Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Why do I do what I do?

You could say that I started attending AIVF (Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers, now IFA) with the goal of finding an indie filmmaker to produce my screenplay. But what I found were indie filmmakers anxious to produce their own scripts, so I helped develop them.  Meanwhile, I saw a need for more advanced training for Tucson Filmmakers, so I organized workshops. I got caught up in helping our film community grow.

Now here’s the part that drives people crazy… It wasn't about the money. In order to provide workshops that were affordable enough for Tucson filmmakers, I couldn't pay myself. Did all this “networking” lead to paid jobs? No. I spent hours, then years, promoting films with my reviews, organizing film contests and networking events. I didn't make any money, but it was rewarding.

In this capitalistic society it seems the only thing people value anymore is the pursuit of money. I know how blessed I was to be a stay at home mom while developing my art. But it is really heartbreaking when your own children are disappointed in you because you’re not more “successful” by society’s standards. They don’t seem to  value my role as a mother. One question I hear a lot is, why aren't there more successful women filmmakers?  I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me some things are more important than money:  living a full, balanced life, raising creative children, building a film community, empowering filmmakers to make meaningful films, and writing (and sometimes directing) my love projects.

How come I never succeeded in getting my screenplays produced? Perhaps, between being a mom and pursuing my other passions, I didn't have the single-minded ambition needed to sell my script. Or perhaps it was because I wasn't willing to write something more commercial. All the stories I chose to write were love projects.  I never could wrap my mind around writing high concept movies for money.

One of my first love projects was, “Walking with Grace,” about a sweet elderly couple I had taken care of while attending grad school. When Grace’s husband couldn't deal with her mind deteriorating from Alzheimers, I moved in full-time to allow them to spend their last days together in their home. This story was very dear to my heart.

I spent an embarrassingly long time working on it. One reason was that people thought my story was depressing.  I workshopped it at the Frederick Douglas Creative Writing Center in New York City; writing draft after draft, trying to make it more upbeat. But what it came down to was that people couldn't understand why a young woman would sacrifice her life to take care of “strangers.” What was so hard to understand? I loved them!  I finally did a major rewrite changing my character into their granddaughter.

And I did shop it around. For years. I researched possible actors and production companies.  I pitched it at screenwriting conferences. I made phone calls.  I sent off query letters. Even got a hand-written letter from Hume Cronyn explaining how the story was too depressing because it hit so close to home. People suggested that I put it away and work on something more commercial. They said that once I had a big hit, I could parley that into the power to get my love project done.  I pitched it to the perfect producer - the producer of the family drama “Christy.” He made a special effort to encourage me. He said that it was good writing, but that no one would do a film about old people. (I still cringe at my lack of determination as I watch numerous Alzheimer movies flash across the screen: “Away From Her,” “Savages,” “Amour,” my favorite, “The Notebook," and the recent, “Still Alice.” It’s practically become a genre!)

At least I had the rare opportunity to see my screenplay performed as part of the staged-reading series at DamesRocket Theater. I watched, in the sold-out theater, as professional actors gave full-out emotional performances. A 50 year-old man was moved to tears because it reminded him of his father. That experience was so satisfying that I was finally able to put the script away and start concentrating on something new. Someone suggested that I might have a better chance selling the script if I adapted it into a novel (they were onto something there), but artistically it was time to move on.

I critiqued my mom’s (Lorna Kerin Beall) historical fiction book, “Model-T Biscuits,” and helped her draft a cover letter to market it. I even pitched it at local writers’ conferences when she couldn't afford to attend. Eventually, I was inspired to adapt this cherished family story to the screen. It was really a love project working with my mother and staying true to her vision. I think people could feel the love as they read it. We ended up winning first place at the Santa Clarita Family Film Festival and the Moondance Film Festival.

My mom, Lorna Beall, and me
 When Julianne Moore won an Oscar for her portrayal of an Alzheimers patient in, “Still Alice,” my boys asked why don't I sell, “Walking with Grace.” I just shook my head and smiled. I think Best Foreign Film winner, “Amour,” and, “Still Alice,” have it covered. But in this day when paying for defense is favored over healthcare or housing, when big business trumps the environment, we need more movies with themes of giving and responsibility. Maybe there’s hope for “Grace,” yet.

