Interview by Katie Grimes.
She Sings to the Stars tells the story of a Native American grandmother, her half-Mexican grandson and a faded magician. Can you tell us a little more about the film and the inspiration behind it?
Mabel is a Native American grandmother who lives alone, tending her drought-ravaged corn in the desert Southwest. Her half-Mexican grandson, Third, dreams of ‘making it big’ in LA, but his plans change dramatically when he comes to his grandmother’s house to collect traditional dolls he hopes to sell for a high price. Lyle is a faded magician from LA traveling with a white rabbit, the promise of a gig, and a life-long dream to be able to magically disappear. When his radiator boils over, he is stranded outside Mabel’s house. Both men must yield to a timeless rhythm and discover a creative capacity greater than imagined.
The 21st Century finds us parched and hurried; we have commodified nature with little awareness of our vital symbiosis. We seem thirsty for connection, for meaning, wearied by worn concepts and the (persistent) promise of an elusive American dream.
Mabel is not in a hurry; as a grandmother she is the keeper of timelessness, reflected by the desert and an endless night sky. She listens. She holds the seeds for us to take forward, sings in concert with all around her. Little seems to happen in her world, yet in a container of timelessness—now, and only now—anything is possible.
There is no single inspiration behind She Sings to the Stars. It grew out of necessity, it grew from a vision, then a dream, considerable research, volumes of poetry, years spent observing beauty and human behavior. (And asking not only ‘what is it to be human?’ but ‘what is it to be a woman vis-à-vis a woman in a man’s world?’ More on that in a later question you’ve asked.)
I had written a challenging screenplay which involves the city of Rome, a child, a dog, and the upheavals of 1968. My partner, who is both my producer and my brother, said, “No,” outright, “this is far too ambitious for a first feature. We’ll never be able to fund it. Three characters, three locations.” As his words sank like a lead weight over our Skype connection, I smelled sagebrush and saw desert Southwest. Then came a vision to create a cycle of films about women. As I’ve said on the website: “Women are bearers of life, and with this comes a natural capacity to nourish in the way we are all nourished by the earth. The beauty of our diversity can be celebrated only when we acknowledge that we are, integrally, all related. And in this collective, women’s voices are still missing. The balance longs to be re-created.”
Several months later, I was visited by Mabel in a dream. She was quite small, very old, sitting on the back of a wooden cart, spindly legs dangling. She said, “It is time to sing the song. Listen. It will take four years.” She made it clear that a grandmother would initiate the cycle of films.
Mabel appeared again in other dreams while we were in pre-production, when panic and scramble set in with the lack of funding forcing us to keep pushing production start dates out further and further from the story’s summer setting. I would see her face, just her face. She’d look at me, saying nothing.
As I began to piece the story together, I had a transcendent feeling that it was already complete, the film already cast, funded, produced. I had to ignore reason and doubt and follow the clues, as though I was in service to the story. Mabel’s reappearance in dreams seemed to imply, “Remember.” Dreams arrive, we don’t concoct them. Now as we launch a crowdfunding campaign, the last lap to raise funds for distribution, I’m reminded again, “Remember”.
You chose to center your film on a Native American woman and her culture. Did the underrepresentation of Native American people onscreen have an influence on your decision?
Native Americans are ignored as the original people of this land. They are misrepresented and stereotyped, and healthy representations of them onscreen are rare. But their under-representation did not have a direct influence on the creation of She Sings to the Stars. Mabel arrived unannounced, unanticipated. She asked me to “listen”. I had lived in the Southwest for years and came to know several elders from Third Mesa at Hopi in Arizona. One of these elders, Martin Gashweseoma, appeared to me in dreams, with regularity. When I asked him about the dreams a year later, he replied, “This happens.” I drew on a life lived with that land, its skies, its animals – on relationships, a particular love of Hopi values, cosmology and literature and the poetry of Native American women from many tribes.
Several times during rehearsal prior to production, Fannie (the actress who plays Mabel) stopped mid-scene to ask, “How did you know this about my life?” She said later in an interview, “It’s like Jennifer knew about me, about how we do things—but I don’t know how.”
