film: “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” directed by Martin McDonagh.
  • Best Documentary: “Human Flow,” directed by Ai Weiwei
  • Best Short Film: “Cat Killer,” directed by Wes Jones.
  • Audience Award, Narrative: “Instructions For Living,” directed by Sarah Heinss (Runner-Up: “Aquarians,” directed by Michael M. McGuire)
  • Audience Award, Non-Fiction: “Coyote,” directed by Thomas Simmons (Runner-Up: “Victor’s Last Class,” directed by Brendan Brandt)
  • Audience Award, Short Film: “Hearts Want,” directed by Jason P. Schumacher (Runner-Up: “Wet Dreams: One Woman’s Chance at Touching Gold,” directed by Darren Coyle)
  • Indie Vision Breakthrough Award — Narrative: Madelyn Deutch (screenplay, “The Year of Spectacular Men”)
  • Indie Vision Breakthrough Award — Non-Fiction: “8 Borders, 8 Days,” directed by Amanda Bailly
  • Indie Vision Breakthrough Award – Best Performance: Josh Wiggins (“The Bachelors” and “Walking Out”)
  • Fun Is Good Bill Murray Comedic Shorts Award: “Lady Lillian,” directed by Amber Johnson
  • North Star Award for Excellence: Rachael Leigh Cook

TCFF 2017 Changemaker Award: Lexi Reed Holtum, executive director and lobbyist of the Steve Rummler Hope Network, for her work advocating on behalf of Steve’s Law and the 2015 state funding that enabled first responders to have the resources they need to implement the law.

Congrats to ALL of the TCFF 2017 winners!!

You can watch the video of the awards ceremony on FB by clicking the image below (the LIVE video cannot be embedded here)

Of course THIS was the biggest surprise of the night… at least for me!

Apparently the TCFF Award Finalists were announced on Friday 10/27 afternoon, but I didn’t check it until much later. To be a finalist amongst these great short films is just unbelievable… I’m still pinching myself!!

Best Short Film: “Afterword,” directed by Boris Seewald; “Cat Killer,” directed by Wes Jones; “Hearts Want,” directed by Jason P. Schumacher; “Resolutions,” directed by Tamara Fisch; and “Sundogs,” directed by Elizabeth Chatelain.

We didn’t win Best Short but as you can see in the picture above, we did win the Audience Award, woot woot!! That’s a second one for our director Jason P. Schumacher, his short film Sad Clown won the Audience Award in 2014.

Most of our cast/crew reunited on the TCFF red carpet on Thursday 10/26

I was a nervous wreck on the red carpet as you can see below… but hey I survived 😉 Check out Jason’s blue hair for Halloween, inspired by X-Men’s Mystique!

I’m so thrilled to have my dear friend & Hearts Want‘s lead actress Sam Simmons in town for the main TCFF premiere! She flew in from L.A. just hours before the red carpet and looked stunning as ever. So fun seeing Sam reunited w/ her co-stars Peter Christian Hansen and Noah Gillet last Thursday. I gotta say our short film’s cast are VERY easy on the eyes aren’t they? And they’re all so darn talented and fun to work with, too!

 


Here are some of the pics from Hearts Want‘s red carpet on Thursday night. Thanks to Dallas Smith, TCFF’s lead photographer for some of the photos.

See the recap of TCFF festivities in images
(again thanks Dallas & team) in Smugmug.


Well the film fest may be over but I’ve still got a few more reviews I’ll be posting in the coming weeks (Ruin Me, Flora, Walking Out, The Bachelors, etc.) as well as my interviews with the filmmakers from Darcy, actor Adam Ambruso, and more!). For a daily recap with reviews/interviews, etc., check out the TCFF page.

We’ll be back for TCFF 2018 next October!

 

TCFF 2017 Reviews: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri + Blue Balloons

It’s just two days left in TCFF and I’m playing catch-up with posting reviews! You might’ve noticed I’ve got to post a couple of things in a day at times… too many films too little time (both to watch and to review!)