So I continue to write my love projects and encourage others to do the same.  Because, like the Dali Lama said, “The planet does not need more ‘successful people.’ The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers and lovers of all kinds.”

Go ahead. Ask me why I do it.

One word...Love.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

"Chef" and "St. Vincent" Serving Up Saintly Fare

So many films, so little time. While I was compiling my list of the most inspiring films of 2014, I discovered that I had neglected to review any comedies. (Really, can you blame me with redundant studio offerings such as, “Dumb and Dumber to” and “Horrible Bosses 2?”) Where were the all the humorous independent films? Skimming through the movies of 2014, I uncovered two charming indie comedies that were barely blips on my radar: Jon Favreau’s, “Chef,” and Theodore Melfi’s, “St. Vincent."

I had mixed feelings about seeing, “St. Vincent,” because the movie poster made it seem sorta cheesy and cheap. Perhaps the marketing team thought pictures of the stars would sell it. Perhaps they didn't want to give too much away. To tell the truth, I have been struggling with the same problem. How do you promote a simple story without giving away all the comic surprises? The trailer shows Bill Murray as a hedonistic, anti-social grouch who his tired, stressed-out neighbor (Melissa McCarthy) hires to babysit her son (Jaeden Lieberher). As we watch Vincent’s inappropriate, selfish behavior we can’t help wondering how he ever earned the title, “St. Vincent.” The movie doesn't make excuses for Vincent’s bad behavior. (Though he has heard, “It is what it is,” in response to his misfortunes one too many times.) But through the boy’s eyes we discover the good in him as well. (It's not hard to like one of Bill Murray's richest performances. I think he should have been nominated for an Oscar for this one.)  Somehow this old curmudgeon brings out the good (however begrudging) in others. Perhaps his calling as a saint is to bring out the humanity in others.

I had a similar problem with, “Chef” - how to serve what is fresh about the chef’s creation without making it seem like serving leftovers? How about a small sample to whet your appetite? Somehow in his quest for success, Chef Casper (Jon Favreau) has lost his passion for food and life. The restaurant owner forces him to cook his safe, signature dishes for a famous food critic. When the critic pans the uninspired meal, the chef completely loses it. The confrontation goes viral on YouTube. He sets off to rediscover his passion and creativity by opening a food truck. The leisurely cross-country trip gives him a chance to finally be a father to his son (Emjay Anthony).

It's easy to chuckle at the bumbling antics of these flawed men, but what really chokes you up is how much father (or father figure) and son really need each other.

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal

Celebrate "Women in Film" at TUCSON LUNAFEST!



To purchase tickets in advance call WOSAC at (520) 621-5656. Advance tickets are not available at The Loft Cinema. Presented by WOSAC and The University of Arizona Department of Gender and Women’s Studies. Featuring an exciting raffle for fabulous prizes, including jewelry, gift certificates to fine dining and services, and the traditional, handmade, annual Lunafest quilt! Raffle tickets are $5 each or 3 for $10.

Proceeds from Tucson Lunafest 2015 admissions and raffle ticket sales will benefit WOSAC (The Women’s Studies Advisory Council) and the Breast Cancer Fund.

Get ready for an entertaining and enlightening evening of short films made by, for and about women. This annual nationally-touring film festival brings the best short films from around the world together for one special night of cinematic excitement! This year’s program of EIGHT brand-new films will compel discussion, make you laugh, tug at your heartstrings and motivate you to make a difference in your community. Incredibly diverse in style and content, Lunafest is united by a common thread of exceptional and inspiring storytelling – by, for and about women.

This year’s films at LUNA FEST:

A Good Match
Ann and Alex have split up, but does that mean it’s over with Alex’s mom, too? Ann wants to give the relationship another try.

Flor de Toloache
A group of women daringly challenge gender social norms as an all-female mariachi band.

Miss Todd
In 1910 New York, Miss Todd works to understand the principles of flight, but she has more than gravity holding her down.

