A famous director once said of his decision to leave acting and take on this new occupation, (paraphrasing), “Acting is about self-revelation, and I just couldn’t handle being out there like that anymore.” It is difficult for anyone to tell a story — in any medium — that is very personal, and is often kept silent in society. That very silence frequently causes acts that inform these “untold stories” to remain untold, and so continues a feedback loop of silence.
The crime is sexual assault. The victims are double, and sometimes triple victimized when they speak out, and are knocked down in the court of public opinion for having done so. I don’t need to elaborate on the many ways that knocking down gets expressed. However, many people are breaking that barrier down now; an act that only a couple of decades earlier would have been unthinkable.
Amy Russo goes into some of the details in the description of her upcoming short film project, Racing The Sunrise, now beginning a Kickstarter campaign. (You can learn more about the film at the address: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/748259570/racing-the-sunrise) It is an ugly scenario, but not talking about it only reinforces the act’s power. In this conversation with Popdose.com, it is clear that Russo has no intention of giving sexual assault any further refuge.
Could you elaborate on the title, “Racing The Sunrise“?
Everything about this film is meant to be a reflection of a symptom, aftershock, or result of sexual violence, including the title. It was drawn from my own experience, specifically the culmination of that night’s events: rushing to the hospital at 1AM, being poked and prodded and questioned until dawn, and stumbling out of the ER at sunrise the next morning. I realized as I stepped into the parking lot toward the police car that was going to take me home, clutching a paper bag of my clothes marked “EVIDENCE,” that my entire world had changed overnight, but nothing about the rest of the world was different. What had just happened to me felt like a race to get back to normal before the sun came up, and when I finally got there, not only did I lose the race, but I had to adjust to an entirely new “normal.”
After reading the synopsis and origin of the story for the film, I have to say, the subject matter is quite difficult. What brought you to the point where you said, “I’m going to make this”?
I started out writing the script as an emotional catharsis, to try to help me cope and understand. It didn’t feel like enough just to have it on paper. I hadn’t found many other coping mechanisms. Kind of on a whim I decided to use it for the application to be considered for Emerson’s BFA program, because it was a story that I knew I would follow through with. I wasn’t going to be silent about it, and I didn’t want to let shame overwhelm my life. The more I thought about the script, the more it wasn’t just “I’m going to make this,” but it turned into “I have to make this.”
As a filmmaker, you’re balancing two narrative hats here. One is to tell a story that will inspire people to speak the truth in a culture where the individual might be more inclined to stay silent. It’s an inspirational message that’s coming from something very ugly. At the same time, you’re presenting a drama. How do you balance the two? An “entertainment” that does justice to the subject matter, but at the same time adheres to the necessities of telling a story?
I think the most I can do is just be honest about it. I can provide an open, accepting platform for people to finally start talking about the ugliness of sexual violence, and they can do what they want with it. I’m not afraid of making a film that’s “not pretty.” I anticipate people being upset by the film, whether they’re uncomfortable with the material or offended by it or scared by it, but that’s why we need to see it. The only way to get rid of sexual violence is to become aware of it and take action against it, and to advocate for positive change. My job is to just lay the cards on the table, to tell the story as it really happens, and hopefully the narrative will speak for itself.
There has seldom been a better time to be a filmmaker than right now. From the equipment to the many distribution avenues, a filmmaker can hit the festival circuit or self-release, and can reach a large audience. What is the game plan for making the film and, after that, getting it seen?
Making the film itself is going to be a lot of dedicated, talented people willing to work for free. Most (if not all) of my crew are Emerson students/alumni, so they’re brilliant when it comes to getting a production done and done well. We’re shooting in mid-July. After we’ve completed the final cut of the film, Emerson provides a screening of all the current BFA thesis films at the end of the academic year, so we will be screened there. I’m planning to distribute the film to festivals, however wide a range I can reach. We’ll see what happens.
The Kickstarter campaign for raising production costs has begun. I imagine you have been in contact with other filmmakers who have had campaigns. What does crowdfunding bring to the prospects of independent filmmaking?
Crowdfunding is a godsend to the independent filmmaker. Not only does it get the message out about quality, artistic films that are being made in our own backyards, but it gives non-filmmakers a chance to be participants in something “magical.” It’s a great tool to use to promote yourself as a filmmaker and your causes. It really humbles you to watch the number go up, and to see how many people are willing to be so generous with their hard-earned money so you can do what is, essentially, adult play-pretend. It’s wild.
I suppose this is the corny, obligatory moviemaking question, but who are your influences? What drew you into this?