Well, below are couple of reviews from Day 6 and 7.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
review by Andy Ellis

It’s described as a dark comedy, but writer and director Martin McDonagh’s newest film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, has a lot more to offer. The film, led by Frances McDormand who plays Mildred who causes some small town chaos by using three billboards to ask local officials why they haven’t found her daughter’s murderer and rapist yet.

A subject such as this must be treaded upon carefully, and it’s done very well here. The humor comes from the fact that none of the characters hold anything back. Mildred has has no problem telling the local priest how she really feels, or anyone else for that matter. Sam Rockwell shines as Dixon,  a small-minded Sheriff’s Deputy with a short temper ends up costing him dearly in one key scene. If there’s a character who keeps his calm the best in the story it’s Willoughby, played by Woody Harrelson, the main target of Mildred’s billboard messages.

It’s also a film with a lot of heart in it as well, and it helps round out the characters. One scene causes causes Mildred to switch moods so fast you’ll realize that beneath that pissed-off no-nonsense barrier is a mother that just wants her daughter back. And this role may even earn McDormond some awards recognition, and then same goes for Rockwell.

The rest of the cast rounds out the story pretty well, too, with each one getting their own chance to shine—and they do. Lucas Hodges plays Mildred’s son Robbie who isn’t all on board with his mom’s methods, and Abbie Cornish plays the Sheriff’s wife Anne. Caleb Landry Jones has great scenes as Red Welby the owner of the billboards, and Peter Dinklage has a very small but memorable role. John Hawkes plays Charlie, Mildred’s ex-husband, and Samara Weaving steals the show a couple times as Penelope, Charlie’s young girlfriend.

This film is a great mix of everything, and throws more than a few a surprises in there as well. The acting is superb and it’ll leave you wanting more. Now if only more films would grab a hold of you like this one did.


BLUE BALLOONS
Review by Ruth Maramis

This is one of the films with a Minnesota connection that I actually didn’t know much about. So I pretty much going in blindly about the story, other than the fact that the story deals with a terminal illness.

Right from the start, this film feels deeply personal. I’m not sure if that’s the case, but Blue Balloons is an honest, realistic story about a family gripping with the complexity of cancer. Written, directed and produced by Emily Troedson, who also acts as the eldest daughter Claire of the Kippson family, the story is told from her perspective. I like that it paints the day-to-day life of the family in a matter-of-fact, candid way… especially in the way Claire is questioning her faith and her existence in a devout Lutheran community.

Chari and Emily in Blue Balloons

The film’s pacing is a bit slow and really tries your patience at times. I have to say some of the acting by the supporting cast aren’t convincing (crying with no tears visible??), but overall it’s a well-crafted piece with genuinely poignant moments as well as interesting artistic choices. I wish there were more mother-daughter relationship being explored here, though I think the dynamic of the family is portrayed pretty well.

Chari Eckmann as Joanne

I connected most with Emily’s character and she did an amazing job juggling so many roles in the film. Being a daughter who dealt with an ill mother at a young age, there are parts that was hard to watch for me. I also have to commend Chari Eckmann‘s performance (as the cancer-stricken Joanne), her emotional transformation and deterioration throughout the film is believable.

Glad to see so many talented writer/director like Emily having their films at TCFF! I sure hope she continues to make films in the future.


There’s more films and festivities to be had at TCFF!

 

TCFF Indie Film Spotlight: Laura Gets A Cat + Interview with writer/director/star Michael Ferrell

Thanks to FC blog staff Laura Schaubschlager for conducting the interview with writer/director Michael Ferrell. I figure since her name is Laura and she has a cat, it’d be fun for her to watch the film and ask the interview questions 🙂

Laura Gets A Cat is a fun, relatable movie that makes some creative choices with the ‘young person trying to find direction and purpose’ storyline.