She Sings to the Stars took four years to create from the conception of the idea to its completion. Tell us about that journey. What barriers did you overcome to make this film a reality?
I constructed three life-size, newspaper-stuffed dressed figures of the characters and lived with them. The story grew through 17 drafts. There were days and weeks of nothing but frustration, then 4am wakings when I could see light in my brain and ideas came pouring out faster than I could write. In half-waking states, I journeyed into the desert often accompanied by the dream character of Mabel.
But still I had only large, unconnected chunks, until I had to take a long-haul flight to meet my brother in New Mexico to nail down the budget with our line producer. They were expecting me to arrive with the final script. On that flight, it all came together. I typed as fast as I could because I thought if I stopped, the flow would dry up or my laptop would run out of battery.
When I went to change planes, I misplaced my large-format sketchbook which contained every single note, thought, sketch, photograph I had gathered for the story from its inception. I tried to locate it for the next two years, phoning the DFW Airport lost and found again and again. But the story was out, it was completed, there was no more need for the seed material, no need for attachment to a worn and cherished workbook.
The first substantial hurdle was the ‘Catch-22’ of financing: “You’ve never made a feature film before. You have no track record. Why don’t you make a short?” It reminded me of being 18 again, “You can’t have the job because you have no job experience.” I was trained as a director in the theatre, I had worked on stage, in documentary production, made super 8 shorts, worked as a literary editor, homeschooled three children. I was not untested. And we weren’t asking for millions. Those days were nerve-wracking, hair-pulling. I learned a lot about presence.
I was asked innumerable times, “Not a lot of women make features, do they?” When people ask about the completed film today, they still assume it is a documentary. It’s time to change this idea that women don’t make features.
I had particular name actors in mind to play Lyle, the magician. But trying to attach box office talent to a small, indie feature film is tricky. Neither my brother nor I are people with big links to the American film industry. Like the ‘Catch-22’ of financing, we would send scripts to actors’ agents and they would reply: “We do not accept unsolicited scripts.” The circle is closed to new ideas, to unknown talent. Celebrity gatekeepers are expert at their jobs. After approaching several celebrity actors (even with insider help) we let go of the idea and discovered that with Larry Cedar we couldn’t have found a better actor for the part.
When you dream a story, the budget is unlimited. I quietly chafed at the limited budget bit. I had to compromise. There are shots I would love to have retaken, shots I would like to have experimented with, which required equipment we couldn’t afford. And our schedule was grueling; a bigger budget would have allowed for a longer shooting schedule. But we made sure, on the advice of our line producer, that cast and crew ate well. A cold and tired company in the middle of nowhere, shooting through the night, will carry on if well sustained by good food. Paying for a good caterer vs. a few shots? A compromise.
Despite the obstacles, we were unbelievably fortunate. Our production crew was stellar. The cast couldn’t have been more devoted to the project. At the eleventh hour, we were able to engage top, emerging DP, John DeFazio. He has an instinctive grace when it comes to the camera. He and I will continue to work together on the next films in the cycle. People came out of the woodwork to help us. A first-class editor, David Aubrey, and composer, Michael Stearns went to bat for us—a small, indie feature—just because they believed in the story. They were exceedingly generous with their time. I was struck by how much people will do if they believe in a project.
Our composer had to move on to a bigger picture for financial reasons, so our film was back-burnered for nearly a year. In that year, we foolishly submitted our unfinished film to festivals and received a raft of rejections. We had enough to wallpaper a bathroom.
Once the soundtrack was finally completed, we decided to re-edit as well. The completed soundtrack added a powerful dimension to the film, fleshing out the desert as a character itself. With it, I saw that the film needed further attention: we rearranged and tightened scenes, selected different visual and sound takes and re-crafted the ending. Immediately, the film began to get picked up by festivals and we received several awards.
A final note: I wouldn’t describe it as a “barrier”, but a curiosity. She Sings to the Stars was not selected by a single women’s film festival to which we applied. A few people have suggested that Mabel might not be perceived as a strong female character or even the central character of the film. The magician is present in most scenes, with a lot of dialogue. Mabel says little, yet is the central force—the grounded center tent pole, around which the two men flail.
