A new independent feature film titled She Sings to the Stars, produced by Circeo Films of Monkton, VT, challenges audiences to ponder that question as our world is turned upside down.
After screening at the Vermont International Film Festival this fall to a sold-out crowd and winning both "Audience Award" and "Best Actor" award, She Sings to the Stars returns to Burlington and Middlebury for preview screenings in March.
A story that values soulfulness, foregrounds simplicity, quiet and stillness, She Sings to the Stars offers a glimpse into an unknown America: without water, a Native American grandmother continues to inhabit the desert. Her half-Mexican grandson rushes to 'make it big'. A faded white magician finds himself lost at her doorstep.
We spoke to helmer Jennifer Corcoran about the lovely movie she - and her brother - have blessed the screen with.
What was the appeal of telling this particular story?
My brother, Jonnie Corcoran and I created Circeo Films, our independent film production company in 2011 with the intention to produce a cycle of films about women -- innate feminine voices are too often missing in the story-telling world of film. And we seem to have forgotten the feminine nature of the Earth and our intimate relationship to it. I think it is a time when women all over the planet are beginning to come forward with their own voices -- ones which seems to have been quiet for a very long time.
I often wonder, not only 'what is it to be human?', but 'what it is to be a woman?' vis à vis 'what is it to be a woman in a man's world?' What is our collective feminine nature?
I had lived in the Southwest for years and came to know several elders from Third Mesa at Hopi in Arizona. I was able to draw on a life lived with that land, its skies, its animals -- and at my age, on years spent observing human behavior and beauty.
I was visited by the character of Mabel in a dream. She told me "It is time to sing the song. Listen. It will take you four years." For a year when I lived in the Southwest, one of the elders I have alluded to, appeared in my dreams, teaching me, with regularity. When I asked him about the dreams, he replied, "This happens."
One of the voices that echoes through She Sings to the Stars is 'what does it mean to listen'? Can we stop long enough to actually listen to each other, and perhaps more importantly, to listen to something deep within ourselves? The desert offers a silence, a mystery that engages the film-goer in a way that will, hopefully, inspire. I find that the silence in the desert thunderously begs you to listen.
How much did the script evolve before it went before the cameras?
The script was two years in the making, countless years brewing.
I constructed three life-sized, newspaper-stuffed, dressed figures of the characters and lived with them. Sometimes they offered clues, sometimes they didn't -- there were days and weeks of nothing but frustration, then 4AM wakings where I could actually see a light inside my brain and ideas would scramble to get out.
The story grew through 17 drafts.
It wasn't until I had to take a long-haul flight -- my producer brother and our line producer, waiting at the other end, expecting me to arrive with the completed script in hand -- that I was able to pull all the pieces together to create the final draft. I have never typed so fast, sure that if I stopped, the tap would dry up -- or worse, my laptop would run out of battery mid-flight.
Once we got into production, the script stood on its own with few changes.
Where did you find your actors?
We auditioned for the parts of Third and Mabel in New Mexico. I had lived with the character of Mabel for two years so was sure I would recognise her as she walked in. But though we had some very capable actresses audition, Mabel just wasn't appearing.
Our casting director went to a book launch featuring contemporary Native American artists, where she met two artists. They invited her to their tribal feast the following weekend and introduced her to their mother, Fannie Loretto. Fannie had not acted before, but as soon as our casting director saw her, she called me to come immediately, "I think I've found Mabel." And she had. Fannie is beautiful with long greying braids and an open face which conveys both a depth of feeling and whimsy. She was thrilled by the prospect of being in a film. When she auditioned on camera, we discovered she had a natural onscreen presence. And her timing with regard to dialogue, was instinctive.
I had trawled the internet 6 months prior to auditions in Albuquerque and had found a head shot of our actor for Third, Jesus Mayorga. He was quite young in the shot with an intense stare. Our casting director had pre-screened him prior to auditions and decided he didn't suit the part well enough to go through to the next round of auditions; but when I didn't find who I was imagining in the auditions, I showed her his head shot and asked that she call him back. In walked a much older actor than the head shot, with a softer demeanor but still with an uncomfortable intensity that I needed for his part. He was perfect, and he and Fannie bonded immediately as grandson and grandmother. We learned that he had a lot from his own life to draw upon for the character as he is, indeed, an immigrant from Mexico.
