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Category Archives: Interviews

Talking CIFF on the Cine-File Podcast

On October’s Cine-Cast, the Cine-File Chicago podcast, I discuss with critics Ben Sachs and Kyle Cubr the Chicago International Film Festival titles I’m most excited to see – including Orson Welles’ THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, Jia Zhangke’s ASH IS PUREST WHITE, Kent Jones’ DIANE, Christian Petzold’s TRANSIT and an Experimental Shorts Program featuring Melika Bass, Deborah Stratman and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. What I don’t say, because Cine-File is all about advocacy, is that I think this is the single weakest CIFF lineup in the 23 years that I’ve been attending. Among the prominent titles missing from this year’s fest are new works by Claire Denis, Jean-Luc Godard, Frederick Wiseman (especially sad given MONROVIA, INDIANA’s Midwestern connection), Lav Diaz, Jafar Panahi, Lee Chang-Dong, Jennifer Kent, Hong Sang-Soo (despite the fact that there were two films to choose from and Lee is a School of the Art Institute alum), Wang Bing, Alex Ross Perry and Bi Gan. The last of these omissions, LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, which had its World Premiere at Cannes and also screened at Toronto and New York, is particularly regrettable as it features a lengthy dream sequence shot in 3D that is supposedly comparable to the astonishing virtuosic long take in Bi Gan’s first film KAILI BLUES. The AMC River East multiplex where CIFF takes place is equipped with 3D projectors and festival director Michael Kutza, stepping down after this year, has gone on record as saying he likes to show 3D films. Because LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT is a Chinese art film, however, it can now only be programmed for a local theatrical screening, if at all, at a theater without a 3D projector (e.g., the Siskel Center, the Music Box, Facets, etc.). This means that, unfortunately, Chicago cinephiles will never have the chance to see this film the way that its director intended.

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Interview with Middle Coast Film Festival Director Jess Levandoski

My interview with Jess Levandoski appeared at Time Out Chicago yesterday. I’m reproducing it here in its entirety.
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After four successful years in Bloomington, Indiana, the fifth annual Middle Coast Film Festival will move to Lincoln Square’s Davis Theatre later this month. The event promises local movie fans “loads of films, awesome parties and endless possibilities” between Friday, September 21 and Sunday, September 23. We recently spoke to festival director Jess Levandoski about what attendees can expect.

What exactly is the Middle Coast Film Fest? How would you describe its identity and mission?

Middle Coast’s goal is to provide an inclusive, uplifting, and affirming community to filmmakers and audience members alike. In other words, we like to say we’ve created a jerk-free zone. We want this festival to be the event in Chicago where filmmakers can let their hair down and just show us films that elicit emotions. This isn’t a fest where you’ll get a distribution deal, it’s a fest where you’ll get to have real talk about your projects and where audiences feel empowered to really connect with you. We want to build a huge family! Send us all your misfits and loners, you’ve got a spot right here next to the rest of us.

You’ve had four successful years in Bloomington already. What necessitated the move to Chicago and did you find it daunting to put on a film festival in a city that already has so many?

As the founder and director of the festival, I moved, so it had to move with me! We built a great fest in Bloomington, and it really is a special town, but we hit a limit with what we could do there (and plus all the staff members moved away) so I’m so thrilled to have the new home base in Chicago! And as far as the saturation level of fests here in Chicago, that just means there are that many cool people in the area, you know? Plenty of room at the table, and if there’s not, I know we can just add more seats.

You’ve said that you want to “take over Lincoln Square” for the weekend of the festival. What do you see as the relationship between the festival and the neighborhood?

When I was looking into venues, I searched high and low for the perfect neighborhood to place it in. I needed to find a venue that didn’t already have a film fest every other weekend, I needed a spot that had a strong arts community and folks who enjoy doing stuff. The area of Lincoln Square, Ravenswood and North Center was perfect for it—you can find single family homes and apartment dwellers, young professionals and families, loads of diversity. It’s not all completely gentrified yet and there’s room for growth. So finding the newly renovated Davis Theater with the gorgeous full service bar and restaurant, the Carbon Arc, attached to it was a real eureka moment for me. It felt like a home for the fest when I walked in. It’s run by an awesome group of dudes who want to see a film fest be anchored there, so their support has been a key to our success so far. We’ve partnered with both Wintrust Bank and the Dank Haus Cultural Center to expand the footprint of the festival, so our closing night party will be on the rooftop terrace that overlooks the city and it will just be this perfect ending to our first year in the neighborhood. I just have a great feeling about it!