This film was shot in New Mexico. What was it like to film in a desert landscape?
Not only were we in a desert landscape, we were in the middle of nowhere. We had miles to drive every night (or at dawn, if we had been shooting all night) to get back to our motel. All electrics had to run off generators. Fine desert sand and grit ground into all the equipment. The sun could be intense and burning during the day, we had dust storms and driving winds which wear you down, and at night temperatures went down to 15F.
And yet, it was enchanting, mysterious—its beauty sometimes startling. The abundance of life in such a stark environment is thrilling to stumble upon, the sounds, alone, are mesmerizing. We recorded and incorporated the ubiquitous drone of daytime cicadas and nighttime crickets into the soundtrack. It was hard and harsh, grueling at times, but I watched many of the crew, particularly those not from New Mexico, undergo subtle changes. Our DP has described the shoot in the desert as “one of the most cathartic experiences I’ve ever had on a film.”
The story is set in the summer. We planned to start shooting in August, but had to push as we didn’t have our financing in place and we still didn’t have the actor to play Lyle. We finally started shooting at the end of October and into mid-November, where night temperatures fell well below freezing.
The rain and fight scene occurred on the coldest night. The water coming from the rain tower froze into icicles in between takes; the actors were in summer T-shirts and had to warm up in electric sleeping bags as soon as they came off set. We had to forgo the participation of the dog in several important scenes as the animal human protection agent would not allow the dog to act on the cold nights.
It can be challenging to make intelligent decisions when shooting through the night in those temperatures. The combination of trying to keep warm and fighting tiredness takes all your energy. I watched us all stutter with brain freeze and fumble at simple tasks. On November 1, All Soul’s Night, our actress, Fannie Lucero who is a native of Jemez Pueblo, asked for the night off as it was an important feast and night of ceremony for her tribe. Her parting words were, “You all should take the night off because the spirits of the ancestors will be out. We honor them and then go inside for the night while they wander around. If they find you outside, they can play tricks on you.” Well, we thought we had a film to make, so on we forged, shooting scenes which didn’t involve her: a generator broke down, the picture car broke down and the camera broke down. When Fannie heard our news the next day, she said, “I told you.”
We were fortunate not to encounter rattlesnakes while we were shooting. I had come across two on location just prior to production. Cabezon Peak, the mountain in the film, is a haven for rattlesnakes. In October and November, they come out to warm in the morning sunshine.
You write on your website that “magic is everyday.” Can you expand on this idea and explain how this perspective affected the way you directed this film?
On the website, I write, “Magic is everyday. We have created separation between what we call magic or the ‘impossible’ and what we call reality, where there is none. We knew this unequivocally as children. Everything was alive, interconnected and we existed in a continual state of reciprocity. Indigenous cultures still know this. Physics can prove it.”
Quantum physics shows us that the universe is made up of waves of energy. Non-locality, parallel realities and wormholes through time and space confirm wisdom held by traditional peoples. The Lakota phrase “Mitakuye Oyasin”, which means “All are related” is used as a common blessing. It describes the harmony with all forms of life, including people, animals, plants, rivers, rocks, mountains — everything is one. What happens to one, affects the other as all are a part of one web. (We are much more than we perceive ourselves to be.)
Since I was a child, I have had a facility and a willingness to step in and out of what lives beyond normal, what is indefinable and ‘apparently’ intangible. I see and I hear. Although it began in childhood, my experimentation with this ability and interest in better understanding ‘reality’ has been ongoing for 30 years. It has taken me to Peru, into the desert Southwest to learn from indigenous teachers and into the wilderness on my own.
This perspective affects how I write and direct. Filmmaking is collaborative by nature, but as I experienced She Sings to the Stars as “alive” in a way, I knew that it would grow and change from page to production to post-production based on who was there, why, and where we were.
Because of this, I engaged with the actors as well as the crew for their creative input. Even though I had a definitive script, there was something alive and open to change in the moment, something almost improvisatory on set. The unpredictable nature of the desert seemed to feed into this. Both our DP, John, and I thrived in finding the moment in a scene on set together.
