Interview with The Warm Season’s Director Janet Grillo and Producer Julie Crosby
Let me start by saying I absolutely adored The Warm Season. It’s smart, beautifully written and acted, and very haunting. When all the elements work, as they do in your case, it’s because those overseeing the project have a vision that makes that harmony possible. Can you share how the project came about and some choices you made when assembling and guiding your team?
JULIE: Alexandra, thanks so much for taking the time to watch the film and talk with us.
I’ve known screenwriter Adam Seidel for many years, but as a playwright. I produced his play Original Sound at off-Broadway’s Cherry Lane Theater in the spring of 2019. So we had a good creative shorthand going as a result of that, and when he let me read The Warm Season script late in 2019, I knew I wanted to take it on. My first call was to David Youse, who has been my producing partner on a number of theater projects. We’ve been in lockstep on this film ever since.
We did some Zoom readings during the spring of 2020, which was such a great way to get our heads out of Covidland. Gregory Jbara read the Sam Ringo role and once he did, we knew we had found our rogue government agent. We are so lucky he came on board so early, especially since his embodiment of Sam kept us laughing through some darker moments of the pandemic. .
By the summer of 2020, David and I were talking with several directors. The hiring process is definitely trickier on Zoom than in person, but I knew Janet Grillo and her work and thought she might be a good fit for us. Indeed, she gave us a great pitch, and proposed flipping the gender of our protagonist from male to female. It’s an idea we had discussed before, but Janet was so passionate and persuasive about it that we decided to hire her and give it a try. The rest is on the screen!
JANET: I was acquainted with Julie through a collective of women producers and filmmakers in New York City. So I was delightedly surprised when she approached me to direct The Warm Season. There was no ostensible reason for Julie to have offered the job to a female filmmaker, other than her deep commitment to supporting women. For which I’m quite grateful. In the version of the script I was offered, Clive (the protagonist) was a man, and was written by a wonderfully talented man, Adam Seidel. So my first question after reading and enjoying it was—“what is my way into this story?” When I considered changing Clive’s gender, it clicked into place as something I deeply understood, which was also inherently feminist—a woman frozen in time, locked into the support role of daughter and wife, and awaiting the return of a ‘magic man’ to make her whole goes on a journey that requires her to prioritize her own needs and abilities, instead.. I pitched it to the team and we went from there. As for building the team, it’s important to me to collaborate with female directors of photography, as I had on my other two features. So I reached out to another acquaintance, Tami Reiker (an accomplished DP), for a suggestion. She introduced us to her protegée, Sarah Brandes, who was absolutely remarkable. Sarah and I worked intensely during pre-production to plan every shot. We location-scouted twice to walk through the scenes, photo-boarding and mocking them out. In addition, I storyboarded every scene and Sarah made shot-lists. We were able to move quickly during the shoot because of rigorous preparation that aligned us in advance.
The Warm Season follows the journey of photographer Clive (Carie Kawa), whose childhood encounter with an alien has left her stuck in a holding pattern. She’s unable to discern what the encounter meant and how to move forward from that magical, mysterious moment. The film expertly blends sci-fi elements with realistic questions about creativity, commitment, and the struggles of adulting. Can you discuss the joys and challenges of tackling those themes through a sci-fi lens?
JANET: This might sound odd, but I never thought of the story as having a “sci-fi” lens. Instead, they were the circumstances for the character. She had met an extraterrestrial. He returned. I took them as real and explored them as such. It was important to consider the ‘rules’ of the alien’s materiality. Since the Alien took on human form upon arrival, what did that suggest about his natural form? Did he share our materiality or manifest differently, more energetically? Following my very shallow understanding of quantum physics, we explored his natural form as “particles and waves.”Which was fun to develop with the talented Animation team for the Ritual and Return sequences. We also needed visual coherence between the transference of energy from his universe to our planet, through weird weather events, stored in a rock here on earth. Adam wrote a “purple storm” and I was able to find stock footage of an actual storm cloud that was purple and very “other-worldly.” It became a ‘reference’ for other VFX images.
While on the topic of characters and their journeys, the cast gave such nuanced and fun performances. Not just Kawa, but also Gregory Jbara, Michael Esparza, and Cynthia Mace. Everyone really. Janet, can you tell us about your directing style when it comes to working with actors? And can you both share some tips on casting?