Tell me about the lineup. I know you can’t pick favorites but what are some of the highlights that you might recommend to a first-time Middle Coast attendee?

We open Friday September 21, at 2pm with our first block of shorts called “PEOPLE ARE AWESOME.” The first 100 badge holders through the door get a free swag bag. That’s pretty cute, huh? Free stuff! We will also have live music on the sidewalk, mountains of Lacroix water and fun vendor booths, including an advice booth from our sponsor Hello Tushy, where you can get honest advice from a real asshole (Hello Tushy is a bidet company. See what we did there?). Friday night also hosts our anniversary screening of The Birdcage, presented in partnership with Wussy Mag. We’ll have costume lewks contest hosted by Chicago’s own Lucy Stoole and Kat Sass. Saturday we open the doors of the Davis to run programming in all three theaters, including a big surprise film. Our lounge in the Carbon Arc will be open all day, as well as our vendors and podcasting areas.

Our big headliner Saturday night is a Chicago premiere, The New Romantic, written and directed by Carly Stone and starring Jessica Barden (Netflix’s It’s the End of the F*cking World!). I’ve been describing it as “If Hunter S. Thompson wrote Pretty Woman.”

You’ve also scheduled some panel discussions. Who’s going to be on them and what will the discussion topics be?

Friday we have a panel called “Script to Screen & Everything In Between!,” which is just our cute way of saying our panelists are going to spill the tea about productions they’ve worked on where shit has gone way wrong, but with style and grace and lots of Google docs and begging for help they made it work. It’s gonna be spicy.

Saturday we have a panel called “Coastal Connections,” which is a discussion with the LA Women’s Film Collective and Chicago’s Women of the Now. Our panelists will discuss the challenges they face and the action steps for femme identifying filmmakers to think about and walk away with. We need more representation in the film world and they’re going to ignite the audience to walk away with ways to achieve that goal.

For more information visit the Middle Coast Film Festival’s website.


Filmmaker Interview: Michael Curtis Johnson


Filmmaker Interview: Lucrecia Martel

The following interview appeared in Time Out Chicago today. 

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When Lucrecia Martel’s Zama opens at the Gene Siskel Film Center this Friday, April 13, it represents the triumphant return of one of the world’s very best filmmakers after a nine-year absence. Martel, long a master of image and sound, takes a particularly provocative and elliptical approach to the story of the title character, an 18th century Spanish bureaucrat stationed in a small town in Argentina who is awaiting a transfer to Buenos Aires that never materializes. Zama’s frustration eventually leads him to spearhead a manhunt for a notorious bandit who may or may not exist. In what will almost certainly prove to be one of the highlights of the filmgoing year, the charismatic Martel will appear in person for Q&A sessions following screenings at the Siskel on Sunday, May 15 and Monday, May 16. I recently spoke to Martel about Zama in advance of her local appearance.

MGS: Your previous films all deal with race and class divisions. Did you see making a film about 18th century colonialism as a chance to examine the roots of social problems that still persist in Argentina today?

LM: Some of what you mentioned is inevitably in the background. I believe, however, that the roots of class issues and racial divisions are a direct consequence of the Europeans’ arrival. It was already there in the incursions in Africa and the wars against the Arab world. This film rather dives into the trap that is built, voluntarily and involuntarily, around the identity of a person.

MGS: In most films about colonialism, the protagonist is a heroic or at least a tragically flawed but still immensely important figure. Zama is fascinating in how it centers on a frustrated, low-level bureaucrat, a man of no real importance. Was this aspect of Zama’s character an appeal factor for you in adapting Antonio di Benedetto’s novel?

