Monday, May 12, 2008

Talking About A Gloriously Uncomfortable Situation; Interview With YEAST Director Mary Bronstein

YEAST Q+A at MD Film Fest 08, left-to-right: Yeast producer Marc Raybin, co-star Benny Safdie, star Greta Gerwig, writer/director/star Mary Bronstein, host Matthew Porterfield (director of Hamilton)(photo by George Hagegeorge, courtesy of Maryland Film Festival)














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Sujewa - Hi Mary. Even though the title of this interview refers to Yeast being a "gloriously uncomfortable situation", based on what a lot of reviewers have been saying about the movie thus far, I did not think the movie was very brutal - probably because, even though Yeast's main character Rachel is kinda difficult to like, I think she probably means well. Were you nervous about creating an unlikeable (to many) lead character to build your first feature around, or did you think that the character & her situation was a great thing to explore/show when you first came up with the idea?

Mary -I really didn't feel nervous about presenting this character or these ideas to the world. Perhaps this was naive, I'm not sure...From showing the film at different screenings, I've come to realize that people equate "liking," or being able to identify themselves with, a character in the film they are watching in order for them to "like" the film. This is so foreign to the way I watch movies. I do not equate disliking how a film makes me feel with disliking the film itself, to do so would be to miss the point of the film entirely. Film is entertainment, yes, but it is also art. My favorite type of art confronts what I think about myself and the world around me, reframing it into a context that might make me feel affronted, uncomfortable or uncertain. So, it was natural that I would explore these types of feelings through the medium of film. Audience identification is a dangerous, dangerous thing to play with. Luckily, I've had enough people be into what I am doing so that I feel like I am not the only one who has these views.

Sujewa - Even though comparing our productions to multi-million dollar (or even multi-hundred thousand dollar) filmmaking situations might be depressing at times, I think it is awesome that we are now able to make movies - features - for very little money. I read somewhere that the cost of making Yeast was $1500. What was good, and bad, about working with such a low/"no" budget? Do you think more people being able to afford feature film production now is a good thing or a bad thing? Will you be comfortable making another feature for such a low budget or are your future projects just not doable under a low/"no" budget situation?

Mary - I think it's great that more people are able to make films that otherwise wouldn't have been able to without the new technology. I wouldn't have been able to make my film otherwise. I wouldn't have had the confidence to even if I could have afforded it! Making the film for so little money didn't provide that many challenges because the film was conceived as a piece that could be made for next to nothing. We were lucky enough to have incredible locations to enhance the production value as well as a very talented cast and crew willing to work for free. I'd say the most challenging thing about it is the inability to pay anyone, the knowledge that everyone is working so hard for free. However, I was lucky enough to have a cast and crew that were amazingly dedicated, so it never seemed to be an issue. I plan to make my next feature, which I am shooting this summer, in the same exact way. Because...it is the only way right now.

Sujewa - Was it difficult to work with New Indie Film Superstar Greta Gerwig (who had a lead role in at least 4 movies - 3 features - at this year's Maryland Film Festival)? Did her contract include items such as "no green M & Ms" in her trailer?

Mary - Working with Greta was fabulous. She is always on point and ready to go. She was really involved in the project and invested in it's ideas from the start and her performance really shows it. I can't wait to work with her on more projects in the future. Working with Greta and Amy Judd was an amazing experience. The movie is only what it is because they are in it. If you put anyone else in those parts it would be a totally different film, and luckily they were both super easy to work with.

Sujewa - On Sun 5/4 at the Maryland Film Festival me & my girlfriend (or is it I & my girlfriend?) Amanda saw 4 movies, including yours, and I noticed that the only Q & A session Amanda participated in - asked questions at - was the one for your movie. How are female audience members responding to your movie? Is it far different than how male audience members respond to it? Do you think Yeast will encourage more women to make movies?

Mary - I have had very strong reactions from both men and women, and they really don't seem to conform to gender. I've had a lot of men love it and a lot of men hate it, and the same for women. I suppose I expected stronger reactions from women than men, but that hasn't turned out to be the case. Unless, of course maybe the men have simply been more vocal, which is a possibility. From both genders, the strong responses I've gotten usually center around the truth in the extreme emotions that are explored within the context of friendship. As well, people usually appreciate the humorous moments in the film and the way the physicality aids the telling of the story. It would make me feel wonderful if my film encouraged another woman to pick up a camera, but I would never assume that it would.

