You are working on your fourth short film, Gabrielle, a story about dance, overcoming bullying, finding yourself, and making friends along the way. What inspired you to tell this story?
Like my protagonist Gabrielle, I started dance late at the “advanced” age of 13. I was an OK student who was certainly never going to be a professional. The bizarre image of being the one big girl in a class full of tiny girls stuck in my brain and was probably the earliest visual inspiration for this film. I had no idea I wanted to become a filmmaker at age 13, but the image stayed with me and grew into this film 17 years later.
The bullying that I experienced myself was in theatre rather than dance. It was at the hands of a series of so-called adults in authority positions who harassed and ostracized me as a teenager. I was shut in a closet on one occasion and hit on another. I was basically a silly, ebullient, and loud kid by nature; by the end of my teens, I was depressed and anxious and quit the arts for a time. I’m certainly not the only one who’s had this kind of experience, and I don’t claim it’s unique. But then, mine is the only experience I know personally, so I think nowadays it’s my duty to spin it into something positive. Maybe it can help people who see it and think “oh yeah, this rings a bell, I’m not alone.” There’s some reassurance in knowing you’re not isolated in your experiences.
I also want to stress that I had a wonderful childhood and adolescence otherwise. This was one strand woven into a whole big fat braid of life experiences. I’m lucky that I get to turn it into—I cringe at the word, but here it is—“art.”
As a 13 year old and even today as an adult, trying new things can bring a lot of anxiety. You mentioned, just like the protagonist of the film, that you felt discrimination in the classroom as you were studying ballet at that age. There was a situation where you weren’t allowed to participate in class activities to protect the image of the school because the teacher thought you’d make the school look bad….Wow. How deep of an impact does that have on someone’s psyche, especially growing up?
I think people must not realize, when they make such remarks, that the echo can last a lifetime. That being said, I do want to make an important distinction, which is that I don’t consider a nasty remark by itself to constitute bullying. Bullying is sustained, targeted harassment—singling out a person in order to abuse them systematically. My teacher didn’t do that, but Gabrielle’s teacher does. I wanted to tell a story of a girl who experienced that kind of treatment as a child but still grew up to become a resilient adult, maybe against the odds.
I really like the idea of exposing bullies outside of the normal lenses we usually see them through. Every bully isn’t big, loud, and scary, but some bullying is subtle and perpetuated by the people who are meant to help you and protect you. Can you talk about how this idea unfolds in the film?
Sure. We hold certain preconceptions about both bullies and adults that seem to be mutually exclusive, when in fact the two descriptors can—and often do—coexist in the same people. We think of adults, in regard to children, as being their protectors and their nurturers. We think of bullies as inhabiting one well-worn stereotype or another: the big ugly kid who steals your lunch money, or the queen bee who won’t let you sit with her clique. Yet we’re also aware of adults who are major monsters—abusers, predators. So why is it so easy to miss the minor adult monsters? It’s often too easy to miss when an adult (often one who appears nice and respectable) turns out to be a bully. Madame Oksana, Gabrielle’s ballet teacher (played by Valeriya Korennaya), is one of those “minor adult monsters.” She’s a beautiful, graceful blonde woman who owns a suburban dance school. She doesn’t look like a bully. What does a bully look like?
You recently launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo. How will the campaign help you to complete the film?
The campaign is specifically to allow us to finish post-production. After principal photography wraps (which it did in November), our next steps are editing, color correction, sound editing, trailer creation and poster design (just to name a few). We have a number of talented technicians at the ready to perform these tasks, but they can’t and shouldn’t work for free. Therefore any donations we receive, even tiny donations like $1 and $5, will mean the world as we move toward all these steps of post-production.
Crowdfunding campaigns are like a “box of chocolates,” you never know what you’re going to get. How’d it feel when you got the first $100 for Gabrielle?
It was a relief because it meant the campaign would go further (at least that was a safe bet, based on previous campaigns I had run). And obviously I was grateful because nobody ever has to donate anything. Right now, we are at $2,400+ out of the $10,000 we are trying to raise.
What do you hope Gabrielle will do when it is released? What are you expecting us, as the audience, to come away with after watching the film?
I hope they’ll feel inspired to treat other people well. And as I mentioned earlier, I hope those who’ve experienced bullying will not feel so isolated in their experiences. Perhaps even those who’ve been bullies themselves will look at it and say, hey, maybe I need to reevaluate myself. Too much to ask?
How much of yourself and your personal experience do you include in your films?
Obviously a certain amount in this film, though it’s first and foremost a fiction. Gabrielle is not really based on me; Madame Oksana is based on no one particular person. The character of Camille, who befriends Gabrielle, is a complete fiction, although I think we all wish we knew someone like her! On the other hand, my film Creative Block was very closely based on experiences I have actually had. So it depends on the project.
Gabrielle follows the story of a young teenager, similar to In the Land of Moonstones, a film about an 11-year-old girl’s first love and her friendship with her grandmother. There’s a focus on younger perspectives; what inspires you to tell these kinds of stories?
I love telling stories about adolescents (teens and preteens) because they are in such a transitional, cocoon kind of life stage. They are extremely complicated people, yet they’re too big to be as small as they are. And vice versa. They have already amassed a huge trove of memories, yet they have so much more evolution and life ahead. All of that occurs at such a fleeting moment, and I like to tell stories about that moment.
What was it like to work with the two main actors, both 14? What’s it like to work and communicate with young actors?
It’s the easiest thing ever. There is so little you have to tell them because they are naturally so instinctive and raw. They haven’t yet become tangled up in notions of how they “should” be and “should” appear (and as an older person watching them, you just hope against hope that it never happens). These two girls, in particular (Adèle Marie-Alix and Julia Morales) were remarkably intuitive about how to inhabit their characters. And they became great friends in real life as well.
Can you tell us your favorite part of the movie so far? A piece of dialogue, the way a particular scene will look, the emotion of a section. What makes you the most excited about your vision for the film?
It’s the end. The very end. It’s so good. You don’t see it coming. And I ain’t sayin’ nothin’ more.
Filming for Gabrielle finished in November 2018. How soon do you think the film will be completed, and what are your plans for it?
I hope it will be finished in the first half of 2019, and I hope it will make the festival rounds and even eventually be distributed. Specifically, I hope it will play in film festivals directed specifically at children because it’s a film that I think will resonate with a lot of children. It doesn’t exclude adults, but it is specifically a film for children who have gone through (some version of) what Gabrielle goes through. I also hope it will screen at schools, at family days at museums, at other places where both kids and adults can see it. I especially hope for it to have a life at schools!
What advice would you give to fellow filmmakers who want to tell similar kinds of stories while working with low budgets?
Just make sure you leave yourself a far bigger budget cushion than I did. For example, two million dollars is an acceptable minimum. (This is a joke! Sort of! Not really!) Then tell your story. In doing so, surround yourself with first-rate crew and cast who really understand the limitations you’re working with. My DP, Jon Reino; sound man, Brandon Ascari; and AD, Amanda Lamarr, were all wonderful humans I had worked with before, so I knew they would not only understand the project’s parameters but work hard to elevate it. (We were then joined by a bunch of “new” people who likewise worked their tails off to make Gabrielle its best.) So surround yourself with people like that. The search may be long, but it’s worth it. Then be willing to work like a dog.