LM: Yes, that’s correct. In my previous films I also focus on characters a little displaced from history’s eye. History, because of the sources on which it is based, can rarely follow the trail of a character who hasn’t had a relevant function: a queen, a minister. Recently in Barcelona I searched insistently for information about the artisans who worked with Gaudi. I didn’t find anything at all despite the relevance of the work of the blacksmiths, mosaic workers, plasterers and carpenters in their concept. This problem is infinitely greater when it comes to History written to justify a process of robbery and killing. Decentralized and marginal history attract me more.

MGS: One similarity between Zama and The Headless Woman is a sense of increasing subjectivity. Both films become more dreamlike as the characters become increasingly psychologically disturbed. What interests you about showing the perceptions of this kind of character?

LM: Probably what attracts me most about cinema is the possibility of reflecting reality in an altered way. I think this is the most interesting mission of making films. Reflect reality with certain distortions that allow us to understand the subjective, arbitrary, and the constructed, in the reality that surrounds us, and we’re naturalized as if things couldn’t have been otherwise. Perverting perception is a fundamental step for those who have an interest in the political possibilities of cinema.

MGS: The sound design in your films is always amazing and Zama is no exception. This is apparent in the opening scene where natural sounds are heightened. Were you trying to convey a sense of how this alien landscape would sound to a foreigner?

LM: What a good question! Sound is the medium in which one submerges the public in order to allow them to transcend the image. Sound always has to transform us into foreigners, if possible into aliens, because it’s very difficult to see, in a culture where vision is domesticated daily and for centuries.

MGS: One gets the feeling you “find” your films during shooting. In the scene where Zama’s request for a transfer is denied, for instance, there is the absurd appearance of a llama. How does a moment like this happen? Is it in the script or does it happen organically on set?

LM: It was impossible for me to think of such an extravagance with the budget we were working with. The llama was there. It’s an iconic animal of my native province, and as the City of Lerma is mentioned in that scene, It seemed to me that the llama would contribute, add something. The llamas are very curious animals. Their gaze, as with any other animal, leaves us helpless, perplexed. To add something out of the script that works in a significative way, you have to be sure of what you are doing with your story.

MGS: There is more humor in Zama than your other films. The interactions between Zama and Luciano in particular struck me as hilarious. Would you ever consider making an official comedy?

LM: I hope that over the years the humor in my films will be better understood, the humor that is in absolutely every scene I’ve shot. For me, my films are comedies. That’s why I put those class B movie titles (e.g., The Swamp, The Holy Girl, The Headless Woman), to give a clue. But I haven’t had any luck, and they’ve put me on the shelf of the serious films.

MGS: I know you admire David Lynch. What did you think of Twin Peaks: The Return?

LM: The serial format is not quite my thing. I’ve seen only one chapter that a friend showed me. Very horrific and funny, quite his style. I admire David Lynch like every other director, because he is bold and that’s really appreciated. But for me, Paul Thomas Anderson goes further in exploring the lights and shadows of humanity. Sometimes I think that the entertainment industry has put David Lynch in the crazy artist box needed to believe in the freedom of expression.

For more information about the Chicago premiere of Zama, please visit the Siskel Center website.


Interview with Josh da Silva of Cow Lamp Films

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Independent Chicago filmmakers, take note: there’s a new distributor in town. Cow Lamp Films is the indie features division of long-running Questar Entertainment. Their goal is to procure locally made films for a national audience via cable television and major streaming platforms. Among their acquisitions so far are James Choi’s acclaimed Empty Spaces and Greg Dixon and McKenzie Chinn’s eagerly anticipated Olympia. I recently spoke to Cow Lamp’s Director of Acquisitions Josh da Silva about how the company was formed and what its ambitious plans are for the future.

MGS: Cow Lamp is a new player on the national distribution scene. How did the company come to be and what is its mission statement?