Laura is a talented yet unsuccessful writer in her early 30’s living in New York City. She has a boyfriend who provides little excitement. Her two best friends who seem to have achieved all their hopes and dreams, if only to spite her. Good thing she lives mostly inside her head, daydreaming about all the wonderful things happening in her imaginary life. After she starts an affair with Ian, the performance artist and local barista, real life proves too complicated. She packs up a suitcase and moves to a small beach town in North Carolina. Even as she gets involved with some guy who lives on a mattress in his buddy’s garage, she hopes that Ian will bolt from his life in New York and chase her down. Through this series of troubled relationships and disconnected friendships, Laura learns that peace of mind is not necessarily found by chasing it.

 

FCInterviewBanner

Q: How much of this movie, if any, is inspired by real-life experiences?

The best way to explain it is: all of it. And none of it. It’s totally fiction. What’s most inspired by real life are the themes explored in the film. Laura and the people around her are in their 30’s mostly and dealing with the things that people in their 30’s are dealing with. There’s a thing I’ve heard often for writers; make it specific and truthful and it will be relatable. I strive for that. But still it’s all made-up make-believe.

Q: Why did you choose Wisconsin as Laura’s home state? How do you feel having a character who is a Midwestern transplant in NYC resonates with audiences?

Interesting that you picked up on that because it’s just mentioned in one line! Here’s the thought process when I’m making up something like that, my inner monologue as I remember it:

Hmmm, her childhood was probably somewhere specific. But not southern. Not California. Somewhere midwestern. But she threw off her accent a long time ago. She never quite fit in or felt at home. Somewhere she wanted to leave behind, but also somewhere that was encouraging, stimulating in some way. Maybe somewhere she took for granted. How about Wisconsin?

And there ya go, she was from Wisconsin. Also when I was younger I dated a couple girls from Wisconsin so maybe it was just that.

Dana Brooke as Laura

Q: The soundtrack for this film is excellent. What kind of work went into choosing which songs to include? What kind of music did you look for regarding creating a tone for the movie?

Thanks! The music we use in the film is entirely musicians that we know personally. We have my friend Melvyn Brown playing guitar and singing a song in the film. My friend Jeff Laughlin’s voice running throughout the film. David Mosey, who is friends with Chris Prine, our editor and co-producer. And Devin Sanchez, co-producer and actor, found the closing credits song from a friend in our neighborhood in Jersey City who heard the young woman playing on the subway platforms!

Even the background music in the various locations are all friends’ songs. So being able to collaborate with them and take their music around the country is a real honor for us.

Chris Prine is also the music supervisor. So the credit is his. He was also editor and music supervisor for our first film “Twenty Million People,” also featuring some great music. (Which you can watch online now: twentymillionpeople.com).

I think maybe the music fits the tone of the movie because it’s a lot of indie rock ballads. And if our film were a song, it would be an indie rock ballad. It’s probably just that simple.

And if it were a style of craft beer, I’d say it was a pale ale. Not too hoppy, but not super light either. I can think of these all day, this is fun.

Q: At the beginning of the film, Laura vents to her friend Heidi about how people seem to expect her to be more stable, exclaiming “I don’t even have a cat!” Why does having a cat represent stability or direction?

Well, it’s probably the first step for a lot of people, right? Being able to take care of a cat is like the bare minimum of adult responsibility. There’s also a line in the film that explicitly states that adulthood is NOT “steps on a ladder, like this, this, this, then this.” But if it were steps on a ladder, it might go:

Cat
Boyfriend/Girlfriend
Move in together
Dog
Marriage
Kids
House
Divorce
Just Kidding

Of course some people just don’t like pets. Or kids. Or houses. Or marriage. So there is no normal, and that’s definitely one of the themes of the film. But just because there is no normal doesn’t mean that when the time is right, one shouldn’t embrace these, or other, aspects of adulthood. Ah, the things people in their 30’s are thinking about.

Dana with writer/director/star Michael Ferrell

Q: In addition to writing and directing Laura Gets a Cat, you also co-star as Ian, the coffee shop manager with whom Laura has a relationship. Did you write the role specifically intending to portray it yourself, or did you consider casting someone else first?

