This interview is part of a double feature on the short film Stardust & Moonbeams. For more take a look at Jared D. Milburn’s review of the film.
Stardust & Moonbeams covers a lot of ground in 17 minutes. Set at the end of the jazz age, we follow Beth on an artistic journey during an era of intense discrimination for women, children, and people of various assortments of ethnic backgrounds. Since Stardust & Moonbeams was originally a novel, how did you determine which points of the original writing you wanted to emphasize in the film? Were there any segments you all decided to cut back on?
Madelyn: So readers know, I am the screenwriter, executive producer, and co-author of the novel. Stardust & Moonbeams is a women’s fiction novel that I co-wrote with Dena Huisman. The novel is now forthcoming with BZB Publishing, and one of my goals from the very start was to eventually get something on screen. I have a PhD in media and culture, and my interest has always been feminist media studies, film, and women’s history. Dena has a PhD in communication and shares the goal of promoting women’s equality and empowerment in entertaining ways.
In the novel, Beth and Will are our leads, with Janet and Cary as secondary leads, followed by an ensemble cast of characters. The theme is the (hetero)sexual politics of romance, where extremely personal and very public expressions intertwine in shaping cultural conceptions of gender roles. One of those conceptions is that women should be on display, including in front of any camera, which is of course to be manned(!) by men creating from their perspectives. Believe me, in the novel, Beth rants about this in her observations of photography, movies, and every imaginable social situation.
So in adapting scenes into a short film, it was clear to me that photography and filmmaking could be both form and content. Already visually oriented, the gallery and negotiation scenes between Beth and Will, two photo shoots, the sex scene after Beth shoots Will, and several discussions with their friends formed the basis of the film.
In honing my original screenplay, we trimmed back all the scenes. In early rough cuts of the film, the love scene was longer than in the final version. We realized we didn’t need so much of them kissing, but we definitely wanted the love scene in this film to be about sexual politics. In the novel, the construction of sex scenes is crucial, from the characters’ specific actions and dialogue to the wording Dena and I very carefully chose to write the scenes. It’s a major strategy in creating characters whose sexuality does not promote stereotypical heterosexual roles, like the woman is passive and the man is active, or the man knows exactly what to do. The sex scenes are realistic and reciprocal and equitable. And obviously we wanted that to come across in the love scene in the film (even though it’s a different approach from the more graphic scenes in the novel).
Kalynn: I am a producer on this film. I’m not sure the scene is any shorter, but I’m thinking of a significant change. In an earlier draft of the script the opening scene took place in Beth and Will’s home the morning after they’d seen a gallery show of nude women. Over coffee, they have their grand idea of a dual photography session to portray intimacy between equals. I believe Madelyn had her producer hat on and was thinking that placing the catalyst scene in their home helped limit the number of different locations for the crew, making easier set-ups and saving money. I lobbied to visualize the gallery show, which is much more powerful than describing photos of nude women as objects of the male gaze. A suggestion from someone at the Kinsey Institute and a quick search yielded a disk full of vintage photographs. Although they were mostly 19th century, some were early 20th century and worked. Bonus: the photos were royalty free. From there, transforming Farmer House Museum’s dining room into an art gallery was a task but obviously not insurmountable. One of the photos yielded my favorite line of the screenplay, when Beth speaks for the scantily-clad women: “‘Please, Beth, hurry. I need birth control something awful.’ These pictures might as well have a bullseye on them. ‘Come and get me. I’m ready for you.’”
Transforming a piece of writing into a film takes an incredible sense of creativity and skill. Can you talk to us more about the process of adapting Stardust & Moonbeams into a film?
Madelyn: I had never directed anything substantial, so directing a 20-minute narrative film with half a dozen characters and a full crew — set in the Jazz Age, no less — seemed daunting. With the work I’d put into the novel, I did not want to screw it up. The possibility of me helming the film was short-lived since Terri asked about directing as soon as she read the script, which I had sent her for feedback. Needless to say, the director had to be a woman! And Terri knew about the novel, was working in filmmaking in Hollywood, and was writing her own screenplay about women, men, sexual politics, and Hollywood in this time period of the 1920s and 30s.