It was the props master who actually clarified the importance of the role of the magical rabbit, Alvin, by suggesting I let him loose in the car. This simple suggestion brought an important element to life in the film as Alvin is, indeed, one of the ‘real’ magicians who can disappear at will.
The set was a quiet one. I was ridiculed by our art director who asked me why I wasn’t more demanding, why I didn’t raise my voice to assert my authority. “You need to be an asshole, get tough, then people will respond, you’ll get things done. This is your film.” To me, it was listening that was needed.
You co-founded your own production company, Circeo Films, with your brother Jonnie Corcoran in order to create films about women and their unique experiences. What inspired you to do this?
I was born and raised in Italy on Fellini, Rossellini, Bertolucci, Pasolini, Visconti, Zeffirelli, Antonioni, De Sica, — Lena Wertmuller and Liliana Cavani were (thrilling) anomalies. Even though our mother made Super 8 and 16mm films that she wrote, shot, directed and edited, filmmaking was a man’s world. As a long-time cinephile, I grew up imbued with the idea that “great filmmakers are men”.
I had an ongoing, nagging experience throughout my education, even into graduate school in the theatre. Although I learned how to ‘do’ school well, there was something about the uniform that didn’t fit, but I couldn’t pinpoint what it was that didn’t feel right.
It wasn’t until years later when my daughter, Athena, who was studying music composition at Oxford in a cohort of male composers, said in a conversation:
“Do you think men and women perceive differently? How does this affect young girls in a school system primarily designed by a male mind? How do we know our nature? Do we even know what a non-male-trained female mind feels like? Or what it can produce?”
Of course, it is our native feminine voices that are missing. And we have forgotten the feminine nature of the Earth and our innate relationship to it.
I didn’t dream up the vision to make the cycle of films alone, I think it is a time when women all over the planet are beginning to sing—together. And we are joined by men who are aware of the imbalance.
My brother is an ardent ecologist, deeply involved and committed to conscious, sustainable local food production and of our intimate interaction with the Earth, which he perceives as feminine. In a male-dominated world, it is a voice he wishes to honor and celebrate, creatively.
She Sings to the Stars is the first in a cycle of films about “women and their relationship to the indefinable, what lies beyond the veil of enculturation.” What is next for Circeo Films? Could you give us a teaser of the films to come?
I live in Ireland. The next film in the cycle will be set in contemporary Ireland with a 28-year old woman as protagonist. A teaser: death, sound, and the sea. I’m close to completing it.
The third film is actually the first one I wrote (the one to which my brother said, “No!”). The story is set in 1968 Rome, Italy with a spirited 6-year-old protagonist. The fourth film is asking to be in Ethiopia—I think there are sisters—but it is still too far down the road to know.
What advice do you have for women filmmakers starting their own projects featuring women protagonists?
There is an opening now more than ever before for women’s stories. Forget pandering to the marketplace, to what has proven successful. Believe that your film already has an audience. (It does.) Women (and, indeed, men) are hungry for women’s stories.
Let the “no’s” from potential investors, festivals or distributors drive you forward. If your project is genuine and you encounter resistance, it’s probably a healthy sign; you’re offering something new that may clash with an old way of thinking, of making films.
Above all, keep your sense of humor intact. Take your time, be present. Ask yourself often “how do I measure success?” Is it by what others say to you? Don’t be swayed by compliments or criticism. Perhaps it is simply being true to what you’ve created? You may not know where you’re going with it, but trust that you’ll figure out how to get there.
I don’t think filmmaking is a navigation of logic, it is a fluid, intuitive medium. Apply what John Keats described as “negative capability”: It is about trusting the process, looking for and listening to what is not obvious, paying attention to what is elusive and yet to be defined. The process, itself, is the real magic. It requires courage, but it works; and from my experience, it is a part of what we, as women, often naturally, know.
Suspect anyone who calls themselves “an expert.”
Your websites, both for your film and for your production company, are beautifully designed. Do you have any advice for beginning filmmakers looking to create a website for their film?
I would suggest you ignore what is “in fashion.” Your story is your story. There are websites identifying “the most successful movie websites” or “how to create the website that will hook your audience,” but what works for your vision? That becomes your individual brand.
