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37th BFI Flare 2023

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American Parent

The everyday chaos of raising a toddler is intensified for a lesbian couple, as they manoeuvre through the pandemic and professional uncertainty.


Hi Emily, thanks you for talking with The New Current, how has your 2023 been treating you so far?


2023 has been a whirlwind. It’s exciting to finish a film and prepare it for release, yet it also feels like the last leg of a marathon. I went to the European Film Market in Berlin this February and I’m excited to come to London for our world premiere. I’m preparing to direct a film this summer called “The Game Camera” in my home state of Kansas, and I’m in development on an absurdist comedy “The Roadtrip to the Totality Zone” that I plan to shoot spring 2024. My mantra: you either sleep or make movies.


American Parent will have its World Premiere in the HEARTS section at the 37th BFI Flare, what does it mean to you and your team to be able to be part of such an incredible line up of films?


It is such a huge honour to have our world premiere at this festival. It looks like an incredible line up and I can’t wait to watch the other films. I’ll be traveling to the premiere with our producer and cinematographer and we are all very excited.


Ahead of any festival screening do nerves ever set in or are you just able to enjoy the ride?


I love the energy of festivals. It’s a thrill for me. If you watch the film through the credits, you’ll see that the film was an improvisation. That is my style. I improvise with actors as well as with screenings and Q&As. I don’t plan, I just listen and react. It’s important to see how a crowd will interact with it. Before we finished the final cut, I shared a nearly finished version with students at the university where I teach—and that made me nervous. This film is certainly inspired by my experience of  becoming a mother during COVID, so there are quite a few things relating to the female body and motherhood that felt vulnerable to share. Yet they responded with such compassion and a connection to what their mothers must have gone through.


How essential is it for LGBTQ+ filmmakers to continue to push the boundaries of the stories and themes they want to explore in their films?


I think each filmmaker needs to push the boundaries they want to explore in storytelling. And those boundaries might evolve throughout their life. I think it’s always important to remember two filmmakers could make a movie on the same topic or theme, but each one would tell it through their own lens. That is a filmmaker’s superpower in my opinion. No one else can make the movie like you could. Every LGBTQ+ filmmaker has a unique lens and that is what I want to see explored.


Can you tell me a little bit about how American Parent came about, when co-writing a screenplay like this how much do you draw from you own life and experiences?


I wanted to direct a film. I was stuck in my apartment—partially due to COVID, but partially because I had a 1 year old baby. It can be an exceptionally isolating period for mothers, and especially for breastfeeding moms who want to be creating. Your child is attached to you always! I thought the only way that I could make a film is if my daughter acted in it, because I couldn’t be away from her. (As it went, I ended up weaning her before production because she’d bite me, which is actually dialogue that made it into the film.


I also think like a producer and I wanted to expedite development by using what we had access to: a baby, the two lead actors who I worked with before, my apartment, baby toys, a dying PT Cruiser, and a “new” shitty Subaru. I actually shot the destruction of the PT Cruiser scene in April, as a proof of concept scene to help crowdfund. My car was worth $250 and the repairs cost more than its value. I figured it added production value to the film more than it’s worth. While Doreen and I were writing the story, I also spent time improvising scenarios with the leads. Those rehearsals helped shape the dynamics between the two characters. Kristen and Rebecca knew their characters so well that they could improvise entire conversations. Much of their storyline was an exploration.


Most of the autobiographical moments from my life are related to motherhood and the struggle to find one’s identity as responsibilities weigh you down. Doreen Bartoni wanted to highlight the encounters that are unique to same-sex marriages, many of which she’s experienced firsthand.

"I asked if hed repeat what he just said for the camera, and luckily our line producer always had extra talent release forms on hand."

What was the process like co-writing American Parent with Doreen Bartoni and how important is this type of creative collaboration on a film like this?