I also needed another woman, someone with more experience, to produce with me. When I asked Kalynn, she was instantly on board. (Producer Jo Throckmorton, who provided key support during the shoot, is our token male in the writer/director/producer/DP credits!)
With the message of both novel and film, along with our tagline of “Grab the Camera — Change the View,” the director of photography had to be a woman. Our message and her own experiences got cinematographer Nancy Schreiber, ASC, on board. Nancy has lots of experience as a DP, which is a film job overwhelmingly handled by men, even more than the director’s role is.
Terri: I am the director as well as co-editor and co-producer. A novel has time to roll out but a short film has to deliver interesting elements every minute to keep the audience’s attention visually and deliver a complicated concept. Much like haiku poetry, every second counts. We had a lot of conversations about how we could say a point quickly with one line of dialogue instead of several. Also, when we cast Ian Sargent Phillips to play Cary, his playful personality could allow us to have a lively moment that would drive home the group’s enthusiastic acceptance of Beth and Will’s experiment. We added that a day or two before filming.
Madelyn: We all felt Ian was perfectly cast as Cary. Cary is a bit of a jokester and quite droll, where his personality plays off the somewhat more serious attitudes of his best friend Will, boss-turned-girlfriend Janet, and cousin Beth. The novel actually opens with Cary as he arrives in town, moving there to start his new department store job working for college buddy Will.
Kalynn: I went to film school decades ago now, in the mid-1980s, because I wanted to see more women on screen. So, yeah, this film’s story is my story, too.
Congratulations on developing a wonderfully thought-provoking and inspirational film. Each time I watched it, I could find something new to appreciate about it. Can you talk to us about your process and what it was like to collaborate with different visions?
Madelyn: Terri and I discussed well in advance how we would approach the process. It was important for me that the characters embody how Dena and I had created them in the novel. Although I was not directing, I needed to be part of the creative process and I was. Terri, Kalynn, and I did the casting jointly, and we all participated in costume decisions. For Terri as director, it was important that she be able to take the reins, especially on set, without a constant backseat-driver.
Terri: I get an overall vision first, then I create visual books and send them to the department heads. But you have to wear your vision loosely on a low budget and exploit the best of everything you can find. Everyone has something to offer, and when you see their contribution, you mold it a bit and bring it into the pot. I call it “stone soup.” We start with an idea but the collaboration of artists is what makes a film great. Very often it is better than your original idea and makes the project richer, more full and accepting of other textures. Everyone needs breathing room, appreciation, and then the director gives it cohesion. Most important though, if something doesn’t fit, you have to speak up or you have to live with it forever. That’s a big mistake that I have made in the past.
Kalynn: Although I gave script notes, and most landed on receptive ears, all final decisions were Madelyn’s. Being in casting sessions or reviewing video auditions together was very useful. We were the first audience, and you can hear the person next to you hold their breath, chuckle, or sigh in response to a performance. That’s how you know your character can live through an actor.
Were there any new approaches, or better yet, lessons learned while filming Stardust & Moonbeams that you’ll take with you for any upcoming projects?
Madelyn: Women don’t need to occupy every last crew position on every production, but we absolutely need a greater share of decision-making positions, of crew positions more generally, and of lead, supporting, and background acting roles. Our total crew and cast credits were half women, half men. Since then, I have directed and co-directed two shorts.
In recent years, the Bechdel Test has been used to evaluate a film’s portrayal of women. To pass (a baseline of representation), a film must feature more than one woman in a speaking role, they should talk to each other, and they should talk about something other than a man. After our film was completed, I noticed it just passes in that regard yet the entire film promotes women’s equality and empowerment. So many films do not pass this simple test, which is clear evidence of the lack of women’s representation. However, I think our film shows that important messages and films about women’s equality can be created from somewhat different angles.
