Interview with Annabel Graham, Writer and Director of The Ravine

Copy Editing and Posting by Sam Fegan

This interview is part of a double feature on the short film, The Ravine. You can also find a review of The Ravine by Julie Casper Roth here.

You wrote, directed, and starred in your short film, The Ravine. What made you take on such an ambitious feat for your first short film?

Annabel Graham

Annabel Graham

I’ve been acting, writing, and drawing since I was very young, and I discovered photography in my teens. Each of these art forms feeds a separate part of my soul, and each requires me to turn on a different part of my brain. At the same time, they’re all methods of exploring the depths of human experience, which is what I’m most interested in. Acting feels incredibly freeing to me—slipping into the skin of another person, finding truth within that experience—but when you’re acting, you’re sort of inevitably a pawn in someone else’s vision. I wanted to create a world of my own in order to have some control over the end result. Writing has always allowed me to do that.

In addition, my father was a film and TV director, and I grew up around the industry—hanging out on set with him, watching him work, and sometimes acting in small roles in his films (my first film role was the baby in Return to the Blue Lagoon). I admired him deeply; he was confident, optimistic, calm, steady, and sure of his vision. Above all, he was kind. People genuinely liked him, and they liked working with him. Watching how he interacted with others, treating everyone with such respect and curiosity—from his lead actor to his production assistant—as well as the pure joy he took in his work was inspiring to me growing up. He also instilled in me a reverence for the art of cinema. We watched all of the old Truffaut, Godard, Fellini, and Buñuel films together when I was a little girl.

I had always wanted to try my own hand at filmmaking; it seemed like the ultimate art form to me because it combined all of the things I loved: writing, acting, photography, image, and storytelling. I had written a short story, which was published in a Montreal-based literary journal called Cosmonauts Avenue. The story was quite cinematic, grounded in its imagery. Shortly after its publication, I had the idea to make the story into a short film. As soon as that idea crept into my head, the universe sort of opened up to make it happen. I ended up meeting the woman who became my producer, the stellar Rachel Gray, and we worked together to set the wheels in motion. It wasn’t easy, but I do believe that once you make a definitive decision to do something, things begin to fall into place.

I didn’t really see it as an ambitious feat when I set out to do it. It was more that I knew I wanted to make a film, and this was really the only way I knew how to do it—using myself and the skills I’d been honing my whole life.

The film has received several accolades, including acceptance at the Cannes Short Film Corner, the Special Jury Award at the 2016 Malibu Film Festival, and Best Mystery Short and Best Actress in a Short Film at the 2016 Independent Filmmakers’ Showcase. How have these honors affected you as a director, writer, and actress?

Amelia Whitehead and Cliff Potts as Young Isabel and Charles in The Ravine

Amelia Whitehead and Cliff Potts as Young Isabel and Charles in The Ravine.

I’m humbled, and incredibly grateful. I see the accolades as gentle pushes of encouragement, nudges of “you’re on the right path, keep going,” but I also try to be careful not to let external achievements hold too much meaning for me. I wholeheartedly believe that it’s not the destination, but the journey that’s important. Having received some recognition for this project, I’m encouraged and empowered to keep making art, to keep trying new things, and to keep pushing myself to my limits. Making this film was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done—mentally and emotionally—but by no means is it the hardest thing I’ll ever do. I learned so much in the process, and I still have so much to learn. I’m not done growing.

It was an absolute dream to have the opportunity to attend the Cannes Film Festival. I remember sitting alone in the Grand Théâtre Lumière for the world premiere of Xavier Dolan’s Juste la Fin Du Monde, watching the opening credits roll with tears of gratitude just pouring down my cheeks.

It’s a thrilling feeling to know that others recognize and appreciate something you put your blood, sweat, and tears into—that it makes them feel something—especially since I think sometimes when you work on a project for an extended period of time, you get so close to it that you inevitably lose some perspective. So, after working so hard on something and going through the surrounding emotional rollercoaster, it has been really nice to hear what others took away from it. And for the most part, it’s been received and understood the way I initially intended when I wrote the story. My film is not for everyone. It’s a bit more on the poetic side. It’s not a straightforward narrative. It doesn’t tie up in a neat bow at the end, and it leaves room for questions and interpretation. But that’s what’s always been most interesting to me in film, and really in any art form—the “white of the page”—the things left unsaid, and the little mysteries that keep you thinking for days.

