Q&A with Martha Stephens, director of 'Pilgrim Song' | Rock Candy

Q&A with Martha Stephens, director of 'Pilgrim Song'

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In advance of the Little Rock Film Festival, we spoke to Martha Stephens, director of "Pilgrim Song" about whether she feel's like she's breaking into a boys club, filming on a shoe-string and how the LRFF compares to other film festivals. "Pilgrim Song" screens at 5:30 p.m. Thursday and 11:45 a.m. Sunday.

Can you tell me about your film?

It’s a story about a middle-school music teach who’s been laid off because of budget cuts from Louisville, Kentucky. And he decides to take his summer to hike this 300-mile trail in Kentucky, called the Sheltowee Trace Trail. To kind of meditate and figure out what he wants out of his life. He’s sort of at a cross roads and is in a dead-end relationship with a girl. He just wants to be alone and do some soul-searching.

I know that you’re a graduate from North Carolina School of Arts. Looking at the people who have come out of there like Jeff Nichols and David Gordon Green, do you think that there is anything that connects you to these other people aesthetically?

I definitely have been influenced by both of those guys. Even when I was a student and David was releasing “All the Real Girls” – seeing him making it and making what he wanted to make. And to tell the kind of stories he wanted to tell and be successful at it was really inspiring. Jeff and at least David’s earlier movies are very regional films like wherever they’re set, there’s a strong connection to it. Like in “Shotgun Stories,” you really feel that small southern city. And “All the Real Girls” is a small mountain community in North Carolina. I make films based in Appalachia. I think regionalism is important to all of us. We don’t shy away from being slow and methodical and lyrical, and they’re usually more character driven stories.

And do you think the same goes for Danny McBride, Jody Hill and Craig Zobel?

Maybe not. Craig’s two movies are so completely different. I don’t even know what he’s capable of doing. He’s like shocking every time. In a good way. Jody’s stuff you can definitely feel the regionalism. Although Jody’s movies are a little darker and weirder than what maybe I would do.

Do you feel like this is sort of a boy’s club that you are breaking in to?

I made a movie two years ago, and nobody ever brought up the fact that I was a girl. And with the second movie, it’s being brought up and asked about all the time, and I’ve actually been on several female filmmaker panels. I don’t know what it is all of a sudden. I know it’s like a man’s world in Hollywood, but an independent film when your friends are helping you make the movie and you’re working in small crews, you don’t really feel like you are segregated by gender at all. I never really thought about it until people have been pointing it out. It’s not been a problem so far.

More than half of the films at the Little Rock Film Festival used either Kickstarter or Indiegogo in some way. Why did you turn to Indiegogo and how was it crucial to your film?

I turned to it because I had no other way to fund the movie. I didn’t have enough clout to find backers or find someone who wanted to invest solely. I come from a pretty basic middle-class family. A lot of filmmakers have well-off parents and there’s nepotism involved and I didn’t have any of that, so basically asking everyone I know and everyone on my crew and anyone they knew to put in $5 or $10 there was really the only way possible to make it.

How did you make your previous film?

It was made for $8,000. I used my savings and borrowed money from relatives and that was about it.

What did you give investors in return?

Well my mom is a really good fine arts artist, and she painted some oil paintings, and we used those as an incentive. I gave posters of my first movie, and we are going to give DVDs of my first movie when they are available.

Do you see going to these organizations this as a trend or a new model for filmmakers?

I think every filmmaker should be able to make one movie on a Kickstarter or Indiegogo, and then after that I think they need to find another way to do it because, I know personally I’ve donated to a lot of films and it does get really hard to give everybody you want to see succeed money. Then when you’re trying to make multiple movies – I think you’re asking too much from your friends and your families. “Pilgrim Song” will be the only movie I’m going to crowdsource, and I’m going to try to find investors from here on out. But I think it is important that everyone gets that one time.

Do you think it will be easier now on to get money for movies?

I think it will be for one movie. After that it’s really hard. It’s not even a matter of proving yourself. There’s just not a lot of really rich people out there who want to invest in something that’s probably not going to make its money back.

What inspired you to make “Pilgrim Song”?