Terri: Our premiere cinematographer, Nancy Schreiber, brought us a rich poetic look with sweeping tracking shots. It was perfect for the subject matter to go that way. I would have liked a second camera to add to the filming of the group scene, though. With so many actors in the scene, it was tough to catch all of the subtle performances that everyone brought. I would have liked to plan that with Nancy in advance, but we both traveled to Indiana from LA and only saw the scene with the actors the day before we filmed it. Talk about run and gun! I think we did okay, though.
Kalynn: Allow more time and budget for tests for the period look. Obviously, creating the physical stuff of a period piece takes more effort than a contemporary setting. Also keep in mind that even the decisions can be more involved than pointing to an old picture and saying, “That’s the look.” For example, Abby White, the actress who played Beth, tested more than one hairstyle. The cut and texture had to work with her actual hair type and head shape. The first test of the 1920s crimped look didn’t work. At the same time, we realized the hairdresser we’d identified just wasn’t fast enough to work in a film production setting. But it was definitely worth the effort. The actors all commented how thrilled they were to get to dress up!
Creatives exude a great deal of courage when putting their work out into the world. What aids this is probably the most “beneficial” part of being human — that unavoidable urge to be very critical of ourselves and our work. Artists often find themselves being pulled back by their insecurities around their own work. With all this in mind, was there a moment when you felt ready and proud for the release?
Madelyn: Maybe when the music started coming together, because it took a while and came late in the post-production process. It came together from three different sources: a 1922 song about double standards (after we learned another song would be too expensive), our grad-student composer (a woman!) creating music for the photo shoot and love scenes, and Terri’s serendipitous meeting with the grandson of a female songwriter who never made it in the male-dominated music business of the 1930s and 40s.
Terri: I was really nervous when I got the first cut of the film. I really doubted myself until we found the natural moments of each character in my favorite takes. The editing did take some massaging for me to be confident. During the first screening of the film, I was sitting with Brad Meyer, who played Will. When the audience chuckled when he was posing for his wife for the first time, I knew we had done what we set out to do. We made them uncomfortable and sympathetic to his plight. That was just right.
Kalynn: The first audience laugh followed by a smattering of knowing chuckles. That authentic response can’t be faked.
Madelyn, as the screenwriter, did the characters and set match the vision you had when you wrote the text? What was it like to see the final version of the film for the first time?
Madelyn: With our limited budget, we could only do so much with the set and costumes, hiring actors, and locations, so that clearly limits things. And in this case I also had all the details of the novel in my head while writing the script, so a short film adaptation can only approximate. That being said, I think we did a great job adapting things yet keeping true to this fictional world and our overall goals. Terri and Kalynn, Nancy, our actors, and everyone involved, did such fantastic jobs!
There wasn’t really a “first time” for me seeing “the final version” because Terri would send me rough cuts and we would discuss. Same as the music was added. However, it’s still a huge thrill to watch the final version — “Wow, we did it!”
Terri, there were a lot of details put into Stardust & Moonbeams’ color, music, environment, wardrobe, and overall aesthetic. How did you go about bringing the script’s world to life?
Terri: When I direct, I live in a dream, really. All creative thoughts lead to the film and its world. I only watched period TV shows from the time. I even went to the Queen Mary to be surrounded by wood paneling and Art Deco. Then at some point you just channel the time. Also my mom, grandfather, and brother are artists, and I knew how they live surrounded by their art. I chose a color pallet of coral, teal, and pecan and sent look books to the team. The same for wardrobe — look books with samples and photos for each character.
Communication with a composer is complicated because music is so visceral — you want to hum at just the right frame in a scene but often the composer is miles away in a studio. We were given a miraculous gift when we found the music of Rosella Smeltzer. She was a female composer of the time and never had a chance to publish her work. We used one of her songs on the radio and some of our composer’s work. One of Rosella’s 78 demo records, which her grandson, Sam Smeltzer, was thrilled to let us use, is our closing credits music. It was very inspirational to discover a female who worked her whole life in a man’s world with no material success and then to give her a chance to be heard. (Sadly, Sam has since passed away, though he did get to see the film when it was newly finished.)
Kalynn, If you had to choose, tell us what your favorite part of the film is?
Kalynn: I already mentioned my favorite line. My favorite scene has to be the love scene, because, you know, it’s sexy.