It was the easiest role to cast! No, actually, it’s kind of hard to explain how I write for myself as an actor. But I’ll try anyway.

I always intended to play the role of “Ian” after I wrote the screenplay. But usually, if I’m writing something and think “This could be a part for me,” I’m not glued to that idea. I could keep writing and it evolves into, “Oh, actually this part would be better for my friend Josh,” or Ryan Gosling, or whomever.

Even after writing though, it doesn’t mean that the role is cast. Along with Devin and Chris, we have to make sure we’re objectively making the best decisions for the film. (Ryan Gosling is always the best decision).

But I grew up as an actor and have been acting in my own work for almost 20 years, so for me it seems natural. This will sound really pretentious but it’s how I express myself, artistically. I write and I act. A lot of my role models; Woody Allen, Ed Burns, Julie Delpy, Spike Lee, they write and they act in their movies. Not out of vanity or because they think no other actor could do it, but because that is how they tell stories, for whatever reason.


Laura Gets A Cat is playing at Twin Cities Film Fest on
Wednesday October 25th – 5:10 PM
If you haven’t got your tickets yet, get it
here


Thanks Michael for chatting with us!

TCFF 2017 Interview: VICTOR’S LAST CLASS’ Director/Producer Brendan Brandt

One of the many intriguing documentaries playing at this year’s TCFF is Victor’s Last Class, documentary about an acting teacher getting ready to end his life, and a student who attempts to change his mind.

Our blog staff Laura Schaubschlager talked to producer/filmmaker Brendan Brandt on the journey to making his film, where along the course of the project became more than just a filmmaker asking why, but became a close friend trying to change his new friend and mentor’s mind.

1. How did you discover Victor and his blog (and, subsequently, his announcement of ending his life)?

I’m an actor in Los Angeles. I was at a cast party after having just closed a play. The host of the party was a little upset, and when I asked why, he told me that his friend Victor was getting ready to kill himself in two weeks, and he didn’t know what to do.
I was fascinated with the story and asked if Victor would be willing to meet me. I just wanted to talk to him. Before we met, I read all his blogs and got a sense of who he was. At some point right before we met I got the idea to document his story in some way. So I pitched him the documentary idea sort of on the fly.

2. Why were you compelled to make this documentary? How did you hope to challenge Victor’s decision through filming this?

“Why was I compelled” initially is tough to answer. I’m not great at psycho-analyzing myself so there may be some subconscious stuff going on that I’m unaware of. If I was forced to guess I would say I had never truly experienced a death at that point in my life (other than losing a grandpa and grandma). I hadn’t lost a close friend or parent, so I think I was perhaps a little curious about it. That was at first. Then after I met Victor, I bonded with him in a very intense way, and I was compelled to “save” him. I had a mission, to talk someone out of killing themselves. I think that’s how I saw it after awhile.I hoped to do it by asking him some super smart questions. I was on a righteous mission! It sounds incredibly naive and a little arrogant to me now, but I really thought I could get into the philosophy and logic behind the decision and perhaps find a flaw or crack. I was convinced there was a chance to unlock some previously undiscovered angle, and when we fully looked at it, we could come to a different conclusion.

3. Last year, Jojo Moyes’s book Me Before You, which deals with the issue of assisted suicide and ending one’s life due to lifelong medical struggles, was adapted into a major motion picture. Have you read the book or seen the movie, and if so, how did you feel about the depiction of this situation after going through it yourself?

Oh man, I was not aware of that book or film. I will check it out when I’m ready to have a good cry.

4. Victor stated in the documentary that he didn’t believe ending one’s life has to just be due to physical pain (he gives the example of someone losing a wife and child in an accident and not being able to go on), but didn’t feel knowledgeable enough to say it would extend to mental illness.

What do you think? How do you feel it extends (or doesn’t) to mental illness? Where do you think the limit is?