Well I wanted to make a movie in eastern Kentucky that showcased the natural beauty in the area. You see so many movies that look at Appalachia as a disgusting, drug-infested, impoverished place, and a lot of the stereotypes exist for a reason. We have all of that. But also, there are some nooks and crannies that are absolutely breathtaking. I wanted to make a movie about a guy hiking through that area. I came up with the rest of the story with my co-writer Karrie Crouse, who graduated from film school with me. She acts in the movie. We decided to make it about a teacher who’s been pink-slipped because I’ve been teaching on and off since I got out of film school and I know how that felt. It really mostly stemmed from wanting to film outdoors in a beautiful location, and the rest kind of came after.

Obviously there was a limitation of funding, was it during or before the filming of the movie that you decided to partner with Indiegogo.

Before. We had to. You have to pay for hotel rooms and the crew’s meals. So I think it was only a few days before we started shooting that our Indiegogo page expired. We had raised money in other ways. Our Indiegogo page only raised like half of the money for the movie. We had the other half through other means before that.

What all does that pay for? Like cameras, hotel rooms, everything?

The entire budget. We traveled all over the state of Kentucky. We filmed for a little over three weeks. One week we stayed in a family’s house but the other two weeks we stayed in hotels – really bad hotels. Food, we fed breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Renting equipment, flying people in, we paid everybody, except for the above-the-line crew, like I didn’t get paid and our producers didn’t get paid and our cinematographer, but we paid our actors and people who just came and crewed on the movie.

Is it uncommon to pay your actors?

Most people don’t. If they had a budget like ours, they probably wouldn’t have. I just felt like it was my responsibility. I couldn’t ask people to work for free. I mean I didn’t pay them a tremendous amount, but it made me feel better. If people are working on a film and are being paid they are usually a little more happy, but if you ask your friends to come and work for free, then the drive isn’t always there. You owe them something, they don’t owe you anything, really. I just wanted to pay people.

What kind of fundraising projects did you to do to raise money?

We had a little party in Columbia, SC where our producer is from. Local public garden, vegetable garden, where people can plant and grow vegetables, we had drinks there and watched “Deliverance” and hung out – we raised money that way. I sent out a lot of letters to family. We had a show in Louisville where the guys who did our soundtrack performed at a bar and there was a cover charge. And all the money went to the movie. Some other local musicians came and played for free.

Were the production experiences between this and “Passenger Pigeons” totally different because of the extra funding that you had?

Yeah, “Passenger Pigeons,” there were only four of us making the film, not including our actors, and then on Pilgrim Song there were like 11 of us. So our crew doubled in size. And we had a better camera this time. A munch heavier, bulkier camera. It took a lot more equipment in general, and we were on the trail lugging it around. The conditions of this were much more difficult than the first move just because it takes place in the middle of the summer and it is hot and you are out there getting bug bites and heat rashes and poison ivy, and it was way tougher. More emotionally draining. And it took a toll on everybody just having to be dehydrated and stand out in the sun and all of that.

Are you happy with the way it turned out?

Yeah, I feel are very fortunate we got to premiere at SXSW again and that the people who have enjoyed the movie have really enjoyed it. Nothing that you write is ever going to be exactly how you envision it, because money and weather and so many other elements can mess up your day. We had an entire week when it wouldn’t stop raining. It’s just what you take from it. I am happy with it. It’s not exactly what I had planned for, but considering all things, I’m good with it.

You mentioned that it premiered at SXSW and now it is coming to the LRFF, can you describe the film’s journey since its production?

In March we premiered at SXSW, since then it has gone on to several festivals in Kentucky, Maryland, South Carolina, North Carolina, Nashville and Brazil. But yeah in like two months we have played at quite a few places. Hopefully it will keep going through the year.

But I am so excited to come back to Little Rock, because I had so much fun at the festival last year. Any time we talk about film festivals we are like, ‘You don’t know anything until you go to Little Rock. They have a party trolley and river boat cruise – you don’t know anything!’ I was just so delighted by all of that. And I feel like they really are so kind to the filmmakers who come in. The put you up and help you out which is always really appreciated. I am ready to come back.

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