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THE LAST COWBOY

Sam ShepardGrowing up within close proximity to Chicago, the Steppenwolf production of True West was an important play for me and probably my introduction to the world of Sam Shepard. I recorded the PBS airing (on a VCR) and wore out the tape, virtually memorizing Gary Sinise and John Malkovich’s definitive performances. None of my community theater experience had exposed me to anything so real, so raw, or so close to home. It was the kind of acting I wanted to see and wished that I could do. In college, I recall many hours sitting on the floor of the library, pouring over Curse of the Starving ClassA Lie of the Mind and Buried Child. If I wanted to lose myself, that was how I did it. Sam wrote about things that shocked me…not because they were unfamiliar but because of how deeply and intimately I understood the secrets he brought into the light.

Sam also tapped into a restlessness that seemed to overtake me on a regular basis, especially when I was younger. There were many nights when I had to talk myself out of walking out of my shared house, getting in the beater car that probably wouldn’t have made it to the state line, and just driving west without stopping or telling anyone where I was going. I craved the wild deserts and gritty, open spaces that he constructed…knowing, somehow, that space had an intangible quality that could fill me up inside.

My first directing effort was a production of Waiting for Godot that, in my mind, was an homage to Sam’s world of weary cowboys and empty landscapes. I still feel that it’s a perfect marriage of playwrights. One of my only rewarding acting experiences in college was a production of Fourteen Hundred Thousand, directed by a close friend. It felt like a breakthrough in many respects: I was afforded a rare opportunity to perform, I finally got to experience some growth as an actor, and the material was something that resonated with me.

2017-08-02 18.58.542017-08-02 19.00.102017-08-02 19.02.51The summer I battled those incessant urges to flee west, I directed my own version of True West in a found church space. To this day, I don’t know how I did everything I was doing at time: working full-time as a live-in nanny for two pre-schoolers, working open-to-close on Saturdays and Sundays at a physically exhausting car wash, taking a semester of French and a semester of Algebra (with tutoring on the side) and directing that demanding play. I remember combing through antique shops for beautiful electric typewriters that got destroyed (along with my heart) with a golf club during every performance. And there’s a story that lives in infamy among my circle of friends: The guys in the show were goofing around with said golf club one night after I’d left rehearsal. It slipped out of someone’s hand, flew through the air, and smashed a hole in one of the upper-story stained glass windows. The guys spent frantic midnight hours running to the store, cutting up milk jugs (I believe), painting the plastic with watercolors and trying to patch up and hide their mistake. I didn’t learn about the mishap until years later, and the church never allowed another theater group to use their space after they must have discovered the secret. But it seems so darkly funny and appropriate that it happened in Sam’s creative territory.

2017-08-02 18.56.28Years later, I was in L.A., at the start of my attempt to return to acting. I was terrified to try–yet unable to stay away from–the thing I loved most in the world. I didn’t know if I could do it; I had never known if I could. I found a class with a teacher who was the first person in my professional life to tell me that it was possible. And one of my earliest breakthroughs as an actor came in a scene from Fool for Love. There was a moment when active listening took over, when I fell into the unknown, and when I allowed that powerful beast of a play to have it’s way with me. I had never before felt that kind of energy take me over, and it was a light-bulb moment that laid a foundation I was able to build upon in the years to come. I don’t know if anyone but Sam could have facilitated such a creative surrender during that time of my life.

And now, present day, I’m in development on my own feature film. The very first conversations I had with my screenwriter contained multiple references to Sam. I knew I could trust this writer’s taste because she loved him, too, and understood the tone of the story I wanted to tell, which remains profoundly under Sam’s influence.

If I’d known Sam Shepard personally, I’m sure I would have known an imperfect and complicated man. He wrote about the kind of world so many of us have struggled to grow up in…a world of secrets, shame, aimless wandering, confusion and desire. He defined the human condition on his own unique yet universal terms. I know that so many of us must feel less alone, less freakish, because of his singular and achingly beautiful art. I will miss knowing that he’s out there in that world with us.