It’s not corny, it’s just hard to answer! To be completely honest, I’ve taken influence from all over the place – actors, musicians, filmmakers, writers. The reason I even went into film is because I didn’t want to be married to just one thing for the rest of my life. I wanted to do something that incorporated storytelling, visuals, acting, writing, music, etc. Film just seemed to fit the bill. I’d say my strongest film influences are Lori Petty, Debra Granik, and David O. Russell (all of whom directed Jennifer Lawrence films, another one of my strong influences). I’m constantly falling in love with how raw and gritty their films are. It’s all about real people, and I love that.
Granik directed Winter’s Bone, which was Jennifer Lawrence’s breakout film, and about as far from the glamorous star people recognize right now from the Hunger Games films. When you are writing something as intrinsically personal and difficult as your project, how are you thinking through who will play these roles or how they will play them? As the campaign states, this is not strictly a biographical piece but is definitely informed by real events. Do you have a visualization of actor types happening while writing, or is it just the need to get the screenplay up and running, and then see who walks through the door?
I try my best not to picture certain people as I write, because then I limit myself to their look or their capabilities or their style. Obviously it’s easier said than done. Part of me tries not to picture any “type” at all, because casting should be done based on talent and chemistry between the actor and the director. Unless the script states that the character has to look a certain way for a certain reason (an eating disorder, illness, etc), I generally keep the slate clean to give the actors and the director tons of room to work in their own creativity. All that being said, sometimes you just hear a line in your head in someone’s voice and you can’t get rid of it. Then it’s just mind over matter, and you keep writing.
What has been the biggest obstacle you’ve encountered? With the film in its formative stage, what has been the aspect that has (so far) posed the most problems?
Myself. I tend to doubt myself, which usually results in an unending cycle of going back to step one and making sure I’ve done everything I can to make things go smoothly. I don’t have a problem taking a leadership role, but there have always been times when I have to stop and ask myself, “Is this a moment when I have to assert my authority, or do I just ride this out?” I try to know when to have a heavy hand, and when to let nature take its course. Films become their own organisms after all the planning you do to prepare for it. And you’re never quite ready when it comes. So you have to lace up your boots and say to yourself, “I have to give it my all, no matter what.”
Conversely, have there been any stages so far that you thought were going to be difficult, yet have worked out well?
My team is spectacular, and that was something I was really worried about. Again, going back to doubting myself, I was concerned I was going to misjudge people and accidentally pick a team that wouldn’t want the project to succeed as much as I did. To an extent, that’s true; no one will care as much about the film as me, but no one should – that’s my job. But my team has turned out to be absolutely incredible. They’re everything I need to feel calm and organized, and they also know how to have a lot of fun! Additionally, finding a location was our first major issue we encountered, but we just recently found a house that will work perfectly, so I can rest easy for now!
Film, in the overall scheme of things, is in a weird place right now. At least from the West Coast viewpoint, getting a movie “greenlit” demands that the subject matter is familiar enough that marketing isn’t as crucial. How might that affect independent filmmakers who aren’t working within those systems? Does it affect them at all?
It really depends on if those filmmakers want to play that game. I find Hollywood wildly unseductive, so finding a “niche” market to make films for isn’t something I work toward, per se. There’s a reason they call it The Business, because that’s what it is. It’s one giant marketplace, and if you aren’t selling what people are buying, you won’t, as they say, “make it.” That’s why lucky breaks are so lucky. I’m a big believer in staying true to yourself and making the films you want to make and telling the stories you feel need to be told. People notice good, honest work when they see it. There’s money to be had and stories to be told, it will all work itself out in the end. As filmmakers, we can’t forget that. We can’t forget that our job is to tell the story.
Do you feel that audience barriers of the past have changed and people are more receptive to challenging material? In the world of television alone, what people will accept is far more mature — sometimes for better, but often more just for shock value (IMO) — than what was standard fare in previous decades.
Absolutely. It’s great that we are showcasing more real world issues in mainstream media and that people are responsive to them. The trouble with that is then people forget what’s acceptable and what’s just spectacle. There appears to be a rape scene epidemic in the TV and film industry recently. A good method to avoid writing/filming an unnecessary or frivolous sex/rape scene is asking yourself, “Can my character(s) achieve the same emotional and developmental result if I write this scene in a different scenario?” If the answer is yes, write the scene in that different scenario. It is important not to glamorize rape or violence, and not to commodify sexuality or use it as a shock factor. We are frightening those who have already been affected by violence and we are perpetuating a culture of silence. We need to change the way we write human beings and treat them with the respect they deserve.
There are people who are probably going to be hit hard by this film once it gets completed. If there is a single takeaway you hope viewers will get from Racing The Sunrise, what do you want that to be?
You are not alone.
To find out more about the film, filmmaker Amy Russo, and the crew that will be making the production, visit their Kickstarter page: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/748259570/racing-the-sunrise