JD: It’s a “new player” but it’s part of an older player, Questar Entertainment, which has been around for 32 years. We have over 5,000 titles in our collection. We’re on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and we do a lot of stuff with public television and a lot of digital platforms. Cow Lamp, the independent distribution division, started pretty much when I started as full-time employee at Questar as Digital Content Manager. I was finishing up my thesis film at DePaul, which is a feature-length documentary, and I realized there are a lot of people who have films. I didn’t really know how the process worked of being in festivals. I thought you would enter a festival and Netflix would see it and they’d give you a big check and you’d be good. You know, maybe I could pay off my student loans! But it doesn’t work like that. So it came about as a need. I saw there was a place in the market: Midwestern and Chicago films receive almost no representation. Unless you’re on the East Coast or the West Coast, it’s really hard to get legitimate distribution. So we decided to start a new division. We were acquiring more independent films by really great local filmmakers: James Choi, Greg Dixon, Mike Reiter, Pamela Sherrod Anderson, Susan Kerns. So we saw we had this great collection of films and we wanted to come up with a title for our distribution company, something that was quirky and also Midwest and Chicago-centric. That’s how we came up with Cow Lamp Films – the cow that kicked over the lamp that burned down Chicago.

MGS: You’re title now is Director of Acquisitions. What are your duties in this position?

JD: So as Director of Acquisitions, I find films, I approach filmmakers and I spend a lot of time just trying to find the best films and create a nice catalogue that we can take to buyers. I also try to educate by talking at universities about how to protect yourself as a filmmaker and how to get an equitable deal.

MGS: What is the relationship between Cow Lamp and the Chicago Comedy Film Festival?

JD: My film, Something Out of Nothing, got into the Chicago Comedy Film Festival and I saw an opportunity to have a bit of synergy. I contacted (festival director) Jessica Hardy and we talked – I had met Jessica before and she’s always a pleasure to work with – and we wanted to emphasize Chicago films. There are a lot of festivals in the Midwest but they don’t necessarily help filmmakers by helping them get buyers. It’s a great business for other people to be in but at the end of the day filmmakers should be able to make some money off of their films, especially if they’re at a festival. So we were invited to their festival, Cow Lamp and Questar, and our President Jon Plowman came, as well as a lot of our other employees, to meet and mingle. We’re currently working on acquiring a title from the Chicago Comedy Film Festival. The directors are actually out of the California area but it’s a good film and I think it’ll do well. We actually don’t have too many comedies so hopefully this will help. Then we’ll also be working with the Chicago Independent Film and Television Festival in April, which is run by Jessica’s husband, Brent Kado. So we’ll definitely be working with them and looking for some new acquisitions.

MGS: There are seven films listed on your website. What, if any, common threads are there between them? What are you looking for in terms of the kinds of films you distribute?

JD: Ultimately, that they’re good films, which can be subjective. We’ve just signed a new documentary about music festivals so we have eight films locked. We have turned people away. I use my staff to watch the movies and get their opinions. I don’t always trust my opinion because, as a filmmaker myself, it’s hard for me to watch some things sometimes. We have to have standards because we’re investing a lot into these films as well.

MGS: How are these films going to be made available to watch?

JD: It’s important to think about films as a product, something tangible. Part of getting the maximum amount of revenue, which seems contrary to what people believe, is to be very specific in your release. If I have one title and I put it out everywhere it loses its value. It loses its value financially and also to viewers because it doesn’t seem special, it’s just YouTube fodder. We’re starting right now with television. We’re working on a nice little cable television deal to get our films out there. Buyers want exclusivity. When you’re a young filmmaker and you want to just get it out there, you have to be patient. Don’t just put it on Amazon because that destroys its value. We’ve experienced that with films. People want something exclusive first. You get more money if its exclusive, if its considered a new release, and then you work your way down the food chain. You start with television and then you go to exclusive streaming platforms like Netflix then (digital) “rentals” and “buys.” We are considering doing some theatrical releases as well for some of our films.

MGS: How would you recommend local filmmakers submit their films to you for distribution consideration?

JD: www.cowlampfilms.com. You can submit your film and I will personally take a look at it and make sure other people take a look at it. I also love a good trailer. Trailers are so important. Beyond just signing filmmakers, we give them good deals because we’ve learned from other people who have been signed by large names that it can be very predatory. Our goal is to create a lasting film scene. We believe the next great directors are here in Chicago. It’s basically like building a house with every film (that we acquire). We have very equitable deals: we take the financial risk and your film will hopefully receive some nice revenue. We’re more competitive than a Fox or an A24. We’re going to give you a great deal because we’re willing to take the risk and make the investment.