Our film website was inspired by the idea of looking through a theatrical scrim as though peering into another reality. Think about the story itself and what you wish to convey of it rather than relying on gimmicks to attract attention. Simplicity and beauty go a long way in our overly visually-saturated world.
How did you go about funding your film and what advice do you have for others wanting to fund their own film?
Family. Friends. Friends of friends. You just need to find a few people who believe in you. We were introduced to many wealthy potential investors, but the reply was invariably, “no.” They wouldn’t take the risk on a first-time feature filmmaker, particularly since the story of our film was off-the-beaten-track. We were not following a tested formula. It was difficult to pin down comparables. The wealthiest seem the least likely to risk an investment in something untested, while those who have the least (but believe in you) seemed thrilled to throw their last pennies into our film.
It’s heartwarming to discover what people will agree to do with you to make a project that excites them get off the ground. Passion and enthusiasm are infectious! But make sure that vision comes from your heart, rather than motivated by “This is going to be a great success” or “I’m going to make a lot of money” or worse, “I’m a genius.”
We are about to launch a crowdfunding campaign via the Seed & Spark platform in order to raise funds for deliverables so we can sign distribution contracts. Unfortunately, many of the crowdfunding platforms are now filled with celebrity projects. Although it seems “unfair,” it is just the way it is, so you may have to be even more creative. Seed & Spark is a crowdfunding platform particularly oriented to independent film.
She Sings to the Stars won best feature at the 2015 Toronto Independent Film Festival and did well on the festival circuit. What kind of distribution strategy did you have, and how did working the festival circuit fit into that?
Because we are small and very independent, we did everything ourselves. We didn’t hire a producer’s rep or sales agent right at the start, which is one way to map your festival strategy, which then leads to a distribution strategy. We didn’t have the funds to do so. That is definitely one way to go about it.
We applied to festivals we thought would be a match for the kind of film we have. We discovered that without a producer’s rep/sales agent, once you have screened at festivals which are not the top-tier, they don’t want to know you. They are focused on presence at the likes of Sundance, Tribeca, Toronto, Berlin, and Cannes. A good producer’s rep or sales agent will work the festival circuit for you, by selecting the right ones to premiere at, to screen at, where the best match of distributors’ eyes might be, who will be where, what are they looking for—that is the service you’re paying for. If you haven’t gone this route and have premiered or screened at festivals, you are no longer a desirable virgin (unless you are well connected).
As She Sings to the Stars is very cinematic, with sweeping desert landscapes and a lot of detail, we are aiming for a limited theatrical release. We have had viewers who have watched the film on a laptop or large desktop screen and then on a cinema screen: they describe it as a completely different experience, an immersive one where the environment of the film (the desert) penetrates in an almost mystical way, which is what we have always hoped for.
At the American Film Market this past November, we heard again and again, “film distribution today is a minefield, the strategy is changing daily.”
Along with a limited theatrical release, we plan to pursue a hybrid distribution strategy, finding separate buyers for VOD rights, DVD sales, educational, and international sales. There are fewer large distribution houses that will take on independent films, even fewer who will take independent films with no box-office talent attached. It’s all about the bottom line, no matter how compelling the film might be: how well will it sell?
Ours is an art house film. There are fewer and fewer art house cinemas and more and more films. The option may have to be a 10-city limited theatrical release using the TUGG event platform, requiring us to undertake all the upfront financing and publicity ourselves, which is a sizable undertaking; or we go with a single, week-long run in LA or New York in conjunction with our VOD release.
The budget for our next film will be a little larger. We plan to attach at least one actor considered box-office talent and most probably engage a producer’s rep right away. For She Sings to the Stars, you might say our distribution strategy was compromised by our budget.
To any first-time filmmakers, I would counsel squirreling away a half of your entire film budget and earmark it for marketing/distribution. Lock it up in an impenetrable coffer. We knew to do so from the beginning but ended up putting it all into production and post-production. Everything costs more. Everything seems to take more time, even if quantum physics tells us there is no such thing as time.
We launched our Seed & Spark crowdfunding campaign to raise funds for deliverables so we can sign off with distributors.