The Ravine gives the viewer a sense of being torn between the worlds of the living and dead. Can you tell us what inspired it?

Script supervisor Hannah Dillon, director Annabel Graham, and editor Micah Levin behind the scenes.

Script supervisor Hannah Dillon, director Annabel Graham, and editor Micah Levin behind the scenes.

The film was inspired by a few different events in my own life: a night I shared with my best friend in high school at seventeen, and driving home through the canyon we grew up in after one of our first nights out dancing and drinking in Hollywood with our fake IDs. We had an eerie experience that night that I’ll never forget. We came across a car on fire in the middle of the road. It was around three o’clock in the morning, in the middle of this very isolated, secluded, dramatic canyon in Malibu that we both grew up in—about a mile away from each other—where the only sounds you hear at night are crickets and coyotes. We got out of our car and tried to assess the situation, to figure out what to do. Then this car full of drunken boys pulled up behind us, laughing and yelling and jeering. They weren’t from our neighborhood—they were probably just out for a joy ride, racing through the canyon—and I remember so distinctly the tension of that moment, the way the air changed, the sudden knowledge that these boys could hurt us if they wanted to. That nature could hurt us, if it wanted to. That it could wipe us out. At the same time, there was this strange, exciting aura of newfound sexuality surrounding us. I think I had lost my virginity that same summer. There was this dreamlike haze over everything. Nothing seemed quite real. We drove up to the fire department to let them know what had happened, and as we crested the peak of our mountain, I remember seeing this low-hanging orange moon, the largest moon I’d ever seen. I had chills. The next day I wasn’t even sure that any of it had really happened. It was made even more eerie by the fact that the fire department had no record of it ever having happened, and when we returned to the same spot the next morning, there was no trace of a car having burned there.

The film was also inspired by the loss of my father. My dad fell off his bicycle while riding through the canyons near our home and suffered a traumatic brain injury in 2008. He lived at home with caregivers for six years, wheelchair-bound and unable to walk or feed himself. In 2013, when I was twenty-three years old, he passed away from pneumonia. Watching him suffer and lose the ability to do the things he loved broke my heart. Losing him broke it even further. Growing up with a much older father, I always had this fear eating away at the back of my mind—this fear that he would die, that I would lose him. I think others who grew up with older parents can probably relate to that feeling. I knew, somewhere inside, that he wouldn’t be around as long as my friends’ parents, that he might not live to watch me graduate from college (he did—he flew to New York with his caregiver, sat in the audience in his wheelchair to watch me walk across the stage and receive my diploma from NYU), or walk down the aisle, or have my own children. When he passed away, it was almost a fulfillment of that terrifying prophecy that had been floating around in my head and my heart for my entire childhood and adolescence. It was the thing I had been afraid of my entire life, and now it had happened. Writing about my father—turning my pain into art— was really the only thing that helped me move through the grief and begin the process of healing. My film is an ode to him, to the man he was; a man who rode on his motorcycle past the fire barriers to singlehandedly save our home from the Malibu Fires of 1993, a man who made me breakfast every morning and picked me up from school every day, a man who told me ghost stories and took me to my violin lessons and told me he loved me and squeezed my hand tightly in his, and a man who bought me my first Barbour raincoat and my first box of tampons.

Beyond that, I wanted to evoke the strange, desolate, and breathtaking beauty of the place I grew up in, and the way that the landscape is embedded in me. I wanted to explore the experience of a young girl coming to terms with her own budding sexuality in the face of a tragic loss, the “not-knowing” of adolescence, and of grief—the blank space. I wanted to explore the ways in which we deal with change in our surroundings, the effect that deterioration of landscape and of the body, can have on us. I think it’s hard to do all of those things successfully in a 13-minute short film. I’m still working on it, examining these questions and themes in my writing. My composer, Heather Porcaro, captured these emotional and physical landscapes so brilliantly in the haunting, nostalgic, original score she created for my film. She really understood the atmosphere I wanted to portray.