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Interview with ‘Ida Lupino, Director’ author Therese Grisham

The following interview between me and film scholar/author Therese Grisham appeared at Cine-File Chicago on Friday.
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Ida Lupino is a beloved icon from Hollywood’s golden age. Sexy and tough, she was a bona-fide “noir” goddess who starred in classic films by directors as varied Fritz Lang (While the City Sleeps), Nicholas Ray (On Dangerous Ground) and Raoul Walsh (High Sierra). Her work behind the camera has been less celebrated but Lupino was also an important and pioneering director from the late 1940s through the late 1960s. Ida Lupino, Director: Her Art and Resilience in Times of Transition, co-written by Therese Grisham and Julie Grossman, is the first book-length critical study of Lupino as a director and one that should help spark a much needed reappraisal of this trailblazing female filmmaker. Grisham will appear at Facets Multimedia on Monday, December 4 to sign copies of the book following a free screening of Lupino’s 1951 film Hard, Fast and Beautiful. I recently sat down with her to discuss the book.

MGS: There were dozens of women directors working in the U.S. film industry in the silent era. In the years immediately after World War II, there was only Ida Lupino. Why did Hollywood become more inhospitable to female filmmakers over time?

TG: It happened at the end of the ‘20s and into the ‘30s. Part of that was the centralization of the movie industry (in Hollywood). Another part of it was unionization of work, the kind of strict categorization of work. Prior to that, men and women worked in all facets of filmmaking. We’re talking behind the camera: you weren’t just an “X,” you did various things. Once the jobs became categorized, that was no longer the case. And it seems inevitable at that point that the expendable people – we’re talking because it’s a patriarchal culture – would be women. So that (the silent era) was a real golden era: Lois Weber was a big production figure, as big and powerful as Cecil B. DeMille. She made so many films, and look at what has happened over time because of the erasure of women from Hollywood. Like Alice Guy Blache before her – who also owned her own production company, Solax, and made 600 films or something – there’s this whole rediscovery thing going on where these films have to be reclaimed, they have to be found, they have to be restored. That is far more typical now of women filmmakers historically than any men I can think of.

MGS: Lupino is not considered an “auteur” in a lot of critical circles to this day. Why do you think this is still the case?

TG: Look at what Martin Scorsese wrote about her in the ‘90s. He wrote her obituary (in the New York Times), and he had written about her before. He definitely considers her an auteur. But I think she was considered by some people to be kind of a hack. In many cases, that becomes just an excuse to dismiss a director. And also because of her acting career; that overshadowed her directing career. I think a lot of people didn’t take her seriously because of her acting career. This doesn’t have anything to do with people in the industry, by the way. This has to do with critics because she was taken seriously in the industry.

MGS: What do you consider the hallmarks of her work as a director in terms of form and content?

TG: In terms of content, I think she was abidingly interested in questions of gender in a way that perhaps feminists at the time didn’t really recognize because she’s very even-handed and non-judgmental about men. Which I find to be a beautiful aspect of her films. She has a way of being able to think herself into her male characters’ positions. She doesn’t vilify them. The only character she ever vilified in her films is the rapist in Outrage. It was reported by (co-writer/producer) Malvin Wald that she wouldn’t even look at Albert Mellen (the actor playing the rapist). He didn’t get a name. He was just “the rapist.” But otherwise she’s fair, non-judgmental and understands the predicament of men. The other thing is that she really focuses on the plight of women. That distinguishes her because while the “social problem film” was being made, it didn’t really focus on women. The predicament of women in the post-war period was of paramount importance to her and it gets carried over later into a film like The Trouble with Angels (1966). In terms of form, I think she’s consummate. Both in terms of what she managed to get from her actors – it was widely reported by people who worked for her that she was really great at drawing out the type of performance she wanted from the actors – but also, this is my predilection, I love her propensity to make the social problem film into noir. Particularly, the lighting, shadows and camera angles, that’s what I find so entrancing about her. That is a real strength.

MGS: My favorite section in the book is the one on “home noir” where you talk about the “submerged feminist energy” in film noir. How does Lupino’s work relate to this concept?