 

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WHAT I LEARNED FROM A YEAR OF FILMS BY WOMEN

 

Ocean Waif

In October of 2015, Women in Film Los Angeles launched a challenge that asked people to watch one film a week by a woman for a year and to share and discuss those films on social media. To date they’ve reached over 11,000 pledges and are still going strong.

What I’ve learned from my year of women-directed films is much the same as what I’m hearing from everyone else–namely, that you really have to dig if you want to consistently discover female filmmakers. Here are my observations from the year:

  • I wanted to watch current films, not just the standards that everyone already knows. It was much easier to find independent films with female directors; very difficult to find mainstream studio films. The Wrap recently released this stat:

    …of the 149 movies currently slated for a wide release from the six legacy studios over the next three years, only 12 have female directors. That means a whopping 92 percent of the major motion pictures due in theaters through the end of 2019 will be helmed by men.

  • Sometimes I couldn’t find a narrative feature at all and that’s when I started filling out my year with shorts and documentaries–both of which are much more prolific in terms of female directors. Once again, it all comes back to money and opportunity. What can you make when you have neither? I scoured other people’s lists to see what they were watching and the same films came up over and over again (as they will on my list too). There were limited choices; sometimes nothing appealed to me and I had to go outside the box to find something I wanted to watch.
  • This process of deliberately watching films from female perspective is what finally drove home to me how much of my life–and the lives of all women–have been shaped by the male gaze and point-of-view. Our stories are not being told and so, because we don’t see ourselves on screen or the potential for what we can be on screen, we often don’t see another choice but to accept and perpetuate the myths and stereotypes of what a woman is or what she can and should be. Of course there are many exceptions (thank you, new Star Wars franchise) and media is not the only thing that shapes a life but I’d never before realized just how critical a role it actually did play for me. What could the world look like for future generations of women if we were truly represented?
  • One of my reasons for taking the pledge was to find a director for my own feature project. I fell in love with a lot of new filmmakers but one issue remains: most of them don’t have the breadth of experience that male filmmakers have and may require a leap of faith. Years and years go by between most women’s first and second features…sometimes more years than you can believe and it’s actually tragic how long it takes for a woman to find the funding or opportunity to make one film, let alone several.
  • A highlight: Ashley Judd seeing my blog about her film Come Early Morning (one of my all-time favorites) and writing a lovely comment to me on Facebook.
  • I watched 35 Narrative Features, 8 Narrative Shorts, 6 Documentary Features and 3 Documentary Shorts.
  • My Top Five new films that I discovered and highly recommend are: Stray Dog (Documentary Feature) by Debra Granik, Into the Forest (Narrative Feature) by Patricia Rozema, Hostile Border (Narrative Feature) by Kaitlin McLaughlin & Michael Dwyer, Cigarette Candy (Narrative Short) by Laura Wolkstein and Emotional Fusebox (Narrative Short) by Rachel Tunnard.
  • I remain committed to working with women directors and am very inspired and excited by the prospect. I also remain committed to seeking out films by women on a regular basis and especially to supporting them at the box office and on social media–two places where it counts.
  • Join the movement and take your own #52FilmsByWomen pledge HERE.

The Films

LOVE & BASKETBALL (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Gina Prince-Blythewood

OBSELIDIA (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Diane Bell

BLEEDING HEART (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Diane Bell

GAS FOOD LODGING (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Allison Anders

STORIES WE TELL (Documentary Feature) / Directed by Sarah Polley

COME EARLY MORNING (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Joey Lauren Adams

SELMA (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Ana DuVernay

STRAY DOG (Documentary Feature) / Directed by Debra Granik

ANOTHER KIND OF GIRL (Documentary Short) / Directed by Khaldia Jibawi

JANIS: LITTLE GIRL BLUE (Documentary Feature) / Directed by Amy J. Berg

I DON’T CARE (Narrative Short) / Directed by Carolina Giammetta

LIFE IN COLOR (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Katharine Emmer