You chose your two main characters to be women. Is seeing more women on film important to you in general?

Sound assistant Matt Musgrove, first AC Matthew Hardesty, cinematographer Greg Arch, and writer, director, and actress Annabel Graham.

Sound assistant Matt Musgrove, first AC Matthew Hardesty, cinematographer Greg Arch, and writer, director, and actress Annabel Graham.

What’s really important to me is seeing more films made by women and more films about women. I think it’s appalling that only two women have ever won Best Director at Cannes. There are so many absolutely brilliant female filmmakers out there creating groundbreaking work—Andrea Arnold, Reed Morano, Jane Campion, Ava DuVernay, Kelly Reichardt, Sofia Coppola, Cate Shortland, Marielle Heller, Jill Soloway, Lena Dunham, and Deniz Gamze Ergüven—just to name a few. I want to see more opportunities for women behind the camera, as well as more complex and dynamic roles in film for women. More shows like The Handmaid’s Tale and I Love Dick. More films like Mustang. There have always been plenty of roles for women, but those roles are so often filtered through this male perception of a woman’s place in the world. I’m tired of seeing breakdowns for the “hot chick,” the “victim,” the “wife,” the “girlfriend,” the “love interest,”and the “girl next door.” We’re much more complicated than that. We have more to say. We have our own stories to tell. I want more of the female gaze.

You included several ominous symbols of danger in your film, including a burning car. Was this meant as a warning to the characters in the film?

The symbols of danger in the film—like the burning car, the full moon, and the canyon on fire—were meant to symbolize the simultaneous fragility and power of nature and of human beings, and the way that things can change in a split second. Nature doesn’t care what you had planned, or how much time you spent building your house. Growing up in the midst of such a volatile landscape, where wildfires, mudslides, flash floods, and earthquakes were par for the course, the idea was ingrained into me. At the same time, these “ominous” symbols are also quite beautiful. Sometimes the things that we find most beautiful have the potential to hurt us the most. This applies to people and to objects in nature.

Including the pyrotechnics, what were some of the biggest challenges in making this film?

Nathan Keyes and Annabel Graham as Felix and Isabel in The Ravine

Nathan Keyes and Annabel Graham as Felix and Isabel in The Ravine.

There were quite a few challenges. A water tank burst and flooded the room where we were storing our equipment, but luckily, we got the equipment out before any of it was damaged. We also had to recast a lead role two days before shooting due to a scheduling conflict, but this actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as I ended up getting to work with one of my best friends, the phenomenal actress Augie Duke. We also had to change the location of the burning car scene at the very last minute, and the first time I saw the new location was an hour before shooting. I was sure that shutting down a major highway and setting a car on fire would be our biggest challenge, but we were in good hands with our pyrotechnician. He really knew what he was doing, and he put me so much at ease on set. Once we started shooting that scene, and once I saw how under control everything was, my anxiety sort of evaporated. Leading up to it though, my mind was racing. “How will we pull this off? What if someone gets hurt? What if something goes wrong? Will it look real?” I really psyched myself out, picturing all of the worst-case scenarios, but it worked out in the end. As things have a way of doing.

Another one of the biggest challenges for me was directing myself. It wasn’t easy to stay centered and grounded in my character, while simultaneously worrying about a million director-y things. As the shoot went on, I became more comfortable with it. I had to put a lot of trust in my DP, the mega-talented Greg Arch, when I was in front of the camera, rather than behind the monitor, and he really came through for me.