TG: Oh man, I think her early films are largely home noir. I would say Hard, Fast and Beautiful, Outrage and The Bigamist are all different keys of home noir. You have this kind of retrograde or arrested home in Outrage that harks back to an earlier time when Victorian mores and Victorian patriarchy are in place. Even though that patriarchy is kind of softened externally, it’s still kind of there with this outrageous house, which on the outside looks almost like a California bungalow but on the inside is perfectly Victorian. And then, this is my speculation, (production designer) Harry Horner adds that horrible cage to the outside, you know that rose trellis that’s like a big claw over the house? Every image is of entrapment.

MGS: Like she’s a prisoner in her own home?

TG: And not only that but her mother is also a prisoner in this very unspoken way. And, in Hard, Fast and Beautiful, it’s really a modern counterpart of that where, even though that house is contemporary for that time, Millie and Florence’s encroachment into areas where they don’t belong is punished. Millie takes over the living room because she doesn’t have an office and she’s an ambitious woman. And Florence takes over the garage, which is the male domain, to practice tennis. Those elements make me laugh; the domestic space is so intrinsic and vital to her films.

MGS: One of my takeaways from this book is that she had to be shrewd in dealing with the men around her in the industry. She pretended to know less about cinematography than she did in order to get cooperation from her D.P.s but she also extended this attitude to studio execs and censors.

TG: She buttered them up and then she brought down the iron fist. She got her way. She was criticized for that, unfortunately, by some feminist critics who wanted to draw perhaps too close a parallel between her life and her work. I also think: what choice did she have? It was either do things the way she did them, which, as you say, was shrewd – buttering these people up and getting what she wanted – or not getting things done at all. What other thing would she have done? She couldn’t have hung out with ‘50s housewives, a bunch of women who were repressed and suppressed and boring and domestic. She wasn’t like that. Yet she paid a price because she was a powerful woman but she also played that domestic role with Howard Duff (her third husband and co-star in the sitcom Mr. Adams and Eve). You can see her, even in that role, the gender tension between her and Howard Duff, which is a lot of what the show is about, in a really dark I Love Lucy way. Her persona is so suppressed and yet she exceeds it but she shouldn’t. So that’s very painful because of when she was born. Things didn’t start being brought to light in any collective way until the early ‘60s with Second Wave Feminism and all that. I think a lot of feminist critics haven’t understand that and they’ve held her to account in a way that she shouldn’t be.

MGS: Which of Lupino’s films would you first recommend watching for someone unfamiliar with her work?

TG: It wouldn’t be The Hitch-Hiker. It’s a great film noir about masculinity but to me it seems like an anomaly in her work. There are no women in it even though it stems from men trying to hoodwink their wives and escape domesticity. I think I would choose Hard, Fast and Beautiful. The fact that it’s a film noir, the fact that it’s a really unusual melodrama – I mean, some people have called it a “maternal melodrama” in which the mother is vilified and I don’t agree at all. It gives perspective on those things. And there are some fantastic chiaroscuro shots – like the hotel room in Europe, (which externalizes) the chaos of Millie’s subconscious. It pretty much has it all.

Information about the free screening of Hard, Fast and Beautiful and book-signing of Ida Lupino, Director can be found on the Facets website.


Filmmaker Interview: Jennifer Reeder

The following article appeared in today’s Time Out Chicago:

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On Thursday, September 28, the Chicago South Asian Film Festival will host the local premiere of Jennifer Reeder’s acclaimed debut feature Signature Move, a crowd-pleasing rom-com about a Pakistani Muslim lesbian lawyer who attempts to hide her love life and interest in lucha-style wrestling from her conservative, live-in mother. This special preview screening takes place at the Music Box Theatre one day before the film’s theatrical run begins and will feature a private meet-and-greet with legendary Indian actress Shabana Azmi as well as a Q&A with Azmi, Reeder and the film’s producer, writer and star, Fawzia Mirza. I recently spoke to Reeder about the film.

MGS: You’re known for writing and directing your own short films. What was it like directing a feature written by somebody else?