JULIE: Adam always writes such rich, well-grounded characters, and all of his plays tend to put these characters into truly bizarre situations. It’s pure pleasure for me to work on a script with that kind of humanity and good humor at its core. The primary challenge was actually producing an indie film at all, given the current state of the industry (and perhaps the world). David and I knew we had to deliver the film for under one million dollars because otherwise there’s no chance of financial wholeness for anyone and it’s just irresponsible to spend money that cannot be recouped in the current film distribution landscape With that budget, everyone told us to avoid kids, animals, remote locations, and sci-fi because of the special effects. We had all of those things, plus COVID, and came in on budget. It was an incredible challenge, and we’re simultaneously proud and dumbfounded that we pulled it off.
JANET: First and foremost, we got damned lucky! This cast was a blessing. We worked with casting director Nicole Arbusto. We cast during COVID, so it all happened on Zoom, which is not ideal. There’s no opportunity for ‘chemistry reads’ to find out how actors jive. But I’m big into improvisation, so I played a bit with the actors during call-backs to get a sense of who threw a ball back and forth. I had a gut instinct they would all play well together. And they sure did!
Most film shoots don’t include in-person rehearsal time. So I met with them on Zoom in advance, individually and in dyads (Carie and Daniel, Carie and Michael). I gave Carie and Daniel ‘homework.’ They live in LA so I asked them to meet and engage in an activity that would require them to be physically in sync. They suggested riding a pedal boat at Silver Lake, which was super fun (they sent videos). I also wrote character trajectories for Carie, Daniel, Michael, and Cynthia; how each of their scenes comprised their character’s arc of transformation, contributing to their accruing growth, dissatisfactions, fears, anger, and hopes, like that.
Carie’s character is in every scene, so her arc is the story’s arc. But we needed to get inside the events, not just understand them. We focused on her levels of anxiety, charting it on a scale of 1 to 10. She played against giving into it, pushing onwards and upwards until she couldn’t. This gave Carie a ‘chart’ to reference because we shot out of sequence. Each actor became the custodian of their trajectory, which I would tweak and adjust on the day, to ensure we were aligned. We were fortunate to have one day of in-person rehearsal with Carie, Daniel, and Cynthia during pre-production in New Mexico, which was amazing! Cynthia brought a profound dimension to Carlene which deepened the poignancy and humor of that character. Michael is incredibly playful, he just radiates.
On the set, we did lots of improvisation around the scenes, before the “text” begins, to “on-ramp” the moment. I like to keep the cameras rolling after the scene technically ends. To see what happens and capture spontaneous life. We found gems in that. Greg is classically trained (Juilliard) and incredibly experienced (Tony award winner), so he came to set uber-prepared, with his beats worked out in advance. I basically pointed him in the right direction and said, “Go!” I want to emphasize that every one of these amazing artists is also a trooper. We were shooting in tough circumstances—historic heatwaves, long hours, and limited resources. They were all in, with amazingly positive energy and resilience.
From the opening scene, Lillie Rebecca McDonough’s score presents a wealth of layered emotions. You have an outward feeling, but the music also features different sensations and longings underneath the main melody. This sonic multiplicity beautifully captures Clive’s journey. Can you talk about your collaboration with McDonough and your sense of how the score enhances the film?
JANET: Again, we were incredibly lucky to collaborate with Lillie. I had known her work because she scored two films directed by my friend Lydia Pilcher. Lillie also taught at NYU, as do I, so I reached out to her through their Composition Program. She read the script, and we began talking right away about the film’s tonality. We discussed the work of Carter Burwell, Jon Brion, and other composers as a reference point, and she started sending some clips of music to get us on the same page. I wanted the warmth of actual instruments versus synthetic sound. Guitars and reeds, to feel like the desert. We both wanted to avoid the cliched synthesizer ‘weirdness’ associated with alien movies. Yet we did need Mann to have an ethereal “otherness” as his motif. I also wanted to reference the cultural music of the region, which is a melange of Mexican, Country Western, and Native American. And we needed the sweetness and wonder of Clive’s childhood to continue into her adult life because she’s still trapped in it. As well as playful humor to underscore the comedy and let the audience know it’s intentional! The film shifts between naturalistic character drama, comedy, and the ethereal supernatural. Lillie’s score is a glue to bind them.
