Saturday, April 8, 2017

Texas Tale Delivers Powerful Punch in Short Film

Those that read my blog know how much I love film - all aspects of it. There is a new short film which is powerful, beautifully shot, incredible direction, writing, acting …I could go on and on about FAR FROM THE TREE which will have its premiere at the USA Film Festival on April 30th in Dallas, Texas. 

I had a virtual sit-down with the director, screenwriter, lead actress and producers of the film to allow them to ‘go on about it’ themselves. Watch the teaser HERE first.

Greg: First off, thank you all for joining me on my blog. Carina Rush & Cheryl Allison, what made you start WOW Films?

Carina: WOW Films was really Cheryl’s brain child, and she asked me to come onboard as a producing partner once we felt we were moving forward with FFTT.

Cheryl: I began production on a documentary called BECOMING ME over a year ago. I started WOW Films in order to produce that film under my own production company. I'm actually co-directing that one with Dave Thomas who directed FFTT. 

Greg: Dave Thomas, since she brought you up - what drew you to this piece?

Dave: The first draft of the script arrived just as I was boarding a flight in Detroit. I was thrilled to lose myself in David’s small town story. In fact, as a director, born and raised in a small southern town it was like going home. I knew this place. I could hear their voices. I could feel the sticky humid breeze. I could smell the cinnamon & apples simmering on the stove. And by the time we landed in NYC, I was in love with this short story. I felt like we had the opportunity to connect with audiences on a deep emotional level and, in the end, deliver a strong emotional punch on a very important topic. 

Greg: I just sensed this film again in that answer. How did you go about putting your team team for this film?
Carina, Cheryl, David, Angie, Dave

Carina: Cheryl was completely in charge of the casting and the crew came together based on our prior professional connections and recommendations from friends in the business. We also wanted to hire Texas local talent as much as possible since we filmed outside of Dallas. We had an amazing team, and everyone really worked well together under the pressure of an intense deadline.

Cheryl: I had been looking for a project that I could act in with Carina’s son (my godson) Gabriel Rush. David Kear is another life long friend of mine and an amazing writer. I asked him if he had any scripts dealing with a mother/son dynamic. He said he had been working on a novel along those lines for a couple of years. I asked him if he would try to write a short script. The rest is history! 

I called Dave Thomas, an incredible director as well as dear friend and asked him to direct. We brought in Oren Soffer as our Director of Photography as I loved his work. I cast Michael Hunsaker who I have worked with on stage in NY and most recently we did a production of Les Miserable together at Casa Manana. I then hired Stephen Newton and his sister Anna Newton to play younger versions of myself and Michael. The role of Aunt Dot was basically written for the incredible actress Angie Bolling. When we found out she was available, we enhanced the role to utilize her talent. Last but not! Dave Thomas and I had discussed the feel of the music we wanted for the film. We were lucky enough to be given the rights to use all Moby music.

Greg: I thought it was AMAZING you got Moby’s music for it. David Kear, where did the idea of the story come from?

David: Like most of my writing, it coalesced over time from various images and themes that I had been thinking about for some time. What I wanted to explore was what could strain the relationship between a mother and her child, and how they might confront and overcome that strain. I wanted to consider how a mother who loves her child deals with something that was neither of their fault but that nevertheless creates a boundary between them. How much will a parent sacrifice for their child, and what demons exorcise? What price will a parent pay, what suffering endure, and what pain cause, to be whole for their child.

Greg: Tell us about Abbie, the mother that Cheryl plays (yes folks…Cheryl is doing double duty as lead actress and a producer).

Angie Bolling & Cheryl Allison
David: I developed Abbie to be a woman at a crossroads, a strong woman, who remained resilient but was haunted by the past. All my life, I've been surrounded by strong southern women who have stories to tell but seldom tell them, because the silence is more bearable than the pain. Abbie does not represent one specific woman from my life who faced similar experience. Rather, she represents far too many women with similar circumstances, or any mother whom life has struck a blow that has shaken her bond with her child. The story of Abbie and Evan developed as a way to explore the depth of that pain and hopefully dig through it to something more.

Greg: Cheryl - Once again you play a mom, but this mom is very different from previous ones you’ve played - how did you "find" her? 

Cheryl: In this case, I read many stories about sexual assault, talked with some people about their personal experiences. I then read the script and dissect it. I write down how my character is described, what others in the story say about her. Then the most useful preparation I do is I write a backstory for my character. I am very method, so my backstory was 7 pages single spaced. This process really helps me slip into her skin easily and quickly when on set. 

Greg: Dave and David - Was it hard to get the story across in such a short period of time in a 16 minute film?

Dave: Everything's has its challenges - Long, short, extremely short. And having spent years as a agency director, I was well acquainted with ‘short’.  You know, It’s funny. Whenever I have to cut things down, I always think of old Mr. Bailey who lived down the road when I was growing up. Often I’d see him sitting around with his pocketknife ‘whittling’ on a piece of wood – “Ya know son, It’s sorta like life, just ask yourself – ‘what’s really important here?’ – then whittle the rest away.”

Greg: Good advice from Mr. Bailey. (I’m using that now on this blog because trust me - you all had amazing and well thought out answers!)

David: I'm used to working in the novel genre, where--quite frankly--you get more word count to work with, and where the narrative drives the reader's experience. FFTT was my first screenplay, and I quickly learned that you can't write lengthy paragraphs of description or long sections of dialogue. In my editorial work, I'm accustomed to making writers write to a particular length, so I set my boundaries at 20 pages, and then said to myself, "OK, you now have to make this whole story fit in these pages." I focused on what I wanted a scene to accomplish, not necessarily what I wanted an actor to say or do. I wanted to establish this kind of relationship, I wanted to reveal this piece of information, I wanted to foreshadow this series of events, I wanted to let the audience see this part of the character. Once I had established those elements of a sequence, the question then became "how can I accomplish all of those things economically, powerfully, and visually?" Through Dave's direction and Joel's editing, the story at 16 minutes is much stronger than my original story at 20 minutes.