Being a teenager isn’t easy, especially for Nayla, a Muslim American girl who wants to join her new high school’s cheerleading squad.

Chicas Day
Today is a girls’ day out, everything is allowed. But don’t forget that this is just a game …

Lady Parts
In an industry dominated by men, Lady Parts Automotive brings a woman’s touch.

A story about feminine exploration.

A documentary portrait of Cornwall’s grandmother of punk, or, how to be a rebel at 82.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

"Whale Rider" Retelling Our Stories to Include Heroic Girls

Writing about, "McFarland USA," brought to mind Niki Caro's enchanting film, "Whale Rider." I was delighted for a chance to finally review the film that planted the seed of thought that became Reel Inspiration.  (I started  Reel Inspiration to promote diverse films that inspire, challenge, empower, and create understanding.)

As I mentioned in my previous review, Niki Caro is drawn to projects from cultures unlike her own. As an outsider and a “pakeha” (a New Zealander of European descent), Niki studied the Maori language for a year before approaching the Ngati Konohi tribe about adapting their beloved book, “The Whale Rider” (by Witi Ihimaera) to the screen. Niki was only interested in doing the story if it was in collaboration with their community. When she met with Maori leaders, she spoke in their native tongue about what a privilege it would be to bring their story to the screen. The tribe elders took special care in studying her previous work and blessed it before starting production.

Director Niki Caro
In an interview with Ryan Mottesheard of Indiewire, Niki elaborated, “And I think they felt very satisfied that the film, their film, was in the hands of a filmmaker, somebody who could actually get it up on the screen. Somebody who was absolutely there to serve their story.”

As promised, Niki worked very closely with the community. A Maori adviser was always present during the production. What resulted was a movie that reflected their culture and traditions in a way that they could take pride in.

Whale Rider,” is a retelling of the Maori legend of their first chief Paikea, the whale rider. Ever since the time when Pai’s (Keisa Castle-Hughes) ancestor Paikea came to Whangara on the back of a whale, the first born son in every generation of her family has become leader of the tribe. Disappointed by his artistic son, Pai’s grandfather Koro (Rawiri Paratene) sets his hopes on Pai’s twin brother to lead the tribe out of the darkness of the modern world. Devastated by her brother’s death in childbirth, Koro blames Pai and wants her sent away. But Koro’s wife (Vicky Haughton) refuses, insisting that he acknowledge his granddaughter. Raised by her grandparents, Pai bonds with her grandfather over the ancient teachings. At thirteen, she excels at reciting the legend and can hear the whale songs of her ancestors calling her. But her grandfather is so invested in the tribe’s patriarchal traditions that he can’t see it.

The signs are all there. While working on their boat, Koro uses the rope that starts the motor as a metaphor for their family legacy. Each thread that makes up the rope is one of their ancestors. “Woven together they make us strong.” When he tries to attach the rope to the motor, it breaks. But Pai fixes it by tying all the pieces together. Excited, she calls out to her grandfather, “Its working! It’s working!” But instead seeing this as a sign of her gifts as a leader, he sees it as a threat to their culture. Instead of encouraging her tenacity, he admonishes her, “I don’t want you doing that again. It’s dangerous.” (This is akin to fathers who “protect” their daughters while encouraging their sons to take risks and grow.)

When it becomes clear that his son will not give him a male heir, Koro tells him to go and take his daughter Pai with him. But while driving up the coast, Pai hears the whales calling her back. She knows she is needed at home. When she returns, she finds that her grandfather has set up a cultural school for boys in hopes of finding the tribe’s next leader. Her wise grandmother honors Pai by having her lead the welcoming song. But Koro insists that she sit in the back because this is for the boys.

When Kora catches Pai defeating a boy with the Taiaha (fighting stick,) she is sent to live with her uncle. Her grandfather blames her for the tribe’s troubles. He claims the problems started when she was born and now she is making it worse by interfering with the boys’ schooling. He trains the boys to be warriors, but that isn’t what the tribe needs. The tribe needs Pai’s gifts to tie them together as a community, to encourage each of them to use their strengths to benefit the whole.