What advice would you give other filmmakers in telling stories with such powerful narratives as this film’s? If you could go back, would you do anything differently?
Madelyn: Have the courage to make the film that you want to make. There will be plenty of stumbling blocks where things don’t work out as expected, but keep your vision in sight and always be creative and resourceful so you can achieve it.
Terri: I wouldn’t change how we did the film. Madelyn and Kalynn were the strong visionaries for the message. I lent my aesthetic. I learned from them and it was a great life experience.
Are there any messages/Easter eggs you want fans to find?
Madelyn: I want people to notice the credit that says “Based on the novel…” For those who read the novel, there are a lot of little easter eggs to connect with the larger story as well as how the film diverges from the novel. One connection to the larger story is the film’s references to a birth control clinic that the women are working to open. That is a large plot thread in the novel. Other elements could not be referenced directly. For instance, the Stardust & Moonbeams Gallery of the film does not exist in the novel. Beth and Will do go to a gallery but that’s not the name. The novel uses the Hoagy Carmichael (from Bloomington, Indiana, where I live!) song “Stardust” from the late 1920s as well as lyrics in “Swing on a Star” (“carry moonbeams home in a jar”) from the mid 1940s in creative ways as Will and Beth inspire each other. It’s much too complicated for the short film but the novel and film had to have the same title. Also, it’s really important that viewers notice the women’s names heading the credits. Fully half of the forty crew credits are women, not to mention half our co-leads and half our cast. I want to mention here the other three actors because our cast did such a fantastic job: Jared Winslow as Matt, Moli Hall as Janet, and Emily Lantz as Cherilyn.
Terri: Rosella Smetzer’s last song was recorded by her neighbor (name unknown) in a demo room of a record store. We took it to get it cleaned up and were able to use her recording.
The birth control moment during the love scene was something I was a little nervous about because it didn’t really fit the tone of a traditional period film but I really wanted to show a diaphragm on camera in a film about these gutsy women who had no fear to break the barrier that natural processes are nothing to be ashamed of. And, by the way, diaphragms haven’t changed in all these years. I wanted to juxtapose how the guy gets to diddle around with the camera while the woman is the one who has to take care of business (making sure they have contraception) when it comes to sex. Men just wait in the other room until they get back.
Are there any future collaborations you may be considering?
Madelyn: It seems there are always collaborative projects in development…. We will see which ones pan out. Kalynn and I are both part of a time-travel trilogy of shorts from the new Farmer House Productions, which is part of Farmer House Museum where we filmed Stardust & Moonbeams. The first two, Airwave Adventure and Making the Scene, are in post. Jared Winslow is part of that project, too, as co-lead, co-writer, and co-director. Emily Purcell, Paul Kane, and Karen Holtzclaw, who are associated with the museum and part of the Stardust & Moonbeams project, form our core team along with Jared, co-lead Tony Minich, and myself. I get to co-write, co-direct, and produce. Kalynn is handling sound on the trilogy productions. Kalynn and I also have a short script nearly ready to film that we see as a calling card for a feature film, Lake Effect, for which we have a treatment underway. And we have been figuring out what an uplifting “everyday eco-warriors” documentary project might look like. That is tentatively titled Back Roads.
Terri: I’m making another film now that is kicking my butt. I’ve been in production since 2014, so I probably need a rest once this one is done. Then we will see!
Kalynn: As Madelyn said, lots of creative projects…. Another of mine is my young adult sci-fi book trilogy, for which I am currently fundraising to create a very special trailer. The first novel is titled Mission to Green Tara and is available right now, and the second, Mission to Blue Grannus, is forthcoming. It’s a fun yet enlightening saga about a family of star-travelling eco-warriors.
This interview is part of a double feature on the short film Stardust & Moonbeams. For more take a look at Jared D. Milburn’s review of the film. You can learn more about Stardust & Moonbeams on the film’s Facebook, Twitter, and website and watch the trailer and see some behind-the-scenes magic on Madelyn Ritrosky’s Vimeo. Learn more about Jared by reading his profile.