Doreen and I had previously collaborated on a feature script called Fear Not, which is about a Mennonite school teacher forced to carry a gun in her classroom after her husband helped pass the law mandating it. It struggled to find funding, so I made a proof-of-concept short instead. Fear Not was my first exploration of improvisation and cinema vérité techniques—placing actors on real-life backdrops like a demolition derby and small town parade. Our leads Kristen Bush and Rebecca Ridenour acted in that as well. We all knew we liked working together, so we had an easy time working in this improvised style again for American Parent. It is actually a quite crazy way to make a film, and yet they trusted me.


Doreen and I would meet and have conversations about the story, which brought it to life in an oral way. We wrote out the story in a 15-page “Beat Sheet”— showing the dramatic beats that the actors needed to hit in a scene and sometimes sketching out dialogue if we felt it was important. There are some scenes we “stole” during production, like the scene where the guy is reading a book and hits on Bette. Our crew was walking by, and the man actually had that conversation with our actress Rebecca. It felt genuine and I thought we might be able to use it for our story. I asked if he’d repeat what he just said for the camera, and luckily our line producer always had extra talent release forms on hand. Some of these improvised moments were things that we didn’t exactly know how we’d use until we got to post-production. We really owe this film to our editor Jing Wang.


Looking back at the now completed feature is there anything you would have wanted to change or shoot differently?


I am extremely proud we were able to accomplish what we did on a micro budget in this improvised style. Sure, it’d be nice to have a bigger crew and a larger art budget. But with more money, there comes more restrictions to achieve a product. I’m not sure I could’ve had the same freedom to direct in this style if we had investors or a studio behind it. For my upcoming film “The Roadtrip to the Totality Zone”, I hope someone will trust me with a bigger budget and still allow room for improvisation.


What has been the most valuable lesson you have taken away from making American Parent?


Our crew was made up of primarily female and LGBTQ filmmakers, which was the most harmonious set I’ve ever been on. The crew was constantly commenting about the collaborative energy on set. I trusted our team, and they trusted me. Having a set with that type of collaborative respect allows for creativity.


Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?

In undergrad I changed my major 7 times. I loved acting, creative writing, Spanish, cross-cultural studies, dance, graphic design, painting & photography. Eventually I realised all of these could be combined in filmmaking, and I haven’t turned back since. I was also lucky to come from a family where my great-grandfather had a Super 8 camera and took film footage of my grandfather as a child. We had a camcorder in our family when I grew up, and I made lots of silly movies with friends.


How much does your background in visual arts help inform your approach to filmmaking?


My documentary photography background is certainly influential to my style. I am very inspired by Henri Cartier-Bresson’s street photography and his portraits that show so much about a person by their environment. He puts so much emphasis on trusting yourself in the moment and knowing when to take the picture, and not being wasteful with how much you take. That has given me a lot of confidence to trust that I’ll find the right story in the moment.


I am a director who has a lot of opinions about design and costume. My college design professor assigned pretty insane exercises where we drew straight lines on blank paper for months, until our eye naturally began to measure distances and spatial relations without the use of a ruler. This practice has had significant influence on my work. On a more neurotic note, I always want to have a say in the typography used in connection with my films.


What was the first LGBTQ+ film you saw that really left an impact? Mine was Beautiful Thing, still is, a beautiful British film!


Definitely Mulholland Drive by David Lynch.


As well as being a filmmaker you are also an educator and I was wondering if there was any advice or tips you would offer any emerging filmmaker?


Making films is not easy. You will work really hard to shoot the movie, and then you’ll be faced with finding an audience in an over-saturated market. I agree with Werner Herzog that being a filmmaker is like being a soldier. You will have to fight to tell your stories. At first I did not want to consider the market, but making movies is only worth it if it reaches people. I think all directors should learn a bit of producing.


And finally, what message do you hope your audiences will take away from American Parent?


I hope that the characters’ struggle for balance in their relationship, career dreams, and family responsibilities will resonate with parents, and specifically mothers. It can be an isolating time and there is so much guilt put on women to be perfect mothers. I hope this film shows a bit of the gritty side, while offering a sense of hope and equilibrium.

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