Creating the character of Pai was an act of love by novelist Witi Ihimaera. He wrote, "Whale Rider," in response to his daughter's complaint that the boys were always the heroes. “Whale Rider” is more than an inspiring movie for girls. It shows us that a father can demonstrate strength by empowering his daughter. And, like the threads woven together to form a solid rope, our community is strengthened when we all share our unique gifts.

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal

Watch the complete movie, "Whale Rider" on Hulu. 

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

"McFarland USA" Cultivating a New Kind of American Dream

After watching the trailer for “McFarland USA,” I wasn't in a hurry to see the film since it was so similar to, “Spare Parts,” a movie I had recently reviewed. Until… I discovered that it was directed by Niki Caro, who helmed one of my all-time favorite inspiring films, “Whale Rider.

I couldn't help wondering how a film so different in style and tone reflected Niki’s vision as a filmmaker. What was the common thread between “Whale Rider,” the re-imagining of a Maori legend about a teenage girl challenging the tribe’s patriarchal traditions and, “McFarland USA,” a seemingly formulaic sports flick about a coach encouraging a group of poor migrant Mexican-American farm workers to become champion runners? 

I settled into my theater seat and sighed as, “McFarland USA,” opened with a familiar plot device. The star football player defies the coach’s authority. Coach White loses it and hurls a cleat at the locker near the teen - only it bounces off and hits the teen in the face. The coach’s weakness is set up very economically to prepare for the inevitable character arc (growth). When the coach and his family drive into the poverty-stricken Mexican-American farming town of McFarland, it is clear that this is his last chance. As his daughter looks out of the window, she thinks they got off at the wrong exit: “Are we in Mexico?” I caught myself rolling my eyes when the Idaho family becomes unhinged by the idea of eating the foreign Mexican food. (Really? Lol. This is America!)

Director Niki Caro 
At school, a fellow teacher tries to recruit Coach White (Kevin Costner) for a community project by delivering the obligatory speech about how these poor farming kids are invisible and live in a state of constant hopelessness (reminiscent of the “they are invisible” speech in, “Spare Parts.”) That hopelessness is symbolized by the prison across the street from the school. I wondered to myself, is there really a prison there or was that yet another contrived plot device?

Around the time the coach first notices a student dashing home, a miracle happens. We are introduced into the world of the migrant farm workers. Immersed in their culture, home life, and community, we (like the coach) start really caring about these kids.

While researching for this review, I read that director Niki Caro had been looking for a project with the same qualities as, “Whale Rider,” when Disney approached her about, “McFarland.” In an interview with Bryan Abrams she recalled, “Here was a story that was true, based in a real community, based on real people, and it offered me a way I could work as I had on,” Whale Rider,” which is to work with the community and with the people. Basically, all I do is light up what I think is beautiful.”

The part that interests this New Zealand-born director is working with communities unlike her own. “The way I work when it’s not my own culture is I try to be very accurate and faithful to the way lives are lived and not impose my will. I was very keen to portray the Mexican-American culture, but I realized that we made a very American movie, a profoundly American movie that happens to have a lot of Mexicans in it.”

The migrant workers in McFarland epitomize the American Dream in their struggle to make a better life for their children. But they create their own version by balancing work, family and community. The opening set-up pays off as Coach White and his kin grow as a family and become a part of the community. The coach joins three of his runners for dinner to explain the advantage of running. But he ends up learning from them. Their mother gives him some enchiladas to take home and a lesson on being a family man. “How are you going to be a family if you don’t eat together?” She points out how her husband works hard for long hours, but is present every night at dinner with his family. Family is a priority.
The original McFarland track team with Kevin Costner 
The team learns something too. As coach and team gain a mutual respect, they also learn to respect themselves. Using the incredible strength it takes to work long hours in the fields, go to school, and then run 8-10 miles a day, they can accomplish anything. Inspired by their determination and heart, we root for them to win while we, in turn, learn the value of hard work.

It is clear in both, "Whale Rider," and, "McFarland USA," that Niki Caro's vision is cultivating community. By casting light on the customs and traditions of each community and its people, Niki cultivates a rich, fertile film experience that grows understanding.

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal

Watch, the complete movie, "Whale Rider."