The casting of Lyle, the magician, was tricky as I was holding out for a box-office name talent.
Tom Waits came to mind again and again while I was writing the part of Lyle. He even waltzed into my dreams. I modelled the character of Lyle on a broken Waits-like magician, collecting old bits of wreckage and trivia, a junkyard philosopher, a peculiar but loveable, undefinable rogue. Though Tom Waits is a musician and a performer - definitely not an actor - we thought we'd see if he would play the part when it came to casting; but we couldn't get past his gatekeepers.
Waits' gatekeepers did us a big favor. Larry Cedar offers an amazing and profound performance, one for which I am deeply grateful. We called Larry at the eleventh hour; he was just closing a one-man show on stage with a Sunday matinee and flew out to New Mexico on the Monday morning. He was a gem to work with, so fluid, responsive and intelligent with an "actor's actor" ability to share scenes, which was particularly important as he was working with two unseasoned actors.
What are the advantages or disadvantages working with a sibling?
There have been no disadvantages working with my brother. As the youngest two in our family, we were often referred to as "the twins" as we were inseparable as children. We inhabited our own whimsical world in which telepathy was often a way we communicated. We still have a very intuitive rapport, an ease in communication, no ego clashes whatsoever. We recognize that we have different strengths and so lean toward those to best serve the project.
Perhaps most importantly, we share the same values.
Did you both always dream of making movies?
We grew up with a mother who wrote, directed, shot and edited 8mm and 16mm films. I am sure it influenced us. She imparted her passion for film, introduced us to Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Mister Magoo and, as we grew up in Italy, to the pantheon of iconic Italian filmmakers.
We both lived in New York city in our 20s. I had been trained as a director in the theatre and was working in documentary production and my brother had been schooled in business and marketing and was a serious cinephile. We joined forces to create our own production company and began dreaming up stories. But we were still in our 20s and life took us in different directions. But we never let go of the idea. In 2010, we agreed, it was time.
How hard is it to get an indie film off the ground these days?
The market has never been so saturated with indie films. If you consider how many film festivals there are, how many new ones are created each year, how many films are accepted versus how many turned down, the numbers are staggering.
It's tough raising funds for an indie film. But in retrospect, the gritty, gruelling nature of fund raising, shooting and editing the film is not actually the most challenging part of the odyssey. The Herculean task is to secure distribution or the film will sit on a shelf in perpetuity.
After our first preview screening, I thought we had arrived, at last. A good friend, who is a multi-award-winning documentary filmmaker, came up to me and said, "Great. Now you're half way there." I didn't know what she was talking about. Now I do.
Distribution strategy, platforms and channels seem to be changing on a daily basis. On the advice of a veteran insider, we have been counselled, "Keep your wits about you, they are shark-infested waters!"
I believe you're looking for extra funds. What's the impetus there?
We need to raise funds for distribution. Once a contract is signed with distributors, you are expected to turn over the film's "deliverables" which include all music rights, all audio-visual formats for each of the distribution platforms, legal and insurance costs, etc. -- basically everything that is needed to sign off on the film.
This is the only way the film will be released, so we have to raise the funds to be able to pay for the deliverables.
What kind of release are you hoping for the film?
In the best of all possible worlds, we will have a limited theatrical release in either Los Angeles or New York, which will coincide with our VOD release in North America. We are in the process of seeking out our international partners as well, so we don't yet know what sort of a release will be available with those markets.
We've had much feedback from audiences describing the need to experience the film on a big screen so we may end up organizing a multi-city limited theatrical which we work ourselves via the TUGG platform. It's all yet to be decided. The Seed & Spark crowd funding campaign comes first!
She Sings to the Stars is scheduled to screen on:
Saturday, March 12 at 7:00 PM
Film House at Main Street Landing Performing Arts Center
60 Lake Street, Burlington, VT 05401
Adult: $10.00/Student $8.00
A limited number of tickets available at door
Q&A with filmmakers immediately following screening
Tuesday, March 22 at 7:00 PM
Wednesday, March 23 at 7:00 PM
Thursday, March 24 at 7:00 PM – Pre-screening gathering: 6:00 PM
65 Main Street, Middlebury, VT 05753
Adult: $10.00/Senior $8.00
Tickets at box office
Q&A with filmmakers immediately following screening