Filmmaker Interview: Writer/Director Julia Angley
I think compassion is really the big thing, knowing that everyone around you is working hard and that you can trust them. I know that I try to be compassionate in my writing, finding out what makes a character relatable even if they initially appear less than perfect, so I guess that’s the same strategy I use on set.
Julia Angley is the writer/director behind the dramedy short film, Matriarch, which is having its premiere this week at the Woods Hole Film Festival on Cape Cod. I was fortunate enough to play the role of “Nancy” in the film, and I took this opportunity to “sit down” with Julia and ask her about her process. Matriarch is a UCLA graduate film that was shot on location in Massachusetts.
What inspired you to write and direct Matriarch?
I was inspired by the women in my family – I grew up in New England surrounded by women who are, at their best, strong and stubborn, but at their worst, can struggle to express their emotions to each other. Because I have a dark sense of humor, the best way to explore those characters was through dark comedy. I think that there’s a real beauty in watching someone finally allow themselves to feel things, so I conjured up these two women who were dealing with something terrible – a death in the family – while focusing on something a little more mundane.
What types of female characters do you like to write?
I love to write complex female characters – what I love about Mary and Nancy in Matriarch is that they are both dealing with a lot of layers. We don’t explore a ton of their specific backstory in the film, but we know that Mary was the “good daughter” who stayed home to care for her mother, while Nancy followed a different path. I loved watching these two characters interact, and see how their divergent life choices had lead them to very differing perspectives.
Why did you want to shoot in Massachusetts?
I knew this film had to be told in small town New England. I grew up in the town we shot in, at the church we filmed at, and I knew that was the world of the film. Having made films in Los Angeles, I knew I needed a very different backdrop and texture for the emotions of Matriarch to ring true. Everything’s colder in Massachusetts, and not just the snow. There’s a hardness and resilience to the characters that is reflected in the landscape.
What were your references or inspirations for the film’s look, style, and tone?
My references were so diverse! There was modern television, including GLOW and The Crown, there were films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Election – and a ton of films my cinematographer (Lambert Grand) referenced that I can’t quite remember anymore. We knew we wanted the cinematography to be very pretty, shot like a drama, but play with humor inside these static frames, so we watched a lot of comedy to prepare as well. I always talked about this film having a bit of a British comedy feeling to it, where it’s all about what’s proper and what’s not – since I think there can be a lot of that in New England!
What is your process for communicating your vision to the production team?
Pictures, clips, more pictures, music, watching things together, color palettes, paintings. Basically I’m pulling everything that has the right feeling and showing it to my team! I also really wanted to tightly control the color palette of the film – it’s all creams and purples, and very understated. I got my whole team on board with creating that look and feel, and it gives the whole film a very homey, pastoral sort of look.
What is your process for directing actors?
I love digging into backstory. When I’m writing a piece, I usually end up writing long bios for each character. I like to talk through them with my actors, exploring how the characters feel, their perspective on life. I don’t love to rehearse dialogue too much, because I don’t like it to become overly stiff. I think I also spend a lot of time watching for reactions, not just line delivery, because I know how important that’s going to be in the edit. With Matriarch in particular, so much of the film’s tone is based on how the sisters are just reacting to each other, which can be way more important than the lines themselves. So a lot of our time in rehearsal goes to figuring out what emotions are simmering under the surface.
Describe a favorite moment from the film.
My favorite scene was the morning where we shot the penultimate scene. It was just myself and the two actors in the room, and we were rehearsing a scene with only three lines of dialogue, but it’s a key moment where the characters are able to work towards forgiveness. It was our last day of shooting and we didn’t have a crazy schedule that day, so we were able to spend a lot of time just listening to music and talking about the emotions both characters were experiencing in that moment. It was so different from what a film set can sometimes feel like, with no hectic energy, and I think it helped allow the actors to really bring out their best performances in the scene. The end result is a small, delicate moment of connection that I’m really proud of.
Did you meet with any challenges during post-production?
The biggest challenge was the score! I had the cut locked for almost a year and was auditioning different composers, trying out temp music, and experimenting before I hired Michael, who ultimately composed for the piece. It was a breakthrough once we figured out the score, because it really sets the tone for the entire film.
The score is beautiful. How did you work with the composer?
Michael Bryan Stein, the composer for the film, is a genius. I’ve worked with him on three films so far, and he’s just amazing. I described to him the dark tone of the comedy, and he nailed it. He selected the instrumentation, the piano and strings, and made it feel both grand and intimate – which is perfect for dramatizing passive aggression. He understood the balance of leaning into the heightened emotions, satirizing the drama, while also letting those same feelings bring us into something real at the end.
How did your vision for the film, or the film itself, evolve over the course of the filmmaking process?
The great thing was that it came together like a puzzle. In finding collaborators, from the production crew to the cast all the way through post production, every time I found the right collaborator it just felt like it “fit.” And then that person was able to bring something to the film that I hadn’t expected! I love that collaborative nature of filmmaking, because you literally cannot do this by yourself. So I loved just seeing it evolve through the eyes of my cast & crew!
Why are you excited to premiere this film at Woods Hole Film Festival?
I knew I wanted to premiere this film in New England – it just belongs there. I was thrilled when I got the chance to bring it to Woods Hole, because it’s just exactly where it should be! And the virtual format this year has been a bit of a blessing in disguise – I’ve got friends from all over who can all tune in to watch! What a great way to share it with the world.