Sujewa - I often see the sentiment that "unless they are making movies as a full time paid occupation thing, it is not worth as much" being expressed by many people in the indie film world. However, in other art/entertainment fields - in indie rock, other music, painting, writing, etc., people are not too worried about having to do other work for money in between their creative projects or while those projects are going on - and this is not just novices, lots of well received authors teach or do other stuff/work other than always writing novels to pay their bills, for example. Do you think the big money and the discussion of big money attached to Hollywood leads to devaluing independent filmmaking as a worthwhile & rewarding activity? Also I am not crazy about the media's obsession with Hollywood box office figures as a regular news item - how do you feel about that topic?

Mary - I should start by saying that I don't know anyone who makes a full living off of their filmmaking pursuits...not yet anyway. I should also say that I've never heard of anyone who is passionate about filmmaking not want to do it unless they are getting paid a full time living. I have a full time job that is not related to the film industry and so does my husband. We don't really consider anything else an option right now and so, we do it. It certainly isn't ideal, but we do it. I suppose that for some people who are interested in comparing themselves to Hollywood filmmakers or that part of the industry, it must be maddening to read about multimillion dollar paychecks and budgets. For me and my husband Ronnie, however, it simply isn't relevant because that's not where our goals lie.

Sujewa - I saw that most of Yeast was shot in a medium-close up type framing, mostly focused on actor's heads, very few shots showing the full body. What was the motivation behind that decision?

Mary - There were a couple of factors behind that decision. I worked closely with my husband Ronnie and with Sean Williams, our cinematographer, on the look of the film. I knew I wanted close ups, because for me that is where all the best and most interesting acting is going to take place. As well, we wanted to create a claustrophobic feeling in the visual style to go along with the emotional claustrophobia depicted in the content of the film.

Sujewa - Everyone's got their own theories about why the situation is such, so, what is your opinion on why so few female and ethnic minority filmmakers have made fiction features, and received a similar amount of attention & support to establish careers as their "white" male counterparts, in the period between let's say the premiere of Cassavete's Shadows (early 1960's, selected by many observers as the starting point of what we call indie film in the US) until now (2008)? Even in the indie arena the female & minority fiction feature director numbers are very low. It was, however, very cool to see Yeast and 3 fiction features by African-American filmmakers playing at the Maryland Film Festival this weekend - so perhaps things in one small area of the indie film world are changing as far as including more gender & ethnic diversity. I figured that since indie film is the alternative to the mainstream Hollywood reality that there would be more female & minority directors in the indie film world, since Hollywood, for decades, have excluded female & minority directors from the directing chair. Anyway, the most important part of the question for you is; why so few female filmmakers directing fiction features?

Mary - I certainly cannot speak to the entire state of the female presence in the independent film world. What I can speak to is my own experience. I found that for me, I had a lot of stories to tell and the desire to express those stories through film, but did not have the confidence to do so until very recently. I wish I had started in my teens or early twenties. Being a filmmaker is a very powerful, dominating position. I can only assume that the filmmaking community is reflective of society at large, wherein women are slowly but surely taking on more and more traditionally male roles. It has to do with confidence, self-possession and not feeling like you have to wait for someone else's permission to create a project. That being said, I know several talented female directors who are making exciting work: Lynn Shelton (who also had a narrative feature at MFF this year), Ry Russo-Young and Tipper Newton to name a few. I hope there will be more.

Sujewa - What are your future distribution plans for Yeast?

Mary - I hope to find a home for Yeast on DVD after having a bit more of a festival run. Theatrical distribution would of course be wonderful, but I am not sure if there is a market for it right now.

Sujewa - I hope everyone who wants to see Yeast gets the chance, definitely one of the most interesting indie/real indie movies I've seen recently. Thanks a lot for taking the time out for this interview Mary. And now, the trailer for Yeast:

Yeast [trailer]

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