Since childhood, I’ve been an avid re-reader of The Little Prince. Your alien character (Michael Esparza) blends empathy and wonder in a way that made me think of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s novel. I also felt connections to ET, Contact, and Arrival. What were some of your influences for The Warm Season and how did you weave them into the film?
JANET: I certainly thought about all those films, as well as Starman. It’s a 1984 film in which Jeff Bridges plays an alien who takes on the human form of a grieving widow’s dead husband. We needed to avoid imitating Bridge’s remarkable interpretation. Yet he made choices that were so inherently logical that we couldn’t avoid them. Such as when Mann arrives and finds himself inside a human body, he would necessarily need to explore making language with a human mouth. Bridges do that brilliantly well. Fortunately, that’s a small part of our film. By the time we re-meet our alien (25 years later) he’s fluent but still inhabiting a body that is unnatural to him. Michael found a funny little gait. Plus, Mann’s been exposed to and acquired 25 years of American pop culture. Michael had a ball playing with that. He’s incredibly creative. But underneath is Mann’s aching urgency to return home and his anguish at having caused the shipwreck. It was our job to depict all the layers Adam wrote.
I always tell my students that savvy filmmakers study the credits of the films they love. Studying your credits taught me you were very conscientious and successful in hiring women. You also received the ReFrame stamp for gender balance. Can you tell us about ReFrame and about the benefits of having women in your crew?
JULIE: I don’t think about hiring women, I just do it. That has been true my entire career. David is equally committed to having a cast and crew that reflects the diverse worlds we live in. There are only upsides to approaching any project with a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and it’s a huge perk that ReFrame has taken to recognizing movies such as ours that have achieved a 50/50 balance in their hiring.
Can you each share one of your favorite moments making this film and something you learned about working together?
JANET: The playfulness on the set, for sure. Despite the grueling conditions (Did I mention the historic heat wave?), we had fun. The cast and crew were big-hearted, generous, and everyone worked really hard. There were no divas in the bunch. Adam himself became a pinch-hitter in the art department. The collective spirit of getting the job done was inspiring.
JULIE: I’ll second what Janet said and add that there were so many moments of sublime absurdity getting this film made. I mean, we had to hire a guy to beat the bushes for rattlesnakes before anyone could go on set in the desert. We had New Mexico’s Black Fire raging a few scary miles from where we were shooting. We even had a one-eyed, snaggle-toothed cat befriend us. It’s always a miracle that any creative project sees the finish line, but this one definitely had its own special arsenal of weirdness along the way. But we did it! And we did it because we worked hard and we worked together.
What advice do you have for filmmakers wanting to make indie films that, like yours, strike the difficult balance between high quality and a modest budget?
JULIE: It’s humbling how many high-quality films are being made today with budgets much smaller than ours. We were lucky to have the budget we did, especially given that we had no movie pre-sales. The best advice I can offer is to be smart with the resources that you have. Be grateful for them. And know that no matter how much you spend, the competition for distribution is insanely fierce, so the story you’re telling better be damn compelling.
JANET: Making a film is hard. Full stop. No matter what the budget. You can fantasize that more money would solve your problems. It would solve some problems but create others. I have been around huge-budgeted Hollywood projects, and they are not any easier to make—the issues are not fewer, just different. So take stock of whatever resources you are lucky to have and PREP PREP PREP PREP PREP!
The Warm Season just premiered at film festivals. How can audiences watch the film and/or follow its journey? And what are you hoping that journey will entail?
JULIE: Yes, we were so lucky to premiere the movie simultaneously at the Boston Sci-Fi and Santa Fe Film Festivals on February 18. The film was screened at exactly the same time at both festivals (cue The Twilight Zone music!). We picked up the prestigious Festival Director’s Prize in Boston and the award for Best Cinematography in Santa Fe. And our first two reviews are raves (click here for Santa Fe and here for Boston)!
That’s a pretty great start to our festival journey, and it bodes well for our chances of selling the film for distribution to a larger audience. Hopefully, your readers will see it soon on their favorite platform or in one of those old-fashioned cinema thingies. Meanwhile, please join our cheerleading squad by subscribing to our YouTube channel and following us on Instagram. Your support means the world to us.
To learn more about the film or watch the trailer, visit The Warm Season’s website.