Post-production brought another set of challenges. In the editing room, I had to cut several scenes and throw away a lot of really beautiful footage that didn’t serve the story. Certain things didn’t work out as well as I’d expected them to. At times, the people I was working with had different ideas than I did about what worked and what didn’t. When you’re directing a film, you’re constantly being thrown in the middle of all of these different people, each with their own needs, concerns, opinions, and ideas about how to do things. Dealing with so many personalities can be challenging, but listening to your gut and finding people you trust is so important. The experience of making this film really taught me about adaptability, and that when it comes down to it, you can’t control anything.

I got the impression when watching The Ravine that the men weren’t of the same world as your women protagonists. Was this your intent?

Writer and director Annabel Graham with producer Rachel Gray on set.

Writer and director Annabel Graham with producer Rachel Gray on set.

The men in The Ravine are all somewhat spectral and dreamlike. I wanted to surround them with a certain mystery and ambiguity—a sense that they might or might not be real. In the case of Isabel’s father, he’s a ghost, a memory, a figment of her imagination. Her grasp on him—on who he was—has become more and more fleeting as time goes on, and maybe she’s able to forget, to lose herself in a carefree night with a friend. Yet this jarring situation, the experience of encountering this car on fire and these strange men in the same spot her father used to take her to when she was little, brings her right back in touch with her memories of him. It’s like when you have a dream, about someone who has passed away, that’s so lifelike you almost feel as if it really happened, and you wake up sobbing. Or when you smell an ex-boyfriend’s scent on an old sweater, and it brings you right back into the sensory space of that person. The guys in the car symbolize danger, hunger, sexuality, and the loss of innocence. They’re archetypes, ideas of “man.”

How did you go about funding your film and what advice do you have for others wanting to fund their own film?

We raised half the money through an IndieGogo campaign, and the other half through a private investor, Ronald Rasak, whom we awarded Executive Producer credit in return for his generous contribution. For a first film, I would definitely recommend crowdfunding on a site like IndieGogo or Kickstarter. At first I was hesitant, as I hate asking for money for anything, but once the campaign began, I was shocked by the sheer amount of people who came out of the woodwork and truly wanted to help me make this thing. It was really encouraging. My advice would be to design a killer campaign. You really have to be clear on your story, on why it’s important, and why others should care. A solid director’s statement is a must. This should go without saying, but you really have to care about the project and believe in it. If you don’t, no one else will. When we launched our campaign, we made a short video of me talking about the project, and then for each week of the month-long campaign, we released another short video of one of the cast or crew members talking about their involvement with the project and why they were excited about it. Another important factor, should you choose to go the crowdfunding route, is telling literally everyone you know about the campaign, pushing it on all social media outlets, texting and calling people, writing personalized notes, and just being that annoying person. I think I posted about our campaign on social media almost every day of the month it was running, and sent out an email every week reminding people to contribute and spread the word. I hate doing stuff like that. It goes against every fiber of my being, but it was a good exercise for me, and it worked!

What advice do you have for women filmmakers starting their own projects featuring women protagonists?

Augie Duke as Lola in The Ravine.

Augie Duke as Lola in The Ravine.

Build a strong team of honest, authentic, and trustworthy people to work with. Be professional. Be grateful. Always discuss terms and review contracts up front, even (and especially) when you’re working with friends. Always, always, always trust your gut. It’s important to listen to feedback from others, but in the end it’s even more important to trust yourself and go with what you really feel is right. Don’t be afraid to speak up. Take risks. Know that you will make mistakes, and that there will be bumps in the road. Perfectionism is an artistic killer. Every hardship makes you a stronger, wiser, deeper, and more compassionate person. Be kind.

What upcoming projects will allow us to see more of your work?

I have some new stories, essays, and articles coming out in various publications in the next few months. I’m the assistant fiction editor of No Tokens, a print journal of literature and art, and we’ll be releasing our seventh issue this spring. I’m also about to move from Los Angeles to New York this fall to begin my MFA in Fiction at NYU. I’ve started working on what I think will be a novel, and I hope to finish it by the end of my graduate program. I also have some ideas brewing for a feature film. You can see more of my work here.

You can find out more about the film on its website, Facebook, or follow @theravinefilm on both Instagram and Twitter. Make sure to check out Denise’s profile.