Great question. Let me preface this with I don’t have a clear, concrete answer. One of the main lessons I got from this experience was that life is less ‘black and white’ and more ‘grey’. So you have to take it on a case by case basis. We can do a better job of seeking help for mental pain, and we can do a better job of treating mental illness. I didn’t like Victor’s car accident analogy in the moment. That seemed like an injury that, while horrific, would slowly, at least partially, heal with time, and deciding to die before giving it a chance to partially heal would be unwise. Maybe after 10 years, with no improvement in mental health, still devastated and unable to cope, I would be more willing to accept that.

All that being said, mental pain is often worse than physical pain, and ultimately an individual should be in charge of their own life. So, if a mental health expert could determine that someone who is suffering extreme mental pain and wants to die is not “crazy”, I would probably accept that. The main point would be to make sure they talk about it with experts and loved ones, and that we would get a chance to really explore that decision.

5. After going through all of this with Victor, what advice do you have for anyone who has a friend or family member considering ending their lives due to chronic pain or illness? You state toward the end of the film that while you understand his reasoning more, you still don’t agree with his decision; how do you come to terms with those conflicting feelings?

My advice would be to make sure you listen to the person. I’m very grateful I got to have this experience with Victor. And he was grateful I gave him that experience because we got to really investigate every facet of that decision. It was good for both of us, and I think it’s a healthy process to go through. Tell the truth, listen, question, and seek to understand. Not to be nit-picky, but I said: “I still don’t know that I agree”. I think that’s an important distinction. It goes back to my ‘things are grey’ point. I can’t say what he did was right or wrong. I don’t want to say that. But I do want people to look at it and think about it, and maybe make up their own mind.

When I made that comment toward the end of the film, I was hurting. I thought I made a pretty strong case to continue on. It was a little selfish of me to be honest. He was making my life better, and I didn’t want that to stop. It’s taken time and a lot of reflection, and the conflicting feelings are still there, but basically, at this point, I understand and accept. Wish it wasn’t the case, but I accept. Dealing with the conflicting feelings was interesting. As I spoke with his friends after the fact and heard their takes on it, I found myself swinging back and forth, and that continued for a while until I arrived at ‘there is no right answer. It just is.’


FILMMAKERS’ BIOS:

Brendan Brandt (Director/Producer), is a Los Angeles based actor who has been working professionally for the last twelve years in theater, film, and television. He’s appeared in prime-time dramas for CBS, sitcoms for ABC, Comedy Central, and CMT, and films that have been distributed by Netflix, Amazon, and Directv. In addition, he has been in over twenty commercials as a principal actor. His book “Waiting Tables, Dodging Bullets: An Actor’s Guide to Surviving Los Angeles” was published in 2010. Although he’s worked in the industry for twelve years, this is his first time directing a film.

Arielle Amsalem is an Emmy Award winning editor of feature length documentary films. After graduating from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts film program, where she apprenticed under the editor Sam Pollard, Arielle started her career working on Spike Lee’s award winning documentary “When the Levees Broke” (2006), a film about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. She has since been the editor of many feature- length documentaries including the Edward Norton produced HBO documentary “By the People: The Election of Barack Obama” (2009) for which she won the Primetime Emmy for Picture Editing for Nonfiction Programming. She worked as a Producer on Jennifer Fox’s 6-part documentary series “Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman”, which premiered at Sundance and aired on the Sundance channel. Additionally, she has consulted on the production and distribution of many of the documentaries which she has edited.


What’s in store for Day 4

Today we are screening lots of movies, there is something for everyone!

Victors Last Class, Instructions for Living, Ice House, Coyote, Cold November, Chasing the Dragon: The Life of an Opiate Addict, Bill Nye: The Science Guy, Beyond the Trek, Beauty Mark, and two blocks of short films (Age of Innocence – coming of age stories, and True Life Inspired– documentaries).


Stay tuned for my Day 3 & 4 recap tomorrow

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