ADVANTAGEOUS (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Jennifer Phang

THE INTERN (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Nancy Meyers

HOSTILE BORDER (Narrative Feature) / Co-Directed by Kaitlin McLaughlin & Michael Dwyer

TOUCH (Narrative Short) / Directed by Jen McGowan

SPEED DATING (Narrative Short) / Directed by Meghann Artes

BELLE (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Amma Asante

GIRLHOOD (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Celine Sciamma

ENOUGH SAID (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Nicole Holofcener

HOTEL 22 (Documentary Short) / Directed by Elizabeth Lo

MIELE (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Valeria Golino

SEQUIN RAZE (Narrative Short) / Directed by Sarah Gertrude Shapiro

EMOTIONAL FUSEBOX (Narrative Short) / Directed by Rachel Tunnard

CIGARETTE CANDY (Narrative Short) / Directed by Lauren Wolkstein

WAITRESS (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Adrienne Shelly

THE PIG CHILD (Narrative Short) / Directed by Lucy Campbell

WATER (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Deepa Mehta

TALLULAH (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Sian Heder

WOMEN HE’S UNDRESSED (Documentary Feature) / Directed by Gillian Armstrong

FANGIRL (Documentary Short) / Directed by Liza Mandelup

ALWAYS WORTHY (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Marianna Palka

STRANGERLAND (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Kim Farrant

BONESHAKER (Narrative Short) / Directed by Frances Bodomo

PINE RIDGE (Documentary Feature) / Directed by Anna Eborn

BRIDGET JONES’S BABY (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Sharon Maguire

IMAGINE I’M BEAUTIFUL (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Meredith Edwards

BIG STONE GAP (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Adriana Trigiani

CERTAIN WOMEN (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Kelly Reichardt

SUFFRAGETTE (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Sarah Gavron

OPERATOR (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Logan Kibens

RED ROVER (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Brooke Goldfinch

INTO THE FOREST (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Patricia Rozema

BRIGHT STAR (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Jane Campion

ALWAYS SHINE (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Sophia Takal

IT HAD TO BE YOU (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Sasha Gordon

AMERICAN HONEY (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Andrea Arnold

THE DRESSMAKER (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse

LEARNING TO DRIVE (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Isabel Coixet

THE WINDING STREAM (Documentary Feature) / Directed by Beth Harrington

THE INTERVENTION (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Clea Duvall

DESERTED (Narrative Feature) / Directed by Ashley Avis

#52FilmsByWomen: DESERTED

deserted

52/52 DESERTED

One of the first films I viewed for this #52FilmsByWomen pledge was set in Death Valley and now I close out this year with another foray into that landscape. DESERTED is not an easy film because most of its characters are not particularly likable, including the protagonist. However, I found it a worthy watch because the characters are real, the dialogue and performances are so natural and the direction and photography of the film is stunning.

The story follows a group of people who I would never want to hang out with in life but I certainly know them and have crossed paths with these people many times. It begs the question, does a film need to have a relatable and likable cast of characters in order to succeed? Maybe. But maybe it’s worth taking a trip with people we wouldn’t normally respond to because the world is made up of all kinds and every individual experience is valid.

As a sucker for wilderness survival stories, I was engaged the entire time. Ashley Avis is an actor/model turned writer/director and I’ve known about her work for years. She has the eye of an artist and her experience as a commercial director for brands like Mercedes really comes to fruition in a place like Death Valley. Her shot composition and camera movement, married with some drop-dead gorgeous cinematography, is something special. She also captured an actual dust storm that takes this indie film to another level and she is able to deliver a striking film that looks far more expensive than it probably was. Avis clearly has a signature voice and a full slate of projects in development. I’m very eager to see what she could do with more emotionally accessible characters and look forward to what she does next.

DESERTED is available to stream on VOD.

 

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