JR: On the one hand, it was a challenge that at first I was not sure I was up for. I feel very particular about every aspect of my shorts from pre-production through writing. I’m involved in art direction and casting and certainly I usher the entire thing, frame by frame, through post-production—[my films] feel very hand-crafted. They feel like they’re coming from a place of “auter-ship,” if I can say that about myself. So taking on material that was also very particular to Fawzia, it was a story that’s very different from my own story. When you take on a story about a Pakistani Muslim lesbian, that’s very specific. The character of the director is weighed when you say yes or no to certain projects. Saying yes to this project was obviously a really smart idea. I feel like I learned so much and in the process I also figured out a way to tell someone else’s story authentically. Being in an audience of young people of color or being in an audience that’s LGBTQ and having that audience say that it was validating and authentic means that I’ve done the right thing, and it means I can kind of exhale and say, “Okay, I can do this again.”

MGS: When I think of your shorts I think of them as narratives that are experimental in terms of their aesthetics. With Signature Move were you consciously trying to make something that was more accessible?

JR: Absolutely. That was also part of the challenge: to make something that felt like the general narrative through-line was more accessible, the way that it’s shot is more accessible, even the jokes are more conventionally funny than my other films that have more of a dark or cynical sense of humor. There are also some moments that feel very much like me. There are “drifty” moments where we’re sitting with the character in, for instance, the bridal shop where she’s looking through fabrics and whatnot—it’s kind of character development, it’s being able to look at the texture of that culture, but it doesn’t propel the narrative in a conventional way. Those felt like important moments to inject into this film because they feel very much like they’re coming from my DNA as a filmmaker. But, at the same time, especially for a feature-length, it’s important that you have an audience come with you and that it’s entertaining. It premiered at SXSW. That’s not a niche audience. Those were packed audiences who laughed in all the right places, and again that’s pretty validating.

MGS: This is one of the most female-centric films I’ve ever seen and I mean that as a compliment. There has been a lot of talk about the lack of female representation in cinema and men are nowhere to be seen in this movie. Were you trying to redress the gender imbalance?

JR: Yeah, absolutely. My shorts have oftentimes featured only females. So it’s something that I’ve been aware for quite a while in terms of casting or who I want to write a story about or who I want to put in front of my camera because that’s their story but also as a form of social justice. We also made a commitment to have lots of women behind the camera. It wasn’t just me as a director. The first A.D. was a woman, there were two female producers, the art department was all women, the makeup department was all women, the camera department was women. That’s also part of the commitment — it matters in terms of the crew. Shabana Azmi, who plays Parveen and is amazing, she noted it. She said, “This set feels different with all of these women in front of and behind the camera.” She didn’t have to say that. But as we’ve been showing it around, I don’t feel like the men in the audience feel excluded from the story. If anything, when the final credits roll, they might do what you did: “Wow, that was all women, except for the bartender.”

MGS: Speaking of Shabana Azmi, much of her dialogue is in Urdu. To have so much subtitled dialogue in both Spanish and Urdu is unusual for an American film. Was it difficult for you to direct actors in a language other than your native tongue?

JR: Yeah, definitely. As a writer and also as a director, I’m particular about how people say words. I know enough Spanish to understand the things they were saying were correct but the Urdu was completely different. I speak some Urdu now based on the script and going through the production with all those lines. Obviously, Shabana speaks Urdu, Fawzia speaks Urdu, one of the producers speaks Urdu and we had a P.A. on set doing translations. So every time we did a take it would go through four levels of making sure that the translation was correct. Trusting the tone and cadence of those lines was correct was a learning curve. It was a really cool challenge. Then we ADR’d all of the soap opera in the background. That was a whole script in and of itself that was written (for the film) and it was the same thing: we were over in a sound studio with actors speaking Urdu. I was like, “That sounded good but was that correct?” We would listen to it again and have two people go through it to make sure that they were using, for instance, the right formal pronouns.

MGS: So the dialogue that was scripted for the soap opera was intended to comment on the main narrative?

JR: Absolutely. It really operates like a subplot. At one point we were going to do an actual soap opera and shoot that actual footage. In the script it seemed great but then you’re adding another 10 days onto production. But yeah, we wanted it to be this story about these star-crossed lovers whose parents didn’t agree with their relationship, a kind of Urdu Romeo and Juliet that the mom could use as a parallel — that somehow by watching this Pakistani melodrama she was also learning something about the rules of love and how she had to let her daughter love who her daughter wanted to love.

To learn more about the premiere of Signature Move, visit the Music Box’s website.


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