SUNDANCE Film Festival | 2019
& Marie Schlingmann
Nominee NEXT Innovator Award
26th January 15:00 - Library Center Theatre Park City
The sensational evangelist Sister Aimee Semple McPherson has pulled off her latest marvel: vanishing in plain sight of a devout disciple! Except that this disappearance was a cleverly orchestrated ploy to run away with her lover, a married writer named Kenny.
Hi Samantha & Marie thanks for talking to TNC, you all set for the festival?
Thank you! We just finished the film and got a couple of pairs of snow boots, so - in theory - we are ready.
Are there any nerves ahead of your Sundance screening?
So many! This film came together really fast, so it feels like we’ve been caught in a whirlwind that hasn’t let up, and now it is suddenly becoming very real that we are about to share our work with audiences, industry, some of our favourite filmmakers, and our crew. All of this is to say we might have a cocktail before the premiere.
How does it feel to be having your World Premiere of Sister Aimee at the festival?
It sounds completely cheesy, but it does feel like we hit the lottery. So many great films don’t get this opportunity. It is both nerve-wracking and validating to be included in a group of such talented filmmakers. Above all, though, we are incredibly proud that our crew and our cast get to present their work in this setting. Sister Aimee was a truly collaborative effort and we couldn’t have wished for a better festival to bring them together to watch it for the first time.
Does Sister Aimee being your debut feature add any extra pressure for you both?
Marie: Sam has had experience with feature documentaries on the festival circuit, but I can’t imagine the pressure of sharing something you have worked on for so long and love so much to become any less anxiety-inducing…
Sam: Definitely not! I always remember that at this point, we have kind of done our part – we did the best we could, we love the product, and now it’s up to the world to take it on and hopefully see value in what we did.
Tell me a little bit about Sister Aimee, how did the film come about?
A few years ago we made a short film called THE MINK CATCHER with Anna Margaret Hollyman and loved working with her. A little later, Anna Margaret told us to look up Sister Aimee, that she was the kind of complex female character we would love to write about. And she was right. We spent a year or so working on other projects but would go back to her again and again. We knew we didn’t want to make any kind of biopic, so we were looking for something different in her biography and life. That’s where the idea came from to take her disappearance and invent a story of what could have happened to her. We start the movie by saying “5 ½ percent is truth” and we aren’t lying! We wanted to say something truthful about
her character, about female ambition and the power of storytelling, but not be bound by facts
or court transcripts.
What was the biggest challenge you faced bringing this Sister Aimee to life?
Creatively speaking, we wanted to build an experience fitting for a larger-than-life, complex character, which meant tonal shifts, genre mash-ups, big worlds that clash against each other. Old Hollywood meeting a modern, darker, on-location approach. All that was incredibly ambitious to pull off on a lower budget with way fewer shooting days than we would have liked. But thankfully we had producers who were as passionate and crazy as we were, and collaborators on the crew and in the cast, who were up for anything and put an insane amount of work into making that vision come to life.
"Listen to, respect, and internalize the criticism and feedback you receive..."
Samantha, how has your background as an actor helped you move into directing?
Sam: My behind-the-scenes filmmaking career actually started in documentaries. But yes, I love acting and Marie and I both love working with actors, so the move to fiction felt natural and organic. It certainly helps me understand one basic truth: No matter what pressure a director can feel on a set, it’s nothing compared to what is put on an actor’s shoulders between the words “action” and “cut”. That puts things into perspective.
Marie: One of the perks of our partnership for me has always been that Sam brings an actor’s sensibility. I came more from a visual, photography background, and loved internalizing Sam’s approach (and vice versa). Apart from the on-set work with actors, we incorporate an actor’s approach to everything we write. If something looks good on the page, but when we ‘act it out’ we can’t go from Beat A to Beat B, we know something is wrong.
Has this given you a better connection with your actors?
Sam: I hope my years of working with good and bad directors have made me someone whom actors feel free to communicate with and trust. Marie and I both understand that everyone approaches the work from different places and with different methods.
Marie: We respect that and try to create a safe and honest space on set. Our rule is that the acting comes first. If the shot is perfect, but what is happening within the frame isn’t, the movie dies.
Have you always been interested in filmmaking?
Yes. We both took different kinds of detours in our lives, but the passion for cinema and storytelling, in general, was always there. And now, looking back, we can imbue our filmmaking work with everything else we have done, which carves out our specific perspective.
As a filmmaker how important is the collaborative process for you?
It’s everything. Being a directing and writing team, collaboration is baked into our DNA. You can’t make a film without collaboration, at least not the kind of film we want to make. “A Film By…” rarely tells the whole story. Articulating a vision that your collaborators can find their special access to and empowering everybody to do their best work is what makes directing special.
On Sister Aimee in particular, we met with our DP, Carlos Valdes-Lora, before we even wrote the first draft. We included Carlos and our production designer, Jonathan Rudak, on each pass of the script to make sure what we were writing was something we could achieve (or at least would give them enough time to figure out how to achieve it). Our producer, Bettina Barrow, gave notes on every draft and did everything in her power to make sure we had the right cast. We talked to our casting directors long before we started that process. Our first AD, Hugo Kenzo, knows our work and was instrumental in making sure we made
our days and kept the vision intact. And we wrote this with Anna Margaret in mind, which makes a huge difference in terms of how the character is developed.
How has your approach to your films changed since your debut short film?
There are great short filmmakers who elevate the form beyond its limitations. And we love all of our shorts for different reasons, but the biggest evolution from short to feature storytelling for us was the complexity of characters. Building characters that can carry a featured storyline is a very different process and one that feels more satisfying to us.
Do you have any advice or tips for a fellow filmmaker?
Find your people. No matter how perfect your script or directorial vision is, it can only prosper with the right people on your team.
What are you currently working on?
We are in development on another feature with our Sister Aimee producer. It’s on a little bigger scale but has some overlap with the themes we’ve started to explore on Aimee. Identity, female ambition… but this time we are diving into politics: the Presidential election of 1980.
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from this film?
We’re hesitant to prescribe how to view the film. Part of the excitement of putting your film out there is to hear takes on it that you hadn’t thought of. We think that as long as audiences feel compelled to talk about the film afterwards, to keep the characters or part of the story or a visual element in their minds when they continue to go about their business or watch ten other films at Sundance, we’ll have done our job.