Greg: LOVE that process, David! Dave - Do you approach working on a short film differently from a feature, with the cast/crew/etc?

Dave: For sure! I come from a Commercial Directing background. So, I’m used to the idea

of ‘storytelling’ taking on many different shapes and forms. With FFTT, our shooting schedule would be very short – just 3 days (in feature films you get weeks to create a nuanced creative environment.) So I embraced the idea of using local cast and crew. Not just because it would make since logistically and financially, but because it would make since creatively. The fantastic local Texas crew brought something a New York crew couldn’t – authenticity. The accent, the food, and uniquely southern gestures were abundant. So, similar to feature film sets like ‘Lincoln’, where the cast and crew dressed in period costume to create an authentic mood on set, our set was filled with locals who completely infused it with authentic ‘southern charm’.  

Greg: Dave touched on something there. The story FEELS like Texas - from the setting to these people. How important was it for those of of you from Texas to get that conveyed? 

Cheryl: For me, when David was writing the script, I didn't know what type of feel it would have. I didn't know it would be this Texas farm. When I read it though, I was so excited. I called my Aunt Judy who lives on our family farm and asked her if we could film at the farm house and on her land. She opened her home to all of us. The entire town of Eustace, TX was so welcoming. Neighbors brought food for us, donated props, trucks and an apple orchard! 

David: It was absolutely important to me, coming from Texas. Abbie and Aunt Dot's relationship and they way the speak to one another come directly from the women I grew up with and around. I wanted to capture and honor that aspect of the south. The ruggedness of small town Texas life was also important, as a metaphor for Abbie's life. The impossible vastness of the blue Texas sky, the golden sun at once brutal and brilliant, sweeping fields of grass stretching for miles - these are in Abbie's soul, as is the loneliness, the nosiness, and the bonds of a small farming town.

Greg: Working on such a powerful piece, how do you approach doing take after take (especially those moments with mother & son outside)?

Carina: I will leave Cheryl and Dave to answer that since I was busy keeping the environment clear from potential snakes (safety is always my number one priority and Cheryl can attest to that).

Gabriel Rush & Cheryl Allison
Cheryl:  Yes nothing like preparing for an emotional scene and your producer is off camera jumping up and down to keep rattlesnakes away. But seriously, those emotional moments are obviously the hardest for actors, directors and the whole crew. As an actor, I try to balance being in the moment but also being consistent. You have to think about things like continuity throughout all takes or your editor is going to curse you! In the emotional climatic scene with Gabriel at the end of the film, we just tried to stay in the moment take after take. I also use music to help me. I always have an iPod on set with a playlist specific to my character. After shooting the scene numerous times, I found out they were going to shoot one more close up of me from a different angle. I was exhausted emotionally and didn't have anything left. I went to Dave and told him I didn't think I could do it. He hugged me, reassured me and I literally pulled from his energy and it made me start crying and we got a great close-up. 

Dave: Well, in fact, the scene you’re asking about was even more complicated than you may think. Not only was it a scene with powerful emotion, but it was also highly choreographed and physical (for actors, camera and sound) and to make matters worse, the scene was shot with a setting sun. So, it’s complicated, emotional and the clock is ticking! The key here is planning. The script must be tight and every detail of the blocking must be thought through. In that ‘emotional zone’, everyone, cast & crew, must bring their ‘A game’. Because there will only be a certain amount of time we can sustain the emotion. So, it may not sound very artistic or romantic, but there it is – plan ahead – plan ahead!  

Greg: David, what was it like to see your first film come to life?

David: Surreal. Mostly because film is not a genre I had seen myself writing in. But honestly, the most remarkable thing for me was seeing the commitment of others to something that I had written. This incredible team of producers, actors, and crew took my little story and gave so much of their heart and time and energy to it. Their professionalism and integrity left me humbled and honored. I was moved that they were moved by this story. I lit the spark. They fanned it into a flame.

Greg: That’s such an incredible feeling. Thrilled you got to experience it. To close out this wonderful conversation, what does indie film mean to you and what is the importance of it in the landscape of filmmaking? 

Carina: By cinematic story telling, we can create important social impact and raise awareness. As an indie filmmaker, I feel there always needs to be a message conveyed with our films, whether they are comedies or dramas and there is a certain responsibility that comes with that. Indie to me means being truthful.

Cheryl: For me, a great indie film will have a creative artistic vision, that is story-based, great characters and relies on the art of telling a story rather than special effects etc. Indie Film pushes boundaries and many times proves that you don't need a huge budget to capture the heart of an audience - you just need a good story and talented people to tell that story. In my opinion, thats exactly what we had on FFTT.

Dave: Indie filmmaking is tremendously important.  At it’s best, it’s pure, grassroots, passionate storytelling. And for me – There is one remarkable moment in filmmaking that is incredibly special, particularly in the ‘passion project’ world of indie filmmaking.  After so much work - You’re on set - the concept, story, script, casting, costume, location, lights, sound, camera, crew… everything has come down to this –  And, for that one remarkable moment - everyone leans forward – and there is silence – there we are - together - all standing on the ‘precipice of expectation’ – in anticipation of a single word – a word that will change all the weeks of work and sweat and passion - into story --- ‘ACTION!’

Beautifully said and thank you all for taking the time to share your thoughts on this journey - I encourage all of my readers to watch for FAR FROM THE TREE and go see a screening when it’s near you! 

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